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He Hugged Me Too; Are Dems Cannibalizing Their Own Candidates?; Biden Jokes About Accusations Two Days After Attempted Apology; Sen. Chris Murphy, D-CT, Interviewed Regarding Should NCAA Pay College Athletes; Former Division I Player: Don't Pay College Athletes; University of Kansas Offers "Angry White Male Studies" Class; JFK And America's Race To The Moon. Aired 9-10a ET

Aired April 06, 2019 - 09:00   ET


CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR, NEW DAY WEEKEND: We will be right back here in these seats in one hour. We'll see you then as well.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN HOST, SMERCONISH: I'm Michael Smerconish in Philadelphia. He hugged me too. October 28, 2016 I'd flown to St. Louis to interview Joe Biden on the campaign trail in the waning days of the Trump-Clinton race. Several things were memorable. The then VP had just made news saying that if he and Trump were in high school, he'd take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of them.

And the FBI had just announced new Clinton server evidence found while investigating Anthony Weiner for sexting a 15 year old girl. Biden made news when he said this.


JOE BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Oh god, Anthony Weiner. I should not comment on Anthony Weiner. I'm not a big fan.


SMERCONISH: Something else that stands out, when we first saw one another before the cameras rolled, we embraced. I don't know which of us initiated, probably him because I'm not usually the huggy type. Even so it seemed natural despite the fact that I'm not particularly close to Joe Biden. Our paths have crossed several times over the years and even though he's from Delaware and I'm from Pennsylvania, I've always thought of him as a Philly guy. That doesn't mean I haven't criticized him when I thought it appropriate.

I know what some of you are thinking -- yes, but you're a man. And that's true and I don't seek to minimize the feelings of women who believed he was too close for their comfort. If they think it, then he was. I only wish to suggest that this is how he is with men and women and with Biden, there's nothing hidden nor perian (ph) about it.

In his half century of public service, he's touched literally tens of thousands of men and women. In all that time, there's been not a whiff of personal scandal about him. Joe Biden's deficiencies don't include the lack of moral compass. Take a look at this picture. It's not staged. My radio producer, T.C., took it on an iPhone when we were in the midst of conversation, close talking, knee to knee, like a barroom dialogue. That's the way he is. When the interview ended, I returned my producer's favor. That's her with him. Note the same closeness.

Look, there are reasons not to support Joe Biden for president, but his tactile nature isn't one of them. As always, I want to know what you think. Go to my website at Answer this survey question. Is anything that has recently emerged about Joe Biden disqualifying for a presidential run?

Joining me now to discuss, "New York Times" columnist Frank Bruni who wrote this piece, "Mayor Pete is plenty gay and Democrats better not eat their own." Frank, you said that Joe Biden should not run for president, not because of the recent allegations. I wonder if anything that's transpired in the last few days has changed your view.

FRANK BRUNI, OPINION COLUMNIST, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I mean, the allegations that Lucy Flores and other women levied, I don't think those are nullifying for all the reasons you stated so eloquently in your intro right there. The one thing that gives me pause in addition to the things that have always given me pause, it was Joe Biden's appearance before union workers on Friday.

I'm not sure what he thought was gained by making jokes about the allegations against him. It's one thing to say, I'm not going to apologize for something that had no ill intent. I'm not going to apologize for a kind of behavior that, for many decades, no one questioned and that doesn't come with, as you said, other kinds of personal scandal. It still doesn't mean he should make light of it and it made me wonder how this is going to play out if he is going to sort of act somewhat almost resentful that he went through it.

Now, the media has put him through a feeding frenzy that I think, you know, we do a disservice to ourselves and we do a disservice to the nominating process, but it still is not a good strategic idea for Joe Biden to make light of this.

SMERCONISH: I'm so glad you brought this up because there was something about that moment that occurred to me. Let's roll the tape and then we'll talk more.


BIDEN: I just want you to know I had permission to hug Lonnie. I mean, I had permission (ph). I don't know, man.


SMERCONISH: Frank, those union workers roared in approval and to me, I wondered if that was a reflection of them thinking saying, hey, enough already with the Democratic apology tour.

BRUNI: Yes. I think it was and it also needs to be said that audience, I think, was mostly white, mostly male and that factors in that. But yes, I think people are saying, and I got a lot of this reaction when I wrote what I did, you know, let's vet candidates, but let's not cannibalize them. Let's not hold human beings to a standard of perfection that's unattainable.

[09:05:04] Let's not forget that some people grew up in a culture of 40 or 30 or 20 years ago that was quite different and let's not lose track of human messiness, which everyone has. I think in that applause you heard people saying all of that.

It still doesn't mean it's a great idea strategically or in terms of sensitivity for Joe Biden to say what he said. There are women out there who were put off by his behavior, who felt it was inappropriate and even demeaning. We need to be respectful of their feelings and there's a way for him to do that without going on an apology tour, but on the flip side, without making light of what they've said about him.

SMERCONISH: Here's part of what you said in your recent column, "How do Democrats properly vet their candidates for president without cannibalizing them? How do they rightly insist on sensitive and inclusive leaders while making allowances for past mistakes, present quirks, human messiness and the differences in the conversation and the culture now versus 10 or 20 or 40 years ago? That's emerging as a central challenge of the Democratic presidential primary and it's worrying me."

And you were very Pete Buttigieg focused in terms of what you said because there was actually an opinion piece that questioned whether he's gay enough, which made Frank Bruni wonder is Kamala Harris black enough? I mean, where does it end, right?

BRUNI: Well, I mean, it has to end because on the Republican side of the aisle, you have a person, Donald Trump, who is forgiven for everything, who makes apologies for nothing. I mean, the amount of slack the Republicans have granted him is, quite frankly, morally unconscionable.

But if the Democrats in the meantime are losing all sight of the line between a job interview and an inquisition, it is not going to play out well in terms of the most important business at hand, which is making sure Donald Trump is a one-term president. And I think right now Democrats are wrestling with this. I think on the far left, sometimes you have people who are -- who are staging complaints that are outside the realm of reality.

Some of what's going on, Michael, that we haven't talked about that I think we need to recognize is a lot of this is fanned by rival campaigns. You don't see it out in the open, but when people are asking questions about a Pete Buttigieg or a Kamala Harris or for that matter a Bernie Sanders, often a lot of this is being pushed by their competitors in what is a crowded and an incredibly, incredibly intense primary in the making.

SMERCONISH: Well, and to circle back to where we began, relative to Joe Biden, some of the women who have come forward are in fact aligned with presidential candidates not named Biden already. BRUNI: That is correct. Lucy Flores was a -- was a Bernie Sanders supporter in the past. Apparently she was at Beto's announcement rally. Now, that doesn't mean everything she said didn't come from the heart and that her real concern was making sure that Joe Biden changes behavior going forward, but these are data points or pieces of information you have to integrate into your analysis of what's going on.

SMERCONISH: Look, I said at the outset if they perceived him as being too close, then he was.


SMERCONISH: And he needs to learn from that, but I too do not believe it should be a disqualifier. Frank Bruni, thanks so much for coming back.

BRUNI: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: Joining me now to discuss, Margaret Carlson, columnist for "The Daily Beast" who wrote this piece, "Don't give Joe Biden the Al Franken treatment, Democrats," and Emily Yoffe who wrote this for "Politico," "Joe Biden created the culture he's a target of." Emily, explain that to me. How did -- how did he create this culture?

EMILY YOFFE, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, THE ATLANTIC: Well, Michael, as you said, let's give people the benefit of the doubt and look at their intent. But Joe Biden was the point man for a multi-year effort by the Obama administration to end sexual assault on campus, a very worthy goal, and as he repeatedly said, "Change the culture between men and women on campus and beyond."

Well, it succeeded and now he's being bitten by his own success because all the things that you and Frank Bruni were just saying about not being hypersensitive about understanding someone is not meaning to harm go out the window on campus. There are young men who have had their education ended for unwanted kisses, for the kind of behavior Joe Biden is engaged in and I wish Joe Biden, in addition to examining how he touches women, would look at what's happened on campus and how he has helped create this world that is too hypersensitive.

SMERCONISH: Margaret Carlson, I feel like I should say Margaret Carlson because, man, did I love that show.


SMERCONISH: You'd say we're all -- we're all Bidens now, right? We all greet people in a very touchy-feely way and you explore where that came from in your recent writing.

CARLSON: Right. I mean, I agree with your opening which is hug if you haven't -- I mean, honk if you haven't been hugged by Joe Biden. It's not predatory. It's not treacherous. There's no -- there's no idea that that's -- that it's going to be sexual in any way. It's not a MeToo moment, but it comes from the MeToo movement and Joe Biden is going to have to adjust to that. [09:10:01] But you have to multiply by 10 how we all behave in our lives now. I mean, strangers hug me at the end of an evening. So you've got to expect this. Politics is a contact sport. And Emily makes such a good point. Her writing on campus sexual assault hearings has been brilliant and the only thing I would credit the Department of Education under Betsy DeVos with is taking a look at those standards and how to get a fairer hearing.

Not that they've reached that moment of perfection, but nonetheless all movements, I think, Michael, they -- the pendulum swings too far and you have to pull it back and find some good space, but certainly looking at it is a good idea.

And Joe Biden made a really rookie mistake yesterday which is you can't play to the room. You have to play to the country. That that was a friendly audience, but it was going to be seen by everyone and to make light of this is not -- we're taking it too seriously. Like there are people that would like to drum him out of the presidential race without one person casting a vote in the primaries, but everybody saw that and they saw him making something too light of something that some people take seriously.

SMERCONISH: I want to talk about the political significance of this through the eyes of the president, a piece of video from Donald Trump. Roll it.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was going to call him. I don't know him well. I was going to say welcome to the world, Joe. You having a good time, Joe? I said general, come here, give me a kiss. I felt like Joe Biden.

BIDEN: I hug people. I grab men and women by the shoulders and say, "You can do this."


SMERCONISH: This is the meme that the president retweeted as well. Emily Yoffe, has this issue now been neutralized, meaning all those who have alleged improprieties on the part of the President, if in fact it's Joe Biden who's his opponent?

TOFFE: No, I don't think so. The President, as you saw there, comes out swinging and says these women are liars. Joe Biden isn't doing that and can't do that, but as I've said, it's hard to put away an issue that he helped create.

He helped create, on campus and beyond, this idea that it doesn't matter what someone's intent is in touching you or hugging you. It matters what your subjective reaction is and now we're hearing from streams of young women he has comforted, hugged, saying, you know, that hug went on too long, that handhold went on too long and some of it seems obviously trivial, even silly, but young women on campus were empowered to go report any behavior that made them uncomfortable. Margaret points out that one of the few things we can get behind are the efforts to make campus procedures fairer, but Joe Biden has vehemently opposed this. He has never acknowledged that the due process rights of young men on campus have sometimes been completely ignored, even as he's saying, my intent is good, so I don't have to apologize.

SMERCONISH: Margaret, a quick final thought from you as to how this shapes up in the fall if it's the two of them left standing.

CARLSON: Well, Trump just showed a complete lack of self-awareness or a conscience by taking on Joe Biden when he is far more guilty of offenses against women and never acknowledges, never comes close to an explanation or asking for any type of forgiveness.

If it's the two of them, it's going to be two very old white men. So it kind of, you know, eliminates this thing that time has passed Joe Biden by because certainly they're both in their 70s and they're both out of touch and only -- but only Trump is the one who's got the Access Hollywood tape and 20 women who have made serious Me Too complaints.

SMERCONISH: Emily, Margaret, thank you so much. that was excellent.

CARLSON: Thanks, Michael.

YOFFE: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: What are your thoughts? Tweet me @Smerconish. Go to my Facebook page. I'll read some responses in real-time during the course of the program. What do we have, Catherine? From Facebook, "Democrats have become cannibals devouring their own, finding fault. You won't find a perfect candidate to beat Trump not," -- nor, I think it should be, "Nor do you need one."

Christopher, that's exactly Frank Bruni's point in the column that he wrote and that I was referring to. I guess the issue is who could withstand that level of scrutiny? You know, who among us could undergo that level of scrutiny and still be standing after the primary and caucus process? Remember, I want to know what you think. Go to my website at Answer today's survey question.

[09:15:01] Is anything that has recently emerged about Joe Biden disqualifying for a presidential run?

Up ahead, a new course at the University of Kansas is being given on angry white male studies and causing controversy. Is there a problem here?

And it's show time for the final four, but Senator Chris Murphy is lobbying to change one aspect of the madness, the fact that these players don't get paid. He says it's time Congress get involved. The Senator and a former D1 player who disagrees join us after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) SMERCONISH: This weekend, the thrilling climax of NCAA March Madness, but my next guest wants to permanently end one aspect of the madness, the fact that the players aren't getting paid. Tonight, the final four face off, Texas Tech versus Michigan State, Auburn versus Virginia.

Monday, the new champion will be crowned, but on the first day of Sweet 16, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut released a report called, "Madness Inc., how everyone is getting rich off college sports except the players." Murphy points out the contradictions of what he calls the college sports industrial complex.

[09:20:00] The NCAA tournament is one of the most viewed sporting events in the world with more than 100 million viewers. There are 97 corporate sponsors. It earns more than $1 billion a year in media revenue. As the report points out, that's nearly as much as the entire NFL playoffs including the Super Bowl.

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut joins me now. Senator, we have something in common and that is that in high school, we were both the guy who ran the pool.


SMERCONISH: Mine was for amusement purposes only.

MURPHY: So was mine. Yes. But so was mine. No money involved in my high school pool. Scout's honor.

SMERCONISH: So why is a free education not enough?

MURPHY: Well, because a free education represents 12 percent of the money that, for instance, Power Five schools are taking in in revenues for college sports. This is now a $14 billion industry and that's just the money that's coming to the universities. You add on top of that billions more that are being made by the shoe companies, the apparel companies, the TV networks.

And to tell students they should just be happy with 12 percent of the pie when they are responsible for all of the eyeballs that are watching the NCAA tournament and the college football playoffs to me is a civil rights issue and they deserve to have more of the return that comes from their labor.

So the NCAA needs to understand the fundamental inequity of making all sorts of adults rich off of the labors of these kids who are told that the scholarship is enough, especially when, frankly, many of these kids are not getting the academic experience that I got in college or that someone with an academic scholarship gets. They are being commanded to spend a lion's share of their time getting ready and organizing their lives for and around college sports. They deserve to get more than they're getting.

SMERCONISH: A civil rights issue for racial reasons, for labor reasons or both?

MURPHY: Both. I think when you have these kids acting as essentially employees because of the amount of revenue they are generating for all sorts of adults around them, you have an employment rights issue. But you can't hide from the fact that the majority of the athletes that are playing the big-time college sports, football and basketball, are African American and almost none of the adults who are making money off of them, the coaches, the ADs, the CEOs of the big athletic companies, are African American.

When you have a whole bunch of adults who are white making money off of the free labor of a whole bunch of young people who are largely African American that has to be part of why we consider this a civil rights issue.

SMERCONISH: I know from reading the report, "Madness Inc.," that the Zion Williamson episode was a break point for you. Explain why.

MURPHY: So Zion'S shoe comes undone and the next day, the market value of Nike tanks by $1 billion. The idea that an amateur athlete could have that much impact on a private company speaks to me as to how fundamentally broken the system is. Now, it turns out that it seems as if Williamson had a insurance plan. So maybe he would have gotten some compensation had he been so permanently injured that he couldn't continue to play basketball, but he would have never seen a paycheck based upon his athletic endeavors.

And yet everybody around him, Duke, the NCAA, the shoe companies that outfit him, all made money off of his labors and had he gotten injured, he would have never seen a paycheck as a -- as a professional athlete. That seems -- that seemed, to me, the epitome of what's wrong with this arrangement.

SMERCONISH: My recollection is the same of yours that there was an $8 million insurance policy in that case. How would it work? I don't know if you've thought this through entirely, but would there be a pool in which everyone would share? Would Zion Williamson be able to benefit even more so than his teammates because he's the one with marquee value?

MURPHY: I don't think the burden is on me to figure out that system. I want the NCAA to at least try to put some options on the table as to how you would create the lines as to who gets paid and how much and who doesn't get paid. The fact of the matter is the existing system is super convoluted that allows for coaches to make millions of dollars. that tells the students who they can and can't work for during the summers. So the new system would certainly be confusing as well, but it wouldn't be as unjust as the existing system is.

There's a proposal out there to let students make money off the sale of their likenesses, whether it be in video games or the sale of their jerseys. That certainly makes sense to me, but that, to me, was just a start.

SMERCONISH: I know that basketball is taken very seriously in your state for both men and for women, yet I'm reminded of my friend Senator Arlen Specter, as an Eagles fan, when he took up the issue of the Patriots cheating and some said, don't you have better things to do? [09:25:07] I'm sure you'll hear some of those critics. What do you say to them?

MURPHY: Yes. You know, I can walk and chew gum at the same time. You know, I spend far more of my time working on matters of war and peace and trying to fix our broken health care system, but I do think this is a civil rights issue. I do think it's emblematic of bigger problems we have in society where a small group of money to elites (ph) are taking advantage of the labor of a set of individuals who don't have as much political power.

And so I do think this speaks to broader political realities in our country today and as one of the youngest members of the United States Congress, as somebody who cares deeply about college sports, if I'm not willing to speak up for these athletes -- and, by the way, we're talking about thousands and thousands of athletes -- I'm not sure who is.

SMERCONISH: A final question. Of all the data that's in "Madness Inc.," what most jumped off the page at you? For me, it was the sports facilities, what's going on at Clemson and in other locales.

MURPHY: Yes. Remember, this is going to be the new normal. Clemson has a miniature golf course, a recording studio for their athletes. These schools are now creating these teen fantasy camps to try to recruit athletes and UConn will have that kind of facility soon as well.

Now, Clemson has a big enough athletic program that they can probably pay for it with the revenues from ticket sales, but UConn can't, neither can a lot -- than most -- neither can most NCAA schools and so you're going to have tax payers putting up money for these facilities which are going to become standard issue on college campuses and I think it's better for all of us to get ahead of it now before tax payers are asked to fit the bill -- foot the bill for something that really has almost nothing to do with either the academic or athletic mission of these schools.

SMERCONISH: For amusement purposes only, do you have a victor Monday night?

MURPHY: Well, I picked Michigan State. So they're the only one remaining in my pool and if they win, I have a small chance of winning it. So I'm all for the Spartans.

SMERCONISH: Senator Chris Murphy, thank you very much.

MURPHY: Thanks.

SMERCONISH: My next guest says that paying students is wrong and he's got some pretty credible credentials of his own. Cody McDavis played D1 basketball for the University of Northern Colorado from 2012 to 2015. He's joining me now from Minneapolis where he's attending the Final Four. He's currently a student at the UCLA Law School where he's the Managing Editor of "Law Review" and he wrote this piece for "The New York Times," "Paying students to play would ruin college sports." By the way, Cody, I'm far more impressed -- I'm not taking away anything from your game, but I am, as a lawyer, far more impressed that you are the Managing Editor of "Law Review." So well done.


SMERCONISH: Did you hear anything form Senator Murphy -- sure. And did Senator Murphy turn your head at all or are you still of that mindset that paying athletes would be a mistake?

MCDAVIS: Look, I respect what the Senator is saying, I think he's coming from a good place, but as a former Division I student athlete who's been through it, who has studied the issues surrounding this matter for the majority of the past decade, I respectfully disagree.

SMERCONISH: How come? Make your case.

MCDAVIS: So I think that what gets lost in this whole issue is that we're talking about men's basketball and football and moreover, we're talking about men's basketball and football at a select number of universities. The Clemsons, the UConns, the Alabamas, those are the universities that the Senator is speaking of, but he even mentioned that UConn can't afford the facilities that Clemson can and if UConn can't do it, then the smaller universities like myself, Northern Colorado or other small schools, they can't either.

And so the problem that arises is that paying men's basketball student-athletes and football student-athletes is a cost to any institution and where are they going to get this money from? What happens is they end up cutting other sports to make this money arise. Men's basketball and football student-athletes, they are participating in a sport that is a revenue generating sport generally.

Other sports -- no other sport generates revenue and so you have to find a way to pay these student athletes and you're going to pay your men's basketball and your football student-athletes and other student- athletes are going to lose opportunities because of it. In the long run, I see that as a huge problem.

SMERCONISH: Are the athletes themselves happy with the current arrangement? I mean, the Senator points out that $14 billion comes in annually and $2.9 billion ends up in scholarship monies. How do the athletes feel about this? Do you think that you speak for many?

MCDAVIS: I do. I do believe that I speak for many. I've been contacted by many, many current and former Division I student-athletes across the country since my op-ed and well before then. I'm well connected across the country just by the benefit of being a former student athlete and speaking on this issue.


Specifically, there's a student athlete at the University of Idaho who reached out to me and mentioned that after 2015, there was this issue with cost attendance stipends that came out. These are cash stipends that are going to student athletes for their cost of living at a given university.

And what she saw on her soccer team that had just won back-to-back championships was that her president informed her that her team was very likely going to be cut, unless she spoke up about it, or unless her team advocated for their remaining part of the university because they chose to give cost attendance stipends to their men's basketball and football student athletes. These -- these pressures that are created by the universities that have a lot of finances again, the Auburns, the Clemsons, the Alabamas who can give these kind of incentives to their student athletes, it trickles down and it causes pressure on other universities to do the same thing for their football and their men's basketball student athletes. And that causes great losses for other student athletes in other sports that this country does not give great attention to, they are giving their blood, sweat and tears to those same sports.

And I think that they deserve the respect and the opportunity to get an education at the university that they chose. And moreover to play the sport at the university they chose. We do not talk about them enough.

SMERCONISH: I take it, you're going to be a trial lawyer?

MCDAVIS: Actually, I'm going to be doing transactional work. I'll be doing documents and contract drafting.

SMERCONISH: Mistake. Get out of the back room and into the courthouse, my friend. OK. You've got the gift. Thank you for being here.

MCDAVIS: Michael, thanks for having me.

SMERCONISH: That's Cody McDavis.

Let's see what you're all saying on my Smerconish Twitter and Facebook pages. What do we have?

Smerconish college athletes are already paid with a discounted or free education. That athletes find no value in that payment does not negate it. There are plenty of avenues for them to pursue professional status if money is all they care about.

Amy, you just heard from an athlete who says he doesn't want to be paid, he doesn't think that they should be paid in that regard. So I don't want to imply that they're all looking for money because candidly thus far, they don't appear to be. But I'll say this, I think that Senator Murphy has put in play an imbalance. I mean, $14 billion coming in and only $2.9 billion going into those scholarships.

Meanwhile, they're all building Disneylands for the students. I think something's got to change. And if it's not paying the students directly, some reapportionment of those moneys is in order. Just my two cents.

Up ahead, a new course at the University of Kansas plans to explore the rise of the angry white male in America and Britain since the 1950s. Why is it making people so angry?

And why was it so important to President Kennedy to have America win the race to put a man on the moon? What led to this historic moment 50 years ago this summer when Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar module? Historian Douglas Brinkley is on the deck circle.


NEIL ARMSTRONG, ASTRONAUT: That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.




SMERCONISH: Angry, white and male. The University of Kansas is offering a class on the study of just that.

According to the class description, this course charts the rise of the angry white male in America and Britain since the 1950s, exploring the deeper sources of this emotional state while evaluating recent manifestations of male anger. It does have a prerequisite titled "Women, Gender and Equality, and Sexuality Studies" although students can get a written exception for the requirement. And as you can imagine there's some heated views about the class.

Kansas Congressman Ron Estes has already slammed tweeting, "Instead of a course to unite people and empower women, KU has decided to offer a class that divides the student population and could pose a Title IX violation by creating a hostile campus environment based on gender."

The course is being taught by Christopher Forth himself a white guy. His bio states -- quote -- "As a cultural historian I am especially interested in how gender, sexuality, the body and the senses are intertwined in a variety of social and cultural locations." His "current project is a cultural history of fat in the West."

It sounds like professor's research cuts across party, gender and size, lines, no word as to whether he himself is angry.

Let's check in on your tweets and Facebook comments. Let's see what's going on.

Smerconish, watching white males get so angry about a class focused on angry white males is an absolute hoot.

Grant, I think there's some truth in what you say.

I want to remind you to make sure you're answering the survey question at Is anything that has recently emerged about Joe Biden disqualifying for a presidential run?

Up next, 50 years ago this summer Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to set foot on the moon. Why was the quest so important to America and to the late President John F. Kennedy?

I'll ask legendary historian Douglas Brinkley.


JOHN F. KENNEDY, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We chose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.




SMERCONISH: Fifty years ago, this summer, America realized the seemingly impossible dream of its late president John F. Kennedy. July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar module and became the first man to walk on the moon.

Back when Kennedy was inaugurated January of 1961, America seems like it might lose the space race to its cold war rival the Soviet Union. On April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. It was followed on May the 5th by the first American Alan Shepard in a Mercury spacecraft known as Freedom 7.

A few weeks later, May 25, Kennedy delivered this stirring message to Congress --


KENNEDY: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.


SMERCONISH: Why was this goal so important to the president and how was it realized? Joining me now is Douglas Brinkley, one of America's premier historians. His new book, "American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy And The Great Space Race."

Douglas, let's begin with that snippet from the president's speech. You point out that President Kennedy in the limo back to the White House, he thought he'd blown it?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Yes, that's right. He just didn't get the kind of rousing applause he thought he would get from the Washington lawmakers.


He told Ted Sorensen, his chief speechwriter and counselor, God, I blew it. This is bad. I thought this was a big deal and nobody responded. But alas the next day, the newspaper reports were good and they found the money was there. All these congressmen and senators said, yes, we'll fund Jack Kennedy's pledge to the moon. So over the summer of '61, NASA found the money they needed to get the Apollo program going to the moon up and running.

SMERCONISH: You set out to uncover the president's motivation. What conclusion did you reach?

BRINKLEY: Kennedy as you mentioned doesn't -- we were losing and Kennedy hated losing, Michael. He never lost an election. He won Congress in 1952 -- in 1950 -- I mean, he won the Senate in 1952. And the Senate again in '58. Never lost for Congress. And in 1960, he had beat Nixon.

And on one of the Nixon/Kennedy debates, Kennedy said if you're elected I see a soviet flag on the moon. I want an American flag on the moon. But lo and behold, on his watch Gagarin went up and Kennedy wasn't going to lose.

We had already lost to the Soviets with Sputnik satellite in 1957. Now Russia was beating us (INAUDIBLE) space. So Kennedy saw it as a cold war imperative to be first in space. But to sell it as basically a science education -- and one of the things I write about in the book that all these technology corridors were developed in places like Huntsville, Alabama, San Antonio, Houston, Texas, and Jacksonville, Florida, Langley, Virginia. On and on.

NASA gave job and it helped Kennedy show that he was holding and cared about the south in an age of civil rights angst going on while Jim Crow was being dismantled.

SMERCONISH: Gagarin, Shepard, Armstrong, there are a lot of firsts in Douglas Brinkley's new book. Which is the one that you kind of put on a pedestal?

BRINKLEY: Neil Armstrong, Michael, because I grew up in Ohio in a little town called Perrysburg not that far from Wapakoneta. And I was nine years old when we landed on the moon and it enthralled me.

I was collecting NASA memorabilia and information on all the astronauts as if they were baseball players and I was trading cards. And alas I got to interview Neil Armstrong. I was asked to do the official oral history interview.

Got to speak to Armstrong for hours at NASA. And it was just a dream come true for me. Because he was everything I thought he could or should be.

He was an engineer at heart, he had graduated from Purdue University, and he believed that we had to win Jack Kennedy's mission. In fact when Armstrong recovered along with Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin and President Nixon can call Apollo 11 a success. On the board at mission control in Houston, they put Kennedy's May 25th '61 pledge and then task accomplished in big letters underneath it, our country fulfilled Jack Kennedy's dream even though he wasn't alive. SMERCONISH: You're very proud and understandably so of your affiliation with Rice. Let me show that clip and I want to ask you a Rice-centric question. Roll it.


KENNEDY: We chose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.


SMERCONISH: Words uttered just across from where you now teach students. And in the book, you explained that you tell your students that when it was time for Armstrong and Aldrin to leave the moon, they left behind mementos. What did they leave?

BRINKLEY: They left a little packet. And in them were kind of a peace medal but also a memorial medals for Soviet cosmonauts who had died in the Russian space program. Meaning the people, our astronauts were competing against.

Also, Russia -- parts of Russia's program are left on the moon by American astronauts. It was a great moment of healing between the United States and Soviet Union. And it propped (ph) on all the -- the soviet papers were celebrating that America had actually won. They didn't mean it.

Today, the majority of Russian school kids are taught that Neil Armstrong's walk was a hoax, that it was done in a studio. But NASA had the vision to try to claim that we went back to the moon for all of mankind, including Russia. And we couldn't have gone to the moon without our adversary because it was beating Russia that spurred the $25 billion of congressional appropriations that took to be first on the moon.

SMERCONISH: The book is tremendous. I thought I knew the story. I didn't. Thank you, Douglas.

BRINKLEY: Thank you, so much. Appreciate it.

Still to come, your best and worst tweets and Facebook comments. And the final result of the survey question. Have you voted yet

Here it is, Is anything that has recently emerged about Joe Biden disqualifying for a presidential run?



SMERCONISH: Time to see how you responded to the survey question at Is anything that has recently emerged about Joe Biden disqualifying for a presidential run?

Survey says 11,258 votes cast and counting, 95 percent say no, 5 percent say yes. I think there's a 5 percent margin of error.

Some of what you thought during the course of the program, what do we have, Katherine (ph)?

Smerconish, while the left chases its tail the right is laughing all the way to Election Day.

What's the expression, Joe? Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is what I think some of these are doing.


What else do we have?

Joe Biden -- based on your current president, is anything disqualifying?

Christopher, it's an excellent point, right? If you want to play the what aboutism.

One more if I've got time and I think I do.

As a former D 1 two-sport athlete I heard thousands cheering my name on Saturday afternoon, my school made millions but on Monday night I couldn't afford pizza. At a minimum a stipend helps.

I think Chris Murphy taking nothing away from Cody made a great case here, 14 bill (ph) -- and they gave up 2.9 in scholarship it's not enough.

Join me for my American Life In Columns tour tomorrow, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, New York City, then Atlanta and then Nashville, Tennessee. See you next week.