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August 29, 2008

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL. We'll be talking about the political news of the week: John McCain's choice for vice president, Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska.

SARAH PALIN: Thank you so much.

BILL MOYERS: And the choice of Barack Obama as the first African American presidential nominee of a major party in our history.

In Denver, it was a week of high drama. A party and a pageant. A gathering of the tribes and a religious revival.

CONVENTION SPEAKER: Great and awesome god. As we...

BILL MOYERS: It was a stunning showcase for the stars and a theater of politics.

HILLARY CLINTON: I move Senator Barack Obama of Illinois be selected by this convention, by acclamation, as the nominee of the Democratic Party for President of the United States.

BARACK OBAMA: Thanks everybody.

BILL MOYERS: But above all, this was a moment in history.

BARACK OBAMA: I accept your nomination for Presidency of the United States.

BILL MOYERS: Born, the passions and struggles of America's past.

Just 60 years ago this summer - in the lifetime of many of us - the liberal young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, courageously called on an ambivalent Democratic National Convention meeting in Philadelphia to stand up for civil rights.

HUBERT HUMPHREY: For those who say we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them: We are one hundred and seventy-two years late. The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadows of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.

BILL MOYERS: America was a racist country in 1948, and when the convention rose to Humphrey's challenge to pass a strong civil rights platform, the rabble-rousing Strom Thurmond of South Carolina led rebellious southern delegates in a walkout to form the Dixiecrat Party behind a platform calling for "the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race."

Now, 60 summers later and 45 years to the day that Martin Luther King dreamed of a land where children would "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," the Democratic Party has nominated an African American of mixed descent as its candidate for President.

BARACK OBAMA: And God Bless the United States of America.

BILL MOYERS: A moment in history, indeed.

With me now are some keen observers of politics and culture, Adolph Reed and Katrina vanden Heuvel.

Adolph Reed teaches political science at the University of Pennsylvania and is one of our country's most perceptive social critics. He writes widely on subjects ranging from A to Z and in his books has taken on the likes of Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan.

Katrina is the editor and publisher of the liberal magazine THE NATION. She's also the editor of this book, A JUST RESPONSE: THE NATION ON TERRORISM, DEMOCRACY, AND SEPTEMBER 11TH, 2001.

She co-authored this cover story on the eve of the Democratic Convention. It begins: "Electric. When Barack Obama receives the Democratic Presidential nomination... new possibilities will be born."

A historic candidacy, a new generation in motion, a nation yearning for change. Even the cynics," she says, "running for the McCain campaign might be touched...."

BILL MOYERS: It's good to see both of you.


ADOLPH REED JR.: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: But how about, for electricity, the announcement today of Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, as John McCain's running mate? What do you make of that?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Brilliant, clever, and cynical.


KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: It's a new kind of Republican grievance resentment politics. Large - I mean, so much of it is about feeding into the resentment about Hillary Clinton not getting one, the nomination of the Democratic Party, two, the vice-presidential nod. I think it's a moment though when we need to keep our eyes on the issues, and on the issues, Sarah Palin has a great life story, like John McCain.

She makes some history in her own right. But she's in lock step with John McCain on the big issues of our time. Whether - I mean, she's a ferocious anti-choice woman, lifetime member of the NRA. And if women seek a better, more just America, more decent jobs, health care, education, a court that isn't going to roll back rights, Sarah Palin is not someone you'd consider. But it is focus tested to the nth degree.

BILL MOYERS: Here's my conspiratorial theory that you know, the right wing has been pressing, John McCain to make a one-term pledge. People are concerned about his age, concerned about his health. So he said he's not going to do that. But he's been a little soft on that promise lately, and what if right before the election, he announces to the country, in one of the debates, that, "Sarah, that I'm gonna make that pledge of just one term," setting up the possibility of the first woman president being not Hillary Clinton but a conservative Republican. Do those kind of thoughts go through your head?

ADOLPH REED JR: It's an interesting thought. I was as sandbagged by this announcement as anybody else was. I don't think I've ever heard the woman's name. And then when I heard that her husband is an oil worker and probably comes out of the old oil, chemical and atomic workers, which is one of the founding unions that put so much into the labor party. And this guy's wife is now, you know, the Republican vice-presidential candidate seems like another kind of expression of oddness of American politics.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: But I do think it exacerbates the concern about McCain's age. I don't love going in that direction, but it needs to be used in talking about Karl Rove and brass knuckle politics. It undercuts the experience. What happened to their concern about experience? And these debate-

BILL MOYERS: It makes it hard for them to say Barack Obama.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: -has no ex - yeah. And then when you go into these debates, and let's not forget that it's rare that vice-presidents really, you know, look Bush and Dan Quayle. I mean, Dan Quayle should have discredited Bush from politics forever. But that debate on national security, I think, could very well hurt Sarah Palin. And I also think if Frank Rich, as Frank Rich wrote, if economic anxiety is the new terrorism of our time, she doesn't have answers other than, you know, John, she's in lock step with John McCain on the economic issues that need to be dealt with in a very different way. I mean, this is the old order has broken down. People are in pain in this country. And she's just offering the bromides.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that it's conceivable that she could attract the concerned women, concerned that Hillary didn't get the nomination, in enough numbers to impact on the race?

ADOLPH REED JR: Well, I think it's possible. I mean in reflecting on it, I thought that it could be a little bit like the sort of inverse of the Carol Moseley Braun effect, in 1992, when-

BILL MOYERS: She was an African American candidate for the Senate.

ADOLPH REED JR: Right. And what happened was, you know, or were in Illinois at that time was anyway that there was a rotten deal that the incumbent, Alan Dixon, had cut with the Republicans that in exchange for his voting for and supporting Clarence Thomas, they'd promise him weak opposition. The wildcard in that race was a self-made gazillionaire who ran a self-financed campaign for the Democratic primary. The vote was split three ways.

And Carol actually won the Democratic nomination with less than 40 percent of the vote. But when she faced the Republican non-entity from Kenilworth in the general election there's a substantial crossover of normally Republican-voting suburban white women who voted for her as part of the year of the woman, or the reaction against Thomas. And the fleeting sentiment, in favor of Anita Hill. And it could be, you know, that she could make some sort of dent among marginally Democratic-voting women who are-

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Going to put pressure on Hillary Clinton.


KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, I mean, I think, you know, she gave the speech at the convention, which I thought was very deft and really said, you know, "Obama's cause is our case." Some people thought she didn't do enough to set Obama up as the person you had to vote for. But she's going to have to get out there and speak to these women, these 18 million cracks in the ceiling which she brought into a process.

I was also struck just watching right now Palin, how white that crowd was. And I think women are part of a new, you know, a progressive coalition in this country, multiracial coalition. There are tectonic shifts in this country. And it's unclear that you put a woman like this on the ticket as vice-president, that John McCain can overcome a party that is still a party of white America. And this convention coming up doesn't look like it's going to be any different.

BILL MOYERS: Go back to this convention. I mean, McCain did upstage, somewhat-


BILL MOYERS: -this Democratic week, Obama's moment. But it wasn't the Democrats' week. You wrote last week, as I quoted at the beginning, that this would be an electric moment, when Obama was accepted the nomination. Was it, for you?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: It was electric in the sense of the history, a sense of who Obama is standing on the shoulders of those who have mobilized and moved this country. The great civilizing advances of our time have come from the social movements, the women's movement, civil rights movement, the labor movement. So that was exciting.

And I think that it opened up in what he spoke to. The energy from below that can push him to fulfill some of what he spoke about, because he did lay out a populist speech. But he didn't speak to the central issue, it seemed to me, which is the role of government. He danced around it, even though he did speak in sharp, populist terms. Country is open to a stronger government role, if he doesn't feel yet, the pressure that has to come from people in pain from below, to speak to that as clearly as he might.

BILL MOYERS: On the other hand, you grew up in a time when the historic affiliation between the Democratic Party and the Ku Klux Klan was still in the consciousness-


BILL MOYERS: -of African Americans down there. And although you've been somewhat skeptical about Obama from the beginning, because you didn't think he was maybe progressive enough, you must take some moment of pride in the fact that a party that once embraced the Ku Klux Klan has in fact nominated and is going to run the first African American for president.

ADOLPH REED JR: Well, I'll put it to you like this Bill. I think the Democratic Party embraced the Klan, or vice-versa, in the aftermath of the Civil War, for strategic reasons, right, as an instrument of establishing a social order in the aftermath of slavery that depended on enforcement of a certain kind of racial hierarchy. That moment has passed.

So the Democratic Party's been a different kind of animal for a long time. I actually had been more inclined to compare Obama's place in the Democratic Party and what he stands for to the emergence of Booker T. Washington-

BILL MOYERS: Booker T. Washington, the man who said, "Let's collaborate." The Southern-


BILL MOYERS: -black who said, "Let's collaborate with the white power structure and we'll make more progress that way than we would if we go off into the streets, right?"

ADOLPH REED JR: Right. Right.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I'm more interested, Bill, and this is what moved me last night in the moment, in the potential of the moment. Not necessarily the man Obama, though, you know, it is a moment of history to savor, and change doesn't come easily in our calcified political process. But he has brought energy into a political process.

Millions of people who haven't been part of our process, whether moving or electoral, are now in it. And that energy unleashed, if the progressive community can harness it in ways, can take on entrenched corporate interests, and can push Obama. I mean, that story about Roosevelt. It is a different America. But the story, and everyone has their tale, whether it was Sidney Hillman, the labor leader, or Frances Perkins, the first woman in the cabinet, comes into Roosevelt's and, she goes, "We got to do this. We got to do that. We got to speak out more boldly."

And Roosevelt says, "Go out and make me do it."


KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: And that is a tale-

BILL MOYERS: Give me the constituent-


BILL MOYERS: That I need-


BILL MOYERS: -to do it.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: And I think it is a moment where you have a Democratic Party where the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, and I'm not wedded to the Democrats. They do disappoint. But there are some good people in there to give them the strength of movement pressure from below, because only an alliance with those in the political electoral process, will we have a chance, on the great issues of our time, to really move, move.

BILL MOYERS: Well there is - go ahead-

ADOLPH REED JR: I think that's absolutely correct except I think that where our perceptions may differ here is the capacity that there is to bring that kind of pressure from underneath. You know, I don't see where it's coming from. I mean, there are no dynamic social movements left-of-center American politics now. And-

BILL MOYERS: There isn't a left left. Is there?


KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: There is a progressive community, and I hate the word. It's resolutely un-sexy, but infrastructure. It is not necessarily popular social movements, the anti-war, peace and justice movement needs to be stronger. But it is there. And they're doing something. I think September 20th, knock on a million doors to end this war.

But here's the thing. In the primaries, with all the limitations, you did have a field of candidates vying to be the most anti-war, most caring for labor, the most green. And I think progressives did drive that debate. It's constricted. There is no question the agenda in our country today, corrosive consensus, and I write about this in the article with Bob Borosage.

No one's speaking about a military budget that's so bloated, or being global cop or possible expansion of occupation of Afghanistan, which to me, would be the end of Obama's hopes and dreams, because you can't invest in rebuilding this country if you do that. And a whole slew of other issues you care so deeply about. But the Democratic Party, the platform, speaks firmly to issues which move me, and I know they do you. Labor. This is a life and death election for labor. This administration, the Bush Administration, has waged a war on labor we haven't seen.

BILL MOYERS: Right. But you mentioned Bob Borosage, a long-time leading progressive thinker. And he's in Denver. He emailed a number of people, saying that, you know, reminding them that Obama has always been a cautious liberal. Now you don't make significant change, do you, with cautious liberals?

ADOLPH REED JR: No, I mean and I take Katrina's point as you know stressing the possibility to push him from the left. But the problem is, is there's got to be, you know, the institutionalized political force that can push him. And in fact, I mean, one of my problems with Obama's persona is that it's built largely around redefining progressivism as the sort of left tail of a rational, neo-liberal politics. This notion that we can make change without conflict, for instance. I mean, I don't, I've got a lot of problems you know, with Geraldine Ferraro.


ADOLPH REED JR: But I think she hit the nail on the head, you know, with that one. I mean, that's-

BILL MOYERS: When she said?

ADOLPH REED JR: -that you can't make significant political change without some conflict in it, right?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Adolph Reed quoting Geraldine Ferraro.

BILL MOYERS: This is a transformational moment.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: You have someone else, that's right, you've had someone else from "The Nation" on this program, William Greider.


KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: William Greider, who is a chronicler of predatory corporate power in this country. If you look at the facts on the ground, the condition of this country now, it may well be that those drive - force Obama to be bolder, or he will be swallowed up.


KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: And FDR, I hate to go back to FDR, but I will. But-

BILL MOYERS: It's a different world-

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: -he campaigned-


KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: It is a different world. But there is - it's a different world in good ways, too. But he campaigned as a balanced budget moderate. And I do think there is, again, the energy. And I do think there is a capacity that is building. And finally, on the neo-liberal front, we agree that you need to address the structural inequities of our time-

BILL MOYERS: Neo-liberalism, being the view that-

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: But that's been dis-

BILL MOYERS: -the global economy is a good thing and we need to support it.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: But that's been shattered. I think the events of - so, an old order has died, in my view. You've written, Bill, in our pages about conservatism, intellectually, morally bankrupt. The fight is now on for what the new order will be.

BILL MOYERS: All right, but speaking of that, and the progressives, whoever they are, and how many of them they are having a strong debate today. All day on the blogs, you read them. Some people are saying, "Let's give Obama the chance, in his own right, to win the White House, get to the White House, and then we'll pressure him." And others, I think, with whom you would agree say, "No, look, you've got to pressure Obama now, to be progressive, if he's going to do anything positive when he gets that power." What do you think of that?

ADOLPH REED JR: It's pretty hard for me to wrap my mind around the other position, to tell you the truth. I mean it's, and I've characterized it in a number of different ways in different contexts. I mean, the notion that well, actually, you can go back to the history that we share. I recall when I was a kid in New Orleans, our moderate segregationist mayor, Chep Morrison ran for governor a couple times.

And his appeal to black voters, which, of course, came to count after Smith V. Alright was that, "You know I'm your friend. And you know I really care about you. But when I go up to North Louisiana, I'm gonna have to call you the N word and tell rape stories and describe you as monkeys. But I just have to do that to get elected, and don't worry, once I get elected, you know, I'll take care of." Well, the question is that if that's what you have to do to get elected, well, then won't that also be what you have to do to govern, right?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: But we, you know, I agree with Adolph in this sense, that "The Nation" published an open letter to Barack Obama two weeks ago-

ADOLPH REED JR: Right, right.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Signed now by more than 25,000 people, and within that is celebrating his candidacy and the energy he has brought in, the grassroots energy. Yet, don't comprise. Though we understand compromise is necessary in a democracy on core issues, because we believe that the grassroots movement, and the base, the much maligned base, will counter the entrenched money interests and the dead weight of political power in this country. And to lose - he won't lose it, because the alternative is too gruesome. But he needs real mobilization, and that comes with real enthusiasm.

BILL MOYERS: But that's mobilization for the election. I mean-


BILL MOYERS: -not necessarily-


BILL MOYERS: -mobilization-


BILL MOYERS: -for this position.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: But then we say that we will be your constructive allies, but we will challenge you on key fronts moving forward.

BILL MOYERS: Here's my take on what happened this week. What Obama offers is a leap over the racial divide, a new mythology for America, if you will. Those stories that we saw-


BILL MOYERS: -history that we heard this week. And the resurrection of the policies of the Clinton era. What do you think about that?

ADOLPH REED JR: Well, let me say this. This may sound odd, but I don't really believe there's a racial divide in America. Right? I mean, I think that's a fiction of our discourse, right? Most people of all races in this country are concerned about the same things, all of the time. I was part of an organizing effort in South Carolina, where we actually got 16,500 plus signatures of registered voters, mainly working class. Black, white, all sorts around putting the labor party on the ballot. And people were-

BILL MOYERS: A labor party?


ADOLPH REED JR: And there is a South Carolina labor party that exists now. And white workers are saying things to us, "You know, it's about time that somebody stood for something." And we just talked very frankly about you know, concerns like free public higher education and single payer health care. And so forth and so on.

Now, this is in a state, right, where the main political issue that had bubbled up in into national attention was a controversy over the Confederate Flag. Right? And the reverberations of that conflict were still visible. But the point is that if you talk to people in concrete ways about shared concerns, that's where the movement building comes from.

BILL MOYERS: But let me ask you, you come out of the labor movement, so to speak. Do you think Obama can become a working class hero?

ADOLPH REED JR: He could become a working class hero, if he were to take a more coherent position on trade, which he hasn't done. He could become a working class hero if he were to take a step beyond retailing, affecting stories about what working people, whose - their lives are hard, and articulate a programmatic method. I don't mean a wonkish 60 page policy proposal, right?

As I was saying before, I mean, I think, when you know what strikes me about Obama, one thing struck me about his speech is that he's got on one level, large platitudes. And on another level, personal stories. But there's a pragmatic vision which is what would, you know, give some glue that real people who get up and in the morning with problems could connect onto and see-


ADOLPH REED JR: -see themselves in, and it's not there.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: These are the constraints of elections. Elections in our-


KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: -country do not lead to the most concrete.


KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: They do call forth from the best candidates' stories. And though I wish Obama was reading out loud your story about a new story for America, which is so brilliant, which speaks to a different America and speaks to the role of government. But you asked about Clinton. I don't think he is Clinton for two reasons.

One, I think Clinton really did want to kind of undermine the progressive coalition. There was a strong Democratic leadership council, conservative strain there. And two, the conditions are different. There is a movement now. There's an understanding of the need for investment in this country. If they could only get rid of this fetish about balancing the budget, at a time which demands a new, public infrastructure rebuilding agenda.

BILL MOYERS: Back to the point you were making earlier. Obama did not mention racial inequality in his speech. And he did not call Martin Luther King by name. When he got - that was - I thought that was a very powerful section of his speech.


BILL MOYERS: But he talked about, "The preacher said this. The preacher said that." He didn't use Martin Luther King's name. What would be your understanding of it?

ADOLPH REED JR: Well, the preacher thing is just a rhetorical device that, I'm sure, you know, a special kind of respect, and maybe even implies a kind of oneness with the image. The other stuff I'm not really surprised. I wouldn't have expected much other than that from Obama. I mean, his career-

BILL MOYERS: -champion of the black cause, does he? Even, I mean, his cham-


BILL MOYERS: -his triumph is the best thing he could have done for-

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: But why is poverty the black cause? I go back to what Adolph said earlier about his organizing in South Carolina. I think Obama is not doing what Adolph wants. But he is speaking to universal issues that would help the African American community. It will require, at this moment of great inequality in our country, a come back. The organizing efforts and there is a group, Half in Ten, to halve poverty in ten years in this country.

The census figures come out. The problem is there, but Obama's speaking against real constraints. You mention Karl Rove. He had to speak about his patriotism, his religion, because of the smears against him. And he's backing away. You know, I mean, he's backing away from being the African American president.

ADOLPH REED JR: Well, but there's also one, you know, one way that Obama did talk about race, and he does often talk about race, and it's doing what Bill Clinton used to do but even more so, right, with beating up on black, poor people, because-

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Personal responsibility. I think he also speaks about-

ADOLPH REED JR: Well, that-

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Government's role-

ADOLPH REED JR: But you know, Obama-


ADOLPH REED JR: -gives the personal responsibility speech.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: There's a debate there.

ADOLPH REED JR: To those in investment bankers that he talks to. When he gives the, "Don't feed your kids Popeye's Chicken," for breakfast speech, to the hedge fund operator that he picks up the money from, then I'll accept that he's doing something else. But until then-


ADOLPH REED JR: -there's this-

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: -personal responsibility for everyone-

ADOLPH REED JR: -code, right? It's a clear code.

BILL MOYERS: We have to wrap. But last week, you wrote in "The Nation" that the Obama nomination sets the stage for a sea change election. I want both of you to come back in the middle of the campaign and we will see if in fact, we're in the midst of a sea change election. Katrina vanden Heuvel and Adolph Reed, thank you for joining me.



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