Moments In 2008 That Kept Us Talking

As 2008 ends, Tell Me More revisits some of the year's most memorable headlines. Pamela Gentry, of BET News; Abderrahim Foukara, of Al Jazeera News Channel; Marcus Mabry, of the New York Times and NPR's Ken Rudin reflect on a broad range of defining events in 2008 — from a heated White House race to a domestic financial meltdown.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

As we look ahead at 2009, we decided to ask some of our contributors over the course of the year to help us remember this year's highlights. Joining us here in the studio in Washington are Pamela Gentry, she's the senior political analyst and blogger for BET. Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera International. Also with us today are Marcus Mabry, international business editor for the New York Times. Marcus is in our New York bureau. And joining us from his home office is NPR's senior political analyst Ken Rudin. I welcome all of you. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. PAMELA GENTRY (Senior Political Analyst and Blogger, BET): Thank you.

Mr. ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA (Washington Bureau Chief, Al Jazeera International): Thank you.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: An historic year for any number of reasons, obviously. The - I don't think we could start any other way but with the presidential campaign. The first viable, I think, female and first viable African-American presidential candidates. Let's begin with a clip from Senator Hillary Clinton when she talked about why she was running for president.

(Soundbite of speech)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): You know, I have so many opportunities from this country. I just don't want to see us fall backwards, you know.

(Soundbite of audience applause)

MARTIN: Such a pivotal moment because there - this was, for some, a turning point in the campaign. This was a moment in which Senator Clinton's campaign rallied. But one of the things that's interesting to note is how she was seen as the inevitable candidate. Now Ken Rudin, you look back at all the predictions at the beginning of the year. Everybody said, it's hers to lose and so - so how could so many smart people get it so wrong?

RUDIN: Well, because there was somebody smarter, and that was Barack Obama, and people did not see that. And of course, Hillary Clinton, having been the first lady for eight years, having had a roll-a-dex(ph), having had money from contributors all around the world, and as we see from the Bill Clinton releasing of documents, the Clintons had more - wielded more campaign contribution than any would imagine.

But the clip you just played was right before the New Hampshire primary when people were saying, how could you do this? How can you stand up to this - all this pressure? And she broke down. That, perhaps, was almost Hillary Clinton's highlight of 2008 because people saw her in different way, and she went on to win the New Hampshire primary. But when Barack Obama won Iowa, it was a 95 percent white state, and it sent a signal to so many people, including African-Americans because if you remember, the leaders in the African-American community, the Charlie Rangel's, the John Lewis', they got on board Hillary Clinton early because they thought, as you said, she was not only viable, she was inevitable. They kept talking about the inevitability.

When Barack Obama won South Carolina a few weeks later and saw the huge turnout of African-American voters, now we saw both whites and blacks saying, there's something. There was a big sea change of politics in this country.

MARTIN: Pam Gentry, what about that? I mean, I would put Charlie Rangel in a different category, though, because he is a New York congressman, and I just think it's kind of a no-brainer to support your senator, especially if it's a Senator Clinton. But the others, as Ken Rudin pointed out, a lot of the sort of the old lions of the civil rights movement were, in fact, supporting Senator Clinton. So, Pam Gentry, what's your take?

Ms. GENTRY: Well, there's - it was a very emotional time in the Congressional Black Caucus because I covered them, you know, very closely for years. And the split in the caucus - it got so that their Wednesday meetings were almost - some people were just deciding not to go or to come late and leave early. But you know, I was also in Iowa, and I've been in Iowa for 2000 and 2004, and I had never seen a ground game like I had seen with the Obama campaign. It was not a fluke that he won in Iowa.

There were more campaign offices I've never seen. He did like a community organizer, everyone says that now. But there were so many campaign offices in cities I had gone to in the past that had never had campaign offices. And I was concerned that Hillary's visibility in that state wasn't as high. But when you talked on the college campuses in particularly, which is an area that BET was most interested in because of our younger demographic, it was like a sea change. It was an Obama phenomena. It wasn't, you know - I said, I've never seen this many kids involved.

MARTIN: Let's - speaking of the Obama phenomenon, let's hear from the president-elect on election night. And we just have a short clip, and Abderrahim, I want to hear about the way the rest of the world is reacting to this. Can we play the short clip of the president-elect on election night? Here it is.

(Soundbite of speech)

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.

MARTIN: Abderrahim, obviously, this - that statement draws together so much of the American past, so much of the Americans psyche. But internationally, does this election have a similar force, in your view? Are there strains of sort of history and politics sort of coming together in a way that has meaning beyond an election?

Mr. FOUKARA: I think for a lot of people outside the United States, especially in the part of the world that I come from, the Middle East, people were caught up either in their excitement about Barack Obama ortheir cynicism about Barack Obama's chances. And I think what was lost in the picture for several months, even while Barack Obama was making these incredible gains during the primaries, was that Barack Obama is obviously is an incredibly smart candidate, but he's also a tough candidate who never hesitated to do what he had to do.

When Jeremiah Wright, for example, became a problem for him, he disavowed Jeremiah Wright. When Jeremiah Wright's church, which was Barack Obama's church, became a problem for Barack Obama's candidacy, he didn't hesitate to disown the church. So a lot of people sort of overlooked that this is an incredibly smart guy but he's an incredibly tough and pragmatic guy.

And now that we're in the grip of this madness going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians, I think for a lot of people in the region this is going to be a real test. People who were very excited about a Barack Obama presidency and thought that a lot of things are going to change, they're going to see how Barack Obama - they're going to watch Barack Obama very closely to see whether he can actually be substantially - in terms of policymaking - different from George Bush.

MARTIN: I'm glad you brought that up because I was going to ask you about that. As we are speaking, we are in the throws of this - of a sort of intense conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, that the Israelis are shelling the Gaza Strip, and they're saying that this is in retaliation for rocket fire being sent into Israeli territory from Gaza, and there have been some 300 casualties on the Palestinian side so far. But one of the ironies, of course, is that Barack Obama's initial distinction in the field of Democratic candidates was his determination to get out of Iraq. And this was one of the markers that he laid down. He was one of those who opposed the war initially. Do you feel that the issue of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East in general somehow got disappeared over the course of the campaign?

Mr. FOUKARA: I think he did what he had to do with regard to the issues of - issues like Iraq. He said what, I think, he felt he had to say about Iraq, which is that we're going to withdraw, to begin withdrawing within the first 16 months. This is what he said initially. And then later on, he started to fine-tune the message. And I think he started to fine-tune the message because finally he was getting advice that the situation in Iraq may not be as easy to get out of as he told his political supporters here in the United States. And I think he may well live to see Iraq become a much tougher problem for him than he'd actually painted it out to be.

MARTIN: Marcus Mabry, we haven't forgotten about you. Of course, one of the - we only have about a minute left, but we're going to take a short break and come back to you. One of the issues that I think led to foreign policy taking a back seat to domestic policy was, of course, our economic crisis. When you look back over the course of the year, did you - as you began last year, did you in any way anticipate this? And this is not a judgment about your reporting skills. I'm just wondering, as we were thinking about the stories we'd be covering over the course of the year, did you ever think that this would be the headline over the year?

Mr. MARCUS MABRY (International Buisness Editor, New York Times): Well, not to, you know, to give myself undue credit, yes. In 2007, we saw a serious beginning of a very dire meltdown of credit markets and financial institutional weakness. It was really clear that housing had been in a bubble. Many economists, many columnists in the mainstream press had been saying that for a very long time. What was unclear was the magnitude of the crisis that would ensue in 2008. No one anticipated the magnitude of this crisis.

And it's kind of a sad thing, I think, from a historical point of view. 2008 will be remembered for two things. Number one, an historic, groundbreaking election that transfixed the entire planet and the first election of an African-American president. And number two, it will be remembered as America's annus horribilis, as the Queen of England once said of another year in England. This was the year that our economic train came to a halt and...

MARTIN: And we need to take a halt right here, just for a brief moment, Marcus. We'll come straight back to you after a short break. We're going to continue our year-end review. And, as your portfolio(ph) isn't in such a great shape, there is no reason you can't be. We'll have some tips from Men's Fitness magazine editor Roy Johnson. Please stay with us. That's all next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, we'll have some tips on how to look great in the New Year. We'll talk to the editor of Men's Fitness magazine.

But first, we're going to continue our conversation about news that made an impact in 2008. Joining us here in the studio are Pamela Gentry, she's senior political analyst and blogger for BET. Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera Interational. Also with us are Marcus Mabry, international business editor for the New York Times. Marcus is in New York. And joining us from his home office is NPR's senior political analyst Ken Rudin. Welcome back to everybody.

But Marcus, as we were taking a break, we were speaking to you about the economic situation. Looking ahead now, if you would, so many things are now on the president-elect's plate. And this resurgence of this violence in the Gaza Strip, as Abderrahim was just pointing out, brings the Middle East back to the forefront of the headlines, where it has not been previously. But what do you think the president-elect is going to have to tackle first?

Mr. MABRY: Well, no questions, it's going to have to be the economy. It's going to have to be this, you know, what could now end up being a trillion-dollar stimulus or darn close to it to get the American economy moving again. I think it's going to - it's really kind of, I think, ironic, that we see this eruption in the Gaza Strip once again thrusting foreign policy back to the front of the agenda because that always - it so often seems to happen with every presidency.

Remember George W. Bush? He was not supposed to have a foreign policy presidency. The country was at peace, as long as you're not making expansion. He was supposed to be dealing with domestic issues. That's one of the reasons he won. If there had been an understanding this was going to be a foreign policy presidency, it's very likely you would have had President Gore, who actually would have won the electoral college as well as the popular vote. So every time, every president is derailed from what he sees as his agenda, and I wonder if it's going to be the case again.

Barack Obama is going to have to concentrate like a laser on the American economy. Millions of Americans are going to lose their jobs next year. This economic downturn is far from over, and what we've seen in this very anemic retail season is just a little beginning of the pressure that companies are going to be under, and that pressure - economic pressure of companies is going to lead to a real pressure to lay off millions more of Americans. So he's going to have to concentrate on the economy, but foreign policy is hardly going to go away.

MARTIN: I'd like to ask each of the rest of our panelists in the time that we have left, what are those stories or issues that we did not give as much attention to over the course of the year that are now going to have to get the president-elect's attention? Abderrahim?

Mr. FOUKARA: Well, I mean, begin with Gaza because it seems to me that this situation - the current situation in Gaza ties into a whole host of other issues in the Middle East, ties into the issue of Hezbollah in Lebanon, it ties into the issue of Iran, it ties into the issue of Syria. And all these are going to be incredibly pressing issues competing for the attention of Barack Obama. We don't know where the current conflict is between the Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza is actually going to lead. My sense is that eventually, wherever it leads to, it's going to be - whether it's going to be Lebanon, Syria or Iran - Barack Obama is going to have a hard time not dealing with that particular part of the world as a top priority.

MARTIN: Ken Rudin, what about you? One of the things that I was thinking was is that the immigration issue, in part because Barack Obama and John McCain were not that far apart on the issue - had a far less intensity at the end of the year than it did at the beginning. But what is your view of the sort of issues that perhaps we did not pay as much attention to that the president-elect cannot afford to ignore going forward?

RUDIN: Well, there are so many issues that he cannot - I mean, remember when John McCain tried to postpone the presidential debate, Barack Obama said, look, you know, I'm able to multitask. I can do two things at once. I can walk and chew gum at the same time. So we keep talking about - you know, we keep dismissing the fact or accepting the fact that Barack Obama says we need at least 100,000 more troops in Afghanistan, for example. If Afghanistan - if the causalities in Afghanistan become what Iraq had been in 2005-2006, that could be another blowup on his watch, as well.

Before I go, though, just two things. If we're mentioning the historic nature of the 2008 election, don't forget people who spent their whole life trying to make this happen. Johnny Carr, 97 years old, who joined Rosa Parks in the bus boycott. She died this year. The Reverend James Orange, who was jailed prior to the Montgomery march. Two people of many people who gave their whole lives or spent their whole lives trying to make 2008 possible.

MARTIN: Well said. Thank you for that. Pam Gentry, final thought from you.

Ms. GENTRY: I think that one of the things we have to really look at is the whole thing of race relations, and I also want to say the thing about the political landscape. There are a lot of people who haven't run for office, who haven't taken on that public service road because they didn't think they could win. Whether it was a county council seat, a city council seat or go up against an incumbent for Congress. I think that the landscape is going to increase. It's going to be because of Hillary Clinton and because of Barack Obama's successes. And I think we're going to see a lot of new faces join the political landscape in the coming year.

MARTIN: Well, these are not new faces that I am happy to have with us at our table, and we hope you'll join us again in the new year. Happy New Year to all of you, and thank you for your contributions to the program throughout the course of the year and hopefully in the coming year. Thank you all.

Mr. FOUKARA: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. GENTRY: It's a pleasure.

RUDIN: Happy New Year.

Mr. MABRY: Happy New Year.

MARTIN: Pam Gentry is senior political analyst and blogger for BET. Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. They were both kind enough to join me in our Washington, D.C. studios. Also with us from New York, Marcus Mabry, the international business editor for the New York Times. And joining us from his own office, NPR senior political analyst Ken Rudin. Thanks again.

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