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In the Crossfire

Does 'Sopranos' perpetuate stereotypes?

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- "The Sopranos" is one of the most popular shows on television, but some people question whether the HBO series perpetuates negative stereotypes about Italian-Americans. That question alone was enough to get two of the show's stars uninvited from Monday's Columbus Day Parade in New York City.

John Podesta, visiting professor of law at Georgetown University and former Clinton chief of staff, and Susan Molinari, Republican strategist and former congresswoman, weighed in on the validity of the show Monday night with "Crossfire" hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.

PODESTA: I don't want to sound like Al Sharpton, you know, your favorite political leader attacking "Barbershop," but I think that when you look at this show and you see the stereotypes that come forward on the show, it's not only embarrassing to Italian-Americans, I think it's embarrassing to New Jerseyites. I mean, these people, they have no honor, they have no dignity. I'm not against any show that ...

CARLSON: And it's totally inaccurate, you think?

PODESTA: I think it's so over the top and so silly. You have these anxiety-prone, Prozac-popping, cocaine-sniffing guys, and I'm just waiting for Susan to defend the lifestyle. I know she's from Staten Island. I'm from Chicago, so maybe, you know ...

MOLINARI: What are you trying to say there, Tony?

Let me just say, because one of the reasons that I think this is so goofy is because there are so many Italians who are out there who represent everything that are not "The Sopranos." I mean, you have Rudy Giuliani; you have Richard Grasso, the head of Nasdaq; the woman who is CEO of the New York Stock Exchange. You have the woman who's head of Saks Fifth Avenue [who] is Italian-American. You have Andrea Bocelli. We have nothing to prove out there as Italian-Americans that there is a Mafia, but there are also so many tremendous leaders in all of these fields that [that proves] this is nothing.

CARLSON: It is not really run by Italians, though, the Mafia.

BEGALA: It is though -- it's their parade. ... I love the show. I think the actors are great. But I'm not Italian. My name ends in a vowel, but I'm not Italian. This is what William Fugazy, president of the Coalition of Italian-Americans Association, says, "Our parade is about heritage and pride. Certainly, 'The Sopranos' haven't done much for heritage and pride in our community." Now, this is your guy here.

MOLINARI: Well, but the truth is that the two actors that were invited in by Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg have. They're exceptional actors, they've done a lot for New York City, [and] they're Italian-American New Yorkers. If they had invited Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, would anybody have said, "You know, forget it. We don't want them in our parade because they were in the movie 'The Godfather.'" On the contrary, people would acknowledge them as actors who play a part, but who are also proud Italian-Americans who have contributed to the vitality of New York City.

CARLSON: Well, John Podesta, you said a moment ago that this show was a slur on New Jersey. And I wonder if it hasn't had an effect on the Senate race there. Last year, it was reported that the senator from New Jersey, senior Senator Robert Torricelli, had bragged about having friends in organized crime. A year later, he's forced to drop out of the race. Do you think that he's been the victim of unfair stereotyping? Just because he brags about having friends in the Mafia, all of a sudden he has to get out of the race?

PODESTA: Tucker, I have no idea what you're talking about, but certainly it had nothing -- nothing to do with him. It had nothing to do with him dropping out of the race. We all know why he did drop out of the race. And Frank Lautenberg is going to win that race in New Jersey.

CARLSON: But do you think unfair stereotyping was at work here? I mean, Torricelli is an Italian-American, he's been accused of having ties to the mob.

PODESTA: Susan raised [a point about] "The Godfather." It is an interesting, I think, counter-example of a popular culture movie that actually portrays people that are interesting, that have dignity, that have character.

MOLINARI: But are members of organized crime.

PODESTA: Take the difference between one of the most tragic, poignant scenes when Fredo goes out for his last boat ride on Lake Tahoe with ... the scenes in "The Sopranos" where they're whacking the ...

MOLINARI: So let me make the argument, however, that "The Godfather," one of my favorite movies of all time, so I'm surely schizophrenic on this, glorifies the Mafia where "The Sopranos" shows them as the thug heads that they are.

BEGALA: Well, let me show you something, Susan. This is a little piece of videotape that I'm going to narrate here. Let's watch this, put it up on a big screen. This is about two years ago. You competed in the funniest celebrity in Washington contest. Audience should know, you kicked my butt and Tucker's butt both. This is a takeoff of the opening of "The Sopranos," and who is that behind that wheel? Not James Gandolfini, Susan Molinari. There you are. And I hope your girls aren't watching when you were smoking there.

MOLINARI: I know. I was only acting, girls.

BEGALA: So you've taken part in this. Did you get any heat from the Italian-American community for playing this part of a mobster in this ...

MOLINARI: I don't think up until this moment they knew about this.

BEGALA: I'm sorry that we ...

MOLINARI: But thanks for sharing. No, look, it is a great show. It is good fun. These actors are incredible. And again, I'm just so proud to be Italian-American. I don't have to be threatened by the fact that there are, you know, these people who are out there who act like jerks 90 percent of the time on the show, because there are so many other great leaders who are of Italian-American descent. I think everybody has just got to lighten up on this.

PODESTA: I agree with that.

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