Racist? Political Cartoon Causes An Uproar On this week's Reporters' Roundtable, a New York Post cartoon sparks controversy over race and President Barack Obama makes his first international trip as president to Canada. For more on the week's headlines, Tony Cox is joined by Jerome Vaughn, and Corey Dade.
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Racist? Political Cartoon Causes An Uproar

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Racist? Political Cartoon Causes An Uproar

Racist? Political Cartoon Causes An Uproar

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. The New York Post offers an apology, sort of, for a cartoon that has sparked protests and boycotts, and President Barack Obama tells mayors from across the country that economic help is on the way; he meets with the nation's governors next. But how much can the stimulus package help state and local governments? And he's been president for one month; we'll look at how Barack Obama has fared so far. For the week's top stories, we turn now to our Reporters' Roundtable, and we begin with Jerome Vaughn, the news/program director for WDET in Detroit, Michigan. Welcome, Jerome.

Mr. JEROME VAUGHN (News/Program Director, WDET, Detroit, Michigan): Good to be with you.

COX: Thank you. We'll get to the new president's report card in just a moment, but this story has been front and center. After two days of protest, the New York Post has given a qualified apology for a cartoon it published this week; the controversial drawing showed two cops shooting a chimpanzee, which many interpreted as representing President Obama and conjuring racist images of African-Americans. Now, the Post said the cartoon was, quote, "meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill, period. But it has been taken as something else, as a depiction of President Obama as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This most certainly was not its intent," end quote. The paper went on to say again in quotes, "There are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with the Post in the past, and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback," and the paper ended the quote with this, "to them, no apology is due." So, Jerome, was an apology due, qualified or otherwise? And is this response sufficient, do you think?

Mr. VAUGHN: I mean, I think absolutely. I mean, does it matter what your intent is if you have offended a large number of people, which obviously this cartoon did? Then probably you need to issue an apology. You've touched some nerve. You've rubbed some people the wrong way with this. It doesn't make sense not to apologize for an incident like this.

COX: We have Corey Dade joining us now, the Atlanta correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Hello, Corey.

Mr. COREY DADE (Atlanta Correspondent, Wall Street Journal): Hi, Tony, how are you?

COX: I'm fine, thank you. You're a newspaper guy. What about this? Is an apology in order? Was this a sufficient apology?

Mr. DADE: Well, I don't think - I don't think it should surprise many people that the New York Post is being provocative. I think they have set that record for, you know, they've had that record for quite awhile. I think at this point, an apology is fairly empty because of their track record. But at the same time, I don't know that the, you know, the offended party here, the president really cares. I don't think this is just part and parcel.

COX: Let's listen to an exchange between Ryan Christie, who is an African-American and a former aide to then President George W. Bush, and CNN's David Gergen that took place on CNN's "AC-360" two nights ago.

(Soundbite of TV show "Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees," February 18, 2009)

Mr. RYAN CHRISTIE (Former Aide to President George W. Bush): I also read the comments of the cartoonist, who said that was not his intent, let's give people the benefit of the doubt as opposed to always finding racial problems in every situation.

Mr. DAVID GERGEN (Contributor, "Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees"): But Ryan, would you...

Mr. CHRISTIE: Dave, Dave, Dave...

Mr. GERGEN: But Ryan, I hope you would agree - do you agree that a lot of people would look at that and say, chimpanzee, baboon, Obama, they're trying to link all those together. Don't you think - do you not think it's open to that interpretation?

COX: I should point out that Christie is also a contributor on this program. What about his argument, Jerome?

Mr. VAUGHN: Well, I mean, I think, you know, people are a little more sensitive about racial issues now that the president is not a white male. I know for example, we've been getting a number of calls here in our news room over the past several weeks, people, you know, upset that we in the media call him Mr. Obama as opposed to President Obama on every reference. And so we've gotten a lot of calls about that. We've had to say, you know, it was Mr. Bush, it was Mr. Carter, it was Mr. Clinton, you know, it's a sign of honor, and so, I think people are very tender right now. They want to make sure that President Obama is being treated with the respect he is due. And if they feel that's not the case, they are going to speak up about it.

COX: Well, Corey Dade, speaking about race, another controversy was triggered this week when Attorney General Eric Holder said America is, quote, "essentially a nation of cowards," end quote, when it comes to talking about race. Now, these comments ignited ire from conservatives. Is the criticism justified in this case? I mean, did he go too far, or is he just speaking the truth?

Mr. DADE: Well, I think that any African-American will probably have a similar response. So, I guess that doesn't surprise me. What does surprise me is that he did say it. Eric Holder has a long reputation for being cool under fire, for being buttoned down, for being, you know, always on guard with what he says publicly. He is an attorney, of course, so that factors into it also. And I'm also - I was also surprised that he made these comments now that he has just taken office and he's talking to his employee. So, I think on the main - the content of what he said doesn't surprise me. I think the circumstances were more surprising than anything else.

COX: Well, you know, Jerome hit the point that Corey made was one I was going to present to you about the timing of this and what message Holder is sending. Is the message that the Department of Justice is going to get tough again on enforcing civil-rights laws related to race?

Mr. VAUGHN: I think it's - I think it's too early to tell. I mean, to me, I mean, he is a great politician, I mean, - but as Corey said, you know, there's something visceral about that reaction. And you k now, it could be that little bit of that slipped out. Maybe they are sending a little bit of a signal, but I think in reality, it's too early to tell. I mean, he's in been there a few weeks.

COX: Well, Jerome, one more thing about this. Does the controversy in both this instances, the post cartoon and the attorney general, does that belie the post racial atmosphere that we've been hearing so much about?

Mr. VAUGHN: Oh wow, that's a tough one. I mean, in my opinion, I mean, I don't think there's a post racial atmosphere. I mean, I think - I think people still have the same issues they did before President Obama took office, the same issues they had before he was nominated, before he decided to run. I - has the needle moved? Yes. But I think there are still a lot of those issues out there to be discussed and worked out. So, that's where I would leave it.

COX: All right, this week, let's move on to another topic because this week, President Obama signed a stimulus package, unveiled a housing rescue plan and made his first trip as president outside the United States. Let's talk stimulus first; Mr. Obama meeting with the mayors just today, hosting the nation's governors at the White House over the weekend. Not many GOP governors are ideologically opposed to the spending plan and Louisiana's governor, Bobby Jindal says he is not sure if his state will accept the federal money. So, my question Corey, to you, other Republicans, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie Crist, to name two, are going to take the money. Can any governor really afford to say no when their states are hurting so badly?

Mr. DADE: No, they can't, and Bobby Jindal, of all governors, given his brilliance, given his fiscal utility and given how he's run the states since being elected, you know, they're not going to take this slightly. At this point, this is politics. The Republican Party overall has decided to draw a line in the sand and take a hard line against this stimulus package and what's noticeable is - that two things, that the governors who are doing this are obviously Republicans, but they're in the south mostly with the exception of pay one of course. But also these are governors who have very strong approval ratings who can really afford to challenge the president right now. But when the rubber meets the road, we will see all, if not most of them taped - not only all of the money, but probably make sure they can, you know, more when the time comes for the next economic spending bill.

COX: One of the things that was interesting, Jerome, was when the mayors exited from the White House today after meeting with the president both Republican and Democratic mayors were hopeful of getting this money and it gave me the impression that there will be some push back from them in terms of their - of their expectations coming out of Congress and that it not be bottled up by some bipartisan bickering and to that point what about the $75 billion housing-rescue plan for example do you think this will be an easier sell along a bipartisan Congress than the stimulus was?

VAUGHN: You know, I don't think so. I mean, I think, you know, the Republicans have seen that they had some small victory in this first battle. I think they're going to dig their heals in, I think they're going to try to get some more traction until they see that there's push back on this, until they see that their constituents are saying, hey, we would like some more bipartisanship, I think they're going to continue to push in that direction and see how this next, you know, administration with President Obama, how far they are willing to go, and where they're going to take it.

COX: Yesterday, the president traveled north to Canada, arguably America's most important trading partner, but NAFTA and the bi-American provision of the stimulus package threatened to undermine his first, in quotes, "foreign visit." How well did he allay their fears, Cori?

DADE: Well, I think he's going to - I think he did - he went to the lengths that he needed to go to for the moment. I think what you're seeing in this president is a fair amount of judiciousness with what he does and so, I think there was a careful calibration there that he needed to assure the Canadian government and businesses in Canada and elsewhere in North America of what his intentions were as it relates to NAFTA and trade in this hemisphere. But at the same time I think there's a recognition on the part of his administration that this isn't going to go away easily, that the problems with NAFTA, the problems with trade and balances etcetera are things that he's going to have to revisit.

COX: There's a lot more that we want to get to for this week's Reporters' roundtable we have - we want to talk about Governor Sebelius out of Kansas and of course we want to talk about Roland Burris and what's happening with him, as well as the first lady Michelle Obama hosting some children at the White House, but I'm going to ask you guys to just sit tight, we're going to take a quick break and we will continue this conversation in just a few moments.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: This is News & Notes, I'm Tony Cox. We're back with our Reporters' Roundtable. With us today, Jerome Vaughn, the news/program director for WDET in Detroit, Michigan, and Corey Dade, the Atlanta Correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Let's jump back into it, guys. State governments are really struggling, as we know. California finally passed a budget just this week amid a $42 billion deficit. Kansas, another state having the same problems, and now Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius might be tapped to be the next Health and Human Services secretary. So, my question, Corey, I'll come to you first. Will the Dems get it right this time?

DADE: Well, I think it's made to be seen, I think - as we probably remember, the governor was rumored and speculated on to be in the running to be vice-presidential running mate for Obama, but even beyond that, she was pivotal in delivering the state to Obama. Obviously, Obama has familial ties to Kansas. Beyond that, though, the governor has always struck Obama and his advisers as very steady, very calm under fire, very sort of measured and in general a very good administrator. And so - and she has the chops as far as her government experience is concerned. I think that what will be interesting is on the betting issue, and I that it - I think that at this point the administration doesn't want to take any chances especially with a candidate in the governor who is actually a strong candidate who is very well liked within the party and the administration. I think that what's interesting here is that, you know, she's probably already been fairly vetted already just by virtue of her being in sort of a VP running mate realm. The Obama campaign in the transition office had the strictest sort vetting and background checks that anyone had ever seen in the transition office so...

COX: But you know, you could argue that that vetting wasn't as effective as it could have been. There were at least a couple of instances that we know of where that didn't work out the way the Obama team intended, and now although this isn't at the feat of the Obama camp, but the Roland Burris debacle in Illinois is certainly another potential black eye for the Democratic Party if they don't get it right, and now people are asking for Burris to step down. As a matter of fact, Jerome, he revealed this week that he did try to fundraise for former Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich after intimating that he had not done so. What options does he have now?

VAUGHN: You mean Senator Burris? What options does he have?

COX: Yeah, what options does he have?

VAUGHN: Well, you know, I mean, the - he can go with Blagojevich game plan and stay there until someone throws him out of office or, you know, he can step down and resign. I think really, I think he's going to stay as long as he can. It worked for Blagojevich for a long while, and maybe he hopes that once again things will turn his favor when his initial acceptance to the Senate was blocked he hung in there, he didn't give up, and he was eventually appointed. We're back at this issue again and so that would be my guess, he is going to stick it out until something really happens. He's got nothing to lose at this point. He's not going to win a race for Senate during an election. He's not going to be picked for some other office. He's got little to lose.

COX: Well, one of the things that was said about him - we'll end the Reporters' Roundtable on this topic today, and I'll come to you, Corey - was the initial concern was that he would be tainted because of his connection to Blagojevich. He managed to get through the impeachment situation with Blagojevich, he managed to get seated in the United Stated Senate, and now that tie is as strong as ever.

DADE: Right. So, it's damned if you do, damned if you don't, in a way. I think that if he was going to be damaged goods regardless. It certainly is not the candidate that the party - the state party in Illinois or the national party - wanted in that role, in that feat. And I think that they just held their nose and even the Obama administration knew that it would be bad form if they opposed him, A, because he is from Illinois, he's replacing a seat, B, because he is with the Democrats and maybe perhaps to a lesser degree because he is African-American, but I think at this point, you know, I think that the expectations for him are so low that he can't really underachieve. I think that no one from constituents in Illinois to the Democratic Party is expecting him to amount anything other than sort of just keeping the seat warm for the next candidate.

COX: All right, well, gentleman, unfortunately, our time has run out. We don't have the time to get to the Michelle Obama story. We'll have to save that for another time. Jerome Vaughn, thank you very much. Corey Dade, thank you as well.

VAUGHN: My pleasure.

COX: Jerome Vaughn is the news/program Director for WDET in Detroit; he joined us from the studios there. And Corey Dade is the Atlanta correspondent for the Wall Street Journal; he joined us by phone.

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