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Shields and Brooks: Obama’s Remarks on Race and Confrontation, Detroit’s Debt

July 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talk to Jeffrey Brown about the week's top news, including President Barack Obama's surprise informal address on race and prejudice in America and the killing of Trayvon Martin, as well as the saga and significance of Detroit's bankruptcy.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields in his Boston Red Sox tie tonight…

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: … and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome to both of you.

Let’s go back to the top of the show, David. Start with the president’s speech. What did you think of it?

DAVID BROOKS: Great. I thought it was just great.

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It was what the president was elected to be in 2008. It was the guy who sees a lot of conflict in the country, a lot of different points of view, and is able to corral them all.

And so he explained the context that — the way a lot of African-Americans are responding to it. He explained realism for the way a lot of white Americans and other Americans are reacting to it.

He brought it all together in one unified package. And then I thought he was extremely responsible of what government could actually do. He was restrained, he was responsible.

He pointed some way down the road. And so I thought it was unifying. And when we think about Obama at his best, I think this is the sort of thing we think about. So, I just — I just thought it was great.


MARK SHIELDS: The president has been criticized — and not totally unfairly — for being emotionally inaccessible, for being too buttoned-down, almost a remote figure at times, someone who doesn’t enjoy politics.

This was completely personal, I thought, and totally presidential at the time. He did acknowledge and address the fact that the response and reaction in the country has been more intense in the African-American community than in the country at large.

And he explained that from his personal experience, I mean, of being followed at a department store, or watching a woman clutch her purse as he got on an elevator.

I thought that the personal really worked in explaining that. But at the same time, he didn’t paper over what the problems were.

And I thought the way he addressed the question of stand your ground, I thought he made the case to me persuasively against that, and how it does raise the risks of confrontation, and particularly when he gave the example of what if an adult Trayvon Martin had been packing heat or carried…

DAVID BROOKS: If I could just underline that, it’s something you rarely have your mind changed in a second.

But I was sort of ambivalent about stand your ground. I sort of admire the American ethos of protecting yourself, of strength and independence.

But when I heard that couple sentences, I thought, oh, yes, that is a good point. And so you really — at least myself, my mind turned a little on that issue.

And just one element I should bring in there, because it was a very complex little symphony there, a bit of indignation. Suppose Trayvon Martin had been the white kid and Zimmerman had been the black guy. How would it have reacted? And so there was a hint of indignation and a hint of the law professor. There was a lot. All the different Obama pieces were weaved in there.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it was a surprise, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Are you surprised that he came out almost a week after the verdict and why do you think he did it?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he was going to do it. And you have to know that there were people saying, well, let’s not. And you could almost hear him saying, what’s the point of being president if you can’t do this?

JEFFREY BROWN: People saying don’t, you mean politically?

MARK SHIELDS: Listen, we’re working on immigration. You can hear the voices of caution.

I didn’t hear them, but I can imagine quite frankly what they were. This isn’t — what is the best forum, and shouldn’t you do it? He did it without a teleprompter. That tells you how deep and personal and how much he had thought about this and how much it expressed both his thoughts and his convictions and his passion.

But, no, I was — the suggestion was that they had been waiting for him to be asked about it. But I thought this was a far more persuasive venue.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I had a chance to do a little reporting on this, and it was a solo decision. And I think it was made simply. It was made — it was an instinctive decision. And maybe he should make a little more intuitive decisions.

It was not the whole apparatus is involved. It was, I feel like doing this, and I’m going to do it, and even to the point they didn’t tell the press corps that he was getting out there. And there was reaction, whoa, the guy is in the room here. And so it was a simple, personal decision.

JEFFREY BROWN: Without political calculation, you mean?

DAVID BROOKS: That’s what I have — that’s the way I have been told and understand it.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about political consequences or continuing discussion of the kind that he talked about?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know if you can calculate that.

I mean, I think the reaction to people who see that is indeed personal. I really do. And I guess if — but I don’t know where you can criticize the president on this.

As someone who has been accused of being hypercritical about the president on occasion, I didn’t think there was — there wasn’t a false note in the whole presentation.

Maybe he shouldn’t be — he’s never been the angry or emotional black man. I mean, you know, that has been part of his entire modus operandi all the way through at times when you would think he would have exploded, but the control was there.

And this was so — to me, it was authentic. It was authentic Obama. And I think it reminded a lot of people of the ’07-’08, when he did captivate the imagination, as well as the affection of so many people, and perhaps that ardor has cooled in some precincts since.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was curious what you think about this national conversation vs. the way he put it, because we have traumas every so often in this country and then we talk about having a national conversation. And he said, I’m not sure that’s the way, but we need to have some kind of conversation.


I’m with Turley on this one, Jonathan Turley earlier on in the program, that people aren’t persuaded by politicians, and some sanctimonious conference in Washington is not really going to do anything. It’s neighbor to neighbor. It’s just interaction. It’s interaction of people of different races. It’s the normal friendships that happen.

That’s how change happens. You can’t talk yourself into being a less racist person. You can’t talk yourself into being a better person. It comes from action and from direct conduct. So, I think his instincts are pretty right on that one.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let’s move to our other big story of the day, which was the Detroit bankruptcy.

Mark, your reaction to that?

MARK SHIELDS: Reaction to it is, Detroit is a great American story.

And I don’t know if it’s the postscript to or the preview of the de-industrialization of the grade Midwest of the United States. I mean, Detroit is not alone as one goes across covering presidential elections or national — or congressional elections in these great — these states.

And I just think — I just want to think about Detroit in this sense. We won World War II. We were the arsenal of democracy. Detroit was the arsenal of the United States, and Michigan really — 75 percent of all the aircraft engines that were built for the Allies in World War II were built within Detroit and its environs, every — every truck that brought troops and supplies to defeat Nazi Germany.

It’s just a remarkable story. And the Middle American working-class family, the American success story came from that Detroit and Michigan. So, I mean, I think it’s a tragedy, the reality of it, all of the terrible economic reality, but it’s not unique. It’s not unique in the sense — it’s a terrible crisis, but it’s not unique among American cities.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you put it in such large terms?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. It is an urban tragedy that’s gone on for 60 years. It’s an urban mistake in almost every facet.

The production that Mark talks about was the beginning of the end. What is a city? A city is a combination of diverse economic zones and diverse economic sectors that are feeding off of each other. Detroit didn’t have that. It had one basic industry.

And when that industry ran into trouble, then Detroit had nothing else to feed off of. So you had a lack of economic diversity, a lack of creativity.

You look at some of the other Midwestern cities that have done much better, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Chicago, some of the others, they immediately understood education was going to be the key, and they have done better, because they have more educational institutions.

And it was urban tragedy Detroit in that zone. And then you look at some of the bad urban policies that were attempts at revival, fancy downtown office buildings, it’s not about building — that’s not what you do. You build families. You give families a reason to build there and stay there.

The crime, the education, it’s just one thing after another, the corruption. And, then, finally, you can’t give 50-year-old city employees a pension and expect to survive with those kind of promises.

And so it’s just one layer after another, and I hope they can turn it around, but it has been a long time coming.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does it play into some national politics narrative or have some consequences that you see?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, we can’t be a great country without great cities.

And I don’t know how a city goes into bankruptcy, I mean, 700,000 people. I mean, if it’s a company or a corporation, you close it down, and lock down, turn off the lights. You can’t do that when you have got 700,000 people with kids being raised and families.

And we heard Governor Snyder, we heard Mr. Orr talking about a 58-minute response time for a 911 call. This is unacceptable. I mean, so, I hope it can be — I hope we don’t just regard this as some sort of a morality play and, oh, these dirty politicians did this. It is something significant, and it’s something that it is not unique.

It is a terrible crisis and it’s a human tragedy, but it is not a unique American experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Although there are some elements of mismanagement that we have heard in this story unfolding in the years.


And the other thing that is common is the overpromising of pensions, whether it’s Illinois, California.

MARK SHIELDS: And Chicago.

DAVID BROOKS: And Chicago. A lot of people did that too.

MARK SHIELDS: It lost three — ratings yesterday went down. So it is a problem.

DAVID BROOKS: There is a possibility for rebound. You know, you never count out human beings, and Detroit has some advantages. It’s got really cheap real estate and a work force, people who know how to work, history of that.

It’s got suburbs, some strength and creativity. And so, often, in capitalism, when you hit bottom, you have some perverse advantages, low costs, and people really desiring to turn around, do whatever it takes. And so there’s an ebb and flow to this thing. And so it’s not worth giving up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s end on hope. Why not, right?


MARK SHIELDS: Red Sox-Yankees.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back to your…

DAVID BROOKS: The tie has disturbed me the whole 12 minutes.


JEFFREY BROWN: I see that. The tie threw you from the beginning.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I don’t wear a Mets tie. That would be bragging.


JEFFREY BROWN: David Brooks, Mark Shields, thanks very much.

MARK SHIELDS: It would be admitting.