Roundtable: Brown on the Hill, Rice in Haiti

Topics: Former FEMA director Michael Brown defends his former agency's response to Hurricane Katrina to a congressional panel, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Haiti ahead of upcoming presidential elections. Guests: George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; and Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist.

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ED GORDON, host:

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

On today's Roundtable, former FEMA director Michael Brown defends himself before Congress and Condoleezza Rice visits Haiti as the nation prepares for new elections. Joining us from our New York bureau, Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist, joins us from our bureau in the Windy City; and George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, joins us today from Maryland.

All right, folks, we want to get into a number of issues, but first I want to get your idea on this eight-point plan that we just talked about with CBC members Mel Watt and Maxine Waters. Laura Washington, when you listen to what they had to say in the face of poverty, the idea that the CBC suggests that it's been trying to deal with poverty for some time, and it's been falling, to some degree, on deaf ears. what do you have to say?

Ms. LAURA WASHINGTON (Chicago Sun-Times): Well, I think that's probably true to a certain extent. But I think that the whole reason why we're in shock over this whole Katrina mess is that--the face of poverty has been largely invisible and I think it--even to black leadership in this country. There's been a lot of rhetoric, a lot of conversation, not a lot of action. I'm thrilled to see the eight-point plan, especially because it comes at a time when the Caucus may actually have some political clout and may be able to get a hearing of their plans and their strategies because--unfortunately, because of this disaster. But I think that it's going to be up to their leadership there to keep the heat on, and I am most intrigued by what Maxine Waters said about the issue of getting the folks whom are most affected engaged. And I think that poor folks and African-Americans who have been the subjects of injustice have been largely not at the table. And again, it's the leadership that's going to have to take some responsibility to get those folks to the table.

GORDON: Michael Meyers, if timing is everything, one has to believe Democrats, and, by extension, the CBC, will see this as an opportunity to gain muscle at a point where Democrats had been, quite frankly, rendered impotent based on just sheer voting numbers.

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition): You know, it is a moment in American history, and the CBC, obviously, will try to take advantage of that moment. But the moment will be fleeting. At least today one can say that racial justice is not measured by Americans being kind to their black cooks and their black maids. And it's not measured by charity. But it's a moment. My view is that it was a moment for the Congressional Black Choir--I mean, Caucus. Between the choir singing and the prayer breakfast and the black-tie/gown dinners, it was heartening that the Congressional Black Choir remembered poverty and remembered race. Somebody has to say, and to remind, America that you cannot have the reconstruction of New Orleans with these--with the--to the exclusion of blacks. There's a danger that the French Quarter will be `Disneyfied' and that the--this was not a city that was built on rock 'n' roll and it's therefore--it has to be a city where blacks are included and brought back into New Orleans in the mainstream, not as--on the sidelines and on the shoulders of the road.

GORDON: George Curry, here's my biggest concern with all of the conversation I hear about poverty in the Gulf Coast region, and that is that we are still, to a great degree, overlooking poverty that reigns supreme in many neighborhoods across this country.

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor in Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): Which is right. And that's why this is a good moment for the CBC. Michael's snide comments, not withstanding, the CBC has been focused on poverty, and they have been focused on race. To the extent that we--they should have--No, nobody's done that. But this is an opportunity for the CBC to go beyond just the issues that are mostly important to blacks, to be talking about poverty, which does impact us disproportionately. This is a chance to organize a larger coalition, beyond just the black base, and really make a change.

Now are Congress and the White House and both benches--the Senate, as well, are they receptive to this? I don't think so. I think in the end--I don't think they really are committed to doing this, but I think this is a time to challenge them on this issue.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Ed, I think that what--the key message that needs to come out of this discussion is this is just not about New Orleans, this is just not about Hurricane Katrina. It's about racism and poverty that continue, that is ongoing in this country. When you look at inner cities across this country, we all have different issues, and if a Hurricane Katrina or anything else hit any one of these cities, it would be about--both because it was black folks and because it was poverty. And black folks are suffering from a long series of injustices: police abuse, employment discrimination, discrimination in public accommodations, media bias. And those things are what we need to focus on...

GORDON: Yeah.

Ms. WASHINGTON: ...front and center. It goes beyond just what happened in...

Mr. MEYERS: But, Laura, you can't...

Ms. WASHINGTON: Yes?

Mr. MEYERS: Laura, the president can't talk about the legacy of inequality. We can't talk about the inner city without talking about `ghettoization' and the pressures that segregate and separate blacks from the mainstream American society, and that's jobs, that's schools, that's housing and it's deliberate and intentional segregation and racial `stereoing' and all those forces that the Congressional Black Choir does not address...

Ms. WASHINGTON: I...

Mr. MEYERS: ...because `ghettoization' benefits them.

Ms. WASHINGTON: ...absolutely agree with that, but it not only separates black folk from the society at large, it separates us from each other. That's why, as you describe the Black Caucus as dining and doing their limos and doing their glittery parties because...

Mr. MEYERS: Yes.

Ms. WASHINGTON: ...they aren't part of those communities and they aren't necessarily even responding to those communities as they should.

Mr. MEYERS: Yes.

Mr. CURRY: I guess I really disagree with both of you on that. I mean, I'm in the awkward position of defending an elected official, which is unusual for me, but...

Ms. WASHINGTON: Go ahead, George.

Mr. CURRY: ...seriously, that is it. But, no, no, but I think it's unfair. I really think it's unfair to just lump these group--and you call them whatever name you want to call them, Mike, and say that they have not been concerned, they have not been working out here, they have not been trying to force the issue--they have. But they are just a minority within a minority. The Republicans control every branch of government and they don't have a real anti-poverty program and don't seem to be interested in developing one.

GORDON: All right, let me take us to another subject, and that is one that we are going to see grow and grow and grow, I can promise you that, in the coming days, weeks and months, and that is the finger-pointing that is coming out of the Katrina aftermath. We saw former FEMA director Michael Brown aggressively defend his role in the response efforts to Hurricane Katrina as he spoke before Congress yesterday and, in fact, blamed much of the problem on Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. We also saw a surprise yesterday, the announcement of Police Superintendent Eddie Compass, who stepped down from his post after 26 years of policing, and three and a half as the police chief of that city.

While he did not give reason for stepping down, many believe that he was tired of the criticism that he and his police force had been receiving for lack of a plan, so to speak. When you see all of this happening, George Curry, and the other and mo--perhaps the most frightening aspect of the aftermath is, now we're starting to see--and I traveled quite a bit this past week in four or five different cities across the country--and we're hearing from people who are unemployed, downtrodden, impoverished in some of these cities, now feeling disillusioned by the evacuees coming and taking and being given, almost, some jobs that heretofore were not in those cities. There is a lot going on in this aftermath.

Mr. CURRY: Well, yeah, and the thing about it is you just can't just force--disperse poor people everywhere and give that group a priority over everybody else, although they have, you know, real needs. But the other people who have been there all the time have real needs, too. I think in New Orleans' case, I mean, obviously, it's an effort to--you know, you've got a scapegoat there and this has all the trappings of somebody being pushed over the ledge.

And as far as Charlie Brown--I mean, Michael Brown, who acted more like Charlie Brown--I mean, he just living in a delusional world altogether. I mean, his--it was an absolute spectacle, his so-called testimony yesterday. He had no clue then. He has no clue now.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, I think that the term that was used--that he used was calling New Orleans and Louisiana officials dysfunctional, and I think that's like the pot calling the kettle black given how he--the kind of job he ran at FEMA. But I think it's also an indication of the disintegration of the Bush spin machine. You know, the Bush administration's always been very, very tight and able to control their message. And probably because they didn't give this guy enough money to get him to shut his mouth, he's only going to be on the payroll for a couple more weeks, they've got a guy who's coming from with--inside the administration who is saying, `Look, don't scapegoat me. I told the White House about this several days before.' So the spin machine is not spinning as well as it normally is.

And then, he even made the point--Brown made the point in his testimony that, you know, one of his mistakes was not having enough media briefings; not keeping the media well-informed during the crisis. The Bush White House wanting to keep the media well-informed? That's a real shocker.

So I think that they--the White House basically has a loaded gun that's pointed at them, not just pointed at New Orleans, in this guy, Brown.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, yes, this is a situation of shifting burdens and shifting blame and no shame, except maybe for the police superintendent in New Orleans who decided to be accountable for failure. You look at burden, you look at blame...

GORDON: Well, he's not conceding that, Michael. Let's be careful with that.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, he's resigned.

GORDON: He's not conceding that.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I think he has. Look, when you look at the blame and the burden of the blame, you look at FEMA, you look at Homeland Security, you look at the government, you look at the mayor, you look at the president; all failed and they all failed miserably. And it's--and it has to be acknowledged.

Now what Brown refused to do is--that Brown refused to understand, to admit, that he was not qualified for his post; that he had neither the talent, the taste nor the experience for the job and he blew it.

As far as this inquiry is concerned, I always thought this was bogus. Wasn't this--or isn't this the GOP House-appointed panel which the Democrats said that they would not cooperate with? And yet we still have a couple of Democrats there asking a qu--asking questions and participating in the inquiry. And the investigation has to be independent. An investigation has to be dispassionate and I think this is not an independent investigation, and you have to have investigation prior to questioning. You have to have staff do the investigating independent of this. So I think that these people are shameless.

Mr. CURRY: The only two Democrats there were people--were those--who represent areas that--affected, and everybody else boycotted it. It is--this is basically a Republican show here. You do need an independent commission, which the president and the GOP leadership have objected to.

GORDON: All right. Let's turn our attention to Haiti, a impoverished--as we talk about poverty--land, and one that has seen so much turmoil over the course of the last 15 years, and certainly the last decade in particular. They are facing elections--presidential elections on November 20. We heard from Secretary Condoleezza Rice who made a visit--who wants assurances from Haitian leaders that they will go out to ensure fear and--free and fair, not fear, but free and fair elections.

Mr. CURRY: You got it right, Ed.

GORDON: Yeah, a Freudian slip there I'm sure. Let's talk about, A, the idea of the Bush administration and, quite frankly, any US presidential administration dealing with Haiti. We have seen so many flip-flops over the years. It's almost hard to be paternal to this land. Is it?

Mr. CURRY: Well, I don't know how hard it is. But you just--we just have not been consistent. I mean, you know, we want favor with Aristide one moment, then we favor somebody else the next moment. We just have not been consistent, and the idea that the US is going to be backing a free and fair election in Haiti--I'd like them to try that in Ohio and Florida. I mean, we--that'd be a good place to start.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, you know, someone used a term--and I think it was Michael Brown and Laura today--that the New Orleans government is dysfunctional. Well, Haiti's government is dysfunctional and it's chaotic and it's unstable. I thought that Haiti already had an elected president who's now in exile in South Africa. Colin Powell, when he was in Haiti visiting there when he was secretary of State, there was a shooting outside the presidential palace. They had to, almost to the minute of Condi Rice's visit to Haiti, then announce that she was visiting because they were fearing violence. Now if the presi--if the secretary of State of the United States can't be insured security while visiting Haiti, how real can fair and free elections be for people who are actually living there in a chaotic, dysfunctional, unstable situation as this?

Ms. WASHINGTON: You're right, Michael. The situation is so unstable that even Haiti's own neighbors are not willing to come to its aid and, as you know, the 15-nation Caribbean community has suspended Haiti from its fold because the--they don't feel that there's a real constitutional government in place right now. But we do--we can't give up on Haiti. We've in--already invested--just in the last 18 months, we've invested hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support. We've had troops in there, as you said. We've had secretaries of State come through there. We've got too much at stake, not just because it's--because of its geographic, strategic opportunities, but because it's Haiti and it's a poor country and we have...

GORDON: But, Laura, you say we can't give up on it.

Ms. WASHINGTON: ...an obligation to it. Yes, yes.

GORDON: You say you can't give up on it. But one has to wonder what more can be done. You talk about $100 million being spent. You talk about President Clinton deploying 20,000 troops to reinstate Aristide. I traveled there when Aristide went back. I was also there during the coup that Raoul Cedras had. The instability of this nation is to a great degree--and you talk about class division and the haves wanting to keep and the haves-not...

Mr. MEYERS: Yes.

GORDON: ...you know, not having enough power to really overturn anything. One has to question what more can the United States do, save actually going in and standing strong with might.

Mr. CURRY: Well, be consistent, Ed.

Ms. WASHINGTON: I don't know the answer...

Mr. CURRY: One thing...

Ms. WASHINGTON: What--go ahead.

Mr. CURRY: One answer is we can be consistent, you know. You just can't--you can't say you really support Aristide and then the next moment you're saying, `You've got to go.' You know, you just--we just have not been consistent. There are other problems. Sure, the United States can't solve them all by themselves, but we certainly can be more consistent.

Mr. MEYERS: But you can lose confidence in somebody you used to support. Now look--maybe Laura doesn't want to give up on Haiti, but I give up.

Ms. WASHINGTON: I don't think we can afford to walk away. You can't walk away from Haiti. If we--if the Bush administration did that, they'd be blasted. Maybe not by you, Michael. But they certainly would be blasted by George and a lot of the other liberal...

GORDON: Well, let me ask this, as it relates to Aristide and the idea of giving up. I mean, one can certainly say to some degree that many see, and saw, the idea of the United States turning away from Aristide as another one of those indications of--and you hate to keep bringing it back to race--but the idea that the administration did say, `Well, you know, we gave it our best shot. We gave a lot of money and, you know, que sera, sera.' Would that have been the case with a small European nation?

Mr. CURRY: I'm like--I don't know...

Mr. MEYERS: ...European nation that acted like Haiti? Maybe, yeah.

Mr. CURRY: Yeah. I mean, you just--I wouldn't go that far. I just don't know. All I know is they've been inconsistent with that and I think had they just stood with them, we'd be in a better position today.

GORDON: And with the idea of--I still want someone to say beyond consistency, George, what the United States can do, save, you know, military intervention to make sure that the country moves forward.

Mr. MEYERS: As well as, what is our interest there anyway? I mean, why not give up on it?

GORDON: Well, I mean, historically, you don't want to give up on it because it's just the American way supposedly, supposedly--I stress that...

Ms. WASHINGTON: We're not giving up on...

Mr. MEYERS: I give up on the American way.

Ms. WASHINGTON: ...Iraq. But--George Bush just delivered a speech last week on, you know, a number of points about why we can't give up on Iraq because it's in our national interest to bring democracy to Iraq. What about a country that's much, much closer to us, both politically and geographically...

GORDON: Well, it just seems...

Ms. WASHINGTON: ...and...

GORDON: Well, it seems to me that the Bush administration is faced with what I just heard from a panel that oft times is devoid of silence and that's the idea when we say `What more can be done?' I don't know that there are any real answers.

Mr. MEYERS: Iraq is not...

Mr. CURRY: What--we claim to be...

Mr. MEYERS: ...Iraq, by the way, is...

Mr. CURRY: ...that we got to be in the business of exporting democracy around the world.

GORDON: All right.

Mr. CURRY: We certainly should be trying to do it in our own hemisphere.

Mr. MEYERS: Iraq is not...

Mr. CURRY: That's good enough reason to stay there.

Mr. MEYERS: Iraq is not about democracy. Iraq is about oil and...

Ms. WASHINGTON: Oh, but you--but the president says it's about democracy, Michael. How else are we gonna bring...

Mr. MEYERS: ...we can't create...

Ms. WASHINGTON: ...democracy to the Arab world?

Mr. MEYERS: ...democracy everywhere in the world. We can't commit troops...

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, I'm just telling you what the president said.

Mr. MEYERS: ...and create democracies everywhere in the world, especially in places that don't won't democracy.

GORDON: All right. I'll tell you what, guys. Your homework assignment is to go get some ideas on how to stabilize Haiti. And so...

Mr. MEYERS: Good point.

GORDON: ...the next time I see you, we'll see where you stand.

Mr. MEYERS: I give up.

Mr. CURRY: Is it too late to drop the class, Ed?

GORDON: Michael Meyers, Laura Washington, George Curry, thanks so much. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. MEYERS: Same to you, bud.

Mr. CURRY: Thank you.

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

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