Trailblazing Fmr. Governor Gives Obama Advice
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, your calls and e-mails, it's Backtalk. But first, history in the making. As we've been discussing, Barack Obama made history this week by winning enough delegates to secure his party's nomination for president, the first African-American of a major political party to do so. Many observers say Obama's efforts to transcend race in his campaign set a new standard for black political candidates, but Obama wasn't the first to try, that was L. Douglas Wilder.
Wilder made history as the first black elected governor in post reconstruction America, winning the State House in Virginia in 1989. In 1992, he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, but dropped out of the race after a short time. After he finished his term as governor he wasn't quite done, he served as mayor of Richmond, Virginia since 2005. He recently announced that he'll be stepping down from that post when he completes this term. Doug Wilder joins us now from his office in Richmond City Hall. Welcome, thank you for speaking with us.
Mayor L. DOUGLAS WILDER (Democrat, Richmond, Virginia): Michel, it's always good to be with you and thank you for having me on your show.
MARTIN: Wanted to ask you what was going through your mind as you watched Senator Obama announce that he had secured enough delegates to get the Democratic nomination, and essentially the primary is over and he is coming out on top.
Mayor WILDER: I couldn't have been more proud of him and the pride is registered because at no time has he ever failed to acknowledge that it was not a personal victory for him, but a victory of aspiration for a lot of people, for a lot of dreams, for those who fought for him to have that opportunity, for the destroyed souls of people many generations here before who were denied. And yet people who fought and did the things to change the patterns and the minds and the opportunities for him to have this single opportunity, and it was as if all of those people were there enjoining in this expression.
MARTIN: Unlike many in your generation, if you don't mind my expressing it this way…
Mayor WILDER: No. I like it.
MARTIN: You know, a number of people in your generation were very hesitant about him. In fact, we spoke to former speaker of the California House Willie Brown who told me earlier this year, he said when he first heard about Barack Obama he said nobody named Barack Obama is getting elected to anything in this country. And in fact, you know, a lot of prominent African-American leaders did not embrace him at first. You on the other hand endorsed him very early in the process. I was wondering what it is you saw in him and why you thought he could win?
Mayor WILDER: Well, you're being very kind in my recognition, but you're also saying something that you witnessed firsthand down in Hampton, Virginia, when you were there at the Court State of Black America and you were the moderator and you heard those people. Why isn't he here and why isn't he doing what he should be doing? After all, this is the state of black America. This man was running for the United States presidency of the entire America, and I told Barack and Michelle Obama in a Washington gathering, early on, I said the biggest problem that you may encounter in this trek is going to be overcoming the doubts and the fears and suspicions of your own people.
I said, but don't be dissuaded by that because it won't be from the people themselves, from the grass roots, it'll be from those who think they are the top and they should be the ones that pass judgment of who is next prepared to lead. Pay no attention to that, do what you should do, and he's done that. And it's unfortunate. You and I have seen it. Unfortunately, we may continue to see it, but he has risen to the top and this is the cream of the crop.
MARTIN: What did you see in him?
Mayor WILDER: I saw first of all his preparedness. He's a very smart young man. He is interested in leadership, not looking out for Barack Obama, he personifies what I think public service should be about and it's a tautology, it defines itself. It means to serve the public and not serve himself, not be the clearing house for other people to have to advance - but the more important thing I found is that he never indicated that he was running to make history. He was running to be elected. He was running to show qualifications and he dared to say look, I don't need anyone to tell me when my time is, it's whenever I determine it to be my time. I saw so much of me in him that - I have said that to him. I mean we joke about it when we talk on occasions.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that, you seeing yourself in him. At some point, and I know you remember this, some African-American, you know, bloggers, writers, questioned whether he was black enough? Now you of course faced similar criticism back in 1992. I remember one writer criticized you were for thinking you were the quote, "universal citizen."
Mayor WILDER: Right!
Mayor WILDER: Yes. You're absolutely right. I like your memory.
MARTIN: Do you...
Mayor WILDER: But - oh. I'm sorry.
MARTIN: Do you think that that's changed at all though? Do you think that expectations of African-American candidates has changed?
Mayor WILDER: I think, yes, the answer unequivocally is yes. It has changed because if you're going to respond to what some have called black issues, then you'll see that those issues still are there and not have been resolved by those who said that they are going to resolve them as black office holders or elected officials. Unless there is mutual involvement addressing the concerns of a people of a constituency, those who vote for you or don't vote for you, you're not going to resolve them. Education is not a racial problem. Healthcare is not a racial problem. Good jobs and employment are not racial problems.
Unfortunately, African-Americans are disproportionately affected in so many of those things, but unless you have a cohesive coalition willing to address first of all the problem, it's not going to be resolved. One of the things that Obama has likewise done is brought the issue of race full force to be discussed by those who want to discuss it. That's why the Jeremiah Wright thing may have been a blessing. It gave him an opportunity to give one of the most profound speeches and statements about race in America today as we've ever heard.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and our guest is the mayor if Richmond, Virginia, the former governor of Virginia, Douglas Wilder. There's a story from your presidential campaign that one of your aides was conducting a focus group in New Hampshire and the voters loved your record. They loved that you were a veteran, a southern governor, a fiscal conservative, but the minute that they found out that you're African-American, the love stopped and...
Mayor WILDER: Yeah. That's Joe Trippy. Yeah. You're right. Joe Trippy who was very much involved in several campaigns and is very much so now. And he's right.
MARTIN: Yeah. But even if these attitudes - clearly these attitudes didn't stop Obama from securing enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination, do you think they could keep him out of the White House?
Mayor WILDER: No. Unequivocally. And I don't say this because of my admiration for him. I say it out of an objective reality. If the people of America look at the candidates and the issues and who's leading America and what America needs today, unequivocally, he will be elected. When you look at the state of our economy, when you look at the two wars that were started and yet not won, when you look at the high prices of gas, when you look at home foreclosures, when you look at our respect around the world, when you look at numbers of those things, change has to come about. That's why you've seen these record numbers of people coming about, and it's amazing. Anytime you say an African-American is running for office, and yet he appeals to the elite? He appeals to the better educated?
My God you talk about a sea change. On the other hand, what I see is his still being measured, sometimes doubly so. Michel, I had someone ask me he said well, you know, he might not be able to get the majority of the white voters to vote for him. I said well, you tell me who the Democratic president is or has been that got the majority of the white voters, and they hesitated and - you were right. I said there's never been that overwhelming white majority for a Democratic candidate. Look at Bill Clinton!
MARTIN: But I think a number of people have been concerned about what seems to be a racial rift opening within the Democratic Party. I mean, there is a significant number of voters, in some polls like 30 percent in some states of white voters saying that if he's the nominee they will vote for John McCain. Now some people attribute that to people who are particularly supportive of Senator Hillary Clinton. What do you think needs to happen to heal that rift?
Mayor WILDER: Two things. One, Obama's got to be prepared to say I'm going not change anything I do in terms of moving America forward, taking issues and ideas. I'm not going to try and paint myself another color or be another stripe. If the Democrats choose to let that be the message they want to send, that they're not going to vote for him and they give false reasons, well because I was really for Hillary, well what is your distinction between what Obama stands for and John McCain, and you are now going to say - you are going to turn it around, it's a dangerous kind of place.
MARTIN: You're say that the leadership needs to step up and make it clear that unity is to be expected.
Mayor WILDER: They will. They are not fools, nor are they crazy. They want to win elections. Not just this time, but in the future.
MARTIN: Do you think that Senator Obama would be well served by having Senator Clinton on the ticket?
Mayor WILDER: I would leave that for his determination to make. I think however there have been some people writing, and I think David Broder has an excellent piece in the Washington - I'm sorry Washington Post today in which he is saying that one of the things that he can do, and this is from David Broder, Obama still has great gifts and substantial assets so the first imperative at this point is to stop retreating and regain the initiative. That is what I support. I would not support him subjecting himself to that degree of pressure from anybody.
MARTIN: Are you concerned it is making him look weak?
Mayor WILDER: He will be made to look weak, if he subjects himself to pressure.
MARTIN: I've heard a lot of people over the course of a year express concern about him as the nominee out of fear that if he fails, if he is not successful as president that this would be a set back for African-American elected leaders and for African-Americans in general. Have you heard this and what do you think of that?
Mayor WILDER: Well yes I heard it and I heard it when I ran for government. I heard that my being on a ticket would bring the entire ticket it would bring the legislature down. That's the case with anybody and so, I've heard it but I have not heard it in any abundance.
MARTIN: You have indicated that your story political career is about to come to close, you have decided not to run for reelection as mayor of Richmond. I'd like to if you were advising a young Doug Wilder who was just starting out, what words of wisdom would you like to pass on?
Mayor WILDER: Well always, as my mother used said to me and almost like Socrates advice, know you're right, then proceed.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mayor WILDER: Before you know you are right, you got to study it. You got to get your act together, you got to make certain that you're acclimated and educated. Ask questions and find out what's going on at every possible level. Never allow others to tell you how to think, and what to think. Determine for yourself what's right, and my mother would say to me, after you've done that, you do what you need to do and let no one turn you around, not even me. Now when my mother told me that, she didn't know what she was creating, but she created an independent thinking person. So I would tell anyone who is interested, do that first.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I wanted to ask what you think about the fact that Senator Obama held a major rally in Virginia on Thursday to, in essence, kick off his general election campaign. What do you think that means?
Mayor WILDER: That means he thinks he can win Virginia, and I think he can win Virginia too, and I can tell you that there are any numbers of people around the state and around the country that looked at Virginia. Virginia's a player. He won Virginia big time in the primary and by coming here to campaign, he's doing what a lot of Democrats haven't done in the past, he's campaigning in Virginia, and he is letting the people of Virginia know that he cares for them.
MARTIN: L. Douglas Wilder is the mayor of the Richmond, Virginia. He is also the former governor of Virginia. He joined us from his office in the state capital. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mayor WILDER: Thank you, Michel. God bless and I look forward to being with you again.