DATE August 12, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Barack Obama discusses his life and career
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
If there's a rising star in the Democratic Party today, it's the Democratic
candidate for US Senate in Illinois, Barack Obama. Chosen to give the keynote
address at the Democratic National Convention, Obama spoke on themes of
inclusion, unity and what he called `the audacity of hope.' Obama's father
was from Kenya, who met his mother, a white woman from Kansas, during college.
Obama is currently a state senator from Chicago. He fought a seven-way
primary to get the US Senate nomination, winning a remarkable 53 percent of
the vote. What's excited party leaders and caught the attention of analysts
is his ability to win in white neighborhoods, apparently connecting with
voters of all backgrounds.
The Senate race in Illinois took a surprising turn when the Republican
candidate, Jack Ryan, dropped out after salacious details of his divorce from
his wife, actress Jeri Ryan, became public. Last Sunday the Illinois
Republican Party chose conservative commentator Alan Keyes as their new
candidate, and we'll speak to him later in the hour.
Back in 1996, before he'd ever run for office, Barack Obama published a memoir
of his life in search for racial identity called "Dreams From My Father."
It's been updated and is being republished this week. I spoke to Barack Obama
on Tuesday. We began by talking about his family background.
State Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democratic Candidate for US Senate): Well, you
know, my father was part of that first generation of Africans who traveled to
the United States to get an education. Their plan was to return to their
country, bring back technology, sort of like Promethean fire, to help develop
these newly independent countries. He met my mother in Hawaii at the
University of Hawaii while they were both studying. And this is in the early
'60s, and so, you know, obviously at that time mixed marriage was illegal in
much of the country. But Hawaii, because of its cultural diversity and, you
know, the unique status that it had as an island state, I think, was more
accommodating. Nevertheless, the strains and tension of the two cultures, I
think, led my parents to separate relatively young.
So he returned to Kenya after studying at Harvard. I did not end up knowing
him particularly well. My mother remarried an Indonesian; I moved to Jakarta.
And my memories both of Hawaii and Jakarta, I think, were significant in my
ongoing development: Hawaii because it is such a cultural melting pot,
probably unique in the United States for having so many different competing
cultures, none of which are dominate or assertive, and--but it taught me, I
think, the possibilities of different cultures living side by side; Indonesia
just because it was a fascinating country. And for a six-year-old boy running
around rice patties and riding water buffalo and dealing with, you know, all
the excitement and, also, the challenges of a Third World country in the late
'60s, I think, you know, was to have a significant mark on my life for many
years to come, particularly the huge gaps in wealth that existed there. I
think it made me more mindful of not only my blessings as a US citizen, but
also the ways that fate can determine the lives of young children, so that one
ends up being fabulously wealthy and another ends up being extraordinarily
DAVIES: You wrote that your mom became aware of power and how it can be used
to abuse people. And you also write your mom thought it was important to
instill in you values of honesty and fairness. And you write that her only
ally in all this was the distant authority of your father. You wrote that she
told you that you have her to thank for your eyebrows, but your brains and
your character you got from him. What was the image of your father that you
carried for all those years of...
State Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, that's one of the finest gifts that my
mother ever gave me. You know, I think a lot of parents, when they separate,
there's a lot of bitterness there. And partly just because my mother's
wonderful spirit, partly because my father was this very imposing, almost
mythic figure, not only to my mother, but to the people that he met during the
brief time he was in Hawaii, he ended up becoming this figure of great
authority. You know, he was famous for his intelligence and his charm and his
loquaciousness. And as a consequence, you know, I ended up having this
extraordinarily positive image of being black and that there was no reason to
think that the stereotypes that I would learn subsequently about
African-Americans that were still rampant, and to some degree still are
rampant, ever applied to me.
DAVIES: You eventually returned to Hawaii and were raised, in large part, by
your white grandparents, you mom's parents. But as I read the memoir, it was
clear that by high school, you clearly had an identity as a black American.
And I wonder, do you feel that that was a choice you made or that it was made
by the world you inhabited? Did American culture make that choice for you?
State Sen. OBAMA: Well, I think it's a combination of both. I think that, as
I said before, my attitude about being black was always positive. The
associations within my family were positive, and so it wasn't something that I
was fearful of or disturbed by. You know, when I was an awkward teen, you
know, the trouble I had didn't have to do with being black. It had to do with
the fact that I had this funny name, Barack Obama, and, you know, you always
want to fit in. You wish your name was Tim Smith. But certainly the society
had something to do with it as well.
You know, recently, now that I've been getting a lot of attention in the
political arena, there are a number of commentators who have asked me about,
`Well, you know, you're half-white. Why do you call yourself
African-American?' And I give two responses. One, I think that the term
African-American already describes a hybrid culture. We are a hybrid people.
We are a people that are native to this country and partake of all the
cultural crosscurrents that exist. The second thing is the fact that if I'm
trying to catch a cab in Manhattan, you know, the driver started looking at me
and they're saying `Well, there's a black guy out there hailing a cab.' And,
you know, that's an identity that I welcome and embrace, and it's a tradition
that I draw from. I don't feel it's something that I need to shy away from.
And I don't feel that it's contradictory to take that position and still
embrace the fact that I had this wonderful side of my family that was white.
And the values that they instilled in me are ones that I still care about,
precisely because I don't think that they're white or black values, but I
think they're human values.
DAVIES: So you grew up largely in Hawaii, and you had this image of your dad
as a man of enormous accomplishment and character, which your mom had kept in
your mind. And then...
State Sen. OBAMA: Right.
DAVIES: ...there was one real visit that he made when you were 10.
State Sen. OBAMA: And...
DAVIES: What are your recollections of that?
State Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, what was remarkable--and I devote a chapter
of the book to this--is the degree to which he somehow was able to live up to
these images that I had. He was imposing and he was impressive, and he did
change the space around him when he walked into a room. I didn't know at the
time and would only know subsequently when I traveled to Kenya and met my
family there that he was actually struggling and having an enormously
difficult time. But his capacity to establish an image for himself of being
in command was in full force, and it had an impressive effect on a 10-year-old
It was funny. Later in life, you know, I would realize how much that brief
visit and interaction with him altered me in all sorts of ways, some of which
I don't even notice, but my mother I would notice later: you know, habits of
how I speak or, you know, how I gesture. And it just reminds you, I think, of
what a powerful force parents are in their children's lives.
DAVIES: You studied at a prep school in Hawaii that you were lucky enough to
get into, which seems like it was not an easy time. And it seemed like the
time when you were in high school seems to be the one episode in your life
when you seemed to lose some motivation, and your grades slipped and, you
know, you smoked marijuana with your buddies. And I'm kind of wondering, in
retrospect, what was going on then? What was troubling you?
State Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, I think a couple of things were going on.
One is the absence of a father, I think, has the most profound effect on
teen-age boys because it's right at that time where they're dealing with
hormones and they're trying to figure out, you know, `How do I assert myself
in this world? And who am I?' And, you know, when you don't have clear
models, you start trying to pick models off the rack. And that's a period in
time where I think I fell into the trap that a lot of African-American youth
fall into, and that it is these exaggerated stereotypes about how I should
behave: that I should rebel against academic achievement or I should
concentrate all my attention on sports or I should dabble in drugs.
And it wasn't until I reached college that I started recognizing that I had
bought into a set of false assumptions about what it meant to be black. But
part of--you know, the culture was powerful. I mean, keep in mind, this is a
time when, you know, "Shaft" and "Superfly" and, you know--that's one
alternative. And the other alternative is Flip Wilson in a wig. You know...
State Sen. OBAMA: ...if you had to choose between those two, you know,
"Shaft" seemed to be the better deal. So, you know, I think that--I don't
want to overstate this because I think in a lot of ways I wasn't that
different from a lot of teen-age kids growing up in the '70s, which, you know,
was a difficult time for the country generally.
DAVIES: My guest is Barack Obama. He is a state senator from Illinois and
currently a candidate for the US Senate. We'll talk some more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: We're back with Barack Obama. He is a candidate for the United
States Senate in Illinois. He is also a state senator and the author of a
memoir, "Dreams From My Father."
So you graduate high school, you go to college in Los Angeles--Occidental
College if I recall.
State Sen. OBAMA: Right.
DAVIES: And eventually you make contact with one of your sisters from Kenya.
State Sen. OBAMA: Right.
DAVIES: Auma. Do I have her name correct?
State Sen. OBAMA: That's correct, yeah.
DAVIES: And you eventually get together for a several-day meeting. And it's
interesting to me that for a while you don't talk about your father. Then
eventually the time is right, and she tells the story, the kind of the story
that you haven't heard about your dad. And I'm--tell us what she told you and
what its effect was.
State Sen. OBAMA: Well, what was fascinating was to hear her speak. She had
studied in Germany, was visiting me while I was--actually had moved to Chicago
by this time. I had graduated from Columbia University in New York, had
worked as an organizer for about six months and moved to Chicago to continue
community-organizing work out in the far South Side of Chicago working with
churches that were trying to deal with the devastation of steel plants closing
in the area. And she made contact and came to visit me in Chicago.
And it was at that point that I learned that my father had had a very troubled
life. He had passed away at this point. I had gotten a call while I was in
New York that he had been killed in a car accident. When she came to visit,
she explained to me that, upon his return to Kenya, he had ended up being
caught up with the government in Kenya but had had a falling out, in part,
because he was somebody who was willing to speak out against corruption and
nepotism in the government administration there; had been blackballed from the
government, had ended up having an alcoholism problem at the same time as he
had fallen on very hard times and so had gone from being a big man with an
American education, who was prominent in the government, to somebody who had
to borrow from relatives to support his children, the children he had had from
other marriages in Kenya.
And so this image that I had of this very strong powerful imposing figure was
suddenly balanced by this picture of a very tragic figure of who had never
been able to really pull all the pieces of his life together again. And that
was a disquieting revelation, obviously, and had to make me re-examine, you
know, how I high I had been thinking about him and what my expectations were
of him and I also think also forced me to grow up a little bit. You know, one
of the things that all of us have to face sometime in our lives is the
realization that our parents are mortal and fallible. And in some ways that
was delayed for me when it comes to thinking about my father because he wasn't
around. So you didn't have a chance to see him age or cry or have
DAVIES: Or struggle. Yeah. Yeah.
State Sen. OBAMA: Or struggle. And, really, my sister did see that happen
to him in those way, and it really, I think, shook me up ultimately in a
DAVIES: It's almost as if holding on to the myth was more important...
State Sen. OBAMA: Well...
DAVIES: ...or important in some way.
State Sen. OBAMA: ...you know, it was certainly more important to my family.
State Sen. OBAMA: I mean, what's striking was what a vigorous defense they
would always mount to my father. And I think that is a testimony to him in
some fashion because he really did change their lives. I mean, keep in
DAVIES: The Kenyan family, you mean.
State Sen. OBAMA: Well, no. I'm talking about my mother's family.
State Sen. OBAMA: You know, I think that, you know, there was an important
transaction that took place between my mother's family and my father in the
sense that, you know, they offered to him some sort of entree into the modern
world or to the Western world. But the flip side of it is that he drew them
out of the parochialism and ordinariness of a Midwestern Kansas existence.
You know, he made their lives different and exciting. And suddenly they had a
grandchild who spoke to, you know, Kennedy's New Frontier and Dr. King's
magnificent dream. And I think that that was critical for them as well,
certainly critical to my mother, who was somebody who, as a child, I think,
was always sensing that there was a bigger world out there; that somehow she
had to access. And she accessed it initially through my father.
DAVIES: Going back to the moment when your sister Auma kind of told you the
details of the difficulties your father had had and you'd realized--and I
think you said, you know, your ...(unintelligible) other people being flawed,
but not Dr. Obama.
State Sen. OBAMA: You know, I think that, in some ways, it was liberating
because, you know, I didn't realize how much I had been trying to chase after
his ghost or that I'd been arguing with somebody who, in fact, didn't exist.
And there was probably some sense of relief there. But I think it also made
me question myself in all sorts of ways because you often are concerned that
if your parents have these flaws, goodness, you know, I'm going to have these
flaws, too. You know, it's like the big ears I inherited from my grandfather,
you know, or the, you know, bad back or what have you. You know, you worry
that there are elements of their character that have seeped into you,
unbeknownst to you, and you've got to figure out how you're going to cope with
And so, you know, I think both things were operating. And it wasn't until I
returned to Kenya and had a chance to stand at his grave and my grandfather's
grave in a small village, you know, named Allego(ph) near Lake Victoria and
wept for him and understood his journey and my grandfather's journey and also
understood that the best in him wasn't all that different from the best in my
white grandfather from Kansas; you know, that the values that connected my
mother and my father were values that I could embrace, that I didn't have to
choose between them. You know, it wasn't until that point that I think I was
able to come to terms with it.
DAVIES: You're now married. You have a wife, Michelle; two small kids. And,
you know, we all wonder to what extent we're going to become our parents. And
I wondered, as I read about how you discovered that your father, who, you
know, you'd always thought of as a man of great character and accomplishments
and truly was, turned out to be a guy who, you know, had, you know, a polygamy
in his past and a tough stretch with some drinking issues. And I'm wondering,
do you ever worry whether you'll be able to remain--does it make you concerned
that you won't be able to remain the kind of committed husband and father that
I'm sure you want to be?
State Sen. OBAMA: (Laughs) You know, it--Lyndon Johnson, who I don't quote
that often, had this wonderful saying. He says, `Every man is trying to live
up to his father's expectations or make up for his mistakes.' And I guess I'm
trying to do both. You know, my father set some high expectations for me and
for himself that he couldn't always meet. And I'm trying to live up to those
high standards but also make up for the mistakes that he made, particularly
with respect to his family life.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting you mentioned LBJ because he's an example
of a politician, as are a lot of very successful politicians, who are rooted
in a place. I mean, we know he is a Texan. We know that Harry Truman came
from Missouri. Your past seems almost rooted in ideas and in diversity,
inclusion, hope, or is Chicago really your home?
State Sen. OBAMA: You know, at this point, Chicago really is my home. I
mean, the middle section of the book is about Chicago, and that's really where
I found my manhood and I found my home and my roots because the
African-American community in Chicago is a wonderfully rich and funky, you
know, area. And, you know, the community that we live in on the South Side of
Chicago is full of traditions and a strong African-American political history,
a strong African-American cultural and religious history. And it's really
provided me with a base of support, a family, a network that, you know, I'm
just grateful for every day. And it's the community where my wife grew up.
It's the community where we go to church and we raised our kids.
And so at this point I feel very much rooted in that community. But as I've
said before, I'm not limited by that community. And I certainly think that
one of the gifts that I may bring to bear in my politics is the ability to
span across cultures in a way that I think is going to be increasingly
important in an age where not only within our borders but outside our borders
there are a lot of conflicting cultures that have to be drawn together.
DAVIES: Barack Obama. He's currently the Democratic candidate for the United
States Senate from Illinois. We'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Coming up, giving the keynote address at the Democratic National
Convention. We continue our conversation with Barack Obama. And we'll talk
with his opponent in the US Senate race, Republican and conservative
commentator Alan Keyes.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
Let's get back to our conversation with Barack Obama. He gave the keynote
address at the Democratic National Convention, and he's the party's candidate
for the US Senate from Illinois.
One of the lines that was most quoted from your convention speech was your
exhortation to `eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is
acting white.' I'm wondering, you, I think at times in your career, have been
regarded by some African-American politicians as a guy who isn't really a
black politician but sort of some exotic character who, you know, kind of
white middle-class folks like to like. How have you confronted that issue?
State Sen. OBAMA: You know, what's fascinating is it's never been an issue
among regular folks on the street. You know, it's never an issue with the bus
drivers or the teachers or the guys on the street corner who I'm talking to.
This is always an issue that's been brought up in the context of a political
situation by professional politicians. And it's a handy shorthand to try to
create some separation between me and what's a strong part of my base. But it
really is not something that has ended up being a problem for me with respect
to the voters. And, you know, we got 90 percent of the African-American vote
in this recent primary, and the turnout was, I think, 30 percent higher than
it had been in the previous election within the African-American community.
So, clearly, they felt that what I was articulating spoke to their lives and
DAVIES: Well, one person who hopes to find you another way to make a living
is Alan Keyes. The Republicans have selected the conservative Alan Keyes to
run against you for the Senate seat, and he's come right after you. He
accused you, I believe I read, of holding the slaveholders' position on life,
a reference to your position on abortion. He's coming after you. What kind
of campaign do you expect?
State Sen. OBAMA: (Laughs) Well, let's see, he's been here two days, and so
far he's compared me to slaveholders, Nazis and has justified him coming in
from Maryland by comparing the situation in New York after 9/11, suggesting
that we were all New Yorkers then and, in the same way, he's an Illinoisan now
in doing battle with me. You know, that's Mr. Keyes' style. You know, that's
his rhetorical styles. But I'll be honest with you, we're going to do the
same things that we've been doing throughout. What people really want to see
are politicians who attack problems instead of each other. I think people are
just weary of this sort of scorched-earth, slash-and-burn politics that
demonizes whoever doesn't agree with you. And Democrats, by the way, are
complicit in that.
And I always tell my supporters and my fellow Democrats--or not even
Democrats, just people of goodwill who want to see the country move in a
better direction--we lose when we engage in that sort of mudslinging. The
people that I care about lose because those are the people--the ordinary folks
are most apt to be alienated from the process in that kind of political
environment. The people who thrive in those political environments are the
professionals. They're the ruthless and the cynical and the people who've got
a monetary stake in outcomes, and they're going to be working the back rooms
and the corridors no matter what happens.
So, you know, I'm going to engage Mr. Keyes in a debate on jobs and education
and health care. And I think that I'm entirely happy to engage with him on a
discussion about some of the issues that he's concerned about, issues of
abortion or gay rights or, you know, wanting to, you know, have the Ten
Commandments posted in a federal courtroom. You know, I'm happy to talk about
those things, but what I'm going to insist on is that we discuss issues not
only of private morality but also public morality because I think that there
are moral questions posed when, you know, we have one out of every three
African-American males in prison. And there are moral problems that are posed
when entire communities are devastated because the plant closes and is moving
overseas. And there are moral problems posed by all those stakeholders in
Enron when nobody's policing them. And that's going to be as big of a topic
as issues like gay marriage in this campaign, if I have anything to do about
DAVIES: Do you think the Democratic Party needs to be more aggressive? I
mean, there are people that know, for example, four years ago that the Black
Congressional Caucus wanted to challenge the Supreme Court's ruling on the
election, the Gore/Bush election. Not a single senator stood with them. I
mean, do you think the Democratic Party needs to be more aggressive?
State Sen. OBAMA: Well, what I think is that the Democratic Party makes a
mistake when it gets steamrolled by conservative politicians and then whines
about it afterwards. You know, that seems to be a habit that we've had over
the last several years, whether with respect to the tax cuts or the war in
Iraq or the Patriot Act, we cave and then we complain afterwards, in which
case we look not only weak but also petty.
And my general way of operating has been to stand firm and be clear on the
front end about what I believe in and to ask tough questions and to put
forward my agenda. But once I've done that, that puts me in a position where
I can reach across the aisle and see if I can find common ground with people
who disagree with me. And I think that kind of constructive debate is always
You know, when I talk about positive campaigns or positive politics, you know,
I'm not referring to meely-mouthed, split-the-difference politics because I
think that's failed. I think there has to be a robust debate on all these
issues. And what I am constantly suggesting, though, is is that we can
disagree vigorously on issues without accusing the other side of bad faith or
suggesting that somehow they are evil or that they are trying to do harm to
people in our party. You know, my sense is is that we can disagree and still
recognize ourselves and each other and have some empathy for the other
DAVIES: Senator Barack Obama, thanks so much for speaking with us.
State Sen. OBAMA: It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
DAVIES: Illinois state Senator Barack Obama. He's currently the Democratic
candidate for the United States Senate from Illinois.
Coming up, his Republican opponent, conservative commentator Alan Keyes. This
is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Alan Keyes discusses his candidacy for the US Senate
DAVE DAVIES, host:
When the Illinois Republican Party lost its candidate for US Senate to a messy
divorce scandal, party leaders looked at a number of options for a
replacement, including former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka. But in the end,
the party settled on someone certain to keep the race lively: conservative
commentator and two-time presidential candidate Alan Keyes.
Like his opponent, Barack Obama, Keyes is African-American, but he isn't from
Illinois. He'll move from Maryland to run for the seat. Since his last
campaign in 2000, Keyes has been writing and speaking for conservative causes.
He's hosted radio talk shows and, in 2002, had his own MSNBC show called "Alan
Keyes Is Making Sense."
Keyes received his undergraduate degree and PhD in government from Harvard.
He spent 11 years in the Foreign Service and headed a conservative advocacy
group called Citizens Against Government Waste. Besides his presidential
campaigns in 1996 and 2000, Keyes was twice the Republican nominee for United
States Senate from Maryland in 1998 and 1992. I spoke by telephone to Alan
Keyes in his campaign office on Wednesday.
Well, Alan Keyes, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. ALAN KEYES (Republican Illinois Senatorial Candidate): Thank you.
DAVIES: Your opponent, Barack Obama, made quite a bit of his biography of his
family lineage in his speech, the kind of diversity in his background. How
would you describe your own family background?
Mr. KEYES: Well, I think my family background--my father was a career soldier
and my mother was a homemaker. Father was from Maryland, mother from North
Carolina. I think, on the one side of the family, I guess on my mother's
side, there are a combination of various things. I even have a little
Cherokee Indian blood. And on my father's side, mainly I'm a descendant of
slaves who worked on the plantations in Maryland. So I guess it's a pretty
standard black American background.
DAVIES: As a black student at Harvard in the late '60s, I mean, you had to be
part of a very small minority. And this was, of course, at a time when
radical politics were sweeping college campuses and the Black Panthers and
other militant groups were in full bloom. I'm wondering, give us a sense of
what your political thinking was then. I mean, were you moved at all to left
of center politics?
Mr. KEYES: Not really, no. I think that was one of the reasons why I reacted
against the things that were taking place at Harvard. I just didn't find that
some of the things that were being said and done had much logical or
intellectual validity. And I was, at that point, very serious about trying to
understand at a very serious level what the basis was for certain ideas,
including the ideas of freedom that are at the basis of the American system.
And I was engaged in reading the Founders, reading a lot of the philosophers,
ancient and modern, that had been involved in their thinking and influenced
it. So I had already decided that this was what I wanted to concentrate on.
I thought that was, in fact, the serious way to prepare oneself to deal
with some of the issues that were, obviously, very much on my mind: slavery
and justice, segregation, issues involved in the civil rights movement.
I think you had to have a response that was more than emotional, a response
that involved more than rhetoric and slogans and outbursts, I guess, that
might be consonant with your anger. I thought you had to try, to the best of
your ability, to really think things through in such a way that you could
develop in yourself an effective tool for addressing these issues in the long
run and that that was what I was supposed to be doing as a student.
DAVIES: You've been known for advocating an approach for issues in the United
States but in African-American communities, in particular, of valuing the
family, of personal responsibility, of moral clarity. Are there experiences
that sort of crystalized that view for you? Where did you really pull that
Mr. KEYES: Well, I wouldn't say, though, that it's experience. I mean, a lot
of what I think is the result of thinking. It's the result of trying to look
at facts and information. I mean, I wrote a book some years back, "Masters of
the Dream." And it was during that period that I was working on it--And it
took several years--that I really spent a lot of time delving into the history
of black Americans from slavery forward.
And the question I had in mind at that point was: Given everything that was
against people, both in slavery and after, why had people survived? I mention
in the book that there were writers who had said that if blacks were freed
from slavery, within a few decades, the black people in America would be
extinct because they wouldn't be able to survive, wouldn't be able to take
care of themselves.
Well, this turned out to be untrue, despite the fact that the environment that
prevailed after slavery, after a brief interlude, was really hostile,
especially throughout the South where most black people lived. The
institutions turned against black people, things were done to deprive folks of
education, to keep them economically without advantage and so forth and so on.
And yet, in the years from the time slavery ended until around 1910, 1915,
great progress was made in reconstituting the family, in spite of the
destruction wrought by slavery, and making advances in literacy and developing
structures within a community oppressed by segregation that would support the
family and support an approach of responsibility.
So I was just very, very struck by this and wanted to try to understand what
had made it possible. And I found, in the course of the reading and research
that I did, that two things seemed to be most important: family and faith, in
the context of it, understanding that these things became the motive, as it
were, for pursuing education and laying out kind of a foundation under the
So these are all things, by the way, that involve serious moral elements
because when everything material is against you, the basis for your own
self-esteem and self-respect has to be your moral response to your
environment, to the people in it, to the family because if you don't have
anything--what you do have to offer, however, is your ability to remember the
obligations you owe to family and community and to really have the
self-respect that comes from knowing that you are submitting yourself to a
discipline for their sake. And I think lots of black people accepted that and
were able to work against the odds...
Mr. KEYES: ...to raise decent children, to get them educated and to try to
motivate them, in spite of the fact that so much in the world was turned
DAVIES: You ran for the Senate twice before in Maryland. And in 1992, I
believe I read that you felt that the Republican Party had sort of abandoned
your race because you were black. I mean, you saw racism at work in this.
And I wanted to ask you--I mean, I know you've thought a lot about affirmative
action and such issues, I mean, given that you believe that at least back then
racial discrimination against you played an important role in that political
race--this is a big question but take a crack at it. I mean, how much of a
role does racism play in maintaining the conditions that African-Americans
find themselves in in inner cities?
Mr. KEYES: Well, I think nobody who is a black person in America would deny
that racism has played a role in their lives. What I would say is it doesn't
play nearly as much a role in the overall reality that we've been talking
about as some people say it does because I think that right now, we live in a
world where a lot of doors are open and where other factors are keeping people
from pushing against those open doors and moving ahead.
You know, in some sense, the sad truth is that racism is no longer necessary
to do that because internal mechanisms of self-repulsion have been dismantled.
Was that dismantling the result of racism? That's something I've often taught
about because when you look at the kind of stuff in music and other things
that have been pushed at black children, when you look at the preponderate
location of abortion clinics and people always have talked in history about
liquor stores and things of that kind, it seemed like folks were put in an
environment which encouraged the breakdown of moral discipline.
There was also a sense in which the whole rhetoric of victimization started to
push people down a road where, instead of being a constructive reminder of
reality and where folks were coming from and the challenges they face, it
became almost an excuse for failure and started to discourage people from
taking ahold of themselves and moving ahead or giving them feeling that it
didn't matter what they did. Because at some point, if you concentrate too
much on the negative, that itself becomes debilitating.
And so I think all these factors played a role. I certainly wouldn't want to
suggest that there was some kind of orchestrated or even conscious racism
involved, but at the same time, I think that it would be foolish to deny that
a lot of this is not a coincidence and that we have to see in it the operation
of an understanding that was influenced by inherited racial stereotypes,
inherited attitudes that kind of denigrated the capacity of black folks to
address their own situations and therefore was more open to approaches,
understanding that really left black people in the position of helpless
victims instead of respecting the capacity that people have in themselves to
control their communities and their families and challenging them in a
tough-minded way to do it.
DAVIES: OK. Well, let's talk about this Senate race that you are very busily
engaged in. And let's get this one question out of the way first. You were
quoted as saying in the year 2000, quote, "I deeply resent the destruction of
federalism represented by Hillary Clinton's willingness to go into a state she
doesn't even live in and pretend to represent people there."
You're from Maryland, running in Illinois. Have you changed your mind or are
the standards different in your case?
Mr. KEYES: Oh, no, no, standards are the same and I have not changed my mind.
And I think that what Hillary did I would still criticize roundly because she
self-evidently shopped around America, looked carefully to pick a state that
would serve her personal ambition, prepared the ground, went in in order to
construct a basis for pursuing her personal ambition and was consciously
translating her national standing and reputation into a bid for a seat for
power, regardless really of the principles of representational integrity and
state sovereignty. That is not what I'm doing. I didn't have any...
DAVIES: Well, you are a man of some--yeah.
Mr. KEYES: ...thoughts whatsoever of coming here to run. It was not
something that was on my personal agenda in any way. I was approached by
people in Illinois by their own decision, which is what makes it formally
consistent with sovereignty.
But even more important, the federalism issue that I raised is very important
1o me. But federalism has two components which, as I've reminded people, are
wonderfully summed up in the state motto of Illinois. It's `State
sovereignty, national union.' Federalism has two parts.
I think we ought to respect the state sovereignty part and not sacrifice it to
personal ambition. But when the principles of our national union are at
stake--Lincoln, for instance, recognized in his statesmanship that you must
limit your allegiance to state sovereignty in order to defend the principles
of our national union. And those principles are at stake in this race because
Barack Obama's deeply committed to a stance on abortion and other moral issues
that rejects the founding principles of this country.
DAVIES: Well, let's get to that.
Mr. KEYES: And as I thought it through, I said, `Look, I have a moral
obligation, after all I've said in life, to go in and defend those principles
because if I didn't, people would think I was an outrageous hypocrite.'
DAVIES: Well, let's get to that. I mean, you made a lot of headlines in the
Illinois papers early in this campaign by saying that Barack Obama had, I
believe, the slaveholder position on life because of his position on abortion.
Mr. KEYES: Absolutely.
DAVIES: Awfully strong words.
Mr. KEYES: Not so much, just logical, it's just rational. It's an argument
because the slaveholder position, as reflected in, say, the position of
somebody like Stephen Douglas--he was a pro-choice candidate back on slavery.
He said he didn't care whether it was voted up or voted down so long as it was
done by popular sovereignty which meant the people's choice. And Abraham
Lincoln came forward and excoriated him because of the stance of indifference
to our fundamental moral principles. And Lincoln referred to the Declaration
of Independence, `All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with
certain unalienable rights.'
The same indifference, exactly, is involved in the issue of abortion. The
notion that somehow you can look at the life in the womb and say the mother's
choice determines our respect for it when our principles say that every human
being, regardless of circumstance, development or condition, the worth of that
human life comes from the creator. That's what the Declaration states. So
just as the slaveholder and people like Douglas were willing to disregard the
worth of black Americans on the basis of their choice, so we have people like
Obama today saying, `We can disregard the God-given worth of that baby in the
womb because of our choice.' And in doing so, they reject the fundamental
principle that Lincoln asserted, that Martin Luther King asserted, that
Frederick Douglass and others asserted that we must respect the conscience
shaped by the Declaration on which this country was founded.
I believe that and I think that it's clear that Barack Obama does not. And so
I'm not calling him names or anything. I'm just saying, `Look, the principle
at stake is the same, and his position is like the position of Steven Douglas
and others who were the slaveholders' favorites in those days.'
DAVIES: Well, his position on abortion, it seems to me, is at least
color-blind. And when you bring the rhetoric of slaveholder position, it
seems to me you're bringing a racial element...
Mr. KEYES: That's nonsense, I'm sorry.
DAVIES: ...into that conversation.
Mr. KEYES: And I have to be very blunt. One of the things I learned--because
I had slave ancestors. And I, as I said, have deeply looked at and thought
about, meditated on the injustice involved in slavery. Slavery is not a
racial issue. It's an issue of human justice. And that means that when
someone is enslaved in violation of this fundamental premise of human dignity,
we are turning our backs on our decent humanity. That's not a racial issue,
and abortion is not a racial issue but the principle involved is the very
principle that lay at the heart of the kind of arguments that the slaveholders
made in denigration of black Americans. But it was not race, in fact, that
caused that denigration. It was an utter disregard for decent humanity.
DAVIES: My guest is Alan Keyes. He is the Republican candidate for the
United States Senate from Illinois. We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're back with Alan Keyes. He is the Republican candidate for the
United States Senate seat in Illinois, running against Democrat Barack Obama.
On abortion, you said that his position really is in contradiction to the
fundamental principles of the Declaration of Independence. He has cast you as
an extremist on this issue, saying that you would ban abortion in cases of
rape and incest. Is that your position?
Mr. KEYES: Oh, yes, it is. It always has been. It's quite clear that
there's a deep injustice involved in that. And I often ask people, `So we are
supposed to punish an innocent child because its parents committed an offense
like incest or its father an offense like rape. Would you want to be punished
for the deeds of your parents? Would you want to be killed because your
parents committed an offense?' We know that that's not fair. We know that
that violates, just on the face of it, every principle of justice. So, of
course, no argument. See, people like to make assertions. He makes
assertions. We should make arguments for the positions that we take, because
otherwise we're just engaging in name calling. And I say I make an argument
for what I believe. Let him come forward with a valid argument for what he
believes, and let's compare the two.
DAVIES: Apart from abortion, give us one other issue that you think is going
to be critical here, and how you think your views differ from your opponent's
and why it matters.
Mr. KEYES: Well, I think that we're going to see critical issues that evolve.
First of all, the defense of the family from the assault that is being made
now on the traditional male-female family, and I think the stand that is taken
by Obama is contradictory. He says he respects the family, but he's against
everything--the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal marriage amendment and so
forth--that's being done to defend the family.
DAVIES: Well, I believe his position is he supports civil unions, opposes gay
marriage. I mean, how would...
Mr. KEYES: It's not--no, I'm telling you, his supposed opposition to gay
marriage is false. He is against everything that is required, in fact, to
defend traditional marriage against the assault now being waged against it on
behalf of gay marriage. So I'll state it quite simply and clearly: That is a
contradictory position that is not, in fact, an acceptable and sincere one,
and I think that's going to require on his part an explanation.
DAVIES: And tell us why you think voters should understand that gay people
having their unions recognized are a threat to the traditional heterosexual
Mr. KEYES: Meaning no offense, marriage--we're talking marriage here, and
marriage is about procreation. People who cannot in principle--I'm not
talking about incidentally in terms of health or other things like this--but
people who cannot in principle procreate cannot get married. It's very
simple. It makes marriage an absurdity. It means that marriage is just a
relationship of two individuals for the sake of--What?--hedonistic
self-gratification. This is not what marriage is, and to adopt that view of
it means that you have substituted for procreation and the implied
responsibilities that are involved in it a sense that the marriage institution
is just--I don't know, an institution that is devoted to hedonism, and that's
not the case. And, in fact, to suggest that it is deeply threatens the true
understanding of marriage that's needed for people to make a life commitment
that is commensurate with the responsibilities of family, procreation,
parenting and so forth.
DAVIES: Can you name all the Chicago sports teams?
Mr. KEYES: I think I can name most of them, but I have to tell you, when
people do that, I tell them--I make no bones about it. Nobody's pretending
I'm from Illinois. There'll be a learning curve with respect to various
things, but as I said in my speech, I may not know all these details, but I
think there is a community of heart and spirit between me and the majority of
people in Illinois, and we will see the results of that community on Election
DAVIES: Alan Keyes, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. KEYES: You're welcome.
DAVIES: Alan Keyes. He's currently the Republican candidate for United
States Senate from Illinois.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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