PBS talk show host and political pundit Tavis Smiley was in Milwaukee recently to talk about educational initiatives across the country and the current political landscape. Before his talk to 1,000 students at MATC, he sat down with me.
Our one-on-one session was not so much one journalist interviewing another, as it was a debate-laden dialogue between two friends at the barbershop. Here are some of the key points of our 45-minute talk:
On politics: Smiley warned voters that critiques coming from the right on Muslims, immigrants and the poor don’t match up with who we are as Americans.
He said he didn’t know what scares him more. The fact that Donald J. Trump doesn’t know what he wants to do or that Ted Cruz does know what he wants to do.
Smiley, 51, who made television history in 2007 as the moderator and executive producer of the All-American Presidential Forums on PBS — the first prime-time television Democratic and Republican presidential debate with panels comprised exclusively of journalists of color — said that, on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders made Hillary Clinton a better candidate.
My biggest knocks on Clinton are that she is too hawkish on foreign policy and not progressive enough on social justice issues.
Sanders forced her to talk about increasing the minimum wage, black male incarceration and making college more affordable.
On Obama: When I asked Smiley about his harsh criticism of Obama, things got heated.
He challenged me to point out one instance where his criticism was personal.
When I told him that when he along with Cornel West — probably the most important voice to have helped shaped black identity in recent years — attacked Obama, the criticism came across as personal.
Smiley responded with a question: “Are you talking about Cornel West or are you talking about Tavis Smiley?” He shared that while he and his friend don’t always agree, he doesn’t have to take him to task in public and that he is entitled to have his own opinions regarding the president.
Smiley’s edict toward Obama is respect, protect and correct. He said he respects the president and will protect the president from white supremacist attacks, but when Obama is wrong he will correct him.
Obama is not above criticism. Studies have suggested that over the last decade, blacks have lost ground in every economic category including employment, education, housing, wealth, mass incarceration and health disparities.
Obama evolved on gay rights. The Hispanic community got the “Dream Act.” Environmentalists got a climate change bill. Wall Street got what it wanted, but his most loyal constituency, “black folks,” is still waiting.
Smiley says the Bible even says “those who ask not, get not.”
Smiley gave Obama’s presidency a “C-” because he is judging him on what he labeled as a “Kingism” scale, which measures on racism, poverty and militarism.
“Obama failed on racism and there are more people in poverty than when he took office…. And we don’t even need to talk about militarism,” Smiley said. “Martin Luther King was a prophet, Obama is a president.”
On his book: Smiley’s 20th book, “50 for Your Future” offers 50 nuggets of wisdom he gained over the years from a number of celebrities and everyday people.
Smiley said when he hit the age of 35, he realized that half his life was over because most of the men in his family didn’t live to see their 70th birthday. He said you hear a lot of people buying into the saying that 30 is the new 20. Don’t fall for it, he said, because when you’re 80, you’re just old.
Time doesn’t stop for anyone, and if you want to start building a legacy, remember it started yesterday but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved upon.