MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
Coming up, we take our weekly visit to the Barbershop where we will ask the guys now that LeBron James finally has his championship ring, will that stop the haters or not? That is later in the program.
But first, our weekly political chat, and it has been a very tumultuous week in Washington where a congressional committee is recommending that Attorney General Eric Holder be held in contempt of Congress for his refusal to turn over certain documents related to the Fast and Furious gunrunning operation.
We also want to talk about civility in political discourse. A week ago, a staffer from a web publication called the Daily Caller interrupted President Obama while he was making an announcement in the Rose Garden. And then elsewhere across the country a talk show host used outright racist language to describe the president. We want to talk about what's going on there.
And both parties are making a bid for the Latino vote. Both major party candidates are set to address a conference of Latino elected officials in Florida this week. We'll ask who has got the upper hand here.
We wanted to talk about all of this so we've called upon Nia-Malika Henderson. She is a political reporter for the Washington Post. Also with us once again, Lenny McAllister, he is a contributor to politic365.com. He's a former consultant to the Republican National Committee and he's a sought-after commentator and former talk show host himself. So that being said, welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON: It's great to be here.
LENNY MCALLISTER: Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: So, Nia-Malika, can I just get you to tell us as briefly as you can what is this Fast and Furious scandal? What was the Fast and Furious operation and how did it get to this point between the attorney general and this congressional committee?
HENDERSON: Well, this was a program started in 2006 under the Bush administration that lasted until 2011. It was a gun walking program, an attempt to essentially ensnare gun sellers and drug cartels that were using guns in these very violent assaults and murders in Mexico. It went tragically wrong.
You had the death of an agent, Brian Terry, in December of 2010. And since then you've had a long investigation, an 18-month investigation and probe by the Oversight Committee in the House led by Darrell Issa and you had the culmination of that this week with this vote out of the House that is going to send to the floor a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt.
It's likely that that will pass. This has been a long time in coming. A lot of back and forth between members of the House on the Republican side not sure about whether or not they wanted to move forward with this, but a lot of back and forth with the attorney general about releasing these documents.
One of the problems here was that Attorney General Eric Holder said that he would give the documents over if they would take the contempt charge off the table. And they said, well, if you give us the documents first, then we will take this off the table. So it was a matter at some point of who goes first.
And there was lots of back and forth. And Democrats claim it's political and that there was lots of moving of the goalpost in terms of what documents they wanted and how quickly they were going to be turned over. So this is what we've had, a really hot week in Washington over this. And some people saying that this is obviously - agreeing that there needs to be a probe in terms of what people knew and when they knew it and also - all right.
MARTIN: Let me just jump in for a minute, Nia-Malika, and ask you this. As you noted, this operation started under the Bush administration. So how did it get to be this very hot intensely partisan and personal experience? Because, of course, you know, the Democrats in Congress are saying that this is an election year distraction. It's an attempt to embarrass the administration. So, how did that happen that something that started under the Bush administration became this partisan experience here?
HENDERSON: Well, I think one thing was the death of this agent in December 2010, Brian Terry. His parents very much vocal about thinking that the White House is covering things up and you have the ascension of Republican House. And Darrell Issa came into office saying that he believed that this was a very corrupt administration, and he has launched several investigations. And so far, this has been the most fruitful.
And they saw at some point that this was gaining traction in the mainstream press. Faith, fast, and furious. People very concerned about the death of this agent and this is the result. As you said, Democrats are saying that this is all politics. Well, guess what, most of what happens in Washington is politics. And so - go ahead.
MARTIN: Well, let me ask Lenny this. Let me ask what do you make of this? I mean, part of the issue here is that the administration is saying that they can't turn over certain documents because of executive privilege. This is the first time this president has invoked executive privilege in this way in his presidency. And, Lenny, what's your take on this? Briefly, before we move on.
MCALLISTER: Well, the main thing I take about the executive privilege thing is something that Senator Grassley from Iowa said, which is we first heard months ago that the Obama White House had nothing to do with Fast and Furious. This was something that the president had no knowledge of. His hands were pretty much clean of.
To claim executive privilege seems to fly in the face of that. And this actually is probably the type of thing that House Republicans were looking for. If the president had no knowledge, then it will roll up to Holder. If the president had knowledge and Holder contradicted himself, then there is something that they will be able to tie to this White House.
And I think that the executive privilege move was maybe a bad political move. We'll see how it all plays out, but it does ask the question if the White House knew nothing of this, why all of a sudden does this executive privilege come into play now?
MARTIN: Or one could also argue why, since George W. Bush invoked executive privilege six times during his tenure in the White House, according to the Associated Press. Were there objections by Republicans to his invoking it then?
MCALLISTER: I think that we all know most of this is political and you can go back to Clinton invoking it 14 times and not having two wars going on. So, I mean, we can go back and forth with the politics. I think really what we're looking at, though, is with this type of situation when we were told that the White House had no knowledge of this operation, then to invoke executive privilege seems to be contradictory at best.
And at worst, if you start getting into more the insidious type of characteristics about this, that's where you get to a point in time where people start saying, hey, this isn't a corrupt administration and here's evidence of that. And I think maybe that's where Congressman Issa was going after starting when he came into this role in January 2011.
MCALLISTER: And this seems to give more fuel to that fire.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of, you know, adding fuel to the fire here, one of the things we wanted to talk about is just how - not just what we talk about but how we are talking about things in politics these days. We're talking about the political news of the week with Nia-Malika Henderson. She's a political reporter with the Washington Post. Also with us, Lenny McAllister, senior contributor to politic365.com and a Republican strategist and a former talk show host and a sought-after commentator.
When President Obama was in the Rose Garden last week announcing a new policy on deporting young illegal immigrants, he was interrupted by somebody who works for this conservative leading news website called The Daily Caller. And I just want to play a little bit of it. I think you can figure out what's going on here. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is the right thing to do. Excuse me, sir. It's not time for questions, sir. Not while I'm speaking.
MARTIN: Now, we talked about the substance of this issue earlier in the week so I don't, you know, we don't need to deal with that. Because I just wanted to ask each of you as a person who's, you know, worked in environments like this as part of a press corps, you know, what you make of it. And it's not the only example of kind of an issue this week.
And, Lenny, one of the reasons we're glad you're here is that this radio host in Arizona called Mr. Obama a monkey and the first monkey president on her show. And if anybody wants to suggest that this was a term of endearment, let me put this to rest since she followed up by saying: I voted for the white guy. So she was clearly making that contrast there. Lenny, I'll start with you on this. What do you think? Is this a trend here or what do you think?
MCALLISTER: This is a trend. This is something that - I think it goes back all the way to Nixon. Once you started having these breaches of trust with the presidency, it made it easier for everyday Americans to disrespect the office of the presidency. Now, is that an explanation or an excuse? It's an explanation. Is it an excuse? No.
I think that we need to have a lot more decorum with the president, with our Congress, with our senators. I mean, there's a way to debate and be disagreeable without being this disrespectful. And then, you know, Barbara Espinosa is a friend of mine. I mean, I saw her last in January out at the Iowa caucuses and she feels remorseful about this. She's always been provocative. But this type of language, she flat out said she got caught up. The Daily Caller is a right wing blog. I used to write for them and one of the reasons why I stepped away from the Daily Caller was a comment that was made by Tucker Carlson in regards to Michael Vick deserving the death penalty over his situation with dogs after he had served his time and paid his debt to society.
I mean, we unfortunately have a point of time where both sides of the aisle go way overboard with trying to illustrate a point. There's nothing wrong with being passionate or emotional, but there is something wrong with breaking the decorum and remembering we're all Americans and we're supposed to be moving forward, even as we disagree in the process.
MARTIN: Nia-Malika, is the White House upset about this? Are they going to take any action here?
HENDERSON: You know, I'm not really sure, but I certainly - in listening to that clip, you can tell how startled the president was in that setting, because that never happens and people drew out comparisons to Sam Donaldson when he would question presidents, President Reagan, but it was always after he finished speaking, as he was walking away from that podium. There are rules of the road for that setting. There are rules of the road in dealing with people in general and not interrupting them as they are talking.
And certainly, I think, you have some people on the left who sense that this might have racial undertones. Who knows if it does? But certainly there seems to be a race for the bottom in terms of how we're dealing with each other, whether it's Talking Heads, whether it's people addressing members of Congress, people addressing the president, and it's a real problem.
This was the president, again, who came in saying that he wanted to be about bipartisanship, that he wanted to change the tone in Washington, and that has certainly not happened.
MARTIN: I'm curious about how other reporters in the press corps feel about this.
HENDERSON: Oh, I mean...
MARTIN: Briefly, if you would.
HENDERSON: ...in terms of - I mean outraged. Outraged, shocked. Very, very surprised. It was a low in terms of that setting and in terms of behavior toward the president and, you know, there is talk about whether or not he'll be back and what sort of disciplinary actions might be taken against him. Primarily there's a board. There's a White House Correspondents Association and I'm sure they're looking into this and figuring out how they want to treat the Daily Caller and this specific reporter.
MARTIN: And Lenny, finally, before we let you go, very, very briefly, if I can get you to do this, Barbara Espinosa says she couldn't be a racist because she's Latino, and I just wonder - does that explanation wash with you? And, also, I wasn't aware that she was remorseful. Her comments seemed to think that her comments were acceptable.
So very briefly, if you would, do you buy that?
MCALLISTER: No. I think what she's saying as far as she can't be a racist because she's a Latina - that doesn't wash, but at the same time, I know her. I know that some of the biggest supporters - that she's been one of the biggest supporters of African-American candidates out there in Arizona. I've known her for several years and I think she made a mistake and she's remorseful of that. I've seen the statement. She's remorseful.
MARTIN: OK. Well, too bad we didn't get a chance to talk more about the outreach to Latino voters. That'll certainly be a subject for upcoming programs.
Thank you both so much for joining us. Lenny McAllister is a senior contributor to Politic365.com, where you can find his latest article, "Will Black America Go West or Fall Further South?" And he was kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago.
Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for the Washington Post. She joined us from member station WWNO in New Orleans.
Thank you both so much for speaking to us and for being civil to each other.
MCALLISTER: God bless. Thank you.
HENDERSON: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.