NBC's Guthrie Hits Clay Aiken From the Left: Why Aren't You Pushing Gay Marriage More?

Pressuring Democratic congressional candidate and former American Idol contestant Clay Aiken from left during an interview on Tuesday's NBC Today, co-host Savannah Guthrie fretted that the openly gay singer wasn't campaigning on gay marriage: "You've been open about your own status and you have criticized North Carolina's ban on gay marriage in the past. But for observers of your race, it seems you're downplaying this in this particular campaign. Is that a fair assessment?" [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]

Aiken gave a rather surprising answer: "I don't know that we're necessarily particularly specifically downplaying anything. You know, we're up-playing the things that are affecting people's lives....We're talking about the things that are affecting people's lives and that's not necessarily one of them."

Earlier in the exchange, Guthrie wondered how Aiken would compete in the conservative district: "You're running as a Democrat in a district that is largely Republican. And you're running against an incumbent. So if you're gonna win, you're gonna need a big chunk of Republican votes. Why do you think you can get them?"

In response, Aiken blamed the press: "...people in the media talk about R and D. But people at home, they don't talk about party. They talk about the things that are important to them."

Guthrie referred to Aiken's celebrity status as "the elephant in the room" and asked if it was "a blessing or a curse" in the race. After Aiken acknowledged it was a challenge, Guthrie quoted Republican incumbent Congresswoman Renee Elmers mocking him: "Apparently his performing career isn't going well and he's bored." Guthrie sympathized: "I mean, do you have to fight to make the political classes take you seriously?"

In her most challenging question, Guthrie pressed Aiken on the Veteran's Administration scandal: "Do you think Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veteran's Affairs, should resign?"

In part, Aiken replied: "I'm not going to be one of those folks who wasn't in the hearings and hasn't paid attention to those details and wasn't privy to that stuff and making decisions for that. But I will say, we've got to do a better job of funding the VA. We've got to do a better job of organizing the VA....it's a very mismanaged organization and we've got to do better job at cleaning it up."

At the end of the segment, Guthrie joked: "By the way, what's tougher, politics or a nationally-televised singing competition?" Aiken answered: "Politics."

On May 2, Today aired a puff piece on Aiken going "from pop singer to politician."

Earlier on Monday's broadcast, political director Chuck Todd provided a full report on the "family feud" in the Republican Party turning "nasty" in a variety of primary races. None of those GOP candidates were interviewed on the program.


Here is a full transcript of Guthrie's May 20 interview with Aiken:

7:00 AM ET TEASE:

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: And Democrat Clay Aiken joins us to speak out for the first time about his primary win and the tragic death of his opponent.

7:15 AM ET SEGMENT:

GUTHRIE: Well, back to politics and one of the most talked about races in the country. Clay Aiken, who you probably know as the former American Idol contestant, narrowly defeated Keith Crisco in this month's Democratic primary for North Carolina's second congressional district. But this was a race that saw Crisco die tragically before those results were finalized.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: From Idol to Elected Office? Clay Aiken on Primary Battle]

Well, Clay Aiken joins us exclusively, and good morning to you.

CLAY AIKEN: Good morning.

GUTHRIE: I have to say, congratulations on your primary win, but it is a bit bittersweet, isn't it? With your opponent so suddenly dying before the results were known for sure.

AIKEN: Yeah, it's a difficult thing to – for everyone to have to deal with.

GUTHRIE: Let's talk about this race because you're definitely facing an uphill battle. You're running as a Democrat in a district that is largely Republican. And you're running against an incumbent. So if you're gonna win, you're gonna need a big chunk of Republican votes. Why do you think you can get them?

AIKEN: Well, this district is also – is about a third independent. And so it has swayed conservatively in the past. But also more historically, even more further back in the past, it's gone to a Democrat.

GUTHRIE: But to your point, more recently, in the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, your district went for the Republican. Actually, even in 2008, when the rest of North Carolina went for Obama, this district went for McCain.

AIKEN: It did, it did. But people are – I think people are tired of partisan politics. You know, you've got everyone who votes – people in the media talk about R and D. But people at home, they don't talk about party. They talk about the things that are important to them.

GUTHRIE: Well, let's talk about sort of the other elephant in the room, which is, of course, your celebrity. A lot of people know you as the former American Idol contestant. Is this a blessing or a curse in your race?

AIKEN: It's both. You know, you've got – we have to get people to see me in a different light. Getting the opportunity to talk to people and talk about the issues that are affecting them and talk about what I want to do and how I want to help people, gets people to see me in a different light. It's a blessing in the fact that it gets me in the room, but I have to overcome the fact that people see me in one way and not the other.

GUTHRIE: Your opponent, Renee Elmers, took a swipe at you, said, "Apparently his performing career isn't going well and he's bored." I mean, do you have to fight to make the political classes take you seriously?

AIKEN: Of course, of course. You know, I'm not naive to the fact that this is a challenge that I have to overcome. It's a mountain to climb, but we've had quite a bit of success thus far in the past three months in climbing it and we'll continue to do that over the next six.

GUTHRIE: Let's talk about some of the issues in your district. As you well know, Fort Bragg is in your district. Your brother served two tours of duty in Iraq. I'm sure you're following what's happening with the scandal at the Veteran's Administration and delays in treatment for vets. Do you think Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veteran's Affairs [sic], should resign?

AIKEN: I don't that – you know, I think we have a lot of people who are making decisions without being in the room. I'm not going to be one of those folks who wasn't in the hearings and hasn't paid attention to those details and wasn't privy to that stuff and making decisions for that.

But I will say, we've got to do a better job of funding the VA. We've got to do a better job of organizing the VA. I think that the VA should be possibly not in the health care business so much as in the veterans care business and taking care of the needs of veterans. The veterans unemployment rate is 11%, four points higher than the rest of the population. We've got – it's a very mismanaged organization and we've got to do better job at cleaning it up.

GUTHRIE: Quickly, another issue. Gay marriage, something that you've spoken out in favor of. You've been open about your own status and you have criticized North Carolina's ban on gay marriage in the past. But for observers of your race, it seems you're downplaying this in this particular campaign. Is that a fair assessment?

AIKEN: I don't know that we're necessarily particularly specifically downplaying anything. You know, we're up-playing the things that are affecting people's lives. The fact that students are coming out of college with average of $29,000 worth of debt. The fact that the unemployment rate is not lowering, is not going down as fast as it should be. Veterans Affairs. Education in general. We're talking about the things that are affecting people's lives and that's not necessarily one of them.

GUTHRIE: Clay Aiken, thank you for being here. By the way, what's tougher, politics or a nationally-televised singing competition?

AIKEN: Politics.

GUTHRIE: Oh, you answered that one quickly. Nice to have you here, thank you.

AIKEN: Thank you very much.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC