Roundtable: Rice Compares Iraq to U.S. Civil War

On today's roundtable: President Bush says detainees will be moved from secret prisons to Guantanamo Bay; and Condoleezza Rice compares the war in Iraq to the American civil war. Guests: Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University; Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; and Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NPR News. I'm Ed Gordon. On today's Roundtable, President Bush says secret prisons, yes, torture, no. And Condoleezza Rice compares the war in Iraq to the American Civil War.

Joining me today from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. is Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post. Also here, Mary Frances Berry, professor of history from the University of Pennsylvania. And finally, Nat Irvin joins us. He's a professor of future studies and Wake Forest University. And he is joining us from member station WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I welcome you all.

Interesting week for the White House, Joe Davidson. On the plus side, I guess this whole leak about the CIA was pushed away from the White House it seems. But we did see the president go out and talk about a problem, and that is again this question of how far you can go with the war against terror, an admission of, quote, secret CIA prisons. Now his suggestion is we're moving all of those people who were held to Guantanamo Bay and they will in fact receive justice and a just trial.

But he also interestingly enough moved much of that reasoning to Congress by means of suggesting that they weren't on top of things.

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, The Washington Post): You know, I think that this is - it's clearly an effort by the president to kind of shape the debate. And the Republican Party, and I think this particular White House, is very, very good at that. I don't know that they're going to be able to shape the debate enough, however, to win this particular political battle.

Because there are Democrats and some Republicans, including some very influential Republicans on the Hill, who are not happy with the president's proposals. He's clearly done an about face compared to where he had been and the administration had been.

Nonetheless, his proposals for tribunals, which would allow people to be tried and convicted with secret evidence, rubs a lot of people on both sides of the aisle the wrong way. And I think that despite his really grandiose effort - the speech he gave at the White House the other day - you know, very powerful, but probably not convincing. Not convincing certainly for the Democrats as well as a significant number of Republicans.

GORDON: Mary, it's interesting because we've been talking about for almost a year now this White House reeling, not being able to find terra firma and get their feet firmly planted. Whether you like what they're saying or not, they don't seem to be as reeling as they were some months ago.

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania): No. I mean I think that Bush is moving his strong suit. I mean what else was he going to do? I mean it's terror, terror, all day long until the election. I think he, you know, he created a lot of problems for the Europeans in disclosing and admitting that there were these prisons. I guess that doesn't bother him.

And also this was not so much about the prisons, it was about seeing the faces of the people who are there so we would scared and then talking about Osama bin Laden again, who has emerged. I've been wondering all this time whatever happened to him and whether we're going to get him. But now I guess we are going to get him.

But this is all about scaring the heck about everybody, making people forget about Iraq or think it's part of this and then hoping he can scare us right on to the election. But what else does he have? I mean this is the only thing. His poll numbers, according to some polls, are still going down despite these speeches that he's just given.

So I can understand why he's doing it. Whether it works or not depends on how strong the memories are of the American people.

GORDON: Nat, the continuing cry for the head of Donald Rumsfeld we're hearing from both sides of the aisle, frankly. If in fact the president asks for this resignation - publicly or privately - and gets it, how much traction do you think he gets from that?

Professor NAT IRVIN (Future Studies, Wake Forest University): Oh, he doesn't. First of all, there will not be any resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, and I think that resolution failed for a lack of a second. You know, it's just obviously and attempt by the Democrats to try to cast the administration in a bad light, which they're already in a bad light. I think that this, you know, this latest revelation about the CIA prisons - C-I-double. I almost said C-I-double A.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. IRVIN: You know what has struck me, you know - in all seriousness, it's an illustration of how American values have been put on trial as opposed to the terrorists. Inadvertently, what the president has done here and - his proposal for the tribunals actually puts American in the position of actually trying people without - and actually trying people and then the possibility of putting them to death without them ever having seen the evidence against them.

And as Mary and Joe have already pointed out, there are a lot of Republicans and Democrats alike who are saying this is not the American, that this is not an American value that we are willing to support. And I think the president for that reason is in some trouble here.

GORDON: Mary, they sent everyone out to wrap the flag in this fight against terror. We see in the latest issue of Essence magazine, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice comparing the war in Iraq to America's Civil War, suggesting that had America done the same in the Civil War, that slavery would not have ended as quickly.

Prof. BERRY: Well, that shows how desperate they are, and it shows how - I mean that comparison is simply ridiculous. Any school child should know that the war, our Civil War, was about saving the Union. That's why they went to war in the first place, and that Lincoln only issued the Emancipation Proclamation after they didn't have enough troops and he had to get some black soldiers to use as a fit and necessary war measure.

The United States is not like the north going to war there in this situation. The United States is a foreign power with some people locally having a civil war, and we're somehow engaged.

But I was more interested in - I got to tell you this - in her statement that she wasn't responsible for what happened at Katrina because she does foreign policy, she doesn't intervene in these. That's just, you know, that's just - I started to use a bad word.

Anyway, when the Michigan case was before the Supreme Court on affirmative action, the press reported that she was in the meeting when Bush decided to go against affirmative action. And after everybody else was debating it - and Colin Powell was in the meeting and he was Secretary of State - she persuaded the president to go ahead and oppose affirmative action in that case, and that was publicly reported. And every black person whose ever been a Cabinet officer or been in any administration has done the same.

But this is not a civil war in Iraq with the United - the United States is a foreign power intervening in what has now become a civil war.

GORDON: But her point, Joe, to be fair to Condoleezza Rice, was not a comparison in terms of civil wars much as it was the idea - if we cut and run now, we're going to see the continuation of, quote, bad things.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, you know, that might be true, but I think that to just frame the argument in that way ignores everything that went before it. Iraq was not in its current predicament before the United States invasion, and so all of what is happening now stems from that invasion.

And so, yes, you can say, and I think you can make a strong argument that the cut and run now thing would only get worse. But to do that without any reference to what went before that: what was the situation before the United States invasion, what impact has the United States has on Iraq in terms of its current situation. I mean I simply think you have to have the whole argument there.

GORDON: Nat, let me further what Mary brought up and then pick up on your point. Further what Mary brought up, I was going to suggest this. In the article, she goes on further to talk about the Katrina situation and ask about the president's response. This is her quote:

Quote, I resent the notion that the president of the United States, this president of the United States, would somehow decide to let people suffer because they were black. I found that to be the most corrosive and outrageous claim that anybody could have made. And it was wholly and totally irresponsibe, end quote.

Prof. IRVIN: Well, she's probably right about that. I don't think that the president didn't respond because of folks in New Orleans were black. I think it's just representative off the overall mismanagement that's symptomatic of this government. I mean a lot of our institutions have failed under this MBA president. So it wouldn't necessarily have anything to do of whether you're black or not.

I think with reference to the way that she characterized the Civil War with -using the lens of the Civil War to characterize the war in Iraq, I just was dumbfounded by that. I was trying to figure out: who are the slaves now? Would it be the Kurds, the Shiites, the Sunnis? And (unintelligible) go north?

Mr. DAVIDSON: I think that remark will only further alienate the black community from this administration's war policy. And of course the black community already, and from the beginning, has not supported it.

Prof. IRVIN: And then, you know, Joe, I'm thinking if this is the lens that the secretary of state is now using, we ought to be doing a hell of a - a much better job in Sudan, shouldn't we? I mean that might work.

GORDON: Well, save Reagan, in my lifetime at least, this administration has had the hardest time in terms of - and even more so than his father who did reach out and to some degree, particularly after the riots in Los Angeles, to the black community.

We have seen, as Joe suggested, just stumble after stumble when trying to connect.

Prof. BERRY: And what Condie Rice does is each time she makes statements, she uses bad examples. That's what happens. I mean, I don't know, maybe she needs somebody on her staff, which - who can give her good examples as opposed to bad examples. And then people just get madder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. IRVIN: They're running out of examples right now, Mary. You know, there's nothing (unintelligible).

GORDON: That's right. That's right. All right, let me turn our attention to Martin Luther King III, who is on a crusade down South, and one will assume across the country, to eradicate poverty.

He says, quote, America is the only industrialized nation in the world where the gap between the rich and the poor is continuing to grow. This, of course, in the shadow of the poor people's movement we know made so famously by his late father.

Joe Davidson, I just did a panel for the Congressional Black Caucus on poverty and race. It is a continuing problem. It is a growing problem. It is a problem that has yet to go away in this country in spite of all of the money that we have. And certainly, as we pointed out - Mary Berry - on this program before, when you look at the cost of this war, ending poverty is something that we're not going to see anytime soon from the federal government at least.

Mr. DAVIDSON: No, and I think it's interesting to see how well Martin Luther King III does in his travels around the country, to see what kind of base he can develop, what kind of support he can develop. And it's interesting also that he was - one of these meetings was in eastern Tennessee, where there are not a lot of black people in this particular location. And he, you know, he took pains to point out that statistically white people are more in - there are more white people in poverty than other folks.

And so whether or not he can kind of rekindle this country to have a drive against poverty, a war against poverty if you will, remains to be seen. I frankly think it's going to take a lot more than Martin Luther King III, who simply doesn't have the stature, of course, of his father - but then again, who does - to do this.

GORDON: Mary, it's interesting. Because I always say, you know, the conspiracist in me suggests that it was the poor people's movement that got Dr. King killed versus any civil rights push that he had. But to really push against poverty in this country really uncovers a whole lot of mess.

Prof. BERRY: Well, we already saw with Katrina, when we had all that discussion about how poverty is now uncovered and now we're going to spend the whole year figuring out what to do about poverty. And then we didn't do anything.

And that Marty has a very tough job trying to do something. I'm happy to see him do it. And I agree with you that it was when Martin Luther King's vision became more expansive that he became dangerous coming against a war in Vietnam...

GORDON: Yeah. The Vietnam War.

Prof. BERRY: ...and then the poor people's movement, and all the rest. So I wish Marty well, and anything that anybody can do to try to focus on poor people is good. But - and the reason why there are more poor white people than there are poor black people is because there are more poor white people. Right, Joe?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Exactly. Exactly.

GORDON: Right.

Prof. BERRY: So I think we should wish him well, but I doubt seriously whether in fact we're going to get any agenda to do anything about this anytime soon. Welfare reform renewal and work fair, as we have it now, is the only thing anybody wants to talk about in terms of poverty.

GORDON: And, Nat, let's be honest. In the time of reality television and spokespeople from rap groups being as up front as anyone else, it's hard to think that a poverty as un - or that a position as un-sexy as poverty will be able to really be pushed on a national agenda.

Prof. IRVIN: Yeah, I think that when you listen at young Mr. King in comparison - you can't help but compare him to his father - you see that he really isn't -at least he doesn't strike me as the person who can really carry this mantel. And in fact it really seems to me that the whole mantel of poverty has passed the King family by, largely because of the debacle with the King Center. I just think they've just lost - unfortunately have lost a position that they may have been able to sustain had that not been such a public disgrace, frankly.

I think that when, you know, when we're talking about poverty these days, we're really going to have to talk strategically, tactically, about the importance of marriage, the importance of education, being competitive in a global economy. You have to think about, you know, the resurgence possibly of labor unions and how they will be able to maybe perhaps increase wages with a new increase in the number of service jobs. I mean you really have to think about poverty in some ways in the same way that we have thought about it in the past.

But I believe in the global economy that we're in now, it requires a different - it requires a...

GORDON: Yeah.

Prof. IRVIN: ...much more strategic thinking than just rallying people around and saying look at how poor we are. I'm afraid that just...

Prof. BERRY: Yeah, this, the stagnation of wages which has taken up a lot of discussion now. Everywhere, everybody is trying to figure out what to do about it - everybody except the people who are at the top. And what we're talking about is people who are working, who have jobs, and who just don't make enough money, most of them. Not just people who are not working.

Prof. IRVIN: Right. Right.

Prof. BERRY: And so I think you're right, that all these factors have to be taken into account. But so long as globalization and free markets and tax cuts and all those things prevail, it's really hard to see how you're going to do anything, even if people are morally committed to doing something about it.

Prof. IRVIN: But you know...

Mr. DAVIDSON: Right. Right.

GORDON: But, Joe, isn't that the problem? The idea of what Mary suggested. And I've often suggested that that is the reason we've not seen the move in poverty. The haves are the people that can move this legislation. And truly, if we eradicate poverty, that means I've got to give away a couple of my toys as well.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, it reminds me of the argument, the way we used to talk about folks, the poverty pimps - people who would get some grants, and the first thing they'd do is go out and buy a high back leather chair to sit in their office, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. IRVIN: You're showing your age, Joe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVIDSON: That's true. But let me go back to one thing Nat was saying. I think that there really has long been an effort to move simply beyond the rhetoric of we must end poverty to actually do something about it. I'm reminded, for example, of Reverend Leon Sullivan's operations in Philadelphia, where he not only protested against the Tasty Bake company there but he also created a job training program, an international job training program.

And so, I mean I think those kinds of efforts have always been there. I think they're there now.

GORDON: And they continue to be there.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Right.

GORDON: If you take Philadelphia and look at what Kenny Gamble, the great songwriter and producer, continues to do to try to eradicate poverty and help in that area. But we can find those pockets across the country, all over, but to really eradicate poverty it's going to have to take a huge national movement.

Mr. DAVIDSON: That's true. And its - and it has to be multi-pronged. I mean the demonstrations...

GORDON: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. DAVIDSON: ...against poverty, as well as the job training, as well as the education. I mean it simply has to be multi-pronged.

GORDON: All right. Well guys, thank you very much. Have a good weekend. Good to have you with us.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Have a great weekend.

Prof. IRVIN: Thank you.

Prof. BERRY: Thank you.

GORDON: We'll see you next week.

Mr. DAVIDSON: All right.

GORDON: Next up on NEWS AND NOTES, NBA star Dikembe Mutombo may be known for his shot blocking skills, but soon he'll be known for saving lives. And one woman remembers an historic concert that taught her the value of combining political activism with artistry.

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