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 and culture critic Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, from National Review magazine and the Texas Public Policy Foundation - that's a conservative think tank - Mario Loyola. They are all here in our Washington, D.C. studios. And, from member station WBEZ in Chicago is Lester Munson. He is a senior writer and legal analyst for ESPN and ESPN.com.
Take it away, Jimi.
JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellows, how we doing? Welcome to the shop.
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.
MARIO LOYOLA: Que pasa.
LESTER MUNSON: Thank you for the opportunity.
IZRAEL: Mr. Munson, how you doing, counselor?
MUNSON: I'm doing great. Thanks.
IZRAEL: First time. We're happy to have you in.
MUNSON: I'm delighted to be part of the show. Thank you.
IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's get it started. So Governor Mitt Romney finally made it to the White House, but probably not the way he hoped. He was there to have lunch with Obama. I understand that Obama had a nice grilled chicken salad and Romney had crow, but both parties...
MARTIN: Oh, stop.
IZRAEL: ...are pretty hush-hush about what actually happened. Michel, you want to take it from here?
MARTIN: Well, you know, it's funny because we were thinking about it. Obviously, there seems to be a lot of drama around this particular visit, but we looked it up and this isn't the first time that the two presidential candidates have met after the election. President Obama actually met with Senator McCain after he defeated him in 2008. They were both senators at that time, so nobody was measuring the curtains. And Vice President Al Gore met with President George W. Bush after their battle in 2000, so this isn't new, Jimi, but I don't know. It just seems like we're kind of more interested in this one. Maybe there was a feeling that this was a particularly nasty election. I don't know.
IZRAEL: Definitely. I mean, this is definitely like, you know, Sugar Ray having Hagler over for beer. I mean, this was a really messy, messy fight, you know, but yet there was no bloodshed and all walked away reasonably unscathed. Arsalan.
IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.
IZRAEL: A Train, you're the Obama supporter in the shop. The presidential race between these two got crazy, crazy nasty, so was President Obama being a good sport or do you think he was at the table like, ah. You think he was rubbing it in on him?
IFTIKHAR: Well, I think the gesture itself was a good one. I think that, you know, it shows that, at the end of the day, we're all Americans and we're all trying to, you know, better this country. You know, I'm not sure if, you know, Mitt Romney, you know, stopped eating his sandwich after 53 percent because he was not, you know, interested in the remaining 47 percent or only picked up 53 percent of the tab.
IFTIKHAR: But, you know, I think that it was a good gesture and I hope that future presidents will follow suit.
IZRAEL: So you don't think he was going, neener, neener, neener? You know, like that.
IFTIKHAR: I don't think he had to. He was in his house, the White House.
IZRAEL: Right, right. So he just sat across and just popped his collar like that. You know, so...
MUNSON: Aren't most of these...
MARTIN: Go ahead, Les.
IZRAEL: Go ahead, Mr. Munson.
MUNSON: Aren't most of these visits to the White House basically PR stunts? We have - President Obama loves to bring in sports teams, for example, to congratulate them on their great success. He went so far as to bring in the 1985 Chicago Bears team several months ago just - and it looks great for Obama. I don't see it as a substantive event. It's strictly a stunt that makes the president look bipartisan and like a warm and fuzzy guy.
IZRAEL: Wait. You mean he isn't? Super Mario.
IZRAEL: What about Governor Romney? He's been quiet since he told his donors that, if President Obama won because of quote, unquote, "gifts," he gave to his political base - what does Romney get out of this, you know, besides, you know, chili and chicken salad or crow?
LOYOLA: I don't know. I had a chuckle when I read this story. I think this whole thing is just so like, you know, noblesse oblige or something. It's like...
MARTIN: On whose part?
LOYOLA: On the president's part. I mean, it's almost like the very minimal graciousness that the president can show. By the way, conservatives think...
IZRAEL: What was he supposed to do?
LOYOLA: But conservatives think that this is like the most insulting and insufferable president of all times, so I mean, it's just funny to see him being minimally gracious and then, within 24 hours, he'll be telling conservatives that they're full of you know what again.
IZRAEL: So inviting somebody by your house is - the president is minimally graceful?
IZRAEL: What was he supposed to do? Sit down and play Xbox together? I mean, what?
LOYOLA: I mean, it's customary. I mean, like Michel said, it's happened every single election for 20 years. This is like a customary minimal graciousness. I mean, it's a good signal to the world. It's a good example to the world of, you know, how well America handles transitions of power and stuff like that.
MUNSON: That's true.
LOYOLA: But I just - you know, as a personal policy - also, people always think that the election they just went through is the nastiest one of all time. I don't think this was a...
MARTIN: I think that's fair.
LOYOLA: ...particularly nasty election.
MARTIN: I think that's fair, but I would only say this about that before we move on - is that I think, you know, theatre is part of the job of governing.
LOYOLA: Of course.
MARTIN: I mean, when people don't attend to the theatre, you know, the substance becomes much more difficult. And I think, as Mario said, it is a gesture often to the rest of the world. I remember after the 2008 election when John McCain gave a very gracious concession speech. And I remember, we did an interview with a lot of correspondents around the world in the next day or two, and some of the people were shocked. I mean people have gone through elections where people had been, you know, slaughtered in the streets.
MARTIN: And it was just very profound and moving for a lot of people that you can have a transition of power without that. People forget that that is not the norm in every part of the world. So I think that's not small.
IFTIKHAR: Yeah. This is Arsalan. No, I think it's a testament to American democracy. You know, we, there are many parts of the world where, you know, you would never have two presidential candidates that, you know, meet after, you know, a contested election. It's interesting to know how, you know, some people might call this a stunt and thing - I mean, you know, for some people anything short of President Obama handing the keys to the White House to Mitt Romney, you know, would be a stunt. And so, you know, it still shows that even though we are, you know, an evolved democracy, that we still live in pretty hyper partisan times.
IZRAEL: And that, and I take your point that it is a stunt, but it's also very intimate. You know, I mean he's having dinner with somebody that had a really contentious fight, and you and I haven't done that with our neighbors. So I mean, I don't know, you call it a small thing, you call it a small minimal show of whatever. Nah, I think it's very gracious. I think it's extraordinarily gracious and intimate in its way.
MUNSON: Wouldn't it have been better if he invited Paul Ryan? Paul Ryan is the guy that he has to work with if they are serious about a compromise on the fiscal cliff and he doesn't even invite Ryan or Biden, it's just these two guys. That, to me, shows it's a stunt and it's not a substantive gathering.
IZRAEL: Mr. Munson, I take your point.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are having our weekly visit to the Barbershop. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, National Review columnist Mario Loyola, and Lester Munson of ESPN.
Back to you, Jimi.
IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK. Away from the lunch bunch at the White House. A major food fight has broken out between Republicans themselves. It seems that members of the GOP want out of a promise to never to vote for a tax increase. Never, ever, Michel?
MARTIN: Well, you know, it's interesting. This is part of the interesting part of the conversation. Is it many Republicans? Is it some? Is it like three? That this is a pledge started by Grover Norquist, president of a group called Americans for Tax Reform, more than two decades ago - and I think many people forget how long-standing this has been. It called for candidates to promise not to raise taxes and not to cut tax breaks without corresponding spending cuts. The pledge has been signed, at this point, by hundreds of Republican congressional candidates.
So Jimi, apparently now people are - some Republicans are walking it back, so.
IZRAEL: So you mean politicians, you know, go back on their promises? Clutch the pearls, well...
MARTIN: But is it promises or is it stupid handcuffs they don't mean anything anymore? See that's the kind of the interesting question here. Norquist doesn't see it that way, and we actually have some tape on that. Grover Norquist spoke with my colleague Steve Inskeep on MORNING EDITION earlier this week, and he says that - he says that it is not true that Republicans are seriously questioning the pledge. Here it is.
GROVER NORQUIST: We're talking about four or five people, here. OK? I mean, this is not a wave - and, by the way, the same four or five people that we're talking about in all my interviews two years ago when we were going through this same fiscal cliff, although it was the debt ceiling bill. So it's the same cast of characters that have been brought out for the photographs again.
MARTIN: OK? You got that? OK?
IZRAEL: Yeah, I do. I mean it sounds like a family fight that spilled out into the streets. Super Mario, Mario Loyola, you know, this seems yeah, like a, but it also seems like a battle for the future of the Republican Party. How do you call it?
LOYOLA: That's exactly right.
IZRAEL: All right.
LOYOLA: I think the during the last 10 years, you know, part of what motivated the Tea Party and this Libertarian streak and all this whole movement in the 2010-2012 elections, was the perception among many conservatives that the Republican Party had really abandoned it's most important principles, embraced huge regulations and spending and stuff during the Bush years. And so that's - that led to a lot of acrimony and people, you know, presenting strong primary challenges to, you know, Senator Lugar, for example, in Indiana. Who is someone - 10 years ago would have been unimaginable that a conservative would challenge a senator like that. I mean he's not a liberal, really, at all. And so, you know, with these no new tax pledges, I remember when, you know, Senator DeMint and people like that in the conservative end of the party were embracing the Norquist pledge and then offices were being pressured, coming under a lot of pressure, McConnell's office, people that hadn't originally embraced it, coming under a lot of pressure and having to embrace the pledge.
I think that the Republican Party, now, is going to have to be flexible about some of this stuff. For example, I think that double taxation, taxation of corporate activity business activity is much worse than raising the top marginal individual tax rate five points. And we've got, you know, entitlement reform and regulatory reform, those are the priorities that the Republicans have to look to, and I think they need to be flexible on some of this stuff.
MUNSON: I think - I we...
MARTIN: Hold on a second. We're going to hear from Arsalan first on this. Go ahead.
IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I think it's important, you know, this recent trend that we've seen, because of the fact that essentially, you know, Grover Norquist's pledge has essentially been dogmatic handcuffs that have been placed on the vast majority of, you know, congressional and senatorial Republicans for the last 20 years. And I think that, you know, even if it's starting out with four or five members, I think that it will give, you know, other members the impetus to get out of these dogmatic handcuffs. You know, essentially, you know, for the last 20 years, if you wanted to run for Congress and you're in the Republican Party, you needed to kiss the rings of Grover Norquist. And I think those days are starting to begin - behind us.
MARTIN: But Arsalan, how is that different from where the - how the center of the Democratic Party feels about entitlements? I mean is that the same thing, dogmatic handcuffs there?
IFTIKHAR: No. Because...
MARTIN: They're saying they would never agree to...
IFTIKHAR: ...Democratic candidates never had to sign a contractual pledge like Grover's. I mean essentially everybody here in D.C. knows about Grover Norquist's pledge, because essentially, if you don't sign it or if you even think about shying away from it, you know, his attack dogs will come sicking on you.
MUNSON: I think in the coverage of this issue we're seeing a caricature of Grover Norquist. He is a wonderful target, a wonderful metaphor for the Democrats as they address the tax issue. They can demonize him the way the right-wing loved to demonize Nancy Pelosi or even before that, Ted Kennedy. Norquist is a much more complicated guy. He was a pal of Jack Abramoff. His wife is Palestinian. He's to the left on some social issues. And he lobbies on all sorts of things, in addition to taxes. So this is more a coverage event, to me, than it is any kind of big change in the Republican Party.
As he told Steve Inskeep, he only has four or five who are trying to walk away from the pledge - and as Michel pointed out - this guy, Norquist, he's a throwback. He was doing this 20 years ago. He predates superPACs and Karl Rove raising hundreds of millions of dollars. This is old-fashioned kind of lobbying effort. He has his weekly meeting. He has his pledge cards. He has no money to support it. So I think maybe we're exaggerating his importance.
MARTIN: This is where journalism clichés are so excellent and so helpful. Only time will tell.
IZRAEL: Yeah. I was just about to say that.
IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It's like any family fight.
MUNSON: What an insight. What an insight that is.
IZRAEL: You just grab a beer and just, you know, place your bets and, you know, let them sweat it out.
MARTIN: I know, right? How powerful.
MUNSON: Yeah. I wish we can say that.
MARTIN: I know, right? Don't you - feel free to use that, anybody, if you need to, right, right?
IFTIKHAR: Thanks, Michel.
MUNSON: I'll give you credit, Michel. Thanks.
MARTIN: I know, right? That won't be necessary.
IZRAEL: All right. We're moving on.
MARTIN: All right. Moving on to sports. Yeah.
IZRAEL: We're moving on. Let's get to some sports. We got a clip down memory lane here.
MARTIN: All right.
(SOUNDBITE BASEBALL GAME)
JON MILLER: And Bonds hits one hard. Hits it deep. It is over, oh - 756.
IZRAEL: Yeah. That was a clip of baseball player Barry Bonds on his way to breaking that homerun record.
MARTIN: For those of you who can still hear after that.
IZRAEL: Now he's a star but not a Hall of Famer - maybe he never will be. Michel?
MARTIN: Well, but, you know, Bonds along with Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa are first-timers on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot that came out this week. So the question obviously is that all of them were suspected of taking performance-enhancing drugs at some point. And, you know, the details are, you know, Clemens and bonds testified that they never knowingly took them. They were both tried for perjury, neither was convicted. Sammy Sosa - well, wait a minute. That's not true. Bonds was convicted of obstruction, I believe.
MARTIN: And then, you know, da, da, da, da. And then Sammy Sosa denies reports that he took performance-enhancing drugs too. So the question, you know, Lester, I mean you've covered the Bonds and Clemens trials for ESPN and you know a lot of sportswriters who are eligible to cast ballots. What do you think here?
MUNSON: There is no chance that Bonds or Sosa are going to be in the Hall of Fame any time soon. On Roger Clemens, however, it's a more difficult question. A jury of 12 people there in Washington, unanimously concluded that Clemens was truthful when he told the Congress: I never used these drugs. They found him not guilty of all charges. The verdict was fast. It was unanimous. It was definitive. So Clemens, in contrast to Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro and Bonds, does have an argument that he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
I think that most of us in sports media believe that Clemens did use these drugs. The problem is there's a judicial jury determination that he did not.
MARTIN: That's interesting. That is interesting.
IZRAEL: You know, A-Train, you're not just a lawyer, the civil rights lawyer, you're a sports fan. Do you think that players, because they're accused of taking drugs, do you think they should be kept out of the Hall of Fame?
IFTIKHAR: Well, I think in this case, you know, when you're dealing with, you know, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, it should be an all or nothing proposition. Meaning that, either everybody gets into the Hall of Fame or nobody gets into the Hall of Fame. I've heard a lot...
MARTIN: What you mean? Everybody can't be in the...
IFTIKHAR: Well, hold on...
MARTIN: You mean everybody based on just their perform...
IFTIKHAR: Right. Right. Hold on. I'm getting to that.
IZRAEL: Compared to their performance?
MARTIN: Go ahead. Yeah.
IFTIKHAR: You know, there have been some arguments made in the last few days that you can consider, you know the players, whether the players' performance outweighed, you know, the detriment that, you know, taking, potentially taking performance-enhancing drugs did. Bob Costas, you know me that argument earlier this week. You know, I think that, you know, even though Roger Clemens was acquitted by a jury of his peers, within the court of public opinion he still took a major, major hit. And like Lester said, and there are many sports writers and there are many sports fans around the country, frankly, that believe that Roger Clemens took performance-enhancing drugs.
MARTIN: So how would you vote if you got a vote? You don't get a vote.
IFTIKHAR: I wouldn't vote for any one of them.
MARTIN: Wow. Mario, what about you?
LOYOLA: Yeah. I think that we've got to defeat the culture of legitimate drug use.
LOYOLA: I mean I think that with the Lance Armstrong thing, you know, that was so shameful. I mean it was so systematic and so much lying and so just borderline fraudulent, I mean fraudulent and criminal that I think that in the last year, you know, the stigma on performance-enhancing drugs has gotten worse and it should stand to get even worse. I mean, people should know when they're starting their careers as athletes that they will not be famous, they will not be valued if they cheat.
MARTIN: But they are famous. Lester, do you mind if I ask you, is it OK to ask you how you would vote, if you got a vote? I don't know if you get a vote. Is it OK to ask you that?
MUNSON: I do not have a vote. I am not a member of the Baseball Writers' Association. Those are the guys who vote. And my vote would be no on all of these guys.
MUNSON: The rule that governs admission...
MUNSON: ...to the Hall of Fame expressly uses the criteria...
MUNSON: ...of integrity and character.
LOYOLA: And as long as those are in the rule then I think it's a no vote.
MARTIN: OK. Well, thanks for that.
Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He is also adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and founder of themuslimguy.com. Mario Loyola directs the Center for Tenth Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He also writes for the National Review. They were here in D.C. Also with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago, was Lester Munson of ESPN and ESPN.com.
Thank you all so much.
LOYOLA: Chop, chop.
IZRAEL: Yup, yup.
MARTIN: Remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our new Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.