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Eastwood's Speech, A Boost Or A Distraction?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, as Tampa cleans up after the Republican Convention, Charlotte is getting ready for the Democrats. We hear from that host city's mayor, Anthony Fox. That's coming up.

But now it's time for the weekly visit to the Barbershop. That's where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael. He's with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney. He's here in Washington, D.C. Fernando Vila is the managing editor of Univision News in English. He's with us from member station WLRN in Miami. And guess who? Ron Christie, back with us from NPR West.



RON CHRISTIE: And I needed that shapeup, Michel, so I'm glad I'm back.

MARTIN: I know. Right? You had to stay, right? We needed you to stay.

IZRAEL: All right. Is that OK? I guess - whoa, somebody's throwing peanuts at me. Hey, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

FERNANDO VILA: What's up, fellas?

IZRAEL: RC, it's good to have you, man. Listen...

CHRISTIE: It's been a long time since I've been in the house. So I'm back.

MARTIN: That's right.

IZRAEL: My dude, my dude. OK. Well, you know what? Let's get things started. The Republican National Convention wrapped up last night with Mitt Romney's speech accepting the nomination of the GOP. Now, we heard some of the highlights at the top of the program, but, you know, Michel, we've got some more tape. Yeah?

MARTIN: Well, we just wanted to play a little bit more for people who may have missed the speech and the opportunity to hear all of it. I'll just talk a little bit about what we think the - kind of the core of the message was the argument that the president has failed on the economy and that Mitt Romney is the right man for the job. I think it was kind of like his job interview. So here it is.


MITT ROMNEY: I'm running for president to help create a better future, a future where everyone who wants a job can find a job, where no senior fears for the security of their retirement, an America where every parent knows that their child will get an education that leads them to a good job and a bright horizon. And, unlike the president, I have a plan to create 12 million new jobs.

IZRAEL: And put a roast in every pot. Thank you for that, Michel. You know, Romney - he went on to give five - give a five-step plan for how he was - he intends to create jobs. Now, RC, what do you think?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think it's a step in the right direction. I mean, certainly, when we came in with the Obama administration in early 2009, the president told us that his stimulus plan would keep unemployment under 8 percent, and it hasn't. In fact, we've, in fact, had over 42 consecutive months where unemployment's been above 8 percent.

The president said, under his stimulus plan, that unemployment today would be under 6 percent, and it's not. So I like Governor Romney's five-point plan. I think it's more concrete. It gives us more specifics, but, you know, looking at energy, looking at trade, looking at other opportunities to grow our economy. So, of course, I like the direction he's heading in.

IZRAEL: Of course you do. Fernando Vila, jump in here, man. You know, we know you've covered this convention for Univision, and one of the star speakers last night was Florida Senator Marco Rubio. He was reportedly on the short list for vice president, but, oh, he lost out to Paul Ryan. How'd he do?

VILA: Well, I think Marco did a - Senator Marco Rubio did a really good job. I mean, he sort of has this - the ability to take sort of standard, conservative talking points and platitudes and sort of elevate them to a sort of a rhetoric that gives people a good feeling about themselves and sort of - really sort of inspires people. I think that contrasts a little bit with Mitt Romney, who is a little bit more subdued. So I think Marco Rubio really brought the energy of the building to a good place.

But, I mean, substantively, it's sort of very similar to the rest of the - of what the speakers spoke about in the convention, but he just has a unique ability to sort of elevate that.

IZRAEL: I tell you what. I know platitudes and rhetoric always make me feel better. A-Train, Arsalan Iftikhar.

IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.

IZRAEL: We know you're on Team Obama. We know you're in the tank, bro. Did Romney give you - give your side anything to worry about last night? Were you shook at all?

IFTIKHAR: Not much. You know, I think what it did for the American public more so than Mitt Romney's speech himself were the people who came on before Mitt Romney to give a more humanizing portrait of Mitt Romney. You know, when they told the story of his father, George Romney, you know, giving his mother a rose every day they were married and his mother finding out that he had died because she didn't get the rose that one day, it was a very touching moment. It was very earnest, you know, when members of his church, you know, came forward and explained all the, you know, work that he did, including, you know, helping to write the will of a - you know, a terminally ill teenage boy. It was very humanizing.

Sadly, you know, it was all - you know, it was all swept aside in one fell, geriatric swoop when Clint Eastwood got on stage. But I think that...

IZRAEL: Hey, now.

IFTIKHAR: You know, I think that that was...

IZRAEL: Hey, now, come on.

MARTIN: But, speaking of which, now, what about that whole Clint Eastwood thing?


MARTIN: Can we talk about that for a minute?


MARTIN: I mean...

IZRAEL: You know what, Michel?

MARTIN: I don't need that we talk about it a lot, but I mean...

IZRAEL: You know what?


IZRAEL: Michel, let me just say this was awful. Whoever's idea it was to get the Pale Rider, Walter Kowalski, Mr. Get Off My Lawn himself, to cosign Mitt Romney, they should be fired. You know, Sam Jackson is an Obama supporter, but I doubt we'll see Sam Jackson at the DNC introducing the next MF-ing president of the MF-ing United States.

You know, sometimes, act - I mean, actors are Americans. They're allowed to have their own opinions. But sometimes, their iconography interferes with whatever political message they may have to relate, no matter how useful. In this particular case...

MARTIN: Or how about just being strange?


IZRAEL: Or - yeah, talking to a stool. You know, anytime your boy is talking to a stool, you know, it's time for him to put his coat on and go home. You know, that party's over. You can't - that party's done, homie. You know, good night.

MARTIN: Let me just back up a minute for people who aren't quite sure what we're talking about, you know, because sometimes, you know, people - they're getting a sandwich. They're tuning in late. They just want to see the main event. And if you missed it, just describing this a little bit for you: Clint Eastwood stood next to an empty chair and pretended that he was talking to the president. Let me just play a short clip.


CLINT EASTWOOD: I just wondered - these - all these promises, and then I wondered about, you know, when the - what? What do you want me to tell Romney? I can't tell him to do that. That - can't do that to himself. You're crazy. You're absolutely crazy.

IZRAEL: So not only is he talking to a stool, but he's - like, the stool is saying, like, dirty stuff. You know what I mean? So it's all just so inappropriate. But Ron, that's your boy. Man, he's speaking up.

CHRISTIE: Oh, no, no.

IZRAEL: He's speaking up for Mitt Romney.


IZRAEL: Wait a second, now. He was hand-picked. I mean, or was he just at the concession stand and they said, hey, you want to get onstage? I mean, what is - what?

CHRISTIE: All I know is I love Clint Eastwood, man, but...

IZRAEL: Who doesn't?

CHRISTIE: ...I had to literally watch that speech twice last night because, the first time, I think my jaw was hitting the ground so much that I was trying to pick it up, going, this possibly cannot be happening. It cannot be happening that they would allow Clint Eastwood to go on just moments before Governor Romney accepts the nomination to be president of the United States without seeing a script and having a chair sitting out there. Come on, people.

MARTIN: Well, Arsalan, want to just jump in?

IZRAEL: He should have - he should have - he would have been better off doing shadow puppets there or something. I mean...


IZRAEL: It was just...

IFTIKHAR: This is Arsalan, here. You know, this has to be, you know, one of the biggest Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot moments in modern political history. I mean, you know, I know he was there to talk about his million dollar baby, Mitt Romney, but you know, this turned into, you know, him calling the president crazy. He told the invisible president to shut up. I was expecting a "Gran Torino" moment at the end where he would say, you know, listen, you Kenyan socialist Muslim, get off my lawn.

You know, I never had thought I would utter these words, but Clint Eastwood made Sarah Palin look like Winston Churchill.


MARTIN: Fernando.

VILA: This is Fernando. I wonder if it would have been a better idea to get Stephen Baldwin or Jon Voight or one of the other Republican celebrities to go into that spot.

IFTIKHAR: Might as well.

VILA: ...because that was...

MARTIN: But why did they...

IZRAEL: Yeah. Jon Voight's better.

MARTIN: Why did they need that, though? I don't understand. I mean, I'll just - all right. I mean, we don't need to spend our day talking about this because it's - you know, nobody - four years from now, nobody will be talking about this, whoever wins, but I do think...

IZRAEL: I don't know. I think they will.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, we will.

MARTIN: But why? Why did you need that? This is the part that always fascinates me...


MARTIN: ...is why weren't the voices of those, you know - I don't know - regular people enough? I mean, is it like a fear thing? It's like you need this star power or just some last...

IZRAEL: Yeah. That's exactly what it is, Michel.

MARTIN: What is that?

IZRAEL: I mean, to my - my opinion - respect, RC. You know, but the GOP - they're not running on facts. They're running on ideas and fear. I mean, they're not even running on good ideas. They're running on kind of warmed over - some warmed over Obama ideas and your fear. You know, what I didn't like about Mitt Romney is he kept hammering in his American-ness, as if that was his strongest credential. Like, hey, I'm an American. It's like, wait a second. OK. We give you that right off the top. So what else do you got going for you, beside the fact that you're an American and you've got all these people that have cosigned you? I mean, do you have any big idea? And I've been beating this drum the whole election season.

You know, the GOP - you know, they don't have any big ideas. They've just got an American up there with a Ronald Reagan haircut, you know, saying, oh, that's so Reagan. And, I mean - and we're all impressed, but yo, what else do you got going for you, brother?

MARTIN: Well, let's let Ron answer.

IZRAEL: Go ahead.

CHRISTIE: Well, I think Governor Romney was very clear in his five-point plan of how to revitalize the American economy, but I think it's more than that. It's not just that, oh, I'm an American and that's all. It's the fact that Governor Romney very much believes that President Obama has divided the nation. He believes that we're divided on class, on gender and on ethnicity, and he wants to pull all of us together, regardless of those factors and qualifications and say, we're Americans. It doesn't matter what our background is. We can pull together. And, oh, here, by the way, is my five-point plan to create 12 million jobs. So I think he was very clear on what his specifics are.

MARTIN: Well, let me just jump in here just because I think the thing we wanted to talk about next actually answers - and, Arsalan, I know you want to jump in on this - speaks to this question of who exactly has divided the country and why is that the case. And it's an argument, and I just want to hear what everybody - I want to leave enough time so that we can hear from everybody on this.

This is an article that, Jimi, caught your eye that you wanted to talk about. In fact, a number of you mentioned it. It's called "Fear of a Black President" written by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic. He wrote that Obama became the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding talk of racial issues, but that still isn't enough, that anytime he even acknowledges anything remotely, it becomes - he's not allowed to embrace his identity in a way that other people can and do.

And so this is - he talked to our MORNING EDITION colleague, Steve Inskeep, earlier this week, and I'll just play a short clip of that.


TA-NEHISI COATES: The idea that someone even named Barack Obama would not just represent the country, but that he would actually be our commander-in-chief, this is a different sort of power wielded by an African-American.

MARTIN: So - OK. So, Arsalan.


MARTIN: Do you think that that's true? There's just something about the way - I think the phrase he used was that his African - his blackness radiates his presidency, whether he does anything or says anything or not.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I think that's a really good and valid point and pushing - I mean, Ron, you're my homeboy, but, you know, when you're talking about, you know, President Obama dividing the country when Mitt Romney went to a recent rally in Michigan and, you know, joked about nobody ever having to ask for his birth certificate. I don't think that that was uniting America, and I think that...

CHRISTIE: He wasn't talking about Obama.

IFTIKHAR: Getting back to the...

IZRAEL: Of course not.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, right. Getting back to The Atlantic article, you know, it's really good because, you know, Ta-Nehisi's article talked about, you know, the Skip Gates controversy, the Trayvon Martin case and basically how, when President Obama opined on both of those things, all of a sudden, you know, the right wing of the Republican Party essentially was all up in arms in a way that they weren't before President Obama came into the debate.

MARTIN: Well, let me just tell you, the phrase that I was thinking of is his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. Fernando, what do you think?

VILA: Yeah. I mean, first of all, I thought it was an absolutely wonderful piece. I recommend that everyone read the whole thing. But it was particularly striking to me because it sort of made me think about what the issues would be, like, to speculate what it would be if there were to be a Hispanic president in office. I mean, would he be able to speak Spanish in any meaningful public forum? Will he be able to sort of assert his Latino identity?

CHRISTIE: Good point.

VILA: It sort of really, really made me think about those things as we talk about the ascent of the Hispanic community and politicians. But I do think that it's sort of - and it sort of talks about the sort of widening racial divide in our politics and how, you know, one party is extremely diverse in its racial makeup and the other party is very uniform. I saw that very, very, very strikingly at the Republican convention in Tampa.

MARTIN: Well, can I - just speaking of that convention, you know, again, one doesn't want to make a huge deal out of this. But there was this incident where an African-American camera operator for CNN - these two men, you know, threw peanuts at her and said, this is what we feed the animals. This was witnessed by, you know, a number of people. These two people who, for some reason, have not been identified - which I find, you know, rather fascinating because, I mean, you know, why is it that we can't know?

IZRAEL: They're in the grassy knoll.

MARTIN: Why is that we can't know who they were? We know who those two alleged, you know, New Black Panther Party people were who were standing outside this polling place in Philadelphia, you know, X many years ago, about whom there were no complaints, even though they were, you know, being ridiculous and dressed in this ridiculous fashion. There were no complaints about them, but we know who they are. But somehow we don't know who these two people are who were harassing this woman on the floor doing her job.

And so you look at that and you say, OK. You know, what is this? Is this a situation where people just can't handle the fact that a person of color is in this position of responsibility and just have to react to it? So, Ron, again, I'm not making you responsible for this conduct, which I know you know is deplorable. But I do have to say, similar things have happened to me when I've been covering this convention, people screaming at me, tried to disrupt my work, physically, you know, trying to touch me and things of that sort. And I just never complained about it because I didn't think anybody would want to hear it, but Ron...

CHRISTIE: Well, I think you have an obligation and I think we all have an obligation. There are going to be idiots everywhere. And I have to tell you, if I was on the floor or if I was in the convention hall when that happened earlier this week when I was at the convention, I would have been the first one to have taken them by the scruff of their neck and thrown them out and made sure that not only they had their credentials revoked, but that their names and identities were revealed to the paper and that, if they had touched this woman or otherwise assaulted her, that they should be prosecuted.

There is no excuse for that type of behavior. It's abhorrent, and I just don't understand why these - and I hate to use the word, but - idiots don't recognize that what they think might be a joke is, instead, painting a very, very broad brush of the GOP, of which this is not who we are. This is not the values that we hold, but you know, idiots like that really, really make a bad impression.

MARTIN: But - well, yeah. I think I see your point. I just wonder why does this persist? I mean, why is it that somebody else did not - I mean, they did the right thing. They threw them out. They, you know, acknowledged that it occurred and moved on. And yet we still keep hearing things like, well, they don't look like a first family. You know, there was a quote in one of our colleague's pieces - one of our colleagues, Ari Shapiro, did a piece and the woman says, well, we need to get a family in there that looks like the first family. She doesn't look like a first lady. What does that mean?

CHRISTIE: Oh, see, now, let me say this. Can I just say one last thing to that?

MARTIN: Go ahead.

CHRISTIE: I love seeing them get off Air Force Two or Air Force One in a different country. I love seeing them come off Marine One. I think that they have done more to shatter a ceiling that we thought that we'd never see broken in this country. So they are America, and they look like America and they represent America. Just end of story to me.

MARTIN: Jimi, final thought?

IZRAEL: Yeah. The whole nut-throwing thing, it's sad that this has become a meme of the GOP. But it's just sad, and there's nothing we can do about it. They have to - they've got to hire their own PR department. That's not for me to say. I mean, it's awful. It's all awful.

MARTIN: Well, as a culture, I want to put this on you, that the camera operator...


MARTIN: ...said this could have happened anywhere.

IZRAEL: Yeah. I - it - no. Maybe. I mean, I don't know. I doubt that it could have happened anywhere, I mean, because anywhere else, there'd probably been some black men around saying, hey, man, what do you think you're doing? And it would have been - would have been a whole other news story, like, you know - like, you know, assault at a convention. So - no. I don't think it could have happened anywhere, but it's unfortunate that the GOP has to take this hit.


CHRISTIE: There were plenty of black men on the floor, so it's not like there weren't any black folks around.

IZRAEL: Where were they? Where were they at that time? Were they at the concession stand with Clint Eastwood?

MARTIN: Well, we needed Ron in the house. We needed Ron in the house to take care of it.

CHRISTIE: I was actually there. I was actually there. Yeah. I would have taken care of it.

MARTIN: That's right. He would have...

CHRISTIE: Scruff of the neck.

IZRAEL: Scruff of the neck, brother.

MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He's also adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. He was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and author of "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." He was here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Ron Christie is a Republican strategist and former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He was with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Hernando Vila is managing editor of Univision News in English, with us from member station WLRN in Miami.

Thank you all so much.


VILA: Peace out.


IZRAEL: Yup, yup. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.