MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, what is ACORN? A community organization just trying to give poor and minority people better access to the ballot box or a corrupt group of partisans trying to tilt the election? We'll have two perspectives in just a few minutes. But first, with two weeks to go in this hard-fought presidential race, a major endorsement. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican, a top adviser to three Republican presidents crossed party lines over the weekend to endorse Democratic Senator Barack Obama. Powell made this statement on NBC's "Meet The Press."
(Soundbite of news show "Meet the Press")
General COLIN POWELL (Former U.S. Secretary of State): We've got two individuals, either one of them could be a good president. But which is the president that we need now? Which is the individual that serves the needs of the nation for the next period of time? And I came to the conclusion that because of his ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of his campaign, because he is reaching out all across America, because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities - and we have to take that into account - as well as his substance - he has both style and substance - he has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president. I think he is a transformational figure. He is a new generation coming into the world - onto the world stage, onto the American stage, and for that reason I'll be voting for Senator Barack Obama.
MARTIN: Joining us to talk about Powell's endorsement is Mark Whitaker, NBC's Washington D.C. bureau chief. Also with us is Professor Douglas Kmiec, he's the chair and professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He is also a Republican who's crossed party lines to endorse Barack Obama. We also hoped to be joined by the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, Michael Steele. He's currently chairman of GOPAC, a Republican political action committee dedicated to electing more Republicans to Congress. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. MARK WHITAKER (NBC Washington): Hi, Michel.
Professor DOUGLAS W. KMIEC (Professor of Constitutional Law, Pepperdine University): Nice to be with you.
MARTIN: Mark, I want to start with you, quite a coup for "Meet the Press." Can you shed any light on the timing of this? Why Colin Powell chose this venue? Why now? How it came together?
Mr. WHITAKER: Well, we've known for months that getting Colin Powell on the record on this election would be a great get as they say on our business. We started talking to him, Tom Brokaw's personal friend, before the conventions. He made it very clear that he didn't want to say anything until at least after the conventions and I think he explained yesterday on "Meet the Press" why he was really studying both candidates and both campaigns and hadn't, I think, completely made a judgment about where he stood and it was really based on what he saw in the last few months that he finally decided to come out in favor of Barack Obama.
MARTIN: He said that he would likely not be campaigning, but was he making any particular statement by choosing "Meet the Press"? Or was it simply a matter of comfort level with the venue, the rating, something of that sort? He did want to get attention to what he's doing.
Mr. WHITAKER: Well, I think he - finally when he decided to weigh in, wanted to have the maximum impact and "Meet the Press" is the leading Sunday show and, as I said, he also has a long-time relationship with Tom and obviously with Tim Russert before that.
MARTIN: Professor Kmiec, we invited you to the program because you had a similar journey. You were President Reagan's constitutional lawyer. You endorsed Barack Obama earlier this year and I understand that it was not an easy decision. So I wanted to talk a little bit about what factored into your decision to endorse Senator Obama and what it is like when you are contemplating a decision like that, that you know he's going to disappoint many friends and associates of long standing.
Prof. KMIEC: Well, it's the kind of decision that you don't come to lightly and one has to respect General Powell who, when I was privileged to work with him in the Reagan administration, one saw exactly the kinds of things you have to go through. You have to look at both substance and personal characteristics. One has to study, one has to be fair. I noticed the way that General Powell framed his response. He said both men were good men capable of being president but that after study, Senator Obama was the person who was the right man for the right time.
And in his answer, he gave all of the elements that were important to me, namely the personal judgment and temperament of Senator Obama being a deliberative man, substantive agreement and by this, it means that he has indeed reached out to take into account many issues that are important to Republicans and Democrats alike, fiscal responsibility, a sound foreign policy, attention to the needs of education and of the economy at home. And also, General Powell was frank about the fact that there was substantive disagreement in the way in which Senator McCain had chosen to campaign. All of those things were factors in my mind. It doesn't surprise me that they influenced General Powell as well.
MARTIN: We're going to be joined now by Armstrong Williams. He's a conservative commentator. He's with us on the phone. Armstrong, were you surprised by General Powell's decision?
Mr. ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS (Conservative Author, TV host, and Columnist): No, not at all.
MARTIN: Why not?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Because earlier in the summer there was a piece on cnn.com where General Powell and myself and other conservatives were contemplating supporting Senator Barack Obama. It was not beyond thinking about it as possibly doing it so I'm not surprised. He tinkered with this all summer and plus he's met with him on many occasions. He's developed a relationship with him and he's gotten to know him. So no, it's not a surprise. In fact, it was expected.
MARTIN: It was expected?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes.
MARTIN: Any particular reason why? He said on "Meet the Press" yesterday a part of what weighed into his decision was the tone of the campaigning in recent weeks. Armstrong?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I don't necessarily agree with that. I just think that if Senator Barack Obama had been some 46-year-old white male from Illinois with his voting record and his lack of experience, General Powell would have never endorsed him. I think General Powell like many people today are caught up into historical nature of this election, the fact that since the founding of our country, only white men have been President of the United States. But he couldn't couch it that way because it would be very obscene for him to let people know they - what really tilted his head in voting for Senator Barack Obama is the fact that he would become the first American black president of the United States in the history of this country. He can't say that. But that's the bottom line why he was able to make this decision.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More. I'm speaking with Professor Douglas Kmiec, NBC's Mark Whitaker and conservative commentator Armstrong Williams about former Secretary of State Colin Powell's endorsement of Senator Barack Obama over the weekend. I'd like to ask each of you what effect do you think this endorsement will have. Mark Whitaker?
Mr. WHITAKER: Well, at this point, it's not necessarily going to have a huge effect in terms of changing minds. I think at this point, many people have made up their minds. I think if there are swing voters who this might affect I think you would have to look at some moderate Republicans who share, I think, some of General Powell's general views, more liberal on social issues but conservative on economic and military issues. I think a lot of the swing states that may decide this election have large military populations. Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, I think it may have an effect there as well.
MARTIN: Professor Kmiec, what do you think?
Prof. KMIEC: I think it's going to have a profound effect and I couldn't disagree more with Armstrong Williams. This was not a decision that was foregone. Senator McCain was actively pursuing this endorsement. McCain and Powell are, of course, military men. At the start of the primary campaign, General Powell was regularly being sought for advice by Senator McCain. So this is not just simply a decision on the basis of skin color but a decision that recognizes the qualities of men as they have been demonstrated under fire in a presidential campaign. And I think it's a real statement on the part of General Powell that this is a man who, despite his young age, has the capacity to say to the world we're prepared to meet our international agreements, to be the country of principle that we have held ourselves to be in the past, but haven't been over the past eight years. So I think this is very significant, especially for the voter who's undecided.
MARTIN: To that point, General Powell made the point that the tone of this campaign concerned him not simply for the domestic audiences, as it were, but how this could be perceive internationally. I want to play a short clip that speaks to that point. Here it is.
(Soundbite of speech by General Powell)
General POWELL: I'm also troubled by not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said such things as, well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim. Well, the correct answer is he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian, has always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion he's Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.
MARTIN: Armstrong, what about that?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Listen. Senator McCain has always denounced this. I think it is fair game for Senator McCain and Governor Palin to raise the question about ACORN and also even about David Ayers to a certain extent. And General Powell knows this is exactly how campaigns work. Both sides do it. Senator Powell needed to dress it up and find a reason to endorse Senator Barack Obama. I admire his choice. I understand it very well, but for a professor, or (unintelligible), or anyone that even try to convince the American people that race was not a huge consideration here.
I think you lose a lot of credibility and also General Powell went so far to say that he did not like the fact, that he did not want the Supreme Court to become more conservative. I think General Powell has gotten his credentials. He's got his standing in this country through the Republican Party. He was able to use the Republican Party, but to now endorse - it's one thing to endorse Senator Barack Obama, but it's another thing at the extent (unintelligible) and further tarnishing the brand name of the Republican. What actually...
MARTIN: Wait a minute. Armstrong, excuse me, Armstrong. You were on this program earlier this year where you...
Mr. WILLIAMS: See him as a traitor.
MARTIN: Armstrong, excuse me. You were in this program earlier this year where you said that you yourself were conflicted on this very point.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely. I admitted it, but he's not willing to admit that. That's my entire point. If I were to vote for Senator Barack Obama, which is still very possible and know bill of race will be the biggest consideration and that's unfortunate. I want him to admit that, he's not.
MARTIN: And you're saying that General Powell is a traitor. Did I hear that right?
Mr. WILLIAMS: No, no, no. He's not. I'm just saying Republicans will see him as that. I definitely don't see him as traitor. I think in his conscience that he's sort of obligated. He sought the pinch of history that's important, and I understand it.
MARTIN: OK. We just have - we're going to take a short break in a minute, but Mark Whitaker, you're trying to get in this conversation.
Mr. WHITAKER: I was just going to say. I actually - there's a larger point in General Powell's criticism of the negativity of the McCain campaign. I think he's upset by that. But I think he also made it clear that he thinks that the way in which politics has played a role in governing and the governing process after presidents get elected in recent years, how politicized that's become has also been troubling and counter-productive. And I think to some degree he was the victim of that as Secretary of State for Bush. So I think when he criticizes that the negativity that's a part of what he is getting at.
MARTIN: We're going to take a short break, but we're going to ask our guests to stay with us for just a few more minutes. Mark Whitaker is the Washington Bureau chief for NBC News where Colin Powell broke the news of his endorsement yesterday. We're also joined by Professor Douglas Kmiec. He's a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Like Colin Powell, he's crossed party lines to endorse Barack Obama. We've been hearing from Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator. In the next segment, we're going to hear from Michael Steele, the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, current chairman of GOPAC. Thank you all so much, gentlemen. Please stay with us.
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this Tell Me More from NPR News. Later in the program ACORN, the community organization at the center of this year's controversy around voter registration, and our Behind Closed Doors conversation. John Corcoran became a teacher and a business owner despite the fact that he could not read. Now, he's trying to help others like him. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes. But first we're going to continue our conversation about former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his endorsement of Senator Barack Obama.
Our guests are Mark Whitaker, Washington Bureau chief for NBC News which broke the story of the endorsement yesterday, Douglas Kmiec, professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University in California. He has also endorsed Barack Obama and crossed party lines to do so. We're joined now by Michael Steele, former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland and current chairman of GOPAC, a political action committee which is dedicated to electing more Republicans to Congress. Lieutenant Governor Steele, your reaction to Colin Powell's endorsement - surprised, disappointed?
Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, GOPAC and Former Lieutenant Governor, Maryland): No. I'm not surprised at all. I mean, Colin Powell telegraphed his endorsements for over six months. If you hadn't figure out, you know, at this point than, you know, you weren't following this campaign. I wasn't surprised by it at all. I think it's consistent with Powell's general frustration with the GOP but more specifically with the foreign policy related to the war in Iraq, and how he really kind of took it on the chin in the Bush administration. And I think he saw in some ways McCain's views on the war is too close to what he experienced or at least saw a coming out of - out of the Bush administration and it's just made it easier for him.
I think the second plan again is some of the guests have already noted is, you know, the sense of being a part of history and voting for the first black, you know, individual for the presidency also weighed into it and I wasn't surprised by it. Am I disappointed? No, not really. You know, I respect his views and his decision to do what he think is important for the country, and like myself, you know, I hope folks similarly respect the views of those of us who don't support Barack, and what we think is best for the country.
MARTIN: Have you felt a similar conflict?
Mr. STEELE: No, not at all. Not at all. For me this is less about race and more about philosophy and direction of the country when it comes to its economy and the war in Iraq. Yes, judgment, experience, all those things matter to me as well. And so, I come at this from a very different perspective, the idea...
MARTIN: I'm sorry. I just want to emphasize first - who don't know you are also African American and that's one reason why I think you were sort of raising this, the question of race. Do you discount the - what he said about the tone of the campaign? Do you?
Mr. STEELE: Pardon me?
MARTIN: Do you discount what General Powell said about part of his decision being the tone of the campaign?
Mr. STEELE: Both sides have been smacking each other, you know, and I just find that outrageous indignation against John McCain without similar indignation against Obama's - either his campaign directly of those who support him. It's just laughable. You just can't, I mean, politics is politics. We hit each other in this sport, that's what it's all about. If negative ads didn't work, they wouldn't do them. And so the reality for both teams is that, you know, you do them. I have to give hats off to the Obama people. They're much more sophisticated about this, particularly with respect to how the racial issues - components of this campaign have been played out. But that's, you know, it's a learning lesson for a lot of folks in the game.
Mr. STEELE: And you move on from there.
MARTIN: Professor Kmiec, I wanted to ask you. It seemed to me that General Powell's comments were directed at least as much to the Republican Party as they were to Senator McCain. I think he went out of his way to suggest that he had a lot of respect for Senator McCain, but that Republican Party officials were engaging in conflict that he didn't agree with. What do you think? Do you think there's a message to the Republican Party in this?
Prof. KMIEC: I think there is a message to the Republican Party, but all political participants. Senator Obama...
MARTIN: And Mark Whitaker, I wanted to ask you the same question?
Mr. WHITAKER: Well, you know, I think the real issue for General Powell is what kind of president Senator Obama would be or Senator McCain would be. And as I said earlier, I think what he's really concerned about in the long run is how political and divisive the governing process has become under certainly the last President Bush, arguably under President Clinton before that. And I think he sees in Senator Obama somebody who can at least try to put an end to that in terms of how he governs and if you go back and you listen carefully what General Powell said. I think that was a theme throughout.
MARTIN: And finally, I'm sorry. I'm going to come back to you, Mr. Steele, in just one minute. Professor Kmiec, before we let you go, do you - what message would you like the Republican Party to draw from this?
Mr. KMEIC: Well, the message is - is that first of all respect those principles. Second, campaign on substance rather than on silly issues like Bill Ayers and the like, which they're continuing to do and recognize that there are some real problems both internationally and domestically that need to be addressed and get about that business rather than this at home in the means of the campaigning.
MARTIN: And Lieutenant Governor Steele, final thought.
Mr. STEELE: No. I agree with the professor, but I would also say, you know, do not cast this as if, you know, the last year or so the GOP has talked about nothing else that there has been no substance put on the table. I think, the political reality for Barack Obama will come when he's got to try to deal with the left of Congress, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid who will try to move the agenda in a direction that Barack has not spoken to, at least not publicly, over the past 18 months, and that's going to be an interesting dynamic. The politics will not end when Barack Obama gets elected, trust me. It begins anew just in a different form.
MARTIN: Michael Steele is chairman of GOPAC, a Republican political action committee. He's also the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, and a frequent commentator on FOX News.
Mr. STEELE: Yeah.
MARTIN: He joined us by phone from his office in Washington. We're also joined by Professor Douglas Kmiec he is chair and professor of Constitutional Law at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He was kind enough to join us from Chicago. Professor Kmiec also recently published the book "Can A Catholic Support Him?" asking the big question about Barack Obama. Mark Whitaker is Washington Bureau chief for NBC News, which broke the news of General Colin Powell's endorsement yesterday on "Meet The Press." He was kind enough to join us on our Washington studio, and we also heard earlier from Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, he was joining us by phone. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.
Mr. WHITAKER: Good to be with you.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Good to be with you.
Prof. KMIEC: Thanks, Michel.