October 30, 2000
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a one-on-one on who should be the next President of the United States. This last full week of the campaign, we'll hear several debates between people with strong views about the candidates. Gwen Ifill has the first.
GWEN IFILL: Joining me tonight, Robert L. Woodson, founder and president
of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a nonprofit research
organization that supports neighborhood-based initiatives-- he supports
Governor Bush; and Michael Eric Dyson, a cultural critic and professor
at DePaul University in Chicago. His latest book is "I May not
Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr." He is backing
Vice President Gore.
ROBERT L. WOODSON: I support him because of his record as Governor in Texas. He has brought people together. He... Last time he ran, 40% of Hispanics voted for him, 25% of blacks did. As many Democrats voted for him, almost, as his opponent -- also for his support of school vouchers. We desperately need some reform in education. Also because of his support of faith-based organizations in his state; the state was about to regulate them out of existence-- Teen Challenge and Victory Temple-- and when this was brought to the Governor's attention, within eight months he signed into law a bill that would exempt faith- based drug- and alcohol- treatment programs from regulation, and so those are the real issues that I think... and Social Security reform, also, because Social Security reform is very important for black Americans because of our high mortality rate. It really represents a net transfer away from black Americans. So reform is needed, and I think the polls in the black community support education reform, vouchers-- 70% of blacks support it-- also Social Security reform, supported by large numbers of blacks. That's why I support Governor Bush.
GWEN IFILL: Okay, professor Dyson, same question to you about Vice President Gore.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I think that Mr. Gore possesses the requisite skills, intellectually speaking, in terms of his political acumen, but also in terms of the projects he has before him. He's already had eight years, working with Mr. Clinton, of trying to reform the economic structure of America so we can close the gulf between the have-gots and the have-nots. I think that, unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Gore's aim toward at least redistributing wealth among the middle class, and we hope downwards to those who are poor, in terms of health care reform, taking money out of the pockets of these big businesses, especially the insurance companies, which are gutting the infrastructure of so much of the health system, and redistributing the authority back into the hands of doctors themselves and into patients themselves.
Also, I think what's very important about Mr. Gore is his ability to understand the kind of racial profiling issue that has been front and center in America so tragically, especially African-American and Latino people -- so that, not only signing an executive order, but making sure that the racial character of America reflects the true diversity of African American and Latino, native American and Asian American society, along with our white brothers and sisters. And finally, I think that, when it comes to reform of not only the economic inequalities that exist, but also reform of Social Security is very important, but what's also important, I think, is that Mr. Gore has in his mind to continue the unprecedented level of economic benefit that has been had in the last eight years. In that sense, I think Mr. Gore represents the best alternative and best chance for most of America to see a better day.
GWEN IFILL: In this final week of the campaign, we hear both candidates talking so much about why the other guy should not be President. Is fear driving this? Do you worry that Mr. Gore would not be good?
ROBERT L. WOODSON: Yeah. What bothers me about some of the scare tactics that are being employed by some of his henchmen-- the NAACP-- I think really viciously suggesting through this ad, showing a truck pulling a chain, with the voice of James Byrd, the young black man who was killed, dragged to death in Texas...saying that ..
GWEN IFILL: The voice of his daughter.
ROBERT L. WOODSON: His daughter saying that with George Bush, "every time I think about him voting against the victims' bill, that I see my father dying all over again." This is horrendous. The other thing that I resent is how the Democrats take the black votes for granted. They almost use them as a doormat. I was incensed to find Mr. Clinton and Gore going to the black church every time the Democrats get in trouble, they go to a black church on a Sunday morning, stand in the pulpit urging blacks to vote Democratic. They would never go to a Catholic church and interrupt Mass. They would never go to a Buddhist... I mean, excuse me. They would never go to a mosque, they would never go to a Jewish temple and stand up before people, but they feel free to do that in the black community, and yet if some of those same parents who send their children there wanted a voucher so they could start a school there, the Democrats would be screaming, "separation, church and state." But you never hear the church/ state issue when the Democrats get in trouble, run to the black church, and take over the pulpit.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, here's the reality. First of all, Mr. Bush did refuse to sign into law a bill that would extend the existing bill in Texas that punitively assessed penalties against those who would hurt people because of their sexual orientation or their race. So when you hear the commercial that is being directed at the voters of America, the reality is that Mr. Bush has failed to extend his own concern about African-American people to a bill. Number two, Mr. Bush... I mean, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore going to the black church, there's an old tried-and-true tradition within African American culture. Two things: First of all, African-American people certainly overwhelmingly, 90%, vote Democratic, and that's for a reason. Are we assuming that they're unintelligent? No. Are we assuming that they understand that if they have been used-- and one would never deny that the Democrats have to a certain degree taken black people for granted-- but my God, that's better than being totally ignored and in a vicious way dismissed by the Republican Party. So I think that the Democrats have a better record in terms of speaking to the needs and interests of African-American people, number one. And number two, let's be real: If a bum-fumbling, half- articulate African-American person stepped up to the plate to try to run for the presidency, he would be or she would be overruled and outright dismissed. Here, mediocrity has been elevated to the level of enormous distortion in American society, and now Mr. Bush has a chance to be President. He obviously believes in affirmative action because he's being the beneficiary of it right now.
GWEN IFILL: Give Mr. Woodson a chance to respond.
ROBERT L. WOODSON: I think that this elitist notion that somehow...
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Skill...
ROBERT L. WOODSON: May I finish? That the Governor isn't smart enough: Most Americans understand that 80% of the people that start businesses in America tend to be "C" students. "C" students come to great universities like yours and endow it; "A" students come there and teach. And so I think most Americans would trust a honest "C" student to a dishonest "A" student.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: It's not about grades.
ROBERT L. WOODSON: Mr. Gore... ( Both talking at once )
GWEN IFILL: Let me step in.
ROBERT L. WOODSON: The presidency is about honesty, and he has proven not to be very honest.
GWEN IFILL: I want to give you a chance to respond. Let me ask about this integrity question. That's a question that continues to dog Al Gore. How do you respond to that?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I think, first of all, we can't determine integrity by, say, three debates. We can't determine integrity by sound bites. We determine integrity by the life record of a human being. You can't determine one inning here, one inning there. I wouldn't do that to Mr. Bush; I certainly don't want to do it to Mr. Gore. In other words, integrity is about the consistent life pattern that you put forth as a result of your own moral and ethical commitment, and as it relates to politics, what decisions have you made over your life? Now, for me, I could say the character issue is evoked in Mr. Bush's case when he's allowed a disproportionate number of African American men and Latino men to die on Death Row. That is indeed a character issue. Now, it's also a political issue. So I think to indict Mr. Gore's character and integrity and impugn his integrity by suggesting, because he did go to a Buddhist temple, because he made mistakes, he's not perfect... integrity is about understanding your imperfections in light of your goals and aspirations, and then making a whole out of your life, not reducing it to one thing.
ROBERT L. WOODSON: Well, let me agree with you one thing, that integrity is revealed by one's pattern. Let's just look at Mr. Gore's pattern...
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: We don't have time to examine the patterns, but...
ROBERT L. WOODSON: No, I'm just saying, you used the word "pattern." Yesterday, Gore... Yesterday Gore announced before an African American group in Michigan that he was... supported... opposed to, rather, moving the embassy to Jerusalem, and then before, he goes before a Jewish group, and takes the opposite position. He stands up and says to the entertainment industry, "I will never invoke government to control anything you do," and then turns right around and says to another group, "if they don't clean up their act, I will get to the federal communications bureau... Commission and see that they do it."
GWEN IFILL: Give him a chance to respond.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, to the latter accusation, because I'm not familiar with the former -- the latter accusation, Mr. Gore said to Hollywood, "I want you to clean up your act." He did say, "what I want to do is this: If you don't do it on your own, I'm going to bring some governmental pressure." There's a difference between civic conscience, where you deploy the bully pulpit of the presidency to say to people "do what I do." I happen to disagree with him on that issue, but the reality is, is that if Hollywood needs to be talked about and talked to, then the bully pulpit of the President should be used. He is not talking about restraining free speech through acts of censorship. But let me go back to this. The point is this, that most African American people, unlike Mr. Woodson, understand and intuit in their relationships to Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush that here is not simply a likable index, "is this guy more likable than that?" -- because if Mr. Gore comes off more wooden than does the affable Mr. Bush, what black people understand is substance. We're not about styles and shenanigans. What we understand is that the integrity of the political process is about what have you not only done for me lately, but what have you done over the life of your own commitment to public life? Mr. Bush can't even acknowledge that he would support affirmative action. Affirmative action is central to African American interests in this country.
GWEN IFILL: Ralph Nader, who is Al Gore's biggest threat right now in many ways, even bigger, some people say, than Governor Bush, has said that both of these candidates are dangerously alike, a pox on both their houses, and you begin to hear more and more voters saying that. How do you make the case against that?
ROBERT L. WOODSON: Well, I don't agree. I think they starkly differ on choice and education. Again, Mr. Dyson talks about the black community's support for affirmative action, the black... The black community is split on this issue, as any other group is. 47% oppose race-based affirmative action. Mr. Bush says he is for... for access, and his record in Texas speaks to that. So that, no, there is significant differences. Social Security reform, Social Security reform really represents a net transfer of assets from blacks to whites because we die earlier, and on the issue of racial profiling, nine blacks die every year at the hands... hate crimes; 9,000 die at the hands of other blacks. Now, what is the most crucial issue for black community, hate crimes or putting policies in place to change the culture of violence in our community that we're trying to do?
GWEN IFILL: You had the first word, you'll get the last word.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, the reality is that this kind of rhetoric, which is inflated morally, certainly indicates that African American people understand black-on-black crime is a problem, but they also understand that economic inequality is the problem that creates vast wastelands of ghetto and lost opportunity. So what we're arguing for with Mr. Gore is that the possibility of living in a nation that looks like us, whose administration reflects our own diverse makeup, but also the basic fundamental premise that African-American people have always been committed to the political process in being fair and just and honest and open, and if we see in Mr. Bush the denial of that, the recognition that three Supreme Court justices will be appointed, potentially to roll back the gains that we have so hard worked for, the reality is that Mr. Bush does not represent the best interests of African- American people, and that's why we've got to go with Gore.
GWEN IFILL: I know you have more to say, but we're going to have to leave it there. Professor Dyson and Mr. Woodson, thank you both very much.