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Did President Obama Misuse MLK's Bible?


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. He's joining us from Chicago today. Lester Spence is a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. He joins us from Baltimore today. Here in our Washington, D.C. studios, we have with us Republican strategist R. Clarke Cooper. He's also an Army Reserve Captain. And NPR's political editor, the Political Junkie himself, Ken Rudin, back with us.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, everybody. Hey, welcome to the shop.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Jimi, just let me say something. I just watched Michel. Her lips moved, but she - nothing came out of her mouth when you said that.

MARTIN: No. He's messing up the oath of office. That's what happened there.

RUDIN: Is that recorded or what? I don't understand.

IZRAEL: Coop's in the house. What's up, man?

R. CLARKE COOPER: Hold on. Were you lip syncing?

IZRAEL: Not today. Let's get it started. You know, gays have been serving openly in the military and now we've got ladies in combat. This week, defense secretary, Leon Panetta, announced the end of a longtime ban on women serving in combat roles. Michel, we got a clip. Yeah?

MARTIN: We do. He signed the order yesterday and it's just a few weeks before he's expected to retire and here's just a little bit of what he said. Here's just a short clip.

LEON PANETTA: Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier, but everyone is entitled to a chance.


IZRAEL: Michel.


IZRAEL: Well, Captain Cooper.



COOPER: Hoo-ah.

IZRAEL: Now, what do you make of this? Do you foresee any problems popping up from this?

COOPER: Look, we've already had women in combat and this is one of the things. The naysayers, the detractors from actually making this official, seem to not recognize that, in the last 12 years, we've had women who've engaged in combat, either indirectly or directly. Fifteen percent of service members are women and, you know, regardless if you're in a combat support or an actual direct combat role, especially the last 12 years, one would be subject to being fired upon or having to return fire.

I could tell you, during my deployment in Iraq, that there were women who may have not been in combat roles, but they actually engaged the enemy. So they certainly were able to hold their own and, as we said in the fight to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" statute, that famous Barry Goldwater quote, you know, you don't have to be straight to shoot straight. Again, it's all about being able to do the job. If you can shoot straight and get your rounds downrange, and you can do the job.

I remember, when I went through airborne school at Fort Benning, there were about 270 in my platoon. Out of that 270, six of them were women and - yes - I did look at that group photo before I came to the studio today and counted the females in that shot, but their wings - they earned their wings just as much as I did. They did the same amount of work that I did to get my airborne wings, and if they can do the job, by all means, power to them.

And, actually, other armies that we consider on par with us already have women in combat. Israel's a great example of that and so it's not a matter of - that this policy is changing. It's actually recognizing what's already in place.

IZRAEL: Ken dog, Ken Rudin.

RUDIN: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Why now? Why is the announcement official now?

RUDIN: Well, I think the reason was - I thought it was interesting that this change of policy or the announced change of policy came on the same day that we saw Hillary Clinton in combat before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But you know something? Clarke makes a good point. I mean, this is not something new. We saw - just look at Tammy Duckworth, the new Democratic congresswoman from Illinois. She lost both her legs when her helicopter was shot down over Iraq. I mean, if it is any indication that women have paid the price in combat, I mean, it's not just starting this now with Leon Panetta's edict.

IZRAEL: Right. Yeah. I had some reservations at first for the same reason I'm kind of reserved about women serving as firefighters. But you know, I did some research and, you know, 6,200 women nationwide work as full time firefighters and officers, according to the International Association of Women and Fire and Emergency Services.

So, you know, I don't know whether this is sexist or not. Maybe just father of a daughter, but it just makes me nervous. I don't want my wife - I don't want my daughter - I don't want my aunt, my mama or my mama's mama. I don't want none of them out there fighting wars. You know...

RUDIN: Wait a second. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Let me interrupt for one second.


RUDIN: But I don't want my son fighting wars, either. I mean, that's the whole point. It's not a man-woman thing. Maybe it's just about - I mean, who wants their own children involved in combat? But the point is that women should be treated exactly the same as men and for women to advance in the military, a lot of times, combat experience is what allows you to advance and, of course, if you don't have that, you can't advance.

IZRAEL: My daughter's my princess. I don't want her out on the field of battle. My son can serve honorably if he chooses.

COOPER: And Jimi, I would be happy to introduce your son or daughter to a recruiter - both of them.

IZRAEL: No-no.


MARTIN: Well - yeah.

COOPER: Hey, if they want to join and serve our country they can and that's - I would like to just push back on that a little bit is that...

IZRAEL: Please.

COOPER: ...don't hold your daughter back because she could turn out to be a great officer one day.

MARTIN: Yeah. When the time comes...

IZRAEL: I'll take that...

MARTIN:'s a question of what does she want? I mean what does she want?

IZRAEL: Of course.

MARTIN: And what is she capable of? Because the fact of the matter is not every man serving in the military is capable of serving in a combat position.


MARTIN: I mean just as with, you know, just with people with different sexual orientations. I mean, you know, some of the finest, you know, soldiers, sailors airmen, you know, Coast Guard officers you're ever going to meet...

IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...could have a different orientation and you're going to deprive the country of their service because they don't, you know, fit a stereotype?

IZRAEL: Michel, you make a good point because...


IZRAEL: ...she's 13 and she's wrecking shop already. So she might be the next Rambro. Go ahead, man.

SPENCE: This is Lester. Real quick. I think that this points out one of the hidden opportunities I think that we've become desensitized to the cost of war and I believe that when women are getting the training and are allowed to do what they should have been allowed to do a long time ago anyway, I think in a weird way it's going to make us more sensitive to the cost of war. When we are actually not just bringing home body bags filled with male soldiers who we believe in some instances should die, right. But when we're consistently bringing home body bags of mothers.

COOPER: Well, Lester, Lester, in the last 12 years there have been 152 body bags with women in them.

SPENCE: Well, I mean, but so what I'm suggesting...

COOPER: So we already are you experiencing that. Yeah. Yeah.

SPENCE: No, they're already dying. They're already dying.


SPENCE: But the numbers, once we formally allow women to experience combat training and enter the theater of war in larger numbers, then that number is going to increase...

COOPER: Fair enough.

SPENCE: ...and those images are going to increase.

MARTIN: You know, one of the - I'll just briefly, I just would say it was interesting that Jimi brought up, you know, firefighters because, you know, as many of you know, I lost my dad earlier this year, and at his service - he was a longtime firefighter and at his service the fire department in the city where he lived and served was kind enough to send a honor guard and there were women in that honor guard. And I remember thinking that, you know, he had, he also like you, had kind of mixed feelings about it because, you know, he also was the father of two daughters and he was thinking he - I remember having conversations with him about well, you know, I don't know. But then by the end of his career he was like listen, you know, if they can do the job, let them do the job. And so I just, I would sort of throw that out to you.

If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. You're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, political science professor Lester Spence, Republican strategist R. Clarke Cooper; he's also a captain in the Army Reserve, and NPR's political junkie Ken Rudin.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. All right, moving on from the troops to the commander-in-chief. President Obama's second inauguration fell on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. That felt right to a lot of people. It kind of provoked some comparisons. But some critics said the comparison was all wrong. Right, Michel?

MARTIN: You know, that was actually I think one of the kind of interesting conversations that was occurring because of the nexus of those two events. Cornel West, the professor, is one of the naysayers. Now, you know, people might remember that Professor West has had some issues with President Obama over the course of his sort of tenure. But he took issue with...

COOPER: Hater.

MARTIN: Well, OK, well, we can talk about that - took issue with the use of Dr. King's Bible during the swearing-in. This is what he said. He was asked about this by his colleague the talk show host, our former colleague, Tavis Smiley.

CORNEL WEST: All of the blood, sweat and tears that went into producing a Martin Luther King, Jr. generated a brother of such high decency and dignity that you don't use his prophetic fire as just a moment in a presidential pageantry without understanding the challenge that he represents to all of those in power no matter what color they are.



MARTIN: So Jimi, what about, I don't know, where are you on this? I mean part of it is the sense, a number of people have criticized this comparison because they argue that, you know, President Obama is not a pacifist. He made that very clear. Even as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he made clear he is not a pacifist. But what do you think?

IZRAEL: You know, I think it's a lot like comparing anybody that has dreads, you know, with Bob Marley. It's like when I had dreads every body is like, you look just like Bob Marley, despite the fact that Bob Marley was 5'2" and like four shades lighter than me. I think at the end of the day I think a lot of people - because look, both Martin Luther King and the president, they screen broadly as black man willing to suffer wild indignities for some kind of greater good that may not be great or may not be good to realize some nebulous utopic vision. You know, and in some people's mind whether that's accurate or not is another conversation. But...

MARTIN: That is not accurate because it's not a nebulous vision at all.

IZRAEL: Well, I don't know - well, wait, you know...

MARTIN: That's why you have...

IZRAEL: OK. Fine. Fine. But I'm saying...

MARTIN: That's why you have state of the unions; they're not a nebulous. It's not nebulous, OK.

IZRAEL: I'm saying that some people's mind, that's why they screen together. They're both happy, happy, you know, pacifist black men willing to suffer all kind of indignity in the name of some greater good. So in that way in some people's mind, you know put them in the same basket. You know, it's easy to line them together in that way. You know, to me it's just lazy because obviously that just says you don't know much about either man, you know to...

MARTIN: Yeah. Interesting.

IZRAEL: know, to say that they have - that they are, you know, the same in any way. That's just...

MARTIN: What about Lester Spence?

SPENCE: I had this argument with Cornel West a few years back; it didn't last that long. And what I told him was simply that King was dead. But in some ways in order to make the claim about persistent inequality, whether racial or otherwise, we have to start mooring that argument in where we live now rather than 40 years past. But if we are to go along that line, this is what I would suggest. I was suggest that if we were looking at the King who believed in the '50s that the market was fine, that all we needed to do was end segregation along the discrimination along the edges, who had to be browbeaten in order to do, in order to be involved in a Montgomery bus boycott, who some would argue compromised Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, I'd say yes, that Obama is a whole lot like King.

But if we are instead to look at the King of '67 and '68, who believe really strongly that we should fight for a combination of capitalism and socialism, that class inequality was rampant, that the Vietnam War was immoral and unjust, then no, that comparison doesn't fit at all. Obama is not anything like that.

MARTIN: Interesting. Ken Rudin, what do you think?

COOPER: I'm disagreeing completely. I mean I was extremely touched the thought of President Obama re-inaugurated on Monday the 21st the same time the nation is celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr. First of all, yes, look, politics is a compromise. You could be a great civil rights leader and stand for certain absolutes and not have to face the voters. The fact that not only did Barack Obama face the voters, he faced them twice, survived both times and didn't - look, look, I mean a lot of times it seemed like he was very hesitant four years ago. I always felt like if anything Barack Obama, if you listen to what he said in the inaugural, it was free at last, free at last.

RUDIN: Because he was completely unshackled from the careful rhetoric that he had four years ago. And if you look at politics itself, there have been three African-American senators elected since Reconstruction. You've had one black president elected since Reconstruction. To me that is historic and meaningful and gigantic. And putting him in the same sentence within a few words of each other of Dr. Martin Luther King I think is absolutely accurate and apt.

MARTIN: All right. Capt. Cook, what do you think?

COOPER: I would be a little bit more pragmatic. Not so much a skeptic but pragmatic.

MARTIN: Well, you're a Republican.

COOPER: And it's not, it has nothing to do with me being a conservative, but I would just say as someone who served in an administration, you know, you plan things out, you look at the calendar. It's like OK, Martin Luther King Day, MLK Day happens to be near this inauguration. And the way the calendar is set up you had a federal holiday and why not optimize the optic of using Martin Luther King's Bible for the swearing-in? I think a lot of that was a matter of the White House recognizing that they had an opportunity there. It also, we also need to remember that one of the neat things - one of the really cool things about the inaugural ceremony is there's very few places that an incoming president or an incumbent president has as a personal touch. Most of these things are actually scripted and already prescribed and they're the same. It doesn't matter if it's Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama. But, the choice of the Bible and using a family Bibles or George Washington's Bible or King's Bible, that is one of the few things other than the speech where a president has, it's POTUS prerogative, so to speak, and he acted upon that, and that was his choice. But I do see that some of it was simply a matter of it's like there was an opportunity there and I - hey, I don't blame the office of the president for taking advantage of that, and that's what you had happen.

MARTIN: So you think that, I do have to ask though, whether you would have such a - how can I say - cold-eyed view of this if this had been a president that you had voted for or cared about or that if he was here, I mean...

COOPER: Oh, I'm not being cold about it. I'm just saying it's like let's be factual about it.


COOPER: So you got a date on the calendar that worked succinctly.

MARTIN: So there's nothing in that that has any - so there's nothing a president ever does that has any emotional resonance for you?

COOPER: I'm not saying never. It's just but let's say historically inauguration speeches tend to be on par with graduation speeches - very sweeping, usually unforgettable with exception of a few points. I mean let's, let's...


COOPER: You want to talk about inspiration, if you look at Lincoln, Lincoln was memorized for some lines out of his second inaugural speech. His first inaugural speech was about as forgettable as most presidents inaugural speeches. So...

MARTIN: You're right. It's funny. I can still - I can recall the second inaugural speech right now. I mean - so, and yeah, you make an important point. OK. We only have a minute left and this kind of pales in comparison of significance. But there is one other inaugural story which will not die even today. People are still talking about it, whether or not Beyonce lip-synched her...

RUDIN: Far more important. Far more important.

MARTIN: Far more important?

RUDIN: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: Do you care, Ken?

RUDIN: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: Yes? No? Thumbs up? Thumbs down?

RUDIN: Well, I heard that Brent Musburger thought she was very attractive and that's all I cared about.

MARTIN: OK. Goodbye.


MARTIN: You can leave now. OK. Jimi, do you care?

IZRAEL: I do not care. I couldn't care less. Yeah.


IZRAEL: I think when you're that good at what you do sometimes you got to cut corners.

MARTIN: Oh, really? OK.

COOPER: Wait a minute. Aretha Franklin did not...

MARTIN: Wait. I'm confused.

COOPER: Ms. Franklin did not cut corners during the...

MARTIN: And she was not pleased with her performance. I know because I actually interviewed her about it. I hate to be like that, like talking about how I talked to Aretha Franklin, but yes, I actually did and she was not happy...

IZRAEL: Pop that caller.

MARTIN: ...with her performance. Dr. Spence, do you care?



SPENCE: Why do people care so much? Jimi, help me. Why do people care so much? People have been talking about this for days. I'm still getting emails about this.

IZRAEL: Because it's the Kim Kardashianation(ph) of news. It's like, you know, it's like these non-stories that just lasts for weeks and weeks and days. It's like nobody cares but it makes for good, it makes for something interesting to talk about, to talk about at the water cooler.

RUDIN: You know, Kim Kardashian's marriage was lip-synched, I just want to point that out.


IZRAEL: Hey. Whoa.

MARTIN: Now...

IZRAEL: Hey, now.

MARTIN: ...who could argue with that?

OK. Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor and the network's political junkie. R. Clarke Cooper is a Republican strategist and a captain in the Army Reserve. You know, he's also a former executive director of Log Cabin Republicans. Lester Spence is a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. With us from Baltimore, Jimi Izrael's a writer and culture critic. He's also an adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. He joined us today from NPR member station WBZ in Chicago. Ken and Clarke were in Washington, D.C.

Thank you all so much.

COOPER: Hoo-ah.

RUDIN: See you guys.

SPENCE: Peace.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our new Barbershop podcast in the iTunes store or at 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.


BEYONCE KNOWLES: (Singing) Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave. O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.