Roundtable: Sampson Testifies; 'Song of South' Friday's topics include the Capitol Hill testimony of a top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the possible DVD release of the 1946 Disney film Song of the South.
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Roundtable: Sampson Testifies; 'Song of South'

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Roundtable: Sampson Testifies; 'Song of South'

Roundtable: Sampson Testifies; 'Song of South'

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TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

Now on to today's Roundtable. More conflicting testimony as Senate hearings continue over the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys, and the Beltway showdown over war funding heats up with President Bush taking direct aim at congressional Democrats.

Joining us on the panel today are Joe Davidson, an editor at the Washington Post, Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Bob Meadows, staff writer for People magazine. Hello everybody.

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (History, University of Pennsylvania): Good morning.

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, Washington Post): Hi, Tony.

Ms. BOB MEADOWS (Staff Writer, People Magazine): Hello.

Prof. BERRY: Hello.

COX: Let's begin with this. The former chief of staff for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was questioned, as we all know, on Capitol Hill yesterday about the debacle that's come out of the firing of those eight U.S. attorneys. Now, Kyle Sampson said the firings were approved by his superiors and done properly. He also said, though, the mistakes on the part of his department came later.

Mr. KYLE SAMPSON (Former Chief of Staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales): U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and may be asked to resign for almost any reason with no public or private explanation. The limited category of improper reasons includes an effort to interfere with their influence the investigation or prosecution of a particular case for political or partisan advantage.

To my knowledge, nothing of that sort occurred here. Nonetheless, when members of Congress begin to raise questions about these removals, I believe the department's response was badly mishandled.

COX: So, Mary, you're up first. Sampson also said that his former boss, Alberto Gonzales, was involved in the dismissals despite the A.G.'s earlier denials. So here's the question. Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales, they're both key to this investigation with regard to their roles in the dismissals, but does it seem to you, Mary, that Gonzales is much more in danger, given what we've heard so far?

Prof. BERRY: Well, Gonzales is in danger because Sampson did not intend to point a finger at him. What he intended to do, the way he sounded all through the hearing which I listened to, he sounded like he wanted to fall on his sword for the administration and the boss. But he ended up saying things that directly pointed a finger at Gonzales.

Gonzales' time has come and gone. It's about time for him to go. He is not going to ever be on the Supreme Court, which is where he thought he was headed one time. He has gone as far as he can with the loyalty to Bush from where he started.

And it's really sort of sad that with something that was perfectly legal, getting rid of attorneys, which administrations do, they managed to bungle it so terribly and keep telling lies about it and making these statements.

Karl Rove, I think, is still sort of insulated. It would depend on whether he came to testify or whether - himself and ended up pointing the finger at himself. But so long as he is over there in the White House, Bush is protecting him. I don't think they've yet gotten the goods on Rove, but the goods are there on Gonzales and I think it's time for him to go.

COX: So how do you see the clock ticking down for Gonzales, Joe?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think that Gonzales is really in a very, very difficult position. I mean, when the White House spokeswoman yesterday said that it's up to the attorney general to kind of explain some of these things rather than the White House coming to his defense in a much stronger way, it reminded me of another period in somewhat recent American history, the Watergate period, when another official was left, quote, "twisting in the wind."

So I think that Gonzales is now in a very tough situation with the Democrats calling for his ouster, with some Republicans at least expressing dismay at his performance in terms of how he has related with Congress on this issue, with the White House offering what seems like something less than an enthusiastic backing of him, with editorials coming out calling for his dismissal.

You know, I think that if I were an insurance salesman selling insurance on his longevity that it would probably be an insurance deal I would not offer.

COX: So, Bob Meadows, what would you imagine the conversation to be between Sampson and Gonzales today if he were to call him on the phone? Would it just be mea culpas all over the place?

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, yes. Sampson will probably be saying, you know what, I thought that I was trying to fall on my sword but I guess I actually skewered you with it. And Alberto Gonzales's response would probably something I can't actually express on NPR at this moment or any time.

Yeah, It's really an astonishing thing because, as Mary said, Sampson was trying to deflect criticism from Gonzales. He really seemed to be trying to do that, but then he just blurted out, oh yeah, by the way, not only was he involved, Harriet Miers was too. Oops, oh. He probably was just thinking of Scooter Libby. You know what, if I stand up for these guys, are they really going to back me? No, probably not. So if I'm going down, you know what, you're joining me.

COX: Well, let me direct this one more question to the three of you before we go on to our next topic. And it's this. Washington loves scandals in a twisted sort of way. How does this one compare?

Prof. BERRY: Well, you know, Bush has had two very bad attorney generals. Ashcroft was terrible, but he managed to not do anything like this that simply gave an opening to be attacked. As far as scandals are concerned, there have been, you know, worse scandals in - the page on the Hill, the pages and Foley and all that stuff. We've had had, you know, much worse scandals.

But in terms of the bumbling about…

COX: That's it.

Prof. BERRY: …and in terms of this being the attorney general of the United States, who was supposed to be the chief law enforcement officer. And if you can't trust the law enforcement officer to tell you the truth, who else can you trust? And then it's tragic because it's Gonzales, and here is the first Latino attorney general but owes everything to Bush from beginning to end and is being loyal and is bumbling about like this.

So it's not a scandal on the level of the page or the Monica Lewinsky or any other things that we've had here, but it gets worse and worse the longer he stays and the more conflicting stories they tell. He probably should just leave so that the whole thing can die down.

COX: You probably are…

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know, Tony, I think one thing that people don't learn from previous scandals is don't cover up.

Mr. MEADOWS: Don't cover up.

Mr. DAVIDSON: And these conflicting stories that have come out from the Justice Department, while they may or may not have been intended as a cover up, that's the way they are perceived. And so while I agree with Mary there have been far worse scandals, you do have the situation where there appears to have been a cover up or there certainly have been incomplete and contradictory statements.

And that's what can get you in the end. Even if the, you know, the original offense, if that's what it is, isn't quite so serious.

COX: Yeah. And I would suppose, Bob, that the timing - there's never a good time for a scandal but this timing was really bad, wasn't it?

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, you have the Democrats. You're right. You have the Democrats. They're back in power and they're just chomping at the bit waiting for this. And this didn't have to become a scandal. Patronage is as old as politics. And if the people you appoint aren't doing what you do, yeah, get rid of them.

Gonzales should have stood up waving a flag saying I fired these guys. Bush loves that kind of loyalty. It doesn't make any sense for him or for anybody to try and cover this up when it's something that is done all the time.

COX: All right. Let's move on to topic number two. But first let me just say to the audience that you are listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox.

And if you are just joining us, with us on today's Roundtable are Joe Davidson, an editor at the Washington Post, Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Bob Meadows, who we just heard, a staff writer for People magazine.

Okay, we're going to stay inside the Beltway for topic number two. Just like their counterparts in the House, Senate Democrats ignored President Bush's veto threats and passed their own version of an Iraq war spending bill that is tied to a deadline for troop withdrawal by the 31st of March of next year.

The vote, mostly along party lines, 51 to 47, sort of a pay-to-play plan, and puts congressional Democrats squarely at odds with the White House for the first time really in this president's tenure.

So, Joe, this bill was said to be a compromise, but Bush clearly doesn't see it that way and vows not to bend. Bottom line this for us: What's at stake for the president here?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think from his point of view what's at stake is the degree to which he can continue to prosecute this war as fully and as unfettered perhaps as he would like. And he also sees this timetable as - that the House is firmer requirement than the Senate, which is a goal for withdrawal.

And they - another point, they have to come together and kind of bridge that gap. But he sees this as something that would really be detrimental to the United States and he feels that the American people would not stand for it.

However, the elections in November indicate that the American people are totally fed up with this war. They elected a Democratic Congress that is proceeding to move against the war in terms of calling for troop withdrawal. And so to some extent it's a test of wills for the hearts and minds of the American people.

And, right now, certainly the polls indicate that the American people are totally fed up with this war. And so I think that Mr. Bush is probably on the losing end of this on the public relations battle but he still has the veto power.

COX: Well, Mary, the Democrats have taken what an analysis in the New York Times yesterday called a rare unifying position with regard to foreign policy, specifically where the war is concerned. Without the power to override a promised veto, what's their countermove?

Prof. BERRY: Well, the way this is going to turn out will depend on whether the public accepts the Bush administration's spin. If the administration succeeds with its spin, that this is like the shutdown of the government when Clinton was president and that the Democrats are claiming - don't want to fund the troops and the troops are suffering, if the public accepts that spin and doesn't understand that the bills have money in it - there is money there for the troops, it's just that there are some requirements - then the Democrats might be pushed to try to back off a little bit or make some kind of adjustments.

But also, the Democrats are going to have trouble coming up with a final bill because you've the people on the left, the anti-war people who are not happy really with - with the lack of a real goal in the Senate bill and who went along holding their noses with the House bill, and then you have the Blue Dogs and the conservatives in the Democratic Party who are uneasy about whether the public accepts the spin about the troops. It's going to take a little magic on the part of Pelosi and her crew and Reid and the others to come up with a bill. But after that, it will depend on what spin the public accepts. The money is there for the troops.

Also, if the public accepts a spin that these other items that are in the bill shouldn't be there, when actually this is technically what they call an urgent supplemental, which always has things in it for disaster relief and Katrina, things like that - the spinach thing. So it will depend on the spin and it will depend on whether the Democrats can stay unified.

COX: I'm going to go to our next topic, but before I do, Bob, I want to give you a chance to chime in on this.

Mr. MEADOWS: You know, what I really think about this bill is that you're going to really see the effects of this next year, 2008 presidential election. The Democrats, sure, they can't override a presidential veto. But the fact that they pushed this through says something. I mean what it says is that there's actually a reason if you're a Democrat to vote for Democrats as opposed to just voting against the Republicans next year. And I think that will mean something to the electorate.

COX: All right, we're going to go to an interesting topic to close out our roundtable for today. And our last topic begins with a song.

(Soundbite of song, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah")

Mr. JAMES BASKETT (Singer): (Singing) Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay. My, oh my, what a wonderful day. Plenty of sunshine headin' my way. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay.

COX: Well, of course that's from the 1946 Disney pictures "Song of the South," which has never been released on video in this country, and some say for a pretty good reason. The story is about tales told by a slave, Uncle Remus, who shares black folklore with a little white boy. Some stories include Brer Rabbit and Tar Baby. And despite the racial tone of the film that's kept it on the shelf for all these years, Disney President Bob Iger may re-release it after all.

Apparently Disney fans are pushing for it. A hundred and fifteen thousand people have signed an online petition urging Disney to release the film. So I know I'm old enough to have remembered this. And I know some of you are as well. What do you think about that?

Prof. BERRY: This film is obviously - it is racist. It comes from a different time, but the time that it comes from was a time when this kind of racism was pervade to the American people. And the fact that 115,000 people are anxious to see it - I hope that they're not, you know, 115,000 people who don't - either don't know any history or who think this is wonderful.

Despite the fact that it is racist, I don't mind if it's shown, if there's some explanation that goes along with it, because it is part of our history and it should be shown and people should be told that this is part of the history and this is the way folks looked at things and looked at black people and characterized them in this period. I don't believe in suppressing things, but I do believe in explanation.

COX: It certainly is history. What do you think, Joe?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I agree with Mary. You know, I'm very reluctant to say somebody cannot do something when it comes to print or video, movies, songs, even though I might very much disagree with the content of that material. And I do think that black people by and large would find much of these offensive, even those of us who may have enjoyed it when we first saw it in theaters in the mid-'50s or whenever. And I think that - I think that it's the kind of thing that should generate discussion about the times during which this film was produced, about why we have these kinds of stereotypes in there.

For example, one of these servants, if not a slave, Uncle Remus, is portrayed as a laughing - a happy laughing storyteller, even though he's a plantation worker. You know, those are - those kinds of images - the happy slave, the happy servant image, that many of us find, well, not only offensive but historically inaccurate. And so while I don't favor suppression, I do think that if it is released, it should be accompanied by a great deal of discussion and historical context.

COX: Well, you know, Bob Meadows, I was reminded as I was reading about this, in the minute or so that we have left, that Tar Baby, that was the N-word when I was a kid. Somebody calls you a tar baby, you just - either you were fighting or you were crying or you were - whatever. And that came out of this movie.

Mr. MEADOWS: You know, just so I just can backtrack for a quick second and just say, I saw this when it was re-released one of the years and I absolutely loved "Song of the South" and I look forward to it coming out. I can't wait to see it. I've read the Anansi tales, the West African folklore from which tar baby springs from. I've read that to my niece and nephew; they love it.

I think if there's some explanation of that that goes along with it - if that's even necessary. It's a kid's movie. I don't really think that - like I said, I'm just looking forward to it, and I think with these stories, they have a root in African folklore, so that's something that can go along with the discussion when you're talking about this movie.

COX: Absolutely. And "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" is just one of those songs that when it gets in your head, you just cannot get it out no matter how hard you might try.

Bob Meadows is a staff writer for People magazine; he was at our New Bureau. And Joe Davidson, an editor of the Washington Post. And Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. They were both in Washington D.C. Thank you everybody.

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