Phil Donahue, Part 1

The dean of the TV talk show genre turns the tables and questions Tavis—and Dr. Cornel West—about the new book, The Rich & the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.

Using his trademark style of bounding up and down studio aisles, Phil Donahue pioneered the audience participation TV talk show format. For almost 30 years, he interviewed everyone from world leaders and celebrities to civil rights activists and war dissenters, winning 20 Daytime Emmys. He began his career as a radio station news director and has been inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. In 2007, Donahue changed platforms and exec-produced and co-directed the Oscar-nominated documentary Body of War—the story of an injured U.S. vet returning home from the Iraq War.

A renowned scholar, Dr. Cornel West has written/edited more than 20 books, including Race Matters, the NYT best seller Democracy Matters his memoir, Brother West and, as co-author with Tavis, The Rich & the Rest of Us. West has taught at Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Union Theological Seminary.

Donahue puts his considerable interview skills to work with Smiley and West.


Phil Donahue: Good evening. From New York, I’m Phil Donahue. Not only am I delighted to be sitting in for Tavis Smiley for the next couple of nights, but also pleased to be sitting across from him.

Starting tonight I get a chance to turn the tables on Mr. Smiley, who is here with me at New York University, along with one of this country’s leading intellectuals. I speak of Princeton Professor Cornel West. Not only do they co-host a radio show together, “Smiley & West”- very clever title – but they’ve (laughter) teamed up on a terrific new book about the growing divide in this country between the haves and have-nots – no small issue. The book is called “The Rich & the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.”

We’re glad you’ve joined us tonight and we hope you’ll be with us tomorrow. One of my conversations with Tavis and Dr. West is coming up right now. (Applause)

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Donahue: Well, my dear, look who’s here. We have some movers and shakers right here. We have two guys who keep on keeping on. A fabulous, fabulous thing to say about a person who’s been around and about as much as they have.

They’ve been to Washington, they’ve been to the Oval Office and they’ve been to jail. (Laughter) We’ll talk about that, too.

Now, first of all, you’ve just come off a tour. How many cities?

Dr. Cornel West: Eighteen.

Tavis Smiley: Eighteen cities.

Donahue: What did you learn that you don’t already know?

West: Well, one was it was just nice to spend time on the bus with some high-quality people.

Donahue: I bet you.

West: Absolutely. Brother Tavis and the group that was there with us, it was magnificent. And then to meet struggling, shuddering, suffering, but highly dignified poor people who are part of the fight-back.

Donahue: Yeah.

West: Started on a reservation, went to the Brown side, the Yellow side the Black side of town, went to see White brothers and sisters who were broke as the Ten Commandments financially. But strong. Strong in spirit.

Donahue: You really have taken this from a very important scholarship level right down to meeting real, live people, looking right at you, and you know they’re in pain.

How about you, Tavis? What’d you bring back from this tour?

Tavis: No, it’s a great question. First of all, let me just say how honored I am to have you sit and do this conversation. I grew up watching you every day as a kid in Indiana, so I’m just almost – almost speechless; not quite, but almost speechless at your being on this program.

Donahue: Well, I’m trying to get my picture taken with the both of you. (Laughter)

Tavis: To your question, though, your brilliant question, what I came away with was a better understanding of what this is really all about. For so many Americans, it’s no longer about trying to pay their bills. They’re so behind in bill payments that they’ve lost everything.

It’s no longer about holding onto their home. That went a while ago. It’s no longer about trying to navigate the embarrassment in front of family and friends for how long they have been unemployed.

It’s about dignity at this point. I met so many people who are struggling – we met so many people who are struggling to hold on to their dignity, and I didn’t know that it had gotten to such a base level, where people were just trying to hold on to their humanity, hold on to their dignity..

Because there is dignity in all work. There’s dignity in work, and people just want to feel that. I didn’t realize the dearth and paucity of dignity in the country, number one.

The second thing I took away from the travel was that a slight uptick in our economy, Phil, is not going to solve what we saw. People tend to think that if the economy starts to swing up a little bit, then poverty is going to be addressed. What we saw is so extreme that any sort of slight uptick in our economy, the kind we’re witnessing or experiencing now, isn’t going to begin to touch, reduce or eradicate what we saw on this tour.

Donahue: There’s some people that just look at it and say, “It is the rock of Gibraltar, and I am the feather. So what good can I possibly do?” and that’s the beginning of the end of any kind of political action. You would agree?

Tavis: I do agree, but I think one of the things, Phil, that makes it different to your question this time around is that poverty for so long has been color-coded in this country.

When we think poverty, we think Black folk, we think Brown folk. It’s been color-coded for so long, and that’s not what we saw. We saw Americans of all races, all colors, all creeds, all ethnicities, all faiths, all political persuasions. We saw such an abundance of poverty in this country impacting all kinds of Americans that the conversation is no longer just about Black and Brown.

I’ve taken to saying in the tour and since the writing of the book, and we talk about this in the text, as a matter of fact, that the new poor are the former middle class. In an election season like the one we’re in now, people always, politicians always want to speak to the angst of the middle class.

You can’t do that this time around, because the new poor, again, are the former middle class. They’ve fallen into this poverty abyss. So now what you have is the perennially poor or the persistent poor; on top of them you have the new poor, and on top of that you have the near-poor.

You put all that together and you’re looking at 150 million Americans who are now in poverty or near poverty, and that means that one out of two of us is wrestling with this issue. That’s a little bit different and a little bit more egregious than it has been in times past.

West: Oh, absolutely.

Donahue: It’s true. You think of poor – I have to confess, growing up as I did in an all-White neighborhood, a kind of Norman Rockwell place. It was a working-class neighborhood, nothing wealthy about my childhood, but it was so idyllic.

A Catholic church with a White God the father, a White son, and the Holy Spirit came to us as a white dove. All the statues in church were white. I began to think about this as a teenager – not very deeply, I have to say; I was too busy probably looking at girls. (Laughter)

But I was a slow learner, and it took me a long time, really, to appreciate the nature of racism, where it comes from, and I began to think about all these white – and I began to realize that racism was a lot like cancer. You don’t always know you have it.

You were out there, and let’s get this understanding out there early, you saw not only Black and as you say Brown people, you saw White people in poverty.

West: Oh, indeed, indeed. But you think, for example, in that idyllic moment that you grew up during your childhood, that just down the road there was some ugly Jim Crow and Jane Crow realities of people catching hell.

Not just discrimination, not just segregation. People taught to hate themselves, taught that they ought not to have a sense of possibility. But it was invisible. What we attempted to do is say well, there’s new forms of oppressions, and there’s actually new forms of slave-like conditions of poverty that cuts across the board, but it’s been invisible. It’s been invisible.

Twenty-five years ago, when I first met this brother in Los Angeles, we made a covenant. We said that we were going to be so true to the legacy of Martin King and Fannie Lou Hamer and others that we were going to give our time, energy, lives, and be willing to die – not for a cause, but for the people that they were concerned about.

What Martin Luther King and others did in your moment was to make Jim and Jane Crow visible. Put it out in the public. You either deal with this or you lose your democracy – make a choice.

These days, 2012, we either deal with poverty or we lose our democracy. That’s the fundamental question.

Donahue: By the way, that’s not the only thing that may move us to lose our democracy. We’ve got now people in power who believe that this is a nation of law, unless we’re scared.

West: That’s true. That’s true.

Donahue: The Bill of Rights is no habeas – Miranda, schmiranda; don’t even talk about that.

West: That’s exactly right.

Donahue: It really is scary, I agree.

West: Well, the two are connected, too, because one of the points that we make is that the connection between poverty tied to social misery and oligarchy tied to greed and avarice – I’m talking about big banks, I’m talking about big corporations.

One percent of the population owns 42 percent of the wealth. The top 400 individuals have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million. Now, see, no democracy can survive in that sense, but worse – and this is where we try to shatter the silence – we’ve got a social conformity out there where everybody’s up for sale, everything is up for sale.

What was wonderful about Brother Martin and Fannie Lou and others was even if they were tied to a losing cause, they were never up for sale. They were going to speak the truth. (Applause, cheering)

They were going to bear witness to the suffering, you know what I mean? It comes through strong in this text of that particular tradition, and just a tradition that comes through us. We are cracked vessels.

It’s a tradition coming through us that we want to be true to so that when we die, people will say, “Those two Negroes tried to be true to something bigger than them.” (Applause, cheering)

Donahue: Please give us some numbers again. Let’s really – what percentage of children in this country are poor?

Tavis: The numbers are growing every single day. In 2009 and 2010 alone, over a million children fell into poverty; over half a million into extreme poverty. We just had a conversation not long ago in New York called “Made Visible: Women, Children and Poverty in America.”

We discussed in that conversation that the majority of Americans who are in poverty are women. Women make up the majority of Americans who are in poverty. Women and children falling fastest into poverty.

We talked about the fact that it says something very damning about our society and about our nation that we would allow women and children to fall fastest into poverty and not somehow see this as a state of emergency, to arrest this development amongst women and children.

So that again, across the board, too many Americans are suffering or dealing with this, but there’s a whole chapter in this book where we talk about the poverty deniers. It’s even astounding with all the data, Phil, that exists, there are people who still want to deny that poverty exists, number one.

We talk about the Heritage Foundation and the report they put out a year ago – you recall this – trying to redefine what poverty is in America. Our friend Stephen Colbert did a brilliant segment with our friend Peter Edelman, the husband of Marian Wright Edelman who was on Colbert’s show at the occasion of the release of the Heritage Foundation report, which tried to redefine poverty – if you own a cell phone, you’re not poor.

If you have a microwave, you’re not poor. If you have a refrigerator in your house, you’re not poor.

Donahue: If you’re overweight, you’re not poor.

Tavis: Yeah. So is that – that’s no joke, that’s what they said. So they tried to redefine poverty in such a way that what Doc and I want to say in this book, “The Rich & the Rest of Us,” is that we, as he said earlier, have to get serious about dealing with poverty.

We have to make poverty a priority. Talk about not just reducing it, but eradicating it, and have a serious conversation about the criminalization and the demonization and the denial of poverty in our country.

West: Absolutely.

Donahue: And everybody knows the percentage of Black people in prison. Everybody knows that. But this isn’t news. This is what’s so bewildering. We get it. We know what’s going, but somehow – maybe it’s because all the rest of us have enough problems and we can’t solve the world’s, I don’t know.

West: (Unintelligible) the denial that Brother Tavis was talking about. But that one out of five of our precious children of all colors live in poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world is a moral obscenity. It’s an ethical abomination. (Applause)

We’ve got over 40 percent of our precious Red children – we started on an Indian reservation because we believe that indigenous peoples don’t have to be in a room, they don’t have to be next to us for us to be concerned about their suffering.

This country began with an attack on those precious peoples, and now 40 percent of their children. Same is true with our Brown children. Brown children are just as precious. Black children, 38 percent. They’re 100 percent of the future.

What kind of future are we talking about? And all we need do is look at the new Jim Crow that Michelle Alexander talks about. We’ve got a treatment of it in the text of the prison industrial complex.

Generation after generation you socially abandon, economically neglect a community, then put that community under intense police surveillance with deferential treatment, zeroing in on a war against drugs in the Black and Brown communities disproportionately, ending up with an expansion from 300,000 in the ’70s to 2.5 million today in the new Jim Crow – the prison industrial complex.

The connection between poverty and prison, and of course, who’s making money on the prisons? Oh, there’s profit in the prisons, you see.

Donahue: And how about those privately operated prisons?

West: Oh, yes, making big money on them.

Donahue: And you’ve got to cut expenses so you can make more money if you’re a private company. You owe it –

West: And you’ve got to plan to have more customers.

Donahue: Mm-hmm. (Laughter, applause)

West: Oh, that’s the thing. That’s where the profits come in. We got (unintelligible) treatment of that.

Donahue: Yeah. Give me your wisdom on media.

Tavis: I should be asking you that question. (Unintelligible) wisdom on media.

West: No, both of you all.

Donahue: I just enjoy talking about myself. (Laughter) I was let go from MSNBC, as you may know, because I was politically incorrect in the –

West: You were courageous. That’s what that was.

Donahue: Well, that’s not – (applause, cheering).

West: You were courageous.

Donahue: Here’s what’s interesting. Listen, this is just a little embarrassing. We had thousands of – 4,000, more than 4,000 young men who will never have a talk show, never write a book, never go to a tailgate party after a football game, came home after one of the most, one of the biggest, massive blunders in the history of American foreign policy, and these are the people I think we have to keep in mind.

By the way, a much larger percentage, I don’t happen to know what it is, were soldiers, men and women, of color. They’re the first ones to go and the first ones to come home in the prone position.

So definitely – and by the way, I mentioned that I was let go. Your applause is gratefully received, but I didn’t make any sacrifice. It didn’t take any courage for me. I got a little money walking around, I don’t have to worry about feeding the kids.

But there are a lot of folks out there who don’t speak up for that very reason. They may be reporting to a Republican at work – pardon me. (Laughter) So all these things work to suppress (applause) – which brings me to Pat Buchanan, who also was fired from MSNBC, writing a book which he said – he’s saying something that he’s been saying all along: “The Brown people are coming. We are losing our culture. We are losing our Euro-centric feature of this nation that made us so great.”

It’s fear. He really, he figures he’s going to put up a fence and that’s going to work. That has to contribute to the mind-set and young people growing up seeing this man of authority – he’s on television, after all – saying things like that.

Tavis: There are two things you said I want to come back to right quick. One, on the question of war – we talk about in the book and really have a full treatment on this Kingian notion that war is the enemy of the poor. It really is.

You think about all the services and all the opportunities that we could afford American citizens were we not wasting trillions of dollars on these wars, and we have a chart in the book that lays down specifically what could have been done and going forward what could be done with the money that we have wasted in these wars.

To the extent that we are now done with the war in Iraq, what do we do with the money that we were spending in Iraq? We lay out suggestions in the book what we think ought to happen on that front. But Dr. King was right – war is the enemy of the poor.

To your second point, about the fact that there is fear in this country, we talk about that in this text. There is a palpable fear of poor people, which leads, again, to their demonization, which leads to their criminalization, and anything that you are afraid of, you’re obviously not going to spend any time getting to understand, appreciate, embrace, much less aid and abet, so that poor people end up being on their own.

I think the worst thing that you can do to a person who is poor is to render him or her invisible, and that’s what’s happening to many Americans who find themselves poor. They’re being rendered invisible.

Back to your question earlier about the poverty tour. We went on this 18-city tour over a couple of weeks and I recall very vividly – one thing I love about this text is that it’s not just a polemic. It’s not just a public policy analysis.

Donahue: I agree.

Tavis: You’ve read the book, so you know this. We weave throughout the book the stories of everyday people who we met on this poverty tour, and as long as I live I will never forget seeing the faces of all kinds of Americans, but particularly in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

West: Mm.

Tavis: Remember this?

West: Mm, in the tent city.

Tavis: In the tent city, man.

West: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: Under a couple of freeway overpasses in the middle of nowhere. You have to walk this way and this way and this way and down another freeway is this tent city.

We only had time to go to one, but there are many of them we could have chosen to go to. We chose this one in Ann Arbor because I wanted to know how they were surviving in the summertime when we were on tour, but what they were going to do when the winter months came.

It gets cold in Michigan in the wintertime. How were they going to survive in this tent city? The people that we met – 48 families, Phil, 48 families living in this one tent city.

I recall talking to this one woman, and I asked her, “How did you end up out here?” and she said to me that she was referred to the tent city, referred to the tent city by the housing people. A public service enterprise that is supposed to be dealing with this issue is so overwhelmed and so lacking in services, there’s such a dearth and paucity of their own ability to aid and abet this woman that they – this is the government entity – recommending the tent city to her, and that’s how she got there.

So the point I’m making here is that there is a fear of the poor that doesn’t allow us to wrestle with their issues, but when you ignore them and they get rendered invisible, then they fall through the cracks and that’s why it’s hard to believe the numbers that – even the numbers that we lay out in the book. We’re suspect of these numbers because we think it’s just so much worse.

Donahue: In preparing a documentary that I am very proud to have produced, it was an anti-Iraq war documentary –

Tavis: It’s a great piece, I saw it.

Donahue: Here’s what I learned. I watched the debate on the Iraq war resolution, where nobody obeys the Constitution. The Congress says, “Here, Mr. President, if you think you have to,” and then if it doesn’t go, then well, I did, and he said.

It’s a CYA – cover your backside – and (laughter) you know what? I’m going to tell you something I bet you don’t know – as you know, that passed by a large margin. Every person of color in the House voted no, except for Jefferson, Congressman Jefferson from Louisiana. He’s the guy with the money in his freezer, remember that?

West: Right, right.

Donahue: Talk to me about that. What did they know that George Bush didn’t know and all those White people in Congress didn’t know. Now you’re going to say they know their kids are going to be the first ones to go. That’s certainly part of it, but it has to be more than that.

West: It is, because poverty is not just a political question or an economic issue. Because it’s connected to unsettling truths, it’s a moral and spiritual issue, too. If you have spiritual fortitude and a cultivated spirituality, you’re able to look at unsettling truths and not collapse and have a breakdown.

To be Black in America is really to look at those dark truths and not to lapse and have a breakdown. To have to keep moving. Now unfortunately, as we know, that’s not always the case. We’ve got a lot of Negroes to break down in the face of truths. Lot of Black people break down.

But generally speaking, there’s more on the chocolate side of town that’s open to the unsettling truths of suffering than on the vanilla side. Now, with the Occupy movement in place now – and this is a different moment now – (applause, cheering) oh, we in a different historical era right now, see.

The Occupy movement is a disproportionately young brothers and sisters who are on the vanilla side, spilling over the chocolate side, yes, because it’s multiracial, but it’s disproportionately White.

That’s fine. They speak truths, they speak truths. Anybody speak truth’s fine with me. You’re talking about corporate greed, wealth inequality, you’re talking about poverty, you’re talking about a working class devastated, middle class disappearing, and then talk about the foreign policy – the drones, the bombs falling on innocent people.

Donahue: Children.

West: Children.

Donahue: A guy sits in a cage somewhere with a joystick in this country.

West: In this country.

Donahue: Four thousand miles away, he sees the camera in the nose of the unmanned aerial vehicle.

West: That’s right.

Donahue: There they are like it says “terrorist” on their t-shirts, or how they know. They fire that incendiary device, and we’re killing children.

West: They kill the daughters and the sons and the wives and so forth.

Donahue: And by the way, this is on Barack Obama’s watch.

West: Oh, he’s done it more than Bush. He’s done it – he increased more than Bush. People say, “Oh, Brother West, why are you critical of the Black president. You a Black man.”

Donahue: That’s what I was just going to ask you.

West: I say, “I’m a truth-telling Black man.” (Applause, cheering) I’m a truth-telling Black man. My morality cuts deeper than pigmentation. If a Black man is right, I’ll go with him. If a Black sister’s right, I’ll go with her. But if they’re wrong, I’m going to smile, say, “I love you,” and say, “You’re wrong, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” (Applause)

Tavis: But that is, though – I don’t want to be trivial about this. That is part of the dilemma, though, and we, again, address this in this book. There is a certain deference, not just on the part of African Americans.

One can understand how African Americans are still wildly celebratory of this historic moment with Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House. But there has been a deafening silence born of deference to this particular White House about the issue of the poor in this country, and people are afraid to speak up with courage, conviction and commitment for fear of being ostracized by that particular apparatus and by that particular administration.

We got over that a few years ago, obviously, but it does hold people back from speaking truth about poverty in this country.

Donahue: The book about which you speak is titled “The Rich & the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.” We’ll have much more next time here on PBS with Tavis and Dr. West. Until next time, I’m Phil Donahue. Good night from New York. (Applause, cheering)

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Last modified: April 17, 2012 at 2:06 pm