Barbershop: Let's Talk Bush, Bannon, Gold Star Families And Trump NPR's Lakshmi Singh talks with Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush; Sarah Westwood of the Washington Examiner; and Danielle Belton, editor-in-chief of The Root.
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Barbershop: Let's Talk Bush, Bannon, Gold Star Families And Trump

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Barbershop: Let's Talk Bush, Bannon, Gold Star Families And Trump

Barbershop: Let's Talk Bush, Bannon, Gold Star Families And Trump

Barbershop: Let's Talk Bush, Bannon, Gold Star Families And Trump

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NPR's Lakshmi Singh talks with Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush; Sarah Westwood of the Washington Examiner; and Danielle Belton, editor-in-chief of The Root.

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we gather interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and on our minds. We have Sarah Westwood. She's a White House reporter for the Washington Examiner, and she joins us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Sarah, welcome back to the program.

SARAH WESTWOOD: Thanks for having me.

SINGH: Also with us is Mary Kate Cary. She's a political analyst and former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She joins us from College Station, Texas, where she's attending the five presidents event, a concert to benefit victims of the recent hurricanes and flooding. Mary Kate, welcome.

MARY KATE CARY: Thanks for having me.

SINGH: And finally, in our New York studios is Danielle Belton. She's editor in chief for The Root. Danielle, thank you.

DANIELLE BELTON: Thanks for having me.

SINGH: So let's start the conversation today with President George W. Bush. He weighed in on the state of American politics this week at a speech at his Bush Institute. Bush did not mention President Trump by name but criticized a number of stances that have been closely linked to the Trump administration.

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GEORGE W. BUSH: We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism, forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade, forgetting that conflict, instability and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.

SINGH: Mary Kate Cary, as a presidential speechwriter, what did you make of Bush's speech?

CARY: You know, I read the entire thing, the speechwriter's idea of a good time. And I thought it was a very well-done defense of free markets, of political and economic liberation that democracy has unleashed, and that small part of it that seemed to have been taken as a criticism of Trump is what made all the headlines. But in the context of a day-long confab in New York about how to strengthen our democracy, what I heard from that was the concern shared by many Americans of where our country's heading and over the long run. Some of it's from Donald Trump, but a lot of it was in place for many years. And I think that's what didn't get the headlines and should have and is part of a wider conversation that I keep hearing growing across the country.

SINGH: Well, as you know, Bush's remarks did not sit well with some Republicans. Last night, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon criticized the former president in pretty harsh language.

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STEVE BANNON: President Bush, to me, embarrassed himself. Speechwriter wrote a highfalutin speech. It's clear he didn't understand anything he was talking about. There has not been a more destructive presidency than George Bush's.

(APPLAUSE)

SINGH: Scathing review of President Bush - embarrassed himself. Danielle Belton, what do you think about Steve Bannon's critique of President Bush and his presidency?

BELTON: I think it's hilarious and ironic. Like, it's - you know, I'm not one to defend George W. Bush's legacy. I thought he was a horrible president, to be completely honest. But compared to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon's guy, like, how can you say that the Bush presidency was the most destructive when I feel like we're living right now under what has been the most volatile, destructive - we're - their talk of war with North Korea constantly. We're talking about nukes. We're talking about attacks on Gold Star families. I don't know what planet Steve Bannon is on. I don't know where he exists.

SINGH: Sarah Westwood, as a reporter, has the White House responded to any of this? And is a sort of divide something you're seeing with lawmakers here in Washington based on what you've seen on the job?

WESTWOOD: Well. President Trump has actually been uncharacteristically silent about these attacks from fellow Republicans this week. He's not someone who typically takes criticism lying down. He usually punches back very quickly, usually via social media. We haven't really seen that this week. But I think a lot is being made at the end of the day of criticism from two men who are known to have disliked President Trump from the beginning.

Senator John McCain has been a consistent critic of President Trump since the beginning. George W. Bush is basically the antithesis of President Donald Trump. And Donald Trump ran in a lot of ways on an explicit rejection of the Bush doctrine and the Bush presidency. So I don't think it's entirely surprising that you would see Bush be a critic of Trump. And from a lot of the perspective of some conservatives, there's been frustration that Bush seems to be more critical of Trump than he ever was during the Obama years of President Obama. So that's the kind of - what we're hearing from the conservative Bannon wings of the party. There's a frustration with that dynamic.

SINGH: Let's move to another topic very much about the controversial remarks from the Trump administration. And that has to do with the president's interactions with Gold Star families. This has been in the news after President Trump mentioned that he called the widow of an American soldier who was killed in Niger, Sergeant La David Johnson. Sarah Westwood, could you give us a quick breakdown of what happened next?

WESTWOOD: You know, this all started on Monday with what seemed like a perfectly innocuous question to President Trump about why he hadn't spoken publicly about the attack in Niger almost two weeks after it had occurred. President Trump invited this level of scrutiny when he accused Obama of not calling or conducting any outreach to the families of fallen soldiers. That obviously caused reporters to go looking for instances where - in the first place where Obama had conducted outreach and where Trump had fallen short in the area where he claimed he had bested Obama.

So that sort of started this entire mess that we saw this week. Then we had Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who happened to be in the car when President Trump got around to making some of these calls to the Gold Star families of the soldiers who had been killed in Niger. She went public with what she interpreted Trump as having said to the widow. President Trump denied having said anything insensitive to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of this fallen soldier. And this turned into a he-said, she-said. General Kelly came out and tried to reframe this conflict as a dispute that was between a Democratic congresswoman and Trump, not between Trump and a Gold Star family. But at the end of the day, there really were no winners in this controversy. Everybody came out looking bad.

SINGH: Danielle, what do you think? Has there been anything that you believe that could be deemed appropriate in all of these exchanges that we've seen this week?

BELTON: I'm just numb to all of this at this point. Like, literally every day, there's something. And this latest incident just - I don't even know how to respond anymore to it. Like, President Trump always is going off the cuff. He's someone who speaks from off the top of his head. He doesn't necessarily always plan. He doesn't necessarily have the same type of decorum or polish that you would expect from a traditional politician because he's not a traditional politician.

And so of course this happened. Of course he tweeted about it. Of course he got into a fight. I just - I don't honestly know what to say anymore about these sorts of cases because it just keeps happening over and over and over again. This is a man that can mess up a handshake and has.

SINGH: Mary Kate Cary, having seen this rare point of view of communications from the White House side of things in your career, how do you think this should have been handled?

CARY: I think it's been awful. I completely agree with you, Danielle. I'm almost numb to it. I thought General Kelly was going to have the last word when he was talking about all the things that he thinks should be held sacred in this country, how women used to be held sacred, the dignity of life, religion, Gold Star families. And then it flared right back up again because the president tweeted immediately, you know, within a few hours.

There's a lot of people very uneasy with the way our political dialogue is going and the need for civility in an increasingly uncivil world. And I think that's why tonight is so important. These five presidents coming together, it is going to be streamed live globally. I think they're going to have a huge audience for this because there's - people are tired of this. Like Danielle's saying, we're all numb to it. And I think people want to help people who have been hurt. And the example of the neighbors helping each other in Texas, in Florida, in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is a great example for the rest of us of how we should all be behaving.

SINGH: So, everyone, I just wanted to do a quick pivot to another big item in the news this week and that is Me Too - #MeToo. This is all stemming from the stream of accusations of sexual harassment and assault leveled against Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood mogul. And that has since led to all these women taking part in the #MeToo movement to say to the world, this is not just a problem. It is a huge problem, and we need to do something about it right away. Sarah, tell me about how you've been reacting to this sort of personally and on a professional level.

WESTWOOD: I think it's a remarkably effective campaign. It's certainly - the appeal of it is obvious. The reach of it has really surprised me. And I think that Harvey Weinstein was certainly the catalyst for that. I mean, there have been some criticisms of it on the right. You know, there's this concern that it conflates maybe unwanted comments with actual sexual assault to the detriment of victims. And from the left, there's been concern that it's sort of creating a hierarchy of victimhood within all of these women who are suffering. So it is interesting to hear how the different sides have been reacting to something so powerful.

SINGH: Danielle, what do you say to that?

BELTON: You know, I understand that people are going to have criticism about anything, but Me Too is really necessary because too many men - and sadly, some women - are really reluctant to accept or even consider how pervasive sexual harassment and assault are in our society. There is a tendency to shame victims, to force them into silence and protect perpetrators largely just purely because of patriarchy.

SINGH: And Mary Kate?

CARY: What struck me about it was Facebook reported 12 million posts of the Me Too hashtag in 24 hours. Forty-five percent of the people in the U.S. are friends with someone who has posted the Me-Too message on their Facebook page. That is shocking to me. That is a huge signal of sort of a unifying message that the women are all sort of standing with each other against this sort of thing. To me, there's a silver lining to all this that the fact that everyone's standing up for each other.

SINGH: Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She joined us from College Station, Texas. Danielle Belton, editor-in-chief of The Root. She joined us from New York. And we have Sarah Westwood, White House reporter for the Washington Examiner. She joined us in our D.C. studios. Thank you all for being here.

BELTON: Thank you.

WESTWOOD: Thank you.

CARY: Thank you.

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