Talk Transcript: Wolffe on Obama and Race

NEWSWEEK interviewed Sen. Barack Obama on June 27 in Washington. Here are excerpts from that exchange:

NEWSWEEK: Cornel West said some pretty rough things about you.
Barack Obama:
Have you talked to him lately?

I have.
OK.

And you won him over. How did you react when you read what he said? And how did you win him over?
Why don't I start it this way? I have not been in national politics very long. I've been in politics for a long time, but for many people I was an unknown commodity. So as certain stories circulated about me, or what my priorities were, or where I came from, not surprisingly people were willing to give credence to some of those assumptions. So with Cornel it was just a matter of calling him up, introducing myself and having a conversation.

In some ways that's a metaphor for what this campaign is about. Me introducing myself, having a conversation, and trying to cut through the noise that is created by political opponents or media that's looking for a good story or my own fumbles and gaffes, trying to make sure by the end of this process people have a good sense of what my history is, what my values are, where I want to take the country.

He's a pretty frank guy. He said, "You're not going to agree with everything I say, and I'm not going to agree with everything you say." Maybe you also said that to him?
I said that to him.

He had this whole Shakespearean line about "To thine own self be true."
Yeah.

What do you say to that?
He's absolutely right. This is a very improbable candidacy, I think it's fair to say. And for me to win, it is important that those qualities that got me into politics in the first place—those values that led me to become a community organizer or a civil rights attorney, that passion for justice and fairness—that those attributes come through. And if I start sounding like everybody else, if I'm just another Washington politician then there's no reason for people to choose me as opposed to people who have been in Washington longer and play that particular game better than I can. So maintaining my voice through this process is critical and it can be a difficult task. There are a lot of forces at work designed to homogenize candidates and there's a premium placed on risk avoidance and not making mistakes. And what I'm trying to do is to say what I think and not be governed by a fear of making mistakes. That means I will make some mistakes.

Let me ask about one. Maybe you don't think it was one. You got into a tangle with your pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. of Chicago, over your announcement and him giving the invocation prayer—in public, at least.
Tangle may be overstating it. But that's OK. It was a blip.

Looking back, do you think you maybe overreacted to some of the press about him being radical?
No. I think that was a pretty simple story. We were doing our announcement and a story came out in which he was sort of singled out as being more radical than he was. Given that we knew we had given 500 press credentials that day, I didn't want him placed in the position where he had to defend himself or the church without any kind of backup or knowing what he was going to get into. I would have done the same thing for my sister or a co-worker. So I guess it's conceivable I might have been overprotective and probably didn't anticipate that he might feel hurt by it. So we had a discussion about it and everything is fine at this point.

So I shouldn't read anything into the fact that he didn't show up when you spoke at the United Church of Christ meeting last month in Hartford?
No, no. He had a wedding. He was actually upset that he couldn't come. That was entirely a scheduling conflict.

I talked to your friend Kirk Dillard about your time together in the Illinois General Assembly and he related a story to me that goes back to the time when you were working on the racial profiling legislation. He says that he walked in on a confrontation between you and another senator in the bathroom, by your seat there on the back row, where he said you were being challenged forcefully on your toughness and questioning whether you really understood what it was to be a young black man on the streets of Chicago getting pulled over by the police. What's your recollection of that encounter, and what was your response?
You know, I don't remember that particular confrontation. I'm not disputing anything of what Kirk remembers. I just don't know exactly what he's referring to.

I think that there's always a tension between getting things done and how people experience issues in very visceral, emotional ways. And that's certainly true any time race is involved. What I'm constantly striving to do—whether it was on the racial profiling legislation, whether it was on the death penalty issues that I worked on in the state legislature, whether it was on some of the criminal justice bills that came up—was to see how could I be true to the core values of fairness and equality and move the ball forward. My experience tells me that we have a better chance of making progress on these issues when we can ground them in a broader appeal to America's aspirations and values than when we simply are shouting racism and trying to guilt people into acting.

Now that doesn't mean there aren't times for some righteous anger. But I strongly believe that Americans want to do the right thing. And if you can show them that racial profiling is neither a smart way to fight crime, nor is it consistent with our values as Americans, then we can get a bill passed. If you can argue to defenders of the death penalty that at minimum we should be able to agree that nobody innocent should be on death row, and by videotaping interrogations and confessions you are not only protecting the innocent person in custody but you are also protecting the police, then you have got a better chance of passing legislation.

So not everybody is going to take that same approach. But I like to say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We got those two bills passed.

To the death penalty legislation, one of the people you sat on the judiciary committee with was Ed Petka. From everything I understand about Ed Petka, including his nickname, "Electric Ed" …
Electric Ed. That's what they called him.

It sounds like he was a person who needed no small amount of convincing in terms of reforming the death penalty law. I know there were other people who were key to getting this done, but you played a crucial role in winning people round. Is there anything you can tell me about how your interactions with him, how you brought him round?
I don't remember the specific conversations I had with Senator Petka, or some of these other senators. What I think is always important to me is trying to see the world through the eyes of people you don't agree with. My starting point on the death penalty legislation was, if I'm a sincere believer that the death penalty is a deterrent, if I'm a sincere believer that people who have engaged in heinous crimes deserve the ultimate retribution, if I sincerely believe that generally police arrest people who are guilty, how do I look at the world? If I can imagine myself in their shoes, if I can see the world through their eyes, I can answer their objections in ways that are consistent with their values. So I can say to an Ed Petka that even supporters of the death penalty should have a deep interest in making sure that the innocent are not on death row. It undermines the credibility of the criminal justice system as a whole. You've been a prosecutor, it's much harder for you to be able to bring successful convictions if juries start thinking that evidence is concocted or coerced. So this is good for law and order and that's why we need to make progress on this one.

When you ran against Bobby Rush for the House of Representatives in 2000, you seemed to face in that race for the first time this question that had been with you throughout—this question of belonging, and could you really understand people in a certain place and area whose experience you hadn't shared growing up. But here it was being used politically against you. Did you learn something from that race about how to deal with that issue politically?
I have to say that aspect of the race probably has been thoroughly overhyped. I think people are trying to fit that into a narrative that isn't entirely there. Were there moments during the campaign where the suggestion was that the Harvard-educated, Hyde Park law professor wasn't keeping it real? Yes. Did that have any significant influence on the outcome of that race? No.

The issue in that race was, as I wrote about in my book, the fact that I didn't do a poll until after I had announced and discovered I had 11 percent name recognition and he had something like 95. And people just didn't know who I was, and as people got to know me we ended up moving from single-digit support to I think we ended up with 31 percent. Without any TV advertising, it wasn't bad. The problem with that race was not in execution; it was in conception. There was no way I was going to beat an incumbent congressman with the limited name recognition that I had.

So there weren't moments in that campaign where I anguished, "Oh goodness, is my black authenticity being questioned?" Most of those problems or issues were resolved when I was 18, 19, 20 years old. The fact that they have resurfaced in this presidential campaign says more about the country than it says about me. I think America is still caught in a little bit of a time warp: the narrative of black politics is still shaped by the '60s and black power. That is not, I think, how most black voters are thinking. I don't think that's how most white voters are thinking. I think that people are thinking about how to find a job, how to fill up the gas tank, how to send their kids to college. And I find that when I talk about those issues, both blacks and whites respond well.

You described your mistake as one of conception. Rush describes that race as your ambition coming up against his legacy.
Now that I think is fair, in the sense that he had been there a long time. He had a long track record. I may have believed I could do a better job in highlighting some issues, but I think that it was a young man's mistake. Just because you think you're smart, you think you can shake things up, then everybody else is automatically going to see that.

He also says he thinks to this day, he thinks you were put up to it by your advisers and people around you. You just decided on your own?
I couldn't afford advisers.

I don't necessarily mean paid advisers. I mean people around you.
This is something that I think is important for people. Bobby may just be saying that because now that he's come out in support of me, he may want to relieve me of the burden of having run against him. But I haven't had a bunch of people plotting and planning on my behalf. I didn't know a soul when I moved to Chicago. As an organizer, I was pretty much out there on my own. I ran Project Vote without much supervision. I just haven't had a series of political operators who can give me advice. I've been going by my instincts of what I think is right.

Let's talk about the Father's Day speech you gave in 2005. Bill Cosby had said some similar things and taken a lot of heat. Did any of that cross your mind as you put this thing together? Michelle says this is the kind of thing you talk about around the kitchen table. But did you think it would have that kind of impact? Were you wary about people who had trodden that path before?
No. I don't know if we have a transcript of that speech, but I've talked about issues of responsibility in the past. I am always very careful in talking about the individual responsibilities of African-Americans, of fathers, of parents, to combine that with a discussion of our societal responsibilities, our collective responsibilities to adequately fund schools, to provide job opportunities in neighborhoods. So I talk about these things not out of shock value. And I also am not at all interested in what some conservative commentators are interested in, which is to use the issue of personal responsibility as an excuse for governmental inaction. As I write in my book, it is very much a both-and [approach] as opposed to an either-or approach. When you talk about it in those terms, then the African-American community is responsive. What they don't want is to hear the "pick yourselves up by your bootstraps" speech, and that's why we're going to cut funding for programs that are desperately needed.

I think it's important for Democrats to not miss the truth and I include myself in this, so I'm not attacking Democrats here, I'm talking about us, those of us who are progressives and care about these issues, it's important for us not to forget about the issue of individual responsibility because we're so caught up in the legitimate battles to make sure that our government priorities are on track.

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One last thing. This is unprompted by a question, but it's prompted by the cut or the angle you guys are taking. I may be off base here. But the impulse I think may be to write a story that says Barack Obama represents a quote-unquote postracial politics. That term I reject because it implies that somehow my campaign represents an easy shortcut to racial reconciliation. It's similar to the notion that if we're all color blind then somehow problems are solved.

I just want to be very clear on this so that there's no confusion. And on this I think Cornel [West] and I would agree. Solving our racial problems in this country will require concrete steps, significant investment. We're going to have a lot of work to do to overcome the long legacy of Jim Crow and slavery. It can't be purchased on the cheap.

I am fundamentally optimistic about our capacity to do that. And I do assert that there's a core decency in the American people and in white Americans that makes me hopeful about our ability to deal with these issues. But these issues aren't just solved by electing a black president.

[…]

I think there's a temptation to posit me in contrast to Jesse [Jackson] or [Al] Sharpton, and the thing I am constantly trying to explain is that I'm a direct outgrowth of the civil rights movement, that the values of the civil rights movement remain near and dear to my heart. To the extent that I speak a different language or take a different tone in addressing these issues is a consequence of me having benefited from those bloody struggles that folks previously had to go through. And so to suggest somehow that I'm pushing aside the past in favor of this Benetton future is wrong.

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