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tv   Tavis Smiley  PBS  December 8, 2010 12:00am-12:30am PST

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>> good evening, from los angeles, i'm tavis smiley. first up tonight, a conversation with noah feldman, the latest book from the harvard professor is a look at the larger-than-life supreme court justices of the f.d.r. era. the new book, "scorpions," was named one of the best of the year by the "new york times." and one of music's fastest rising stars, keri hilson, is here. the agreement nominated singer is out with her follow-up to her first c.d. noah feldman and keri hilson coming up right now. >> all i know is his name is james and he needs extra help with his reading. >> i'm james. >> yes.
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>> to everyone making a difference -- >> thank you. >> you help us all live better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley. with every question and every answer, nationwide insurance is proud to join tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is our your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] tavis: noah feldman is a professor of law at harvard who was named by "esquire" magazine as one of the 75 influential figures for the 21st century. he's also a noted author whose new text is called "scorpions,
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the battles and triumphs of f.d.r.'s great supreme court justices." we were talking about the fact that many presidents get supreme court picks but this guy, f.d.r. >> he had nine of them. he ran the whole table. first term he didn't get any and he was furious because the supreme court at the time was blocking all the big new deal programs he put into place so he threatened to pack the court, got into a huge fight with congress over it, beat back in court. they had a switch in time where one justice flipped from one side to the other. and when he started picking, he got on a roll. tavis: tell me about these four. we'll talk about them individually. tell me why, of all the nine that he had, the nine choices he had, nine vacancies, why these four guys? >> they were all self-made men either from poverty or from this side of it, they had huge egos, huge personalities and they
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wanted to be great men and great justices and they were and they also had great flaws. they started as buddies, allies of roosevelt and by the time had passed, they became enemies. >> sounds like the court was in flex, for lack of a better word. >> it absolutely was. it had gone from being a conservative court before roosevelt to becoming a more liberal court but the main issues the justices had dealt with in first part of their careers was economic issues because of the depression. then came world war ii and the civil rights movement and the cold war and there were new issues to deal with, civil rights and civil liberties, that drove them into different directions. tavis: one thing that hit me when i started reading your book was how unabashed f.d.r. was about saying he wanted to liberalize the court.
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you couldn't walk around these days literally saying, i want to make the court more conservative, i want to make the court more liberal. you do that now as candidate for president, you're toast. >> that's absolutely right. he said it flat out, i want liberal justices who will uphold my policies and i'll pick people who will give that to me and the people he picked had made their reputations by saying corporations do not have rights, people have rights, we'll stand up to the corporations. tavis: you mentioned that all these guys were characters and all had personalities and to my mind, at least, with all due respect, to the supreme court justices now, whom i hope to never appear in front of, they seem to be lacking personality. maybe soda mior may have spunk. but the other eight don't seem to be full of personality. >> to get on the supreme court today you cannot have made any mistakes in your public life at
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any moment from the time you went to college to the time you go on the supreme court in your 50s. in other words, boring! 30 years of keeping your cards close to your vest so you have to be able to control yourself and avoid controversy. otherwise, you will have no chance of being confirmed. tavis: the american public loses in that process? gains? or it's a draw? >> i think we lose and i think we lose a lot because we have serious problems confronting our country nowadays and if you want great people who will try to change things, you want those that can take risks and if you take risks, sometimes you make mistakes, sometimes you're too ambitious. i think we need flawed people, not because being flawed is inherently good, but because great men and women are often flawed people so we shouldn't have a system that says, if you show any flaw, you're finished for higher office. tavis: back to the point, f.d.r.
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with nine picks to the supreme court and these four stand out to you. we'll let you explain why. felix frankfurt. >> born in europe, came to the united states at age 12 without a word of english. first in his class to law school, adviser to teddy roosevelt and franklin roosevelt and tremendously controversial as the biggest liberal in the country because he defended two italian anarchists. he believed they were innocent and put his whole reputation on the line to defend them. it's hard to imagine something like that happening today where a well-known figure would defend two men who knew terrorists. >> f.d.r. chose him why? >> he was the leading intellectual figure. he said we should have judicial restraint. at the time, it was a liberal view because the supreme court
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was inventing rights for corporations and he said if the court holds back from finding new rights, that will serve progressive and liberal values and that was his project and belief. tavis: how might he have voted on the recent decision about campaign spending from corporations? >> he certainly would have held back and not allowed the supreme court to strike down the law. what's interesting, though, as other liberals joined the court, they started saying, we can be activists, we have five votes and frankfurt would say, absolutely not. as a result of that, he started to seem conservative and ended his career as an influential conservative on the court because he didn't want to expand anyone's rights, not individual rights and not corporate rights. >> tavis: hugo black? >> hugo black, in alabama, relatively poor family, successful lawyer. wanted to be in the senate. how do you get state-wide organization at the time, you
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join the kkk and he did that. his specialty was anti-catholic speeches. the klan hated catholics and jews and especially with anti-catholic speech, it got him into the united states senate. he sent a quasi resignation letter to be kept secret to the grand dragon that he signed "in the sacred unfailing bond, hugo black." and when roosevelt nominated him to the supreme court, it was a fast confirmation process without vetting. he was a senator and they like each other over there. they still do. as a result of that, the fact that he'd been a klan member did not come out for another two weeks and when it did, you know, all hell broke loose. people were outraged, understandably, and he had to go on the radio and he made a speech, did not apologize for being a klan member and said some of my best friends of jews and catholics, some of my friends are black. the public said, okay, i guess you're not a klan member anymore
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and the poll numbers changed a little. white protestants seemed to think he was okay. amazingly, later in his career when brown versus the board of education came before the supreme court, he had a chance to redeem himself and he did. in a private secret conference of the justices, the other justices from the segregated south, all white men, they flatly said we will not overturn segregation, we don't want opposition. and black said, the constitution, as originally interpreted, requires us to strike down segregation although there will be massive resistance and i think he was trying to redeem himself from the shame of having been a klan member and to some extent, maybe he did redeem himself in that moment. >> tavis: i'm having a hard time believing that f.d.r. did not know about his klan past even though everybody else seemed not to. >> it was an open secret to anyone who understood southern
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politics and i think if they had looked, they would have found it. he got together with f.d.r. afterwards and f.d.r. patted him on the back and said, don't worry about it, hugo, some of my best friends are klan members. i think f.d.r. thought it was kind of funny. it showed you the world of politics where they were willing to say, it's part of the game. he never came to terms with it over the course of his career and he was asked by law clerks why did you do that and he would explain it away like it was the same thing as joining the rotary club. tavis: what would happen now, contemporarily, what would be the options if the supreme court -- if the senate were to have confirmed someone for the supreme court, say that obama nominated and we found out after they were confirmed that they had been a member of the klan or something scary or worse, what would the recourse for the american people be since they are lifetime appointees? >> not much. so today, if the person had been
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asked about that and lied about it under oath, you could say it's impeachable. in those days, there was no hearing and when they asked black about it, he was cagey. he issued a nondenial denial. he said, if any senator is worried i might have been a klan member, he can vote against me. which is a way of saying, sure, i was a klan member but i'm not talking about it publicly. tavis: robert jackson. >> upstate new york lawyer, tiny town. our last supreme court justice did not graduate from law school. he went to law school for a single year and figured the way to get on to the legal professor was to apprentice. his first law cases involved horses and cows and came to washington to be the general counsel of the i.r.s. and got himself nationally known by going after andrew mellon for tax fraud. mellon was the third richest man in america and was secretary to the treasury.
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he was robert rubin and warren buffett rolled up in one and he had the best art collection in the world and when he wanted a tax wright off, he would donate the art to a foundation he controlled and the art would not move. it would stay on his walls. so he got up on the first day of the trial, he's charged with tax fraud and came up with a clever response. his lawyer, frank hogan, famously said, my famous client is a rich man thoroughly scared. so mellon announced, i'm giving all my art to the people of the united states of america and i'll throw in a building so he donated the national gallery and all his art. subsequently, he became f.d.r.'s chief legal adviser as solicitor general and attorney general. what's amazing, he got bit by the bug of ambition.
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he desperately wanted to be chief of justice. when he was offered a regular justiceship, he said, no, i don't want that, i want the chief justice. and then roosevelt died and when truman was president, he was going to give it to him but justice black who by then hated jackson blocked it. and he went ballistic and wrote a letter to every major newspaper in the country, was on the front page of every paper, declaring that black was corrupt and he decided a case secretly to benefit his law partner who had argued the case and declared war on jackson and he managed to humiliate both of them. they were both publicly embarrassed. tavis: william douglas? >> douglas, another amazing person. from true poverty in washington state when he came east to go to school, he couldn't afford train fare so he was a shepherd. he took himself several hundred sheep that were going to the
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slaughter and he was in charge of them on the train and worked his way through school, became a professor, was noticed by joe kennedy sr., the first chairman of the securities and exchange commission because roosevelt said it takes a thief to catch a thief and he got into the poker game where the power was. if you played in the poker game with roosevelt, you were on the inside. and roosevelt said, that young man plays a good game of poker, i'm putting him on the supreme court and roosevelt wanted him to be vice president and when truman was chosen, roosevelt told the party bosses, i want douglas. they said, we can't control this guy, we can control harry truman. douglas lost his chance. the other interesting thing about douglas is he wanted to be president in another decade and from the court, his first opinions seemed like political speeches but in the early 1950s, he fell off a horse and broke a lot of bones.
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frankfurt hated him so much, when people said in the court, did douglas fall off a click? where was frankfurt. he was the first justice to be divorced, then the second, then the third. each wife was younger than the one before. the last one was 22 when he was 69 and in this period of time where his life was, by our standards, pretty much a mess, he came up with a great constitutional philosophy that coordinated to his life that the constitution should be read to maximize your personal life including in marriage and reproduction. he came up with a great theory, the reasons for it you might not want to look at too closely. tavis: i think there are poker players across the country tonight whom you have given false hope to about their future. wouldn't you love to be a student in professor feldman's class at harvard. his new book is called "scorpions, the battles and
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trials of f.d.r.'s great supreme court justices." up next, grammy-nominated r&b artist, keri hilson. tavis: keri hilson has quickly become one of the bright young stars in the music business following the success of her grammy-nominated debut c.d. "in a perfect world." you can pick up a copy of her new album called "no boys allowed." some of the video from the single, president -- "pretty girl rock." ♪ rock, rock, do the pretty girl rock, rock, rock ♪ ♪ all my ladies do the pretty girl rock, rock ♪ ♪ rock, rock, all my ladies do the pretty girl ♪ ♪ sing it with me now
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♪ yeah, oh, because i'm beautiful, because i'm beautiful ♪ tavis: so we called the record label and asked for "pretty girl rock" because the video that all the guys voted that we should play is not the one we could play. you know the video of which i speak? >> yes. tavis: "the way you love me." we couldn't play that with sesame street and barney on the same network. >> i completely understand. it's not for kids. but it's a great video. tavis: good to have you on the program. i was asking my producer, are you sure this is only kerry's second project? and i had him check because it occurred to me that you have been on everybody's project, you've been writing for everybody, so it doesn't seem
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like you're just now getting around to the sophomore project but you've been out here for a minute. >> in industry years, i've had a pretty long span but it's just my second baby. tavis: what do you make of the second baby? and i ask that because every artist in the business knows when you put the first one out and you get the grammy nods, it's the sophomore jinx that take a lot of people out. a whole lot of folk have had one record and never got around to the third one. >> i really tried not to focus on that. i tried to focus on giving my fans the same keri sonically. i think the sophomore curse happens when you change every bit of yourself. and though my hair is blonde now, sonically, it's still the same girl. conceptually, it's the same girl. i talk about the same issues and speak about and for women. so i wasn't really preoccupied
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with that notion, with that fear. you approach it -- people ask me that a lot and it could have crept in as fear and i could have put out a mediocre project for the sake of being safe but i didn't want to do that. tavis: the flip side of knowing what your audience wants and trying not to change everything about you for the sophomore project is giving the audience more of the same and, as i've read from other artists, feeling stifled, that their fan base wouldn't allow them to grow beyond the first project. does that make sense? >> yeah, it does. you definitely want to display growth in some ways but i just feel in my experience said best to do that, not your entire being, not your entire sound and entire image and entire concept. i mean, i think that there's a fine line and you can sort of
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straddle the fence between who you are and who you are. because like you said, you want to grow a bit. you do want to grow and not forsake the fans and the things they loved about you the first time around. tavis: as a boy, i'm glad we got to talk to you. >> as a boy? you're a man to me. tavis: i was going for a little jokey joke there. go with the bit, keri. >> all right. tavis: as a boy, i'm glad a chance to talk to you for the project called "no boys allowed." tell me about the title and why we're cut out this time? >> it's not "we" because you are a man, you are all man, tavis. you get the man stamp. but it's not really about excluding men in the project, it was more so about girl power. no boys allowed is my way of saying, go, girl, it's my way of saying know what you deserve. if i could say -- i know this is
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pbs -- but if i could say no bull -- allowed, that's what the album would have been called because the difference between a boy and a man is all that bull in between that you get from boys and i do music from that perspective, know what you deserve. tavis: i take that. why is it or how did you come to discover -- because you seem to be very clear about what your modus operandi is, your project, your style, the lane you want to run in. you want to speak to women, empower women with your lyrics. how wide did that become the lane you wanted to run in? >> it was a combination of things. it naturally happened around "turning me on" days. i had that concept and i wanted to say that and even -- like when i wrote that record, i had the concept for a year or so and
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wanted to find the right track because really, i'm the type of girl and i know other girls who are the types of girls who it's not about the chains, about the car or the house and this, that and the other that you think are impressing me, it's really the intellect, stimulating my mind. tavis: in los angeles? where do they live? >> they're everywhere. there are good girls out there. tavis: that was just a joke. >> but seriously. you know, and then turning me on was from the same head. it was just, like, oh, my gosh, if fellas only knew that they're turning off real good women because they're treating us all the same. they're assuming that we all are gold-diggers, they're assuming that they can approach us all the same way. and, you know, it just came from a natural place, and at the same token, women were walking up to me that i know normally wouldn't have and i had the approachability factor where they would come up and say,
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girl, i'm so glad you said that, you don't understand. or another song, "intuition," i wrote from a vulnerable place that women could relate to. so i just felt like, okay, let me tap more into this because i feel like women have been missing that. the way they approach me and some of the things they're saying makes me feel like they've been missing this kind of powerful music or empowering music. tavis: affirmation. we just met for the first time today and have met for the first time and i get the sense following your work as i have and listening to this album that you must really like to write because you don't have to on your sophomore project put out a 16-track disk. that's a lot of songs. >> yeah. we had to fight for that. labels are doing a lot less, because of the way the industry is right now. tavis: who does 16 tracks? i mean, yeah. >> a lot are doing eight records, 10 records. we had to fight for that. tavis: to your point about having to fight. why did you want to put out 16
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tracks? >> because as a consumer, i want a story. i don't want just an album full of singles. i want to get to know the artist beyond what everybody can hear on the radio. i still buy records. i'm still a consumer and i still feel like i know what they want. tavis: that's changed a lot. i totally feel you on that point. i was just discussing this the other day, the fact that back in the day used to buy a record and there was a narrative. there was a storyline from the first track to the end, you wanted to play the whole record. the reason why itunes has blown up is that people want that one song and that's it. but it's in part because nobody's giving us a project now that has a storyline, a narrative that goes from beginning to end in a sequence that actually makes sense. so i applaud you for that. >> thank you. tavis: good thing. the new project from keri hilson is called "no boys allowed." that is the sophomore disk, although as i said earlier, feels like she's given us a lot
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more because she has working with other artists but she's back with her own c.d. and i'm sure it will do extremely well. >> hope so. tavis: very good to have you on. that's our show for tonight. until next time, thanks for watching and keep the faith. ♪ i know you know some women >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at >> i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a conversation with edmund morris on his new look at teddy roosevelt. that's next time. >> all i know is his name is james and he needs extra help with his reading. >> i'm james. >> yes. >> to everyone making a difference. >> thank you. >> you help us all live better.
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>> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley. with every question and every answer, nationwide insurance is proud to join tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. captioned by the national captioning institute
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