Thursday, December 30, 2010

25 Years: Reflection no. 3 on my quarter century as a columnist

The following column appeared in USA TODAY on April 29, 2004.

By DeWayne Wickham

I've always liked Colin Powell. Very soon, I will like him even more.

I liked Powell the day we first met on Aug. 17, 1989, shortly after then-president George H.W. Bush nominated him to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell was the keynote speaker at the annual gathering of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), and, as the group's president, I introduced him that day.

In his speech, Powell made it very clear that he owed his success to the service and sacrifices of many unsung blacks. His "appointment would not be possible without the sacrifices of those black soldiers who served this great nation in war for over 200 years," he said.

I liked Powell even more in 1992, when, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he interceded to get me on a military charter flight to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I was a critic of the first Bush administration's policy of seizing Haitian refugees in international waters and interning them on the U.S. naval base in Cuba to keep them from reaching American soil.

While Powell surely knew I would not paint a rosy picture of what I'd find in Guantanamo Bay -- and I didn't -- he nonetheless got a reluctant military bureaucracy to allow me to make the trip. In doing so, he was probably mindful of his NABJ convention speech three years earlier, when he spoke of the special responsibility black journalists have.

"There's a dream in this land with its back against the wall," Powell had said, paraphrasing a Langston Hughes poem, "to save the dream for one, it must be saved for all."

My fondness for Powell turned to worry in 1995, when he came under a blistering attack from right-wing Republicans determined to keep him from becoming the GOP's presidential nominee.

"Colin Powell has the political convictions of Bill Clinton and the loyalty to the Republican Party of John Warner," said Michael Farris, one of a band of right-wingers who massed in Washington in November of that year to lob verbal shots at Powell from the safety of a National Press Club podium.

A few days later, Powell announced that he had decided against seeking the Republican nomination. I had mixed emotions. Powell would forgo the chance to become this nation's first black president, but he also would avoid being the standard-bearer of the party of Newt Gingrich.

My affection for Powell grew in 1996, when he gave a commencement address at Bowie State University. The speech made him sound like a Republican cut from the cloth that produced former Massachusetts senator Edward Brooke, a liberal and the first black senator since Reconstruction, and not from the gunnysack that bore Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a right-wing conservative.

In that address, Powell made a spirited defense of affirmative action.

"We must resist misguided government efforts that seek to shut it all down, efforts such as the California Civil Rights Initiative, which poses as an equal opportunity initiative, but which puts at risk every outreach program" he said. "It sets back the gains made by women, and puts the brakes on expanding opportunities for people who are in need."

And then on Dec. 16, 2000, when President-elect George W. Bush nominated him to become this nation's first black secretary of State, my warm feelings for Powell helped simmer the rage that boiled within me over the outcome of that election.

Like President Truman's secretary of State, George Marshall, Powell gave new meaning to the term citizen-soldier. In the short span of 11 years, Powell went from being the nation's top military officer to its top diplomat. Though the election of 2000 didn't give me the president I wanted, it gave me -- and the nation -- a secretary of State who, I thought, would rise above the ideological bog in which so many petty politicians dwell.

But during the past four years, Powell has struggled to meet the challenge of my expectations.

His failure to attend the international conference against racism in South Africa and the role he played in the ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's democratically elected president, have disappointed many blacks in this country. His mealy-mouthed defense of affirmative action, while Bush was using his bully pulpit to try to end it, exposed a frailty that Powell had not displayed earlier.

I like Colin Powell the soldier and statesman, but I have no fondness for Colin Powell the politician. That's why I rejoice at the news that he is leaving the Bush administration. Now, I think, I'll come to like him a lot more.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

An anniversary that looks to the future as much as the past

By DeWayne Wickham

I’m not a big anniversary person, but 2010 is a benchmark in my journalism career that has me thinking as much about the future as the past.

It was 25 years ago that I started contributing to the opinion page of this and many other Gannett newspapers – a job which has allowed me to occupy space in some of the most prized real estate in the newspaper industry. And over the past quarter century I’ve had a lot of memorable experiences.

And what a quarter century it's been.

I ate dinner with Fidel Castro in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution; had lunch with L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first black elected governor, in a room where Confederate President Jefferson Davis used to eat his meals; and I sat in the cabinet room of the White House sipping soda and nibbling low calorie cookies with President Bill Clinton.

I flew with Secretary of State Warren Christopher on the Air Force plane that returned deposed Haitian President Jean Bertrand-Aristide to Haiti; was a member of the press corps that accompanied Nelson Mandela on an 8-city tour of the United States just a few months after his release from a 27-year imprisonment in South Africa, and flew to Montreal with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a conference on aid to Haiti after it was ravaged by an earthquake.

I was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show twice. And in 1991, I interviewed George Wallace, the former Alabama governor who proclaimed in his 1963 inaugural address “segregation now…segregation tomorrow…segregation forever.” Wallace told me his racism was driven by the politics of his state, not a feeling in his heart.

I attended the state dinner President Clinton gave South African President Thabo Mbeki. I was in Paris the day White House candidate Barack Obama met with French President Nickolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace, and in the Denver stadium the night Obama went there to accept the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

But with all the ringside seats I’ve had over the past 25 years, there remains much I want to see and do before my column is put out to pasture. Here’s my bucket list.

I want to interview O.J. Simpson, who is serving a 33-year sentence in a Nevada prison for armed robbery and kidnapping. I covered his 1995 double murder trial in Los Angeles. While others still debate Simpson’s guilt in that “trial of the century,” I want to talk to him about his penchant for whistling “If I Only Had a Brain” – a song for the “Wizard of Oz” – during subsequent scraps with the law. I suspect getting to the bottom of that question will reveal more about the former NFL superstar than all the books that have been written about him.

I want to spend a couple days with George W. Bush talking about the things that interest him now that he’s not “the decider” of this nation’s fate. I want to know what it’s really like to go from being the world’s most powerful leader to the afterlife of the American presidency. And I want to know what he worries about now that he no longer gets a daily briefing on the real and perceived threats to this country.

I want to interview Graca Machel, a leading African political activist and advocate for children's and women's rights, who married two African heads of state. Her first husband, former Mozambique President Samora Machel was the unelected leader of a one-party socialist state. Her current husband, Nelson Mandela, served two terms as president of a multi-party democracy in South Africa that he had a big hand in creating.I want to know what attracted her to each man – one of whom brutally suppressed his enemies while the other used a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal his country’s wounds.

These are the conversations that top of my “to do list” – the truth and understanding I want to pursue – as I begin this next phase of my journalism career.

Monday, December 27, 2010

25 Years: Reflection no. 2 on my quarter century as a columnist

The following Q and A with the nation's first black elected governor ran in USA TODAY on January 11, 1990.

L. Douglas Wilder, 58, is governor-elect of Virginia. On Saturday, Wilder will take the oath of office to become the first black elected governor in the nation's history. Wilder, a Democrat, has held elected office in Virginia for 20 years, the last four as lieutenant governor. Wilder was interviewed by DeWayne Wickham, USA TODAY and Gannett News Service columnist.

USA TODAY: Is your election as the first black governor a sign that race is playing less of a role in politics?
WILDER: I think to put it in that context is a disservice to the seriousness of racism. Working to thwart, to defeat and to eliminate racism has been something fair-minded people have always tried to do. So it's never dead, it's never killed. It's a question of constantly working to overcome. I think my election is another instance of overcoming.

USA TODAY: There are many who point to you as the political opposite of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Does that make you uncomfortable?
WILDER: No, it doesn't make me uncomfortable, but it's not a factual appraisal. I have been in elected office for 20 years. I have chosen to hold elected office. I have chosen to effectuate compromises. I have tried to work to build coalitions to get things done. For the most part, Jesse, prior to 1984, has been an activist. There's plenty of room for the two kinds of thoughts, the two kinds of actions, to exist. I regard him as a friend.

USA TODAY: Your name is on the short list of blacks being mentioned as possible vice-presidential candidates in 1992. Do you discourage such speculation?
WILDER: Well, you've seen short lists develop before. It's always a speculation that people like to engage in. I don't discourage it or become upset by it. But I can tell you, I've got more to say prayers and grace over with reference to the issues confronting Virginia today and the leadership that's required to continue our momentum and to make sure that progress and prosperity aren't thwarted.

USA TODAY: Are there lessons to be learned by the national Democratic Party from your election?
WILDER: Oh, I think so. I think national Democrats have got to be more concerned with the perceptions. And the per-ception is that Democrats are soft on crime and weak on defense and will tax at the drop of a hat, and will spend quicker than that. I think Democrats will have to make that mainstream appeal. In the process of doing that, you might run the risk of losing some voters. You might have to lose an election in order to win one.

USA TODAY: Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who intends to run for governor of Georgia, points to your elec-tion as a model for his campaign. Is there a Virginia model?
WILDER: I don't know that there's a Virginia model. I've discussed with Andy a couple of times the race he's involved with, and I think you'll see him going out into rural areas. As I've said to him, Atlanta isn't Georgia. He must, of neces-sity, make an appeal to voters of every description and not be seen as the black candidate.

USA TODAY: Can black candidates successfully appeal to white voters without abandoning those issues most im-portant to their black constituents?
WILDER: Oh yes, without question. You can't be a black candidate and put limitations on yourself. Blacks have an obligation to be the best we can in what fields we choose. And, in that regard, we would become more sensitized to is-sues affecting African-Americans and should reflect that. This doesn't mean, however, that our thoughts are so colored that we would be other than objective.

USA TODAY: Was there ever a time during your campaign when you thought you might not win?
WILDER: Never. Absolutely never. From the time I announced, I never had any question as to whether I would win. I never thought it would be easy, I never thought it would be a cakewalk. But I never had any doubt.

USA TODAY: After your narrow victory in November, there were some who complained that you were slow to make appointments. Were you distracted at all by the recount?
WILDER: Not at all. What I was doing was getting the best possible people I could to serve.

USA TODAY: You come into office at a time when there are demands in Virginia for road construction and higher teacher salaries, but voters also expect you to hold the line on taxes. How will you juggle that?
WILDER: By making certain that we spend what we need to spend, and only that. I believe in fiscal responsibility. We're not in a crisis, we're in a crunch, and I intend for it to be a temporary, short-lived crunch.

USA TODAY: What will be your major priorities?
WILDER: I've dedicated my administration to youth and family. We've lost some family values, we've lost opportuni-ties for seeing young people develop. I will be attacking drugs. I want help in terms of education, reaching out to young people at risk. I want more opportunities for affordable housing, which will strengthen family ties. And I intend to broaden our economic expansion.

USA TODAY: What do you want historians to say about you?
WILDER: That I was governor at a time when I could make a difference, and I did.

USA TODAY: And what do you want historians to say about the people of Virginia who elected you to office?
WILDER: I think that to the extent that the reputation of a state precedes it by so many generations, the people of Virginia have been maligned. It's so fittingly ironic that the same state to which a Dutch frigate came with some 20 black slaves, could, 380 years later, elect a descendant of one of those slaves to be in a position of leading the state. A state that preached nullification and interposition, a state that seceded from the union, the capital of the Confederacy, known then as the mother of presidents, might very well be known as that again.
To see Reflection no. 1, visit my Facebook page.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In the "Year of the Woman" here's a woman to watch

By DeWayne Wickham

In the world of politics, this could be called the “Year of the Woman.”
From the rise of Republican Nikki Haley, who came from nowhere and fought off a scurrilous personal attack to win South Carolina’s governorship, to the surprising staying power of Barbara Boxer, the three-term Democratic member of the U.S. Senate who handily won reelection in California, women dominated the political landscape.

There was Sarah Palin, a darling of the Tea Party Movement, shooting moose on her own reality television show; and Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand easily winning election to the New York U.S. Senate seat she was appointed to last year after Hillary Clinton resigned to become Secretary of State. Florida voters made Republican Jennifer Carroll their state’s first black lieutenant governor. And in Delaware, Christine O’Donnell – who once said she dabbled in witchcraft, but never joined a coven – captured national attention while being soundly defeated in her third attempt to win a Senate seat.

But the woman the 2010 election cycle might eventually catapult to the greatest heights is one who barely made a blip on this nation’s political radarscope this year. Her name is Kamala (pronounced Comma-la) Harris and on January 3 she’ll take the oath of office as California’s first female attorney general.

Some people have called the 46-year-old Harris, whose father is Jamaican and mother is from India, “the female Barack Obama.” But to see Harris as that would be to misjudge her badly. Obama was a Harvard-educated community organizer before he waded into the political arena. Harris, who graduated from Howard University – the Citadel of black higher education institutions – was a prosecutor for more than a decade before ran for office. Elected San Francisco’s district attorney in 2003, won a second term in 2007.

While many of the women who crowded onto the political stage this year fit comfortably into an ideological mold, Harris does not. A self-described “child of the civil rights movement” who was raised in Berkeley, the hotbed of California liberalism, Harris touts her record for putting violent offenders behind bars and getting tough on parents of elementary schoolchildren who are chronically absent from class. She also champions programs that offer non-violent first offenders job training instead of jail time and rehabilitation to people released from prison.

“I hope to serve this nation as the attorney general of California. I believe in that old adage that ‘as goes California, so goes the country,’ ” Harris said, rejecting my suggestion that she could be a new breed of national politician. Even so, I think she is destined to land in the nation’s other power center: Washington, D.C.

While O’Donnell writes a book about her most recent unsuccessful bid for a U.S. Senate seat (she lost earlier races in 2004 and 2006) and Palin morphs between her roles on a reality TV show star and a right-wing political operative, Harris is expanding her political base.

The transition team she named to oversee her move into the California attorney general’s office is headed by two former U.S. secretaries of state – Republican George Shultz and Democrat Warren Christopher. It also includes former Stanford Law School dean Kathleen Sullivan and ex-Los Angeles police chief William Bratton; and Connie Rice, a highly regarded civil rights attorney.

“It’s an incredible group of leaders and professionals and I’m really humbled that they’ve dedicated their time to work on the transition…I wanted to have people who understand California in the context of the globe,” Harris explained.

It is also the kind of team building that will lift Harris above many of the other women who are part of the political class of 2010. She’s too smart to acknowledge that her sights are set on anything other than the job she’s about to take on. She’s too politically astute to get caught looking that far ahead.

But Harris, I think, is destined to become a commanding presence in the political life of this country, and a major player in this nation’s other power center – Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Obama owes Democrats this much

By DeWayne Wickham

In that awkward moment when President Obama left the White House press room for a holiday party while former president Bill Clinton stayed behind to defend the tax extension deal Obama struck with Republicans, the Democrats’ most vexing problem became painfully clear.

“What we’ve got here,” in the words of the reprobate captain in Paul Newman’s 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, “is a failure to communicate.”

While ceding the White House press room podium was no outsourcing of his presidency, it was an admission from Obama that he’s having trouble communicating with key members of his own party at a critical time in his presidency.

Communication used to be one of Obama’s great strengths. It certainly was in 2004 when the then-Illinois state senator propelled himself into the national spotlight with a speech at the Democratic National Convention that stirred the imagination of those who yearned for an end to this nation’s partisan political bloodletting.

“Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America,” Obama said in the address that began his transformation from “a skinny kid with a funny name” to political rock star.

And four years later, when his presidential campaign was nearly derailed by some racially charged sermons by the pastor of his church, Obama gave a speech in Philadelphia that convinced millions of Americans he was a healer, not a divider. “I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together — unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction,” he said.

But now that he faces one of the toughest tests of his presidency selling the tax deal he brokered with Republicans to congressional Democrats — Obama seems unwilling to communicate directly with members of his political base. That’s a serious miscalculation.

The House Democratic Caucus has objected to the agreement, which gives the GOP a two-year extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Like Obama, House Democrats have long pushed for extending the tax cuts only for those making less than $250,000 a year.

In return for giving in to Republicans’ all-or-nothing position, Obama won GOP support for a 13-month extension of emergency unemployment insurance and a college tuition tax credit, along with some smaller and less controversial tax breaks.

Obama should come up to the Capitol and look Democrats “dead in the eye” and explain the deal he made with Republicans, longtime Obama supporter Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told The Hill, a publication that covers Congress. Instead, Obama has used surrogates to convince congressional Democrats that his deal with the GOP is the best agreement he could get a month before Republicans retake control of the House and increase their minority in the Senate.

While Clinton is still a persuasive voice among Democrats, Obama, who met with Republicans on the tax-cut deal, ought to do the same with his own party. If you’re going to ask people to take a vote that might cost them their seats, you might be more persuasive if you look them in the eyes when you do.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Republican slams unemployed with voodoo economics

By DeWayne Wickham

Anyone who was watching when Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., tried to explain why extending jobless benefits to unemployed workers shouldn’t be Congress’ top priority has a right to fear the Republican takeover of the House. His answer was pulled right out of the voodoo economics playbook.

Shortly before the Labor Department reported the nation’s unemployment rate rose from 9.6% in October to 9.8% in November, MSNBC commentator Mike Barnicle asked Shadegg, a leading member of the right-wing Republican Study Committee, if extending the unemployment payments that were about to expire would produce a more immediate benefit to the economy than extending a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans?

“It’s the creation of jobs that drives the economy” and it is the wealthy that create jobs, Shadegg snapped. If he’d stopped there Shadegg would have had at least one leg to stand on since an argument can be made in support of that position. But instead, the eight-term congressman pushed his argument beyond the limits of good sense.

“Actually,” he said, “the truth is the unemployed will spend as little of (their jobless checks) as they possibly can.” That’s right, Shadegg, who comes from a state that pays the second lowest unemployment benefits in the nation, said that. He thinks the nearly two million jobless Americans who will lose their unemployment benefits by Christmas if Congress doesn’t extend those payments are more likely to squirrel away that money than spend it.

I think that’s nonsense. Marc Morial thinks it’s “hocus pocus” economics. “The marginal propensity for the unemployed to spend their unemployment compensation is very high,” the National Urban League president told me. “It’s pre-K economics that people will spend unemployment compensation payments on the necessities of life.”

He’s right. An extension of unemployment benefits will give jobless people some badly needed survival funds. That spending will buttress consumer demand for those essential services. And that demand will give employers an immediate infusion of money that will help grow their businesses.

Obama wants to permanently extend the 2001 Bush-era tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 a year. Republicans want the tax cuts extended for everyone. To get that, GOP legislators are holding hostage Obama’s request for money to extend the unemployment benefits of people who have lost their jobs during this recession. While the two sides appear headed to a compromise that extends the jobless benefits and tax cut Republicans want, Shadegg’s disdain for the unemployed still makes me want to holler.

He justifies the Republican’s willingness to let the jobless benefits lapse with the nonsense he spouted. He apparently didn’t hear what the chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, the world’s leading provider of research and data to capital markets, told the U.S. Senate Finance Committee back in April.

“It is also important that policymakers provide emergency benefits to those who will lose their jobs this year. No form of the fiscal stimulus has proved more effective during the past two years than emergency (unemployment insurance) benefits,” Mark Zandi said. “This economic boost is large because financially stressed unemployed workers spend benefits quickly, as opposed to saving them.”

But, of course, that’s a no-brainer to just about everyone but Shadegg and his Republican colleagues who are playing political games with the lives of millions of unemployed Americans — and using voodoo economics to justify their callousness.