Roundtable: World AIDS Day, Liquor Store Vandals

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Wednesday's topics: World AIDS Day and what made two men vandalize a liquor store in Oakland. Guests: George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; Callie Crossley, a social and cultural commentator on the TV show Beat the Press in Boston; and Carlos Watson, CNN political analyst.

ED GORDON, host:

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

On today's roundtable, George Bush gears up to sell the war. Joining us from member station WGBH in Boston, Callie Crossley, social and cultural commentator on the television show "Beat The Press," which is seen in the Boston area. CNN political analyst Carlos Watson joins us via phone today from San Francisco. And George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, joins us from Maryland.

All right. Folks, thanks for joining us.

Carlos, let me step to you first. We're going to hear from the Bush administration over the course of the new few weeks why, in fact, we are in this war. The president went out today and is showing, with a 35-page plan, we should note, from the White House why we're here. He talks about victory. He defines it in short term, medium term, long term. He talks about the enemy and gives definition. Is this smart or is this a sign of a desperate administration?

Mr. CARLOS WATSON (CNN Political Analyst): Clearly the administration's in trouble, Ed, when you look at the approval numbers of the president. They've consistently remained at 40 or just below 40 over the last several months, and that's been the result of a number of factors. The speech is interesting because there's actually a divergence in terms of the tone vs. substance. In terms of the tone, the tone is a combative one, or at least the expected speech is one where the president would seem to be saying, `Stay the course,' but in reality, the substance of it seems to suggest that the president is responding to criticism that there needs to be an exit plan. And while he hasn't offered a lot new, there is the assumption, expectations--I talked to Republicans across Capitol Hill--that the president is looking for a way to begin a drawdown on the troops at some point next year.

And so you're clearly not hearing that now. You're not going to hear the president say anything explicit in that way before the December 15th elections in Iraq, but there's clearly an expectation on the part of those Republicans running in 2006 that the president needs to at least offer an olive branch, if you will, or a sense that an end is somewhere in sight.

GORDON: George Curry, also very clear from this White House, without question: that you will not hear a timetable. It is clear that the White House is simply saying to not only the general public but constituents as well, `We are not going to give you a hard-line timetable.'

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor In Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): Absolutely. And I read that 35-page, quote, "victory in Iraq pre-speech report," and I basically--you know, even the White House admits there's nothing new in it but it's the first time they've all compiled in one place that's unclassified. The administration has taken a calculated risk here. This is the risk. They are basically trying to sell the idea that the very highly suspect Iraqi military can suddenly protect the country, and just as recently as two months ago, we had the US commander in the Middle East tell a Senate committee that of 100 military battalions formed over the previous two years, only one is fully equipped and capable of operating independently. So this whole pressure from both conservatives and liberals to get out is saying, `OK. We'll turn them over to the Iraqis,' and they are not capable. Even Pentagon people say off the record that you're really looking at 2007 before you have a realistic force that can do that.

GORDON: Well, Callie, I should note that George was far more diligent than I. I only looked at the highlights of that 35-page report. George read the whole thing, but one of the things that stood out to me is that the Bush administration suggests in this report that the insurgents can only win if the US surrenders. And they also talked about making progress on the political front and it will become more clearly identified to those who are willing to support the new Iraqi government. And for those who do not support it, they must be either killed, captured, detained or prosecuted. One of the interesting points here is there are those who will see this and hear this and simply label it as `occupation language.'

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY ("Beat The Press"): Absolutely. I mean, there's no other way to label it but that. Even with a proposed or quiet kind of drawdown of the troops, all they're doing is preparing for there to be an occupation force, and that's what's not being said. What's also not being said here is that all of this reiterating of what we must do to stay the course is going to cost $4 billion more. I mean, I--when the question is asked--and Americans are asking it every day; six out of 10 now saying it's not worth it--they need to be able to understand why $4 billion more is going to make a difference. And the plan, as Carlos and I think George both articulated, is really more of the same thing that he's been saying over the last few months.

Mr. CURRY: Well, Callie...

GORDON: Carlos...

Mr. CURRY: ...the Pentagon now is spending $6 billion a month. Six billion a month. So you're talking about adding to that--you're really talking about ridiculous numbers.

GORDON: Carlos, here's the interesting point...

Ms. CROSSLEY: Absolutely.

GORDON: ...that comes out of all of this as the president tries to shore up his stance on the war, and that's the precarious position that many of his Republican colleagues find themselves in leading into election year, and that's whether or not they want to see him come visit that state, which--normally, for an incumbent president, people would be beating down the door to get him in. What is this doing for him and his constituency and the Republican Party in general?

Mr. WATSON: Well, clearly people, particularly in those swing states--whether you think about a state like Pennsylvania that John Kerry won in last fall's election that has a Republican senator in Rick Santorum representing them--clearly a number of Republicans are nervous, but you've seen again and again from this president two things: One, despite tough language often on policy, he's made an attempt to compromise in order to gather more support and not lose his base; but, two, you've also seen him be quite aggressive in wading into a fight. Certainly we saw in late 2003 when he was being heavily criticized in Democratic primaries in early 2004 by Howard Dean and later by John Kerry and others, while the president was quiet early on, instead of merely compromising, you know, there was a combative tone that you heard in early 2004 as he pushed back.

So I expect to see the president out there campaigning a good bit. I expect to see him raising money. I'm sure that early on he will only be in a handful of places like Arizona, where they feel pretty comfortable that Republicans are going to win, but over time, as you saw him do last month in Virginia, you're going to see him try and jump back in there. Obviously, he wasn't successful in Virginia. And, frankly, by April or May, even if he wants to continue to jump in there, he may not have that option. He may have Republicans in states like Missouri and Minnesota say, `You know what? We've tried this for the first third of the year and it hasn't worked and we're now going to ask you to step away.'

GORDON: Hey, George, let me ask you this as it relates to what we're seeing from the president recently, and that is trying to find issues of substance, if you will, to hang his hat on domestically. We saw him talking about shoring up the borders. Today it was announced that the US economy has bumped itself up by a 4.3 percentage growth rate in the last quarter, but one of the interesting things here is, when you go beyond that main number, and in particular in black America--black America is not, to bring a Reagan phrase back, seeing the trickle-down effect here. How, in fact, is this going to play itself out in that this kind of growth, this kind of economic growth, and these kind of other issues that he's hanging his hat on don't speak much to African-Americans in general?

Mr. CURRY: Well, not only do they not speak to African-Americans in general--and he's always been lowly regarded by African-Americans--he's having problems within his own party. You alluded to it earlier terms of whether he campaigns, but it's beyond that. Even the issue--say, you mentioned immigration. I mean, that is a divisive issue. You know, how are we going to deal with his so-called guest worker program, which is basically a boondoggle for big business to get cheap labor? And how do you really step up the enforcement part which another wing of the party is calling for? And what do you do about the 11 million estimated illegals who are already here? I mean, it's nice to have these little speeches and he's supposed to give two of them this week, but the fact is, in the end, these are divisive issues. They're not going to help him. And he's already, let's not forget, at his lowest rating of his presidency. So he's making efforts and overtures, but I don't see any success.

GORDON: All right. Let me turn our attention to a videotape that most people have seen over the course of the last week, and that is of young black men ransacking a convenience store, a party store, whatever you want to call it, depending on where you live in the country, dressed in suits and bow ties. Initially there was concern that this was movement by the Nation of Islam. We should note that it has been denounced by the Nation of Islam and there's no proof that there's any affiliation of these young men to the national group headed by Louis Farrakhan. But here's the question. The demand was by this group of young men that they didn't want to see these kinds of stores in their community peddling liquor to those who are downtrodden. We have seen this kind of concern and question, quite frankly, go on for decades.

Callie Crossley, let me ask you: Is this a notion of misguided anger? For instance, we can all say any large urban area you drive through you will see a disproportionate number of liquor stores in these communities. Yet others will say they're able to sustain themselves because there is a demand there. It's not exploitive if, in fact, you're pitching the demand.

Ms. CROSSLEY: I don't know if the anger is misguided. I mean, the question is whether or not violence is a way to answer the question. Because there is a demand there, of course those liquor stores are there because they know they can make money. On the other hand, there are some forces in the community--obviously, these young men represent them--who are saying, `Listen, this is draining our community. Why always in our space must these stores be? And we know the damage that is being done to members of the community. So let's make a political stand.' Now they're making a violent, overt one, but they are indeed.

And by the way, the latest is that two of the young men who were seen on the tape have turned themselves in. So I don't know more details than that from the police. So we don't know if, in fact, they are members of the Nation of Islam or if they're young men who are just wearing the uniform, if you will, of the bow ties and the suits. But whatever they are, they've decided that this is not to be in their neighborhood, and so the question is whether or not violence is the way to do it. And I would say no and even the Nation leaders have said no, but at the same time...

GORDON: We should not--forgive me, Callie, but we should note that, while those two gentlemen have turned themselves in, we note that a couple of days after this occurrence, the store was torched and blazed. Please continue.

Ms. CROSSLEY: So, I mean, that's what it comes down to. I think you lose your message if you're trying to make a political one by torching and blazing and by committing the kind of violence that was there. I think there's a way to make a political statement, and maybe they just decided that the way to do it was one in the extreme.

Mr. CURRY: I think we really need to withhold judgment about the Nation of Islam whether they're involved. They have simply said they're not. And I remember these same kind of speculations happened immediately at Oklahoma City with Timothy McVeigh. They were saying that--I remember Farrakhan even issued a statement saying that. So I think we really be careful simply because...

GORDON: Right. I mean, we've noted that, George.

Mr. CURRY: ...the man wore a bow tie.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Absolutely.

GORDON: We did. Yeah, we've all noted that.

Mr. CURRY: But I think--yeah--beyond that, though, I think the idea is that, you know, yeah, sure, these stores go to a certain clientele, but look, it's no different from numbers in our community or the lottery. We have to go to the source and not the people who are there offering those services.

Mr. WATSON: You know, the one other thing, though, to add to this, Ed, is we've seen repeatedly over the course of American history that our democracy has been responsive, sometimes slowly, though, to such protest movements. And even in the last 18 to 24 months, whether it's been--we just talked about immigration--whether it's been some of the individual immigration protests on the border there in Arizona and other states which have led to more focus on the question of immigration, whether it's been more recently in the Terri Schiavo case, people saying that the current laws are inadequate and seeming to move on that that frequently when there's a sustained protest against what are thought of as inappropriate laws if there is some response. And so, you know, this may not become a sustained protest, but if it were to become one, I wouldn't be surprised to see a greater focus and other tools besides violence used in order to address, you know, what is at least part of a serious issue.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, I think sustained protest is fine. I'm questioning the method of the protest. I mean, I'm all for advocacy and strong advocacy bringing attention to a problem, and I do think that there is a conversation to be had about this very issue in our communities. I just don't think that violence is going to bring to the side of the folks who are protesting supporters.

GORDON: But, George Curry, you and I have probably been involved in more years than we'd like to different roundtables, town hall meetings, etc., that have addressed, I should say, this issue and others. It seems as though this is an issue that is ongoing and, as you suggest, maybe from the source has not been able to find a way to eradicate the problem. And the problem is not necessarily that the stores stand there, but it is that there is pervasive alcoholism in many of these communities.

Mr. CURRY: That's true, but then, you know--and this is complicated. It's not to make an excuse but it's complicated by high unemployment and poverty rates and...

GORDON: Yeah. No question.

Mr. CURRY: ...these kind of issues as well. So it's not just an isolation you say, `Oh, why don't you stop drinking?' Some people drink to drown their worries, and it does not justify it, but you're still preying on a vulnerable community. And that's where the Nation of Islam has been effective, quite frankly, in some of these communities, is they have been able to uplift people, probably more than any other civil rights group out here, in terms of dealing with that. And that--we need to have a concerted effort that continues along those lines.

GORDON: Carlos, the fine line here, obviously...

Mr. WATSON: Although it's very interesting...

GORDON: ...and pick up on your point is, you know, the American way is supply and demand. If you demand it and I can supply it, I ought to be able to sit here.

Mr. WATSON: And a classic discussion that we've had is whether it's been on alcohol or illegal drugs or other things. What was interesting to hear the West Coast leader of the Nation of Islam focus on, as you just referenced, was on the demand side. He said that `We're most interested in killing the appetite.' He said, `Yes, we're worried about the supply but we really want to kill the appetite for such substances.' So this may or may not be the beginning of a larger conversation. I think one of the interesting questions would be if there's a change in control of either the House or the Senate in 2006. This is clearly an issue that, like smoking and cigarettes and tobacco industry, would be ripe for a congressional investigation and...

GORDON: Hey, George...

Mr. WATSON: know, this is another place where if you had different members of Congress who bring different priorities, they might emphasize this as something that's worthy of the time.

GORDON: George and Callie, pick up on Carlos' point there and take it to the political. It would be interesting to see some of these issues, whether it's the execution of Stanley Williams in Los Angeles or this issue in Oakland or the myriad of issues that plague the black community--could you not utilize these as political fodder and muscle to move and perhaps change the balance of Congress on issues like this?

Mr. CURRY: I don't think so, I mean, partly because they're controlled by these people, I mean, whether it's alcohol or tobacco. For example, Tom DeLay, when he got ready to go to court down in Texas, he had a plane chartered by the tobacco industry. And so the alcohol and tobacco put a lot of money into these congresspersons' coffers and they are unlikely to make any major change there.

GORDON: Callie.

Ms. CROSSLEY: I think that's an important point to underscore. On the other hand, as there begin to be culture wars around some social issues, this could--may rise to the level of interest if led, perhaps, by some faith leaders. I don't know. So that would be interesting to see, but I do understand and appreciate that it is a very strong lobby.

GORDON: Yeah. Indeed. All right. Well, Callie Crossley, Carlos Watson and George Curry, thanks very much for a spirited roundtable, as always.

Mr. CURRY: Thank you.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Thank you.

Mr. WATSON: Have a good one. Take care.

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

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