DATE August 28, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist Joshua Green on Hillary Clinton at the
Democratic National Convention
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
This has been an historic Democratic convention, the first time an
African-American has won a major party nomination and the first time a woman
has come so close to getting it. A little later, we'll reflect on the
significance of Barack Obama's nomination, but first we're going to consider
the significance of Hillary Clinton's campaign, the speeches she and Bill
Clinton gave this week, and the place of the Clintons now in the Democratic
Our first guest is Joshua Green, a senior writer at The Atlantic magazine. He
wrote an article in the September edition about problems within Hillary
Clinton's campaign. The article included leaked e-mails and memos revealing
conflicts within the campaign and strategies campaign leaders used and
considered using against Obama. Green is at the Democratic convention.
Joshua Green, welcome to FRESH AIR. What was your take on Bill Clinton's
speech last night?
Mr. JOSHUA GREEN: Well, I thought it was terrific, especially given the
intensity of the recent inter-party squabbling. Clinton really reminded
everybody why he is such an astonishing political figure. You know, he was
known during his time in the White House as "the comeback kid." I think the
name applies after last night again. He did just about everything I think he
could have done on Barack Obama's behalf, and in doing so I think he went a
long way toward restoring a damaged reputation.
GROSS: And what about Hillary's speech?
Mr. GREEN: I think Hillary did what was required of her. I don't think she
went nearly as far as Bill Clinton did. Her speech, while gracious and while
sort of ticking through the sort of things that she needed to get through, it
didn't have the passion, it didn't offer the specific personal endorsement
that her husband's offered. When Bill Clinton got up there he said, you know,
"I know this man, and he is ready to be president." Clinton never quite went
that far. She said, "No way, no how, no McCain." She drew some important
contrasts, but one got the sense that she was holding back a little bit even
GROSS: The convention started with this drama of what's going to happen
between the Hillary people and the Obama campaign, and will they make up, and
will she really throw her support behind him? And then I think there was such
enthusiasm for Bill Clinton's speech, and I think a lot of enthusiasm for
Hillary Clinton's speech. Do you think in a way it's almost been like makeup
sex within the party? That there's this--you know what I mean? That there's
Mr. GREEN: I...
GROSS: ...feeling of exhilaration that a lot of people weren't counting on?
Mr. GREEN: That's about the best analogy I've heard, and frankly not one
that would quite have sprung to mind, but, yeah, I suppose that's about what
I'd call it. You know, there were so many worries and expectations on both
parties. You know, just two weeks ago, there was squabbling in the newspaper
with some of Bill Clinton's folks leaking that, you know, he was unhappy with
the assignment of having to talk about national security. He'd rather talk
about the economy so he could kind of summon his own record. In any event, he
wound up talking about both of them and really sort of transcending the whole
thing. I mean, his speech was the single best endorsement of a Barack Obama
presidency that I've heard from anyone, and one that I think will be hard to
top. So I would say that certainly the Obama wing of the party has to be
exultant after last night.
And when you stop and think about all the Clinton-Obama drama that has sort of
played out, even since South Carolina, they really couldn't have done more on
Obama's behalf at this convention, I think, than they did. So I think after
last night, this kind of closes the book on the Clintons for now, provided we
don't have any more of these flare-ups.
GROSS: Do you have any idea of what happened behind the scenes, what kind of
negotiations between the Hillary Clinton people and the Obama people about
what she'd say, what she maybe wanted in return for making an enthusiastic
endorsement? Likewise with Bill Clinton.
Mr. GREEN: Well, I think what Hillary Clinton wanted was to maintain some
leverage, to maintain some hold over these 18 million voters whose vote she
won in the primary. And I think that's something that rubbed the Obama folks
the wrong way. Tradition in politics holds that if you lose, you rally around
your party's candidate, and both Clintons seemed less than fully willing to do
that. In the negotiations going on behind the scenes, the Obama folks, I
think, were very bothered by the fact that Clinton tried to argue and kind of
maintain this leverage because they believe, and I think most people believe,
that if she gets a chance she's going to run for president again, and Clinton
didn't want to yield the supporters that she felt she'd earned. So that was a
real source of tension.
Beyond that, I think that there were some sort of growing pains, you know.
The Clintons and their supporters, their fundraisers have been the stars in
the center of the Democratic universe for 16 years. That's no longer the
case, and I think that there's a difficult period of adjustment going on for a
lot of them.
GROSS: Well, you know, a lot of people within the Democratic Party perceive
Hillary Clinton as having dragged out her concession long after it was clear
that she'd lost and keeping the party divided for a long period of time when
it needed to be unifying. And yet, now the Clintons are perceived as having
given real strong speeches endorsing Obama, so can you talk about where the
Clintons stand now in the party, where Hillary stands in the Senate? Do you
think that now that the Clinton speeches are done, does she have more or less
power in the party and in the Senate than she did before?
Mr. GREEN: I think because of the fact that they both acquitted themselves
gracefully that they both do still have significant power in the party, she
because she still has a slot in the Senate, and he because he really went a
long, long way, I think, toward redeeming a tarnished legacy. Had Bill
Clinton not delivered that speech and Obama lost in the fall, I think his
behavior over the course of the last six to eight months would have been a
real stain on his record. I think his speech was so strong last night that,
even in the event that Obama does not win in November, I think Clinton has
largely redeemed himself. You can't watch that speech and think to yourself
Bill Clinton didn't go all out on Obama's behalf.
As to the question of where they go from here and what sort of power they
hold, I think a lot of that depends on what happens in November. If Obama
wins, I think Bill Clinton will assume the role of kind of elder party wise
man that I think he'd like. Wouldn't be surprised to see him shuttling back
and forth between, you know, Washington and the Middle East.
The question of Hillary Clinton is a much more difficult one. On the one
hand, you know, she's earned these millions and millions of supporters. On
the other hand, it's not exactly clear what she can do with that power. If
Obama is elected, she probably won't be able to run for president again for
eight years. I don't think she's popular enough within the Democratic Party
to make a serious bid for majority leader. And so that leaves the sort of
question of what does she do? The one option I can see that would seem to
make sense and play to her strengths is really to take a lead role in the
Senate on something like universal health care. Ted Kennedy, who made a
dramatic appearance at the convention, is obviously ailing. While he vowed to
be on the Senate floor when Congress opens next January, it's going to be such
an epic struggle to pass legislation of this scope, it's going to take more
than Kennedy. It's going to take someone of Hillary Clinton's energy and
expertise on the issue, so I think that's one way, at least in the short term,
that she can still have an important public role and put some of this power
and some of this excitement that still surrounds her candidacy to use in the
GROSS: Have you heard talk behind the scenes about the possibility of Obama,
if he wins, offering Hillary Clinton a position in the Cabinet or considering
her as a Supreme Court justice?
Mr. GREEN: The talk of that mainly was during that period when the Obama
folks were trying to sort of shuffle Hillary off the stage as quickly and as
gracefully as they could. I haven't heard a lot of talk to that effect since
then. For one thing, I'm not sure that Obama wants Clinton in his
administration, just because of the distractions that it might pose. Now, the
Supreme Court would avoid a little bit of that and it'd certainly be an honor
for Clinton, so I suppose that's one possibility. But beyond that, I'm not
sure that Hillary Clinton wants a position in an Obama administration, even a
fairly senior one. I mean, when you think about it, she has basically already
served eight years as co-president, vice president, so, you know, making her
secretary of transportation or secretary of state or something to those
effects is really I think a bit of a step down for her, and I'm not sure it's
one that would hold a great of appeal.
GROSS: You wrote an article in The Atlantic magazine that got a lot of
attention about e-mails in the Hillary campaign that were leaked to you that
showed some of the tactics the campaign was developing, or considering
developing against Barack Obama. These e-mails also showed divisions and
anger within Hillary Clinton's campaign. Do you know what impact that had on
the Clinton campaign or on the Obama campaign, and on the Clinton-Obama
Mr. GREEN: Yeah, I've sort of gotten a back channel earful from both
campaigns. I think that it helped to underscore the divisions between the two
camps. It reminded both of them that there were a lot of bad feelings. A lot
of the material that I got was from Mark Penn, her chief strategist, who
wanted to run a very aggressive and negative campaign against Obama, and if
you talk to people in the Obama universe, from senior strategists down to
fundraisers, one of the reasons that they are so angry at Clinton is because
of Penn, her chief strategist, and their belief that he was really out to
damage Obama, not just to win the Democratic nomination. So I think the
e-mails and memos made this coming together a little bit more difficult. But
having said that, the speeches that the Clintons gave at the Democratic
convention, I think, really put all this stuff in the rearview mirror.
GROSS: Which e-mail do you think the Obama campaign found most disturbing?
Mr. GREEN: I think a March strategy memo from Mark Penn in which he laid out
the case against Obama and talked specifically of wanting to go over what Penn
called his `lack of American roots,' but even more broadly I think it was the
intensity with which the Clinton campaign kept pursuing and attacking Obama
late into the spring and long after it was mathematically all but certain that
Obama was going to be the nominee. I think seeing some of these
behind-the-scenes strategy memos and what they were doing and saying at the
time was something that kind of, you know, might have opened old wounds a
little bit and reminded the Obama and Clinton folks why they dislike each
GROSS: I should point out that Hillary Clinton decided not to follow the Mark
Mr. GREEN: You know, at the risk of sort of getting...(unintelligible)...I'm
not entirely convinced that she didn't follow the Mark Penn strategy. Penn's
strategy didn't say `go out and call him a Muslim in a turban.' It said, `We
need to do this very quietly and behind the scenes and we need to surround you
with American flags and talk about how you're American, from the middle of
America,' and she did an awful lot of that, as has McCain.
GROSS: He was saying to her, `You have to own the word American.'
Mr. GREEN: Yeah.
GROSS: Tell us something you've seen behind the scenes at the convention that
we won't have seen on television that you think is revealing about what's
happening at the Democratic convention.
Mr. GREEN: The number of people with "Hillary Supporters for Obama" buttons.
There's a tendency with--you know, there are 15 million reporters in town and
everybody needs to file stories and, you know, cable news needs to air a lot
of footage, and so the sense I get in my hotel room watching TV is that
there's this large community of angry Clinton voters who are not going to vote
for Barack Obama, who are going to support John McCain and upset the election,
and the truth is, if you go out and wander around the floor and talk to
delegates, you'd be hard-pressed to find one of them--I must have spoken to
dozens, if not hundreds of them over the last three days, and I've only found
one or two people that are really bitter and are going to refuse to vote for
Barack Obama. So I think one of the stories that's been far overplayed is
this idea of a lingering division between hard-core Hillary supporters who are
unwilling to vote for Barack Obama.
GROSS: Joshua Green, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. GREEN: It was good to be with you.
GROSS: Joshua Green is a senior writer for The Atlantic. He joined us from
Coming up, Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation, joins us from the
convention. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Columnist Katha Pollitt on Hillary Clinton's campaign
and speech at the Democratic National Convention
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest Katha Pollitt is at the Democratic convention. She's a columnist for
The Nation and has written extensively about women's issues over the years.
We were interested in hearing her take on Hillary Clinton's campaign and her
speech endorsing Obama.
Katha Pollitt, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What's your take on the historic
significance of Hillary Clinton's campaign and how her campaign has changed
the perception of women in politics, or women's issues?
Ms. KATHA POLLITT: Well, Hillary Clinton wasn't the first woman to run for
president. In modern times, that would be Shirley Chisholm, who was also
honored here at the convention at one point. But it was the first campaign
that actually had a realistic chance of success. She got a phenomenal number,
more than 18 million votes, all those cracks in the glass ceiling that her
supporters talk about. And I think it really had a very important effect--a
complicated effect--that somehow even her defeat made women's winning more of
GROSS: What do you mean by that?
Ms. POLLITT: Well, I thinks she ran a very big, credible campaign. She
became a stronger campaigner as she went on. She learned to laugh at things
that hurt her in the beginning, like, you know, all that fashion criticism
that was so ridiculous. She had to put up with so much sexist nonsense. And
I was an Obama supporter but I really felt for her, you know, that--and she
learned to be able to roll with that and laugh at that and became a more
relaxed and confident campaigner who could really connect with people, and I
think that she ended the campaign as a more--showing that a woman could be a
very, very viable candidate.
GROSS: What were your thoughts on Hillary's speech? What was your reaction?
Ms. POLLITT: I thought it was phenomenal. I thought it was one of the best
speeches I ever heard. And you know what? She looked happy giving it. She
was so relaxed and confident. She could make a little fun of herself, you
know, the "sisterhood of the traveling pants suit," as she described herself
and her staff. And in the video before, which Chelsea introduced, there was
actually a little segment where she made gentle fun of, you know, her laugh,
and she showed a little segment from that "Saturday Night Live" skit about her
laugh. And, you know, you remember the so-called Hillary cackle was one of
the main misogynistic memes of the primary. So I just thought it was a
wonderful, wonderful speech, and it just showed she was able to be a big
person when it counted.
GROSS: One of the things Hillary said in her speech that I thought was kind
of directly aimed to the people who are saying `I'm voting for Hillary or no
one or McCain.' She said, `I want you to ask yourselves'--I'm paraphrasing
here--`I want you to ask yourselves, were you in this campaign just for me?
Or were you in it for all the people in the country who feel invisible?'
Ms. POLLITT: That's exactly right, and that's the question. `Were you in
this campaign just for me?' I mean, somehow, a symbol can become too
important, do you know, that you forget what the symbol symbolizes. And what
a woman--a woman president would be a great thing in and of itself, but it
was--I mean, this is just my opinion--it's mostly a symbol, because Barack
Obama and Hillary Clinton will both do very, very good things for women's
rights. I think Barack Obama really understands the need of appealing to
women and of also responding to the crises in women's lives around employment,
around reproductive rights, around, you know, housing and child support and
child care and you name it. And he's got a lot of very, very excellent women
on board his campaign and working very hard for him. So, you know, at a
certain point, clinging to the "Hillary for president" theme really is
forgetting what the presidency was supposed to do for women.
GROSS: You supported Barack Obama, but you were appalled at what you've
described as the "misogynist vitriol and mean girl snark" aimed at Hillary
Clinton, and you're talking about what was directed at her largely from the
media--you don't mean from the Obama campaign. What are some of the things
that stand out in your mind as being representative of the kind of misogynist
remark that today is still aimed at a powerful woman candidate like Hillary?
Ms. POLLITT: Well, there were numerous jokes from, I believe, Tucker Carlson
and Chris Matthews about the Hillary nutcracker that you could buy for 19.95
that would crush nuts in its steely thighs. They thought that was really
hilarious. There was--remember all that fuss over her misty moment in New
Hampshire when the fact that she had a misty moment was supposed to mean that
she shouldn't be the president. I called Pat Schroeder, you know, who you
remember cried when she ended her brief primary run years ago. She told me
that she had a whole file of men in politics crying, you know. When a man
in--including the president--when a man in politics cries, then it's, `Oh!
Something so important has happened that this manly man is shedding a few
tears. He's having a, you know'--but when a woman does it, it's, oh--she's
too emotional, she's weak, she's a girl. So, you know, it just went on and on
and on. And a lot of it was on MSNBC and CNN, the cable shows.
And I think the obsession with her clothes played against her being against
a--seriousness. You remember the notorious--the notorious article in the
Washington Post by their fashion columnist Robin Givhan about, you know, the
supposed cleavage that Hillary displayed on the floor of the Senate, you know,
by wearing a shell that was so much more modest than what I'm wearing now, let
me tell you. But somehow this was supposed to be, `Oh my God! You know, is
she a woman? Is she a politician? I can't decide!' It was ridiculous, just
ridiculous! The media really needs to get over its discomfort with women as
anything but, you know, babes or grandmas.
GROSS: Katha Pollitt, thanks so much for joining us.
Ms. POLLITT: Thank you so much for having me, Terry.
GROSS: Katha Pollitt spoke to us from Denver. She's a columnist for The
Nation. Her memoir "Learning To Drive" will be published next month in
paperback. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Mark Sawyer of the Center for the Study of Race,
Ethnicity and Politics at UCLA on race in Obama's campaign
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Tonight on the 45th anniversary of
Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, Barack Obama will accept his
party's nomination for president, making him the first African-American to
receive a major party's nomination for that position. It's difficult for many
Americans to talk about how race figures into politics, but it's not hard for
my guest Mark Sawyer. He 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.
Mark Sawyer, welcome to FRESH AIR. What significance do you think it has in
American history to have an African-American as the nominee of a major party?
Mr. MARK SAWYER: It's a huge significance. It means that the way we think
about ourselves as Americans may be changing dramatically. African-Americans
have been on the outside looking in, sometimes, this American story, or in
some ways a kind of pariah, or, I mean, to use DuBois' term "double
consciousness," sort of in the outside looking in or vice versa. So therefore
it means that African-Americans may--or we may begin to think of ourselves
much more as a part of the American story, a central part, than we've been
given credit for in the past.
GROSS: Can I ask what the personal significance is to you that an
African-American is accepting his party's nomination for president?
Mr. SAWYER: Yeah, I mean, I think, well, the night that it was clear that he
was going to be the nominee I was doing an interview with a radio show in
London--I think I was almost in tears and I said, I've never felt so American
as today, as if America might have embraced me. And that's difficult, because
oftentimes a lot of African-Americans have struggled with their patriotism
because of the legacy of slavery and racism; particularly even as a political
scientist I'm aware that flag waving has sometimes been associated with
negative feelings about the other, including African-Americans, immigrants,
and others, and that's a discernible thing that we can find in actual data.
GROSS: What kind of data are you referring to?
Mr. SAWYER: Well, in public opinion data, in particular whites who express
high levels of patriotism frequently express high levels of anti-black racism.
You wouldn't think that the things are necessarily automatically associated
with one another, but there is. That is, their love of American has been
constructed under the idea, and frequently either conscious or subconscious,
idea that America's a white nation and needs to stay that way. And so they
tend to express a kind of distaste for the other the more that they love
America, and there's a huge literature on this that that basically shows this
time and time again.
GROSS: Now, you mentioned patriotism. Michelle Obama has been accused of
being unpatriotic because of comments that she made about America, so how do
you interpret the use of that word in the context of the campaign?
Mr. SAWYER: Yeah, I think there's a debate between two kinds of patriotism.
One is a kind of patriotism saying `I love American, right or wrong, no matter
what it does.' And even the sort of Rush Limbaugh characters who are always
sort of critical of America, right--`America's on the wrong track'--still
claim that kind of patriotism. Another is a kind of critical patriotism,
which is, `The project that is America is a work in progress and we are
struggling to live up to our best values as embodied by the Constitution and
the Bill of Rights.' And people like Martin Luther King and Benjamin Franklin
and Frederick Douglass or Susan B. Anthony. And a kind of patriotism that
says, `I love my country enough to struggle to help it to become what it might
be, that sort of beacon on a hill.' And I think that kind of patriotism has
frequently been criticized and attacked and was the kind that Michelle was
expressing when she said, `This is a time I feel very proud of our
country--the first time I feel very proud of our country.' She was saying that
the sort of upwelling of support--the love for someone--by so many people--of
someone who's different than them--made her feel very proud, and which she
frequently had seen the opposite of that.
GROSS: Barack Obama represents a younger generation of American leaders and
of African-American leaders. He will be accepting his party's nomination on
the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. Would you
reflect a little bit about differences in the issues for those two generations
Mr. SAWYER: Yeah, I mean, it couldn't be more profound. I mean, on one
hand, as one side of issues that have largely been sort of taken off the
table, which was the sort of one central aim of what Martin Luther King cited
as the freedom struggle was civil rights. Civil rights were accomplished with
the '64, '65 acts that provided for public accommodations, voting rights, etc.
Now the struggle is about what part will African-Americans and largely people
of color and more generally play in the American story, what will be the terms
of their inclusion moving forward into the 21st century.
There's been a very complicated response. Incarceration is up, poverty still
remains a problem. The question is, on what terms will we be a part of this
American story? How much can we--to what degree will we be able to embrace
it? What will be our central role, and will we have a more interdependent and
connected future across racial lines? And, in fact, right now the current
thing is--my argument is that if African Americans and Latinos--America's
dependent upon them. The future of America depends upon them. As by, you
know, 2042, the census says that there will be no majority group, minorities
will be such a large part of the American landscape.
GROSS: You know, during the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton ran a
historic candidacy, you know, as a woman who was getting so close to getting
her party's nomination, and she made being a woman a focal point of that
campaign. Now, Barack Obama was also in a historic situation, on the verge of
getting his party's nomination, but he didn't make being African-American a
focal point of his campaign in the way that Hillary made being a woman a focal
point of hers. Do you think that there would have been a difference focusing
on his race for him, as you know, compared to Hillary focusing on her gender?
Mr. SAWYER: Well, it would have been a disaster for him to have run
explicitly as a black candidate, talking about race issues frequently. That
tends to scare voters. In fact, political scientists have a term that we call
"deracialized" campaigns, in which black candidates seek to pursue campaign
strategies where they don't emphasize race or racial difference. Think about
the contrast of someone like a Sharpe James or a Coleman Young in Detroit, who
talked about racial empowerment. But for the most part, black candidates who
need to get white votes for a long time have not wanted to racialize their
campaigns. They've tried to use universal appeals generally, and have to.
The question is whether the campaign gets racialized for them. But especially
given the gender breakdown of the Democratic primary, it was a plus for
Hillary Clinton to particularly use the gender issue as a way of getting
support and emphasizing the historic nature of her candidacy, and particularly
pulling in the kind of second wave feminist ethos into her campaign.
GROSS: There have been times when Barack Obama has been accused of playing
the race card. You have a great definition, by the way, I should ask you for,
about the race card.
Mr. SAWYER: Yeah. So the race card comes from O.J.'s lawyer Robert Shapiro,
when he said about the O.J. trial that `we played the race card, and we
played it from the bottom of the deck.' And I guess what that meant is that
it's a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. It's that when an African-American
is facing some criticism, if there is such a thing as a race card, there's
supposed to be believed that they can sort of claim that the critique is, or
the criticism is somehow racist, and therefore it disappears. It sort of
stops whites in their tracks. It's sort of a version of garlic and a cross to
a vampire or something, and it's generally perceived to be used as a kind of
tactic, to blunt what would otherwise be fair criticism.
The problem is, no such thing exists, especially in the context of a political
campaign. Any week when Barack Obama is talking about race or racism is a
week in which he's losing because talking about that issue cues for whites his
racial difference. And you can see that reflected in the polls. So one of
the campaign tactics that his campaign has sometimes fallen into but been
baited into is to get them talking about race. And it's tough, because they
have to in some ways inoculate themselves from very sort of subtle uses of
race that play on unconscious fears and prejudices and make them conscious for
voters, but at the same time, not turn the dialogue to being about race in a
way that will turn off white voters and make him sort of the black candidate
and not able to have a universal appeal.
GROSS: Now, you said that you--like, a candidate like Barack Obama can't play
the race card because to talk directly about race will be a losing battle.
Like, an African-American candidate who needs a white vote, too, can't win
that way. Now, what about, say, Clarence Thomas? Now, I know he wasn't
running for a popular vote, but when he was going through his confirmation
hearings for Supreme Court justice, some of his critics said that he
emphasized his autobiography and the racial aspects of his autobiography to
inoculate himself against criticism because his critics risked sounding like
Mr. SAWYER: Right. And he also--well, he even used the comment that he was
the victim of a high tech lynching...
Mr. SAWYER: And in fact--no, and he played race against gender, which was
the line of attack, which was that he had engaged in a certain kind of--he had
sexually harassed Anita Hill, literally. And so what Clarence Thomas was
doing, when an African-American strikes back, but in the context of a
conservative conversation, which is to say, `I'm black and I don't buy into
those things that other black people do, so racism has not ruled my life.
Racism has been this thing that I've consistently overcome and been able to
move aside.' And in fact, Barack Obama frequently, in the way that he talks
about race, tries to talk about race in a way of overcoming, transcending, or
weaving the struggle for racial equality into the fabric of the American
narrative in such a way that Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass and
abolitionists become sort of founding fathers alongside the Jeffersons, the
Franklins and the Washingtons in a sort of sense of perfecting a more
So there's two very different uses. It's not as if he doesn't use race at
all, but it's that talking specifically or hurling accusations about sort of
white racism or calling the candidate or your opponent a racist plays very
GROSS: My guest is Mark Sawyer. He directs the Center for the Study of Race,
Ethnicity and Politics at UCLA. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
GROSS: My guest is Mark Sawyer, director of the Center for the Study of Race,
Ethnicity and Politics. We're talking about the historic nomination of Barack
Let me quote something for you. This was an op-ed in The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution by Cynthia Tucker, and she wrote about how the Obamas'
narratives have brought new kinds of personal narratives into national
politics. She wrote, "Win or lose, Obama's campaign has already changed the
nation's racial dynamic, if only by highlighting the accomplishments of the
black middle class." I wonder if you agree with her on that.
Mr. SAWYER: Yes, but I mean, we also had "The Cosby Show" that kind of
highlighted the accomplishments of the black middle class, which was, you
know, probably one of the number one shows in the '80s, and I think it kind of
continues that narrative. One thing I will say that I think was striking...
GROSS: Of course, that was a TV show.
Mr. SAWYER: Yeah, it wasn't entirely real, so people could dismiss it, but
there was some evidence that in particular whites did really think it was real
and sort of wondered why there were so many black poor people when the Cosbys
were doing so well. But on Michelle's speech Monday, I thought the one thing
that was really startling was an African-American love story that we don't see
frequently in Hollywood, the way she talked about their courtship, their
family, the way they fell in love with one another. We don't often see that
in Hollywood or elsewhere. There very rarely are black actors you can pair
together to tell a story of a romantic character, and so it was--her speech
was almost--it was striking in that Barack Obama was playing a romantic lead
in a sense, and then sort of transfers into kind of "Father Knows Best," you
know, a stable father/family man, but the beginning of the story was about
him, you know, playing the sort of guy trying to get the girl that we don't
often see in sort of--in African-Americans, in Hollywood and elsewhere on
GROSS: Tell me what else you heard in Michelle Obama's speech on Monday that
you're not used to hearing as part of the political discourse.
Mr. SAWYER: I guess her willingness to really have to explain her
background, not just tell a story, or tell how wonderful, but that she had to
try and gin up a sense to make people understand where she comes from by being
very vivid in the description, but she also had to simultaneously, really--it
was an extraordinary tightrope act--avoid any sense of black anger, so
particularly when she talked about her father and his working through MS and
being a city worker, that there were just a set of expectations that she had
that she would do well and that her and her brother would struggle and work
hard to get ahead, but that she didn't really talk about any sense of kind of
impediment or struggle. So it was just an interesting tightrope act.
And just the--I mean, some of the things--I mean, there's some evidence that
just the sort of very--her height, her physicality, is--she's a very striking
woman, both in the way she stands. It's going to be interesting to see how
the speech that appeared on Monday plays in the context of the broader
convention because it was designed to appeal to the emotion of Democrats and
to create an emotional connection and empathy with the Obama family, including
bringing out the daughters in a very unscripted moment. But there may be an
GROSS: Now, you said that you thought Michelle Obama consciously tried to
avoid expressing anything that would sound like black anger. She has been
accused by people on the right of being angry. Why is--you use a phrase like
black anger. What does that phrase mean to you? What are the implications of
Mr. SAWYER: Well, the implications of it is an African-American who sees
racism as something that has dominated their lives, largely by--this is
probably largely in the white imagination--and wants to exact some kind of
revenge. Nat Turner, for instance, for having experienced that. Or even the
kind of comments about the O.J. jury, that they were somehow taking revenge
on whites for all of the sort of injustices that they'd experienced. And
writing about this goes all the way back. I mean, Thomas Jefferson suggested
that blacks might not be fit to be citizens because of the rage of having
experienced slavery. And it's one of those things that cues concern and
mistrust amongst whites.
And she specifically tried to avoid it. She talked about working hard. She
talked about overcoming poverty and her father's kinds of illnesses. She
didn't really talk about any experiences of race or racism growing up, and so
it was a kind of tightrope act to talk about--to present struggle and not
being spoon-fed without portraying it in an angry way.
GROSS: You were talking about how whites perceive, you know, quote, "black
anger" as being threatening, as being like resentful, as maybe being about
people who were looking for revenge against white people for injustices
against black. Do you think that makes it difficult for Barack Obama to wage
a very aggressive campaign in fighting back against attack ads and other
attacks against him from Republicans, out of fear...
Mr. SAWYER: I think...
GROSS: ...that it might be perceived as the kind of, quote, "black anger"
that you were talking about?
Mr. SAWYER: I think it means that he cannot use the powerful emotions of
fear and anger in his campaign because it might cue--as well as
indignation--because they might cue that kind of response or that kind of
concern. He has to portray himself as kind of above that. Otherwise, he
might become angry black man, and I think those who have sort of suggested
that Obama go more aggressively on the attack don't always appreciate his
concern for, if he were to go on the attack in a very strident fashion, that
he might cross over, that he would all of a sudden become and begin to look
like Al Sharpton, no matter what he was saying.
GROSS: You said that you thought maybe there would be an empathy gap in their
response to Michelle Obama's speech. What do you mean by that? What are you
Mr. SAWYER: Well, frequently both in sort of social scientist issues, but
also in other kinds of things, there's a kind of white resentment of black
success or struggle, so they don't feel a sort of sense of empathy with the
struggle, they don't see themselves in the struggle, and in fact there's the
opposite reaction, which is there's resentment. So if, hopefully--and just
for the sense of kind of fairness, right, that that speech would play as if a
white person were giving it and would invoke a sort of empathetic reaction.
One may politically disagree with Michelle and Barack Obama, but if there's an
empathy gap, it will mean that that speech, which talked about her struggle
and their successes and their ability to become a kind of successful family,
and Barack Obama's rise as well as hers, might spur a kind of resentment among
Mr. SAWYER: Well, because it's perceived as being undeserved. They don't
see themselves in that struggle. They don't see--and they see black success
as being a result of affirmative action, government programs, handouts,
special treatment, those kinds of things.
GROSS: I thought it was interesting the way she talked about her mother
saying to her, when she went to college--you know, when Michelle went to
college, that more college-educated children need to return home to the
community, and that both, you know, Michelle and Barack Obama ended up doing
that, after leaving home to go to Ivy League schools.
Mr. SAWYER: Yeah, it was her--the quote from her mother was echoing a sense
of service and racial uplift, but one that's perfectly consistent with some of
the arguments of W.B. DuBois and even Booker T. Washington, for that matter,
and a long history of African-American tradition, but one that's ultimately
nonthreatening, right? Which is the idea that you want to uplift, you want to
encourage, you want to help build the African-American community as part of
the entire American community.
GROSS: My guest is Mark Sawyer. He directs the Center for the Study of Race,
Ethnicity and Politics at UCLA. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
GROSS: My guest is Mark Sawyer, director of the Center for the Study of Race,
Ethnicity and Politics at UCLA. We're talking about the historic nomination
of Barack Obama.
So, you know, Barack Obama is not only the first African-American candidate to
win his party's nomination, he's the first biracial candidate to win his
party's nomination, and I wonder how you see the biracial aspect of his
background as uniting and/or dividing America in how it's being discussed, and
how he is discussing it, how he's being attacked by opponents and so on.
Mr. SAWYER: I think he actually uses it quite well, in that he has a way of
laying his identities that is very authentic, right? He doesn't seem to
be--he simultaneously thinks of himself as wholly African-American, but also
biracial, very much identifies with his mother's family. The way people write
about it sometimes can be quite shocking. I remember a piece in The Atlantic
Monthly that talked about his mother taught him too well to express black
rage, as if, you know, somehow, you know, that's--there's no black mother that
could ever teach him that. Or, you know, to be well-spoken and polite and
those kind of things. So I--it's a very strange way, but it also shows how
much in operation the one drop rule is. I also wonder a little bit if the
campaign might be different if his mother were still alive and with us.
GROSS: What do you think about when you think of that?
Mr. SAWYER: Well, the idea that he would have her as a kind of articulate
advocate to present his story and who he is, in particular to the large sort
of basic face of swing voters, which is older white women. Inasmuch as you
think about Michelle Obama trying to be the surrogate, thinking about his
mother, being the surrogate to those group of people, the woman who raised
him, who would be a sort of white woman from that particular generation.
GROSS: So any further thoughts before we have to wrap up about the historic
significance of Barack Obama accepting his party's nomination and accepting it
on the night of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech?
Mr. SAWYER: Well, simultaneously he represents the first generation that
grew up without Jim Crow, but at the same time my great-grandfather was a
slave and it really marks both the sort of incredible set of progress that's
been made in the context of the American story, but also speaks to the, in
some ways the strangeness of the moment, I think--the war in Iraq, the
flagging economy created an opening. A change--these kinds of changes, at
least in my research, don't happen slowly over time, but happen in huge,
convulsive shifts, and we may be on the brink of one.
GROSS: Mark Sawyer, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SAWYER: Thank you very much, Terry. I really enjoyed it.
GROSS: Mark 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.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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.