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Was The Storm A Political Trick Or Treat?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Finally today, we are going to step into the Beauty Shop. That's where we get a fresh cut on the week's news with our panel of women - writers, journalists and commentators.

Sitting in the chairs for a new 'do this week are Keli Goff, political correspondent for TheRoot.com. She's in our bureau in New York City. Here in Washington, D.C. are Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at the website The Wise Latina Club. She's also the Latino outreach coordinator for Project Vote, which is nonpartisan. Bridget Johnson is Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media. That is a conservative libertarian commentary and news website. And Mary Kate Cary, columnist for U.S. News & World Report. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush.

Ladies, welcome to you all. Thanks for joining us once again.

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Great to be here.

VIVIANA HURTADO: Thanks for having us.

KELI GOFF: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So we're going to start with Superstorm Sandy, which has, as we've just been talking about, devastated parts of the East Coast and it's also changed, if not the course then at least some of the methods of the campaign - of the presidential campaign which is in its final days.

President Obama suspended all campaign events until at least Thursday. He's in New Jersey today to visit damaged areas. And this is what the president said about the storm response yesterday at the Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are going to do everything we can to get resources to you and make sure that any unmet need is identified. We are responding to it as quickly as possible, and I told the mayors and the governors if they're getting no for an answer somewhere in the federal government, they can call me personally at the White House.

MARTIN: Now, the Republican candidate, the Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, is still holding campaign events. But he's also added some things, like in Ohio, for example, he along with other volunteers boxed up supplies for storm victims. And I'll just play a little bit of what he said at this particular event.

MITT ROMNEY: It's part of the American spirit, the American way, to give to people who are in need, and your generosity this morning touches my heart, and I appreciate what you've done.

MARTIN: We're going to give Keli Goff of TheRoot the first word here since she's joining us from New York, which is particularly hard hit by the storm. So Keli, we obviously want to know how you're doing, but we also want to know just how you feel that the storm and people's having to cope with it is changing your thoughts about the presidential race. Are they even thinking about it at all right now?

GOFF: Well, you know, it's interesting because I will say that I appear to have drawn...


GOFF: Excuse me. To have drawn the unlucky Lotto ticket twice, because I had to evacuate my apartment and then the place I evacuated to actually lost power and hot water. So - so one of the reasons I'm happy to be here besides normally being happy to be here, because I enjoy speaking with you, is that there's heat here. So I may not be leaving the studio once we wrap up this interview.


MARTIN: That's fine.

GOFF: I may be bunking overnight.

So, no. I'm...

MARTIN: And you can also count on food, because you know, journalists never are without food if they can help it.

GOFF: No. And actually, donuts just arrived. So I'm serious, I really...

MARTIN: All right.

GOFF: ...I wish I brought my overnight bag.


GOFF: But no, I'm holding up well. I try to keep in mind and always, you know, try to count my blessings. No matter how bad you think you have it, someone else has it worse. So while I would really enjoy having more heat and Wi-Fi and all that good stuff and self-service where I'm staying, you know, I'm in a building that's standing and has four walls and there are plenty of people who can't say the same right now. So I really want to focus on wishing them well and not wallowing for myself.

And - but in terms of the election, you know, it's interesting. Sunday, when I was first told to evacuate and I actually did take my luggage to a studio to do an interview on air, because I had already committed, so I figured, you know, I don't want to cancel - that's not the New York way. And what I said at the time is I did think that it was going to have an impact because when people are really focused on their lives, it really can suppress turnout. And when I say focus on our lives, I'm talking about other elections when it doesn't take a hurricane. If there's a little bit of rain, you see voter turnout decrease in general across the board. But that tends to favor candidates who appeal to voters who are more enthusiastic voters. So who sort of fits that category? Elderly voters, for instance, senior citizens - they are reliable voters who are more likely to turn out. Younger people, people who are first-time voters, they are less likely to sort of make it to the polls.

However, I have to say that in the last couple of days - by the way, I didn't finish that thought, which is that that would seem to favor Governor Romney, right? Because the people that are sort of, if you look at the demographics, the makeup of President Obama's base of support, people like younger voters, etcetera, that would seem to favor Governor Romney, is my point.

MARTIN: That's - OK.

GOFF: However, I was going to say that...


GOFF: ...in the last couple of days, when you hear people like Governor Christie and others say what a great job the president has been doing, and I have to say, as a citizen who is worried about, you know, getting back to my apartment, I still don't know if it's flooded or not, I think he looked very presidential. And that's as a citizen, that's not me as a political correspondent, that's me saying as an American I felt, OK, this is someone I can trust to sort of take care of things. And so I think surprisingly that's probably benefited the president more than I would've thought.


GOFF: That's just my take on it.

MARTIN: Well, you've given us a lot to work with here. So Mary Kate, why don't I start with you on that, on this whole question of how. And let's just take Keli's point and just reiterate that the optics are like the least of it right now.

MARY KATE CARY: Right. Right.

MARTIN: I mean that, you know, life, family, safety that's, those are the important things.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: But given your background as a speechwriter and a person who helps shape and craft messages - which leaders are expected to do in times like this - how do you assess the job that the candidates are doing in addressing this, given their respective roles?

CARY: Yeah. I like many people on the East Coast, lost power and have not seen what everybody else has seen on TV because we didn't get power back till dinnertime last night. But I...

GOFF: I'm jealous.


GOFF: Sorry. Go ahead.

CARY: You come down to my house.


CARY: But I'm not a fan of politicians going into the immediate aftermath of natural disasters. Because I think it's 'cause I saw when I worked on the White House staff the massive amounts of people that it takes off of their jobs, most of whom are first responders, you know, because they are motorcycle police guys, they are, you know, all those kind of people get taken off what I think they should be doing first. I would be in favor of the president going maybe by the weekend and thanking them, rather than going in right away and hanging out...

MARTIN: Yeah, but you remember how George W. Bush was criticized - mightily criticized...

CARY: Right. For flying over. Yeah.

MARTIN: For flying over the Hurricane Katrina site.

CARY: Right. So there's a flipside to it. I know if I had lost everything in New York I would much rather - rather than have a politician come through in a motorcade, I would rather see either somebody from the Red Cross or better yet, somebody from College Hunks Hauling Junk, I don't know if they have that up there Keli, College Hunks Hauling Junk...

GOFF: Different version. Different name. You have a better name down there.


CARY: So, but I would move events to unaffected swing states. That's what I would do..

MARTIN: So, OK. But maybe it depends on the politician, though.

CARY: I would move campaign events to Colorado, Wisconsin, Iowa, unaffected swing states and I would do exactly what Romney's doing, which is tell people to bring canned goods, non-perishables, diapers, to the events, box them up and get it to the people who need them. I think that was a great idea. Obama campaign should be doing the same thing, collecting stuff from people who want to help. And that's a very unifying message. It's not too political. It's behind the scenes. It's not grandstanding. I love it.

MARTIN: That's an interesting - a lot of interesting questions have been raised here about what the proper role of government is, you know, at a time like this. So Bridget Johnson, you know, what about that? I mean, obviously as an editor on a libertarian website, you know, libertarians that one of their core principles is that government should have a minimal role here. So you obviously have a point of view on that. And I wanted to ask, though, how you think it's playing right now, if I may?

JOHNSON: Well, I actually think it's kind of it's at an appropriate point right now. I would actually kind of think back to George W. Bush visiting the 9/11 scene soon after that and that, you know, that was seen as appropriate because he was in a way, you know, rallying the troops and these people who had been affected so by this tragedy.

I actually think that there was this debate during the presidential debates over who was acting who was presidential and who was acting like they weren't presidential. You know, Romney now doesn't want to do "Saturday Night Live" because he doesn't think it's presidential. But I think the one who is coming out as the most presidential is Governor Chris Christie. His telling it like it is and has no-bull style has come in really handy here. His attachment to the state and his people is, you know, definitely not political show. And I think it was really important to see, you know, how he said he didn't care about the election. He didn't even care about Romney coming visiting. He said I'm not the least bit interested. You know, maybe a more Romney-friendly answer if he was thinking about it in terms of a campaign surrogate might've been, hey, if he wants to help, come on, all hands on deck. But he knew it would turn into a campaign stop and he didn't want to turn his tragedy into a candidate's treasure.

MARTIN: Well, he also did, you know, offer praise for the president's response...


MARTIN: ...which I think kind of adds, you know, Governor Christie is a Republican - as we know - and I think a lot of people think he was considered for the vice presidential slot on the ticket. He said he wasn't interested in that...


MARTIN: ...and then he, of course, praised President Obama. It could also be though, one does not want to be cynical but he could also say he doesn't care about the election because it could've been that New Jersey was trending Democratic. You know, I don't know. What I'm more interested in...

JOHNSON: Yeah. I think there is a really bipartisan show there and I think that that's kind of the big thing that's going to come out of this.

MARTIN: But what I'm interested in, Bridget, from you is that what do you think this tragedy says about people's kind of response to what the role of government should be, because here again is where you see President Obama kind of emphasizing kind of the federal role - along with volunteer responses. I mean, remember, the Red Cross is not a governmental agency. It's a volunteer -largely volunteer agency; a big one, and - but he's also emphasizing the role of FEMA and federal agencies, whereas Mitt Romney is saying that, you know, perhaps these issues should be handled on a local and state level. And I'm just interested do you think that there's - how do you feel that that philosophical difference will play out here?

JOHNSON: Well, it's definitely something that the Obama campaign has been bringing up, Romney's statement on FEMA and privatization. But I also think it kind of goes to a lot of people's belief about how if you're going to have a federal government, the main role it should have is in emergencies and defense and in these large-scale type operations like this. I think that emphasizing the charitable level on this and private organizations helping out, you know, even from everything - you know, you think of Donald Trump, you know, he did open his atrium and let people stay there and fed them and he gave them coffee. So I think that this isn't going to be a disaster where people are going to say this was an overwhelming federal foot landing on everybody. But I think that Obama is very - he's recognizing that this is a controversy going into the election so he's trying to do this reach-out thing.

MARTIN: Viviana, we do want to talk - I mean, we can't not talk about the effect on the election and again, we want to say that, you know, we're obviously very much thinking about people who are in terrible distress who've lost things, you know, who've lost family members, who've lost property. Obviously, those are foremost in our minds. But we are having an important national election less than a week away. What effect do you think this will have on the outreach Keli talked about, on voter turnout?

HURTADO: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I mean, Keli talked about that. What do you think?

HURTADO: Well, and I'd like to reiterate, Michel, again, that certainly the victims of Sandy are in our thoughts. We're already seeing the impact on early vote, on 23 states plus the District of Columbia have early voting in early voting in D.C. - and I was going to go but I'm going to go later after this - was closed, and it has in fact, been open until 9 o'clock. Now, in other states that have been impacted by Sandy, like New Jersey and New York, they do not have early vote. That said, I did look on the New York City website and you're already seeing an impact. For example, poll workers had classes and training that has been canceled until further notice, as has nursing home voting.

GOFF: Can...

HURTADO: And so, even though the, you know, even though the mayors and governors have said, look, we're not thinking about the election right now and then there's been another message, which is, you know, we're headed towards November the 6th, no problem...

GOFF: Well, can - Michel. Sorry.

HURTADO: ...you are already seeing...

MARTIN: Hold on a second.

HURTADO: ...a little bit of an impact.

MARTIN: Hold on a second, though. There is early voting by mail, isn't there?

GOFF: Well, that's why was going to jump in. Sorry. This is Keli. Sorry to interject. But we do have a very intense absentee voting program here in New York. And unfortunately, the headquarters are downtown in Tribeca. So nothing is happening there and the last week before the election is usually the busiest week. And the other thing I kind of forgot to mention, which I'm just now embarrassingly thinking of in this conversation, is my voting precinct is actually in my apartment building, which is...


GOFF: ...not accessible until they tell me I can go back. So I'm not sure where people like me will be voting if things aren't up and running. So, you know, I think there are a lot of repercussions that we haven't figured out and places that aren't swing states aren't necessarily getting the same amount of attention the same amount of attention. But, you know, there are local elections, there are state elections, there are congressional elections and all this can have ramifications. Sorry for...

MARTIN: Well, so very briefly, Viviana, briefly, do you - does this suggest to you that perhaps the election might not be resolved on November 6th if people feel that - I mean, does this suggest that people are going to be litigating this and arguing about whether their votes were counted fairly, whether there is enough time? What does this suggest?

HURTADO: Even though there is that possibility, what I can tell you is that there are - there is a lot of enthusiasm around this election. And, you know, 23 percent of votes that were cast in 2008 were cast early. And in fact, Keli, I did want to say to clarify, in fact, there is no early voting the way there is in person...

MARTIN: In person. Right.

HURTADO: ...as I'm going to do in Washington, D.C.

GOFF: Right.

HURTADO: You're right. There is a very vigorous system in New York that's absentee, although as you mentioned, it's compromised. One of the things that I think you're going to see is that 9 percent of Latinos have already cast their votes nationwide.

GOFF: Wow.

HURTADO: And you're, I think that it's going to be a really vigorous election on Tuesday and people are going to participate.

MARTIN: Very briefly, if you would, And if you're just joining us, we are having our visit to the Beauty Shop with our panel of women commentators and analysts. With us are Viviana Hurtado of the The Wise Latina Club; political correspondent Keli Goff of The Root.com; Pajama's Media editor Bridget Johnson; and U.S. News & World Report columnist and blogger, Mary Kate Cary.

I'm just - I just have to end on it since it's been just a serious week already, and such a sad news. I'm just, I'm going to do it. I'm going to ask about...


MARTIN: ...Justin Timberlake, Jessica Biel, who recently got married. My invitation must have been lost in the mail, as was yours.

CARY: Yeah, it must've been with yours. Yeah.

MARTIN: I don't understand. I'm sure I could have found something to wear. Now there are some friends...


MARTIN: ...maybe ex-friends, and we could've all gone together, right?

CARY: Oh, that would've been lovely.

MARTIN: Instead of going to rehearsal dinner we could have a nice girl's night out.

CARY: Perfect.

MARTIN: Anyway, but, so some of - this is in the news because some of Timberlake's friends, maybe they're ex-friends at this point, made a video featuring people who were homeless congratulating him and apologizing for not being at the wedding. And, you know, Timberlake has said, look, we all recognize that this was in poor taste and so, you know, I'm sorry for that. So there's that piece. But there's another piece of this I thought was interesting, is that Jessica Biel, who is also an actress, has announced that she plans to take her new husband's last name. She says she plans to be Mrs. Timberlake in her personal life. And I'm just interested. A lot of people think that this is something that women don't do anymore, particularly young women or people who are in the public eye. I think she said she'll be Jessica Biel in her professional life but in her personal life she'll be Mrs. Timberlake. And I'm just wondering if you think, if you guys are surprised by this because many people think of this as something that young women don't do anymore. What do you think, Mary Kate?

CARY: Well, I say good luck with that. I got...


CARY: I got married at 29 after I had already been, you know, at the White House and was spokesman for the attorney general. Like my name I felt like was my professional name. And I come from a traditional family, so does my husband, nobody had ever not taken their husband's name in my family. And so I thought, OK, a good compromise. I'm going to do what Jessica Beal is doing. I'm going to have my professional name with my professional crowd and my social friends I will be my husband's name. And so the problem was it very quickly degenerated because anybody that came up to me who was new I have a lot of overlap between my professional friends and my regular friends. And so they would say, hi, I Mary Kate Cary. No, I Mary Kate Grant. No, I Mary Kate Cary because I had to decide immediately what's my...

MARTIN: Or you could be Cary Grant. Cary...

CARY: Will the real Mary Kate stand up.


CARY: So then I think I'll hyphenate and I'll be Mary Kate Grant-Cary. And I decided that was way too many names...

MARTIN: Sounds like a law firm.

CARY: ...and they all sound like first names.

MARTIN: Right. Yeah.


CARY: And I was like forget that. And so I lasted about six weeks and I finally said OK, I'm Mary Kate Cary. It's a lot easier. So she can try it but I say good luck with that. It was really hard.

MARTIN: You think she'll actually wind up sticking with the old name?

CARY: Because you look like you don't know what your own name is, you know...


CARY: ...at least I did.

MARTIN: Well, I'll say that Martin is my married name and that's a subject for another day about how much blowback I got from that one. But we'll talk about that some other time. OK?


MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary-Grant...

CARY: Right. Yes.

MARTIN: Mary Kate Grant-Cary...

CARY: Right. All right. That's right.


MARTIN: ...for U.S. News & World Report. She was here with us in Washington, D.C., along with Bridget Johnson, Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media. That's the conservative libertarian commentary and news website. Viviana Hurtado is blogger-in-chief of the website, The Wise Latina Club. She's also works on nonpartisan voter outreach. And Keli Goff is a political correspondent for TheRoot.com. She's joining us from our bureau in New York City. Hope she brought her sleeping bag. Thank you, ladies.

CARY: Good luck, Keli.

GOFF: Thanks.

HURTADO: Thank you.

CARY: Bye, Michel.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMER LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.