NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the Knight Studio at the Newseum, a museum devoted to journalism and news located just off the National Mall here in Washington, D.C. Barack Obama's former pastor thrusts himself back into the presidential campaign.
The Supreme Court says states can require voters to show a photo ID. Voters in North Carolina and Indiana go to the polls in six days, but they will not hear the Democrats debate beforehand. Hillary Clinton goes into the lion's den with Bill O'Reilly. And Al Franken's Senate bid hits a pothole. It's Wednesday, and time for this week's fix with the Political Junkie.
Former President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.
Former Representative GERALDINE FERRARO (Democrat, New York): My name is Geraldine Ferraro.
Former Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, "Where's the Beef?"
Former President RICHARD NIXON: You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore.
Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty.
(Soundbite of applause)
President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.
(Soundbite of Howard Dean scream)
CONAN: Every Wednesday, NPR political editor Ken Rudin joins us for the latest on the presidential race and other political news. The big news, of course, is Senator Obama's decision to cut ties with his former pastor. We'll focus on that a bit later in the program, first with Obama-supporter Congressman Mel Watt and Clinton-backer Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee. Then we'll talk with political analyst Ron Walters about the effect on black, white and Hispanic voters.
But first we'll catch up on the week's political news. If you have questions about the Indiana voter ID law, the upcoming primaries in North Carolina and Indiana or Al Franken's taxes, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation. Ken Rudin joins us here at the Newseum. Hey, Ken, and you're back with a trivia question.
KEN RUDIN: I have one today. Today, as you well know, Neal, today is the 17th anniversary of when Paul Tsongas declared his candidacy for president. Who was the last Democratic senator for Massachusetts, elected senator of Massachusetts, not to run for president?
CONAN: If you know the name of the last Democratic senator for Massachusetts not to run for president, call, 800-989-8255, or email us. Again, that's email@example.com. But it's not Ed Brooke?
RUDIN: No, he's a Republican.
CONAN: Aha! OK!
RUDIN: But did not run for president either. That's right.
CONAN: Now Barack Obama did yesterday what a lot of people thought he should have done sooner, break with his former senator (ph), Jeremiah Wright. How is this going to affect things, do you think, in Indiana and North Carolina?
RUDIN: Well, obviously, he had to have gotten to a point where he felt he had no choice, because Jeremiah Wright had been the topic of conversation of the campaign for days. He had done - Reverend Wright had done a "trifecta," appearing with Bill Moyers at the NAACP in Detroit, and of course, at the National Press Club where his performance - I don't know how else to describe it - really became distraction for the Obama campaign.
So obviously it was tough for him to see - you know, when he spoke that eloquent speech in Philadelphia last month about race and racial healing, he went out of his way not to break from Reverend Wright. This time he felt he had no choice.
CONAN: We're going to be talking more about this with Representatives Watt and Sheila Jackson-Lee. But six days to go, this is obviously bad news.
RUDIN: Well, it is. And obviously there's a perception, at least in Washington, that Hillary Clinton is on the ascendancy, even though Barack Obama, since his nine-, ten-point loss in Pennsylvania, has been picking up more superdelegates than she has. He's picked up nine, including several today and yesterday. And she has about five or six since then.
So it's interesting, for all the amount of attention and good headlines she got out of Pennsylvania, he's still picking up more and more delegates. But obviously, there's nervousness about the numbers.
There's a sign that he may be declining somewhat in North Carolina, where he's had a double-digit lead for the longest time. And of course, the last poll I saw was a week ago in Indiana where he was up by five. That may have narrowed in the wake of the Wright controversy.
CONAN: And one of the superdelegates that Senator Clinton did pick up is the governor of North Carolina. Not a shabby endorsement six days ahead of the primary.
RUDIN: That's true. But the two Democrats who are running to succeed him are both working for - have both endorsed Barack Obama.
CONAN: Now, Senator Clinton tonight has accepted an invitation to talk with Bill O'Reilly. Two nights, in fact, she's going to be appearing. I guess they're going to tape it and run it two nights. This is a risk for her, no?
RUDIN: Well, actually, she's been in this situation several times in this campaign, meeting with the members of the "vast, right-wing conspiracy." And she's done OK. She met with Richard Scaife, the publisher of the Pittsburgh Tribune, who has been a long-time Clinton critic.
He was the one who was funding all the Watergate and Monica Lewinsky stuff against the Clintons back in the early '90s. But she came away with an endorsement from that newspaper, which was pretty shocking. And it will be interesting to see what Bill O'Reilly has to say about her.
CONAN: Our guest is Ken Rudin, of course. He's NPR's political junkie. He writes the Political Junkie column on NPR's website. I think we have a title for him. It's called political editor. Not the same title that a lot of people are using this week. Anyway, we have a call on our trivia question. And this is Ron, Ron, with us from Utica, New York.
RON (Caller): Yes.
CONAN: Hi, Ron. Go ahead.
RON: The answer is Senator Edward Brooke. He was defeated by Paul Tsongas in 1978.
RUDIN: Well, we talked about that earlier. Edward Brooke was a Republican. The question, of course, was who was the last Democratic senator from Massachusetts not to have run for president? Ed Brooke, of course, didn't run, but he was a Republican.
CONAN: And Ed Brooke was also the nominee of Jim Duffy (ph), who sent us an email. Thanks very much for the call, Ron.
RON: OK, thanks.
CONAN: And this, from another email, this from Judy, who says it's Ted Kennedy. Well, I know that Ted Kennedy did run for president in 1980. I was on his campaign bus.
RUDIN: Although he had trouble addressing that question to Roger Mudd in that famous question in 1979. But Ted Kennedy did run against Jimmy Carter in 1980 and took the battle all the way to the convention in Madison Square Garden.
CONAN: Email from Nathan, who says the answer is David Walsh.
RUDIN: David Walsh is the correct answer. And this is - I mean, he was in the Senate from 19...
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RUDIN: I know, I know. It's not often that David Walsh gets a standing ovation on Talk of the Nation. But David Walsh served from 1926 to 1946. As you well remember, he was defeated by Henry Cabot Lodge in 1946.
CONAN: Of course, yes.
RUDIN: But what's interesting, every Democrat since then, John F. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry - you remember him? - and Paul Tsongas, all ran for the presidency. So David Walsh is the answer.
Now, actually, there was one more Democratic senator, Benjamin Smith III. He was the guy who was appointed to replace John F. Kennedy because Ted Kennedy was too young to hold the seat in 1962. So he was a seat warmer for a brief time.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Darren, Darren with us from American Falls in Idaho.
DARREN (Caller): Yes, I just had a question whether or not you thought the press had been fair with Reverend Wright. We don't talk enough about this idea of right-wing pastor figures and their influence in the political process. And I'll take my answer off the air.
CONAN: OK, thanks very much for the call. And this, of course, Reverend Hagee, if I'm pronouncing that correctly, has endorsed Senator McCain. And he's gotten into considerable trouble for that.
RUDIN: There's no question that there's been more focus on Reverend Wright and his relationship with Obama than Reverend Hagee and his relationship, or certainly his endorsement, of John McCain. One of the reasons is that nobody's paying attention to John McCain. Somebody told me the other day that he is the likely Republican nominee?
CONAN: Yeah, I've heard that. Yes.
RUDIN: So, no, but I mean, obviously there will be much more attention on him and Keating Five and Hagee and all that stuff. So regarding that, I think that's part of the reason, because there is so much more attention on a very exciting campaign for the nomination and how this could affect it. And obviously it has affected it.
CONAN: And indeed, Senator McCain has already asked the North Carolina Republican Party not to run this ad. And let's listen to it.
(Soundbite of Obama campaign ad)
Unidentified Announcer: For 20 years, Barack Obama sat in his pew listening to his pastor.
Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT, Jr. (Former Pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ): And then wants us to sing "God Bless America"! No, no, no! Not "God Bless America"! Goddamn America!
Unidentified Announcer: Now Bev Perdue and Richard Moore endorse Barack Obama. They should know better. He's just too extreme for North Carolina.
CONAN: And that plays as an ad in North Carolina's gubernatorial race.
RUDIN: Well, ostensibly, that's the reason the Republicans in North Carolina wanted to run it. They wanted to attack Richard Moore and Bev Perdue, the two Democrats who are running in the May 6th primary. But I'm just wondering if this ad may be outdated now, given the fact that before Barack Obama would not break from Reverend Wright. Clearly yesterday changed everything like that.
CONAN: Let's also talk about Al Franken, running for the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate in the state of Minnesota, who's had problems in, now, 17 states. I'm not even sure that includes Minnesota.
RUDIN: That's more states than Mitt Romney's from. What's interesting, he has a 70,000-dollar tax bill. He hasn't paid back taxes. He says, well, look, it's my accountants fault. And I'll 'fess up and everything like that. But what's interesting is Al Franken, among the challengers running for Senate seats this year, he's probably the best-financed Democratic challenger anywhere in the country.
He's running - he'll be the likely nominee against Norm Coleman in Minnesota. Coleman had been a Bush supporter on the war for a long time, until he broke with him this year. A very close race to watch, a tossup in our rankings. We have a new Senate map on npr.org that talks about all the Senate races. But Franken is getting a little bit of bad publicity in the last couple of days.
CONAN: And Florida and Michigan? Has the Democratic Party figured out what they're going to do with those delegates?
RUDIN: Well, no. They are having a meeting. The DNC is having a meeting on May 31st to try to do this. Obviously, for those who don't remember, and I'm sure everybody does remember, both Florida and Michigan moved up their primary to January, in violation of DNC rules. The Democratic National Committee said if you do that, you're stripped of all the delegates. They did it anyway. They stripped them of their delegates.
The Republicans only stripped them of half the delegates. The campaigns - no candidate campaigned in Michigan or Florida. Hillary Clinton, along with Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich, were on the ballot in Michigan. Barack Obama was not. All the candidates were on the ballot in Florida. Again no delegates were allotted. Hillary Clinton won both primaries pretty handily in January.
So now there's a solution. Obviously, Hillary Clinton wants the most delegates, because she won the primaries. Barack Obama says, no, it should be split evenly because it didn't count. There's a new solution, a new suggestion, out there that will give her about ten more delegates than he, in Michigan.
CONAN: I thought it was going to be the 48-state flag with the solution. Anyway, we have a question from here in the studio audience at the Newseum.
Ms. JULIA MOSS (Audience Member): Hi. My name is Julia Moss (ph). And you mentioned earlier that the North Carolina governor came out yesterday for Hillary Clinton. But what has been the trend since Hillary Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary in the superdelegate endorsements?
RUDIN: Barack Obama has actually done better than she has, and that's interesting. There's an - Senator Claire McCaskill from Missouri said that even though there are about 80 or so congressional delegates, superdelegates, who have not publicly announced their decision yet, she thinks most of them have.
And the feeling, the understanding, was that had Barack Obama done better than he did in Pennsylvania, or even won Pennsylvania on April 22, a lot of these would have come out and endorsed Barack Obama. Obviously, it's tough for them to come out now that she seems to be on roll, having won Pennsylvania.
But even today, Baron Hill, the congressman from Indiana, has endorsed Barack Obama. Yesterday, Congressman Ben Chandler from Kentucky, which votes pretty soon, David Wu, a congressman from Oregon, which votes soon, also endorsed Obama. Now, of course, Hillary Clinton did pick up the endorsement of Mike Easley.
She picked up a congressman yesterday in Missouri, Ike Skelton. It's running still for Barack Obama, maybe - well, nine to five in the past couple of days. So he's still doing better than she is, even though she has been picking up the wins, and he's been getting the bad press.
Ms. MOSS: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the question. It's Political Junkie day. We're live in the Knight Studio at the Newseum here in Washington, D.C. And when we come back, Senator Barack Obama's pastor has burst into the news again. We'll talk about the fallout with Congressman Mel Watt and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan, broadcasting today from the Knight Studio inside the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
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CONAN: Ken Rudin, NPR political editor, is here with us. It's Political Junkie day. And we're discussing the Democratic presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, and his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
Back in March, Obama's connection to the Reverend Wright was scrutinized after tapes of some of the pastor's more incendiary comments surfaced on YouTube. Obama turned questions about Reverend Wright into a major speech on race. Among other things, he said could no more disown the pastor than he could his own white grandmother.
(Soundbite of speech)
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): The man I met more than 20 years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another, to care for the sick, and lift up the poor. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me.
CONAN: Then on Monday, Reverend Wright broke his silence and defended his earlier remarks in an appearance at the National Press Club, and characterized Senator Obama's reaction as mere politics. Senator Obama yesterday, at an emotional news conference, cut ties with his former pastor.
(Soundbite of press conference)
Senator OBAMA: Yesterday we saw a very different vision of America. I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday.
CONAN: The conflict between the two over race, politics and perceptions of the two has become central to the Democratic nomination, again. We want to hear from you. What's the fallout of the Wright controversy? Has this changed your mind?
Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll also take questions from our audience here at the Newseum. You can join the conversation on our blog as well. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.
And we're hoping to hear, shortly, from Representative Mel Watt, a Democrat from North Carolina, and also from Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee. She is from Texas. He supports Obama. She supports Hillary Clinton. In the meantime, let's see if we get a caller on the line. And this is Jennifer, Jennifer with us, Duluth in Minnesota.
JENNIFER (Caller): Yeah, my mind has not been changed by Reverend Wright's comments, both the ones from previous and now. I've been an Obama supporter for quite awhile. What really is bothersome to me, and I'm very sad about, is I think it magnifies that race is still really a latent problem in this country.
And you've got David Dukes out there who've been doing this stuff for years and get elected. And you've got Robertson, Falwell, and the vitriol about gays and other things. And yet when this happens, it - just so hurts this candidate. It's just amazing to me. And I think it really shows there's a problem, and it's really quite a double standard. And I'll take my comments off the air and thank you.
CONAN: Jennifer, thanks very much for the call. Well, joining us now is Representative Mel Watt, Democrat from North Carolina, superdelegate for Barack Obama. And Congressman Watt, first of all, thanks very much for being with us today.
Representative MEL WATT (Democrat, North Carolina): Thank you. You're having a very tough conversation today.
CONAN: Well, it's a tough one, but it's one that's going on all over the country in various forms. And as you listen to what Jennifer had to say, do you think, first of all, that Senator Obama has been hurt by this controversy?
Rep. WATT: Well, I'm sure it's having some impact. You like to think that people can differentiate between what one person says and another person says and make the distinctions. But I'm sure there are some people who are saying that this is a reflection on Barack Obama and his candidacy. So we need to try to minimize that and hopefully eliminate it completely. But people will do what, I think, makes them feel comfortable in this situation.
CONAN: Among the questions they may ask is if the Reverend Wright's comments were outrageous yesterday, why weren't they outrageous a month ago?
Rep. WATT: Well, I think he took it to another level yesterday, or over the weekend, in a series of discussions. It's one thing to say something is an aberration in the context of a larger speech. But when you - he himself is, Reverend Wright, that is, is guilty of the same things that he was accusing the media of doing.
He lifted out from the context of a speech and elaborated on something that was outrageous, when, if said in the context of a speech, may not have been as outrageous. So I don't think Barack has changed his position. It's Reverend Wright that has gone a step, three steps, four steps, further than he did previously.
CONAN: We have a question from here at the studio audience at the Newseum.
Mr. SAM GOLDSTEIN (Audience Member): I'm Sam Goldstein (ph). I'm a sophomore at American. I'm just wondering, Obama's campaign, it seems to have done very little to mitigate the damage. The speech on race was great, but it was kind of obtuse. And I'm wondering, is Wright completely out of Obama's control? Is there any dialogue, at this point, between the two?
CONAN: Can you give us an answer on that, Congressman Watt?
Rep. WATT: I don't know anybody who thinks that there's any dialogue going on between Barack Obama and Reverend Wright. If there were, probably the speech itself that Barack gave would have allowed this to go off the front page and back to the campaign. But nobody could have anticipated the Reverend Wright would have come out and thrown kerosene on a fire that was virtually out.
CONAN: You suspect the next communication is going to be a Christmas card?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Rep. WATT: I suspect so. Or maybe - you know, I don't know what the next communication is. You don't stop speaking to people. But clearly there is a growing rift, a major chasm, between the Barack campaign and Reverend Wright at this point.
CONAN: Thanks for the question.
RUDIN: Congressman Watt, when we first talked about the Obama candidacy as more of a dream or an idea a year and a half ago, we always knew that race would be in the background. But did we ever think that it could be an African-American, a fellow African-American, who could prove the end of the Obama campaign?
Rep. WATT: Well, I mean, Reverend Wright won't cast but one vote. We need to keep that in mind. And I suspect he will cast his vote for Barack Obama. I can't imagine him voting for anybody else if Barack is the nominee. So, I mean, the decisive votes will be cast by people in North Carolina, in Indiana, in - all across America, if Barack Obama is the nominee.
So we shouldn't make this the discussion about race, only about Reverend Wright. Race has been a factor in American politics for years and years and years. That's why we have a Voting Rights Act, because people have historically voted along racial lines, and it's been a decisive factor in their vote. Now we hope that that is minimizing.
But remember, just last year, a year before last, we renewed the Voting Rights Act for 25 more years, anticipating it would probably take that long for race to play itself out as a factor in American politics. So I don't want people to pass the buck and say we're going to blame this whole thing on Reverend Wright. He's the only factor here.
People have free choice to decide and determine whether race is still the major factor, a major factor, a diminishing factor, or no factor in this election year. And we shouldn't be passing the buck to Reverend Wright on that issue. We all have individual choices that we can make on that issue.
CONAN: That's - you're absolutely right. But that's kind of the argument that Senator Obama put to us last month in his speech in Philadelphia. And what this subsequent controversy seems to have raised anew are questions about his judgment. How he could have sat there for 20 years and not known the man he thought he knew so well?
Rep. WATT: Well, I've been in the same church for 62 years, a country church out in - on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina. It would take a major, major set of circumstances to move me from my church. It's my church. I hear messages from pastors that sometimes I agree with, that sometimes use hyperbole, that go overboard.
You know, I don't know that anybody could have said 15 years ago, you ought to get up and move from this church. There are major issues in the Catholic Church, in every church, that a majority of the people in the church sometimes disagree about. Nobody is jumping up who doesn't agree with the Pope on birth control or abortion or choice, saying, OK, you should jump up and move out of the church that you're a member of.
I think we are overreacting here, because this is a presidential campaign, and we are holding Senator Barack to a much, much, much higher standard than we would hold anybody at this juncture. And I think anybody who says differently, I think is just sidestepping some of their own insecurity about this.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in. And this is Amy, Amy with us from San Antonio, Texas.
AMY (Caller): Yes. I'm sorry. I can barely hear you guys.
CONAN: Go ahead.
AMY: I just wanted to make a comment, and I thought this was a pretty interesting issue. I've been following the news for awhile with the Reverend Wright saying - and I know there is a lot of media coverage out there focusing on this one particular issue. But for example, we don't tend to focus on the true issue here, which is the fact that, at the Nevada convention, the GOP party walked out based on McCain and the fact that they weren't getting the vote that they needed.
So I think that we should focus on the more important issues, which is the way people are voting is a lot different now and that this "piddly" racism issue has nothing to do in the grander scheme of what we should really be focusing on, which is the issues. Thank you. I'll take my comments off the air.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, Amy. And well, I'm certain that Senator Obama would like to switch the conversation to issues that he thinks are important for the country today.
Rep. WATT: I think we all would like to switch the issues back to the real kitchen-table issues of the economy and the war and education and healthcare. This is a major distraction. And I'm not saying that race shouldn't be discussed.
Obviously, we need to have an open discussion about race in this country and be honest about it, but we shouldn't do it in the context of some outrageous statement that any minister or any individual makes. It needs to be in a more reasonable setting and without the kind of glare that the media and others have cast upon this issue.
CONAN: It's Wednesday. We're with the political junkie, Ken Rudin, here at the Newseum. Our guest is Congressman Mel Watt, a Democrat from North Carolina and a supporter of Senator Barack Obama. We also invited Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee to be with us. She is a Democrat from Texas and supports Hillary Clinton.
Evidently she could not make it to the broadcast. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Ken?
RUDIN: One quick comment regarding what Congressman Watt just said. Yes, Barack Obama is held to a higher standard. I think he should be, because he's the first - he's making history, just as John Kennedy was held to a higher standard regarding the Catholic religion. Now we don't even think about what Catholics are running for president.
CONAN: And Mitt Romney was as a Mormon.
RUDIN: And Mitt Romney, too. But I'm saying, so when you're first in that, you are, fortunately or unfortunately, held to this higher standard.
CONAN: Do you think that's fair, Congressman?
Rep. WATT: Well, hold the person to a higher standard, but remember, Reverend Wright is not a candidate in this presidential election. And I don't know what else Barack could do at this point to further distance himself, sever the relationship, disavow, you know, in this - whatever perception people have that Reverend Wright has this super control over him.
I think it's appropriate to hold Barack to a higher standard, and I think he meets that higher standard. But it seems to me that what we're doing now is saddling him with burdens of people who - that create a different standard here. We've never saddled other political candidates with those kinds of burdens. Suppose President Kennedy had disagreed with the Pope on some issues.
Would we be asking him to withdraw himself from the Catholic Church, back in the middle of that campaign? I mean, it's just - I agree that all presidential candidates have to be held to a high standard, perhaps a higher standard than anybody. But this isn't about Barack Obama anymore. It's about Reverend Wright, somebody that's not a candidate here.
CONAN: Congressman, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Rep. WATT: Thank you.
CONAN: Mel Watt, a Democrat from North Carolina. He represents the 12th district there. A supporter, as you heard, of Senator Barack Obama. And again, we invited a supporter of Senator Clinton, Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee, to be with us, and she obviously couldn't make it. But Ken Rudin, before you go, this presents both an opportunity and a quandary for Senator Clinton. Does she exploit this controversy?
RUDIN: Well, there are some people who say that she has been. There were comments made by her husband during the South Carolina primary. There was a comment by Bill Clinton, just the other day, who said that the Obama campaign and the media are playing the race card on him. You know, that they're using it on him.
And you know, that's Bill Clinton being Bill Clinton. But look, I think it's beyond Bill Clinton. But I think Hillary Clinton does have a comment to say. She could - look, at the last debate, if you remember, out of nowhere she raised the name of Minister Farrakhan. Now, some people thought that that was playing the race card as well.
So Hillary Clinton does have a responsibility, as does Barack Obama, as does the media, into how to frame this issue. But certainly, we have not heard from her, and it would be very - that's why I would have loved to have heard Sheila Jackson-Lee today talk about what the Clinton campaign has in mind for this.
CONAN: The question might come up when Senator Clinton appears tonight with Bill O'Reilly.
RUDIN: And also she - yes, absolutely true.
CONAN: All right. Ken Rudin, thanks very much.
RUDIN: I'm not leaving, Neal.
CONAN: You're not?
RUDIN: No, I'm staying here.
CONAN: You're staying?
CONAN: All right.
CONAN: Worst person in the world, huh? All right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Ken Rudin, staying with us here at the Knight Newseum - at the Knight Studio, here at the Newseum. When we come back, we're going to continue talking about the controversy over Reverend Wright and Senator Obama.
We'll be joined by Ron Walters, a distinguished leadership scholar and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. And he also knows a thing or two about politics, besides that artful title. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, broadcasting today from the new Newseum in Washington, D.C., in the Knight Studio.
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CONAN: When Reverend Wright spoke at the National Press Club on Monday, he praised another controversial religious leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam.
(Soundbite of speech)
Reverend WRIGHT: So what I think about him, as I said on Bill Moyers, and it got edited out, how many other African-Americans or European-Americans do you know that can get one million people together on the Mall?
He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st centuries. That's what I think about him. I said, as I said on Bill Moyers, when Louis Farrakhan speaks, it's like E. F. Hutton speaks. All black America listens. Whether they agree with him or not, they listen.
CONAN: Ron Walters is here with us to help us understand the impact of the racially-charged controversy on this campaign. He's professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland-College Park, the author of "Freedom is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates, and American Presidential Politics." Nice to have you with us today.
Dr. RON WALTERS (Government and Politics, University of Maryland; Author, "Freedom is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates, and American Presidential Politics"): Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And of course, we still want to hear from you. Have the newest comments by Reverend Wright and Senator Obama's response changed your mind in any way? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com.
And Ron Walters, this has highlighted an issue we've seen over and over again in the last several weeks. Senator Obama does not do very well among many white, working-class voters. And that's going to come up again as he goes into North Carolina and Indiana.
Dr. WALTERS: That's certainly true. When you look at what has already happened in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, this is particularly important because some of the racially-sensitive groups there have said that, well, when they vote, they take race into consideration. And when you look at the exit polls in Ohio, for example, it was about 20 percent.
It's probably about 30 percent, because social scientists know that people tend to understate their views having to do with race. So about a third of the people in these elections have some sensitive feelings about race when they go to vote. Obviously, this means that they're going to vote probably against Barack Obama. So it is a question, it is a problem.
And when you understand that about a third of most of the electorate is, sort of, blue-collar workers who have been under tremendous pressure with things like jobs and their living conditions and now their houses, there is considerable resentment there. I would go back to say bitterness about their socioeconomic circumstances. And that is the kind of fire, that is the kind of fuel, that racism thrives on.
CONAN: Let's get a get a question from here in the audience at the Newseum.
Ms. KATIE GREER (Audience Member): Hi. My name is Katie Greer (ph). I'm a student at American University. And I'm just wondering, obviously, most people would consider it to be a smart political move on Obama's part to cut ties with Reverend Wright at this point, but can you pinpoint any specific groups of people who will probably cut ties with Obama at this point as a result, and not support him anymore after this controversy?
Dr. WALTERS: Well, thanks for that question. It's from my alma mater.
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Dr. WALTERS: I think that, you know, the black community right now is conflicted, because on the one hand, Reverend Wright has a lot of support in the black community. He's been around 30 years. He's nationally recognized. His church is a model for the kind of, sort of, ministries - he's got 70 ministries in that church, and so...
CONAN: And for the last month, Senator Obama has asked people to rally around him.
Dr. WALTERS: Absolutely. And yesterday there were 400 ministers at Shiloh Baptist Church here in Washington, D.C., supporting him. So he's got a lot of support. So for those people who think, well, you know, this is about the black church, not a presidential candidate, some of those people feel very conflicted about this issue.
On the other hand, I've got a - I've been on a lot of shows and I've heard a lot of comments from people who say, well, you know, he's messing up the chance for a black to be president of the United States for the first time, and we don't like it. The black community right now is split, and some of the people who think that the black church should be privileged may not vote for Barack Obama. But I think that that is probably going to be a relatively small population.
CONAN: Let's get Greg on the line, and Greg's calling us from Raleigh in North Carolina.
GREG (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Greg.
GREG: Yes, I just want to make a comment about the Reverend Wright's view. My question is - and it's kind of a vague question, but I don't understand how, if someone like Reverend Wright speaks out a lot like this about the problems of America that he feels are problems in America, why doesn't he just move out of America?
CONAN: Perhaps because he was born here and lived his whole life here.
GREG: Well, I understand that, but he's obviously very unhappy here. So why doesn't he move to somewhere else where he will be happy?
CONAN: Well, maybe he's just trying to make this country a better place, like a lot of us. Anyway, thanks very much for the call, Greg.
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CONAN: And joining us now is Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Democrat from Texas and supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton. And Congresswoman Lee, we hoped to hear from you earlier, but better late than never. Nice to have you on the program today.
Representative SHEILA JACKSON-LEE (Democrat, Texas): Thank you so very much. I'm delighted to be with you. You know the trials and tribulation of being on the Hill and working. I was in the middle of markup and I rushed to be on air.
And I know your listeners will find it humorous, I was rushing to the wrong studio. But you're so important that I've rushed back. And I thank you for your courtesy of extending the courtesy to me.
CONAN: And "markup," of course, is part of the legislative process, and not makeup. It's considerably different.
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Rep. JACKSON-LEE: You're right. I thank you for correcting that. And a serious one, too, having to do with human rights issues and genocide as it relates to arms control. So we may even come up and talk about that another time.
CONAN: But we wanted to ask you today about the controversy, obviously, that's facing Senator Obama with the Congress, his back and forth with Reverend Wright. And the - well, both the opportunity and the conundrum this presents to Senator Clinton. What does she do now?
Rep. JACKSON-LEE: Well, you know, first of all, this is a sad day, I'm sure, as it relates to Senator Obama. He made that known as we heard him speak on yesterday. And Senator Clinton stays the course, and I applaud her for the tone and the demeanor and the actions that she's taken, frankly. She has stayed on message and on focus to North Carolina and Indiana.
And I do believe that the question will be, who is best prepared to lead this government and this nation amongst the many, as I said, trials and tribulations of now? And that is, of course, high gasoline prices. She's come out with a solution on a moratorium. It's not a permanent solution but a moratorium for the summer on gas taxes.
The whole idea, which is so very important to many of us in our congressional districts, real universal access to healthcare, bringing the troops home and jobs, jobs, jobs. I've seen her in Pennsylvania. I think there is a connection going on now with Senator Clinton, as evidenced by the 50 to 34, that she's winning the Independent vote, the nine points that she leads Senator McCain.
Stay the course, and again, stay focused. Realize that this is a personal dilemma that your opponent is going through. We all have our personal dilemmas. This is no time to make use of that because we all have our challenges. But it is time to show your focus, your leadership and you're connecting to the voters.
CONAN: You don't - it was mentioned earlier in this broadcast that during the last debate - she will not get another one before the North Carolina and Indiana primaries. But in the last debate, she did raise the name of Reverend Farrakhan, Minister Farrakhan. And would you expect that that might come up, again, tonight in her conversation with, for example, Bill O'Reilly?
Rep. JACKSON-LEE: Well, I think anything that comes up with candidates is pursuant to a question, and certainly you would want anyone to answer their questions. All of the people that support Senator Clinton probably have different views on a lot of things that she says, but her answers come pursuant to questions. She answers from the heart. She answers truthfully.
But at the same time, there's no doubt that Senator Clinton embraces the rich diversity of this nation, the diversity of thought. She recognizes people have their opinions. She is clearly someone who doesn't run away from diversity, as evidenced by her participating in the "State of the Black Union" with Tavis Smiley, a very well-thought-out message as she went to Memphis for the 40th anniversary.
Senator Clinton will answer questions but her message is to stay on course and to talk about the issues. That's what won the election in Pennsylvania. I saw the connectedness as individuals from all economic backgrounds and demographics were there in that state, reaching out, not on divisive issues.
But they were reaching out towards her, shaking her hand, telling her about the fact that they voted for the first time in their lives, or would be voting, because they believe that she can solve their problems.
You know something else is working for Senator Clinton. People now like a fighter. For a woman, that's a challenge. But they like a fighter. They like someone who says I'm fighting for you, and if I'm in the fight fighting for you and for this nation, you will have a better quality of life, and we will have a nation that we all can be proud of.
CONAN: Congresswoman Lee, thanks very much for the time and making the effort to get to a phone line and join us on the program today.
Rep. JACKSON-LEE: Well, you're very kind. Thank you to all of your listeners as well.
CONAN: Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Democrat from Texas, and as you heard, a superdelegate who will be supporting Senator Clinton come convention time. And Ron Walters is still with us from the University of Maryland. His book, again, "Freedom is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Presidents and American Presidential Politics." And I guess, Ron, one of the old rules of politics is, if your opponent is messing up, the best thing to do is stay out of his way.
Dr. WALTERS: Yes. And that's very interesting because when you look at the fact that Hillary Clinton has not, sort of, commented on this. She is following that rule. On the other hand, of course, John McCain has. He has taken advantage of it. That gives you a hint as to what might happen this fall. Except that I think, by this fall, given the fact that this is such a hot issue right now, it may be old news.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another question from the audience here at the Newseum. I'm sorry. I thought you were lined up for a question right there. You just - we just have an overflow crowd, and they're standing in front of the microphone. I apologize for that. Let's see if we can go to the phones instead. We'll go to Barbara, Barbara with us from Miami in Florida.
BARBARA (Caller): Hi. How are you?
CONAN: I'm well, Barbara. Thank you.
BARBARA: I think it's too late for Senator Obama. He should have distanced himself when these excerpts first surfaced on TV news. I think the vitriol that has come out of Reverend Wright's sermons - I mean, I understand they might have been taken out of context, but there is no other way to view those statements - should have been reacted to in the beginning.
CONAN: Yeah. Ron Walters, the other day in the National Press Club, Reverend Wright didn't say my remarks were taken out of context. He said let me expand on some of those remarks.
BARBARA: Right. And he made it even worse. And unfortunately, you know, Senator Obama's platform, part of it has been to be, you know, someone for change. And for a minute there it looked like he could do it, but I just can't believe that he didn't hear this stuff during the 20 years he was a churchgoer.
CONAN: Ron Walters?
BARBARA: And so I...
CONAN: Could you hold on just a second, Barbara? We want to get a response from Ron.
Dr. WALTERS: Well, if he's like me, he didn't go to church every Sunday.
BARBARA: I know. But you yourself are - someone on the panel said that, you know, the reverend is a very important reverend in the black church, and I'm sure that there's a kind of talk or something that's well-known not just to parishioners but among the leaders themselves of some of the churches. You know, I heard that Oprah Winfrey wanted to be a member of the church and she said, no way, I'm out of here. So I just think it's...
CONAN: We don't know that to be true, so as far as we know.
CONAN: Let's get - see if we can get a response from Ron Walters.
Dr. WALTERS: Well, no matter how esteemed the minister - he was a state senator, you know? He had a lot of things that I'm sure kept him from attending church every Sunday, so I would take him at his word for that. But I think that when you look at the fact that he has resoundingly rejected those words and put distance between himself and Reverend Wright, I don't know exactly what else he can do.
The fact that he didn't do it earlier? I'm not sure that that washes. And I think that what we have done is that we've put a lot of focus on Reverend Wright and on Barack Obama. We ought to put a little focus and we ought to do what Barack Obama said about challenging American people. That tremendous speech on race was designed to do that.
To ask people that they lay down racism at their feet and not carry it into the voting booth, and not make it, sort of, the evaluation that they use. And so I think that we've - and it's very difficult to find, you know, how many people and so forth. And I haven't asked that question.
You know, how many people you think are racist? I don't know. There's no way of telling because people hide behind all kinds of things. But I think that people ought to take seriously this challenge to lay this thing down, because this is a tremendous moment. Let me say one final thing, that I'm not...
CONAN: Well, it's not going to be your final, so go ahead.
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Dr. WALTERS: OK. I'm not on Barack Obama's campaign staff, but I understand the movement that's afoot. And one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton has had such difficulty with doing what the congressman has said - and that is saying that I'm here. I'm going to fix things. I'm a fighter and so forth.
That's a tremendous message, but it hasn't been able to overrun the feeling among the American people that this is a decisive moment in history to change. Now, if we take racism, we can destroy that movement and the possibilities that we can enter a new era in American history.
CONAN: Professor Ron Walters. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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CONAN: We actually have a little bit left to go, so hold your applause until the final thing. I did want to ask you, though. He's asked Americans to rise to the challenge. And there's this funny kind of situation where he finds himself in. One of the first questions asked about him was, was he black enough?
In other words, did he have the civil rights credentials, that sort of thing, to bring along the old-line black political establishment, which was initially very much heavily for the Clintons? Now the question seems to be, at least in the white community, is he too black?
Is he, again, a Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, the black candidate? While at the same time, by repudiating Reverend Wright in the black community, again, you raise the question of, well, is he black enough? Is he supporting our guy?
Dr. WALTERS: I think that really the question is, is he white enough? And I think that's really what's at the bottom of it. In a country where 70 percent of the people are white, obviously, even if you're an African-American candidate, that's the constituency that you have to satisfy.
So there is the question, really, of whether or not you're white enough. That is really the question. Initially blacks didn't know him outside the state of Illinois. And so they were listening to cues like, well, he had a Kenyan father, Caucasian mother, raised in - where?
Dr. WALTERS: Yeah, and Indonesia. These are not cues that African-Americans know very much about. In Alabama and Mississippi, ghetto grits, I mean, those are the cues that we know something about, but here is this strange guy. So 20 points behind Hillary Clinton, that's certainly true.
So the question of whether or not he was black enough was a legitimate question. He had to satisfy blacks in terms of the cultural cues. So he did that. He went to some. They were able to trust him. And because they were able to trust him, now his support level is at some - held at 92 percent.
CONAN: Ron Walters, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.
Dr. WALTERS: Thank you very much for having me.
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