Election 2008

Black Conservatives Torn Between McCain, Obama

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After a long primary season, conservative voters are mobilizing behind Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain while some conservative African-Americans are finding themselves torn between McCain and Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama. Radio talk-show host Armstrong Williams and political commentator Michael Fauntroy, an assistant professor at George Mason University, discuss the unique split.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. My thanks to my colleague Cheryl Corley for filling in during my absence. I'm glad to be back. Just ahead, our regular Friday features. We'll talk about so called Prosperity Gospel in our Faith Matters conversation and how faith communities are dealing with the floods in the Midwest. But first it's time for our weekly political chat. After a long primary season, conservative voters are consolidating behind Republican presidential candidate John McCain and African-Americans are doing the same behind Democratic opponent Barack Obama.

But what about conservative African-Americans? The question was touched off in part because conservative radio talk show host Armstrong Williams who says he has never voted for a Democrat for president, wrote last week that he has not ruled out the possibility of voting for Obama. He's here to talk about this along with George Mason University's Michael Fauntroy. He's an assistant professor of Public Policy there and author of the book "Republicans and the Black Vote." Thank you both for joining me.

Armstrong, let's start with you. I take at the world is not universally applauding your admission that you're considering Barack Obama. Getting a little heat for this?

Mr. ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS (Radio Talk Show Host): No, not at all. You know, to me, I think it's something that's understandable. You know I've never - I've not said that I'm voting for Senator Barack Obama, but I'm saying that I will not blindly go into the November election as I've done in the past and automatically vote for a Republican. That just will not happen. I certainly could never vote for Senator Barack Obama because of his race, because that would contradict everything I've ever written and advocated and it would make me to be a hypocrite. I will lose credibility. But certainly, there are some things that you must consider in this race. And that is, since the founding of this country, only white men have occupied the White House and anybody would be foolish to say that not watching this presidential election season, the possibility of a woman as somebody other than a white man occupying the White House shows the progress of America.

MARTIN: Is there even one public policy issue on which you and Senator Obama agree?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I doubt it. I mean, you're right. I really doubt it. And the sad news is that I'm hoping that after the general election that he will - because what people advocate during the primaries is not necessarily what they will advocate after the conventions are over. I'm just hoping that there are advisors close enough to him who's on the side of the aisle who is more in line with my way of thinking and my values that will sort of enhance because I think there's a lot of hope for him. There's a lot of promise. I think he will listen. I think he will cross over to show that he can consider other positions that he has - has not always been his own. And I also believe that he could possibly appoint conservatives in his administration.

MARTIN: But if there's nothing you agree on from a public policy standpoint and I'm not absolutely sure that's true given particularly his recent statements and his statements throughout his career on issues like the importance of fathers for an example. But even so, but let's just say that that's true. Why else would you even consider him other than his race?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, race- well that's the point I'm making. I said I can't vote for him because of his race, but obviously you cannot ignore the fact of the historical application - whether we're going to be amplified here by the fact that he has all the credentials. He's certainly qualified, and obviously it has forced me to look at race I've never looked at before. And that's why there's such anguish because I can't vote for him because he's black. I would like to consider him in November. But obviously, there's got to be something else that I'm hoping that I can see before the election in November. That's the whole point, of course.

MARTIN: Michael Fauntroy, is Armstrong Williams on his own island here? Or are others of his particular political perspective facing the same dilemma?

Mr. MICHAEL FAUNTROY (Author, "Republicans and the Black Vote"): I get the sense that he is not alone. There are number of African-American Republicans, be they moderate or conservative with whom I've had contact, you know, sort of in - on my book tour and just sort of touching base with people I met over time who are really struggling with this. And they're saying things like, well, you know, I don't want to vote for him just because he's black. But when you boil it down, you know, the real reason why they're considering him so strongly is A, he's black and credible, and B, they are not particularly happy with the Republican Party or John McCain or some combination thereof. There are a number of different things that are going on here.

MARTIN: But what's the relevance of his being black if you consider it to be a core conservative position that race should not matter? And this is something that people disagree about. But if you consider the core conservative position that race should not matter or does not matter, if you argue from a policy standpoint that race does not matter or should not matter, how can you justify considering race?

Mr. FAUNTROY: Well, there is...

MARTIN: Is it a cultural issue, a spiritual and emotional issue?

Mr. FAUNTROY: There is the contradiction. I think that there are a number of African-American Republicans who sort of acknowledge the role that race plays in our country but have continually from in terms of politics, try to avoid that in terms of public policy, and as it relates to Barack Obama, you know, if you're not voting with him on policy, then why else are you voting for him? And I think for a number of them, this is just going to be a real problem.

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, I'd like to add to that, Michel, because I actually think that makes the point. I actually - you know what? I think this is very good for me personally. It says a lot about my maturity. I always said I would never consider race. It would never enter my mind. But obviously, that has just been thrown smack in my face, and it has caused a dilemma for me, and my - looking at Senator Barack Obama has nothing to do with my being dissatisfied with the Republican nominee because I just find Senator John McCain to be overwhelmingly more qualified in terms of his experience, his credentials, his foreign policy. Yet, he's liberal in many ways, but he comes closer to where I am than Senator Barack Obama. So, it has nothing to do with the nominee because if it were Hillary Rodham Clinton or anyone else, it would be an easy vote. But I just find it difficult if you say I'm just going to go there and vote for him, and he's everything that I want.

Mr. FAUNTROY: You know that...

MARTIN: OK. Hold a second, Michael

Mr. FAUNTROY: That speaks to a larger question here that has not been discussed enough and that is the history question.


Mr. FAUNTROY: A generation down the line, Armstrong Williams and other African-American Republicans are going to be sitting in rooms, in kitchens, in living rooms all over the country with their sons and daughters and nieces and nephews and other kids and they're going to say, wait a second. Where were you when the first black president was elected? And I think for some of them, it's going to be very difficult to say, I didn't support him. Now, I'm not saying that's what's going on with Armstrong. I have no idea, but I will tell you that the conversations I've had with African-American Republicans, the history question actually does factor into the analysis.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with George Mason University assistant professor, Michael Fauntroy and conservative talk show host, Armstrong Williams about the dilemma of black Republicans and conservatives in this year's elections. Armstrong Williams, you wrote about this in almost spiritual terms. You wrote that in response, you said you got thousands of emails...

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thousands.

MARTIN: In response to the comments that you were considering Obama and you said, "My comments about being undecided and having no idea who I would put the lever for in November remain true and firm. Pull the lever for I should say. Remain true and firm. Yes, I know the truth about him and still can't ignore how the hand of God works. How can you not be moved by the progress of America in this experiment of democracy by reminding this world that we have moved beyond race and labels and are more than willing to support the best candidate for the White House whether a woman or American black." Your words. So, talk to me a little more about. Does this feel like a spiritual dilemma for you in some way?

Mr. WILLIAMS: It is spiritual for me and because the reason why my mother is mentioned is because for the first time in my life, my mother and I, are at a crossroads. She's firm with Senator Barack Obama. She's firm that she just cannot ignore history in this and that she will not take an absentee ballot. She's 82 years old, and she's going to the polls to pull that lever. That has infected my entire household and a very few in that household that won't do the same. And so, I'm not at odds with them. They understand my dilemma, but I cannot ignore history. Also understand this.

Who can say that all the men who had been elected president says that since our founding were there because they are best and qualified and that race had nothing to do with it? You better believe that we've been conditioned to believe that only white men could become President of United States. Listen, that is in my - it might be factor too. I don't want to be like those who had voted against. So, when like (unintelligible) who thought he's going to win by landslide when he ran for governor of Virginia and yet he barely won. I don't want to vote him, Barack Obama because he's black. But I don't want racists to vote against him because he's black either.

So, it is a dilemma but still, I've got to face it. This is my journey, and I have to pray by it. But I think the hand of God is moving. I think it's something that generations have prayed for. My mother says she never thought in her life, she'd live to see this moment and there's no way that she will not make history by pulling that lever for progress what the American people have shown, not just black Americans, but this is for all Americans because none of us can do it alone.

MARTIN: Michael, a number of African-American Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton during the primaries paid a price for that. Their constituents said the same thing to you. How can you let this opportunity go by? It was difficult for them. Do you think it works the same way for conservatives? Is there something - who are used to bucking the tide of community by the way? Clearly, Armstrong Williams is used to not being in the mainstream of African-American public opinion. But is there something about that historical tide that is different from other scenarios in politics?

Mr. FAUNTROY: Oh, yes. That's a very curious question to me because at some level there are number of African-American conservatives who in some respect are very much like black nationalists, OK? And that you know they cite Garvey and others as being inspirational to them. And when you look at it from that perspective, it makes a lot of sense to me that they are conservatives who really tied up the knots about this because they understand not just what this is about for right now. But also, what this means generation or so down the line. And that's just domestically, I mean, for me, the biggest impact for this is international and what a President Obama can do for America's image around the world, and so, it makes perfect sense to me.

MARTIN: Armstrong, we have a minute left. How are you going to decide?

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, obviously, I just think the most important thing for me is to be honest. And that's where I am in my life now. And so you know I have no idea how will I decide. You know obviously, I have believed that John McCain is the best candidate for the White House, but that's not enough for me in this election. And obviously, I have said I'm going to look for some sign in terms of Senator Barack Obama, in terms of his policies that I can embrace, and I don't think that's going to happen either. So, somewhere along the line between now and November, I've got to make a decision about what is more important for me to make a decision based on the stances that I advocate in the past or for the first time in my life I'm going to contradict myself and just throw everything out the one that I advocated and believed in. And that's very tough for me because I don't want to be a hypocrite, but I got to tell you it's a dilemma for me.

MARTIN: Can you actually envisioned yourself walking into the booth or however it is that you vote and pulling that lever?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Oh, yes of course. I mean, of course. I can see it. I mean. And this is if I do it, I'd live by it. I'll admit it and feel good about it. And you know, people can be upset about it but this is the decision I made. This is my life.

MARTIN: I understand. All right.

Mr. WILIAMS: It's my decision. No. I will feel very good about the same way I will feel - and that doesn't mean if I pull it for Senator John McCain, I would be in agony.

MARTIN: All right.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Even if I do it, I will agonize over it.

MARTIN: OK. We're going to have to leave it there for now. Keep us posted.

Mr. WILLIAMS: All right.

MARTIN: Armstrong Williams is the conservative radio talk show host and commentator. He joined us from his home in Washington. We're also joined by George Mason University assistant professor Michael Fauntroy. His last book was 'Republicans and the Black Vote'. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington studio. I thank you both so much.

Mr. FAUNTROY: You're very welcome.

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