Roundtable: Katrina, Tookie's Clemency Hearing

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Topics: the ongoing impact of Hurricane Katrina and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's announcement that he would hold a clemency hearing for Crips gang founder Stanley "Tookie" Williams. Guests: George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; Tara Setmayer, Republican strategist; and Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender.

ED GORDON, host:

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

On today's Roundtable: the president to hit the borders. Joining us from our bureau in Chicago, Roland Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender. In Florida, Republican strategist Tara Setmayer joins us. And from Maryland, George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, is with us today.

All right, folks, before we get into what the president is doing, I want to give you an opportunity to talk about what we just heard from Congressman Thompson and Congressman Jefferson, and the idea, George Curry, that we are going to have to pay for this whether we do it today or down the line. The dollars continue to build. It's interesting to watch the deficit build around this, particularly going into an election year. How do you strike the balance between showing compassion and the idea of not breaking the bank? Or can you do so?

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor in chief, The National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): Well, the bank was broken long before this, so let's not kid ourselves. The deficits are out of control and, if Katrina had never happened, we would still have serious deficit in this country. So that's not the issue. It's not going to suddenly break the United States. The United States does what it always does. It prints more money.

I think we have a commitment to citizens and we should keep it. And what we're seeing over and over in the polls is people are saying, `If I must choose between helping Americans or fighting that war overseas, I'd rather help Americans.' And that's--coming very, very strongly and you see even some Republicans now beginning to jump ship.

GORDON: Roland Martin, here's the interesting concept of all of this: the idea that for many of these people, many of whom, as I noted earlier, are black and brown, it's not just about sustaining time in a hotel. But it's getting back up on their feet, finding jobs, finding employment, getting themselves off the dole, if you will. That is going to be tremendously problematic down the line.

Mr. ROLAND MARTIN (Executive Director, Chicago Defender): Well, I think what has to happen is--the conversation needs to be, first of all, broad. And this is not a New Orleans' issue. This is an entire regional issue. It is a Gulf Coast issue. And so, when we say also the faces are black and brown, there are a number of people who are white who have been impacted in Mississippi and Alabama and other parts of Louisiana as well. And so I think that really is what the story should be.

And so, in many ways, this is out of sight, out of mind. We no longer see those faces on television. We no longer see the intense coverage that we saw in the aftermath, and so what those who are trying to get the funds must do, they must continue to tell the story, retell the story and I think also, stress the business ramifications of not rebuilding the Gulf Coast as well. Because like it or not, in America we understand money and we understand the business impact, also the people impact.

GORDON: Tara, there are some Republicans who are suggesting the other end of that; that we do need to strike the balance. That we cannot break the bank. That you have to look at, for instance, continuing to secure the United States against terror attacks or some of the things that have been thrown out there. Is this the right road to travel?

Ms. TARA SETMAYER (Republican Strategist): Well...

GORDON: This kind of rhetoric?

Ms. SETMAYER: ...what--we need to put things in perspective here, because with deficits ballooning, both sides are guilty of spending. The Republicans are running into a problem because they--we are supposed to be the party of fiscal conservatism, and federal spending has ballooned over the Bush administration's tenure: about 35 percent in the last five years for discretionary spending. And what's going on here in New Orleans is a tough decision about where we're going to trim the federal deficit. And I mean, there's $62 billion that's already been authorized for the reconstruction effort. And I think what the question here is: How well is that money going to be spent? We run into a problem of wasteful spending oftentimes when you have a large federal response to something like this, and what Republicans are trying to do is trying to strike that balance while--where can we trim some of the pork-barrel spending in other areas in the country and, at the same time, have a federal response to New Orleans that is one that will be efficient, one that will help the victims? I mean, the president proposed a $200 billion reconstruction effort which equates to about $400,000 per person as far as the 500,000 people that have been displaced. That's a lot of money. Is that too much? Is that enough? How's that going to be spent? That's the debate that we're going through right now in Washington.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, you know, Ed...

Mr. CURRY: Listen...

Mr. MARTIN: thing the course--you know, one thing they could do, Ed, is deal with the prescription drug deal. Remember, it was supposed to be $300 billion. But the Republicans and the Bush administration would not allow the real figures to come out and it ballooned to about 450 to 500 billion. And so, why don't they start there? If you're looking for another $150 to help the Gulf Coast, why don't you start with that particular bill which was supposed to be 300, then of course ballooned? But I doubt they want to open that can of worms during the election year.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, that was...

GORDON: George, you should start.

Ms. SETMAYER: ...wanted...

GORDON: George, you should start. Let me ask this. Isn't the danger what Tara talked about? And that's the idea that much of this is being debated in Washington and we know that debate in Washington can sometimes be tabled, sidetracked, lost altogether. And this is going to be to the detriment to those who don't have this kind of time.

Mr. CURRY: Ed, it can to be on the table, off the table, under the table. Yes, that's the way Washington works, if you call that working. That's not where I would start. I would start with those tax breaks and, also, you know, Democrats and Republicans are not being honest here. The way they load down these spending bills with pork, unneeded pork--they can start there and fund Katrina very easily if they were serious about it. But they are not serious about it because they want to keep their tax cuts and they want to keep their pork and, yet--while cutting the central programs that people need to survive.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, tax cuts are important for economic development and we've seen that and we've seen how our economy...

Mr. CURRY: That hasn't worked.

Ms. SETMAYER: tax cuts--that's not true. We've created millions of jobs consistently for the last two and a half years. But that's besides the point.

Mr. CURRY: I don't know what numbers you've seen.

Ms. SETMAYER: But the problem is is that in DC, you know, there's the old expression that no one in DC can tell the difference between $1 million and $1 billion. That's the problem that we're running into right now, because, yes, pork-barrel spending has become, again, the forefront--one of the biggest issues in the forefront. And it has everyone--nobody wants to give up their pet projects. I mean, Senator Ted Stevens threatened to resign his Senate chairmanship if he didn't get his bridges built to nowhere in Alaska.

Mr. MARTIN: That sounds like a fiscal Republican.

Ms. SETMAYER: And that was a fight within the party, within the Republicans. No one wants to give up their pet projects, but, you know, it's either--the burden is either going to fall on current taxpayers and the repercussions are going to be felt by current politicians, or it's going to be dumped on our children and grandchildren. And nobody wants to pass--nobody wants to take responsibility now.

GORDON: All right.

Ms. SETMAYER: And that's on both sides of the aisle.

GORDON: All right, let me turn our attention to something that raised a lot of eyebrows yesterday, and that's the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John Warner of Virginia, suggesting that President Bush do what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did, and that's host some fireside chats to explain to the nation in detail what's going on with this war. Roland Martin, good idea?

Mr. MARTIN: Waste of time. I mean, you already have a Saturday morning radio address that nobody listens to, and so the issue with what's taking place with the war is, frankly, the American people no longer trust what the president is saying. He continues to suggest stay the course, stay the course. They're looking at the reality of the spending, they're looking at the reality of the deaths and they're saying, `Sorry, this is not happening. What you guys described is not taking place.' And so, I mean, it's great to throw that out, but the bottom line is we're not going to listen to it and his ratings are simply going to plummet even further.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, what the president needs to do is what he has started to do, which I thought was several months too late. The administration has allowed the media and Democrats to redefine the issue and what's going on in Iraq. And instead of being on the offense, they've been put back on their heels for months and months and months to the drumbeat of `We lied going into the war; it's not working, it's failing.' And that's just simply not the case. There are problems there, yes, and that happens in any military conflict. Did they underestimate the insurgency? Yes, they probably did. But right now, we need--what the administration needs to do is what they're doing. They need to fire back. Let the American people know that they--no, they did not lie going into the war. No, the intelligence wasn't cooked. There's a bipartisan Senate intelligence report that says the books were not--the intelligence wasn't cooked. There's another...

Mr. MARTIN: No, that's not the issue.

Ms. SETMAYER: ...there are three other independent reports that say the same thing.

Mr. MARTIN: No, that's not the issue and you know it.

Ms. SETMAYER: People need to be reminded of that and they need...

Mr. MARTIN: You know it.

Ms. SETMAYER: be reminded of the successes. They've had...

Mr. MARTIN: I mean, stop spinning Republican stuff.

Ms. SETMAYER: ...three successful elections in Iraq and we're making progress.

Mr. MARTIN: Look...

Ms. SETMAYER: That's what they need to do.

Mr. MARTIN: ...Tara...

GORDON: All right. George Curry, let me ask you--George Curry, let me bring you in that.

Mr. CURRY: Please do.

GORDON: Tara suggests that, but it's a hard pill to swallow when you see someone like Colin Powell suggest that he feels now duped and that there has been a question of whether or not he privately is concerned that his legacy may be tarnished after all of this.

Mr. CURRY: Absolutely. This is not a question of PR or defining the issue or mystifying the issue. People understand. The problem is Bush can't sit by the fire or in the fire or on the side of the fire. It's not a fireside, it's his backside that he should be worried about because people do not trust him. They think he lied. And that's most Ameri--Tara--I don't know who Tara represents, but she doesn't represent most America who feel that way. This is trying, again, to have style over substance. People understand that. The problem is not that they don't understand. They do understand and they're disappointed.

Ms. SETMAYER: You know...

GORDON: Tara, you want to try that all or should I move...

Ms. SETMAYER: Well...

GORDON: the next subject?

Ms. SETMAYER: No, I'm--no, I'm going to address that. And what's unfair is that when you're told over and over and over again--when you have 78 percent of the war being covered negatively, you cannot blame the American people for starting to believe that the administration lied. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to prove that the administration lied about this war.

Mr. MARTIN: Right...

Ms. SETMAYER: So it's an...

Mr. MARTIN: ...cover...

Ms. SETMAYER: ...uphill battle here. Now I'm not saying that the American people aren't rightfully questioning our purpose there, when we're going to get out. That's natural. But as far as the administration's approach to this and their answer to this, they need to continue to remind the American people that we are there for a reason, that it's a national security interest, it's in the best interest of the United States of America. Maintaining democracy in that region is in the best interest of the national security for this country.

Mr. CURRY: That's not what the records show. There's plenty of evidence to show that the administration used old data, that is data that was unsupportive and they were selective in what they presented to the United States. So this is still an effort to try to spin the truth. People know what the truth is.

GORDON: All right, let's move our attention to a watch in California that's going on. A gentleman who has either found his name by infamy or fame--whichever side you want to fall on--and that is the convicted murderer and Crips gang founder, Stanley "Tookie" Williams, who has become a cause celeb. Many people know his story. That he has, in many people's minds, in fact, repented his past life of crime. In fact, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prizes, etc., etc. And now Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has announced that he will consider granting clemency to "Tookie" Williams, who is scheduled to be executed in California. It's interesting, Roland Martin, to take a look at this cause celeb. And the governor, who, in fact, could grant clemency, of course, is a celebrity himself.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, this is true and I'm going to tell you right now. This is a troubling issue for lots of different people. And I mean, I speak--I look at how African-Americans are viewed on this issue. You--it's pretty much split in terms of those that--people who say that he has had a negative impact on crime. He co-founded an organization that that has led to the deaths of thousands and thousands of young, black men. And a lot of folks who've I've talked to said put him to death. Then you have those who do suggest that the should be kept alive because he can have a positive impact on keeping kids out of prison. And so, I'm telling you right now, this is not a black/white issue. It is not a, you know, pro-crime, anti-crime, pro-death penalty, anti-death penalty. In many ways, it's a very personal issue because the personal stories of how peoples' lives have been impacted by crime are going to resonate the most with this particular story.

GORDON: George Curry, prison for so long in this country was seen years ago as a rehabilitative step for many folks. Most people have given up on that thought today, but some will suggest that here is one man who has been, quote, `rehabilitated.' Should we, in fact, send him to death?

Mr. CURRY: That's the crux of the problem. You--do you want to punish someone or do you want to say, `I favor rehabilitation'? And it is, as Roland said, that is a tough one for some people because people don't care--most American people don't care about whether you rehabilitate. If you been there, you did the time, they don't care. I mean, that's cold and it's heartless, but that's the way they feel about it. And so, this idea of you can go in prison, rehabilitate and all these good things he's done--a lot of people simply don't care because of the crimes themselves.

Mr. MARTIN: Especially when...

GORDON: Here's an interesting point, Tara.

Mr. MARTIN: ...he's been convicted of killing four people.

GORDON: Here's..

Mr. MARTIN: I mean, killing four people. That's also what resonates, Ed.

GORDON: ...the interesting point, Tara, is the idea that Governor Schwarzenegger early on made suggestions that he would not consider clemency for this man, and now he is going to grant a December 8th private hearing with Williams' lawyers to, in fact, hear their side of this case. Obviously, he doesn't have to grant clemency. He could commute the death sentence to life without parole, though, we should note.

Ms. SETMAYER: Sure. Well, he's just doing the politically prudent thing to do. Governor Schwarzenegger is in the midst of a tough re-election battle. His numbers are tanking. And if he didn't give a certain amount of attention to this because you have Hollywood involved, it is a cause celeb, that he would be seen as insensitive. And the death penalty is a huge issue out in California. Even though it's the law on the books, it--there are two sides of the issue here that every time someone comes up for execution, this is what happens. There's a--the death penalty discussion re-emerges in California.

So Governor Schwarzenegger is just doing the politically prudent thing. But we need to keep in perspective here something that I find interesting in this debate. I'm always worried that when--even though it may not be a black or white issue, it becomes that because he's a black man, because some of the appeals--he's claimed that racism is the reason why he didn't have a fair trial, X, Y and Z.

But I think that black leaders in the community really need to be careful not to waste political capital on certain issues like this. I mean, the man is a murderer. He is responsible for, you know, directly or indirectly, however you want to look at it--as a co-founder of the Crips--the lives of thousands of black men that were more so than were killed at the hand of terrorist for 9/11. And we need to keep this in perspective. You don't want to cry wolf all the time and claim that it's racism because people begin to stop listening. And when people are legitimately falsely accused, it takes away from the legitimacy of their claims. So I...

GORDON: But, Roland, the two don't have to be mutually exclusive here, do they?

Mr. MARTIN: Precisely.

GORDON: I mean, we can have both sides of the coin be true here.

Mr. MARTIN: Absolutely. And Tara's leaving out a very critical issue and that is a lot of people who are coming to the support of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, they are stating what he has done since he has been in prison, how he has spoke from prison calling for gang truces, how there are individuals how there who've said they have turned their lives around, left the gang lifestyle, because of his story, because of the anti-gang children's books. So again, I'm not suggesting that...


Mr. MARTIN: ...sure, that wipes everything away. But you cannot ignore the fact that lots of people believe that he has had a positive impact, and they suggest that he is better off alive, rather than dead.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, and you also need--well, I look at it like the ultimate redemption for him would be paying with his life, considering that he's had 20-plus years. He's had a second chance in order to rehabilitate himself and do all these so-called positive things. But the thousands...

GORDON: All right.

Ms. SETMAYER: ...of black men whose blood has been spilled as a result of gang life, the four people that he directly killed and...

GORDON: George, do you want the last 20 seconds?

Ms. SETMAYER: ...was convicted of, they don't have that second chance.


Mr. CURRY: Well, it goes back to what I said at the outset. It's how you look at it. Whether you say, OK, they can be reformed in jail or you think they should pay with their lives. And I don't want to be in the position of trying to play God in terms of who should be redeemed or not.

GORDON: All right. Well, we'll take a continuing watch of this and let you know the outcome of the hearing when we know it. Roland Martin, Tara Setmayer George Curry, thanks so much for being with us today.

Mr. MARTIN: Thanks, Ed.

Mr. CURRY: Thank you.

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES.

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