Roundtable: Bush on Iraq, Chris Rock's Mother Up for discussion at the roundtable: President Bush on Iraq's similarity to Vietnam, and why Chris Rock's mother and Rev. Al Sharpton are suing a restaurant for discrimination.

Roundtable: Bush on Iraq, Chris Rock's Mother

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable, President Bush says yes you can compare the escalation in Iraq to the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, and Brown University gets ready to make up for ties to the slave trade.

Joining us today from our NPR headquarters in Washington D.C. Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post, along with Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. And we've also got Nat Irvin, president of Future Focus 2020, he also teaches at the Babcock Graduate School of Management of Wake Forest University. And he's at member station WFDD in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Thank you all for joining us.

And let's start with the president. President George Bush sat down for an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos about Iraq. He was asked whether the war was succeeding or failing.

(Soundbite of ABC News broadcast)

President GEORGE W BUSH: If that's the definition of success or failure, the number of casualties, then you're right. But that's what the enemy knows. See, they try to define success or failure. I define success or failure as to whether or not the Iraqis will be able to defend themselves. I define success or failure as whether the unity government is making difficult - the difficult decisions necessary to unite the country.

CHIDEYA: The president also said that a recent column comparing the current fighting in Iraq to the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam could be accurate. This -is this really unusual, Nat?

Professor NAT IRVIN (Professor of Future Studies, Wake Forest University): Well, it is for this president, because he's been reluctant to accept the Vietnam comparison because people have used that to describe Vietnam as a quagmire. But I think the difference now between what the president used to say and what the president is now saying is that we - I will recognize this fact that the president is also recognizing the fact that this war now is being fought, as was the Vietnamese war, being fought in the media.

And that's where we are now losing. That was the key thing about the Tet offensive. This is not the first war to be fought in the modern media, but it's the second one. I'm talking about since the Iraq war in 1992. But this war now, you can see that the American folks have lost - and the president says it's a failure because of the number of troops we're loosing. But the president has managed to put ourselves in a position where we have gone to war on false premises, and now everybody in the modern media recognizes that. I think that's the valid comparison.

CHIDEYA: Professor Berry, is there some kind of a strategy of humility to now admitting we may be in deeper on the president's part. Why do you think he said this now?

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (Professor of History, University Of Pennsylvania): I think he is trying to show that he can - he occasionally listens to somebody and occasionally hears about books that are written; and hears about what the public hears and that we're running up to a midterm election, and that it won't do a many good anymore to just say stay the course.

So he had to say something after the Woodward book and after all the stuff that's in the media, and people can see the casualties and the rest of it and spike in them; it's being widely reported. So - but it's' not just the Iraq-Vietnam comparison that he now makes. His message, the lesson he draws from the Tet offensive and what happened there, is that we should now continue on and understand that they're just doing this to try to drive us out and not understand that this means we should change our policy.

He also said that his test of whether we were winning or not would be whether the right decisions are being made by the government in Iraq that work and whether they're able to stand up and defend themselves. Well by both of those measures we can see with our own eyes they're not able to do that either. It's not just the casualties. So the question is what does Bush do? Not what that he now feels like he has to at least say something that makes it sound like he isn't aware like everybody else in the world of what's going on.

CHIDEYA: Joe, he has two years left in his presidency. It's - the chances of us as a nation extracting ourselves from Iraq in the next two years don't seem particularly good at this point. But could there be a sea change if the administration admits, well, we're in pretty deep? Do you think that there will be some kind of negotiation around a troop pull out?

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, Metro/City Desk, The Washington Post): Well, I think the sea is changing. I wouldn't call it sea change yet. But I think clearly the voices you hear coming from the military, the voices you hear from Republicans on the stump, Republican candidates, Republicans who are not candidates such as John Warner, a leading Republican in the Senate, and even the president himself. The rhetoric is beginning to soften a bit. I think it is, as Mary indicated, the stay-the-course rhetoric simply does not play.

It does not play for candidates who are trying to get elected. Republicans, it does not play for those Republicans who don't even want to appear with the president when he visits their state. So I think that public opinion clearly has shifted against the war. That didn't just happen, but it's at a stronger level against the war than I think it ever has been. And I think that the Republican vote counters can simply see that, and so they are starting to change their rhetoric too; certainly not to the point where their ready to call for withdrawal of the troops, but that does not seem to be the impossibility of perhaps once was.

CHIDEYA: Very quickly among all of you, is it a fair comparison, the Vietnam-Iraq comparison?

Prof. BERRY: It's a fair comparison. I was in Vietnam and saw it at first-hand. And it is a fair comparison. It was a fair comparison if anyone had speculated about what was going to happen from the beginning. One could have projected that some of this would happen. Also the prospects of our losing, also the arguments around Vietnam that, you know, if we didn't win there, the dominos would fall everywhere in the world and we'd be fighting them here in San Francisco. All that stuff that they keep saying about what would happen in Iraq, those are all clear. But the most important thing is that, yes we're in it. Yes, it's a quagmire. Yes, everybody recognizes that. But here among policy makers, Bush and everybody else, nobody really knows what to do. He's gotten us in to this thing, stuck us down into that muck with all those people getting killed, and with all of our people and the Iraqis getting killed. And nobody can really figure out how to pull, how to extricate us from the mess.

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know, one difference I think between Vietnam and Iraq is during Vietnam, we had the draft. I think that if we had the draft now that the protest against the war in Iraq would be much greater, because a lot of the protests during the war in Vietnam were fueled by the anti-draft movement, which was directly linked to the anti-Vietnam movement. But even without the draft and without that component to the opposition to the war, the opposition to the war in Iraq is still very strong, just as it became to be in Vietnam.

CHIDEYA: Well, Congressman Charlie Rangel actually called for a consideration of the draft mainly to remind people that the pain of this war has not been evenly spread among families.

Mr. DAVIDSON: That's true.

Prof. BERRY: And there's now a proposal, Farai, to give to, say, to immigrants, if they will come and fight for us that we might give them citizenship. Some people are saying that is a way to try to get more people in the Army. And we've also changed the rules about recruitment, as we did in the Vietnam War. When we lowered the standards in order to have enough people to serve, the Army has done that too.

But all the Army leaders, if you see the expressions, you listen to their words that they say, they're exhausted, they're tired, they realize that their troops are in great difficulty. And the Army is becoming a hollow Army, and we don't want to have a draft. So it really is a quagmire.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Maybe they'll provide that option to Slick Rick.

Prof. BERRY: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: That's right. Sign up. Well, you know, I'm not sure that he's up for that. He might just go back to London.

Prof. IRVIN: I'll tell you what, he's still young enough at 41.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Absolutely.

Mr. DAVIDSON: I would just add this. That I do believe that one of the other comparisons between the Vietnam War and this current crisis we're in is that at least during the Vietnam War there was some sense that we were fighting against communism. Now we now know, thanks to Tim Russert asking every week, you know, he's been asking his guests this question - he asked this to Cheney the other day: Given what you now know, if you knew that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, would you still have voted to go into Iraq?

But when Russert has been asking the Republicans about this issue, this question, the strange thing is they've all said yes they would still do it.

You see, to me that right there gets at really the difficulty that we're facing as a nation. Not only did we enter into this war under false premises, even now we can't even acknowledge that. So it's not just a crisis of literally the military being just sitting ducks, snipers just shooting at our soldiers, the whole notion of what it means to be at war as a country, we can't even come to grips with that. It's never anybody made a mistake. It's always mistakes were made. Who made them?

CHIDEYA: Good question.

Prof. BERRY: And there are crises too, Farai, all around the world that we can't take action where we might possibly take action because of the limitations of this war. We're limited in our responses to the Korean situation. We're limited in humanitarian crises such as Darfur - if somebody could figure out how to get us to do something philosophically. Wherever we look in the world, where something is at a crisis point, a flash point - we are limited, we are constrained, we are tied down, we can't really do what we might do otherwise.

CHIDEYA: Let's move on to a couple of shorter topics. One of them is that Rose Rock, the mother of comedian Chris Rock says she was discriminated against at a Cracker Barrel Restaurant in South Carolina. She was seated, ignored for half an hour. She said that she planned to sue. Meantime, the Reverend Al Sharpton has come to her aid and is getting ready to mount and fund a legal campaign.

But the question that arises, at least for me is, there's probably black folks who go into restaurants and shops, get followed, get poor service. You know, Chris Rock's mom presumably has some means where she can fight these battles pretty well without Al Sharpton. Shouldn't Al Sharpton be looking for somebody who just is a round-the-way Joe and picking up his case?

Mr. DAVIDSON: We know, and I read that about Al Sharpton financing this lawsuit. My thought was, can't Chris Rock finance all of Al Sharpton's, you know, action network. I mean, it seems like a little bit backwards. But nonetheless, I mean I think it points to this larger issue of discrimination, which is still, I think, very much out there.

I, frankly, from reading this description of this case, I don't know that this is the best case. I mean the manager came over, apologized, offered a free meal, and it seems as if Chris Rock's mom was upset because he did not basically upbraid the waitress in front of them.

Well, we don't know what happened back in the kitchen. I'm not sure this is the best case but I do think it points to a larger issue of discrimination, which is definitely still with us. And at a basic level, like getting service, because this certainly is not the first case of this type - even in recent years.

Prof. BERRY: Look, if Al Sharpton wants to mobilize something on this issue, what he should do is mobilize around trying to raise the consciousness of people who own public accommodations. There've been many instances - this Cracker Barrel, it's not the first time. We've had all these other restaurant cases here and there. And anybody who's a black person who ever goes out knows that there are occasions when similar things happen - where you don't get waited on, or you wait.

They put you over by the dishes - and they're falling off the tray, and all dirty, all the dirty dishes - or something. Or you have to ask for another table. I mean there are all these things that happen - presumed you don't tip, this, that and the other. Maybe Al Sharpton could, you know start some kind of campaign to deal with this issue generally and leave Chris Rock to finance his own mama's campaign.

CHIDEYA: All right.

Prof. IRVIN: Yes. You know I had a slightly different take on this.

CHIDEYA: Okay.

Prof. IRVIN: Seems like this is a restaurant that Ms. Rock regularly attends. I mean these are the facts. And from what I noted - the manager said that she got caught between shifts of waitresses. And you know that can happen.

Well, you know, what I find troubling about cases like this - and I think Joe mentioned about, you know, we do have discrimination - but I'm also concerned about the fact that we can just sometimes just have these frivolous - and I'm not sure this is one. But I'm always concerned about - you know, if something is serious, we should treat it as serious. But we should not - I just don't understand why we would want to mobilize all of the black folks in the world, because somebody didn't get served 20 minutes earlier. When maybe there are other circumstances that really - there may be very well some legitimate reasons why this happened.

And to make every instance - that of an interaction between one black person and the larger society - to then say that that means that, you know, we have rampant discrimination, we should sue, da, da, da. Gosh, I don't - I think it weakens what our fundamental issues that black people do face in this country. So I don't know.

Prof. BERRY: Would that? Not no. No, no, no, no, Nat. We have major issues. Well, there's education quality, you know it - the criminal, I could make, tick them off though, people in the prison. We got them all. These are major things. But it's not in the - it is - it does happen. It happens in more than one restaurant chain. It happens to people - not Chris Rock's mama. It happens in other than the Cracker.

There've been suits - whether it's Denny's or Shoney's, or whatever. This has happened to blacks who were FBI agents or secret service men. We've had these cases. It happens to people when they go places and they don't get - this is trivial. If you don't get waited on, you can go home and cook, or go to some other restaurant.

But I don't think that we should act as if it doesn't happen. And I have a friend who owns a chain of restaurants and he tells me that one of the major problems he has is trying to sensitize some of his wait staff - that when you see somebody black come in, that doesn't mean that you're supposed to shuffle them off, you know, some place - assume that they're going do this, that, or the other. Just, you know, that that's one of his major problems.

So it's not a major problem for black people. But it is an issue, and I was just saying that if Al Sharpton wants to do something about this issue, let him go do something about the general issue and not by Chris Rock's mama.

Mr. DAVIDSON: And I just want to (Unintelligible) the name Cracker Barrel.

Prof. BERRY: Oh, don't go there.

Prof. IRVIN: You know what he's going to do on HBO, right?

Mr. DAVIDSON: That's mean to attract what you're trying to...

Prof. IRVIN: Uh. You know what he's going to do to you.

CHIDEYA: Letter segment. All right, moving right along. One last topic.

Mr. DAVIDSON: That was just a question, not a statement.

CHIDEYA: One last topic. Very quickly. You guys each have 30 seconds. Die-hard baseball fans can now take it with them. Major League Baseball team logos will be on urns and caskets. Is this capitalism at its best or worse?

Mr. DAVIDSON: I think it is...

Prof. IRVIN: Well I tell you, I think...

Mr. DAVIDSON: I'm sorry. Go ahead, Nat.

Prof. IRVIN: Oh, I was just going to say. This is just boomers coming it to their own age. I mean, you know, if you go take a look at some of the trends in the funeral industry, you could see now that people actually will have, on their tombstones, videotapes of their lives. I mean, you go to the graveyard, you mash a button, you could see the best, the best of the rest of a person's life. So this is sort of a personalization of death.

Prof. BERRY: I saw that in a science fiction movie and I guess it's come true, huh?

Prof. IRVIN: Oh it is.

Prof. BERRY: If that's the identity somebody wants, you know. And that's the only thing they can think of. Here lies Farai. She was a St. Louis Cardinal's fan.

CHIDEYA: Baltimore Orioles.

Prof. BERRY: Okay, Baltimore Orioles.

Mr. DAVIDSON: So I sit here in D.C., there are plenty of folks, including black folks, who would got to the grave with a Washington Redskins logo, no matter how offensive that might be to other people of color.

CHIDEYA: All right. On that note, we had Joe Davidson, editor at The Washington Post. Mary Francis Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. And Nat Irvin, president of Future Focus 2020, teaches at the Babcock Graduate School of Management of Wake Forest University. Thank you all.

Prof. IRVIN: Bye-bye.

CHIDEYA: Bye. So if you want to get in touch with us, and give us a letter. Just go to npr.org, and click on Contact Us. We know that you will have something to say about our Roundtable.

Next on News & Notes, TV Network shine the light on high school games. And we go to the sidelines, the locker room, and beyond to see what's happening in sports.

(Soundbite of music)

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