As a lifelong public radio listener, I often hear stories on NPR that have the power to make me pull my car over and cut the engine in order to fully devote my attention to listening.
Last night was one such moment, and I maintain that what I heard was perhaps the best interview of the election.
During "All Things Considered," host Michele Norris interviewed Nicole Wallace, Senior Adviser to the McCain campaign, over the phone as Wallace was riding around Ohio on the Straight Talk Express.
Norris played an audio clip from Wednesday night's "Larry King Live" in which John McCain admits that, despite recent claims on the campaign trail, he does not truly believe Barack Obama is a socialist.
KING: You don't believe Barack Obama is a socialist, do you?
MCCAIN: No. But, I do believe--I do believe that he's been in the far left of American politics. He has stated time after time that he believes in "spreading the wealth around."
Norris than asked Wallace to explain this descrepancy (I have transcribed the interview, as NPR did not have a written transcript on their web site yet, but highly recommend you hear the audio for yourself--it's priceless).
Note how Wallace smoothly shifts the blame for the "socialist" label to Joe the Plumber... now note how Norris smoothly steers the interview back on track:
Michele Norris: So help us clarify something: if John McCain does not believe Barack Obama is a socialist, why is that message a centerpiece of his recent campaign?
Nicole Wallace: Because I think there are some economic philosophies that are apparent in Obama's self-described belief in redistribution that are certainly central to an economic aspect of a socialist, you know, economy or a socialist government. So, Joe the Plumber was the first one to use the word "socialism" to describe Barack Obama's plan and vision, in his own words, which was to spread the wealth.
Michele Norris: But Nicole, Joe the Plumber is not running for President; John McCain is, and a voter could listen to that interview and come away with the notion that John McCain is saying things that he doesn't really believe.
Here is where Nicole, audibly, gets a little flustered. Fortunately, Joe the Plumber arrives onboard the bus to bail her out:
I really have to hand it to Michele here. Wallace is attempting to stick to the interview tactics taught in most Spokesperson 101 seminars--answer the question you wish the interviewer had asked, not the real question--and Norris just will not let her get away with it.
Nicole Wallace: Well John McCain is saying that the idea of spreading the wealth--Oh! Joe the Plumber just got on the Straight Talk Express, speaking-speaking of his words and his wisdom and his economic ideas. Um, you know, he is someone who shares John McCain's belief that, as a small business owner--
Michele Norris (interrupting): I just want to bring this back to John McCain, because that's the person who is asking voters to put their faith in him, to send him to the White House. And again, that question, in listening to that interview, a voter could come to the conclusion that John McCain is saying something that he doesn't really believe.
Wallace responds to Norris's follow-up with this little scenario, illustrating I suppose what her perception of a socialist economy is like:
Nicole Wallace: John McCain believes that spreading the wealth is something that Barack Obama's tax policies have in common with socialism, that the idea of taking from others--listen, you go into a restaurant and instead of leaving a tip, you stiff the waitress and you give it to the homeless person outside. It is a noble thing to do; it is spreading money earned by that waitress and giving it to someone outside. We're not passing judgment on whether that is what the American people will ultimately decide on. We're just calling it what it is. It is taking from some, taking the success that some have realized and their piece of the American dream and redistributing it to others.
The interview concludes here, but I wanted to address what Wallace said about stiffing the waitress on a tip.
Like many other service industries, wait staff receive tips based on their performance. As a former TGI Friday's waitress, I can say with absolute honesty that I have been stiffed by customers whom I provided five-star service to, and tipped generously by customers whose orders I mixed up and whose drinks I forgot to refill. I personally have only withheld tips twice in my life: once when my friend and I were the only table a waitress had and she spent our entire meal (which took her an hour to bring) flirting with the bartender and smoking outside (which she did standing right in front of the window beside our table) and when a cab driver took me on a 45-minute circumnavigation tour of the island of Manhattan in lieu of the eight straight blocks he should've taken, but he said "traffic on 5th was bad"... at 2:30 a.m. On a Sunday.
I may not have given the tip withheld from the tricky cabbie or the smokestack waitress to a homeless person, but I probably spent that money on something else... lunch, a magazine, train fare. That's not redistributing THEIR wealth or their "piece of the American dream," to quote Wallace. It's allocating MY wealth in a different way. Hardly socialism. In fact, in a truly socialist society, no industry would operate on a tip-based system.
A word of advice: if you're going to call someone a socialist, you had better make certain you understand what one is prior to a national media appearance. It simply makes a person look desperate.
Major kudos to Michele Norris and the fine team at "All Things Considered." That five minute interview more than paid back my five years of monthly donations to NPR.
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