Roundtable: Dean on Iraq, Katrina Testimony

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Topics include National Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean's comments against the war in Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina victims testify in Congress about their treatment by aid and rescue workers. Guests: George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; Mary Frances Berry, history professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.

ED GORDON, host:

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

On today's Roundtable, Hurricane Katrina victims tell Congress about their harsh treatment in the storm's aftermath. We'll also talk about that shooting of an unarmed passenger on a flight in Miami by air marshal. Joining us today for a look at what's happening in the news, from our New York bureau, Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. Joining us from our Washington, DC, headquarters is Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service. He joins us today from Maryland.

Mary, I'm not sure whether or not you had an opportunity to hear the discussion in...

Dr. MARY FRANCES BERRY (University of Pennsylvania): Oh, I heard it. I heard it, Ed.

GORDON: ...segment A, but I couldn't let it go without getting to you, because obviously you were a grand part of this organization, this division, for years. Talk to me very briefly, if you would, about what you just heard.

Dr. BERRY: Well, basically, the Civil Rights Commission, when I was chair, did a report on Bush and his record, which is one reason why he, you know, got rid of all of us, but--and we also had reports on earlier administrations. But basically what has happened is the same thing that other Republican administrations have done. It's very interesting. Whenever--since the Republican Party shifted to the right--they didn't used to do that. Reagan--when he came in, they tried to transform the Justice Department. Some people may remember a guy named Brad Reynolds, who was the assistant attorney general from Civil Rights and was very public about that. A lot of career lawyers left for the same reasons that these lawyers left and went into public interest law firms where they did great work, and some of them are still there, thank goodness--and the same thing.

So the effort is to oust the career lawyers because they're in the way--find a way to get rid of them--and put people in who will implement their policies. Democrats don't do that for some reason when they come into office. They leave the career people alone and they have some trouble 'cause some of them are burrowed-in people, we call it here in Washington, that the Republicans have foisted it upon them, and they put political people in.

But I must point this out to you: All over the government, this is happening; not just in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. You know, whether you go to EOC or OFCCP, all these agencies around government that enforce various parts of the civil rights laws and in every department, efforts are--and at the Civil Rights Commission--to get rid of career people, either say they don't have budgets or whatever reason or give them assignments they don't--can't do or are incapable of doing or aren't interesting to them and to put new people in to redirect civil rights. In this case, it's worse because the impact in the Texas redistricting case means a shift of power in the country in the Congress, in the House of Representatives. This was real substantive stuff we're talking about here. We're not just talking about somebody's complaint.

And finally, I'll point out, Yeomans is correct about cases not being filed, but people shouldn't go away thinking there weren't any cases. There's a huge backlog of people complaining who have nothing done about their civil rights.

GORDON: Right, just what cases are decided to be taken up...

Dr. BERRY: Right.

GORDON: the division. All right. Let's turn our attention to the headlines. Thank you for that, Mary. Appreciate it.

One of the things we want to talk about is the United States Congress is listening and hearing from hurricane victims of Katrina, and these are--and the fear immediately following Katrina is that we were going, to after the immediate swell of responsibility felt by many in terms of helping--that months later we would see this wane. There are many, many evacuees still reeling from those days and displacement, obviously, losing everything.

George Curry, what we've heard from many of them this week is that not only do they still feel abandoned, but they talked about the abandonment of the government during the rescue efforts, some suggesting that racial slurs were used against them, that they were left abandoned in scorching heat, etc., etc. And many are suggesting it simply hasn't gotten better.

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor in Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): And worse than that is--even on top of it, some of them, I thought, were abused by a member of Congress when they were in these hearings, basically trying to tell these people they didn't see what they saw, they didn't feel what they felt, and then basically trying to really steer the conversation away from race. And--but I was really proud of the sisters who were there who really stood up to them, but I thought they were abused there as well.

GORDON: Yeah. We should note, in just an example there, one of the community activists who was asked to speak was talking about how they were treated, and she suggested that the conditions were like a concentration camp. One of the senators--Representative Jeff Miller of Florida, a Republican, asked her to stop using that comparison. She went on to say, `Look, you know, if I put a dress on a pig, a pig is still a pig, and I'm going to call it what I believe.' He countered by saying not a single person was marched to a gas chamber and killed. Michael, when you hear that back-and-forth, while the woman may have offended the sensibilities of this particular Republican, one has to look for a bit of restraint, one would believe, and allow for this kind of language, don't you think?

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition): No. I must tell you I regarded her comments as really over the top. I believe that we had a moment in American history when people saw neglect. It was on your TV; they saw abandonment. It's clear enough. But why take a national sense of outrage about the governmental lapses in New Orleans and in Mississippi, but particularly New Orleans, and then turn it into racial rhetoric? Concentration camp charge--accusations, that we intentional bombed levees--this is over-the-top commentary. It was not credible. It was racial rhetoric that sounded to me like racial idiocy. It was like Farrakhanism. `All the levees in New Orleans in the black areas were intentionally bombed.' There is no evidence for that. So yeah, it was over the top. It was not just the people in Congress who interrupted. I interrupted in my own mind, saying, `You know, you're nuts. This is not credible.'

GORDON: All right. We should note that...

Dr. BERRY: Well, I don't think...

Mr. MEYERS: You tell me that there may have been racial slurs...

GORDON: Hang on, Mary. I know that you want to get in...

Mr. MEYERS: ...but I didn't believe that either.

GORDON: ...but we should note. Hang on. we should note that one of the other people to speak suggested that she heard two loud booms go on right before floodwaters overwhelmed her neighborhood, in her words. Go ahead, man.

Mr. MEYERS: But did we also not see bravery and courage and guts on part of the rescue efforts, particularly the Coast Guard? And they were picking people up who were mostly black and poor and trying to help people. Now there may have been one or two racial slurs. I don't know; I wasn't there, but I must tell you, the testimony was not credible.

GORDON: All right. Mary?

Dr. BERRY: Well, the testimony--I thought the testimony--some of the rhetoric was excessive, and I wouldn't compare it to the Holocaust. I think those are--one shouldn't do that. But I can understand how those people were so upset because they have suffered so much, and they're still suffering. And I also think that anyone who compares the response to hurricanes in Florida over the last few years, even Andrew, when the first Bush had some problems, with the response to Katrina has to see and look at what FEMA did and didn't do and what all the people--has to wonder why did this happen? There was a disparity in treatment. Bush himself--the second Bush, the one who's in office now--said that there were issues of race involved here. So I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

What I am more concerned about is the fact that at this hour, we still haven't done anything...

Mr. MEYERS: That's right.

Dr. BERRY: alleviate the suffering and the harm that these people have felt.

Mr. MEYERS: ...(Unintelligible)

Dr. BERRY: So I can understand conspiracy theories and all kinds of rhetoric coming from people who are suffering and no one is doing anything about it, and they're sitting there and they're hoping and they're doing the best they can to put their lives back together. So what we need to do is to do something, urge people to do something. Congress still hasn't appropriated the money yet. People still can't get their SBA loans. I was talking to a woman who has businesses there, three of them, and it didn't even flood in her area, but she can't get the lights turned back on, so she's not making any money, and she's going out of business. There are all kinds of horrible things that--I've been down there, and...

Mr. MEYERS: Yeah, but the...

Dr. BERRY: ...I'm going back--that are going on there.

Mr. MEYERS: But the face and the voice of outrage and of despair and of deprivation and suffering need not be hysterical. It may be rational, and there are plenty of people in New Orleans, black people, who are rational, who are capable of rational thought and who can express anger and frustration rationally. I think this was racial rhetoric that was over the top and it should be rejected as such.

Mr. CURRY: One point I agree with Michael on. He doesn't know what happened; he wasn't there. I agree with him on that point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CURRY: You know, it's some nerve of us to tell...

Mr. MEYERS: America was there. It's the TV.

Mr. CURRY: Hold on, Michael. Hold on, Michael. I didn't interrupt you. Let me finish. You've got some nerve to sit down and tell people how they should respond. We weren't there. They were direct victims, and if they use language over the top, then so be it. They are telling you how they feel, and Michael Meyers and nobody else has the right to try to censor how they express that.

Mr. MEYERS: I didn't say I should censor them. I disagree with them, and think the use of `concentration camp'...

Mr. CURRY: No, you'd rather have somebody else say it...

Mr. MEYERS: ...was wrong; it was racial rhetoric. There's no evidence that the levees were intentionally bombed. It's just racial rhetoric. It's Farrakhanism.

Dr. BERRY: How do you know that...

Mr. CURRY: I don't know why...

Dr. BERRY: How do you know they didn't hear any booms, though, Michael?

Mr. MEYERS: I didn't say they didn't hear any booms, but the booms could have been something else.

Dr. BERRY: Right.

Mr. MEYERS: They didn't have--there's no evidence of intentional bombing of the levees. Do you have any such evidence? No.

Dr. BERRY: She said she heard booms.

Mr. MEYERS: Oh, yeah, but... (laughs)

GORDON: All right.

Mr. CURRY: I think also we shouldn't concentrate just on that part of it. Let's go back to the larger thing here, when the people were not adequately responded to and, as Dr. Berry mentioned earlier, we're still not doing anything.

GORDON: Right. Because we should...

Mr. CURRY: There are some political angles to this that ...(unintelligible)

GORDON: Yeah. We should note, George Curry, that these were two people who were pulled out by the media and they played to this, but there were many more people who spoke to Congress that day and continued, perhaps in Michael Meyers' suggestion, in a more rational way, if you want to buy that language, in explaining that...

Mr. MEYERS: What...

Mr. CURRY: ...(Unintelligible) better language.

GORDON: ...the government did not, in fact, meet their needs on that day.

Let's turn our attention now to Democrats who, it is said now, are splitting themselves over how to deal with the anti-war speak, if you will, coming from their party, particularly the comments that we heard from Howard Dean this week with his suggestion that the idea--this is a quote--that "the idea that we're going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong." There is now concern from some Democratic corners, Mary Frances Berry, that this anti-war talk--the strength of it, the zeal of it--may indeed backfire on many of these Democrats as congressional elections roll around.

Dr. BERRY: Well, one of the things that truly amazes me is how the Democratic leadership at the congressional caucus and all of the Democratic leaders are always telling the press about divisions in their party. You could see all the quotes there from different Democrats saying, `Yes, there are divisions,' while Republicans don't do that. They don't seem to un--they think that they have to give--spill their guts to the media about strategy and about everything else. But in any case, I repeat what I said, that we will be getting out of Iraq starting next year on some kind of timetable with various victories declared as we go along before the 2006 election, not all the way out but part of the way out.

The Democratic Party's problem is, if when we start to do that, then what will the Democratic Party say? There is a lot of time between now and November 2006. I think it is correct to do what--I support what Pelosi did in supporting John Murtha, and in also saying that came out of a caucus meeting, I think, yesterday, that people are--it's up to everybody to take their own position and that no one is saying get out immediately. But the real thing that they have to come up with, what are they going to say as troops are gradually taken out? What is their plan? The problem is the Democratic Party does not have a plan...

Mr. MEYERS: Yeah.

Dr. BERRY: lay alongside these big words that Bush has behind him: Plan, plan, plan. And that's where the issue is, and they should stop spilling their guts all over the place, too.

Mr. MEYERS: I think it's interesting that so many Democrats are beating a quick path away from what might call the clarity of their so-called leader, Howard Dean. They're actually seeing that Howard Dean does not speak for Democrats. Look, so many of these Democrats are so disingenuous, craven, feckless, pusillanimous, wishy-washy, criminally weak sisters.

Dr. BERRY: Wow.

Mr. MEYERS: I mean, there ought to be a law against this kind of double talk.

Dr. BERRY: Shouldn't there be weak brothers?

Mr. MEYERS: There ought to a law against this kind of duplicity and whether or not we should use the word `withdrawal' vs. `redeployment.' We can't use the word `immediate withdrawal.' There ought to be a law against this, and there ought to be a law against congresspeople passing laws they don't read, like the USA Patriot Act. But if they did have such a law, more than half the Congress would be indicted. This is just kind of double-talking politicians that people get jaded about and cynical about, and it's just time for clarity and it's time that people said, `Look, let's get out of Iraq. We were gotten there under false pretenses. We want to withdraw the troops as soon as possible. The timetable will be within six months of an orderly transition, and then the Iraqis will take over their own country, period.'

Mr. CURRY: But, George Curry, those are the whispers...

Mr. MEYERS: That's the plan.

GORDON: ...from some corners of the Democratic Party that suggest we can't say that because it will be seen in an election year as unpatriotic if we take that hard line.

Mr. MEYERS: Or vice versa. Where's the leadership?

Mr. CURRY: You talking to me, or you talking to him?

GORDON: George Curry?

Mr. CURRY: OK. ...(Unintelligible)

Mr. MEYERS: Give people a reason to go to the polls.

Mr. CURRY: Michael, put your thesaurus away and let me finish talking.

Mr. MEYERS: (Laughs)

Mr. CURRY: I'll start there. Look, the Democrats get criticized for not taking a stand. And so some of them are finally taking a stand on this war that comports with the feelings of the American public. I think they should be applauded for finally--even though they're sending mixed signals--should be applauded for finally taking a stand, even though some of them are not going to even maintain it for the rest of the time. They got to go beyond this and also talk to the American people in terms of how this hurts Americans. They've really got to make the bread-and-butter issues and really connect on that basis. Otherwise--just saying, `I'll take your position on war,' say how this has hurt America and what you plan to do about it. That's the only way they can be effective.

Mr. MEYERS: All right.

GORDON: That's it, Michael?

Mr. MEYERS: Are we going to talk about air marshals?

GORDON: All right. OK.

Dr. BERRY: Michael, put away his thesaurus.

Mr. MEYERS: (laughs)

GORDON: Mary, last question, if you will, and that's the idea that if we don't see a more unified front from Democrats as we march into the election, are we going to see what we've seen over the course of the last couple of elections and that is a splintered party that does not give voters a reason, as Michael Meyers said, to go to the polls?

Dr. BERRY: Well, it depends on which voters you're talking about. We're talking about congressional elections in 2006, and these are going to be fought district by district, and I hope the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee with Rahm Emanuel is figuring out in which districts how to position people and who should be running and what the sentiment is in that particular district because it's changing all over the country. The polls seem to show that there is great comfort among the American people with the idea that the thing isn't working and that we ought to have some kind of plan to do something, which includes a withdrawal on some basis. So that's--I think the party will work it out in the next month or so and will come out with, to the extent possible, a united face. But a majority of people who are Democrats who are in the Democratic Party, from what I see in polls...


Dr. BERRY: ...are in favor of some kind of withdrawal strategy.

Mr. MEYERS: Why don't they ask to look at John Kerry's plan? Didn't he have a plan when he ran for president? Somebody ought to have a plan. Let's look at it. Let's read it. You want to take away my thesaurus. Let's see what John Kerry has to say.

Dr. BERRY: They're reading plans.

Mr. MEYERS: These Democrats are just pusillanimous.

Dr. BERRY: No, they're working on it, and I'm sure that they will come up with--but I...

GORDON: All right.

Dr. BERRY: The trick, though, Ed--I've got to say quickly...

GORDON: Real quickly, Mary. Real quickly.

Dr. BERRY: to make sure that you worry about what happens again...


Dr. BERRY: ...when Bush starts withdrawing troops. Then what are they going to say?

GORDON: All right. All right. We'll see.

Michael, George and Mary, thank you so much.

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