MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
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 writer Jimi Izrael, with us from Cleveland. Arsalan Iftikhar is senior editor of The Islamic Monthly, with us from Chicago. From Boston, health care consultant and contributor to National Review magazine Neil Minkoff. And from Irvine, California, writer of the syndicated column "Ask a Mexican," Gustavo Arellano. Take it away, Jimi.
JIMI IZRAEL: Hey, thanks, Michel. All the family is here. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the shop. How we doin'?
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.
NEIL MINKOFF: What's going on?
IFTIKHAR: What's crackin'?
GUSTAVO ARELLANO: What's up?
IZRAEL: All right. Well, you know what? Let's get things started. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie knows how to throw a political punch evidently. But well, yesterday, he was apologizing because his staff allegedly went too far in punishing a political opponent. Isn't that right, Michel?
MARTIN: That's right. Earlier this week, there were reports that at least one member of Christie's staff had arranged to close traffic lanes near Fort Lee, New Jersey this fall. Now this is something that's been percolating all fall because the mayor of this particular jurisdiction suspected that there just - something wasn't right. He kept saying the traffic is too bad. There's just something not right. All these lanes are closed. What's going on?
So then it emerges with these emails that this aide had reportedly ordered this lane closure to punish the city's mayor, who is a Democrat, for failing to endorse Christie's reelection bid. And the governor has now fired a staff member over the incident. And he held a very long press conference yesterday. We certainly cannot play the whole thing. I'll play you a short clip that kind of captures the tenor of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: And I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey. I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team.
MARTIN: And then the governor even went so far as to go and personally apologize in person - went to visit that mayor, the mayor of Fort Lee, and apologized in person for what had happened. So there you go.
IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. You know what? For me, the marathon apology is really the dead giveaway, as Charles Ramsey might say. You know, it's difficult for me to believe that - look, first of all, I mean, with the alliterative name, he's already something of a super villain. I mean, he's kind of like Lex Luthor or Ronald Reagan. And all he's missing really is a monocle or a cat. And he has a reputation as something of a bully, you know, as the Post is reporting.
Also, apology notwithstanding, if he didn't know, he should've known. But have - but I'm still on team Christie. And I still believe that he may be, sadly, or depending on how you look at it, greatly the best hope the GOP has right now. Neil Minkoff.
MARTIN: Wait, wait, wait. So you think he's a bully, and he deliberately tied up traffic, causing kids to miss school and possibly an ambulance to be unable to treat a seriously ill person. But he's still OK with you? He's good with you, even though you think he knew about it.
IZRAEL: That's what super villains do. What?
IFTIKHAR: He's a perfect GOP president.
IZRAEL: I mean, the Joker. Hello? I mean, yeah. I mean, this is the business that they chose.
MINKOFF: I'm still trying to recover from the fact that we just said that a guy who won 49 states is a super villain.
MARTIN: Exactly. Well, no, we - he. Get your pronouns right.
MARTIN: He said this.
IZRAEL: Two words - Lex Luthor.
IZRAEL: Neil Minkoff?
MARTIN: Jimi Izrael, get it straight. His personal...
IZRAEL: Chris Christie, he fired - you know, he fired, you know, everybody that was responsible and says he didn't know what was going on. Do you believe him, bro?
MARTIN: He's asking you, you know.
MINKOFF: Yeah, no. I don't - I'm not sure I do believe him. So let's put it this way, it doesn't matter if I believe him. What matters is a couple of things. One, the brand of Mr. I'm honest, I'll never lie to you, and I know what's going on and I'm super hands-on incompetent - that brand has been sullied. And two, if this is the culture that's been created, then that's a bad culture. And three, this was so petty. This wasn't over a cause. This wasn't a budget shutdown. This wasn't an ideological victory. This was the pettiest, littlest thing, and it makes him look very, very small.
IZRAEL: A-train. Arsalan, jump in here, man.
IFTIKHAR: Yeah, you know, I think that I'm actually going to take the opposite opinion. I'm still sort of trying to figure out whether this is a real story with legs, or is this something that is, you know, going to be forgotten within 48 hours. I mean, you know, people tend to forget that, you know, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Governor Christie, you know, drew the ire of his own Republican Party, you know, when he was pictured embracing President Obama and being very bipartisan in that regard.
I think that when it comes to, you know this, bridge gate situation, I think what we have to keep in mind is that he's probably - you know, he sort of encompasses what we would call a plausible denial, you know, administration. You know, he said that his deputy chief of staff was - does not report directly to him. He only has two people that report directly to him. And so I don't think that he personally had any knowledge of what had transpired. I do agree with Neil when he says that if this is the culture that has been created with the Christie administration, that that's problematic. But I found his apology and his, you know, 'til-you-drop marathon press conference to be quite compelling. And I think that it won't hurt him when you look forward to the 2016 presidential election.
MARTIN: Gustavo. Yeah, what does Gustavo think?
IZRAEL: Am I the only person that...
ARELLANO: I'm right here.
IZRAEL: ...Doesn't think that the truth needs to be over-explained or over-apologized for? I mean...
ARELLANO: It's always funny to see these politicians in their kabuki theater of, oh, I'm so sorry, and I'll never do this again, and accountability ends with me here. Look, out here on the West Coast, we've always thought of Chris Christie as this big bumbling bully. That's what he is. And he reveled in that. That was his national image that he had for all this time. And then - I do have to say what Arsalan said about Obama hugging - or Christie embracing Obama - conservatives, ever since then, I don't think they've ever forgiven him for that.
So although this bridge gate might be more water under the bridge - pardon the pun - I still think that his opponents, especially on the conservative side, are going to keep bringing that up again and again, especially if Christie's prospects do brighten in the next two years.
MARTIN: You know what I'm hearing, though, a couple of you say is that you guys think that this is what politicians do anyway. That they basically use the levers of government to punish political enemies. And this is the kind of thing that people in the Nixon administration went to jail for. And there are law enforcement figures who are looking into this. Do you really think that? You really think that they sit up there and think, you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to get somebody's taxes audited. I'm going to - that that's how they roll as a routine thing?
MARTIN: You really think that, Gustavo?
ARELLANO: Yeah, as a reporter, now I'm just so cynical to politicians. I've heard them do everything for the pettiest - I mean, this was petty. I've heard even pettier things. You know, sheriff's deputies following reporters just because they dared report on their exploits. And I think it's sad that we do immediately think that. I would hope that there is that politician that wouldn't be that petty. I have yet to meet him or her, though.
IFTIKHAR: Well, and I think that what people...
MINKOFF: Yeah, Michel...
MARTIN: You all think - Neil. Can I ask Neil? Neil, do you think that? You think that?
MINKOFF: I'm on the board of an organization whose IRS tax-exempt status took a long, long time.
MARTIN: Well, that's...
IFTIKHAR: ...And what people don't understand is that...
IFTIKHAR: ...You know, when Christie beat Barbare Buono in the gubernatorial election, it was 60 percent to 38 percent. I mean, Christie did not need the endorsement of a Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey. And I think that he's a lot smarter, as a political tactician, you know, smarter than doing something in an election that he had already won.
MARTIN: Well, that's interesting 'cause, I mean, that's part of his argument. His argument is this is absolutely stupid. It was really stupid. I don't even know the guy.
MARTIN: Why would I do something that stupid. It was stupid. And that may be - well, we'll see. I mean, we'll see. It continues. Can we move to another topic? There's - before we move to a completely different issue, there is another political story this week I wanted to ask you about, which is something that we just talked about a few minutes ago with The Washington Post Greg Jaffe about Defense Secretary Robert Gates' new book "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War." This is the second - his second memoir, interestingly enough.
And, you know, you heard my conversation with Greg Jaffe. He says the book is very critical of President Obama, also members of Congress, Vice President Joe Biden. Of Joe Biden, Gates writes, I thinks he's been wrong on nearly every major foreign-policy and national security issue over the past four decades. And I just have to ask those of you who care about this - Arsalan, I'll start with you - does this worry you? Does this concern you?
IFTIKHAR: No, it doesn't. And it doesn't for several reasons. I think that what people tend to forget is that Afghanistan in June 2010 became the longest war in American history. You know, it was - it's historically been known as the graveyard of empires. Henry Kissinger once wrote that no outside force ever since the Mongol invasion of Genghis Khan has ever pacified the country of Afghanistan.
And so for President Obama to inherit this war, which is now America's longest, in a country that we know has no, you know, feasible or tangible end game, I can understand how, you know, somebody from a Republican ideological background would have, you know, criticism for a president who, you know, had a platform of being an antiwar president. Now in 2009...
MARTIN: But he chose to stay. He could've left. He could've left the administration. He didn't - you know. He was asked to stay.
IFTIKHAR: Right. No, no. And I understand that.
MARTIN: And he agreed to stay.
IFTIKHAR: Understanding that, that's why, you know, I'm not calling him a political hack. What I am saying is that it is an ideological difference between Republicans and Democrats in terms of their views on war. And I think that, you know, if you look at Gates, he wrote that on Afghanistan he said, quote, I believe Obama was right in each one of his decisions on Afghanistan. And so I think that, you know, we are cherry picking excerpts right now. But I think that if you look at it in the holistic sense, it's going to be a lot more nuanced than we're talking about right now.
MARTIN: Neil, you want to weigh in on that?
MINKOFF: Yeah. I don't think this is a big issue at all. I think this is going to blow over tremendously for two reasons. The first is, it's well after the election when this could've spurred a lot of discussion that would be more meaningful. And the second is, that I think that anybody who's against the expansion of the war will be happy that it didn't expand. And anybody who was more hawkish already disapproves of the way it's been run anyway. So I think the book will be do more to confirm prior biases than it will do to change anybody's mind or beliefs or expectations.
MARTIN: OK, well, I guess I'm the only one who's going to be reading it here. So I'll report back to you in several weeks about how I fare. You're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, commentator Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Gustavo Arellano, contributor to National Review Neil Minkoff. Back to you, Jimi.
IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK. Let's talk about the worm. You know which worm I'm talking about. No, no. Not the Ohio player's funky worm, I'm talking about former NBA-er Dennis Rodman and friends. They were in North Korea this week playing some diplomatic basketball. And he didn't react so well during an interview on CNN when he was asked about an American citizen who has been imprisoned there. We got some tape. Let's drop it.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
DENNIS RODMAN: I'm going to tell you one thing - people around the world, around the world, I'm going to do one thing. We, of the guys here, do one thing. We have to go back to America and take the abuse. Do you have to take the abuse? Well, we going to take it.
IZRAEL: Wow. Well, it sounds like he - he sounds like - a little bit like the tequila worm there. You know, Rodman did apologize later for that. He says he was stressed. And yes, believe it or not, he had been drinking. Arsalan.
IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.
IZRAEL: The basketball players said they weren't there for politics. Is that a fair defense?
IFTIKHAR: Well, first of all, you know, I want to hear Dennis Rodman talk about North Korean politics as much as I want to hear Kim Kardashian talk about the Civil War in Syria.
IFTIKHAR: What boggles my mind is - what boggles my mind is the fact that we're still giving this guy airtime. This is not his first trip to North Korea. We covered it on his first trip. Why are we giving this guy who has been cray-cray since the late '80s anymore airtime? It absolutely bumfuzzles me.
MARTIN: Point taken.
ARELLANO: Bumfuzzles, wow.
ARELLANO: The pride of Newport Beach, California again goes off to the world and makes a complete fool out of himself. I get what they're trying to say. Sometimes people say art isn't political. Sports isn't political. Just let us play. But that's just not true at all. Any time you - especially if you're traveling to North Korea - it's a political statement, one way or another, especially if you're parading around and singing to Kim Jong-Un "Happy Birthday" a la Marilyn Monroe, that is a political act. Can it thaw these relationships? Maybe. Ping-pong diplomacy worked. Soccer has been used in ways to, you know, ease tensions in countries. So I wouldn't call Rodman completely crazy for wanting to play basketball in North Korea. But yeah, you don't go on CNN and have a little bit too many shots of Patron before you got to go on and not make a fool out of yourself.
MARTIN: OK. Neil?
MINKOFF: So I'm just going to tangent off for a second here and say this is my favorite new excuse. So the mayor of Toronto might have done something because he was drunk. And a congressman bought cocaine because he was drinking. And now Dennis Rodman exploded because he was drinking. So apparently, I was drinking is the new-get-out-of-jail-free card, which I think is fascinating and I'm not really sure excuses any of these behaviors. But look, I disagree a little bit. I don't think Rodman's a political guy. I think Rodman got an opportunity to play ball somewhere. He got a check. He got a lot of flattering attention, and he likes it.
IZRAEL: Thank you, Neil. Thank you so much for that...
MARTIN: I think what you're all saying is that we shouldn't be talking about it. I think, basically, what you all are saying is, why are you talking about this? OK. I get it. Let's move on. Sorry, sorry. Point taken. All right, so we only have a couple minutes left. But we've talked in the shop before about the lack of diversity and, particularly, the absence of black women on "Saturday Night Live." And the show, in recent years, has had men dressed in drag playing some of their black female roles. Well, this week they hired two African-American female writers and an on-air comedian, Sasheer Zamata. So, Jimi, is this enough to get you to tune back in?
IZRAEL: Well, I've seen her reel on YouTube, and it's kind of a lot that, black people do this, white people do that humor that doesn't resonate with me. I think we've really actually bought this young lady a ticket on the Hindenburg where we can watch her burst into flames live on network television.
MARTIN: Oh, my - that's kind of - because why? Harsh.
IZRAEL: 'Cause she's not funny. I mean, it's just that clear. I mean, she's just not funny.
MARTIN: Gustavo, what do you think?
ARELLANO: I have not seen her clips yet. I don't think we should be applauding "Saturday Night Live" for doing what they're supposed to do, which is - first and foremost, "Saturday Night Live" has to be funny. OK, fine. We get it. Funny comes, you know, in different ways. But if you really want to address some of the things that are happening in the United States, you got to be more than all-white casts with maybe - you know, the Persian girl playing the Mexican girl. Kenan playing, you know, every African-American role and African role known to man. For instance, there's only been two Latinos in the entire run of "Saturday Night Live." And one of them, Fred Armisen, almost no one knew he was Latino. He's half Venezuelan. And so now you have...
IZRAEL: Preach brother, preach.
ARELLANO: So for me, this just reminds me again why really the best skit show of all time is not "Saturday Night Live." It was "In Living Color"...
IFTIKHAR: "In Living Color."
ARELLANO: ...For the first two years.
MARTIN: Which is really...
ARELLANO: Twenty years ago. Now twenty years ago...
MARTIN: But I don't remember a lot of - forgive me - but I don't remember, until recently, a number of Latino people making an issue of it saying - I mean, at the beginning of the season - I don't remember people saying, hey, what's up with the diversity or the lack thereof? Why? You think people have just given up? They don't watch it? They don't care? Or what?
ARELLANO: Partly. I mean, it's always been there sort of buzzing underneath. But, you know, until recently, really Latino anything wasn't really paid much attention to when it comes to media. But now, hey, all of a sudden, we're the biggest minority. So now when people start complaining about it, there's going to be more people listening to it.
MARTIN: So you're not sending your reel in. Gustavo's not sending his reel in.
ARELLANO: Yeah, right.
IFTIKHAR: And piggy-backing off...
MARTIN: Or, Arsalan.
IFTIKHAR: ...What Gustavo just said, I think it also shows, you know, just how much in the old-school 20th-century - Lorne Michaels in Studio 8H - when the fact is that, you know, there are no South or East Asian cast members. We - like he said - they're not Latinos, they're not Native Americans. The fact that we are applauding, you know, one hire of a black comedian - I actually think the bigger coup was getting two African-American female writers...
IFTIKHAR: ...In the actual script room, LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones, you know, to sort of shake up the lily white atmosphere in Studio 8H. And I think that once we get to a critical mass of African-Americans, then can we talk about South and East Asians, Latinos and Native Americans. And so I think Lorne Michaels is still, you know, well in the 20th century when it comes to diversity.
MARTIN: Wow. Sourpuss going into the weekend. OK. Well, thanks everybody. Cheer up, why don't you. Arsalan Iftikhar is the founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and senior editor for Islamic Monthly, with from NPR member station WBEZ in Chicago. Neil Minkoff is a health care consultant and contributor to The National Review, with us from Boston. Gustavo Arellano is a syndicated columnist. He writes the column "Ask a Mexican," with us from KUCI in Irvine, California. And Jimi Izrael is a writer and adjunct professor of film and social media. You can find his blog at jimiizrael.com, with us from NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland. Thanks, everybody.
MINKOFF: Hey, hey, hey.
MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for a Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.