Roundtable: Changes at the Pentagon, Thank You Cards

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Friday's topics: The White House rebuilds its image; internal changes made by Donald Rumsfeld to the Pentagon; and the lost art of writing "thank you" cards. Guests: Rochelle Riley, columnist for the Detroit Free Press; Julianne Malveaux, economist and author; and George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service.

TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox.

On today's roundtable, the Bush administration tries a new approach, Donald Rumsfeld makes some internal changes at the Pentagon and, since this is the season of giving, whatever happened to thank-you notes? Joining us today to discuss these topics, from our headquarters in Washington, economist and author Julianne Malveaux, who is president and CEO of Last Word Productions, Inc.

Julianne, nice to talk to you.

Ms. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (Economist and Author): Good to be here.

COX: In sweet home Chicago, we have Laura Washington, columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times.

Laura, nice to see you.

Ms. LAURA WASHINGTON (Chicago Sun-Times): Happy New Year, Ed.

COX: And George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, is in Laurel, Maryland.

George, nice to have you back with us again.

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): Hello, Tony.

COX: Now we have so many topics to hit. We're going to drop right into the Bush changes, as it were. You know, a year ago, the issues were Iraq, of course, the reform of Social Security, the tax code, court-clogging litigation, the president's mantra at the time, `My way or the highway.' Come forward; we still have Iraq, now we've got troop reduction, the Patriot Act, midterm elections, some things with the Supreme Court and a number of scandals hovering around the Republican Party. So, George, they had to have a new strategy, didn't they? And how different is it?

Mr. CURRY: Well, when they were rock bottom, they had--and I think the major change has been Bush, which is very hard for him to do, had to acknowledge some mistakes and, while at the same time pumped about Karl Rove, engage in an active, political-type campaign against his critics. It was a dual track, and Karl Rove may have lost some of his influence because he didn't want him to be contrite at all. He just wanted to go and just attack the critics. And apparently, from the stories we're reading, some of the younger advisers are saying, `Look, you got to show some kind of contrition while at the same time attacking your opponents.'

COX: Julianne, you know, we did have the president address the nation on the 18th of December, but does one speech make for a true shift in policy?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Not at all, but, you know, the humility seems to work. You had both Democrats and Republicans completely outraged by the myopia that this man had operated through, especially around our losses--over, you know, 2,100 in Iraq. And so the contrition really does work for Republicans. It doesn't work for Dems and Dems seem to be stepping up just a little bit in terms of talking about alternatives in Iraq. However, you know, he can put humility--you can sugarcoat you know what, but you can't change it.

COX: Well, that's true.

Ms. MALVEAUX: And at the end of the day, he's still being hard-line on Alito; he is still doing a number of other things. He lost a lot of political capital with Social Security and he's trying to regain some of that. This is a pivotal year for his party, 2006. Every congressional seat up, 33 senatorial seats up, 36 gubernatorial seats up, and so he's got to do something to redeem himself.

COX: Laura Washington, I would think that this is also a critical year for the Democrats. Now put yourself in their shoes for a moment. You're trying to find chinks in the armor and you have been unsuccessful at doing it year after year after year. Is this the year that they might be able to have a real breakthrough?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Yeah, I think that, Tony, the Democrats already have the Bush administration down. As a matter of fact, I think you're going to see this administration not being as expansive as they thought they could be coming in to this second administration because of the wounds they've suffered. They're going to have to take baby steps. In the State of the Union speech next month, you're not going to see him making massive claims or massive proposals like changing Social Security, as he has done in the past. He's going to have to assert small changes, and that's an advantage for the Democrats if they can then respond with a bigger-picture response.

I think another issue here that's sort of been discussed already is that this issue of him owning up to his mistakes and taking some personal responsibility. And while I agree with Julianne that he has seemed a little bit contrite, he hasn't really come--stepped out there and said, `It's'--you know, `The buck stops at my desk. This is my responsibility and I need to own up to it.' And I think the Democrats still have some room to maneuver in sort of pushing him in that direction. Remember, the Republicans are always the ones that talk about taking personal responsibility for social issues in terms of the way government is--functions. And so put your money where your mouth is.

COX: Now you mentioned small changes. That's our topic, too, for today's roundtable. Succession shakeup at the Pentagon--I don't know how significant this is, George Curry, in terms of who is going to succeed whom with regard to Donald Rumsfeld, in the case of, you know, a disaster or an emergency. How big a deal is this?

Mr. CURRY: It's not a big deal if you're looking at what happens if something suddenly happened to the secretary of Defense, because the number-two person goes there. And after that, there have been a whole lot of changes. But what essentially happens is you got political operative, peoples who are top advisers to the secretary now, who are also top advisers to Dick Cheney when he was secretary, now in position above the various secretaries for the various branches. Therefore, they're in a better position to assert political control, and it really focuses in control on the whole apparatus on Donald Rumsfeld. That's the significance of it.

COX: So, Julianne, that this is not too inside baseball, are we looking basically at a shift policywise, and in the event that something were to happen, that the people that would succeed the secretary are on the same team as he is, so to speak?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Well, they may be on the same team he is, but I go back to the early part of the Bush administration when you had Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Rumsfeld and Cheney pretty much at each other's throats. I think that there are elements of replicating that situation here. Rumsfeld, it seems to me, is consolidating power. This is not so much of a policy change as it seems to me to be a yielding to Rumsfeld's--I wouldn't say supremacy, but to his power position. The whole notion that they're shifting focus in terms of our defense when we already know how vulnerable we are, not only internally but externally, seems to be--it is inside baseball at some level, but it's outside baseball in terms of the extent to which every American, whether you're in Des Moines, Iowa, in Honolulu, Hawaii, or in Washington, DC, remains vulnerable.

COX: Let's move on to topic number three: Jack Abramoff. How big--Laura Washington, coming to you first. How big a problem is Jack, and if I've had--if I'm a member of Congress and I'm on the Hill and I've had some dealings with him, even minor dealings, how afraid am I?

Ms. WASHINGTON: I'm terrified. I'm absolutely terrified. And the fascinating thing about this case is that if you read about it and follow all the ins and outs of his very rapid rise to power, it's clear that this was coming for a long time, was clear--and folks that are close to him have even said that they thought he was getting too greedy, that he was pushing too hard. So these folks on Capitol Hill, those who are out there shaking in their boots because they've had dealings with him and may be under investigation, have only themselves to blame. Everybody knows who the tough players are in Washington, just as I know who the tough lobbyists are here. And you know the ones who cross the line, and if you're smart and ethical, you stay out of the way. But I think what happened here was the greed rose above all. This man was throwing a lot of money around, and a lot of folks, inside and outside government, couldn't resist it.

COX: George Curry, let me ask you, who benefits if he cuts a deal before his scheduled trial in Florida next week?

Mr. CURRY: Maybe those very members who are shaking in their boots right now. This is a huge potential scandal. Here's a person here who really knew how to mix money and politics. In fact, I would say he's more powerful than many of the people who are elected to office. He fashioned himself as a godfather, would go along mimicking "The Godfather," you know, just saying--because he's had that strong power. And he has given millions and millions to various campaigns, basically money he got from casinos run by Native American tribes that he...

COX: That's right.

Mr. CURRY: ...blatantly misled and lied about--lied to and lied about. So he had these big sky boxes, all the major sports events that all the congressperson and the senators, you know, frequented. He could bring down half of the Congress, probably.

COX: You know, Julianne--go ahead, go ahead.

Ms. MALVEAUX: You know, there are two scary things about this man, though, for me. One is his willful manipulation of Indian elections. Saginaw, Chippewa election in 2001, the man said, you know, `We're gonna put everything behind this guy because he's a fan of ours.' There is documentation--Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell gave an overview statement on September 29th to the Committee on Indian Affairs in which he outlined some of the things--and these are things that haven't bubbled up into the media. The manipulation of Native American affairs is something that I think we all ought to be paying attention to because of the issues around Native American gambling, about the way that money is distributed, and about the potential for social economic development among tribes that have already been exploited. This man came in and was billing $150,000 a month for two and three hours of work but the manipulation of elections really oversees that.

The other piece of it I think is profoundly dangerous is the comments that we've been getting from some members of Congress that this is just business as usual. Now many have been outraged and, as Laura says, some are shaking in their boots. But there are others who are prepared still to defend the K Street lifestyle of just buy what you want and who you want. So...

COX: You know, that's right to the point that I was gonna bring up, as a matter of fact. The system allowed him to do this. I would--if you disagree, please say so. But the system allows a person like this to operate in this fashion and, although he may go down, I have not read, heard or seen anything that suggests that the system that allowed this is going to be changed in any significant way.

Ms. WASHINGTON: The system is set up for him to manipulate. As Julianne points out, the Indian tribes have been exploited by just about every system that we have put in place since we came to this--since we came and took this country over from them. The way he used charities--you know, he was a big donor, a devout Orthodox Jew, a big donor to the Jewish cause, a big donor to other major Washington-based charities. That was because that put him close to the powerful people, people he could hobnob with and influence, and that is the way things work. That is the reason why many big-name, big-money people get involved in charities, so they can manipulate them.

COX: George...

Ms. MALVEAUX: But you know this Greenberg Traurig firm where he was, that needs to be investigated. I mean, people have been calling for a long time for an investigation of this lobby industry, which is worse than fungus in New Orleans. I mean, it just does not go away. These folks pop up and they basically manipulate their former legislators. You see someone, they lose an election, next thing you know, they're buying their former colleagues--you can pass laws that say you can't take more than $25, which means, OK, you can't go to dinner, but what can you do? And this is the investigation that needs to take place, and, quite frankly, the R's are more vulnerable than the D's are on this, and with that investigation gonna happen at anytime soon.

COX: We're talking about gifts. And let's move to another form. Let's transition into another form of gifts.

Ms. MALVEAUX: That was masterful, Tony. That was very good.

COX: You like that?

Ms. MALVEAUX: I like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: It is the season after all, and people are giving gifts and this came up in the office the other say because someone made a point that they had given a gift to someone and had not received a thank you, a thank-you note, a thank-you call, a `Hey, I got it,' `Hey, thank you; I appreciate it.' This seems to be a problem these days, at least in the circles that I've been traveling in. I'd like to hear from all of you. Is this an issue? Are people--they just don't have manners anymore? What's going on?

Mr. CURRY: I think that's partly true. I think we do see a de-emphasis of manners. Our office is over at the Howard University School of Communication, NNPA News Service, and sometimes when I'm entering or going out, if I'm with a female companion, I'm opening the door, and students look at me--or several have even commented, like, `You're opening the door?' I say, `Yeah.' And I have three sisters and they've--they're all--two of them are married. I said if they were dating somebody, they didn't open the door, they better not come by the house. I mean, these are just basic things that were ingrained in us. We've gotten away from it, and it's basic courtesy and manners.

COX: Well, what about that, Julianne? Have you gotten thank-you notes for your gifts that you gave to people?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Not really, but I do bug people, and I send them. I'm a--you know, I'm a writer. I love the printed word, and I love stationery. So I love sending thank-you notes. It's just a way of expressing yourself to people, but a lot of people don't do it, and this e-mail culture erodes it. I actually sent someone something that was very nice and, you know, a little pricy, and my girl sent me back an e-mail, `Gee, thanks.' I'm, like, `Excuse me? You won't be getting anything from me anytime soon.' I mean, an e-mail. But that--you know, we live in a much more casual society, and so I think that it's on us--you know, you lead by example, and often when I sent a thank-you, people will call me and say, `Gee, I haven't gotten a written note like that in a long time.' And I hope that that motivates them to do that later.

COX: You know, I'm going to make an admission here and--before I come to you, Laura Washington. And I can't believe I'm really admitting that I did not know that you were supposed to send thank-you notes for Christmas gifts. I...

Ms. MALVEAUX: What did you think you were supposed to do?

COX: Well, I call somebody and say, `Thank you,' but, you know, a formal note for a Christmas gift is not something that I ever thought was something you had to do because Christmas was supposed to be about, you know, giving and once a person gave, that was their gift.

Ms. MALVEAUX: You're off my list, Tony. I'm just...

COX: Laura Washington...

Ms. MALVEAUX: Oh, Lord!

COX: ...why don't you...

Ms. WASHINGTON: It's never too late to learn. We can give you a lesson here. Whenever someone does something nice for you, ideally--and I'm not talking about opening the doors. As George says, that's something that's passed by the way. But you should always acknowledge if you go to someone's house for dinner, someone brings you a gift, someone does something nice for you.

COX: Surely.

Ms. WASHINGTON: I think Julianne's point about writing is really important here. We don't know how to write, you know, really write like they used to in the Stone Age anymore. We are all computer literate now so we don't know how to pick out a piece of paper and write longhand. I've done a lot of fund raising over the years. I've served on boards, done fund raising for organizations I've been associated with, and I'm the recipient of a lot of requests, and I always make it a point to write a longhand note on--just not on some cardboard but on a nice piece of stationery--for every occasion. And like Julianne said, it really makes you special. So you get more attention. So if people don't want to be etiquette-savvy, that's fine with me, because it gets me more attention and gets me more appreciation because I do it.

COX: Are black folks any different than anyone else, in your experience, when it comes to this kind of thing--you know, acknowledging and sending gifts, especially at sending thank-yous, especially written notes?

Ms. WASHINGTON: We have more of an oral tradition, and so in that sense I think we're much more likely to just pick up the phone and call. Or we're much more likely to do something in person. But I think that that comes down to--I think black folks have to be as responsive because we have to always do better than everybody else. And I think that comes down to the way we raise our children. I think a lot of children are not being trained or being passed on to do this real simple courtesy.

Ms. MALVEAUX: You know, I was just thinking of the words `home training.' When I was a kid, of course, my mother is like from the total old school, you know, we sat down after Christmas and she gave us the cards, and we had to sit there before we could use the toy and write the thank-you. I'm not sure that--and Harriet Cole has done a great job in our community in talking about how to be and what--you know, just talking about etiquette, but I'm not sure that African-American parents, and I'm especially concerned about middle-class semi-affluent parents, who aren't teaching their kids how to say, `Thanks.' So that I know kids who get 15, 20 toys over the holidays. They forget about them. They don't even sit down and say, `Thank you; it was nice. I used it for this. It was for a school project.'

COX: Right. That's right.

Ms. MALVEAUX: So if black folks aren't doing it, guess what? Black folks need to. Gratitude is just so central to the way we should live our lives and it's just so central to claiming our blessings.

COX: Absolutely. I'm going to end this--in Washington, economist and author Julianne Malveaux, president and CEO of Last Word Productions. We've also been joined by Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist, and George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association.

Let me just say to all of you, thank you. Your notes are in the mail.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Happy New Year.

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

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