Year In Review With Daniel Schorr

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Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr discusses the big news of 2008 with host Scott Simon.


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. 2008 may be remembered in the same company as 1932 or 1960, an election year that represents a new era in American history.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

SIMON: That's Barack Obama in his first moments as president-elect speaking in Chicago's Grant Park on election night. For such a civil ending, it had been a rambunctious campaign for president, with forums, debates and much excitement created by another new name on the national stage.

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull - lipstick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. But is it possible 2008 will join 1929 as a signpost of economic failure?

Secretary HENRY PAULSON (Department of the Treasury): As you know, we're working through a difficult period in our financial markets right now as we work off some of the past excesses.

SIMON: That's Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. NPR's senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us now for our year in review. Hello, Dan.

DANIEL SCHORR: Hi, Scott and greetings of the season.

SIMON: Greetings of the season to you. Barack Obama of Illinois is elected president of the United States in 2008 after a long campaign that also included women, Hispanic, Mormon and Italian-American candidates. Of course, he's 47, went to Harvard law, came of age in Chicago, and is the first African-American to be elected president. Let me take advantage of your experience. When you were born, can I say in 1916?

SCHORR: You can say it.

SIMON: A third of the country was officially segregated.


SIMON: The rest of the country unofficially so. Many African-Americans couldn't vote, couldn't use public facilities. What is the significance of Mr. Obama's election? What does it say about America?

SCHORR: It's a new age in America. It take steps, one after the other, and sometimes taking a very long time. And after civil rights and after getting legal rights and constitutional rights, there comes a point when a black can aspire to be the president of this country. Do you know what struck me a great deal is that several people who voted against Obama still have expressed themselves as feeling elevated by the fact that an African-American had been elected.

SIMON: Abraham Lincoln famously said, I have not controlled events. They have controlled me.


SIMON: Will this new president from Illinois find that his agenda is going to be dictated by the financial crisis?

SCHORR: Oh, there is no question. I mean, it was a fact that he comes into office at a time of global economic crisis. No one knows how it will end. But the most important thing, at this point, for a new president is to re-establish confidence in the United States that it is able to pull itself out. And so clearly, he'll come into office completely wrapped up in getting what they call a stimulus package, now a recovery package, of many, many billions or maybe up to trillion dollars. Yes, there is no question that the economic crisis will hang over him as his first and perhaps greatest challenge.

SIMON: How does it happen in this day and age when weather forecasters say that they can see hurricanes building for weeks, that it seems to me, almost literally, overnight America learns it's on the verge of the worst financial crisis since the Depression?

SCHORR: Well, we have accepted the dictate according to Greenspan or according to President Bush that the free market takes care of everything. Just leave the free market to do what it will, and it will take care of everything. So, you don't need to have the FTC look at them very closely 'cause the free market will take care of it. They found out very bitterly that free market doesn't always take care of it. And this is the death of a doctrine.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some specific instances of corruption. I don't mean to put them on the same scale at all, but, of course, there's Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich who's accused of trying to sell Barack Obama's old senate seat like a stolen TV off the back of a truck. And then, maybe even more spectacularly, Bernard Madoff has been accused of bilking $50 billion from investment plans. By the way, including Elie Wiesel's foundation.

SCHORR: That's right.

SIMON: Holocaust Education Foundation.

SCHORR: Well, there is some element in American life that has to do with the fact that you have to make money any given way. I'm not sure all Americans are all that way, but perhaps some of them and particularly some of those in politics, feel somehow entitled to get these things. So, Blagojevich, as governor of Illinois, thought, they owe me something. They owed Senator Stevens something. They all feel owed something. And then there is Madoff for whom I really have no answer because the people that he bilked were people to whom he should have felt the closest.

SIMON: The war in Iraq, U.S. military and Iraqi civilian casualties for that matter are at a low point. Can President-elect Obama nevertheless keep his pledge to - his aspiration to withdraw U.S. forces within 16 months?

SCHORR: There is no problem, apparently. It's all been agreed upon now between Iraq and the United States government. It's all supposed to happen in the next two years, and if there is reason for them to stay, then they asked if they can stay and that can be negotiated. I think that, for once, that problem has been solved. And there's one promise that the president-elect has given, of getting them out within 16 months, probably can be fulfilled.

SIMON: What about the closure of the - Guantanamo? Because sources in the incoming administration now say it might take two years.

SCHORR: Yes, and he has promised to do that as soon as he can. What he's finding out is what many people have noticed, that closing it is not all that easy. What do you do with the people? Do you send them to America and have them tried them in American courts because they haven't been tried by a military commission? Do you send them to some country where they may be killed or tortured or something like that? Once you've got this thing, you own it, and getting rid of it, I think, is going to take some effort.

SIMON: Is Afghanistan a new-old battleground, if I might put it that way?

SCHORR: Well, it's old. I don't know how new it is. It's old, and it's getting worse. Whereas in Iraq, things are looking measurably better, in Afghanistan, they continue to look worse and worse. And so, there will be, in the coming year, undoubtedly, more reinforcements sent to Afghanistan. And Afghanistan will really begin to take the place of Iraq as a principal military concern.

SIMON: Polls indicate that President George Bush is the least popular president since Harry Truman. But it is often noted Harry Truman is pretty popular now, at least among historians. What do you see, without the advantage of hindsight at this point, as the Bush legacy?

SCHORR: Well, I don't have the advantage of hindsight, but, while it is true that President Truman came to be better appreciated after he was gone then when he was there, I don't have the feeling that is going to happen very soon, at least, with President Bush. He's now been associated with a great economic crisis. It was on his watch that it happened. People are waking up to the fact that he took America into a war looking for weapons that never were there in the first place. And I think that his title of the most disrespected president, I think, is going to be secure for a while.

SIMON: Does he at least deserve credit for the fact that no other terrorist attack occurred on the soil of the United States since the fall of 2001? And there was a time when people assumed that more attacks would follow.

SCHORR: Yeah. And they can claim that credit, and it may be so. We never know. And even, you know, we speak now and say there's been no attack on the United States in this year, and then I have to add, at least not so far, because you always have to keep your fingers crossed. But yes, it is true that it's gone well, but not necessarily around the world. In Mumbai, that is the former Bombay, they have had this enormous attack which may lead to more trouble now between Pakistan and India. You know, terrorism is a global problem. It's hard to measure it out and say, America is safe, and this place is not safe. None of us are safe.

SIMON: 2008 saw the passing of many remarkable people, Bill Buckley, the conservative, George Carlin, the comedian, Bo Diddley, the bluesman, Sir Edmund Hillary, the climber, Eartha Kitt, the chanteuse, Heath Ledger, the actor, Sydney Pollack, a statesman of cinema, Dith Pran, who survived the killing fields of Cambodia, became his own inspiring story, Mark Felt, who was Deep Throat, and Paul Newman, with whom you have a connection.

SCHORR: Well, Paul Newman and I share something. His name was after mine on a Nixon's enemies' list back in 1971. And when we discovered that, we began corresponding and began our friendship, where I never meet him, but we have a lot in common.

SIMON: Happy New Year, Dan.

SCHORR: And to you.

(Soundbite of music)

ODETTA: (Singing) Oh, freedom...

SIMON: Among the other lives who were mourned and celebrated in 2008 was Odetta. She was born in segregated Birmingham, 78 years ago, and became known as the voice of the American civil rights movement. She'd hoped to sing at President Obama's inauguration next month, just as she'd sung on the Capitol Mall for the march on Washington in 1963. But many of the millions of people who are expected to come to Washington, D.C. next month, they remember some of the songs Odetta sang for the freedom writers, freedom marchers and martyrs, for that movement in history that seemed to reach another triumph in 2008.

(Soundbite of song "God's Gonna Cut You Down")

ODETTA: (Singing) You may run home for a long time, run home for a long time. You may run home for a long time. Let me tell you God Almighty gonna cut you down. Go tell that long-tongued liar, go tell that midnight rider Tell the gambler, rambler, backbiter Tell 'em God Almighty gonna cut 'em down. Stop God Almighty let me tell you the news. My head's been wet with the midnight dews. I've been down on my bended knees talkin' to the man from Galilee. My God spoke, spoke so sweet. I thought I heard the shuffle of angels feet He put one hand on my head. Great God almighty let me tell you what he said Go tell that long-tongued liar Go tell that midnight rider Tell the gambler, rambler, back biter Tell 'em God Almighty gonna cut 'em down You may throw a rock, hide your hand, working in the dark against your fellow men. But sure as God made the day and night What you do in the dark will be brought to light. You may running hard, slip and slide. Try to take the moat from the neighbor's eyes. But sure as there is the rich and the poor, You're gonna reap my brother just what you sow. You may run home for a long time Run home for a long time You may run home for a long time. Let me tell you God Almighty gonna cut you down. Some people go to church just to signify. Trying to make a date with his neighbor's wife. But neighbor let me tell you just as sure as you're born, You better leave that woman, Yes, leave her alone. 'Cause one of these days you just mark my word. You will think that brother is gone to work. You woke up, a knock on the door. That's all brother, you will knock no more. Go tell that long-tongued liar Go tell that midnight rider Tell the gambler, rambler, backbiter Tell 'em God Almighty's gonna cut 'em down

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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