MICHEL MARTIN, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Michel Martin in for Farai Chideya.
There's big buzz about Democratic senator Joseph Biden this week, but it's not exactly the kind of excitement he was hoping for. After announcing his decision to enter the 2008 presidential race on Wednesday, Biden found himself launching a campaign of damage control.
In an interview with the New York Observer, Biden described Illinois Senator Barack Obama, also a budding presidential contender, as the first mainstream African-American who's articulate, bright and clean, and a nice looking guy. Oops. The blogger's fair went crazy. Biden had to back pedal. And now some pundits are even wondering whether his campaign is over already. How bad is it? We'll ask a group of experts.
Judy Smith knows a thing or two about damage control. She's a crisis communications consultant who has advised high profile clients like former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and embattled Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson. Judy is an attorney; she also served as deputy press secretary to former President George H. W. Bush. She now heads impact strategies in Washington D.C. Welcome, Judy.
Ms. JUDY SMITH (Communications Consultant): Good to be here.
MARTIN: Also with us, is Robert George, a regular Roundtable contributor. Robert was former senior writer for former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Now he writes editorials for the New York Post. Hi, George. I'm sorry, hi, Robert.
Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (Editorial Writer, New York Post): Hi, Martin. I'm sorry. Michel.
MARTIN: I'm dazzled by your presence, sorry. And also joining us, Ron Walters, another NEWS & NOTES regular. He rounds out our panel. Ron worked with Reverend Jesse Jackson during his political campaigns. He teaches leadership and government at the University of Maryland in College Park. Welcome, Professor Walters.
Professor RON WALTERS (Leadership and Government, University of Maryland): Hello, everybody.
MARTIN: Was this a big oops or a little oops, Judy?
Ms. SMITH: I think this was a big oops. I think it certainly affects his campaign tremendously. And what he failed to do in trying to clean up the oops was to make the oops worse. If you recall in his statement he mentioned that, well, I'm sure Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would understand what I meant by what I was trying to say. And instead of ending it, he just invited comment from Reverend Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and said, no, he had no idea. They have actually no idea what he meant.
MARTIN: So yeah, he made it worse.
Ms. SMITH: Yes, absolutely. Instead of ending it. Absolutely.
MARTIN: Ron Walters, big oops or little oops?
Prof. WALTERS: Yeah, I think it's big. And the reason of course is the political effect of it and that this is a crowded field. And you don't make a lot of areas in this field. The marginal errors are the ones that's going to kill you. And with the black base of course, the black base is very important to the Democratic primary, it constitutes anywhere from 20, 25 percent of the vote. So you cannot afford, you know, to come to that particular constituency making errors.
MARTIN: Robert George, I'm thinking some people might not see what the big deal is. So I think we should go down the list of adjectives and see exactly what caused the ruckus. I'm going to make a command decision and take out nice looking men, because I think we all agree he is fine. OK, let's start with mainstream, problem?
Mr. GEORGE: Well, obviously there's this question of what constitutes mainstream. I would say that is the mildest of it. However, if you listened to the tape, the actual phrase he said, he is the first sort of mainstream. So that also - there's a qualifier in there which I didn't understand. But mainstream, I would say, is the least problematic word in entire statement.
MARTIN: Judy, Ron, is mainstream a problem? Is that what caused the problem?
Ms. SMITH: I don't think that's caused the main problem, but certainly it was one of those things that was inaccurate that he failed to correct.
Mr. GEORGE: I think when he said…
Prof. WALTERS: Well, I think mainstream, he's talking about of something else, though. I think let's be clear. He's talking about a candidate that appeals to the white majority. And that's sort of a subtext to this that allows…
MARTIN: And that was part of the problem. Is that you feel that he's maybe signaling something.
Mr. GEORGE: I also thought he was talking about somebody who's coming out not so much out of, say, the civil rights movement, but more of a sort of secular-based politics. That was my kind of interpretation for that.
MARTIN: African-American, was that a problem?
Mr. GEORGE: No.
MARTIN: No. OK. Articulate? Articulate, Ron Walters, is that a problem?
Prof. WALTERS: Well, yes, a problem obviously, because you're talking about Jesse Jackson, who gave arguably the best speech in the 1984 Democratic Convention. Well-regarded speech. He's always been articulate, eloquent. Same thing with Al Sharpton in the 2004 cycle. He came away from that having done a great speech and done very well (unintelligible).
MARTIN: His not (unintelligible), certainly not the first articulate (unintelligible)
Mr. GEORGE: And since we're here in New York City, let's not forget Shirley Chisholm, you know, who would be able to turn quite a phrase back, you know, back in the day as well.
MARTIN: What about the fact that that some people - African-Americans trying to patronize and to be called articulate, particularly if you're a public official whose job is to be articulate, to talk?
Mr. GEORGE: Well, I had this - when I was in college, I had some white roommates. And I would point out, I said whenever you hear the word articulate, nine times out of 10, if it's a commentator on TV, nine times out of 10, he's talking about a black person. Because they - it's a word that, it's kind of a condescending, it's supposed to be…
Prof. WALTERS: Well, it's a synonym for intelligence.
Mr. GEORGE: Well, it's a - oh my goodness, he's -
Prof. WALTERS: (unintelligible) synonym for intelligence, especially where African-Americans are concerned. Because, you know, they're not supposed to be familiar with the English language.
MARTIN: But is that, I'm just wondering if articulate is still kind of a thing that cause us African-Americans to bristle. Because I think there's been - I think it's fair to say that there's been a lot of commentary in recent years about the fact that our current president is not as articulate as he might be. I mean he may have other, you know, important leadership qualities. But the fact is all political figures are not articulate. So is it really wrong to point out when someone is?
Prof. WALTERS: But it's the same inference, even with president of the United States. I mean, because a lot of people think that there's something lacking in his intelligence. So this is really has to be regarded as a euphemism for that content.
MARTIN: OK, bright. Is bright - was bright the problem, calling him bright?
Mr. GEORGE: Well, I mean I think - again, all of these kind of things you can ask whether these are condescending in the terms of using them for - towards Barack Obama. But the inference is always that the people who came before him were not articulate, were not bright, were not (unintelligible)
MARTIN: Let's go to the big one, clean. Clean. Ron Walters?
Prof. WALTERS: Here we go. That one caused Al Sharpton to say I shave and I shower everyday. You know, and again it was a very crude and inarticulate way of trying to say that here is somebody who is a personable, attractive person.
MARTIN: Judy what - what do you - I mean, Mr. Biden can speak for himself. But clean, how did clean strike you?
Ms. SMITH: Clean I think was a very offensive. I think the whole statement together was offensive. Clean - that he once again appealed to the mainstream, that he was clean cut, that his look and his mannerism would be acceptable.
Mr. GEORGE: I also think he meant, he also could have meant ethically clean. He has - there's not a certain amount of baggage that might come…
Ms. SMITH: The only reason why I didn't think he meant that was because in the context in which he said that, it was really about bright, clean, and nice looking. So that's…
Prof. WALTERS: I don't think he meant that either, because…
MARTIN: You don't think he met free of political baggage?
Ms. SMITH: No.
Prof. WALTERS: No, because here is a candidate who's already admitted that he experimented with drugs. So he couldn't have meant that.
Mr. GEORGE: That's a good point
MARTIN: I'm going to move on to another topic in a minute, but he said that he was referring to a phrase his mother used to use, which is clean as a whistle, sharp as a tack. Do you buy that? Judy Smith, do you buy that?
Ms. SMITH: No, and I don't think anybody else bought that as well.
Ms. SMITH: Go ahead.
Mr. GEORGE: Even so, the entire thing though sounds - it sounds very patronizing. Now you can make a point that, you know, Biden is - whatever he was 61, 62, and so he's like looking at Obama as being a noticeably younger man, you know, who's in his mid-40s.
But he makes him sound like, if I can use this for expression here, makes him sound like a little boy saying, oh, you know, clean as a whistle, sharp as a tack kind of thing. And he is - Obama is a political rival, regardless. Now he wants to make points about his experience and all this other kind of stuff. Fine, but you know…
Prof. WALTERS: Well, you know…
MARTIN: Hold on a second, Ron. Let's move on to - let's move in to the whole question of how Biden has addressed this question.
Joe, you start to talk about this. His containment strategy, so far. He went on Comedy Central, and then he's been on Reverend Sharpton's radio show. And he called, you know, Barack Obama, he called Jesse Jackson, called Al Sharpton to kind of explain himself. What do you think about that? Do you think that's an effective way to address this?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I think it was an effective way to address it, except for the fact of what he said. I mean to use his phrase - he was inarticulate. The point that he made was that that was not what I meant to say. But when he was trying to explain what he meant to say, he invited further comment. He did not make any attempt early on whatsoever to clean up any of the inaccuracies, as our panel just pointed out, about there were so many other candidates running for president. And also I thought it was pretty interesting: There were not a lot of people that came to his defense saying, oh, he's not this kind of person that did not mean to say this, or did…
MARTIN: What should he do now? What should he do now?
Ms. SMITH: I think…
MARTIN: If you were advising him? If he were wise enough to hire you at this point, what would you tell him to do?
Ms. SMITH: I would tell him not to comment on it further and move along in the campaign, if he thinks that he has a chance.
MARTIN: Robert George.
Mr. GEORGE: I was just going to say that what little chance that Biden had in this crowded field is completely gone. If I was to advise him, I would tell him, you know, John Kerry realized that what little chance that he had in the Democratic primary this time around probably went away when he made that foolish joke right before the election in 2006.
And I think this is a case here. He's entered into a race and blown himself up in the first day.
MARTIN: Ron Walters, what do you think? Do you think he's got a chance still?
Prof. WALTERS: Well, no, I think that when you look at this, as I said, it's a crowded field. But it really shows something about a portrait of an individual who is unsophisticated in these kind of racial issues. And I think that that person is likely to stumble again, has already stumbled. He's made some errant comments about Native Americans.
Mr. GEORGE: And Pakistanis in 7/11 stores.
Prof. WALTERS: Yeah, Joe Biden has, you know, he has foot-in-mouth problem. He talks a lot and he's well known on the Hill as somebody who goes on and on and on without making a point. So in this case he made a point and it was the wrong one.
Ms. SMITH: The other thing I think that's knowable about it is that he was saying that he was running on his foreign policy experience and his ability to deal on foreign policy and leaders. Certainly this country is made up of individuals that have various backgrounds, and how would he deal with those individuals from foreign country and different racial and ethnical issues? I don't…
MARTIN: Judy, (unintelligible) because we really have a couple of seconds left, I want to ask whether - Ron Walters, maybe you could take this - if this actually poses a problem in a way for Democrats. Because this whole conversation not just being a problem for Joe Biden, but maybe a problem for Democrats in raising this question of whether Democrats are so caught up in racial politics that they have to spend days talking about something like this, which, you know, icky and personally offensive and just annoying. Does it give yet another - more to the sort of stereotypes that Democrats are just so caught up in racial politics that that's all they talk about? And I'm afraid I can give you like ten seconds to answer that question, I'm sorry.
Prof. WALTERS: No, all I have to do is point to macaca and Trent Lott.
Mr. GEORGE: Good job.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: OK. Ron Walters is a regular contributor to our Political Corner segment. He teaches government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park. Judy Smith is president of Impact Strategies, located in Washington D.C. And Robert George is a regular Roundtable contributor and an editorial writer for the New York Post. He's with us at NPR's New York Bureau. Thank you so much for all of you coming in.
Prof. WALTERS: Thank you.
Mr. GEORGE: Thank you.
Ms. SMITH: Thank you.