Roundtable: Katrina, Frist, Gay Parents

Topics include: the toxic nightmare left by Katrina; the Bush administration's sudden push to conserve gasoline; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's denial of insider-trading allegations; and a teen expelled from a Christian school for having gay parents. Guests: Republican strategist Tara Setmayer; Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender; and Detroit Free Press columinst Rochelle Riley.

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ED GORDON, host:

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

The Senate majority leader in hot water, and a female commander-in-chief. We'll talk about that on today's Roundtable. I'm joined now by Republican strategist Tara Setmayer. She joins us today from Florida. Also with us, executive editor of the Chicago Defender, Roland Martin. He joins us from the bid D, Dallas. And from the other bid D, we're joined by Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley. I thank you all for joining us.

Let's get right to an issue that's making news and certainly because of Katrina's coverage, we're seeing this below the fold, if you will, this go-round, to use print vernacular, newspaper vernacular, and that is Bill Frist. The Senate majority leader has been contacted by the SEC in relation to a sale of stock--his family's hospital company. He sold at its peak in June. Many people are wondering whether or not this could be, in fact, another one of those Martha Stewart situations, insider trading. Roland Martin, obviously we're not here to condemn yet Mr. Frist. An investigation is ongoing, but one has to question whether or not this is going to hurt his likely bid for the nomination of the presidency in 2008.

Mr. ROLAND MARTIN: (Executive Editor, Chicago Defender): Well, you're absolutely correct, because we are extremely sensitive in these days with regards to insider trading as well as problems from various corporations. I mean, of course, we've thrown the CEO of Adelphia in prison, Tyco in prison and others, MCI's former head as well. So we're very sensitive to that. At the same time, this is 2005. He will--in order to run for president in 2008, you're talking about three years away, and so even if this thing, this investigation goes on for three or six months, I don't think it's going to have an impact at all on him running in 2008, obviously, unless they find something.

GORDON: Tara Setmayer, let me--put your strategist hat on, if you will. When dealing with clients and talking about those running for high-profile positions such as Senate or Congress, many of these men and women are rich, quite frankly, and have to do--and you would, I bet--do due diligence in terms of financial records and the like. How problematic is it in making sure that most folks are clean or clean up prior to going in front of the ballot?

Ms. TARA SETMAYER (Republican Strategist): Well, I, as a strategist, always put forth a policy of being forthright, because it will come back to haunt you if you try to hide issues like this. So what his folks did, knowing that he is raising his national profile in anticipation of an '08 presidential run, they said, `Listen, we know that this is something that has plagued you in the past.' Back when he ran for the Senate in 1994, the issue came up. `Let's get it out now and any fallout that may come from that will be a distant memory by the time '08 comes around.' What they didn't anticipate is that this would launch two federal investigations. I think that their strategists are shaking their heads saying, `Well, this is not quite what we had anticipated, but at the same time, this is the normal process, and we don't want to jump to conclusions. We will let the Securities and Exchange Commission investigate this, and if there's wrongdoing, then he should rightfully pay the price. If not, then this will be pushed aside.' And then he won't have to worry about this.

And any opposition in '08 will no longer be able to use this as an issue, because Bill Frist has had a rather squeaky-clean image as a working heart surgeon and a senator. He made a point to go--not be a part of the family business and become a heart surgeon. He never worked in any hospitals that were run by the family business, and the lobbyists were allowed to contact them. So he's been aware of this potential conflict of interest, and he set up a blind trust which is, under Senate rules, allowable the way it's set up. So so far, it hasn't posed a problem. So we'll see what happens.

GORDON: Rochelle Riley, we should note that Mr. Frist has said, and I quote, "I had no information about HCA"--That's the company--"or its performance that was not publicly available when I directed the trustees to sell the stock." So obviously he feels comfortable with going about all of what he had to do initially and correctly. That being said, again, I go back to what this does to voters when you see the even alleged improprieties talked about when it comes to Washington, the White House, Congress, etc. So many people have become so disillusioned when it comes to politicians, is this just another notch in the belt?

Ms. ROCHELLE RILEY (Detroit Free Press): I don't think this is going to be as minor as it appears to be now. When he did make that statement, he was correcting a statement from his spokeswoman just the previous day who said that he had not discussed the stock sale in advance at all. And his statement was making clear that he had no information about the company or its performance that was not available to the public, which is one of those things that would cause investigators to say, `Well, let's see what he's talking about.'

I think the bigger issue is the Martha Stewart factor. We're talking about people getting a little tired of rich people doing things that wind up being things they can't do themselves, loopholes here, blind trusts there. And I think because historians are pointing out that this is the first time they can recall of a congressional leader facing federal inquiries into stock sales, that it's not going to go away lightly. I think Roland makes a good point. We do see in politics a very short memory on these things, so it depends on whether this investigation goes long and whether they do decide that there was some information that he might have had that he thought the public had that they did not.

GORDON: Can a politician, Roland Martin, to use Rochelle's analogy of the Martha Stewart factor, reap the benefits that Martha Stewart seemed to after the fact, the idea that she, quite frankly, came out richer out of prison than she did going in? She was given two or three radio programs and television shows as she came out. This has to be seen as a bit more detrimental to a politician, is it not?

Mr. MARTIN: Big time. I mean, name me the last person who walked out of prison and had an opportunity to become president. It simply doesn't happen. The only person who's probably been able to pull that bad boy off was Marion Barry. And so, you know, that's the way it operates, and so he has to be extremely sensitive. Of course, his family has owned it; his father and his brother started the company, and again--so you have that as well. And of course, the public will say, `Well, man, wait a minute. Your father and brother started the company. You know, how could you not have any conversations with regards to the stock sale?' But again, you know, it's--2008 is a long ways away, and I simply think that even if this goes on for six months and nothing significant happens or is uncovered, it'll simply blow away. It'll come up in the campaign again, but I don't think it's going to be a big-time hit on him.

GORDON: All right. We're going to...

Ms. RILEY: But people will question whether--since this appearance of a conflict of interest has been questioned for some time, why he finally decided to eliminate that appearance of a conflict of interest a month before the stock dropped.

GORDON: All right. And we want to, again, remind folks that this is only the beginning of a proposed investigation, and Mr. Frist has not been found guilty of anything, and he suggests that there are no improprieties on his part.

All right. Talking about the 2008 election, that brings the name Hillary Clinton to mind, and we thought it might be interesting to ask this question today, as ABC is ready to premiere the highly touted "Commander-in-Chief," which puts a female president in the Oval Office. And we thought it would be interesting to ask our panelists today whether or not we believe that a female or a minority, for that matter, can in fact be elected--elected--to the office of the presidency. The television show--she was vice president and propelled, I believe at the death of the president, to that office.

Tara Setmayer, do you believe this country is ready to elect a female or--and/or a minority to the highest office in the land?

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, to be honest, I would love to run that campaign. The ideal campaign for me, as a conservative, would be a Condi Rice-Hillary Clinton '08 presidential election, which probably won't happen, as far as on Condi Rice's perspective. But I think that this country is, in certain areas, a little more proactive than others. I think that in the Northeast and in California, the people may be a little more accepting of a female or a minority president. I think in the South and the Midwest, you may run into some problems. We can't deny that there is still an undercurrent of racism in this country that exists, and I don't think that the country as a whole necessarily would elect a female president.

Colin Powell, in all the polls, showed that he would have been elected president widespread, and he's a minority, and coming from a military background. So I think we may see a minority before we see a woman. Whether that's acceptable or not, we can debate that all day long. But for me personally, as a woman who is involved in politics, I would love to see a woman elected as president in my lifetime. And, you know, we're working toward that, but I still think we have some inroads to--that are challenging before that happens.

Mr. MARTIN: Tara, you know what?

GORDON: You don't think...

Mr. MARTIN: I would love to see Colin Powell run and have those white Republicans have to actually go in there and pull that lever or punch that ballot, to see if they'd actually do it vs. telling a poller. I do think we are in a position in 2005, leading to 2008, to elect a woman. Clearly, when Geraldine Ferraro was the vice presidential candidate in 1984, even a number of women--a significant number, simply felt that a woman could not do the job. I certainly think so.

And I must give a plug. What's interesting about the show "Commander-In-Chief," a woman president but also a black chief of staff, Harry Lennix. So let's also see a black staff happen in America. Got to give the brother a plug.

Ms. RILEY: Let me just say that whether America is ready for a woman president or not will never truly be known because you're right, people don't speak their true minds. But I think it will only happen when there is a person who is so charismatic and so prepared and so vital in their leadership skills that people will elect them without thinking about the fact that they're a woman.

Ms. SETMAYER: You're right about that.

Ms. RILEY: As long as people run on gender, you're not going to see that happen anytime soon.

Ms. SETMAYER: And ...(unintelligible)

GORDON: Do you think that charisma can overtake that, though, guys? I mean, do you ever have someone so charismatic that you, in fact, in a crucial situation like voting, you don't see their gender, you don't see their race? I mean, so many people...

Ms. RILEY: Well, that's what I'm talking about. I think that's when it's going to happen.

GORDON: But I'm saying, do you think that's possible? Let's put Oprah there. Let's put Oprah there. Most people concede that she is, you know, the personification of charisma. Do you think that people would go in and her charisma, her stature, would overcome whatever prejudices they have and they could, in fact, pull that lever?

Mr. MARTIN: No. And in fact, the biggest criticism that you're going to find of a woman is not going to be charisma. It is going to be public policy. It's going to be leadership. It's going to be in many ways the same things that we judge certain candidates on. I mean, John Edwards was hit big time. Saying, `Well, you're a cute guy, but the question is, do you have the experience?" And that's what makes Hillary Clinton or even Condoleezza Rice such formidable candidates, because they have the experience, so therefore, you can't knock them in that area, because they've done the job.

Ms. SETMAYER: Yes, and also what's important, when you're electing a president, is whether you feel as though they can--'cause commander-in-chief is an important role for the president, and people look at that. Will this person be able to lead us in a national crisis or if they need to make a decision to go to war, do they look and act presidential? And someone like Condoleezza Rice, who has the foreign policy background and secretary of State, national security adviser, people look at her as an authority on those issues because foreign policy makes a difference when you're talking about a national leader. And I agree in that when you focus on gender or on race, that will--then that precludes everything else, and that will become problematic.

Just a quick example, since we're talking about television programs, the show "24" was a very successful program on FOX which featured a black president for two seasons, and the character was structured in a way that you didn't even look at him as a black president. He was presidential. And I think that something like that is an example of how--what kind of candidate we'd have to put forth and the attitudes that people would have toward them if they're a minority or a woman.

GORDON: Well, I wish I could be as optimistic as you guys. I don't think this country is ready to elect, unfortunately, a black person or a female or any other minority--I say black person--quite yet. I think back to the days of Tom Bradley, an immensely popular mayor in Los Angeles, and while this was some years ago, I don't think we've progressed much in race relations in this country, and I'll never forget watching the news one evening and seeing a white male coming out of the voting booth and being very candid in saying, `I went in there with the full intention of pulling the lever for Tom Bradley, and once that curtain closed, I just couldn't do it.'

Ms. RILEY: You're not alone, Ed.

GORDON: And I don't think we've moved much further.

Ms. RILEY: Trust me. I think that while ideally people would like to believe that America is that country, again, we're a long way from being able to look past gender and race and see anything like charisma and foreign policy experience and presidential qualities...

Mr. MARTIN: But I'll tell you this real quickly, let's put us in the position where they have to make the decision. Otherwise, it's a theoretical conversation. And so if Hillary runs, if Condoleezza Rice, if someone like that runs, let's put them in the position to where folks have to make the decision vs. being a theoretical.

GORDON: All right.

I hate to do this to you, 'cause we've got less than three minutes, but we tried to get to this yesterday and I want to make sure we do today. A 14-year-old student was expelled from a Christian school in Ontario, California, because her parents are lesbian. They received a letter from the school suggesting that--and this is, quote, "Your family does not meet the policy of admissions." It went on to say, "immoral or inconsistent with a positive Christian lifestyle, such as cohabitating without marriage or in a homosexual relationship."

Roland, when you hear this, and this may again speak to what we were just talking about, is this OK for a Christian private school to do?

Mr. MARTIN: As the husband of an ordained minister and somebody who's getting a masters in Christian communications, these are some of the most idiotic Christians I have ever heard. When the Scripture says: They asked Jesus, `Why are you sitting with sinners?' he said, `Because it is the sick who need a doctor, not the well.' If you are a true Christian, simply allow the child to be in the school, teach and preach the values that you espouse and do it that way. That is a sick, silly thing to suggest, that we're going to expel you because your parents are lesbian, because it's not compatible with your particular policy. Be a real Christian and teach and preach vs. simply isolate someone. This is idiotic.

GORDON: Tara?

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, I would disagree. Coming from someone whose mother is involved in ministry and who started a faith-based homeless program, you know, it's interesting how watered-down Christianity has become. This is not an issue of tolerance. The school clearly said that the ministry of the Ontario Christian School is to promote discipleship of Jesus Christ as defined by the Bible and consistent with historical Christianity. And a homosexual lifestyle is not consistent with historical Christianity.

Ms. RILEY: Tara...

Ms. SETMAYER: Now I understand that it's up to the Christian school to set the policies they want, but my question is, why would these lesbian parents send their child to a school knowing that this is the criteria for admission? If you were an Israeli...

Ms. RILEY: Why don't I let referee just a second...

Ms. SETMAYER: An Israeli family would not send their child...

Ms. RILEY: ...'cause we've got two distinct attitudes here.

Ms. SETMAYER: ...to a Palestinian school where...

GORDON: Rochelle--Rochelle, quickly...

Ms. SETMAYER: ...every day they're taught that homosexuality is a sin. It's con...

GORDON: All right. Rochelle, I got to get you in here quickly.

Ms. RILEY: Thank you very much. I just want to say, your question was whether they have the right. Every church, every private institution based on religion has the right to do what it wants. And people who look at those churches, those synagogues, those Christian centers have the right to decide whether they want to participate and be involved in places that are compassionate and tolerant or whether they want to be in places that are biased and exclusionary. And you get to choose. I think that that's part of the problem, that we want to have a one-size-fits-all religion, and it doesn't work in America, where there are hundreds.

GORDON: All right.

Ms. RILEY: So...

Mr. MARTIN: This is nonsense. How can you ...(unintelligible) people...

GORDON: All right. Guys...

Mr. MARTIN: ...(Unintelligible) really.

GORDON: ...I unfortunately should--I shouldn't have saved this one for last because I have to stop it here.

Mr. MARTIN: ...(Unintelligible)

GORDON: I'm sorry.

Tara, Roland, Rochelle, thanks so much.

Ms. RILEY: Thank you.

Mr. MARTIN: Appreciate it.

Ms. SETMAYER: Thank you, Ed.

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

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