Roundtable: Negroponte to State, Nola Rebuilding Stalls

Guests discuss National Intelligence Director John Negroponte's move to the State Department; trouble for homeowners trying to rebuild in New Orleans; and in New York City, a construction worker saves a stranger from an oncoming train. Farai Chideya is joined by Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University; and Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

And on today's Roundtable, the head of U.S. Intelligence steps down to take another government post and New Orleans builds again on dangerous ground.

Joe Davidson is an editor for The Washington Post. He is in Washington D.C. Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University in Pennsylvania, is in New Orleans. And Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University and columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal is in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Welcome everybody, and let's talk a little bit about Negroponte. He's the director of National Intelligence. He's going to become the deputy secretary of state. Now the question is, is he stepping down in a demotion sense or is he sort of making a lateral move to work with Condoleezza Rice? I don't know. Joe, what do you think?

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, The Washington Post): Well, I think if you simply look at the bureaucratic flow chart, he's moving from a Cabinet-level agency to a sub-Cabinet position. But as The New York Times says this morning, he never seemed comfortable being a diplomat in spook's clothing. And so there is this reporting that indicates that he was anxious to get back to a diplomatic post. And clearly, he's moving into a situation where he will be able to very significantly, I suppose, affect the new Iraq policy that the president is going to announce next week.

Now, presumably, it will be some sort of new policy or new direction, or at least it will be a speech on it, put it that way. And he can at least affect that, which seems to be the kind of thing that he wants to do, be a diplomat as opposed to a spy.

CHIDEYA: What about you, Professor Berry?

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (History, University of Pennsylvania): The - I've been talking to people who were in the spy agencies, CIA and others, about this last night and this morning, and their view is that the spy agencies, intelligence agencies are in disarray. The melding of them together with him as the director really hasn't panned out.

A lot of people have left the CIA to go to Booz Hamilton, who - which has outsourced from the federal government. A lot of the intelligence is being done now. They're getting big salaries, like people who are going to get contracts that they used to work for the CIA, now they're making a lot of money.

I think that Negroponte decided that the action was over there with Condoleezza Rice. And he knew that this thing was not going well, this sort of putting all these agencies together. So I think he went to where he thought he could do the most good. And now the question is what do we do about trying to implement that great plan to put the spy agencies together and make the thing more efficient.

CHIDEYA: Nat, there has been a situation where there's been a lot of resignations over the past few months, and there was also another one, Harriet Miers, who went up for the Supreme Court, withdrew her nomination, still was the White House counsel just said OK, it's over. I'm done. How are things looking for the president given that so many people are leaving or moving around?

Professor NAT IRVIN (Future Studies, Wake Forest University): Frankly, Farai, I can't recall an administration where I've seen so many changes in personnel after such a short stint, Rumsfeld being the exception. In fact, I think when it comes to intelligence and foreign policy initiative, one has to say that there's a sense of this administration is sort of like Abbott & Costello. You can say The Three Stooges, Amos and Andy, Marx Brothers, whatever you want to say, it just doesn't seem to hold together very well.

I mean just a few months ago, Negroponte was appointed in this new position, he was also joined by Michael Hayden. This was supposed to, as Mary was talking about a second ago, supposed to be the end all to sort of blend all of the 16 agencies that are dealing with intelligence into one and somehow or another we would be able now to have a safer and better initiative, defense initiative for this country, intelligence programs for this country.

But you have a sense that within this administration that it's much more about slogans, that there's no real shift on anything. It's just like re-warming the soup. And the other thing is, sadly, within 18 months, this is going to be done all over again. And so, you know, this is really just very disappointing, disappointing.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, you know, I think that this job that he was put into, this position, was one that had some troubles with it from the beginning. You do have a situation where you have the person who's supposed to be in charge of all intelligence really not controlling the intelligence agencies. He's kind of like a person who's at the top of the heap, but all of the activity is going on below him. And it's kind of like the puppet master strings in some cases are not complete.

Certainly, the Department of Defense has a huge responsibility for intelligence. And I think that there was some frustration on the Hill, for example, that the director of national intelligence really didn't have control over these agencies to the extent that people on the Hill expected when this position was created.

Prof. BERRY: And I think, too, that if Mr. Bush announces the appointment of this guy, McCarthy, whose been rumored to be the next guy, who come from Booz Hamilton, which has been getting the contracts to do all the outsource intelligence. And now he comes over to the other side of the street to get more contracts. And the people who work in the intelligence agencies says there's been a big drain. Also the question is, do you want the federal government not to be in control of its own intelligence and have it done by a private firm without any kind of control.

So I think in the oversight, in the confirmation hearings, we're going to see a lot of questions raised. And it is disappointing that at this juncture we seem not to have fixed the intelligence operations and things seem to be worse.

CHIDEYA: That whole question of outsourcing is one big one that's going to be looked at in the history books about this administration and just about government in general. But I just want to reintroduce everybody. We've just been hearing from Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; Joe Davidson from The Washington Post; Nat Irvin from Wake Forest University and also a columnist from the Winston-Salem Journal. And this is NPR's NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Prof. Berry, I'm going to stick with you about New Orleans, you know, it's this patchwork rebuilding. I feel very lucky but also very saddened to have been there as many times as I have since Katrina hit. And I had a friend who just went through and said he hadn't been there since Katrina hit and he's like wow, it looks just like it did, you know, on the TV.

Well, it looks better, but not that much better. And so residents are rebuilding on low ground. What are government agencies, whether they're local, federal, state, supposed to do if people want to rebuild where they live but it's also in the path of any future devastation?

Prof. BERRY: Well, what you see when you come here depends on where you go to look. If you go in the worst hit areas, you will see a lot of people rebuilding and things have changed since Katrina hit. You'll see lots of spaces where nothing is happening and it looks as bad. So it's again a tale of two cities. As far as rebuilding, since many of these people, and I've talked to some of them walking around in this neighborhoods, don't have the money to build their houses up on higher ground.

They don't have the resources and they haven't been given the money that they're supposed to be getting from the government, from both the Road Home Program and all these other programs that they keep hearing about. And they never get anything, or insurance. Some of them don't have the resources to move anyplace else and they prefer to take their chances and stay in their house rather than going somewhere else.

It is a lack - if government really wants them to move some place else to change the footprint of New Orleans, to move some place else in the city, then the resources that they are expecting, give them their insurance payments, give them some of the loans and funds that are supposed to be made available to them from the state and have a plan and organize it.

So far, Nagin has just been saying well, people should be able to rebuild wherever they want to be. I don't want to tell them what they can do. And then other people say we'll leave it in the hands of the Lord. I'm going to rebuild and hope that hurricane doesn't happen, so it's chaos in that sense. But I see why people are rebuilding. It's because in some cases that's all they have.

CHIDEYA: Well, Nat, do you think that the government should forbid people to rebuild? I mean its - there certainly have been a lot of legal actions, especially around FEMA and what benefits it's been offering different people and whether or not it cut off benefits too soon. But should there be someone who, if you see somebody, you know, nailing a few planks to an old frame of a house, say move along. You can't do that.

Prof. IRVIN: Well, you can't actually do that, Farai. It's - you know, in North Carolina we're frequently the home of several hurricane - and the East Coast. So you often times you will see - after hurricanes, people will swear that nobody will ever build again on the coast. And then right after the sun comes out people start rebuilding all over again, and then the quest will always comes up, who's going to pay for it.

You know, human beings have a very strong homing beacon. And when you lost your home, either you will come back to try to rebuild it or you will at least try to revisit that area. And when you start to mix blood, sweat, rain, and Mary mentioned religion, the sense that God has, you know, caused a storm that will maybe never happen again, you'll have people behaving in ways that look on the outside as being completely irrational. So when you start bringing in the free market, you bring in the government, it is not something that can just be linearly done. You have to have leadership.

And the one thing I could say that despite, you know, the fact that we have a few people who are building now homes that look like they're going to be flood-prone again, the mayor has appointed this guy, Ed Blakely, who's going to be the recovery chief.

And I think this is really what's been missing, somebody who has a sense of what livable cities can be in the future, who maybe is not so much of a politician who can be a sort of an advocate and a policy wonk.

And maybe this will be the kind of thing that will kind of help people to kind of make some rational decisions as much as possible when you're talking about emotional issues like where will you live.

CHIDEYA: Joe, you should - go ahead.

Prof. BERRY: No, I - Farai, just have to say…

CHIDEYA: Yeah, go ahead.

Prof. BERRY: …if you look all over this country, there are people who build in places that you might argue they shouldn't build. In California, I have friends who live where there are mudslides all the time down canyons. And houses get destroyed and the National Guard has to come in and resources are spent.

And then people build their houses right back again. There are people in the path of the Mississippi River flood plain up in the north that I know that have been flooded, whole towns; and people go and they build again. So that - and no one says they shouldn't build again. Here you had the levees break. It wasn't the hurricane. It was the break in the levees, which was the responsibility of the government. And no matter what we say, we have to remember that, give the people the resources if you want them to build up high on the land so that they can do it. But don't just say you should move along - move along where? Where are they going to move along to? Answer that question.

Mr. DAVIDSON: And I say I think there's a political and racial dynamic to this that Mary can probably address better than I since she's there. But it seems to me that if many of these areas that were essentially washed out, flooded out…

Prof. BERRY: Black people.

Mr. DAVIDSON: …were primarily black areas. And now…

Prof. BERRY: And some poor whites.

Mr. DAVIDSON: …the city is - and some whites to be sure - and now the racial component in the city is definitely different than it used to be. That has a certain political and social dynamic that is still true in 2007 in the United States just as it was in many decades and generations ago.

And so I think that in addition to this homing beacon that Nat talked about, there is this wish to see New Orleans certainly among many folks to be the city it used to be in certain ways, and that gets to this racial and political dynamic that I was talking about. And if these areas are not repopulated, then you have a different New Orleans that some people would not like as much as the old New Orleans.

CHIDEYA: Joe, let me ask…

Mr. DAVIDSON: So I think that's a part of it.

CHIDEYA: Joe, if you look at our business, the news business, how are we doing now? I mean it's been a year and a half since Katrina hit. And there was a lot of attention when it hit. And six months later, and a year later, how are we doing now in terms of paying attention to this?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, obviously, there's a lot less attention to it today because, you know, we in the news business don't necessarily have long attention spans, just like everybody else in the country, I suppose.

We do get coverage from time to time, though, because it clearly was a major catastrophe, perhaps the worst in the history of the United States. And so it's not been forgotten on the news pages, in news broadcast, but it is not the center of attention like it was, and I think that's to be expected.

CHIDEYA: Let's move along to one more topic. It's a Friday. We all love good news. And this falls into that category. So this film student suffered a seizure in a Harlem subway station and fell on to the tracks yesterday. And a man named Wesley Autrey, a construction worker with two young daughters right there with him, tried to grab him and pull him back on the platform. But as the train approached, the student started having another seizure and Autrey had to fall with him, or chose to fall with him, into the subway between the tracks; pushing him down in the little depression between tracks, covering his body with his own, feeling the train rushing overhead.

Now both of the men were fine afterwards and this story is one that has completely captured the imagination of New York. I mean what comes…

Prof. BERRY: Comes untarnished. That's untarnished good news. I love good news like that. There's no…

Mr. DAVIDSON: I'm with you there.

Prof. BERRY: …you know, racial radical to denounce. There's nobody to worry. We just say, here's a good guy, who everybody can say, good guy. And we wish everybody would do that. I just love good news like that that you can't find anything wrong with.

CHIDEYA: But Mary, here's my question. I don't have any kids but…

Prof. BERRY: Yes, I'm wrong.

CHIDEYA: Well no.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Let's see if we can find something wrong.

CHIDEYA: I just have a question.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Let's look here. Look here.

CHIDEYA: You know, no, no, no. But, this is a question. If you had two kids with you, would you think, well, what if I died? I'd leave them orphans.

Prof. IRVIN: Well here's what I thought about that, Farai, because this is the thing that I think that struck me as a father of three children, that he said he thought about his two daughters and he could not allow them to see a man run over by a train. So he was both thinking about them in that moment and their future as well as this other person. What an extraordinarily unselfish act. This is my hero.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, he's pretty amazing. I mean it's - I saw something, and this is on a much smaller magnitude. But people always say New York is full of grumpy, thieving people. But I saw - and it was - I mean what's interesting about this on many levels, you know, is there's the heroism and then there's also the racial dynamic that Wesley Autrey is an African-American, the film student was white.

I was sitting on a train once and a woman left her purse on the train. She was on some other planet. And this African-American guy got up and ran into the empty conductor's booth. And everybody was like oh, has he taken it? You know, you could just see the gears turning and he leaned out of the conductor's booth, which is the only place you can open the window. And he said lady, lady, lady. And he held the purse out, and she grabbed it right before we went into the tunnel.

And so it's always nice to see a story that defies expectations, but should we still at this point - anyone who wants to chime in - have to figure the racial issue into any of these issues of heroism?

Prof. BERRY: Absolutely, because until race is no longer an issue - whether it's socially constructive or not, it's an issue and it has consequences and we see it - you have to factor it in. But what's so great about this is the next time somebody sees some black guy walking down the street and they look around…

Mr. DAVIDSON: African-American.

Prof. BERRY: …a black guy, I'm scared. They might think, hey, that guy saved somebody's life. And so these are incremental little tiny baby steps, but at least, you know, it may affect somebody's mind, you know. Here's a guy who's just an ordinary guy who does this.

Prof. IRVIN: It strikes you.

Prof. BERRY: And he's a black guy and he's a human being…

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know, and he was on…

Prof. BERRY: …and he thinks about other human beings.

Mr. DAVIDSON: He was on television with the student's father, and the father started, you know, weeping when he was expressing his gratitude to the superhero. And Mr. Autrey put his arm around the father. And it was a very touching moment, even gave him a little kiss. And, you know, it was a very touching moment and there was, if we do need to get into the racial aspect of it, there was clearly a flip-flop in the power dynamic. Because you don't usually see certainly not portrayed as the black person saving the white person, or in the case you were talking about, Farai, the black person giving back the purse to the white person.

Those kinds of things, we don't often see even though those kinds of things do happen.

CHIDEYA: All right, we're going to have to leave it there.

Prof. IRVIN: The other thing I wanted to add…

CHIDEYA: Sorry - you know, we are out, out, out - enjoy your Friday.

Prof. IRVIN: …the father is (unintelligible)…

CHIDEYA: OK, Nat Irvin…

Prof. IRVIN: …father and daughters -

CHIDEYA: Yeah, the father and the daughters are cute. Nat Irvin, Wake Forest University; Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at University of Pennsylvania; Joe Davidson at The Washington Post. Thank you all.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: And enjoy your weekend.

Next on NEWS & NOTES on our sports segment, why the Sugar Bowl went sour for Notre Dame and Pam Grier gets in character on “The L-word.”

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: