Roundtable: Nigeria-U.S. Relations, Clinton on Katrina Reponse

Tuesday's topics: how Hurricane Katrina may help Nigeria strengthen its relationship with the United States; how the media is — or should be — reporting on poverty; and former President Bill Clinton offers harsh public criticism of the Bush administration's disaster-relief effort.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's Roundtable, we look at how Hurricane Katrina may help Nigeria strengthen its relationships with the United States and the news media's discovery of the poor, plus, the two faces of Bill Clinton.

With us today from our Chicago bureau are Laura Washington, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist and a professor at DePaul University. Also with us from the Windy City, Roland Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender. And we're joined by Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University and columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He joins us via phone.

All right. Folks, thanks very much.

I wanted to talk a little bit about what is an interesting position that former President Bill Clinton finds himself in, and he really started to raise the heat of criticism, if you will, on the Bush administration this weekend as he did a couple of political shows on the weekend. Here is a man who was tapped by this president to help raise funds alongside former President George Bush for the evacuees and the Katrina victims. Yet here is a man who clearly is ready to talk politics and suggest that this administration is going awry and is concerned about the direction that the Bush administration is taking the country not only with Katrina but with the deficit that we will surely have and questioning where we are right now in the war in Iraq. Roland Martin, this is an interesting position to see the former president in.

Mr. ROLAND MARTIN (Executive Editor, Chicago Defender): Not necessarily. I mean, he is our youngest former president, and so--I mean, it's a little difficult when you're his age and you're expected to sort of just fade out and become the elder statesman and not say anything about the person who now occupies the position that you held. But the reality is he's been highly critical of this president since he left office. At the same time, also keep in mind that FEMA under President Clinton was probably the best-run operation that it has ever been. And so for someone who had a director, James Lee Witt, who was running that operation quite well, to see it as--absolutely just collapse, it probably makes him very angry. So I'm not surprised at all that he's been so critical of President Bush and his policies.

GORDON: Right. But note I did not say `surprising'; I said `interesting' place to be in, Laura Washington, in the sense that we know that the president has been critical at times of this administration, but he also knew the deference he had to show when first appointed. And he, even in an interview with us not long ago, suggested that he would wait to talk about some of the things--and we were talking about the war at that particular time--but he would wait to talk about some issues. And we heard this from him when he initially came out and took the responsibility with this former president to talk about what his thoughts were in terms of how this was run.

Professor LAURA WASHINGTON (DePaul University; Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times): Well, he was asked to use the standing and popularity that Roland refers to to help this nation and to help a region in probably one of the biggest disasters and crises we've ever faced. That's a no-brainer. Of course, he's going to step forward and do that and he would have been staunchly criticized if he hadn't. But, again, he doesn't have to hold to the Republican administration's party line along the way. And, you know, he's never been a traditional Democrat, as we know. He's never been perceived as didactic or, you know, honing to only one particular point of view. I think that--actually it was interesting 'cause there was an interview as you know with George Stephanopoulos the other day, the first time he sat down with George Stephanopoulos, his former aide, on his show, and he talked a lot about his work with FEMA. He talked a lot about what he did to help bring people out of poverty. So it gave him an opportunity to, in some ways, be very self-serving and to tout his own record, but also to talk about the lessons that he learned from that record. And one of the things, as you mentioned earlier, is his concerns about the economy and how Bush's economic decisions have had such a negative impact not only in Iraq but in Louisiana.

GORDON: Nat.

Professor NAT IRVIN (Wake Forest University): Well, you know, I would also add that we don't want to forget that this is a man who has an extraordinary sense of politics. After all, his wife may decide to run for president, and he is probably saying some things that he thinks will help her. And then, of course, he recognizes that the Republicans are severely wounded, having mismanaged the war in Iraq, mismanaged this crisis in the Gulf. And I think also, too, that the former president is tapping into an uneasiness within our country and that is: What do we do with a structural deficit that seems to be growing out of control and are we going to continue with the tax cuts, as this president is suggesting, the Republicans are suggesting, first? And then, second, if we do continue with this tax cut, where are we going to get $750 billion, which may be the estimate for the cost of the cuts in Medicaid? Where are we going to get the money from? I mean, there are some structural problems that we're faced with, and I think the former president finds it as a good time to maybe bring the consciousness of the country together.

Mr. MARTIN: Well--and as Nat said...

GORDON: Do we believe, Roland Martin, that we're going to see--and rhetorical, probably, as you might imagine this question, but are we going to see those in Washington really take a look at what the president suggested and get rid of unnecessary spending and get rid of some of the pork that we know surrounds many of the dollars that float in Washington?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, if I had to quote Whitney Houston, "Hell to the no." No, it's not going to happen. I mean, it's not going to happen. I mean, understand that transportation bill that we passed was just laden with pork, and the only way--I mean, they passed a bill that was higher than what President Bush wanted. They loaded it up, and so you're never going to see folks agree to pull things off the table. No, you're going to have an absolute fight. They certainly are going to try to fund what the president laid out, but I don't expect anybody to say that, `Sure, I will pull projects off of my table out of my district for the sake of rebuilding the Gulf Coast.' Not going to happen. They're simply going to probably just borrow from somewhere else and then try to explain it away because, I mean, understand, they're not going to cut pork. Then the president also says, `We're not going to repeal the tax cuts.' And so, `OK. Where are you going to get the money from?' Expect more deficit.

GORDON: We talk about strange bedfellows, and former President Clinton talked about depending on Japan, China, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and Korea for basic loans to get us past much of what we're seeing today, but we're also seeing countries like Nigeria that have, at best, a tenuous relationship with the United States, ante up monies in hopes, I suspect to some degree, of bettering their relationships, even though the United States has had a jaundiced view of nations like this for their, quote, "human rights violations" and the like. Laura, when we take a look at this, what can be said? Can we look to hopes of bettering relationships, or is this basically a PR on the ends of these countries?

Prof. WASHINGTON: Hey, well, more power to Nigeria if they're smart enough, and this is just part of an overall effort that they've launched recently called the Heart of Africa project, in which they are looking at advertising campaigns on networks like CNN in which they are looking at these kinds of contributions. And they are looking at trying to play a role as a humanitarian nation, obviously, to try to overcome the negative image.

But, you know, there's a lot of room for people to improve their image internationally, given where the United States is right now in terms of its own image, going back to even before the Iraq War. Our credibility has been severely challenged. We don't have the standing of a world power that we once had. Most other countries ridicule us for our policy on Iraq, and then with Katrina, obviously, there was a lot of serious backlash in terms of other countries sort of piling on, saying, you know, `This is supposed to be the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world and look at how inept they are in taking care of their own.' So that does leave room for the dynamics to change for a Nigeria or many other countries to be able to step up and take a role not only in humanitarian aid but in terms of having some real political and economic clout.

Mr. MARTIN: But, Ed, keep in mind...

GORDON: Nat...

Mr. MARTIN: ...that Nigeria is in terms of--they are the third largest exporter of oil to the United States. The Bush administration has been courting the Nigerian government since they came into office. The New York Times had a piece last year talking about this relationship between this administration and Nigeria. So, sure, we may have been highly critical of Nigeria over human rights issues, but we recognize what we have been getting from them; that is, 25 percent of our oil has been coming from Nigeria. And so they're clearly a close partner of the US.

GORDON: Nat, this also shows the complexity of the world stage today, the idea, as Roland suggested, that oil is quite important out of this nation. Yet, we have stood steadfast in a gale wind to talk about the human rights violations. Some years ago, one would not have believed that the United States would be ready with open arms to accept $6 million in aid from this country.

Prof. IRVIN: Well, that is a good point, Ed, but it also--well, I would say this. We're not accepting aid from everybody. So, you know, we have some restrictions on the aid that we will accept, for example, from Cuba or from Venezuela and perhaps--I don't know if--I don't think North Korea has offered us anything at this point. But, you know, this is an interesting time for us, because, in fact, America is having to see its face put on the covers of magazines like The Economist where we are, you know, being hailed as--where our shame is being heaped upon us. And for the continent of Africa, where we are now getting support from, you know, even some of the smaller countries for as much as $100,000, it creates an interesting opportunity for these countries to be able to give to the larger American community, to identify with black folks whom are now being seen as not being taken care of by the world's most powerful nation, and it's created an interesting conversation within the continent itself, saying, for example, `How can a country like Nigeria afford to give money to the United States when there are so many issues that the continent itself is faced with?'

Countries--I mean, even like Eritrea has given money to the United States and the country of Gabon has given money to the United States. And--but so within the continent itself, where countries are seen as an opportunity, as are a lot of other nations, to become a part of the goodwill gesture toward the United States, which is an opportunity--perhaps, maybe, something good will come back later in terms of trade relations. So you certainly want to be a part of that. But I think fundamentally the reason why the continent of Africa is responding to us is because of the African custom that says that `However rich your brother is, during times of sorrow, you still reach out to him in any small way.' And I think that will be the larger sentiment that I see here.

Prof. WASHINGTON: Ed, I would just add to that in terms of African customs, you know, I think that Nigeria reaching out to Katrina may bring us some benefits in terms of the relationship between African-Americans and people of Africa.

Prof. IRVIN: Yeah.

Prof. WASHINGTON: As you know, there have always been tensions between African-Americans here and Africans here. African-Americans, I mean--we are very ...(unintelligible) about international issues. We don't know a lot about Africa, and what we don't know, we don't like. So I think this is an opportunity for us to possibly build some kind of a partnership, some kind of a common ground through this kind of beneficial donation from Nigeria.

GORDON: All right. Let's take a look at something that we've talked about periodically since Katrina and we want to get into it a little bit more today, and that's the idea of the media's role in all of this. You know, so many people are pointing fingers about why we've allowed people to live in abject poverty in the Gulf region and all across the United States, quite frankly. And the media has been taking its hits even within. Howard Kurtz, Washington Post staff writer, wrote recently the idea that much of the media, quite frankly, has missed the big picture of poverty; it did not until Katrina hit pay attention to poor folks. And outside of, quite frankly, John Edwards and a couple of other people, we've not seen a lot of people trying to put poverty on the front burners. Let's start with the media first and foremost, Roland Martin. Can this be, should this be and will the media do self-examination out of this to see what we've been doing right and wrong, not just with the idea of poverty but how we cover this nation in general?

Mr. MARTIN: Can it be? Sure. Will it be? The answer is no. I mean, the reality is--I mean, let's just look at it from a political standpoint, economic standpoint, of course, and a media standpoint. The attitude is there are no votes in poverty, there are no campaign donations in poverty, and there are no ratings in poverty unless you're watching "The Jerry Springer Show." And that's the way we look at it. Poverty is a very difficult issue for us to tackle with because we have to confront race, we have to confront class and we have to confront our own issues. In the media, we only take a drive-by view of poverty. Keep in mind, the week Katrina hit, the federal report came out laying out the state of poverty in the United States. That story got virtually no attention whatsoever. So I found it interesting how that story came up the same week the hurricane hit. It was as if it was, you know, by, you know, divine work for it to happen that way.

That's simply the reality of it. We don't like to confront it because we don't really want to go talk to those people who are poor. And then when you say poor, you have to put the proper face upon poor, because we think it's just somebody who's destitute, who's illiterate, who's African-American. That's how we look at it, but there's the working poor, the people who work every single day who don't have the money for day care or whatever, and they're there, struggling to get by. We don't like to confront it because it's kind of painful for us to do so.

Prof. IRVIN: Well, you know, I...

GORDON: Laura Washington, the other element that has come up--and, Nat, pick up after this, but the other element that has come up, obviously, is race in all of this. And it's interesting again for me to take a look at the media, talk about the idea of race when we know and have talked about on this show on countless occasions and it has been talked about for years that the media is still disproportionately male and disproportionately white.

Prof. WASHINGTON: Well, you talk about talking about it; as Roland mentioned, part of our problem is we don't want to talk about it. There's been more conversations of denying that race and poverty are at play here in the Katrina's story than anything else. There's no talk about what do we do about the problem. There's been a lot of denial, and I think that is because, as

you point out, the media is still dominated by white men. You don't see people in leadership positions. When Katrina hit and it was clear that this was going to be a race and poverty story, there was no one in the newsrooms, you know, at the top of the food chain, to make decisions or to even think about these issues. Look even among people of color who are in the media. Look where we live. Look where we operate. You look at a city like Chicago, very segregated. You look at the media in this city. Not most but a significant number of media people don't even live in the city, and if they do, they live in predominantly white, predominantly high-income areas. We're driving by as Roland points out because we have to drive by because that's the only way we're ever going to find these neighborhoods.

GORDON: Nat, with about 40 seconds.

Prof. IRVIN: Well, you know, I would add--how many? Forty?

GORDON: Yeah.

Prof. IRVIN: I would just say this.

Mr. MARTIN: Thirty-two now.

Prof. IRVIN: The media is really us. I remember writing a column about when I had asked several of my friends how many poor people did they know personally? Most folks that responded to me said they knew of poor people but they didn't really know poor people outside of maybe their own family. Maybe they were in their church, but there was just the rare occasion. As Laura was talking about, intersection was not really there.

The other thing is that poor people are basically an event in this country. They're holidays. You know, you see poor people around Thanksgiving, around Christmas. If something goes wrong, then we see poor people. Ordinarily in the daytime, you can see poor people on "The Jerry Springer Show," but we really don't know how to deal with this issue. We don't know where the nexus is between personal responsibility and the role of the government. It's hard work, and it's not good for ratings...

GORDON: Yeah.

Prof. IRVIN: ...and it makes us uncomfortable. And then you've got the element of race. So, I mean, I'm not surprised. I don't think it's going to improve after Katrina subsides. Poor people will go back where they came from. We don't know how to deal with this issue.

GORDON: All right. Laura Washington, Roland Martin and Nat Irvin, I thank you all for joining us today. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. MARTIN: Thanks, Ed.

Prof. WASHINGTON: Thank you.

Prof. IRVIN: Thank you.

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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