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The Barbershop Talks Keystone, Ben Carson's Week, New 'Star Wars' Trailer


And now we want to take this discussion into The Barbershop. That's our weekly conversation with some interesting people who have their fingers on the pulse of what's happening. Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup up this week are Michael Steele - he is a political analyst, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a former lieutenant governor. Welcome back, Mr. Steele, thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL STEELE: It's great to be back in the chair.

MARTIN: That's right, that's right. Newcomer Dru Ealons, a political blogger and former Obama appointee at the Environmental Protection Agency. Hi, Dru.

DRU EALONS: Hey there.

MARTIN: And joining us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif., is NPR's own Morning Edition editor Ammad Omar. Welcome back to you, Ammad.

AMMAD OMAR, BYLINE: Thank you, good to be here. I'm from California.

MARTIN: That's right, I'm from California, thank you. So we're going to start where we just left off with this hubbub around Dr. Carson, who's finding himself in the spotlight after several media organizations started looking into his biography. Politico ran a story suggesting that Carson stretched the truth when he said he turned down a scholarship to West Point. This is Dr. Carson defending this in a press conference last night.


BEN CARSON: They were saying you would be a tremendous addition to the military, and we can get you into West Point with a full scholarship. And I simply said, I want to be a doctor. I really appreciate it. I'm very flattered. And I moved on, so it didn't go on any further than that.

MARTIN: Let me point out this isn't the only story. The Wall Street Journal, for example, yesterday, highlighted a few more stories that he told about his life, said that they couldn't prove what happened. So Michael Steele, I'm going to go to you first because you've been in the fray, yourself...

STEELE: I was with Dr. Carson last night, as a matter of fact, so...

MARTIN: Oh, is that right?


MARTIN: OK, so what do you make of all of it?

STEELE: Well, you know, a lot of it has to do with how people interpret two things - one, what he's written and two, what he said about what he's written when they go out to try to verify the facts. So whether it's going back to the neighborhood to see childhood friends who can't remember - well, I don't remember this sequence of events. I don't remember this happening. You know, the instance, you know, on a college campus - you know, what was this scenario or this scene? That's where the campaign right now is having a hard time stacking that up, stacking up the truth, the facts of what happened against the narrative of what he's written. And, you know, I think what the campaign is quickly finding out is not enough to say well, you don't get to tell me how I live my life or reinterpret what I did. You have to show them that this is how it happened and this is why I wrote it the way I did. Now, if you've expended something that did happen, you sort of embellished it, say that and everyone will accept it. (Laughter) It's just when you try to say it didn't happen the way you're saying it happened and then they're finding out well, yeah it did, that's when he's running into problems.

MARTIN: Dru, what do you think?

EALONS: Well, for me, I think - we had a little bit of this conversation right before we came in. I think what has happened to Ben Carson is that they thought about - you know, I wrote this book - or all these books that tell my story. And when you're writing a book to talk about your life, I'm sure you embellish a little bit to make it more creative, to be sold. But now you're in this place that you want to be the president of the United States of America, and you have a political corps - press corps that's going to question you on some of these things because it's also about who you say you are as a person. And when you say you're an honest person but you can't rightly explain some of the things that you're saying that happened didn't happen, kind of happened, was sort of like this, then your credibility becomes shot. I mean, everyone...

MARTIN: Well, because he's running on his biography, essentially...

EALONS: He's running on his biography.

MARTIN: He has no record in government...


MARTIN: ...So he's running on his biography.

EALONS: I mean, to say we all understand - or maybe we don't all understand - but there is an understanding that when you are accepted into West Point, it is upon an appointment. And then furthermore, everyone goes on a scholarship. I mean, that's how it happens there. And, you know, the thing that caught my attention during that presser was when he said, I don't know, they offered it. But then in his book he said, you know, Gen. Westmoreland and et cetera. - so he knew exactly who was giving him the offer of an appointment, But he couldn't recollect that during the press conference? Yeah, I don't buy him...

MARTIN: Do you believe him? Do you buy - what do you think is true? I mean, do you have an opinion about what you think is true?

EALONS: Oh, I absolutely believe that someone said hey, you're smart, you're intelligent. Your grades look great. You know, have you considered West Point? I mean, just like any other athlete that's out, you know, getting all these different kind of offers - but I just believe that his ability to explain it and just didn't do like Michael said - just say exactly what happened and keep it moving.

MARTIN: And keep moving - Ammad, what about the media aspect of this? Because, you know, Politico, which broke the story, originally accused Carson of saying he'd fabricated the scholarship story. Then they updated their story, and they walked it back, you know, a bit...


MARTIN: And he's been very critical of the media, saying that they're on a witch hunt and it's because he's a Republican et cetera, et cetera. So what's your take on this as a person who's looked at this from a media standpoint?

OMAR: Well, I think first of all, the witch hunt angle I think is a little bit overblown because I think when you become a top candidate, you become a top-tier candidate - he's leading in a lot of the polls in Iowa - you're going to get a lot more scrutiny than you might have been when you're just one of the many people in the field. And I think that applies to Republicans as well as Democrats. I was just kind of looking up back in '08 when President Obama was running. CNN had a story about how Obama played hardball in his first Chicago campaign and bullied people off the ballot, even though he was this community organizer, and he was, you know, intimidating folks. We have folks right now, at this very moment, at NPR, where you guys are, that are digging into Marco Rubio's credit card receipts. Hillary Clinton's emails - you know, that story's been ongoing. And it goes back, whether it was a swift boat with John Kerry or whether it was Whitewater with Bill Clinton, I think there's a certain scrutiny that comes with the territory of being a top presidential candidate. Did Politico maybe go too far with their headline? I think you can argue that. If they say he admitted fabricating this story - that brings up a certain image. But at the same time, if Ben Carson says he was offered a full scholarship - that also brings up a certain image. So I think there's a lot of parsing of words, a lot of trying to define what the meaning of is is. And I think that's just part of the name of the game at this point in the campaign.

MARTIN: Well, let me just very briefly on this point though, that Dr. Carson argues again that he's - that President Obama did not face the same level of scrutiny that he had. And since I have the benefit of having both a Democrat and a Republican here, what do you think, Michael Steele?

STEELE: I think it's a matter of degree. I think with respect to some aspects of Obama's story, at least initially - and I think that's probably more of what Dr. Carson's referring to - you know, at a similar point in the campaign when he was battling against Hillary Clinton. There was not a great deal of scrutiny on Obama. When he got to the point where he was competitive and then started to pass her, it did pick up, but it was different. It was a different kind of scrutiny in the sense that there were a lot of questions about associations and relationships that weren't necessarily - now, conservative media drove home those storylines. But the mainstream media, as many conservatives would argue, did not. So I think that Carson's trying to draw that distinction much more than anything else.


EALONS: Quite simply, I find that comment laughable. That - I mean, really? I believe that if anybody went back to the record - just like you said, once he showed competitiveness, it was as equally deep into his background, talking about where he grew up, et cetera. Whether you want to say it was more from a conservative media outlet or general media outlet, everybody picked it up. Everybody still talked about it. He still was questioned about it. He still will even questioned - well, how do you feel about whether you - you know, people asking for your birth certificate? So it still came into the mainstream.

OMAR: And he brought out his birth certificate. It was that big of a deal, right.

EALONS: Exactly. It was - exactly.

MARTIN: Well, a birth certificate is biographical detail. I mean, it seems to me...

STEELE: Right, right, yeah...

MARTIN: ...He's been asked about this - he's been president...

EALONS: And still to this day.

MARTIN: And still to this day - all right, well, we'll see whether this continues to be, you know, a thing, you know, or not, and you all can come back and, you know, tell me about this. But one more thing I wanted to ask you about, speaking of President Obama, this big announcement about dropping the Keystone Pipeline project. Dru, you worked at the EPA. Is this - you know, why...

STEELE: Mhmm...

MARTIN: ...Why now? Why now...



STEELE: Mhmm...

MARTIN: Michael's like mhmm.

STEELE: Mhmm...

MARTIN: Go ahead, is this a legacy move...

EALONS: Everybody wants clean water and clean air, OK?

STEELE: Hey, we've got clean water...

EALONS: Everybody...

STEELE: ...And clean air.

EALONS: Not every...

STEELE: Go ahead.

EALONS: ...Place does, OK?

STEELE: Go ahead, girl.

EALONS: Let's not go there about the fracking and all that stuff. But anyway, we'll move on, I digress. You know, what I think what has happened is interesting. I think that TransCanada decided to pull out. And he was like, you know what? No, I'm going to go ahead and make the decision. But I think politically though - I mean, yes, he made the decision. Everybody can say it was all political, whatever. But I think the politics of it for me was a little disingenuous. I think everybody pushed the envelope on every side. I think the environmentalists pushed it too far. I think also the unions talking about jobs. I mean, it was not going to create that many jobs. When you've had 68 consecutive months of jobs creation, 42,000 temporary jobs, which is building, and then it was going to go down to 50 permanent jobs? At the end of the day, it wasn't going to be benefiting us or the crude oil.

MARTIN: You think the same? Yeah - no? You're laughing, but I don't know why.

STEELE: Yeah, I'm laughing because it's absolutely ludicrous. This was a seven- year journey that was wholly unnecessary. The administration in 2009 had - the State Department had signed off on this deal. They had gone through. They did the environmental studies, the impact studies. And even as recently as 2013 made it very clear that the environmental impact was not to the degree that everyone had claimed.

MARTIN: But Dru's saying that everybody was exaggerating.

STEELE: So everybody was exaggerating.

EALONS: Everybody.

STEELE: At the end of the day, the president played a political card.


STEELE: And he did not want his base to be ticked off at him going in a presidential election...


STEELE: ...With environmentalists screaming at him. So that's the reality of it.

MARTIN: OK, well, we have to leave it there. I didn't have a chance to ask you about the "Star Wars" trailer. I'm super excited.

STEELE: Love it.

MARTIN: Love it.

EALONS: Excited about it.

OMAR: (Unintelligible) here in California...

MARTIN: OK, everybody's excited. OK, Michael Steele, Dru Ealons, Ammad Omar, thank you all.

OMAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.