Phil Donahue, Part 2

Turning over his host seat to the dean of the TV talk show genre, Tavis and Dr. Cornel West explain their new text 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. Tonight, part two of my conversation with Tavis and Princeton Professional Cornel West on the issue of poverty in America, and a timely new book they’ve teamed up on – “The Rich & the Rest of Us.”

The book examines growing inequities in our society and their impact on the future of all Americans, on the systemic challenges we face and ideas for what each of us can do to help eradicate poverty.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Part two of my conversation with Tavis and Dr. West is coming up right now. (Applause)

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Donahue: We’re back now with the co-authors of this book, “The Rich & the Rest of Us.” I speak of Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West.

One of the interesting, I think enlightening points you make, 10 lies about poverty. Give us that.

Dr. Cornel West: Well, one would be that poor people have a character flaw and make bad choices. See, this is just a way of trivializing poor people’s suffering. We know some investment bankers who have character flaws and made bad choices. (Applause) So far they got over $15 trillion of our money. That’s called corporate welfare. That’s called socialism for the rich.

When poor people call out, they say we whine. No, we don’t whine, we wail. That’s what Bob Marley called the Wailers, not the Whiners, you see. (Laughter) When the CEOs of JP Morgan-Chase or Goldman Sachs call out for help, they get what they want and then they still whine.

Poor people call out for help and they say, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. You ought to be more responsible. You ought to be ashamed and come to terms with your own failure.”

Donahue: To be sure, they say that.

West: It’s a double standard. It’s hypocrisy, it’s mendacity, and we won’t put up with it anymore. We’re fighting back. (Applause)

Tavis Smiley: Another lie, Phil, is that the rich pay more. In this debate about rich versus poor in this country, people always want to suggest that the rich pay more.

Well, not really. There is some truth in that. Obviously, the more money you make, the more you should pay in taxes. But there are two things that mitigate against that.

Number one, the rich, as Doc just said, find these loopholes and these offshore accounts. How is it that two years ago I paid more taxes than GE? I’m a talk show host on public television and public radio, and I paid more taxes than General Electric, because they knew all the shenanigans and where all the holes were and how to maneuver and how to strategize to not pay a cent in taxes in a full calendar year, GE, and they’re not the only corporation that does that.

So the rich don’t always pay more. And just more broadly speaking, it costs money to be poor. It costs a lot of money to be poor. Because of where we are forced to live, because of the services that are denied us, the opportunities that are denied us, the markups on the things that we have to have.

The rich don’t pay anywhere near what we pay, relative to the goods and services that we use. So the rich don’t always pay more. That’s really not true when you deconstruct it.

West: Somehow, there’s a fair playing field, and it’s really just a matter of merit. The reason why 400 individuals in America have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million is because they’re so smart. Now, we know that’s a lie. We know that’s a lie. (Applause) No doubt about that.

There’s a whole lot of smart poor people. We discovered that. A lot of wise poor people.

Donahue: You really do have to wonder how much talent is not being realized. And this isn’t Black and White. Let’s not get this wrong. I remember – one of the phases I went through was paternalism, and I didn’t realize it. I was on the board of a – this is back when I was Mr. Liberal, this is like the late ’60s. Wasn’t easy to be a liberal then, either.

Finally, you get to the point where you really get smart and you realize how complicated this is. The first phase is the fun phase. Oh, man, I did it. (Singing) We shall overcome – it was fabulous. You felt good. I said the first phase is fun. The second phase, everybody’s a bigot but you.

I remember going to lunch with people and I thought everybody was Archie Bunker. You turn people off. You know and they don’t. Then finally you get to the point where you realize you’re a very powerless person.

Tavis: I sense that, and to your comment last night about the Rock of Gibraltar and feeling like you’re the feather, a wonderful metaphor, it’s really not that difficult, and we talk about this in the book. It’s really not that difficult.

What the American people want is fundamental fairness. It just undoes me to no end when I hear Mitt Romney and others talk about the politics of envy, as if poor people are envious of what they have. That’s not how this works.

What people want, as Doc said, is a level playing field. They want an opportunity. So as you know, you’ve seen the book, the chapter titles are like thus – the first chapter is really a back story on poverty. So it’s the poverty back story.

Then the next chapter is called “The Poverty of Opportunity,” because in America, we have a poverty of opportunity. But then these other chapters are a poverty of affirmation – we don’t affirm the American people anymore. A poverty of courage, a poverty of vision, a poverty of imagination.

Each one of these chapters, with these titles we tried to weave a narrative that lays out the fact that this really isn’t that complicated. It will be challenging, it will be difficult to get done, but it’s not that complicated. It’s about fundamental fairness. It’s about income inequality.

There are other countries that have done a really good job of reducing poverty. No society has altogether eliminated poverty, but there are really great examples of countries – Spain comes to mind – that over a certain time period have done a remarkable job of reducing poverty.

In the very first chapter we chart the history of poverty in this country, and we talk about those periods, those ebbs and flows, where we did a decent job of being serious about taking on poverty.

The Johnson era obviously comes to mind, the war on poverty. The FDR era comes to mind, obviously. Then we contrast those eras with these other eras in our history, say, for example, the Reagan years, where we didn’t do such a good job.

West: We did an ugly job.

Tavis: We did an ugly job.

West: We attacked poor people (unintelligible).

Tavis: We attacked and assaulted poor people. So the point is, without being too long-winded, our energy and our enthusiasm for fighting poverty in this country ebbs and flows, it goes up and down. But the bottom line is we know how to do this.

Put simply, this is not a skill problem, it’s a will problem. We have the skill. We know how to do this. We just don’t have the will to do it, and that’s what our problem is. But it’s really not that complicated.

West: But that issue of impotence is a challenge, feeling helpless and hopeless.

Donahue: Yes, I can’t do this, I’m powerless.

West: Exactly. There’s nothing wrong with having a moment of that. You just don’t want to get stuck. All of us have to have certain moments. I just buried my grandmama, you know what I mean? I’m thinking, like, Lord have mercy.

Donahue: What kind of life did she lead?

West: She lived a glorious life, though. She was quite a towering woman. She never set foot in a school, and her grandson is a university professor at Princeton. (Cheering, applause.) For a lot of people, a lot of people say, “Oh, that’s an American success story.” I say, “No, no, no. It’s the cross, not the flag.” (Laughter) It’s people who were willing to fight because they loved and were promoting justice.

America is only free and democratic to the degree to which every generation of Americans must fight to preserve whatever freedom, whatever democracy we have. That’s what this book is about in that sense.

Because if you really reach a point of impotence and it remains static and stationary and hegemonic, you either sell out, you sell your soul for a mess of pottage, with a smile, but you end up empty on the inside.

Or you just give up, go to the crack house and become addicted to whatever that’s going to keep you in escape. Or you just cave in and you just become complacent.

We have too many folk who are doing that, but in this Occupy moment, democratic awakening’s taking place. We’ve got to fight back. Poor people fighting back, working people fighting back, Black folk, Brown folk, middle class, and we should keep in mind in this book that we do not hate oligarchs or plutocrats, because we’re Christians. We try to love everybody.

We hate oligarchy. We hate plutocracy. We hate unfairness, we hate injustice. That’s what directs our hate. That’s what directs our righteous indignation. (Applause)

Donahue: Your book doesn’t just complain. You do offer some wonderfully practical ideas about moving us off this – I don’t know how you’d say it. I think we were doing real well, by the way, for a while there. Nobody came up to any Black person and said, “Boy, I’m glad that’s over, aren’t you?” Nobody would say that.

But I wish we had a leader – I’ll tell you, just for a moment, if I can take a second. Muhammad Ali did the “Donahue Show” and fought, we had gloves and everything. I’m swinging, we really – I took my life in my hands – and he fell down. I knocked Muhammad Ali on the ground. (Laughter) This man could sell tickets. I’ve never seen anything like it.

West: (Unintelligible) Was it a direct hit that knocked him down?

Donahue: No, I was afraid I was going to hit him and then I would run if I ever – okay? (Laughter) A woman in the front row, a White woman in the front row said, “Why are you always throwing your Blackness at us?” Chicago flat accent, you know? Chicagoans who life on North Pulaski.

Anyway, and Ali said, “I’m not throwing my Blackness. Why are you throwing your Whiteness at me?” “I’m not throwing my Whiteness at you.” He said, “Take that White Jesus off the wall. I know a lot of Black girls that are prettier than your Ms. America. And how come angel food cake is white and devil’s food cake is black?” (Laughter, cheering, applause)

Whoa. I mean, I have never in my life, I have never seen a more powerful influence-maker than this man. Imagine what he did for all those young – I want to say Black males, but all Black people, but especially I am somebody. Nobody – where is Muhammad Ali today? He’s done his, he’s paid his dues. He is happily retired and his wife looms over him and speaks to his illness.

Where is he? “I ain’t got nothing against no Cong.” He didn’t fight. He refused to fight. They stripped him of his belt.

West: That’s right, he wouldn’t sell out. He didn’t sell out, brother. He just wouldn’t sell out.

Donahue: He would not. There was – I think he’s the athlete of the 20th century, and I also think he should have won the Nobel Peace Prize. (Applause) “I ain’t got nothing against no Cong.” Fabulous.

Tavis: See, now here on night two we’re getting to the good stuff, because what you’re raising is the fundamental question about a lack of leadership, and if there’s anything that we take on in this book, “The Rich & the Rest of Us,” it is a lackluster leadership in this country on the particular issue that we’re talking about here tonight, which is poverty, obviously.

What we argue in the book is simply this, Phil – that there is, at this moment, a bipartisan consensus in Washington that the poor just don’t matter. There’s a bipartisan consensus that poverty is just not an important issue.

There are a number of things, to your point, that we call for in this book, and one of them is, and the last chapter lays out 12 ideas, that’s why it’s called a manifesto, these are 12 specific things that we think need to be done on this issue.

One of the 12, just one, is that there ought to be a White House conference called by the president on eradication of poverty. (Applause) One of the things that women across the country, that women celebrate and I celebrate – and I’m not a woman, obviously, but I celebrate this as well, being a person of color, is when Obama got elected and got inaugurated, his very first act, as you know, was signing that Lilly Ledbetter law. A powerful, powerful statement about what his administration was going to do on the issues that were important to women – at least we thought that at the time.

But it was a powerful statement he made by making that his first piece of legislation that he would sign, first executive order. The same thing ought to happen with this next election, whether Mr. Obama wins, and I believe he will win; he’s certainly better than any of the other choices on the right. (Applause)

But the first thing, the first thing that he ought to do, if he’s serious about poor people in this country, the first thing he ought to do is to sign an executive order calling for a White House conference on the eradication of poverty.

Bring together all of the poverty experts in this country to the White House for a two or three-day conference and let us lay out a national plan, a plan for how we are going to reduce, how we’re going to move toward eradicating poverty in this country.

Again, it’s not a skill problem, it’s a will problem. There are all kinds of plans. Jeffrey Sachs here in New York City at Columbia, Marian Wright Edelman, Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., Catholic charities – we lay them out in the book, all kinds of plans that are there for how we can reduce and eradicate poverty in this country.

We don’t have a leadership class that takes this issue or these people seriously enough to pull together a plan to make this happen. We argue this in the book very simply. We all know this. When this country gets serious about anything, when it makes anything a priority, it gets done.

If we want to go to war, we will find the money when we don’t have it. We’ll print money to go to war if that’s what our priority is. Barbara Jordan, the late, great Barbara Jordan, put it this way – that all of the American people want the same thing, Republican, Democrat, left, right, Black, White, Jew, gentile, urban, suburban, educated or illiterate.

As Americans, Republican, Democrat, we all want the same thing, and what is that? She said, “To live in a nation that is as good as its promise.” We all want to live in a nation as good as its promise, and the gap in this country between the promise of opportunity and the possibility in this country – the promise is one thing, the possibility is another.

That gap is so wide, and there’s a leadership vacuum in the middle where nobody is really stepping up to fight and defend the poor. I hope that if, in fact, he gets a second term, that the president, as part of his legacy, would take this issue much more seriously and rally Democrats and the whole country, since most of us are falling in this abyss anyway, the one thing I’m certain that all Americans agree on is on none of us want to be poor. (Applause)

Nobody asks to be poor. Nobody wants to be poor. So if we can rally around that and have some leadership on this, something can get done.

West: Unless you’re a monk or a nun or something.

Tavis: Well, maybe some. (Laughter)

West: I mean, there are certain commitments to poverty that I have respect for. It’s not the kind of lifestyle I choose, but I think what Tavis is also saying is on K Street you got 13,000 lobbyists. The major spokesperson for poor people and poor children in America is our dear sister Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund. There’s other organizations; she’s the major one.

She’s got her voice over against the 13,000 tied to big money, tied to Wall Street, tied to corporate elites, so that what we end up, we got a Republican party which is the right-wing conservative version of oligarchic rule, which would be catastrophic if they won.

But we got a neo-liberal version of oligarchic rule, too, because the Democratic party’s tied to big money. Both parties tied to the same small group of folk because they need the big money in order to survive, given this political system that is broken down.

So what we need is both insiders who are sensitive, but we need a movement. We need pressure from the outside that brings that pressure to bear on the insiders so that we can counterbalance all of this Wall Street corporate elite money that’s playing such a deleterious role in our politics.

Donahue: I’m one of the real lucky guys who had a chance to be exposed to the really enlightened observations and lessons, really, from some of our most effective Black politicians and leaders in the 20th century. I remember so many things that they said that just stick with me.

Andrew Young, before he was Atlanta’s mayor, I remember, some things just stick. He said, “We have to elect people who will reach out rather than lash out.” Now, that’s real simple, but it never left my brain. There were very few White – there were White folks out there certainly agreeing, but we didn’t see them.

Somehow that never got on media. It’s this lashing out by a largely White establishment, militaristic crowd in Washington that has really made it so complicated to speak to the domestic agonies that we have here at home.

So we have become a, I’m afraid, a military nation, and that can’t help at all.

Tavis: As we talk more and more about deficit reduction, as opposed to what we ought to be talking about, jobs, jobs, jobs, as we talk more about deficit reduction, the conversation in this country about austerity is going to get louder. That’s a conversation that we don’t even need to be having, but I’m afraid, Phil, that’s where this is coming.

So what happens is you don’t create programs, you don’t create good public policy to lift poor people up. Once gain, they get demonized, they get criminalized, and you blame them for their own station in life, and now we want to kick in these austerity programs to make things even more difficult.

I’m concerned about where this election cycle is going to take us, and that’s one of the reasons why we obviously unapologetically and strategically wrote this book to get it out now, because in this election season, while we can get some traction, in this season of the Occupy movement, while those of us who care about these issues can get some traction on these issues, we need to be talking about it in this election season.

Donahue: We should make the point that this book is not a high-office, academic treatise. These co-authors –

Tavis: It couldn’t have been, because I helped write it. So we know that was – (laughter) if West had done it solo, you might have one of those.

Donahue: But really, it’s a fascinating review. It’s from the straight-up, this book. That’s admirable, that you didn’t run around looking for celebrities and that you spent so much time talking to real people.

You wrap your books – well, share with us. Therefore, in the last chapter, what?

West: We call for a surplus of compassion, imagination, affirmation of poor people, that when King talked about the American dream he did not say his dream was identical with the American dream, he said it was deeply rooted in the American dream.

It was a dialectical critique of the American dream, because the American dream is obsessed with success, and King was preoccupied with greatness, and greatness is defined by the King legacy as he or she who has the courage to love and serve others. That is his corrective, that’s the Black people’s corrective to America. (Applause)

You can be successful all you want, but if you don’t learn how to love, you don’t learn how to treat people justly and decently, you’re going to run into a dead end. (Applause) We just saying we part of that tradition, and that’s how we go out.

Donahue: Right.

West: We say, America, it’s up to you. What kind of nation do you really want to be? Do you want to be cold-hearted and cowardly, or do you want to be kind, just and considerate? It’s up to you to decide. If you choose to be oligarchic, we’re going to have democratic voices, we’re going down.

Donahue: It’s true, you can have any country you want.

West: It’s up to us. It’s just like our individual lives. What kind of person you want to be?

Donahue: You can have a country that fires from an unmanned aerial vehicle and kills, assassinates, an American citizen in another country. You can be a country that puts people in a cage for four, five, six years, no Red Cross, no phone calls, no letters, nothing.

West: No due process, no judicial process whatsoever.

Donahue: Imagine – the land of the free, and the people who are bragging most about America, America, exceptionalism, exceptionalism – and by the way, that’s unbecoming behavior, I think.

Tavis: We take that on.

West: We got a whole little section.

Tavis: We got a whole section on American exceptionalism, yeah, we take that on.

Donahue: If we’re exceptional, let somebody from another country say that. Easy, big fella. (Applause)

West: Oh, that’s nice. That’s nice. (Unintelligible) logically blasphemous to say that God is winking at us, and God has God’s eye shut on other nations.

Donahue: Right.

West: That’s blasphemous. That’s not right.

Donahue: It also puts up there, and they’re down here. You know how you treat people who are down there.

West: That’s right.

Donahue: It’s inevitable. Tavis has been the voice for so many years –

West: It was Tavis’s idea for this poverty tour. He’s the one who came up with it. (Applause)

Donahue: I’m telling you.

West: Tavis came up with the whole idea. Right in my mother’s living room. Right in my mother’s living room. Yes, indeed.

Donahue: And I mentioned keep on keeping on, and I’ve met so many people during the course of my – I was a very lucky guy. So many things were happening and I had them all on my show.

Tavis: You weren’t just lucky, you blessed a whole lot of us.

West: You did.

Tavis: You blessed a whole lot of us. (Applause) I would not be on television were it not for you, so.

Donahue: Well, I’m very flattered. Thank you.

West: Do you recall the 1990 show we did on race together?

Donahue: Oh, yeah, and we haven’t changed a bit.

West: We’re still the same.

Donahue: Yeah.

West: My love and respect for you is even deeper and deeper and deeper. Absolutely.

Donahue: So that’s why I am so impressed with the work that you’re doing. You never allowed yourself to become cynical. You allowed yourself to become angry, but never cynical. Never where you speak in such dire terms that you turn people off and you say oh, you’re right, I can’t do anything.

You kept your chin up and you kept your spirit and you even smiled, both of you, very well. (Laughter)

Tavis: I think skepticism is healthy. Cynicism is deadly. But skepticism is healthy, and we are skeptical of a lot of things in this book, and I think when people get a chance to read it they’ll come to terms with what we’ve come to terms with, which is that we’re a better nation than this. We can do better.

Donahue: The book about which you speak is titled, “The Rich & the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.” My thanks for letting me be part of this conversation. This has been a kick for me over the past couple of nights.

Gentlemen, thank you, and good night from New York. (Cheering, applause)

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Last modified: April 18, 2012 at 2:11 pm