Roundtable: Rice, Rumsfeld in Iraq, 'United 93'

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Topics: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld make a surprise trip to Baghdad; a new press secretary at the White House; and the new 9-11 movie United 93. Guests: economist and author Julianne Malveaux, Walter Fields, CEO and Publisher of the NorthStarNetwork; and Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University.

ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. On today's roundtable, the president's new press secretary; and is this the end of FEMA?

Joining us today from our New York bureau, Walter Fields, he's CEO and Publisher of the NorthStarNetwork.com; and Pedro Noguera, he's a professor of education at New York University. Also with us, economist and author Julianne Malveaux. She's president and CEO of Last Word Productions, and she joins us from our NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

All right, folks. A lot of people talking about the new press secretary that the president has tapped, and that's conservative commentator, Tony Snow. Many people familiar with Mr. Snow from FOX News, and FOX radio. Here's an interesting point, Walter. Here is a person who has been fairly critical of this president over the course of the last couple of years, in particular, but still brought on board. And it's an interesting link to see. FOX has always tried to distance itself from the far right and the White House, but politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows.

Mr. WALTER FIELDS (CEO and Publisher, NorthStarNetwork.com): Well, I think the latter point is a more interesting point, that you have a talking head who was part of an obviously conservative television network, who now becomes the spokesperson for the president of the United States. And it shows how closely aligned this White House has been with conservative media folks. And I think part of what we're witnessing now, is sort of the blending of media and politics in a way that we haven't seen before. I mean, I was shocked that Tony Snow came into the White House after being somewhat critical, but you know, then again, you can't be shocked because clearly the FOX news channel has really played as, you know, a major supporter of this presidential administration.

GORDON: Here's the interesting point though, Julianne. He's a former speech writer for the president's father. And Snow, again though, being critical--here's what he had to say about the president at one point: that the president was, something of an embarrassment; a leader who's lost control of the federal budget; had listless domestic policy; et cetera, et cetera. So it is an interesting position here.

Ms. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (President and CEO, Last Word Productions): It's interesting, but I'm not shocked at all. I mean, this is consistent. Tony Snow has attempted to influence public policy throughout his career, as you say, as a speech writer for big Bush, as opposed to shrub. As a columnist for many years with USA Today, Detroit News--in fact at some point, FOX News demanded that he give up his column because, theoretically they are so fair and balanced, that you know, he could not express his conservative positions, you know, in a column that could be basically annotated.

So he demanded, from all reports, a seat at the policy table. So he's got to be more than just your basic press secretary who's spinning to the media. He's also going to be the press secretary who's sitting at the table and making his opinions felt. I don't think that he would give us his, you know, several hundred thousand dollar income, for $161,000 if he didn't feel that he was going to have a different kind of impact. So I say that this is something to watch. I think that in terms of matters of race, that in terms of matters of domestic public policy, we need to go back and look at those Snow columns and figure out, or understand again, who he is because he is now going to be sitting at the table in the way that you haven't seen press secretaries, like Dee Dee Myers, sit there before.

GORDON: Let's do that now. Pedro, here is something from a column October 6th, 2003, by Tony Snow. This coming out of the flap that Rush Limbaugh found himself in after criticizing Donovan McNabb and saying that he is given a pass because he's a black quarterback. Tony Snow went on to say, Here's the unmentionable secret. Racism isn't that big of a deal anymore. No sensible person supports it. Nobody of importance preaches it. It's rapidly becoming an ugly memory.

Does it matter if you're the mouthpiece of the White House that you say things like this?

Professor PEDRO NOGUERA (Professor of Education, New York University): Well, I think what this really represents to me is Bush's--the Bush administration's willingness to only appeal to a very narrow conservative base. They're basically conceding the broad middle of the country, in this kind of a selection, because this type of an individual won't have an appeal to the broad public. And I think that reflects the kind of defensive posture that the administration is now in. This person's views on race and other matters, clearly appeal just to a very narrow segment of the right in this country, and I think that says a lot about where this administration is right now.

GORDON: All right. There's something that happened this week that also says a lot about where this administration is right now, and that is that we saw Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld have a surprise--pay a surprise visit to Baghdad. Julianne, when you take a look at this--many people shocked, quite frankly, that both--you don't often see two heavyweights going at the same time on these surprise visits. What is this saying, in your mind?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Well, I think the Bush administration is trying to shore up Rumsfeld. As we know, many generals--retired generals--have called for his resignation. He clearly is a polarizing factor. On the other hand, Condoleezza Rice seems to be, at least somewhat universally beloved. And therefore, to have the two of them together, sort of gives, again, the administration the imprimatur. I think the other thing that's happening here clearly, in terms of Iraq, is that, while you see the opposition to our involvement there rising, while you see people asking for an exit plan, this very stubborn president is asserting, you know, we're there. We're there to stay, and sending two of his key people there, really does make that point. I think the challenge, of course, is that Rumsfeld is putrid, that he does not move any kind of an agenda, and that Rice's legacy, if she will have one, is going to be polluted by this appearance with him.

GORDON: Here's what's interesting to me, Pedro, about all of this. This came in the same week that we got a new video from Mr. al-Zarqawi, suggesting and condemning that the Baghdad leadership are simply puppets of the United States occupiers, and bowing to lead the minority Sunni insurgence to victory in new offenses, is what he said, essentially in that. The juxtaposition of the two is very interesting.

Professor NOGUERA: No, it is. And the fact that you need two high-level secretaries from the administration to come in to prop up that regime, I think, says a lot about the weakness of the new government coming in. The real challenge facing the Bush administration now in Iraq is, can they create or help to create a government that's going to credibility with the Iraqi people? If they can't do that, there's now way they're going to be able to pull out those troops any time soon. And they're also faced with the quandary now of, if they pull out too soon, what will they leave in its wake? Zarqawi was very clear that he regards their pull-out as a victory for the resistance. And so, they are between a rock and a hard place, for sure.

GORDON: Walter, the idea of between a rock and the hard place, and Pedro mentions it, is the idea of actually building a solidified government that will be able to sustain itself through the early rough portions--not just from insurgents and critics, but just the idea of any new government is going to have problems. One has to believe it's going to be very hard for the United States, in any real numbers, to pull people out without looking like cutting and running.

Mr. FIELDS: Hard isn't the word. Iraq is truly a disaster, and what the Bush administration is up against now is a political calendar. I think a lot of what you're seeing right now is repositioning. They're looking at those poll numbers. They know that the Republican Party could be slaughtered in House elections this fall because of the rising opposition to our involvement in Iraq. And now you have Republicans on Capitol Hill, who are openly questioning the administration, to go along with ex-generals who are questioning Donald Rumsfeld.

This administration sold the country on a bill of goods on Iraq, and now that bill has come due, and they can't pay it. So now we're in a situation where we have a war that's out of control. We have a country that doesn't believe anything that this president says on Iraq. And no matter how many times you send high-level officials over to that country, the fact remains is that what we have right now is open civil war in a country with no sign of improvement anytime in the near future.

GORDON: All right. Let's look at a Senate inquiry that came about this week, looking into the situation in New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast region, and Hurricane Katrina, and the like. The conclusion that came out of a bipartisan 86 recommendation is this, and this is what made the headlines: that FEMA requires more than a shakeup, that it should essentially be dismantled. Their suggestion is that the United States is still woefully unprepared for a storm of Katrina's scope. Julianne Malveaux, is this political posturing, or is this the Senate really making hay with the idea that this needs to be changed?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Well, it's a combination of the two. I mean, surprise, surprise, we still have people who have not been relocated. We still have people who are in shelters. We still have people who haven't--you know, the Lower Ninth has still not been dealt with. People don't know whether they can build again or not, and so, you know, to indict FEMA certainly is not surprising. To come call up for a new agency is sort of like some bureaucratic piling on. So now we want, what, a national preparedness and response authority, which is going to be different from FEMA how? I mean are the same people going to run it? You know, even poor Michael Brown has raised questions about that. So you've got a combination. We have dropped the ball.

We have dropped the ball. We've been really clear. And it's a month before the new hurricane starts. And that's the tragedy, is that you have people who have not been settled from the last hurricane, from Katrina, and let's not forget Rita. And then you have these folks running around--it's taken them almost a year. It's taken them nine months to do this so-called inquiry to come to these 86 recommendations which don't change the material conditions of the people who've been effected.

GORDON: Isn't that essentially, Walter, the problem, when you look at the monster that is federal bureaucracy? That you can't really move quickly to do anything? And that more importantly, as Julianne suggests, that most of the time when we see these recommendations it's just a slight tweak; a change. Many times, if nothing else, just a change in name, and not direction, and not true movement.

Mr. FIELDS: Well I agree with the sentiment that we don't need another bureaucracy. But what I think, what we're looking at is not just an issue of the federal government. I think we have a problem with federalism. You know, we haven't decided what level of government is responsible for what, here. We have so much overlay between local, county, state, and federal--that it's just a gumbo. And what we don't have is a clear definition of who is responsible in a time of a disaster, that reaches beyond the ability of local governments to react to.

And that's what we saw in New Orleans. We had local government overwhelmed. We had a state overwhelmed. And we had no preparedness at the federal level whatsoever, for a storm of that magnitude. So before you create another federal agency, I think we've got to have a real discussion about responsibilities, and what each level of government can adequately do in times of an emergency such as Katrina.

Ms. MALVEAUX: You know, Ed, I know you--let me just interject one quick thing. The levee situation-while they're doing all this stuff--the fact is that the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency, is responsible for the levees. Now they've come in and said, yeah, we'll do two billion dollars for levees. But the state of Louisiana has to come up with 25 percent; which is absurd. The reason why you had the flooding in New Orleans is because the federal government failed to maintain the levees.

GORDON: Yeah. Pedro, here's a real sin and shame, and we talked about it earlier in the week, the levee system. One can only pray that we will not see the kind of storm that we saw with Katrina and the couple that followed during this storm season, or we're going to see a huge problem in New Orleans.

Professor NOGUERA: Well I'm a man of faith too, but I think relying on prayer is probably not good enough here. Given--the expectation is that we'll have more hurricanes this year than last year, probably in areas that we are completely unprepared for. We have a weak levy system in California, in Sacramento River Valley, and we've got the potential of a major earthquake in northern California.

So there are many pending crisis looming in the horizon, and the fact that the federal government can't even appoint a permanent director of FEMA, whether it's FEMA or some new agency, really speaks to the misleadership in Washington.

Bush has been seen, on a number of occasions, as being a poor responder to crisis, and I think we all have reason to be very concerned.

GORDON: Okay, let me get to this very, very quickly. We only have a couple of minutes left. And that is, opening tomorrow, United Flight 93--United 93 becomes a movie. It's a reenactment of all the things that went on, on that plane before it crashed to the ground. People are really split on this movie, whether or not they believe America is ready to see that yet, or whether the wounds are still too fresh. Julianne Malveaux, your thoughts?

Ms. MALVEAUX: And whether the depiction is accurate. I mean, we have some people who've called their relatives and so their reactions were recorded, we have other people who were silent. I mean, there's a commercialism in everything, but I think this is too much too soon, and quite frankly, too commercial.

GORDON: You know, it's interesting, Walter Fields, that's one of the questions that I had here. The idea that we really don't know what went on, on that plane. There were a number of calls to relatives and you can kind of piecemeal a story out of that, but, this really is--no matter how painstaking the director takes time to try to approximate what happened and make it as real as possible--just that conjecture in what went on, on that plane.

Mr. FIELDS: You know, well, not having seen the film, of course, I can't comment on the content. But I will say I don't think it's too soon. I mean, I think part of what this country has to do is to be able to let the world know that it is going to go forward. And I think part of the healing process is talking about the most painful experiences. So I don't think it's too soon to do a movie or a documentary about September 11th.

It's been five years, and part of the democratic process has to be showing the world that even in your times of weakness, that you're strong enough to even talk about those incidents and move forward. So, you know, I'm actually going to go see the film, because I think that there might be some merit in watching this movie; and once again, being able to understand the magnitude of that day.

GORDON: And Pedro, we've always, here in the United States, taken incidents, true to life and sometimes just made up, and made a heroic venture out of it, having a little poetic license. One would believe that that would be accepted here, to some degree.

Professor NOGUERA: I think that's a problem. I think it's a problem to create a drama that's going to then become seen as what actually happened when we haven't had a full investigation. I mean, we had the 9-11 commission, but there are a number of questions that haven't been answered, that the American public does not know the answer to.

Why was it that the federal government took so long to respond after the first plane hit the World Trade Center? There are so many other questions, and it would have been great if Oliver Stone had invested his energy into creating a thorough documentary of these events, rather than a sensationalized film.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Yea!

GORDON: Walter Fields, Pedro Noguera, and Julianne Malveaux, thank you so much. Greatly appreciate it.

ALL: Thank you.

GORDON: Next up on NEWS AND NOTES, we'll have a recap of the New Orleans mayoral race and our weekly installment of political corner. And, Rosie Perez tries her hand at directing, in a new film about Puerto Rican identity.

(Soundbite of music)

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