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Shop Critiques Jackson Flap, Obamas' TV Interview

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. It's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and whatever is on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape up this week are freelance writer Jimi Izrael, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, and University of Texas professor Ed Dorn. I may jump in here or there, but for now take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey fellas, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

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ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey!

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Hey, Jimi. It's great.

Professor ED DORN (University of Texas): Hey, good to talk with you.

IZRAEL: Well you know, Jesse Jackson goes all Jim Brown on Senator Barack Obama as an open mic catches his comments about removing Obama's testicles. Now maybe some of Obama's comments hit a little close to home, because I guess he was a little upset about Obama's comments talking about fathers and their responsibility. Michel, we got some tapes somewhere, right?

MARTIN: We do. I think what we - where we should start is that what the reverend was talking about is he's talking to another guest about the comments that you guys actually talked about a couple of weeks ago. That Senator Obama gave a speech on Father's day that got a lot of attention. Let me just play a little short clip of that, so you know what he was reacting to. Here it is.

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Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): So I resolved many years ago that it was my obligation to break the cycle. That if I could do anything in life, I would be a good father to my children. That if I could do anything, I would give them that rock, that foundation on which to build their lives.

IZRAEL: Hmm. Wow.

MARTIN: OK, so that was what he said. So then, of course the reverend was asked about this. He thought the microphone was off. And then he made a comment to Jimmy, said and then you know, he apologized when it was made public and he talked to our colleague at News & Notes earlier and this is what he said about that.

(Soundbite of News & Notes Interview with Jesse Jackson)

Reverend JESSE JACKSON: The black community - infant mortality rates are the highest. Life expectancy is shorter, the most under-funded schools, the most teachers of children (unintelligible) of experience, 2.3 million Americans in jail. A million are black, in part through sentencing disparities. The whole range of what Dr. King would call structural inequality, it must be addressed.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. You know, I want to put this out here, you know what, action Jackson, respect. But don't ever evoke Dr. King's name again, bro. I'm saying, you have no currency as far as I'm concerned. You know what, Ed? Special-Ed, welcome back to the shop. Listen, you know some people say this is emblematic of a schism. Speaking of Dr. King in old and new black leadership, how do you read this?

Prof. DORN: The irony, Jimi, is that Jesse Jackson was preaching essentially the same script 20 or 30 years ago. That's one the ways he ingratiated himself to Reagan-era Republicans after all. Talking about the importance of young black men taking responsibility for their actions. But let me make another point about this, Jimi, which is that we have fallen again for the old open mic trick. Listen, Jesse Jackson is sitting in a studio with a camera on, with a microphone pinned to his lapel and he pretends he doesn't know that he is being recorded. I don't believe it for a minute. This is all about Jesse Jackson, this is all about Jesse Jackson saying something stupid and outrageous so that he can sap a little more airtime. And so that an interview, which would have lasted two or three minutes and then quickly been forgotten, has produced a controversy that's gone on for two or three days. That's the old open mic trick.

IZRAEL: Wow. Special-Ed just schooled us all. I don't know about - yo, A-Train, you're the resident Obama supporter in the house. But what's interesting - what's also interesting about Jesse's comments is he says he's always been an Obama supporter. I feel like I'm taking crazy pills because I don't recall that he's always been an Obama supporter. You give us your read, man.

IFTIKHAR: Dig this and dig it deep.

IZRAEL: OK, bro.

IFTIKHAR: I'm sitting here in both Barack and the Reverend's home town and my hometown of Chicago. I can honestly say that Reverend Jesse Jackson wins the A-Train redunculous news item of the week. I agree with Ed. I think this is basically just an old dinosaur who was jealous of an up and coming young lion. I think, you know, it is a generation of paradigm. I think, you know, for all of us who have done television interviews, sitting in the hot seat with a hot mic, there is no way on earth that you don't know, that not only is your mic hot, but that your words can be used against you, especially on Fox News channel. You know, I mean let's not forget, you know, this is not the most friendly news network to Democratic politicians, and so I agree with Ed completely. I think Jesse was just trying to make it - keep himself relevant. And I think that, you know, Barack, you know, just needs to, you know, look beyond this. Otherwise we're again, we're just going to devolve ourselves into a YouTube presidential election.

IZRAEL: I'd cosign that if I really wanted to believe that Jesse Jackson was that desperate. But the R, I believe a piece of that. But I think he's also struggling to remain relevant. And he wants to keep his seat as a kingmaker. But I don't think this was him trying to do it. What do you think?

NAVARRETTE: Well, there's a lot going on in this comment, in this whole thing. First of all, you know, Jesse was rattling off all these things that black people have as struggles, as things that they have to contend with. You know, dropout rates and all that stuff. I'd add one more thing to that list. One thing that African-Americans have to overcome is people like Jesse claiming to represent.

IZRAEL: Right. Right.

NAVARRETTE: I think that the seriousness of this is this hearkens back to the criticism that my friend Juan Williams got when he came out with his book, "Enough," going at this whole notion of responsibility. And he was attacked by the usual suspects, the professional African-Americans who are out there who head up groups like the NAACP, who basically don't want their dirty laundry aired out to everybody. As if somehow America wouldn't know that three-fourths of African-Americans were born to unwed mothers if somebody like Juan Williams or Barack Obama didn't say that out loud. And I think it's a misplaced priority.

Instead of focusing in on the issue and helping African-Americans be better and stronger and more together, they're somehow saying, no, we need to attack the people who even air that dirty laundry. Bill Cosby - hey, Bill Cosby got the same thing. He got the same treatment. People are killing the messenger going after Bill Cosby instead of, you know, stepping up and saying this is what we need to do to be real. And I'll tell you what, one last thing. Jesse needs to just - he needs to chill out. He needs to go back home and take care of his families.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NAVARRETTE: Because clearly these remarks are close to home. Clearly when Barack Obama was saying do not father children out of wedlock and run off, Jesse was like, now who are you talking about? Who you talking about?

IZRAEL: Right. So but...

MARTIN: I feel like I got a couple of things I want to say here. Number one, everybody's entitled to their opinion about whether he knew the mic was hot or not. And of course he knew the mic was hot. But I've been doing this for a long time. And there are times I forget when the mic is on. I have a big old light that says mic on. And sometimes I forget. So I guess I don't know that I think it's fair to sort of judge what's in somebody's mind when they say something like this. And secondly, you know, substantively, Reverend Jackson had two points that he was going to make. And you're free to agree or to disagree. But one was the argument that the comments about fatherhood were being directed at African-Americans particularly.

There are a lot of you guys who have said that that maybe was misplaced. That if you're going to talk about fatherhood, you should talk about everybody's responsibilities and not just one particular group. And secondly, his argument was that he feels that if you focus so much on personal responsibility that you don't focus enough on the institutional issues which still need to be addressed, which is after all why the man is running for president. Why isn't that a legitimate thing to say even if he was rude and inappropriate in the way he said it?

NAVARRETTE: Well, because for 40 years we've been talking about the institutional responsibilities African-Americans waiting for white liberals, government, the institution of government, to come to the rescue. The greatest example of that as a failure is what happened after Katrina where you had African-Americans standing up on top of their homes holding signs saying come get me, where's Dick Cheney? Guess what? Dick Cheney ain't coming. And so I think that there's a lot to be said for self help, for taking responsibility for your own lives, and not waiting around for government to come to the rescue. He needed to get in that conversation.

MARTIN: Except that Barack's not running for preacher-in-chief, he's running for president. And so why isn't it appropriate to say that the government to which people pay taxes ought to be accountable to all the people? Is that really - is that a waiting for the government to rescue you or is that saying that the government that I pay taxes for support and defend should be as accountable to me as it is accountable to others. What's wrong with that?

Prof. DORN: But if Jesse is saying that Barack Obama has not been talking about those institutional factors then Jesse simply hasn't been listening to Barack. That is much of what Barack Obama's campaign is about, the responsibility of government to provide a decent education, to improve the economy, and so on. He chose this audience and Father's Day to look at the other side of this. There are individual responsibilities. It seemed to me to be the right audience, the right occasion, and I don't think he ought to be faulted for it.

IZRAEL: Absolutely. And Michel, you know, I got to go ahead and cosign that. Because sometimes the mode is the message. It's all in how you say something. You know, you want to talk about Dr. Cosby...

NAVARRETTE: It's just crude, crude, crude.

IZRAEL: And you talk about Dr. Cosby. Dr. Cosby had a great point. But when you start talking about people's mamas and - you know, it's all lost. I mean, you can't talk about my mama. My mama got a funny name. Unless you want a fight. You know, so, you know, and Dr. Cosby, you don't want it, bro. I know you're from Philly, but you don't want it.

MARTIN: Does anybody give him credit for stepping up and apologizing?

IFTIKHAR: No, and listen, first of all...

Prof. DORN: No.

IFTIKHAR: Let's not also forget the fact that his own son, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., was one of the first guys to jump out and repudiate and reject his father's ugly statements.

IZRAEL: Well, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. He likes the camera just as much as his dad does. So who - let's keep the motion.

Professor DORN: Yeah. This gives everybody an opportunity for a little political theater, but Jesse Jackson most of all.

IZRAEL: Moving on, moving on. Both Senator John McCain and Obama are looking for ways to harness the Latino vote in the upcoming election. Now both of these candidates spoke to members of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Now, Ruben...

NAVARRETTE: Yo!

IZRAEL: The R, in your piece on CNN.com, you asked what can brown do for you? Now flesh out the importance of the brown vote for me, bro.

NAVARRETTE: Absolutely. Even in this election where so much of the conversation is this old paradigm of black and white, and trapped in this notion of whether Barack Obama's too white, too black, not black enough, not white enough, all that nonsense, there is a lot to be said about these 10 million Latinos who are expected to cast ballots. These Latinos were solidly for Hillary Clinton. I don't understand it, but it's true. They were two to one for Hillary against Obama. But now they're with Obama two to one against McCain in the fall because he's the Democrat on the ballot, and they are fiercely loyal to the Democratic Party for better of for worse.

I'd argue often to their own detriment. But in this case I think that this is a jump all, this is still a very competitive race. McCain is determined to give Obama a run for the money on these voters. And Obama is intended to sort of - is trying really hard to fight him off. So it's a very exciting time, I think, for those 10 million Latino voters who are concentrated in a number of battleground states, and they are valuable because of their unpredictability. Because they are not solidly Democratic or Republican. They will vote for a moderate Republican like John McCain. And they have in the past.

IZRAEL: Special-Ed, what do you think that each candidate brings to the Latino community?

Prof. DORN: McCain still enjoys some credibility on the immigration debate. In fact, polls are showing that Hispanics continue to trust McCain more than they trust Obama on the matter of immigration, in spite of what some people say was his flip-flop on the issue.

IZRAEL: A-Train, this is your boy. He's got some work to do.

IFTIKHAR: He does. I think adding a few more layers to what Ruben was saying, you know, being a brown man myself, and a brown American. I think even the whole brown paradigm or the minority paradigm, you know, extends even further beyond the Latino community to Asians, to South Asians, to people of all backgrounds and colors. And I think that's where Barack will be able to run up the score. I think that, you know, even though right now he's, you know, polling two to one against McCain in the Latino community, you know, any triage that McCain might be able to do I think will be offset by the running up of the score that Barack will be able to do amongst other minority communities in America.

IZRAEL: Switching gears for just a moment. The Obamas are catching heat allowing their kids to be interviewed for "Access Hollywood." And I got to tell you, as a parent myself, this is a bad, B-A-D, look on your boy. We got some tape?

MARTIN: Yeah, we do. You want to hear? Let's hear a little bit of the interview. Here's a little bit of the interview. Here it is.

(Soundbite of TV Show "Access Hollywood")

Ms. MALIA OBAMA: My friend Sam, she came over. And so daddy has never met Sam before.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: Sam's a girl.

Ms. MALIA OBAMA: Now he's like, hi! And so he shook her hand. And I was like, you know, daddy, you really don't shake, you know, kids' hands that much. You shake a dog's hands. He was like, then what do you do? And I was like, you know, you just wave or you say hi. So I do that kind of stuff.

MARTIN: That, of course, was Malia Obama, one of the two Obama girls. And of course, you heard Michelle's voice, and Senator Obama's voice as well.

IZRAEL: Let me tell you something, there was nothing uglier than that. You got your kids out there shilling for you on "Access Hollywood." How about "Meet the Press"? I mean, if you're going to do it, I mean, do it big. I mean, don't do it on something frivolous. Special-Ed, man, you know, is it wrong to put kids out front in politics?

Professor DORN: I think he has set a precedent here, and maybe not a very good one. His kids are 10 years old and seven years old respectively. Politicians have avoided putting their kids before the cameras and before microphones like that. But he quickly said, listen, in a moment of irrational exuberance I made this mistake, it's not going to happen again. And so he gets to have it both ways. He gets to have his charming kids out in front of the cameras for a few minutes. "Access Hollywood" gets a little coverage out of it. And Obama then says no more, no more. And that he hopes will forestall all the calls he's going to get from all the other media outlets, the more serious media outlets. So I don't think it's a big deal. As long as he is true to his word and cuts it out right now.

IZRAEL: A-Train, wrap it up man.

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think I agree with Ed completely. I think that, you know, in a presidential campaign it's all about the message and it's all about controlling the message and, you know, allowing, you know, certain people in and certain people not in. And I think that this was one of the situations where, you know, Obama and his gatekeepers were allowed to, you know, give access, no pun intended, to "Access Hollywood," and you know, were able to control the message. And I think that, you know, these are like Ed said 10 and seven year-old children here. And so, you know, you want to make sure that if you do allow any sort of access, you have to ensure that, you know, the message is going to remain on point as opposed to, you know, dealing with tangential issues.

Professor DORN: May I say one more thing about that? Because earlier "Access Hollywood" was described as a frivolous medium. And that is true. But for better or worse, a huge number of teenagers and young adults get their information from "Access Hollywood" and "Entertainment Tonight," and so on. This was an opportunity for Obama to reach that group that he would not have been able to reach on CNN.

IZRAEL: You know what, Ruben, I'm just going to put this out here. I think you should let one of your daughters guest column your joint on CNN.com. I'm just going to put that out there, man. You know, I'm sure they could pull it off.

NAVARRETTE: You'll get some real wisdom that day, I'll tell you what. You think I'm a fighter. I'm a pushover compared to my little girl. So don't worry.

IZRAEL: Right. And speaking of little girls, I think mine is outside the studio waiting for her close up. So I think, ladies and gentlemen, that's a wrap. Thank you so much for being in the Barbershop. And I have to kick it over to the lady of the house, Michel Martin.

MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist who writes for TheRoot.com and TV ONE online. He joined us from WCPN in Cleveland. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and contributing editor for Islamica Magazine. He joined us from Chicago. Ruben Navarrette writes for the San Diego Union Tribune and CNN.com. He joined us from San Diego. And Professor Ed Dorn is a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. He joined us from member station KUT in Austin. Gentlemen, thank you so much.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

Professor DORN: Thank you, Michel.

IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.