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Shop Talk: Debate Civility, Obama Gets Finger Wag


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette and, new to the Shop, veteran journalist and author Michael Cottman; he's currently with BlackAmericaWeb.com.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey fellows, welcome to the Shop. How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Doing great, man.

MICHAEL COTTMAN: Doing well. Thanks for having me.

IZRAEL: Michael, first time in. Mike C., welcome.

COTTMAN: Yes, yes. I'm happy to be here, in the Barbershop.

IZRAEL: All right, we're happy to have you. All right, let's get things started with the latest in the Republican run for president, debate number 2,000 and 80-something. Well, no, no. I'm kidding, but I don't know how these guys are still standing.

Anyway, front-runner Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are still going strong at each other, and it was Rick Santorum who said, you know what? Enough is enough. Michel, we got a clip. Yeah?

MARTIN: Yes, we do. This is the former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who's still standing in the debates as well, along with Ron Paul. But obviously, attention mostly focused on Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. This is what he had to say.


RICK SANTORUM: The bigger issue here is these two gentlemen, who are out distracting from the most important issues we have by playing petty, personal politics. Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress, and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies, and that's not the worst thing in the world; and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard, and he's going out and working hard. And you should - guys - leave that alone, and focus on the issues.



MARTIN: Of course, that was Rick Santorum. Mm-hmm.

IZRAEL: Sounds like he's drinking whatever Newt's been drinking. Thanks, Michel.

You know, fellas, I listen to this kind of stuff and I wonder: Are these fights about bank accounts and ex-wives getting in the way, or are they important? Michael Cottman, you're covering the presidential campaigns. What do you think?

COTTMAN: You're absolutely right. I am - I watched this debate; I was appalled by it. What I saw, Jimi, were - here's Gingrich and Romney, two arrogant millionaires, criticizing each other for how they made millions. I've never seen two people who were just so out of touch with the American people during a time of economic crisis. I mean, here's Gingrich also talking about establishing a colony on the moon.


COTTMAN: How about establishing - you know, how about establishing funds for poor people here in this country?

MARTIN: So do you think that...

IZRAEL: I love that guy.

MARTIN: So do you think that the subjects that are being brought up in these debates are, in fact, important or not, Michael?

COTTMAN: I think that what's missing from these debates are this: allocating funds, for example, for poor people. What about folks who are struggling to keep their homes out of foreclosure? What about single mothers who can't afford day care? These are issues - substantial issues that I would like hear from both of these people - or from all the GOP candidates - but instead, what we have, again, is two arrogant millionaires who are just going at it.

I mean, Newt Gingrich made a bunch of money off Freddie Mac during a time where people were trying to buy homes. And I think it's appalling. I think it's upsetting and frankly, I had to turn it off about a third of the way through.

IZRAEL: I hear you, man. Ruben, you're currently in the Sunshine State.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. I can...

IZRAEL: You know, is Newt going to set you up with a cheese mine on the moon? We're catching you by phone, so it sounds as if you're already there, but...


NAVARRETTE: I have it all planned out...

IZRAEL: Right...

NAVARRETTE: I have it all planned out. I'm going to go to the moon first and stake out a colony on my own in the southwest. It's going to be called the Southwest, and then a bunch of white folks are going to come and take it from me.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

IZRAEL: As it turns out, you're at the Hispanic Leadership Conference, co-chaired by...

NAVARRETTE: I am. I am here.

IZRAEL: ...former Governor Jeb Bush.

NAVARRETTE: Right on. First of all, let me say to Jimi...

IZRAEL: All right. So...

NAVARRETTE: Let me say to Jimi and Michel, Miami cries for you. It actually waits your return.

MARTIN: Oh, thank you.

IZRAEL: Oh, OK. Well...

NAVARRETTE: But I'm here with...

IZRAEL: What's the word on last night's debate?

NAVARRETTE: Marco Rubio is here. Gingrich is here. Romney is here speaking, and it's a gathering of Hispanic conservatives. And I'm here playing my typical role of skunk at the picnic, saying things they don't want to hear, necessarily.

But, as to the questions that were asked, you've got to understand, these are questions that were asked by Wolf Blitzer, just like before they were asked by John King in previous debates. If there's anybody to be faulted here, these candidates respond to the questions that are put to them. The indictment doesn't belong on the candidates. It belongs on the questioners.

The media kept drilling down, last night - the questioners - on this idea of money and Fannie Mae and - call him a millionaire and all this other stuff, and - to the point where the crowd is booing. I have not seen so much booing as I have over the last several weeks. The crowd just does not like the media and their questions.

MARTIN: But the crowd booed Juan Williams of Fox News, when he asked about Newt Gingrich - about his comments about African-Americans and food stamps. So is that...

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. And I thought one question...

MARTIN: Is that the metric?

NAVARRETTE: ...was a lot more appropriate and substantive than some of the stuff I heard last night about: Why did you call him a millionaire? Why are you a millionaire? Who's a millionaire? There's a world of difference between those kinds of questions. And I think that it's - again, just to be clear, they stand up there like potted plants, and they respond to questions that are put to them. So if we have a problem with the fact that nobody asked about poor folks, take it up with Wolf Blitzer. He never asked about poor folks.

MARTIN: Well, while we have you there, though, Ruben, just give us - could you just give us a sense of the race in Florida, since you're there on the scene?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Well, you know, Romney's still leading by a substantial margin. It looks like it could be his for the taking. The interesting split is in the Hispanic community. The Hispanic community has grown here in Florida in the last 10 years by more than 50 percent. About 22 percent, 23 percent of the state is Hispanic. And there's been this interesting pivot because in the first three races - Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina - very few Hispanics in those states, and Mitt Romney and Gingrich - to some degree - as well, they have sort of gone after the pandering of that other audience. And now, they have to pivot back. And you have a kinder, gentler Mitt Romney floating around here someplace. So it's been interesting to watch that dynamic.

You have a lot of support among Hispanics for Gingrich, and a lot of support for Romney. After all, this is Florida, and there's a lot of conservative Hispanics here.

IZRAEL: A-Train - Arsalan Iftikhar. All right now, listen, I know you're good with the football picks but you know, let's try politics, man. Who do you think will take Florida?

IFTIKHAR: I don't know. You know...


IFTIKHAR: I think that, you know, with Santorum's 34-vote win in Iowa, to New Hampshire and Romney, to Gingrich in South Carolina - I think that, you know, it is up in the air. What's interesting to me is that, you know, essentially, you know, this has become, you know, not Republican debates but essentially like Wrestlemania 12, 13, 14 in terms of who's the last man standing. And I think that that is one of the reasons that we're seeing, you know, all these broadsides and potshots being taken. You know, what's most disconcerting to me is that, you know, people talk about during Republican primaries, how candidates tend to, you know, run to the right; in this case, they seem to be driving to the right. And I'm really interested to see how that is going to translate into a general election.

MARTIN: Well, you know what? If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop. And we're joined by freelance journalist Jimi Izrael; civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar - that's who was talking just now; syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, he's actually in Florida in advance of the primary; and BlackAmericaWeb.com's Michael Cottman.

You know, speaking of Wrestlemania, you know - Jimi, you know, you wanted to talk about this; just - this whole question of civility in politics is back in front of us again.

IZRAEL: Right. Right. Right. First you got, well, there was the thing with Tim Thomas, the hockey goalie, the Boston Bruins; passed up on an invite to the White House with his teammates. He's taken a lot of heat for this. But now, there's Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, Michel. She's doing this thing with the finger, where she looks like Mrs. Cleaver giving the business to the Beav. I don't know, we got some tape, right?

MARTIN: Well, we do. I mean this incident, of course, is there are two people talking, so we're getting different versions of it from each side. But the president apparently was not happy about how she described a meeting they had in a book - in an autobiography that was published. And this is what she later said to Fox News about the airport incident.


GOV. JAN BREWER: I felt a little bit threatened, if you will, in the attitude that he had.

IZRAEL: Right.


IZRAEL: Like the president is just going to knock your block off. She felt threatened. You know what? The president, he gets to get off a plane and give you the business. That's his job. I mean, isn't that in his job description? If he wants to give you the business about something you wrote then, I mean, he can do that. I mean, people do that to me all the time.


IZRAEL: But I'm not the president. Did anyone, anyone in this situation handle it better than the other? Michael Cottman, what do you think?

COTTMAN: I think the Arizona governor certainly crossed the line. Waving her finger in the face of the president was certainly disrespectable and despicable. But I also think it was cold, and I think it was calculated. She knew that these television cameras were going to be trained on this exchange, and she could have handled this any number of ways. But what she decided to do was to bring in the drama. And I have to ask the question: Would she have waved her finger in front of Bush or ...


COTTMAN: ...or Clinton?


COTTMAN: Did she do it to disrespect an African-American president? We won't know the answer to that, what's inside her head, but I do know that this sets the tone and sets a precedent for other people to disrespect the president as well when they see the governor of Arizona doing that. And I think she should be taken to task for it.

IZRAEL: You know, Ruben...


IZRAEL: Ruben Navarrette, you know, Governor Brewer's book, it's now doing better than your book and my book combined, on Amazon.



IZRAEL: If you can imagine that. Do you think she'll give the president a cut of that cash, or what?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. I think it's - I don't think it's a black thing, I think it's a rude thing and a manners thing. And I don't think you should be waving your finger in anybody's face, especially the president. But I seem to recall lots of disrespectful actions and words about President Bush from the left. And you know, it's refreshing, I think, to see people look at the office of the presidency as something that's worthy of respect, independent who holds it. I think we should be that way all the time. And if there's a Republican president, I don't want to see some lefty going out there wagging his finger at President Romney's face, and nobody says boo about it. So it's got to be one set of rules for everybody, and I'm all with it. Respect them. It's about manners; it's not about race.

MARTIN: Arsalan, respect.


IFTIKHAR: Well, yeah. The...

MARTIN: Arsalan?

IZRAEL: The R. The last true American. Arsalan.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, dude.

IZRAEL: Check in here, man. You get the final word.

IFTIKHAR: You know, Governor Brewer needs to slow her role because this is not the first time that, you know, we've seen this sort of - you know, this is not just a lefty wagging their finger in front of President Bush. This is an elected official. And this is not the first time. We all remember South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson's famous "you lie" moment during President Obama's speech in Congress. I mean, you know, there is a level of vitriol, you know, from the Republicans, from certain factions of the Republican Party - elected officials, not just average citizens - towards our president, and I think that that cannot be discounted.

MARTIN: You know, can I just have the last word on this, Jimi? I'm just reminded of...


MARTIN: I was reminded of a piece in The New Yorker magazine during the Bush administration by the media writer Ken Auletta, where he talked about the relationship between the White House Press Corps and that administration. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The piece Michel Martin is referencing was a column written by Joe Hagan for The New York Observer.] And I'm just reminded about - I just want to read a clip from that piece.

(Reading) The calculus for the White House in granting interviews, said Mr. Levine - now, that's Adam Levine, who was the assistant White House press secretary in charge of television news, and he worked there until 2004 - he said that it was more than just the fairness and balance of the network. It was a combination of reach, fairness and "enjoyability" - in quotes.

And he described enjoyability as the respect factor, in which an interviewer showed due deference to the office of the presidency, thereby making it a more appealing experience for Mr. Bush.

And so I just think it's interesting that some of the headlines today are about Mr. Obama's testiness when it seems to me that people from, you know, certain political perspectives are often very - you remember conservatives laud Mr. Reagan, former President Ronald Reagan, for never taking his suit jacket off in the Oval Office...


MARTIN: ...as a sign of his deference for the office. And they often hold that up as an example.


MARTIN: So I just think it's interesting to question, you know...

NAVARRETTE: And then Bill Clinton came along and took off more than that.

MARTIN: ...you know, why it is that...


MARTIN: ...you know, another president is...

NAVARRETTE: I hear you.

MARTIN: That if the question is deference to the office, why doesn't that same rule apply, particularly for people who have that orientation that authority is to be respected - because just to be honest, everybody does it.

So anyway, you know, speaking of another, you know, issue involving an elected official that I just wanted to raise with you guys in the five minutes that we have left, did you hear about this? Did you all hear about this? A local reporter interviewed East Haven, Connecticut, Joseph Maturo this week, and he was asked about - there have been charges that the police have been mistreating Latinos in the city.


MARTIN: And I just have to play this exchange for you. Here it is. Do you got it?


MARIO DIAZ: What are you doing for the Latino community today?

MAYOR JOSEPH MATURO: I might have tacos when I go home; I'm not quite sure yet. I have spent two years in Puerto Rico. I will probably do the same thing for the Latino community...

DIAZ: You realize that's not really the comment to say right now - you might have tacos tonight.

MATURO: I might have spaghetti tonight, being of Italian decent. I could go out and have - I've had ethnic food. And when you asked me...




NAVARRETTE: Oy, vey. Oy, vey.

COTTMAN: Wow. What an idiot.


MARTIN: I don't even really know where to start on this, except to say that...

IZRAEL: Well, obviously...

NAVARRETTE: Kudos to the reporter.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Ruben. Go ahead, Jimi.

NAVARRETTE: Kudos to the reporter, I think. This is Ruben.

IZRAEL: Obviously, he's a proud graduate of the Archie Bunker School of Diversity Training. You know, it's a very sad day, very sad day. Ruben, go ahead, man.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. I think kudos to the reporter, because the reporter was a Latino reporter, it came out later. This was a conversation where he zeroed in. He said, that's not an appropriate comment. He kept coming back and coming back to it. And I kept thinking that there were other reporters out there who might just have let it go by as a bad joke, and not dwelled on it.

But that reporter really zeroed in on it, and I think that's a good thing. It was a bad statement all the way around. And it points to the kind of contempt that a lot of people have when they're asked, hey, what are you going to do for this group or that group - or this group or that group? And it really doesn't matter who they're attacking. It's just a sign of disrespect.

IFTIKHAR: Well - and, you know, this is Arsalan again. What's important to keep in mind is the context. You know, here we had four East Haven, Connecticut, police officers who've recently been indicted on systematically violating the...


IFTIKHAR: ...civil rights of many of the Latino members of the community there. And for the mayor of that city to not understand the gravity, and be so flippant about it, is absolute - I mean, he gets the redonkulous award of the week, hands down.


MARTIN: Michael?

IZRAEL: I so miss that. Thank you. Thank you for that entry.

MARTIN: Michael, what you think?

COTTMAN: Yeah, I think he should step down. He's - clearly, he sound like a racist. But, you know, it reminds me of - I mean, this is a pattern of abuse, with excessive use of force by police over years. It takes me back to growing up in Detroit in the 1970s, when they had a - this notorious police unit called STRESS - we called it the Big 4 - who drove around and tried to harass African-Americans. And during that time, it had to be disbanded because during the first four months, there were eight black people killed by STRESS. And it just kind of takes me back to that time. And I'm wondering what it will take to get police to back off and not abuse the rights of Americans.

MARTIN: Well, you know, Ruben, just to tie a bow on this, that - I understand that 500 tacos were delivered to his office yesterday...


MARTIN: ...in protest.


MARTIN: Which is, sort of, one sort of approach to this. But...

NAVARRETTE: And you know what I say to that? I say, lunch.


IFTIKHAR: I know. Right?

IZRAEL: For weeks.

MARTIN: But Ruben, looping back to the question, looping back to the question we started with - which is, you know, you're saying kudos to the reporter for pressing this.


MARTIN: I can imagine there are other people who are saying, that's trivial; why are you harping on this?


MARTIN: You know, why are you harping on - I mean, so the...

NAVARRETTE: No, it wasn't trivial. I mean the reporter gave a good explanation, saying listen, it's a very serious subject - as Arsalan said - you're being very flippant with your response. How would you feel if this were Asians and you said, I'm going to have eggrolls tonight?

IFTIKHAR: Right. Exactly.

NAVARRETTE: It's offensive on its face. But again, I got to believe that other reporters would have let that pass. And he zeroed in on it and he said, you know, that's - you've just made it worse, pal. You don't get it, and you made it worse. And so I - kudos to the reporter. I think he got it.

MARTIN: But where is the line, though? Because this is - again, you know, other people would argue that people who zeroed in - like Newt Gingrich's comments about food stamps, they would argue that that was trivial. Or they argue that - do you see my question? Where is the line for journalists in when they should push, and when they shouldn't push? Is it really that bright a line? I don't know. Michael, what do you think?

COTTMAN: I think they should continue to push for - look, this guy made a statement. I think it was a borderline racist statement. I think when we get the opportunity...

NAVARRETTE: Oh, there was no border.


COTTMAN: When we get the opportunity to push these people, I think we need to push hard.

MARTIN: Arsalan, what do you think?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, again, this is probably not the first time that it's happened. You know, even with Newt Gingrich, you talk about the food stamps thing, but let's not also forget when he said that English is the language of prosperity, not the language of the ghetto.


IFTIKHAR: You know, so a lot of times when people say, you know, boneheaded things like that, it's not the first time they've said things like that.

MARTIN: Jimi, I'm going to give you the final word. What do you think?

IZRAEL: Hey, hard but it's fair. He did the right thing, so I'm down. I'm on Team Ruben.

NAVARRETTE: The reporter did. Yup.

IZRAEL: Yes, sir.


COTTMAN: And push harder.

MARTIN: Push harder. OK. We'll see.

IZRAEL: Push harder, right.

COTTMAN: Push harder.

MARTIN: OK. So when you get cussed out, we'll be the first - we'll bring you some...

IZRAEL: Again?


MARTIN: Right. We'll bring you some soup.

Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University. He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for the Washington Post Writers Group, Latino Magazine and PJ Media. He was with us from Miami. Michael Cottman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He's also senior correspondent for BlackAmericaWeb.com. And Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, founder of themuslimguy.com, and author of "Islamic Pacificism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." And Arsalan and Michael were here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios.

Gentlemen, thank you all so much. Happy Friday.


NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

COTTMAN: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
We incorrectly attributed a quote regarding Adam Levine, a former assistant White House secretary, to an article in The New Yorker. The quote was actually from Joe Hagan's column in The New York Observer.