MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We have our regular Friday features for you in Faith Matters. A 54-year-old federal law prohibits clergy from endorsing or opposing political candidates from the pulpit, but a group of pastors is hoping to change the law by breaking it. We'll hear from two pastors with two very different views on the issue in just a few minutes. But first a time for our weekly political chat. In less than a month, Americans will go to polls to chose the country's next president, Barack Obama and John McCain are both making their final case and as in any election both have criticized each others proposals, voting records, and campaign strategies. That's all part of the course, but now some believe the McCain campaign has gone too far.
Governor SARAH PALIN (Alaska, Republican, Vice Presidential Candidate): Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.
MARTIN: That of course was John McCain's running mate Sarah Palin on the campaign trail drawing attention to Obama's connection with former weather underground member William Ayers. That stump speech has now become the basis for an ad by the campaign on the web by the Republican National Committee and a third party group. And in recent days McCain campaign surrogates have publicly drawn attention to Obama's middle name Hussein. McCain is also taking heat for referring to Obama as that one during the last debate. All of this together has caused a number of people. Observers in the media, as well as Obama supporters to say that the McCain campaign is engaging in race baiting, and xenophobia in the race for the White House. Joining me now to talk about this CNN anchor Campbell Brown, she hosts a nightly program called Campbell Brown Election Center she joins us from New York. Chicago Sun Times columnist Mary Mitchell from Chicago, and here with me in our Washington studio one of our regular contributors, author and activist Asra Nomani, she is the author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. Thank you all so much for joining us.
Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Author, Standing Alone in Mecca): Thanks, Michel.
Ms. CAMPBELL BROWN (Host, Campbell Brown Election Center): Thank You
Ms. MARY MITCHELL (Columnist, Chicago Sun Times): Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: First I want to talk about the - who William Ayers is? Mary Mitchell you are a long time journalist in Chicago where Bill Ayers and Barack Obama met. Can you just briefly tell us who is William Ayers? How the two did meet?
Ms. MITCHELL: William Ayers is a - right now he's a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He is part of the civic fabric of the city, he belongs in a lot of boards, but in the 60s he was anti war, a radical and the founder of the Weathermen faction and course he was accused of planning to bomb the Pentagon. So, he was pretty much a radical.
MARTIN: And here's a clip from a Web ad posted by the McCain campaign, here it is.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Woman: We know, Ayers said. Regrets setting bombs, I feel we didn't do enough. But Obama's friendship with terrorist Ayers isn't the issue. The issue is Barack Obama's judgment and candor. When Obama just says, this is a guy who lives among neighborhood. Americans say where's the truth, Barack? Barack Obama too risky for America.
MARTIN: Asra, is this a fair question?
Ms. NOMANI: Oh, that ad is scary, you know, to me terrorism today equals Muslim, I mean didn't matter how you want to spend it whether you want it to take it back to the 60s. Nowadays, the message is clearly, Muslims are scary and this association to me is an attempt to again link Obama to the scary fundamentalist and radical extremist from the Muslim world.
MARTIN: Is it the ad per se or is it the surrogates along with this? It like sort of accumulative issue of surrogates calling attention to his middle name just Hussein or is it the ad per se? Or is it the discussion about this relationship per se?
Ms. NOMANI: It's been an ugly season for Muslims in America, I mean basically they have decided that for the most part we've got to have very low key ad toward this election. There is DVDs being airdropped across America right now called it was a DVD called Obsession that's sort of talks about the radical Muslim threat and it's part of this offense that a lot of Muslims are feeling about association to terrorism that Obama is being dragged into. To me it's a lot - it's the - it's everything all combined.
MARTIN: Campbell Brown what's your take on this?
Ms. BROWN: Well, I - look, I agree with Asra when someone says in a stump speech, Barack Obama pals around with terrorists - whether they are talking about Bill Ayers or not, the implication is clear in this day and age that that means Osama bin Laden, it means something else now. So, you're equating, you know, a 60's radical with Osama bin Laden essentially. I mean that's the underlying message and I think anybody can see that. I don't really think there's any question about it. I think for very cynical reasons what's happening is John McCain is well behind in the polls. Barack Obama has established a pretty comfortable lead especially in electoral states and the McCain campaign has made a strategic decision and they've been very upfront about this frankly that this is their best shot going completely negative and making this about character attacks. And I hate to say this because none of us like to see this in politics, but I fear it's going to get even uglier between now and election day.
Ms. MITCHELL: But the worst of it? The worst of it is that is the ad and the accusations are untrue. The fact of the matter is he knows William Ayers probably like he knows me, he knows me. He's on a board with the man, the man gives fund raisers because now he's a prominent part of Chicago circles. He gives one fund raisers when he's, Barack Obama runs for the senate. So, he's not paddling around with anyone, certainly not paddling with terrorists. And it really goes to the heart of fear mongering. That's the disgusting part of it is that this campaign - the McCain campaign is willing to go there.
MARTIN: The argument though that the McCain campaign would make is and its supporters would make is that - that it speaks to Obama's candor. That he's been asked about this relationship before and that he minimize it. So Mary and then Campbell, and like to hear from each of you on this is that a fair question?
Ms. MITCHELL: Of course not. He's been asked about it before and he told exactly what the relationship was. He lives in the neighborhood. Who gets to decide we're board, I'm on boards, but I can't tell you whose on the boards and what their background is. So, - and it doesn't mean that we're friends and that our families are friends because I'm on the board with them. He has a casual relationship with William Ayers and so I think that he said that, we've read that, I know I've read that. What do they want? They want him to say is more than what it is.
MARTIN: Campbell Brown?
Ms. BROWN: Well, look its politics. And all fair in politics and they have the right to bring up anything and everything and Barack Obama has a right to shoot it down. I think, the bottom line which is refreshing for everybody in this is that the economy is trumping all of this. The strategy isn't working. If you just look at the poll numbers, it doesn't matter in a way. And no matter how ugly it gets and Barack Obama is firing back pretty hard as well, we should point out here. People are not -don't seem to be in lace again, if you look at the polls, obsessing over this, they're talking about other things. They're talking about their pocket book issues. We're in economic crisis right now, and that seems to be trumping all of these.
MARTIN: Let me just jump here and just for a minute to say if you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with CNN anchor Campbell Brown, Author Asra Nomani, and Chicago Sun Times columnist Mary Mitchell. And we're talking about the presidential contest and whether race baiting has become part of the presidential race. I want to play a clip from this week - a rally. Here's John McCain at a recent campaign rally and this is what happened. Here it is.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican Presidential Candidate): Who is the real Barack Obama?
MARTIN: Now what you're hearing - people, what they're screaming is 'terrorist.' They're screaming, sort of, 'terrorist. ' And what bothers - I think some people is not so much the actual discussion of the point of the relationship with William Ayers, it's that, who is he yelling. You know, why is this kind of this tone, a kind of anger and resentment. And Campbell, I want to ask, is this is just politics or something else being appealed to here that has some consequences for after the election.
Ms. BROWN: Well, I - this is where I think that we have to examine these instances, these cases individually because I talked about this on my show a little bit. I think what's happening in these campaign rallies is frightening and I think there is race baiting going on. I was out on the campaign trail in 2004-2000 with George W. Bush and I never saw anything like this at rallies. It's the kind of anger that exists in the people standing up and the circuits for McCain introducing Obama is Barack Hussein Obama. That was something that John McCain denounced very strongly early in the campaign. Far less strongly now, you get sort of the paper statement from the campaign saying, well we don't support that, but you're seeing things from this crowd. Like you heard, people shouting 'terrorist,' people shouting 'kill' - I mean, this is crazy to me.
MARTIN: But you also - in your commentary this week you called out the campaign for engaging this kind of conduct, but you also said that people who criticized McCain for saying that one are being over-sensitive in the context.
Ms. BROWN: That's where I think we need to be careful because, you know, when you do - you know I heard my grandfather use that term a million times talking about us. I don't know whether that was - you know, I don't think - my impression was that, that's not racial. I mean, maybe it was disrespectful but I don't think there is a racial undertone there.
MARTIN: Mary Mitchell? Mary Mitchell?
Ms. MITCHELL: I think there's been enough going on that is clear that the McCain campaign is engaging and encouraging its supporters to act in appropriate way. Frankly, if Obama supporters had been standing out there yelling kill him, or using racial slurs, or abusing white members of the media, we would be talking about why hasn't Obama denounced this? Why hasn't he apologized? No one has put pressure on McCain or Sarah Palin to tone down their rallies and apologize and say, look, this is unacceptable here.
MARTIN: Campbell, have you experienced this when you have been out? Have you had people since - in this latest couple of days, people screaming? Have you seen this? Have your crews experienced this when they've been out, people yelling at them?
Ms. BROWN: No. I mean, I'm an anchor now, so I'm in the studio. I haven't been out in the campaign trail. But, you know, I' can only report anecdotally what we've seen and frankly, the video has captured it. I don't think there's any question about what's happening at some of these rallies. I think my only point is, you know, there are certain real instances of this happening and when we make hay over things like that one that, you know, maybe weren't intended in that way, I think clearly, weren't intended in that way. It sort of undermined the argument there is real race baiting going on and I think we need to point it out when we see it.
MARTIN: We can spend a couple more minutes on this conversation, but we need to take a short break now. We will continue our conversation about race has become - part of the race or rather race baiting has become part of the race in the presidential contest. We're speaking with Chicago Sun Times columnist Mary Mitchell, CNN anchor Campbell Brown and author Asra Nomani. Please stay with us. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We're continuing our conversation about whether race has been inappropriately injected into the presidential campaign. The McCain campaign is emphasizing Barack Obama's relationship to William Ayers. He's a former member of the 1960s radical group, the Weather Underground. McCain supporters say that Obama has not been honest about his connection to Ayers. That relationship speaks to Obama character. Critics say it's really an attempt to play it to racist assumptions that Obama is a Muslim with anti-American leanings. My guests to talk about this are CNN anchor Campbell Brown, writer and Muslim-American activist Asra Nomani and Chicago Sun Times columnist Mary Mitchell. Before the break, Asra, we were talking about he 'that one' comment in the last, in the second presidential debate that took place this week where John McCain, talking about an energy bill, pointed to Barack Obama and said 'that one.' And for some people there like African-American members of Congress, for example, who issued statements about this thing, you know, that just goes too far. There's something sort of demeaning about that. What do you think about that?
NOMANI: Well, you know...
MARTIN: And of course, you just heard Campbell say, come on, folks. You know, it's - let's...
NOMANI: And maybe - right.
MARTIN: And maybe it was just age. Maybe it was just rude.
NOMANI: Right. And maybe generational, but I think right now in the 21st century, it's the language of separatism and that's what is at stake right here. I mean, when we talked about fear mongering and race baiting, what is at stake is where we're going, I feel like, as an electorate. You know, everybody focuses a lot on Barack's middle name, Hussein, as a trigger point. For me, I don't know what the inspiration was for his first name. But for me, Barack is a word that describes this mythical winged creature that the prophet Muhammad supposedly flew from Mecca to Jerusalem. And it may or may not have been the inspiration for his name. But to me, we have to rise above these ideas that politics means being ugly, I think, because what is at stake is identity of people who are part of America - Muslims, African Americans, people of color. And the idea that we are other and that we are to be distrusted and that we are not part of this patriotism and loyalty is, to me, really sad.
MARTIN: It's a signal to you that the McCain campaign doesn't care about your sensibilities and doesn't really want your vote as an American - as a Muslim American.
NOMANI: Yeah. And I also believe what we're doing then is going to the worst of our community and our society. You know, when we criticize Muslim communities for burning the American flag, we have to make sure that we don't become like them. You know, we may not actually burn and, you know, torch Kentucky Fried Chickens like they do over there as symbols against the West, but we can't go to this lower level, I think.
MARTIN: Mary Mitchell, what do you think that John McCain should do, though, about this? I mean...
Ms. MITCHELL: Well, let me just go back for one second to the 'that one' comment and try to put it in some context here. I was watching the debate with a friend who was from the south - grew up in the south, experienced a lot of racism in the south. And when he made that comment, that one over there, sort of - and that body language of his, he was shocked. But me, I was like, oh, that's just a rude way and a disrespectful way of - a dismissive way of referring to his opponent. So whether you see this - I don't think people are just kind of making up that or really just not considering the fact that there is real racism out there and real examples of racism in the McCain campaign. I think it depends on what your background is, how you see that remark.
MARTIN: Campbell, you - go ahead, Campbell Brown.
Ms. CAMPBELL: Sorry, Michel. I just wanted to make kind of a big picture point here. Because you know, at the very - if you just go back in the very beginning of this campaign, I think all of us thought about race because it was unprecedented. We are in uncharted territory here. This is the first time we've had an African-American presidential nominee and I think a lot of us thought that race was going to dominate the discussion in this campaign in many ways. And I think despite the conversation we're having now and despite the fact that these issues are on the table and they are relevant, by and large we are finding that real substantive, the economy, are dominating.
Ms. MITCHELL: I would disagree. I would disagree totally.
MARTIN: Go ahead now.
Ms. MITCHELL: The whole - Reverend Jeremiah Wright...
MARTIN: Hold on a second, Mary Mitchell. Let Campbell finish her point, then I'd love to hear from you. Campbell?
Ms. BROWN: I just - Time magazine has a cover story out on race right now, and they are citing a national poll that says overwhelmingly by a nine-to-one margin, race is not a factor in this campaign. It said that, you know, if you look at these polls - and maybe they're wrong, yeah, maybe they're wrong and on Election Day, we'll find out. But that - people are saying, I don't care if you are black, white, purple. The economy is in crisis here and I want the best, most confident leader in the White House. That's where the polls are directing.
MARTIN: OK, Mary Mitchell?
Ms. MITCHELL: OK. The poll, that maybe be true but then it's just kind of in conflict with the AP-Yahoo poll from Stanford University that we just talked about the fact that Barack Obama may be six percentage points more ahead if it were not for race. But going back to race hasn't been a part of this, I think overall the country has done a good job looking at all of these candidates even in the primary and talking about the issues. But the issues that dominated, the issues that dominated - Reverend Wright, I mean, we talked about Reverend Wright to the point that Obama had to actually get off of his speaking points and actually go out and give a big speech on race. He would have never done that had radio stations, TV stations, pundits, not hammered and hammered and hammered over generally.
MARTIN: We're down to our last minute. So Mary, I want to ask you and then I'm going to ask Asra and give her the final word. You mentioned that he took this - made a major speech, which was extremely well-received, about race in America. Does he need to do it again?
Ms. MITCHELL: No. You know what, no. Who needs to do it is McCain. Someone else needs to do it. He's already made a major speech. Why shouldn't other candidates who want to represent all of America, why aren't they making speeches about race?
MARTIN: OK. Asra Nomani, final point to you.
NOMANI: I just think that, you know, the politicians may do what they do. But we as people and members of the public have to be smart to this politics of demonizing and not be victims to it.
MARTIN: Asra Nomani joined me here in our Washington studio. She's the author of "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam." She's also a regular contributor to this program. CNN anchor Campbell Brown joined us from New York where she anchors the nightly program, "Campbell Brown Election Center." And Chicago Sun Times columnist Mary Mitchell joined us from member station WBEC in Chicago. Ladies, I thank you all so much for joining us.
Ms. MITCHELL: Thanks, Michel. ..TEXT: Ms. BROWN: Absolutely.