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Bill Moyers' View Of Contemporary America

With three decades' worth of experience in broadcast journalism, PBS's Bill Moyers has witnessed his share of groundbreaking moments.

21:16

Other segments from the episode on November 5, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 5, 2008: Interview with with Bill Moyer; Interview with Mickey Edwards; Interview with Mark Sawyer.

Transcript

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Bill Moyers' View Of Contemporary America

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. It's day one for President-Elect Barack Obama and the start of a new political era of American history. What does the election of America's first African-American president mean for our country, and what does the future look like for the Republican Party, which lost the White House as well as seats in the House and Senate?

Later in the show, we'll hear from Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman who is disillusioned with his party. He is the author of "Reclaiming Conservatism." And we'll talk with Mark Sawyer, director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics at UCLA.

Our first guest is Bill Moyers, who closely followed the presidential campaign on his public TV program "Bill Moyers Journal." He was senior White House assistant and press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson from 1963 to '67. His latest book is called "Moyers on Democracy."

Bill Moyers, welcome back to Fresh Air. You were President Johnson's press secretary when he signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964. I'd love to hear your thoughts on witnessing the election of the first African-American president.

Mr. BILL MOYERS (Journalist, Public Commentator): I went back to that time, and not only in 1965, but right after President Johnson was tragically catapulted into the White House in 1963. I was down at his ranch with him in Texas. And his long-time housekeeper and her husband had driven down from Washington to be at the ranch in Houston, and they couldn't find a motel that would take them. They had to go miles out of the way in order to find a dingy little place where they could spent a night.

And when they got to the ranch, LBJ, the new president, tragically in the White House by the assassination, turned to me and said, Bill, we've got to move that Civil Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act that had been introduced under John F. Kennedy. We've got to move that Civil Rights Act and stop this kind of shame.

And, of course, then the next year, he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opening public accommodations to all people, and then in 1965, that historic act, the Voting Rights Act. So my reaction last night, not as a journalist but as a witness to history and a former participant in history, was one of deep gratitude that the arc of history had come around in my time. We passed the legal barriers in 1960. Yesterday, we passed the psychological barrier, and that was a very important thing.

I think I mentioned to you once in an earlier interview that Joseph Campbell, the popular scholar of mythology, had once said to me, Moyers, if you want to change the world, you change the metaphor. And yesterday, America changed the metaphor. It was a symbolic moment for a country whose whole history has been pinioned by race. I just felt a great stone lifting from my neck. It was a personal triumph of a man who organized for his ambition like no one else I've ever seen. I cannot tell you how impressed I was with the efficiency and confidence of that campaign.

GROSS: You've described how, after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, you came upon him in a private moment, and you looked disconsolate. And he said to you, now, we've lost the South. And so has that been reversed now?

Mr. MOYERS: No, it hasn't. If you look at the colored map of the election last night, the Republican Party's base is still the deeply racist states south of the Mason-Dixon Line - from South Carolina across to Arkansas. Those states have not changed in all these years. That's one of the other tragedies of American life, is that the racist-saturated mentality of those deep Southern states, stemming from slavery and reconstruction and Jim Crow, remain in place.

I mean, Obama only got the votes of one out of every six white people in Mississippi, I think. So it's a sad and melancholic commentary on the root of prejudice, that the South remains below the Mason-Dixon Line and, of course, with the exception of North Carolina and Virginia, in the grip of those old passions and old those prejudices. The rest of the nation's moved along.

This is a great mistake the Republican Party has made. I figured this was coming, Terry, honestly, when I watched that Republican convention in St. Paul because I think there were only 34, if I remember correctly, only 34 people of color in that convention. And I thought, they don't understand how this country has changed, even in the last 10 years.

GROSS: The Democrats will now have the White House and both houses of Congress. What are some of the things you would like to see them accomplish?

Mr. MOYERS: Well, I'm not in the business of advising politicians. You'd be surprised at my pattern of voting ever since I left government for journalism, but I know what they have to do. I mean, the one note I have not heard struck in the last 24 hours is the extent to which this country is in a deep systemic crisis. It isn't just the recession, and it isn't just the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. It is the fact that our system has been failing us.

And the one thing I'm not sure Obama understands is just how betrayed most ordinary Americans are out there by a system that has been taken over by a political and media and financial class and ran into the ground over the last 20 years.

So he has to tackle this meltdown of the system, this corruption of our political process. He can do that. He got a margin yesterday that gives him the means, puts him in the seat of the car with the motor running, that he can do that. But you already see the lobbyists moving into place, the Democratic lobbyists in Washington anticipating the spoils of victory. And he's got to take that on because our democratic process is in a state of crisis.

GROSS: What are some of the most interesting things you observed about how race did and did not come in to play in this election and in the campaigns?

Mr. MOYERS: I was deeply encouraged that the reptilian attacks on Obama in the last few days in Pennsylvania, by the Republicans in Pennsylvania didn't work. They tried out those tired cliches, videos of Jeremiah Wright, and tried to vilify him with him, and it didn't work as far as I can tell from the early returns that I've been studying early this morning. It didn't work. That was very encouraging to me.

I was appalled when they did that. I was appalled by the coded language used by Sarah Palin in the campaign that appealed to the baser instincts. And this is Obama's great genius, by the way. They would like to have trapped him into fighting on their ground, the ground of the last number of years, when they can divide the country and win on those old battles of values and ethnicity and that sort of thing.

I was coming down to the station this morning, and the cab driver, who looks like Obama - he's like Obama, half white, half black, he has the blood of the globe running through his veins. And he said, it's really to move on. It's time to stop being barricaded behind our color, and I think Obama is going to do that. He said, my 21-year-old son is jubilant this morning, and he's been cynical. Now, this sort of thing will wane in a while because the realities of power will cause Obama to make choices that will disappoint a lot of people.

But race did not take the root that it did when I was a boy growing up in the South or in the other campaigns. When Ronald Reagan opened his campaign in 1980 a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where those three civil rights workers had been murdered and buried, I thought, they're not learning. They're not moving. They're going to spin this web of race once again, and we're all going to be snared in it for years to come, and we have been.

Now, yesterday did not end issues of race in this country. You know, blacks do not have parity with whites. The black and white achievement gap is worse, as you know. 55 percent of all federal prisoners are black. The illegitimacy rate among blacks is over 70 percent. I mean, the realities are going to be with us. But again, I come back to my first point. Symbolically, metaphorically, and politically, I think race is not going to have us by the throat the way it has so long now.

GROSS: My guest is Bill Moyers, the host of the public TV series "Bill Moyers Journal." His latest book is called "Moyers on Democracy." We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Bill Moyers, and we're reflecting on the election of Barack Obama. As a result of what the McCain-Palin campaign and its surrogates had to say about Barack Obama palling around with terrorists, are you afraid that there are citizens of the United States who are going to think that our next president pals around with terrorists or is a terrorist by association?

Mr. MOYERS: I think that the Republicans deliberately tried, and I think they failed to delegitimate Barack Obama. They couldn't attack his character. They couldn't attack his family values. They couldn't attack his idealism, so they set out to vilify him. They tried to vilify him as a Marxist, a socialist, a secret Muslim, a friend of terrorists, as you say. I mean, there were conservative political commentators who actually compared him to Adolf Hitler's assumption of power in 1933.

This is the tactic of what I call the reptilian right, that in order to win, they must destroy; in order to govern, they must humiliate. And I think this is the wrong strategy. I don't think this is where this country is on the side of the divide of race and politics that Barack Obama outlined in his Philadelphia speech. But this has been their tactic, and this is the tactic they will now use as they tried to use it against the Clintons in '95 and '96. They will try to use this to delegitimate him as president.

You may have seen that Sean Hannity said he was going to use his radio show as the underground war, guerilla war against President Obama and the liberals in Washington. Well, it's not underground, and it's not guerilla. It's above ground and over the air, and they will keep this up. I think, in the long run, they think they can rebuild their constituency that way. I don't think so. I think that the country is moving on, and that's what's really behind Barack Obama's election last night.

GROSS: What are your observations about the role that religion, and the Christian right in particular, played in this election compared to the previous few presidential elections?

Mr. MOYERS: It will take some time to read the entrails of the returns last night. I have yet to see this morning any detailed exegesis of those returns. But clearly, the religious right played a big role in those deep red states below the Mason-Dixon line. As I said earlier, the Southern Baptist convention, which is, you know, there are more Baptists in Texas than there are people, and Texas went very significantly for John McCain because of the religious right.

So in their home state, where they are concentrated, the religious right is still a very influential force in the narrow confines of the Republican Party. And in the heartland out there, where there are either evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, they stayed with the party, apparently. As I said, I haven't seen these numbers yet. But at large, their message did not resonate. They cannot claim to have made the difference in the election, in yesterday's election, as they claim they did in George W. Bush's election in 2000 and his reelection.

And you know, Terry, the first I realized that John McCain was going to shoot himself in the foot was when he went down and gave the commencement at Jerry Falwell's College. These are the people who defeated John McCain in 2000. These are the religious-right people who held him up as the apostate, who disliked his stand on the social issues, and they were ruthless and merciless and vile in the way they beat him in South Carolina in 2000, spreading the rumor that he had a black child illegitimately.

Then he turned around and embraced them, and I thought, you know, John McCain, you're reputation is a man of independence, a man who reaches to the nonpartisan sectors of the electorate and brings them in, and here you are embracing the sectarian forces in your own party. This is not going to bode well for you, and it didn't. John McCain's fundamental mistake, I think, in this election - and I think you know we had two good men running for president, we really did.

But John McCain's mistake was that he tried to run on the shoulders of his former enemies, and they're never going to be as enthusiastic. And if you are a man or a woman of principle, you're just pinched when you try to appease the people who've tried to vilify you. And he, John McCain, had this pinched looked throughout this campaign, almost up until the last 24 to 36 hours, and I think it was because he was trying to make his bed with porcupines.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you a question that we could probably talk about for several hours or perhaps several days. But if you can handle it in 90 seconds or so, so what do you think the Bush legacy will be?

Mr. MOYERS: I think that - you know, Lyndon Johnson left office in a state of great turmoil - left the country in a state of great turmoil. It was 40 years ago this year at Grant Park, the scene last night of such joyful and tearful jubilation, that Chicago came apart, the Democratic Party came apart in Chicago in 1968. So Lyndon Johnson left a legacy of turmoil and turbulence from which the Democrats didn't recover for a long time, not withstanding Jimmy Carter's post-Watergate election.

But Lyndon Johnson also did some things like the Voting Rights Act of '65, the Civil Rights Act of '64. That also enhanced and protected the democratic process, despite the turbulence that was to come. I cannot find one contribution that the Bush-Cheney administration is leaving in that sense. I mean, the fact of the matter is, John McCain was running with an albatross around his neck. The Bush-Cheney brand is like tainted milk in China, and McCain was never able to remove the odor, nor was he able to remove the albatross because the reputation of this administration, and you'll hear this from many Republicans, is of incompetence, of corruption and cronyism.

It happened in the '20s with the Hardy administration. People who don't believe in government are likely to defy our government. And the record that has been left by the Bush administration is one of using government to shift resources from the public to the private sector, to redistribute wealth up. And it will be a long time before the country recovers from eight years of so destructive public policy.

GROSS: Any final thoughts you want to leave us with?

Mr. MOYERS: Well, you know, as I watched that marvelous scene in Grant Park last night, I had a lot of history on my mind because I was aware of this when I was in the White House in the '60s. You know, it was only in 1867 that the first freed man voted in an American election. It was only in 1870, after the 15th Amendment had been passed to the Constitution that intended to keep the government from preventing a citizen from voting based on race, color, or previous status as a slave, that over in Perth Amboy just right across the Hudson River from where I'm talking to you now, a man named Thomas Mundy Peterson of Perth Amboy became the first African-American to vote in an election under the provisions of the 15th Amendment.

1870, Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first African-American to serve in the Senate, in a seat once held by Jefferson Davis, the former presidency of the Confederacy. 1872, Frederick Douglass became the first African-American nominated for vice president. He ran, by the way, Terry, on the Equal Rights Party with Victoria Woodhull. August 1st, 1944, when I was a 10-year-old, Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem became the first African-American elected to Congress from the East.

August the 6th, 1965, L.B.J. signed the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed voting rights practices. Jesse Jackson ran. Shirley Chisholm ran. Edward Brooke ran. Carl Stokes was elected the Mayor of Cleveland all in my lifetime, the last 60 years.

When I remember that, in Marshall, Texas, where I grew up, some of my classmates went out at night and with a broomstick, drove down the road, and drove that broomstick against the heads of black children, and then went out and had beer to celebrate. When I think of the great arc of history in just my time, and I'm 74 years old, I do think that we're not a finished country yet, and that we may be recovering our compass.

It won't be because Barack Obama brought that change. It will be because he personified it. He was young enough and sensitive enough to see that this country had changed in the last 10 years, and he embodies that change. What happens now is going to require a lot from all of us, including speaking truth to Obama when he goes astray, and that's an important part of what progressives in particular and journalists in particular need to do. But anyway, it's been a great historical arc, and I'm so glad I lived long enough to see it come this way.

GROSS: Bill Moyers, thank you so much for talking with us, and I'll be watching your show to hear the always-thoughtful and insightful conversations you have about the direction America is heading, and thank you so much.

Mr. MOYERS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Bill Moyers is the host of "Bill Moyers Journal," which is broadcast Friday nights on public television. His latest book is called "Moyers on Democracy." More on the election of Barack Obama in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
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The Future Of The Conservative Movement

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Last night was a resounding defeat for the Republican Party, and it's unclear what direction the party will now head in and who its leaders will be. My guest, Mickey Edwards, is disillusion with the direction his party has taken in the past few years, including the tactics of the McCain-Palin campaign.

Edwards was a Republican congressman from Oklahoma from 1977 to 93. He's the former chair of the House Republican Policy Committee and the American Conservative Union. He co-founded the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, and is now a vice president of the bipartisan Aspen Institute. Edwards has written a book called "Reclaiming Conservatism." Mickey Edwards, welcome to Fresh Air.

Mr. MICKEY EDWARDS (Former Republican Congressman; Author, "Reclaiming Conservatism"): Well, thank you, Terry.

GROSS: You're a lifelong Republican, former Republican Congressman. What are your thoughts today on the election of Barack Obama?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, you know, I feel very good about it. I feel good for a couple of reasons, the fact that Barack Obama ran a pretty positive, upbeat kind of campaign. I mean, he criticized John McCain's positions on a number of issues. He criticized, as he should have, George W. Bush for a lot of his policies and the way his administration performed, but he also talked an awful lot about the fact that we're not red states and blue states. We're the United States.

And, you know, it says something about America that you would take somebody who is part of a minority of just over 12 percent of the population and elect that person to be president. There aren't very many countries on the planet that would do that, and so I think it's hard to not be really positive about the outcome of that election.

GROSS: Would it be too personal for me to ask if you voted for him?

Mr. EDWARDS: I did support Obama, yes. And it was not easy, you know. I've been, as you pointed out, I've been a Republican for my entire adult life. I served in Congress as a member of the Republican leadership. I was a policy director for the Reagan campaign in 1980. So, I mean, it wasn't easy, you know, to support a Democrat for president, but I did.

GROSS: How much of your support for Obama was enthusiasm for Obama, and how much of it was disillusionment with the direction the Republican Party is headed in?

Mr. EDWARDS: That's a really good question, Terry, because what I like about Obama primarily was not his policies, you know, I'm a Republican, but the fact that his temperament was the kind of temperament I think we need in the White House - calm, mature, thoughtful, deliberate. So, that had a lot to do with why I like Obama, but the fact is, the last eight years under this president, and, you know, I was a foreign policy adviser to George W. Bush's campaign in 2000 when he ran.

But his presidency has been awful, especially in terms of how cavalierly they have disregarded the Constitution and supported wire tapping without warrants, holding people in jail without charges, refusing to let the Congress question people in the administration. It's just been a terrible administration. And then it was supported by and empowered by the Republican who served in Congress.

And so, I was very disillusioned. I would look at the Bush administration, and I would look at the Republicans in Congress, many of whom were friends of mine, and say, what happened to my party? We were the party who believed in freedom. We were the party who believed in liberty, and we were the party to believe in the Constitution. And all of that had been swept away. So, I cannot imagine that the Democrats, who I had always opposed, could possibly do more harm to our Constitutional system than we, the Republicans, had done.

GROSS: You know, in your book, which is about the future of conservatism, you say, we've changed everything we believed in in order to win elections. What do you mean by that?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, what happened was that we believed for a long time, you know, that there were certain principles that had to govern how we interacted with society from the government standpoint. We want limited government. We weren't focused on small government, but limited government that did not operate outside the boundaries of the Constitution.

During the Reagan years, and the Bush's - the first Bush presidency, you know, what we always talked about was peace through strength. You know, that was a big thing with Barry Goldwater, too. We wanted peace through strength, so we would keep a strong military to increase the chances of being able to retain the peace. We did not want to go to war. War was the last option.
Well, we changed. Over time, the Bush administration and people in Congress, you know, that war became not a last option, but a first, or certainly not the last option. We used to argue that we wanted to protect the individual freedoms, and then we became the champions of taking away the requirement that a warrant be issued before you could do wiretapping on American citizens. And just one thing after another. We began to take the policies and the principles that have been central to what conservatives believed in and set them aside if we thought there was an electoral advantage to doing that.

And when I was in the House, and Newt Gingrich rose to Republican leadership, he made a thing out of this, you know, that what mattered was nonstop political warfare, partisan warfare to defeat Democrats - that was our whole goal. Our whole purpose was to defeat Democrats. Well, you know, I like the Republican Party, but I care a lot more about my country than I care about my party. And somehow, we got that reversed.

GROSS: You were in the House when Newt Gingrich became the House whip, and you write that, you know, under Newt Gingrich, it was all about party loyalty, and you say, instead of the president becoming the head of a separate branch of government, you were supposed to look at him as your team captain. So, instead of keeping a check on him, you were supposed to find a way to rally around him and help him. Can you give us an example of that and why you thought it was inappropriate?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, the basis of our form of government, Terry, is that power is separated. There was an article in Washington Post one time that referred to President Bush as he was getting ready to go overseas, saying that the president was stepping out of his role as the head of government to go overseas and act in his other role as head of state.

Well, you know, the president is not the head of government. He is the head of one of three separate branches of government. And the job of the Congress is to do its own decision making about the policies we're going to pursue as a nation, to be a check on the president just as the president will check on Congress, separated powers.

And that got set aside under the Gingrich model. It was your party that came first. Therefore, when you had a Republican president and a Republican Congress, your job was to support his policies as much as you could. That turned it upside down because the Congress is not supposed to be reactive to the president. The people who get elected to Congress take an oath of office, I took an oath of office, you know, to uphold the Constitution, and that got lost along the way.

So, you know, part of it became, you know, how do we as a Republicans defeat Democrats? How do we gain power? How do we hold the chairmanships? What do we have to do? What issues do we have to take to the House floor to get a Democrat in trouble with his or her constituents? That totally changed everything. Democrats were the target, and Republicans were told to raise enough money for our common pool to defeat every Democrat you can find standing.

We fulfilled James Madison's nightmare. You know, Madison was very concerned about partisanship. He was very concerned about faction. And, you know, all the things he feared came through when you had George W. Bush in the White House and Republicans in Congress.

GROSS: My guest is Mickey Edwards, former Republican congressman and author of the book, "Reclaiming Conservatism." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking about the future and recent past of the Republican Party. My guest, Mickey Edwards, was a Republican Congressman for 16 years. He's the author of "Reclaiming Conservatism."

You teach at Princeton. You've taught at Harvard. You co-founded the Heritage Foundation. You're a leader of the Aspen Institute, which is also a think tank. Do you think the Republican Party has taken an anti-intellectual position, and do you think that there was an anti-intellectual attitude expressed in the McCain-Palin campaign?

Mr. EDWARDS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, the idea that somebody would be unqualified to be president because he has too much nuance or because he went to Harvard, just ridiculous, you know. We are the most powerful, most prosperous nation that has ever existed on the face the earth, and the idea that we would not want to find people who were well educated, thoughtful, reflective to help lead our country is just absurd, you know?

At one point, and this is an example Terry, I'm glad you brought it up. This is an example of how much things have changed in recent years. We used to talk about the fact that the Republican Party was the party of ideas, that it was the Democrats and the liberals who had gotten stale, who were talking about Nordstrom's, had failed everywhere they have been tried, you know. They had no new ideas. It was just, you know, more and more government, add higher and higher taxes and more and more regulations and so forth.

Well, that we were the party, the Republicans, were the party of ideas and new approaches, and now, all of a sudden, we have seen ourselves attacking the idea of being intellectual, being thoughtful, being reflective. Let me tell you, the fact of the matter, and it's really hard to hear, is that Joe the Plumber is not smarter than somebody with a law degree from Harvard, just not.

GROSS: How did this happen? You've been watching your party for a long time. You've been active in your party. How did it become anti-intellectual? How did being from Harvard become a bad thing?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, the strange thing is, you can take some of it back to the - not the individual but the ideas that came from somebody like Newt Gingrich, who, by the way, is very very bright himself. But when winning the elections became the dominant idea, it wasn't standing for your principles. It was winning your elections at any cost. That's easy. You'll look out there, and there are fewer people who went to Harvard and Princeton, you know, than there are who, you know, went to a community college or, you know, don't have a college degree, and therefore, if you appeal to them and say, look all these pointy headed liberals, you know.

Or you can even take it back even to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, you know, the idea that you had these pointy-headed intellectuals because the Kennedy administration had been populated by a lot of people from the Ivy League schools, you know. So it became kind of a politically advantageous thing to do to make fun of them, to attack them, and say, well, what do they know about mainstream? What do they know about going out here and working hard and earning a living?

You know, there's always been a bit of a strain like that in America. Andrew Jackson tapped into that strain, so there's always been a bit of a dismissive attitude toward intellectuals in America, but it's just been carried to a ridiculous extreme. You know, we say something bad about ourselves when we are dismissive of somebody having a good education. You know, even somebody like Abraham Lincoln, who, you know, did not have all the advantages of a great education, was self taught, took education, took learning as extremely important to the ability to succeed and do well in life. And anti-intellectualism will destroy the Republican Party.

GROSS: You voted for Barack Obama, but you remain a Republican, even though you've become disillusioned with the direction your party is taking. What are your concerns now? Do you have concerns now about a government that will have a Democratic president, a Democratic House, and a Democratic Senate?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, you know, it really depends on how Obama reaches an accord with the Democrats in Congress. It is true, I think, that Obama, even though he's much more liberal than most Republicans would have liked, he talks about trying to find accommodation. He talks about reaching across the aisle.

There will be in the leadership in both the House and Senate, and especially in the House, a number of Democrats who are very liberal, who have been waiting a long time to enact a pretty liberal agenda, who no longer will need the support of the Republicans. In the Senate, there may be a filibuster problem, but that's not going to be, I think, a serious problem. You know, there is a very good possibility that Nancy Pelosi will drive the agenda or will certainly try to drive the agenda. So, yeah, sure I'm concerned. I think you can have taxes too low, especially when you have a multibillion-dollar war you're fighting, but you can also have taxes so high, you know, that they're counterproductive in that they hurt the economy.

So, I think Obama can reach accommodations that make sense, but, you know, it's whether or not his own party will allow him to do it. When Jimmy Carter was the Democratic president, you know, he was routinely beaten down by Democrats in Congress. When Bill Clinton became president, and he had his own healthcare plan that he wanted to move forward with, the Democrats in Congress blocked him. So Obama's not going to just call the shots by himself. There's going to be a lot of power among the Democrats in Congress. And I think they are probably going to be much more aggressive and much more partisan than Obama would be. I don't know yet, you know, how that's going to play out.

GROSS: You served in the House with John McCain. Did you see a different McCain during the election than the McCain that you knew?

Mr. EDWARDS: You know, Terry, I'm not really sure who John McCain now is. I served with him in the House. I've known John McCain for a very long time, over 30 years, but the man who ran for president this time was in many ways very different from the man who ran for president in 2000. He was adopting for a long time principles that made him sound like, as Howard Dean would have put it, the third term of George W. Bush. You know, he bragged about the fact that he voted with Bush 90 percent of the time. He made very, very overt appeals to the religious right after he had attacked them in 2000.

And then, at the very end of the campaign, he was emphasizing how he was not George Bush. He was different, and he talked about how terrible war was, and so I'm not really sure which was the real John McCain. I suspect, I only suspected that the real John McCain was not at all happy with what he thought he had to do in order to try to win the election and to hold the Bush supporters.

And I think he got himself caught up and tied up into a knot here, where he couldn't decide whether to be the authentic, independent-minded John McCain or try to be the guy who's going to turn out the angry Republican base. And he couldn't do both, and he just kept going back and forth between the two.

GROSS: Any final thoughts you'd like to share with us?

Mr. EDWARDS: Yeah. One, you know, I have to say, Terry, that I would have felt, you know, OK if John McCain had won because it would still be an improvement over what we've had over the last eight years. But Obama's victory meant a lot of things in terms of why so many of us have been proud all our lives of America, somebody from a relatively small minority getting elected president. You know, great numbers of people who have not been politically involved in the past and young voters coming out and working, seeing people, whether they were Republican or Democrat, McCain supporters or Obama supporters, knocking on doors, attending rallies, you know, this was democracy American style.

This was democracy that believed in participation by citizens to shape their own lives. You know, the basic difference between America and the countries that went before America was, in those systems, you had a common form of government, it was rulers and their subjects. And our founders said, we're not going to be anybody's subjects. We're going to be citizens. And where rulers tell their subject what to do, citizens tell their government what to do.

That's what we saw yesterday. We saw a real outpouring of citizenship and of citizens determining what their government's programs and policies and systems were going to be. I was very proud of America yesterday.

GROSS: Mickey Edwards, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. EDWARDS: Thanks, Terry. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Mickey Edwards is now a vice president of the bipartisan Aspen Institute. He's the author of the book, "Reclaiming Conservatism." Coming up, we talk about last night's historic victory for Barack Obama with Mark Sawyer, director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics at UCLA. This is Fresh Air.
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Mark Sawyer On Implications Of Obama's Election

TERRY GROSS, host:

My guest, Mark Sawyer, describes Barack Obama's election as a gravity-defying moment where everything that we thought about race and politics has changed. Sawyer directs the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics at UCLA, where he's also an associate professor of African-American studies and political science. We spoke with him in August on the day that Obama accepted the Democratic nomination. We asked him today for an example of how Obama's election has changed what we thought about race and politics.

Dr. MARK SAWYER (Associate Professor, African American Studies and Political Science, UCLA; Director, Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics.): The southern tragedy has been defeated. One can no longer use race and in particular sort of trying to organize the white, working-class in the solid South to win presidential elections in the way that one did in the past. And perhaps, the black politics have been changed permanently.

GROSS: How so?

Dr. SAWYER: Well, black politics has particularly operated in the context of having a racial spokesperson, the idea of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and even the Reverend Martin Luther King. Now, we have Barack Obama, who's going to be the first African-American president, who doesn't hold himself out to be a racial spokesperson. This means that local communities, local black communities who've also been mobilized by this election, will not look to some sort of national leader, black leader per se, but will be probably articulating their own issues as they see them.

GROSS: It was interesting to hear way race was and wasn't addressed during the campaign. And I think one of the quotes that has been spread around a lot on the Internet and other publications was by Richard Trumka, who is the former president of the United Mine Workers and now secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. And he was trying to convince white working-class people to vote for Obama. And one of the things he said was, he's a black man. Obama is a black man who's going to fight for people like us. And you won't vote for him because of the color of his skin? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?

What are some of the things that stand out in your mind as memorable moments that signify how race became or didn't become an issue in the campaign?

Dr. SAWYER: Well, that was one of the - Trumka's sort of stump speech, so to speak, was one of the most positive moments in which - it was one of those moments, in particular with the decline in the economy, this sort of contrast between the economic interest of the white working-class and what they might perceive as their racial interest were put in stark contrast to one another. And Trumka laid that out and opened up a dialogue amongst white working-class people about what are your real interests and how do we think about them, and let's talk about our prejudices.

The other issues were - in some ways, the lack of some racial issues. The McCain campaign tried to use the issue of patriotism as kind of a code for race, the question of Bill Ayers and sort of terrorism. But usually, Republicans have been successful in terms of tying African-Americans to race or tying the Democratic Party to race. These are the issues like crime, welfare, affirmative action. And in particular, John McCain's pro-immigration stance or pro-human rights for immigrants stance handicapped him, in that immigration is the race issue of our day, and he was unable to pin Obama down in an unpopular stance because previously, his stance had been quite similar to Obama's.

GROSS: So, are you saying that you think Bill Ayers became like the Willy Horton of this campaign?

Dr. SAWYER: It was an attempt to, but it was too personal. It doesn't - Bill Ayers doesn't connect to a real issue. There is no real issue of domestic terrorism out there that is a central issue in the way that crime was a real worry for white voters or affirmative action was or welfare was an important symbolic issue. Bill Ayers became a kind of personal attack or slander. That didn't work very well for McCain.

GROSS: When we spoke on the day of Barack Obama's acceptance speech, accepting the nomination of his party, you said that you thought that Obama had to really be cautious and play quite a balancing act because, on the one hand, he had to be able to fight back against his opponent. But at the same time, he couldn't afford to be perceived as being angry because white Americans might be fearful of the, quote, "angry black man." So, having watched his campaign now, his successful campaign, how do you think he played that?

Dr. SAWYER: Masterfully. If you watched the debates, they were all relatively boring, and that's because I would describe Obama's debate style as a kind of a debate Aikido. He turns the attack or the violence of the other opponent against his opponent by sort of not necessarily responding, but by sort of deflecting the energy. So the moments when McCain were - was most aggressive in attack was when he looked the worst.

And Obama did that by sort of using a kind of cool, a kind of unflappable way, but a kind of statement of a more positive message. And I think he mastered the way of making himself look good. People said that that's - that he kind of lacks a knockout punch in debates, and I think that's probably true. But he has a very effective debate strategy that always makes his opponent look pretty bad, particularly when they're trying to knock him off his game.
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GROSS: As you pointed out, Obama didn't run as like a spokesperson for African-Americans. He really tried to keep race pretty much out of the election. Do you think that there will be pressure on him now from African-American activist groups to make race a part of the presidency? Not necessarily his racial identity, but racial issues, issues of racial equality and issues of special importance for African-Americans including...

Dr. SAWYER: Yeah, I think…

GROSS: Poverty, incarceration levels, education.

Dr. SAWYER: Yeah, I think those issues are going to be pushed by groups. But the African-American electorate showed an extraordinary amount of sophistication that bedeviled even some African-American groups in terms of leaders like Jesse Jackson. They showed a way of expressing and thinking about racial issues, but also thinking about them in their universalist questions.

So the question of incarceration, it affects everyone. We spend a huge amount to incarcerate large numbers of people. It affects all parts of society. The California budget is going over a cliff because of what we spend on incarceration. Education, if we fail to educate immigrants, minorities, African-Americans, we're going to fall behind the rest of the world.

So those issues are ones that tap in to concerns of the African-American community, but there's an interdependent frame. And that is what Barack Obama has been the master of, is demonstrating the interdependence between communities in America, rather than African-Americans have to triumph over some other group or whites in particular.

GROSS: Mark Sawyer, thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. SAWYER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Mark Sawyer directs the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics at UCLA. You can download podcast of our show on our website freshair.npr.org.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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