Roundtable: Veterans, Impeachment, Kings Apologies

Ed Gordon and guests discuss topics in the news. On Friday's agenda: the plight of America's veterans; former President Clinton calls his impeachment an egregious abuse of the Constitution; and the Sacramento Kings basketball team apologize for disrespecting Detroit. Guests: George Curry of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; ER Shipp, a columnist at the New York Daily News; and Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

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ED GORDON, host:

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

On today's Roundtable: the plight of the veteran; and the Sacramento Kings have to apologize for disrespecting Detroit. Joining us from New York, E.R. Shipp. She's a columnist at the New York Daily News. Eric Deggans, a media critic for the St. Petersburg Times; he joins us from St. Petersburg, Florida. And George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; he joins us from Maryland.

All right, folks. Today is Veterans' Day, and so much has been made of saluting the veteran, yet there are those who say that we salute them on this day but forget about them the other 364 days of the year. We just heard from the VA, suggesting that they're not going to re-examine now benefit claims for post-traumatic stress disorder that many veterans had put in place for. They were looking at the period between 1999 and 2004, suggesting that there may have been some fraud there. George Curry, when we hear the stories, as we heard in segment A, when we hear from Clarence Page about saluting the veteran, do you believe that we hold veterans in the real high esteem that we say we do?

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor in Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): No, I don't. And I also see a difference between how veterans are viewed from, say, World War II and recent conflicts. I mean, I don't think most Americans like to admit it, but they basically consider people who do military service are people who couldn't escape it, who couldn't do other things in life, who couldn't have careers. And they--some of the poor people, in particular people of color, go out and fight their wars for them, as--although African-Americans have been in every war in this country, as Clarence pointed out.

So I think that, on the one hand, they say it's a great thing--`Oh, we love our veterans'--on the other hand, saying, `Well, I'm lucky that I wasn't one of those saps,' and at the same time trying to cut benefits for them.

GORDON: Eric, the idea that benefits are being cut, Walter Reed closing--all of the things that stood strong in terms of prideful salutes to veterans, really, often, are on the chopping block now.

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (Media Critic, St. Petersburg Times): Yeah.

GORDON: Juxtaposing that to the 2,000 deaths and the 15,000 maimed and disabled, that has to send a mixed message to many.

Mr. DEGGANS: Oh, yeah, and I would agree with everything George said, but I would also say that there seems to be a sort of strategy in the Bush administration to, on the one hand, rhetorically celebrate the soldiers and their efforts in these wars that they start, but on the other hand, to be very stingy with funding the medical care that they need and the benefits that they need. We saw last year there was this tremendous scandal because the Veterans Administration had horribly misestimated how much money they would need to actually fund the medical care of veterans, and they had to go to Congress and ask for an emergency infusion of millions of dollars, even after Democrats had told them for months that this money was necessary.

So I think what we're seeing in this administration is a very concerted and deliberate strategy to nickel-and-dime the veterans, even as they celebrate their achievements on the battlefield.

Ms. E.R. SHIPP (Columnist, New York Daily News): That could, perhaps, be because so many members of the Bush administration and so many leaders in Congress have no direct military experience themselves. So in some ways, it's just another budgetary item for them that can be put on the chopping block.

GORDON: And while that's true, we should say that there are a number of strong advocates, probably John McCain being out in front of all of the others, who make sure that, in fact, these cuts, concerns and services stay in the fore.

Ms. SHIPP: Yes, and Congressman Rangel is also one of those one might put in that category. He's very concerned about veterans and often raises issues about them. He focuses often, too, on one subset of forgotten veterans, the black veterans, many of whom are World War II vets who were fighting, as people say, for a double victory: a victory abroad and a victory at home because of the racism that they endured. So Congressman Rangel is still there, looking out for military. He's also, by the way--has called for a reinstatement of the draft, especially because he thinks that the burden of fighting the current war falls disproportionately on people of color, and he wants to figure out a way to make the sacrifices more equitable.

Mr. DEGGANS: I would say one reason why I find that notion an interesting one is that it gets at dismantling this idea that we can have a war without cost. I mean, that's the other thing that the Bush administration has done with these wars in Iraq, is they've tried to compartmentalize the damage of the war, hiding from the press the visions of the coffins coming back to Dover Air Force Base and other places, downplaying the amount of injuries that people have suffered, and cutting funding to take care of these people when they come back and they're injured. It's all part of trying to hide from Americans the true costs of this war so that we can feel as if we're waging all of these military actions, but we're not really paying a price. And the veteran is sort of caught in the middle.

GORDON: Interesting.

Mr. CURRY: And I think we should also point out that...

GORDON: Here, George Curry, one of the things that I want you to talk about, and then pick up on your point, is the idea of a study--numbers that have come out between the year 2000 and 2004, and that is the drastic decline of African-American recruits to serve in all four services of the military branch. It's dropped nearly a third.

Mr. CURRY: Yes. And I was going to say, first of all--and I will answer that, but I want to say first of all that a lot of our war efforts are being led by what they call chicken hawks--these people who are very much hawks now, but when they had a chance to go, like the president and the vice president, they didn't go.

But to follow up on your point, yes, and there has been a dramatic drop, and the only way the Army's going to--and the other branches are going to be able to make up for it is by recruiting more Latinos, and the problem they have there--Latinos' high school graduation rates are less than African-Americans'. And overall, the military has about a graduation rate of everybody--it's about 5 percent, I think, of them are dropouts--I mean, who didn't complete their high school. So they do have a problem. I think that they'll have even more of a problem even selling to Latinos and everybody else because of the war and people have--the American sentiment running strongly against our invasion of Iraq.

GORDON: All right. Let's take a look at former President Bill Clinton, who spoke at an academic conference this week in New York and challenged...

Ms. SHIPP: I actually attended the conference.

GORDON: OK, there you go. So we'll get some firsthand information from E.R. Shipp. He challenged historian Douglas Brinkley's comment in a newspaper interview that Bill Clinton would be deemed a great president if it were not for his impeachment. Clinton went on to say that he completely disagreed with that. He said, `You can agree with that statement, but only if you think impeachment was justified. Otherwise, it was'--and this is fully his quote here--"an egregious abuse of the Constitution and law and history of our country." Eric Deggans, where do you fall on that?

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, I've got to say, first, I'm surprised that he even brought this up. You know, Clinton had just seemed to be getting to the point where people were kind of thinking of him without thinking of Monica Lewinsky and without thinking of the impeachment, and here he brings it up again. His wife can't be happy about this, as she tries to continue her political career. And I'm concerned that he is avoiding his own responsibility in some of this. I mean, he did tell some lies. He did give his critics sort of the bat that they beat him with. You know, obviously now in hindsight, that impeachment, I think, was a tremendous waste of public resources and attention, but at the same time, Bill Clinton fed it with his own lies. So to have him stand up there and try to justify it now seems a bit odd, to say the least.

GORDON: It's reported that his remarks were cheered loudly by the audience. E.R., I don't know--you say you were attending the conference--whether or not you, in fact, were...

Ms. SHIPP: I was there.

GORDON: ...present when President Clinton made the statement.

Ms. SHIPP: Yes, I was there for the entire speech, and I can actually put it in a little context. I'm wearing my academic hat today. I teach at Hofstra University, where the--this is the 11th Presidential Conference. And each year the university invites in officials from various presidential administrations. Sometimes they actually get the former president to come. And they have historians and journalists and academics going through, in very great detail, various presidencies. So this was President Clinton's turn. During his speech, he basically gave a very strong defense of all that his administration had accomplished during two terms, and he contrasted this idea of a second-term drag that comes up concerning the current presidency, with his, and he said he didn't have such a problem.

And it was in that context that he basically--he never mentioned Monica Lewinsky, but he did mention impeachment, and said that--he laid out a few terms for how to judge a presidency, how you could determine whether it was a good one or a bad one, but he said that he actually should get credit for standing up to those members of Congress who led the impeachment drive, because he actually defended the Constitution. And that was the broad context of that statement, but it was a very minor portion of an approximately one-hour-long speech.

GORDON: George, that being said, presidents most of the time suggest that they will leave the idea of whether one is great or poor, missed the mark or made the mark, to historians. They usually don't want to jump into that fray. Clearly, the president a tad sensitive, still, to obviously the impeachment trial that he went through and, of course, the Monica Lewinsky situation in general. Do you, in fact, agree that it was an egregious abuse?

Mr. CURRY: Well, I mean, I think it has to be put in context. I mean, Clinton has to accept responsibility for it, but at the same time, does it rise to the level of impeachment? I think not. And I think that what Clinton did--I mean, apparently, from what I read, and E.R. can tell me if I'm correct--apparently, what miffed him is that people keep talk--bringing up the impeachment and saying, `Oh, that overshadows his accomplishment,' when his point is, like, you know, `Look at the deficit now and look at the deficit reduction under me. Look at the family leave legislation, the assault ban in 1984, the earned income tax'--I mean, you can look--go down the list, and he had some tremendous accomplishments, especially when you look at the economy then and look at it now. And the race commission--even though--you know, at least he had a discussion on it.

And so he's saying, you know, that--everybody's saying all this gets overshadowed because of the impeachment, and I quite agree with him. I mean, it's still something he has to accept, but does that rise to the level of impeachment? I disagree. I don't think so.

GORDON: But, E.R. Shipp, I'm not trying to really equate the two just by virtue of illustration, if you will, but that's like O.J. Simpson suggesting that the murder trial he went through overshadows all that he did and his great accomplishments on the football field. One has to accept the consequences, when going through what many will say is public humiliation, that that will stay with you and taint your history for the rest of your life.

Ms. SHIPP: I--well, I won't get into that particular analogy. But he did make a strong argument for the fact that, over the course of two terms, his administration had a number of successes, many of which George laid out. And he thinks that if the historians--and there are a number of historians here, by the way, Doug Brinkley being one of them. There are also members of his administration, from Madeleine Albright to former Ambassador Holbrooke to the secretary of the Treasury, his chiefs of staff, etc., and they're all examining parts of the Clinton legacy. But I don't think he's trying to say he didn't do dumb things and didn't do something that really put his administration in a bad light. As I said, he didn't mention Monica Lewinsky, but those of us older than the undergraduates who were filling the audience last night knew what he was referring to.

Mr. DEGGANS: One of the things that is always interesting to me about some of these public figures--and maybe I'm thinking about this because I'm seeing, you know, Judith Miller from The New York Times and Mary Mason from CBS News go around and try to explain their transgressions. I mean, this is something that Bill Clinton has dealt with in his public life for many years. Before he was even elected president, he had to go on "60 Minutes" and explain his relationship with Gennifer Flowers. So I think he has to come to terms with the fact that this problem with infidelity is always going to be something that people associate with him, because he's made it that and he's made it an issue.

GORDON: Yes. All right.

Mr. DEGGANS: So you've got to come to--he's got to come to terms with it.

GORDON: Guys, I've got to get to this, because we missed it yesterday, and that is on Tuesday night the Sacramento Kings were playing the Detroit Pistons in Sacramento, and as the Piston players were being introduced on the big screen within ARCO Arena there, the home of the Kings, interspersed between showing the players running out on the court were shown pictures of burned-out cars, abandoned buildings, empty streets, comparing, obviously, Detroit's hometown to these images. This is interesting when you juxtapose it to the controversy of the dress code that is now given to NBA players in wanting to give a certain image. The NBA has taken out ads for formal apologies to the city of Detroit, but many see his, quite frankly, as the imagery of Detroit that many folks have, and associating that with African-Americans. Detroit is 80 percent black. Is that reading too much into it, George Curry?

Mr. CURRY: You know, it's just bush league--pardon the expression. I mean, what are they going to do when the New Orleans Hornets come in? Are they going to talk about--show all the pictures of Katrina? I mean, it just--no class at all. And they did the right thing to come back and put ads in the papers to apologize.

Ms. SHIPP: But how did such a dumb idea get so far? I'm always amazed that people are quick to apologize if they've caused offense. But how many eyes looked at this now and let it go through without raising questions about whether this was insensitive or bush league, as you put it? It's mind-boggling to me.

Mr. DEGGANS: I have to say that one of the things that has always struck me about some areas of the sports world is that they seem sort of blithely unaware of the social implications of some of the things that they're doing. From this coach who was sort of talking about how he's losing because he doesn't have enough black folks on his team to now this, which--you know, anybody with half a brain, I think, if they looked at that--images, would understand that there's a resonance that sort of goes beyond just, you know, slapping Detroit upside the head right before an important game. And--but a lot of folks in the sports world seem unwilling to sort of face the larger implications of some of the things that they do and they say.

GORDON: When you say `this coach'...

Mr. CURRY: What they might have done is fired up the Detroit Pistons. They won by 14 points.

Mr. DEGGANS: Yeah, they won big.

Mr. CURRY: And they had the last laugh.

Ms. SHIPP: There you go.

GORDON: Yeah. And we should note, Eric, when you say `this coach,' you're not talking about Sacramento or Detroit's coach...

Mr. DEGGANS: No.

GORDON: ...but the college football coach--I believe it was either Army or Air Force--who suggested that part of the issue was that he just didn't have fast enough folks on his team...

Ms. SHIPP: Right. It was the Air Force Academy.

GORDON: ...read, `Too many white folks, not enough black players--you fast runners, you.'

All right, guys, thank you so much for joining us. Eric Deggans, E.R. Shipp and George Curry, thanks so much for being with us today.

Ms. SHIPP: Thank you.

Mr. CURRY: Thank you.

Mr. DEGGANS: Thank you.

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

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