ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Webcast Extra.
MS. IFILL: Hello, and welcome. I’m Gwen Ifill. An extraordinary week of news demands a little extra time to talk about all the things we didn’t get to on the regular broadcast.
I’m joined around the table by Joan Biskupic of Reuters, Pete Williams of NBC News, Michele Norris of NPR and Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics, all all-stars.
Allow me to begin by playing a little more of the moment that capped the week, when President Obama began singing at the end of the eulogy he delivered for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (Singing “Amazing Grace.”)
MS. IFILL: The president concluded his sermon with the hymn written by John Newton, a slave trader who became an abolitionist and ordained minister. It was a side of the president we had not seen before, Alexis.
MS. SIMENDINGER: I had only seen him really sing in public a few times. And what was, I thought, really artful about this – and of course, we know he had gotten some criticism for how he’d been talking about race a little earlier in the week – but he also wove the idea of “Amazing Grace,” God’s grace, into the entire eulogy in a way that a writer could appreciate in terms of beginning to end. And I feel like – I thought that the themes that he was trying to strike about we were blind and now we can see, and he talked about all of the elements in our society that he was hoping America was waking up to and seeing.
MS. IFILL: You know is it – is it fair to say this could have well been the biggest week of the Obama presidency? He not only got his health care plan, his legislative signature accomplishment rescued, he was in favor of the gay marriage case, he was in favor of the housing discrimination case, he got his trade deal through the House and the Senate, and then he ended with this kind of triumphant moment in Charleston. It was a big, big week.
MS. SIMENDINGER: It was a huge week for the president, for the White House, for his team, I would also argue for – in some ways for Vice President Biden, who was – who was with him most of – all of these events. We have another event coming up in June I just want to mention. The president is very hopeful that his legacy will be embellished with an Iran nuclear deal, if that pact can be worked out. Trade is going to be economically, he argues, enormously important to Americans. We’re going to see that fight later on in the fall or maybe into early 2016 in Congress, so it’s not that that has gone away. I would argue in some ways the gay marriage, he was a little late to the gay marriage party himself, but certainly has been celebrating it since 2012. And on health care, to have the rescue or affirmation of his signature legislative achievement for him was just huge.
MS. IFILL: I’d just say the president on gay marriage was for it before he was against it before he was for it. (Laughter.) Kind of came all the way around full circle.
MS. SIMENDINGER: He evolved in a circle is what you’re saying, Gwen?
MS. IFILL: He evolved in a – that’s what evolution naturally is.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes, indeed.
MS. IFILL: Michele, I want to ask you about a couple more of the race – the six-word race cards on your Race Card Project because it takes us back to an interesting secondary debate we had this week about the Confederate flag and what should happen to it in South Carolina. One of them is from Pat Jones, who lives in South Carolina, and she wrote: “Why are African-Americans so hated?” Mmm. And the second one was from Jesse Dukes in Charlottesville, Virginia, and he wrote: “Must we forget our Confederate ancestors?”
MS. NORRIS: Jesse Dukes is actually a reporter, and he did a piece for Virginia Quarterly Review where he spent a lot of time with Confederate reenactors, and he wanted to understand why people spend their Saturdays reenacting the Civil War, but also why they clung to the Confederate flag. And that question, you know, is at the heart of this debate over the Confederate flag. Why do people cling to it? What does it mean to them when it is so obviously offensive to so many other people? And what Jesse found and what is absolutely supported by what pours in the inbox on a regular basis is that the Confederate flag, yes it’s about the South, yes it’s about the Civil War, yes it’s about ancestry, but it’s about something so much more than that. Most of the submissions that come in to my inbox aren’t from the South. They’re from people who live all over the country, and they embrace the flag for interesting reasons – and this is what Jesse found in his reporting also – that it’s come to symbolize something else. People are using that in some way to – as an anthem to talk about an America that they pine for that they see slipping away, that they don’t feel a certain amount of automatic privilege, that they feel a lot of fear about and disorientation about a country that they no longer understand because they’re not in the majority. Or sometimes it’s just economic, you know, that you hear about redneck culture. Well, that’s a name that some people will affix to themselves – you can’t say it, but I can, that kind of thing. But they’re also talking about the jobs that aren’t there anymore, the economic security they don’t have.
MS. IFILL: And that worry is still under – no matter what we put aside this week or what we’ve – what convulsion we’ve been through this week, that worry is still there, and so it’s still going to be part of that conversation.
I want to go back to the Supreme Court because we didn’t have enough time to go to everything that happened there this week. And Pete, you alluded during the broadcast to a major housing discrimination decision which came in at the Court and which kind of got lost in all the other news, but was a big deal.
MR. WILLIAMS: So back in the civil rights days, when the Congress was passing civil rights legislation, they passed the Voting Rights Act, which a couple of years ago the Supreme Court ate the heart out of. This time there was a big test of the housing discrimination – the law against housing discrimination. For years, civil rights activists and civil rights lawyers have been saying we ought to be able to sue on two bases: one is if we can prove that somebody intentionally discriminated in a housing decision – who to rent to, who to sell to, who to loan money to, where to put new development so you don’t ghettoize an area to more segregate communities; but they also wanted to sue if they could prove that there was a discriminatory effect or impact. “Disparate impact” is the phrase the lawyers use. And the Supreme Court – the civil rights community basically – there have been a lot of challenges to this, and they’ve always tried to settle them so they don’t get to the Supreme Court because they were afraid of what would happen. Well, this week they got the answer: the Supreme Court said yes, you can sue for disparate impact. Now, there are some limitations to it, but it’s a big victory because if the Court had gone the other way it would have very much crippled that law.
MS. IFILL: Joan, I want to ask you about something – a lot – there’s been a lot of commentary that this Court is moving to the left, and that given all of these kinds of cases that we’ve seen settled in the last couple of weeks and a couple that we’re still waiting on on Monday of next week, that the Court is no longer the conservative Court that we’ve heard so much about. Is that true?
MS. BISKUPIC: No, because you really can’t judge a Court overall by a couple cases. Now, we had these two huge cases on health care and same-sex marriage, and I think those were predictable. And I have to say that I thought the health care challenge told us less about the Roberts Court than about the challenge itself. It was a pretty extreme conservative challenge, saying something that people had alleged to be a drafting error in the beginning suddenly stood for the whole law. And it was a 6-3 vote, and neither the chief justice nor Anthony Kennedy by anybody’s definition would be considered really liberals. So it’s – it was more of a rejection of something that was more to the extreme, I think, in that case. Same-sex marriage, it had been building for a while.
The one case in which I think they did move to the left more than we would have expected would have been the housing case. This is a Court that you should understand has been quite different on race. You think of the Shelby County ruling, the Voting Rights one, where they did curtail Voting Rights. You think of what the chief justice has said before about race in America, that we should move beyond it. He’s talked about in one ruling this sordid business of divvying us up by race. They had overturned school integration plans in the first year that Roberts and Alito were together. So if you look at their decisions, most of them, on race – let’s set aside the housing one for this week – you would see that they are still pretty conservative. This was the Court that also gave us Citizens United, the campaign finance ruling. It’s also maintained a fairly – has tried to lower the wall between church and state on religion issues. So I think if you step back for the 10 years of the Roberts Court, it’s much more of a mixed bag and it’s still pretty conservative. We just had a really unusual year.
MR. WILLIAMS: Can I just say one thing about the Supreme Court and the Confederate flag? There was a decision this term about the Confederate flag on license plates, and it was a more or less liberal decision. It was based on the question of free speech. Two things are interesting about it. One is the Court said it’s government speech, the government can say whatever it wants. And this case came from Texas; if Texas doesn’t want to put the sticker on the license plate from the Sons of the Confederate Veterans because it has an image of the Confederate flag, it doesn’t have to because Texas said it’s offensive to people – a case argued by the then-Attorney General Greg Abbott, who’s now the governor. One of the people who was in the majority in that case was Clarence Thomas.
MS. IFILL: Clarence Thomas, who wasn’t on the majority in anything this week. Another conversation for another time because we’re going to have to go.
For my own personal reflections on the lessons of Charleston, check out my take on the Washington Week website.
And before we go tonight, a very special thing is happening on this Friday night, June 26, as we tape this, at the White House. We actually see that the White House is being lit in rainbow colors to mark today’s approval of same-sex marriage.
And we’ll see you next time on the Washington Week Webcast Extra.