Roundtable: Card, Moussaoui, Bible Class

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Topics: White House Chief of Staff Andy Card's resignation; Zacararias Moussaoui's September 11 testimony; and a Georgia plan for high schools to offer a course on the Bible. Guests: John McWhorter, senior fellow in public policy at the Manhattan Institute; University of Pennsylvania history professor Mary Frances Berry; and Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show Freestyle.

ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. On today's roundtable: changes at the White House and making the Bible required reading. Those topics and more coming up. Joining us today: from our NPR headquarters here in Washington, D.C., Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. From our New York bureau, John McWhorter. He's a senior fellow of public policy at the Manhattan Institute. And Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio program Freestyle - it's heard down there in Tennessee - joins us from Spotman productions in Nashville.

I thank all of you for joining us. Mary, let's get right to it. We heard the president a little over a week ago saying that, hey, no change is needed here. We're doing just fine. And now, we see chief of staff Andy Card step away. Before we make too much of it, we should note, particularly in second administrations, second terms, we see all kinds of change. This is nothing that is historically new, but what does this signal?

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (History, University of Pennsylvania): Well, it signals, first of all, that the White House staff people at the highest level are tired, which well you should be if you put in those kinds of hours and days. It also signals that the poll numbers are down. Usually, in a second term, when they start re...retrofitting the staff, the poll numbers aren't looking too good, and you hear from a lot of politicians in the party that something needs to be done to jumpstart things.

Andy Card gave a tireless work over there, and I don't think much will change with Bolten, who had been his deputy, stepping up, but maybe Bolten has a little more energy, and I think Bush is responding to the desire for change and also, probably, Andy Card wanted to leave, but I don't think it's going to change the policy.

GORDON: Jeff Obafemi Carr, is this a way for the president to make a change, perhaps say to the American people, yeah, I hear you. You see, we're starting to make change, but as Mary said, it's not real change in direction and policy.

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI CARR (Host, Freestyle): Yeah, I think it's an attempt to give the illusion that a change is being made, and that goes only so far with the American people now, and I think they see that in many ways the ship is sinking. I heard the minority leader talking about the legacy of George Bush and going from saying that he thought he was the worst president since Millard Filmore to saying that he is the worst president, and I think that a lot of people are weighing the possibility of that being true nowadays, and Bush is doing whatever he can to kind of erase that notion and to preserve whatever small legacy he can in the eyes of the American people.

GORDON: John McWhorter, let me take you to that because I also asked the minority leader yesterday - and I don't believe we used it in the piece on air, but you could probably hear it on our website - whether or not it was simply a case of just not liking the president. It said that they don't particularly care for each other, and of course, he gave the why and that I'd love to go to a ballgame with him, etcetera, etcetera, but the idea of coming out as the minority leader and saying, look, this is the worst guy we've ever had in this seat, those are very, very stinging words. How much do you think that that's real, that at the end of the day when historians look back that Bush will truly be in that bottom rung and possibly vying for the dubious distinction of last place?

Mr. JOHN McWHORTER (Senior Fellow in Public Policy, Manhattan Institute): You know, if you know your presidents, you could not possibly put this one in the very last place, but we have seen some truly profound disappointments, and as I've often said on this show, I was in favor of the war at first. You can call me a good little neo-con, but I think that it has gone a terrible, terrible way in ways that could have been foreseen, and that alone and the danger to us that that's going to create for clearly the next several decades, not to mention all of the often rather recreational and blog-fueled animus that all of this stuff has stirred up, the opportunity it's given for that kind of melodrama really means that I would say, you know, I'm not a professional historian, but bottom ten. It's been a complete catastrophe on so many levels.

Prof. BERRY: Well, I'm a professional historian.

GORDON: I was going to say, Mary, you know I'm coming to you

Prof. BERRY: And so first of all, it'll take awhile for a little historical perspective on it. Although, I think that historians will take into account not only the disaster that the Iraq war has been but everything from Katrina - in a way, it's sort of like everything that the administration touches that is important falls apart, and historians are going to be trying to figure out - I can't wait for the administration to be over and to get into their papers to try to figure out, you know, why in the world is it with these smart people, well-educated people - the president himself is well educated - why is it that almost everything they touch seems to fall apart, and if the judgment of history is that they were just inept, then he will be put down near the bottom. Although, as John McWhorter says, we've had some pretty bad presidents.

GORDON: Well, and we should also note, Mary, as you suggest, you need time to step back and look at it in its perspective, and we also see presidencies go up and down as historians debate.

Prof. BERRY: Yes.

GORDON: The Carter administration is one that I think about quite readily. You know, so many people talked about the ineptness of his inability to, you know, free those hostages and all of what he had to deal with, but then as you looked at it, you know, in hindsight, there were different things that we just didn't no about.

Mr. McWHORTER: You know, an interesting one would be...

Prof. BERRY: Well, actually, Ed, Carter has gone up in estimation.

GORDON: Right, and that's...

Prof. BERRY: Not so much - even though I was in his administration and I love Jimmy Carter - not so much the kinds of decisions that were made, but he has gone up in public estimation, and the importance of perspective is you get some more presidents coming after the one you think is pretty bad, and then you get to examine all of that, so we need time to really determine.

GORDON: All right, let me turn our attention to something else in the news this week, and that is the 9/11 trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, and it was almost surreal, Jeff Obafemi Carr, to take a look or listen to him going on the stand as prosecutors saying, you know, you knew about this. You wanted it to succeed, all of the questions one might assume that you were going to ask, and him saying, that's correct. That's correct. And on the other end, them suggesting that he was a simple liar, so what are you to believe? And at the end of the day, what does this do other than, to some, bring closure to the fact that this man is still alive?

Mr. CARR: Well, I think first and foremost, it's important to say that this man is literally just playing with the American criminal justice system. He's telling stories that are contradictory, claiming that he now signed his confession as the 20th hijacker simply because people were calling him that, and it was a bit of fun. Moussaoui has no respect for the American court system, so you can't believe anything he's saying now. If you're asking my opinion, I believe that he's attempting to speak his way into paradise through martyrdom, through death, and that's just his kind of sort of personal jihad. Remember, if he loses his life in a righteous cause, according to his belief system, he's guaranteed a place in paradise.

GORDON: Yeah. John McWhorter...

Mr. CARR: And he's pushing the prosecution.

GORDON: Let me ask you this because Jeff brings up a point that I was moving toward, and that's the idea of martyrdom, and often, in the West, we don't always look at it in the same way and in terms of the importance that that can be built with members or possible members of al-Qaida, and how this man may in fact rise in importance through this.

Mr. McWHORTER: It's a fascinatingly different way of being human, that you actually wouldn't mind seeing yourself blown to bits or killed in the name of something very abstract - that you would completely submit your individuality to that kind of thing. But with Moussaoui, it's not surprising that he might think that way because from all indications - and I'm not being recreational in saying this - Moussaoui is not wrapped too tight. He's a bit of a nutcase. He seems to have some problems. His comprehension and command of English is rather approximate, so we can only try to put ourselves inside of his head. But clearly, he doesn't have the same relationship to argument and truth that we do, and so what he says always has to be taken with a massive grain of salt.

Prof. BERRY: Well, I - while we don't talk about celestial virgins and paradise, I don't think we should scoff too much at people's religious beliefs because in Christianity, we have a martyrdom as a part of the history of Christianity...

Mr. McWHORTER: Point taken.

Prof. BERRY: And people dying for the cause, so we may not agree about their religious views, but I can understand how someone would feel that that was something that they (unintelligible).

GORDON: But my point, Mary, is that...

Mr. McWHORTER: Mary, Mary, I just want to interject. I wasn't talking about Islam. I mean just people who submit themselves (unintelligible).

GORDON: And my point with that is just in 20th century America, we don't embrace it in the way that it's still embraced in many places across the world.

Prof. BERRY: Right. Absolutely.

GORDON: That being said, Mary, the interesting point here is how he tied all of this into another bungled attempt, if you will, and suggested that he was going to be a partner of what we call the shoe bomber, Richard Reid.

Prof. BERRY: And the shoe bomber, boy, that was really pathetic, wasn't it? His effort. And Richard Reid never gave any testimony that he was, in fact, involved in the White House, on that day, supposed to do anything, so I don't know whether - and Moussaoui did say, too, he's been listening to the radio and that he was listening to the radio when he came up with his first story about the 20th hijacker. So I don't know how much of what he's saying is influenced by what's he's heard since then and how much of anything else, but I do think he is - those who want to give him the death penalty now have a better basis for proceeding to do it.

GORDON: Is this another one of those feel-goods, Mary, the idea that because we don't really have anybody left, that we need to do this? Because again, at the end of the day, if you put this guy to death, what does it do?

Prof. BERRY: Well, you ask yourself, what do we have coming out of 9/11? We don't have Osama bin Laden, he's evaded us. We have to have, you know, something to nail on the wall, and if this guy is now a perpetrator and he's executed, that we can at least say, there, we got somebody. We pinpointed somebody. So it as sort of a feel-good episode, in a way.

GORDON: Jeff, the idea that prosecutors are certainly going to attempt to put this man to death, and the want to, as Mary says, nail something to the wall...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARR: Right.

GORDON: ...to say look what we did, it doesn't make the president's bullhorn speech so hollow anymore about we're going after these people, we're going to track them down, we're going to find them. How much of this will and can be used as a political tool by Republicans, if you believe that those will be the ones in '06 to need that.

Mr. CARR: I think it will be used as a political tool and the politicians use anything they can as a political tool. And this particular case, it will be. I just don't think that he should be allowed to push the prosecution in this way. He's attached himself to Richard Reed. Heck, he even tossed in the ultimate: that he went over, he's a low-level operative at best. He went over to, where else? Afghanistan, and kicked it with, who else? Bin Laden, and in this case, it was the people...

GORDON: It was his dream that brought him out after 9/11.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARR: Right, and bin Laden affirmed his dream by having another dream that the next night, so they could do this together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARR: So I think that the bloodlust in America to have an eye for an eye is being brought into political realm here, and I think sometimes you get two legs for an eye. In this case, I think the greater punishment is to rob this man of martyrdom, and even if his own heaven is being put to death would be inside of his own head.

GORDON: Hey, John, here's what the missing in all of the headlines for this trial. Part of this trial was to really uncover whether or not the CIA and FBI should be on trial for their inability to find out what was going on and whether or not, had Moussaoui talked, could we have stopped 9/11? Much of this is missing in that headline.

Mr. McWHORTER: Yeah, that's very true, and you know what's interesting is that there are some serious questions about 9/11 that I think are much more interesting than whether this crazy, melodramatic person knew something beforehand. And I think that all intelligent people ought to check out some Web sites where you see some serious discrepancies between what we've been told and what seems to have actually happened. And I'm not a crackpot. I don't have any of the nasty, silly conspiracy theories...

Ms. BERRY: Wow!

Mr. McWHORTER: ...but something is really wrong, and I urge all of us to take a look at those things and start dealing with the reality of 9/11, and the possibility that there really was some sort of conspiracy among some people, and I rarely espouse that kind of thinking. But there's some serious holes in what we've been told about what happened that day.

GORDON: All right please, letters to John McWhorter, not to me. All right, let me take us to...

Mr. McWHORTER: I can't wait to...

GORDON: ...let me take us to the Georgia legislature and, Mary Frances Berry, let me go to you first, and as a professor, you know, we hear about the classics, we certainly read them in school. And now the Georgia legislature is suggesting that alongside King Arthur and whatever else you may read, Catcher in the Rye, et cetera, that the Bible should be placed.

Ms. BERRY: Well there's something that, this doesn't pass the smell test. You, first of all, have them talking about learning the New and Old Testament. Now I'm a Baptist, and believe in separation of church and state, and believe in the Bible and all that. But it's obvious that this is a protestant effort, and it's obvious that it is designed to sort of backdoor into this school system, religion. I think what you ought to do is either teach everybody's religion, teach the Koran, teach anybody's religion. Teach the Torah, and not talk about the Old and New Testament, or we should not teach it at all.

And we will have big discussions because if they're going to teach the Bible, I, as a Baptist, would want them to teach it from a Baptist perspective. And I'll be very irritated if kids come home and start talking about something that doesn't fit. So I think they think they're doing something to respond to a fundamentalist constituency, but what they're really doing is further eroding separation of church and state and creating a whole can of worms and problems.

GORDON: Jeff, here's the interesting point. To me, it seems that year after year after year after year, the line becomes blurred between the separation of church and state, and we are really starting to see the movement, not only on the educational front, but the political front, to make sure that these lines are erased.

Mr. CARR: Yeah, well, people in religious groups are putting pressure on politicians. And let me say this, as a minister, first and foremost, it's going to get me in trouble with some people. Many Christians these days are lazy. And I say that because it's evidenced by the fact that 80 percent of us who identify ourselves as such, haven't read the Bible even all the way through. We got the biggest churches in the world, and a day set aside for Sunday School, as well as the wonderful homes that many claim to have where parents can instruct their children in the ways of religion, and not depend upon the state to do it.

I don't think Georgia is on the right track here. This isn't an attempt to infuse religion, in this case the religion of the protestant Bible into the school system. And if we talk about the historical elements, there's just as many profound literary and historical antecedents in say, the Egyptian book Coming Forth By Day as there are in the Bible. So I think that unless you start teaching all of them, from the Coming Forth By Day to the Odu of Ifa do to Bhagavad Gita, you should just leave them all out, and let people do that kind of thing at home.

GORDON: John, I'm almost scared, go ahead.

(Soundbite of laugher)

GORDON: Your turn.

Mr. McWHORTER: I actually, I agree completely. I think that to teach anti-empiricism, to teach children anything that even implies that at a certain point you just have to give up thinking logically and assume that there's something larger and unquestionable, has no place in anything that you call school. And clearly, that's what Georgia, who has had certain problems with the idea of Darwin being taught with a straight face...

GORDON: Mm hmmm.

Mr. McWHORTER: ...is trying to do, and it would be a poor example. It's benighted. It reminds me of Moussaoui, frankly.

GORDON: Mary, let me raise this. We talk about states' rights; we talk about the ability to really kind of govern your sector, if you will. If I say to you, look, I'm in the Bible belt, this is what most of the folks down here believe, this is what we need to teach in school, what do you say?

Ms. BERRY: I say that the Constitution was established and the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights, so that the rights of minorities, and I don't mean colored people, people who are in the minority, can be protected against majorities who may have irrational ideas that would be oppressive. And that this is a clear example of one of those cases where the "majority" wants to do something that would oppress other people, and violate the First Amendment; and, therefore, states' rights must give way to that. That would be my answer.

GORDON: All right, well that's why I came to you. 'Cause I needed...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: Mary Frances Berry, John McWhorter, and Jeff Obafemi Carr, I thank you all, greatly appreciated.

Mr. CARR: Good to hear you, Ed.

Ms. BERRY: Thank you, Ed.

Mr. McWHORTER: Thank you.

END 5306366

GORDON: Next up on NEWS AND NOTES, whether she's called Mariah or Mimi, she's one of the biggest selling artists of all time. Mariah Carey talks about believing in herself, life in the public eye, and conquering the charts.

(Soundbite of Shake it Off)

Ms. MARIAH CAREY (Singer): (singing) ...all the love I give. Boy I gotta shake you off, gotta do what's best for me. Baby and that means I gotta shake you off. By the time you get this message it's gonna be too late, so don't bother paging me 'cause I'll be on my way. See, I grabbed all my diamonds and clothes. Just ask your momma she knows.

You're gonna miss me, baby, hate to say I told you so. Well, at first I didn't know, but now it's clear to me, you would cheat with all your freaks and lie compulsively. So I packed up my Louis Vuitton, jumped in your ride and took off. You'll never ever find a girl who loves you more than me...

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

(Soundbite of radio ad)

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. Next time on NEWS AND NOTES, African-American leaders are gathering from across the country to talk about issues in the black community Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alfonso Jackson joins us for a preview. That's next time on NEWS AND NOTES from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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