Roundtable: Bush on Katrina, Terror-Free Gas

Tuesday's topics: President Bush talks about the aftermath of Katrina; a solution for crowded prisons; and the country's first "terror-free" gas station. Guests: Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; Bob Meadows, writer for People Magazine; and Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist.

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TONY COX, host:

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

On today's Roundtable, President Bush talks to NPR about the aftermath of Katrina. Deal or no deal, prison inmates are being offered all sorts of perks to move across the country. And a gas station offers terror-free gasoline.

Joining us today are Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, Laura Washington, Chicago Sun Times columnist, and Bob Meadows, staff writer for "People" magazine. Hello, everybody.

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition): Yes.

Ms. LAURA WASHINGTON (Columnist, Chicago Sun Times): Hi.

Mr. BOB MEADOWS (Staff Writer, People Magazine): Greetings.

COX: Listen. Let's start with the President. NPR's Juan Williams had a chance to talk to President George W. Bush yesterday at the White House. Juan took the chance to ask the president about his omission of Hurricane Katrina when he addressed the nation last week.

(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)

JUAN WILLIAMS: Let's talk for a second about the State of the Union speech. You didn't mention Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, or the Gulf Coast. A lot of people from Louisiana, including David Vitter, the Republican senator, say they regret that. Do you?

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, I gave a speech that I thought was necessary to give. On the other hand, I have been talking a lot about Katrina and about the fact that I worked with the Congress to get about $110 billion sent down to both Mississippi and Louisiana to help them on the reconstruction efforts.

Obviously, there's more work to be done. Take the housing issue, for example. We have sent money down to the Louisiana folks - Louisiana Recovery administration - or authority - to fund their plan. And the money is there and the money is available. And now it's up to the folks down there to get this plan implemented so people can start rebuilding their houses.

If there's bureaucratic slowdowns in Washington, we've got a man named Don Powell who's working to address them. But no, our response to the Katrina Recovery has been very robust, and I appreciate the taxpayers of the United States helping the folks down there in Mississippi and Louisiana.

COX: So here's the question, as I see it, to begin with, Mike Meyers. Has the president addressed Katrina enough? He seems to think so.

Mr. MEYERS: Look, I salute Juan Williams for the interview. But forgive me, other than NPR's Juan Williams getting the interview with the President, why do we care?

I can't believe anything this president says about Katrina, no more than I can believe when he said to, you know, Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. This president will say anything at any time. That's why you have to watch what he does as opposed to what he says. And it's the same situation with Iraq. It's the same situation with his assurances of not going into Iran. But at the same time, he'll talk about - he has to go and find the terrorists wherever they are.

This is a man who doesn't understand the realities of life. He doesn't manage his agencies well. And he doesn't - how many times has he done (unintelligible) in New Orleans. Does he see that New Orleans is still a ghost town? I don't believe anything President Bush says. The man has discredited himself.

COX: Laura Washington, what do you say? Has he said enough, done enough? Well, let me separate the two. Has he said enough about Katrina?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, I think neither. And the saying is often as much as it's important as it is to doing. The leadership - and he got also the wrong foot on this one from day one when there was a very slow and seemingly indifferent response when he put everything on Brownie, and Brownie wasn't delivering.

And by the time he caught up and actually got himself down there and he got some key people down there, there was so much damage done that, you know, that region will never be the same again. Again, $110 billion is fine, but how is that $110 billion being administrated?

He mentioned his top person Powell, who was down there yesterday getting grilled by a number of folks in - leaders in congress, including U.S. Senator Barack Obama. Where is the money going? The money is supposed to be here, but it's not getting spent.

I think there's a lot of bureaucratic bungling not just on the federal level, on the local level too. And I think Bush has moved on. He doesn't want to deal with any domestic issues, particularly this one because this is such a horrendous screw up for his administration. He's focusing all his effort on Iraq, and that's why Katrina was not in his speech.

COX: So Bob Meadows, I suppose then taking into account what Laura Washington has just said and Michael Meyers said before her so clearly, there is nothing, is there, that the president can say that can assuage people over what happened earlier on with regard to the federal response to Katrina?

Mr. MEADOWS: There's really not much you can say. As Michael said, it's by his actions, it's what he does. I would not have expected the president to discuss Katrina during this recent State of the Union address. The war on Iraq is so much bigger than that.

And it's reaching and it's going to be never-ending it seems. And granted Katrina is maybe a situation like that too. But it's Iraq that cost the Republicans the elections, so that's - in 2006. And it could cost them election in 2008 in that Iraq, far more than Katrina, is going to be Bush's legacy. That's what he's really needing to focus on and one of the reasons he talked about Iraq a lot, obviously, during the State of the Union, and the issues around it.

But he also focused of course on, as you were just talking about, Tony, his health care initiative because he wants to have something at least to say that he did domestically that perhaps has an iota of succeeding, even though I have no hope for any of that.

But again, I would not have expected him to focus on Katrina during this recent State of the Union.

COX: So just to follow up quickly with you on that one point, Bob. So Katrina, as far as you think the administration thinks, is not only bad news, it's old news.

Mr. MEADOWS: Bad news and old news. It was something that happened horribly for - the reaction was horrible. And yeah, it's - the process is going better now. But since you started it negative 100, you're just really working your way up back up to zero on it.

Mr. MEYERS: And don't forget, he did have his blacks in the galleries. In the gallery. He had his blacks.

Ms. WASHINGTON: He (unintelligible).

Mr. MEYERS: He had his moment.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Michael, you would call it his minstrel show, I imagine.

Mr. MEYERS: His minstrel show, exactly.

Ms. WASHINGTON: But, you know, I just want to take - not issue with Bob. But, you know, he did as Bob - well, you point out - he did get us into some domestic issues in that speech; it wasn't just about Iraq. He does have a optimistic agenda.

I just think that for the reasons you state, Katrina is not going to be on that list because it was such an unmitigated disaster, and also because his base is not in Louisiana, that's a primarily Democratic state, primarily Democratic leadership, and he'd rather shift the responsibility to them.

Mr. MEYERS: He doesn't have a base. The man is discredited on the Republican side and the Democrat side.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: One last Katrina point before we move on. Laura, I want to direct it towards you, because Barack Obama was front and center during these hearings in Louisiana. What do you expect to come out of those?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, I think Obama made a very powerful analogy, one that those of us who haven't studied history may not be familiar with, and that is he compared Katrina to the 1871 Chicago fire, which you all know pretty much wiped out the city of Chicago at that time. And he'd made the point that there was a national effort from the ground up to rebuild Chicago, and look at it today.

And Chicago was not some luxurious, powerful town. It was a cow town at the time. Well, it was a town full of poor people, full of working-class people. The same kinds of people you see in New Orleans. So he made the point that it can be done if we have a national will, but he just - he and I would agree there has been no national will to rebuild New Orleans.

COX: All right. If you're just joining us, you're listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox. With me on today's Roundtable are Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, Laura Washington, Chicago Sun Times columnist, and Bob Meadows, staff writer for "People" magazine. We've been talking about Hurricane Katrina aftermath, and the fact that the president did not mention it in his State of the Union address, and his explanation for that in an exclusive interview with NPR's Juan Williams on yesterday.

But we move on, topic number two. California and Colorado prison officials are using an innovative marketing campaign to reduce overcrowded cells. They are encouraging inmates to transfer to prisons in other parts of the country through a type of infomercial.

Now hear me on this. In one ad, a felon now housed in Tennessee says - and this is a quote - "you get 79 channels here, including ESPN." End quote. Another one says, and here's another quote, "they talk to us like humans, not like animals." As part of the recruitment drive, folks, wardens are screening to film while reminding prisoners of the violent, overcrowded, racially-charged conditions they face in places like California.

So what was your first reaction when you heard about this, Laura?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, the humans quote really blew me away. So I guess the California prison system is finally acknowledging, along with a lot of other prison systems that should be acknowledging, that they don't treat their inmates like humans. And if they wanted to be treated like humans, they need to move to another state. I think that's a really profound statement.

And all the discussion about changing - moving folks out of the prisons system to relieve the overcrowding, they talked about a lot about overcrowding but they didn't talk about any other conditions that need to be addressed. I would like to see these prison systems address those conditions, which are not just about overcrowding. They're about horrifically poor management, allowing gangs and other criminal elements to run these prisons.

One of the interesting things about why they say that some prisons are reluctant to voluntarily move is because there's so much gang intimidation. The gangs don't want their turfs being broken up by these moves. That is a profound problem that the state of California should be addressing.

COX: Well, Michael Meyers, is this a civil rights issue?

Mr. MEYERS: Civil rights issue. This isn't - look. This is an issue of people's rights while they're in prison. So here you are, quote, unquote, "this is a civil rights issue." But look. It's not just 79 channels that are going to get people to move out of California prisons. I mean, there are a lot of those inmates who don't want to leave their lovers behind - their lovers in prison, their lovers outside of prison, and they do have lovers in prison. How - and by the way, how long does it take to build the prison building? You know, this enormous amount of time - it takes years to get modern, decent prisons - if you can have a decent prison - maybe it's a job for the Donald, Donald Trump.

COX: Well…

Mr. MEYERS: And maybe we ought to just ask the question, are there too many people in prison? And people who don't need to be in prison, who have not been convicted, for example, of violent crimes - rapists, murderers, people like that - muggers. They belong in prison. But there maybe people in prison who don't - who should be out on parole, or probation, as opposed to parole. And people should be under supervision, but not in prison. So…

COX: Well, you've raised so many - you've so many points, it's hard to sort of respond to one. But let me pick one of them out. You asked about building prisons. And I'll direct to Bob Meadows, because it seems to me, Bob, one of the issues about building prisons is where to build them. And people don't want prisons in their own backyards.

Mr. MEADOWS: A lot of people don't, but some communities do because this brings jobs. I mean, this is a super industry in the United States. California was at almost $12 billion that are earmarked toward prison building and reform right now. That is a big business, and there are communities I know that invite prisons because, like I said, it brings economy. It boosts the economy and things like that.

And one thing we have to remember about this is the reason California and Colorado are doing this is because a federal judge has told them your prisons are too overcrowded, you have to ease them. You have to ease the situation. So they have to come up with something. And I admit, you know, it sounds that whole ESPN thing, and, you know, the guards treat us and so on, walking by with smaller guards. It sounds kind of silly in a way.

COX: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MEADOWS: But, you know, you have to see it. Perhaps, when you actually see it, maybe it doesn't come off that way. But it is something that - this is a step that they have to take. I mean, they at least came up with something kind of unique. And, you know, I really - I personally didn't know that you had to ask a prisoner to move them. I thought you can just do it on their own.

COX: Well, we going to…

Mr. MEYERS: It's like the Army commercials. You know, be all you can be. You know if you are dumb enough to enlist.

COX: But we're going to talk about that point in just a moment. But let me just go back to say, because I have been in - I don't want to say in prisons. I have visited prisons all over this…

Mr. MEYERS: (unintelligible)

(Soundbite laughter)

Mr. MEYERS: …country. And, you know, ESPN not withstanding, prison is still prison. And it's no, you know, it's no fun place to go. I don't care how many cable channels they may have.

But the question that this raises, and you just made reference to it, is whether or not states can actually force inmates to accept interstate transfers. Now, here in California, Governor Schwarzenegger is threatening to do just that and soon to relieve this overcrowding, because not enough inmates are volunteering, you know, to go out and move on their own. Can they do that?

Mr. MEYERS: Well, he's in a situation where he may very well be ordered by a court to release some of these prisoners. That's what he's worried about. And the people - so-called, people are worried about…But, you know, there are state constitutional prohibitions with respect to what you can do to prisoners in terms of moving them out of state, in terms of getting them - getting private companies to take over prison responsibilities. There are laws in California that affect these prisoners and involve these prisoners' rights. Prisoners do have rights.

COX: Mm-hmm. Laura?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, Schwarzenegger is trying to get a waiver - or he, in fact, he has already gotten a waiver to be able to override that law for the time being. But, of course…

Mr. MEYERS: Not a waiver. He declared it emergency…

Ms. WASHINGTON: (unintelligible) an emergency, sorry.

Mr. MEYERS: …which is also legally questionable.

Ms. WASHINGTON: All right. So and prison advocates - prisoner advocates have fought him on that. I don't - personally, I mean, I want to see him follow the law, but I don't understand the law. Yes, prisoners do have rights, but I don't understand the issue of not being able to move people. What does it matter which state they're in as long as they're in a humane environment? And it sounds like the places that they're talking about, saying they maybe more humane than they are. So I don't see anything wrong with that, and I'd like to see that law changed if there's anything it could account for…

Mr. MEYERS: Well, if California imprisons you, then you shouldn't be put into a prison in New York.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEYERS: It's just that simple.

COX: Well, that's part about the argument is. All right, let's move on to our last topic. We've only - we spent a little bit more time talking about prisons than we had intended, so we're going to cut this one down a little bit.

Mr. MEYERS: I love prisons.

COX: The question is would you buy terror-free gasoline? Now, Nebraska is the first state to house what is being touted as a terror-free gas station. The terror-free oil initiative is a group planning to offer gasoline that comes from countries that don't financially support terrorists. They say big oil companies like ExxonMobil, Gulf, Shell, finance terrorism because they import oil from the Middle East. Now, we only have a minute or so. So the question is - and a lot of folks are asking, and I'll come to you, Bob - how do you get gasoline that isn't supporting terrorism in one way or another?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEADOWS: You really have no way of knowing. I mean, granted, they're going to - this terror-free oil initiative is going to get its gas from a refinery, I guess, in Salt Lake City. But even they admit that they get some of their gas from here in New York, which gets gas from overseas. So we really have no way of knowing. I mean, I personally don't have anything against this. I think that people have a right to protest in any fashion, any form they want. So hey, if they want to this, I think it's great. I remember a couple of years ago, it's like, don't buy SUVs because you're supporting the terrorists or something like that.

COX: I suppose the question I have, really quickly, Mike Meyers, really quickly, Mike Meyers…

Mr. MEYERS: Yeah.

COX: …is how much does this stuff cost? Is it going to be cheaper or more expensive?

Mr. MEYERS: Well, if you really have such a thing as something terrorist-free oil, it's going to be more expensive. And it's going to be longer lines than all the other stuff. But it's not - what Bob said, there's no such thing. This is, you know, I do have something against this. I'm opposed to silliness. This is silly. You know, you're going to get oil from Venezuela? People will say that's terrorist. This is like the French fries debate. Calling French fries Liberty fries. People still sell and eat French fries, and they'll still get oil. And if the lines get longer at the gas pump, they'll go to first gas pump they can get.

COX: I suppose that is the Michael Meyers version of quickly, and I appreciate it, because it's going to let us get out of here. Laura Washington, my apologies to you. We'll pick you up the next time. From our New York bureau, Michael Meyers…

Ms. WASHINGTON: Michael, I'll get you for that.

COX: …executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, along with Bob Meadows, staff writer for People magazine, and Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist at our Chicago bureau. Everybody, thank you very much.

Mr. MEADOWS: Thank you, Tony.

Mr. MEYERS: Thank you.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Thank you, Tony.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Next on NEWS & NOTES, a middle class on the verge of meltdown, and news from Guinea and Addis Ababa on our Africa Update.

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