CHERYL CORLEY, host:
I'm Cheryl Corley. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the national co-chair of the Obama campaign discusses what electing an African-American president would say about America's history and its future.
But first - let me correct that. With Barack Obama just days away from becoming the first African-American to hold a major party's nomination for the president, we wanted to reflect on the larger implication of an African-American in the White House. And all this week, we'll be hearing from different voices on what the possibility means to them in a segment we're calling, "What If?"
Before host Michel Martin left for Denver, she had a chance to post that question to Eric Holder, Jr. His may not be a household name, but he's been a key member of Senator Obama's team and he has an expansive resume. Eric Holder, Jr. is a former associate judge of D.C.'s Superior Court, a former U.S. deputy attorney general and now a senior legal adviser to the presumptive presidential nominee, Barack Obama. In that role, he helped lead the search committee for the vice presidency, and Michel caught up with Holder at his home in Washington.
MICHEL MARTIN: When you're honest with yourself, when you started on this journey as national co-chairman of the Obama campaign, did you honestly believe that you would see, in your lifetime, possibly the first black president?
Mr. ERIC HOLDER, JR. (National Co-chair and Senior Legal Adviser, Obama For President Campaign; Former Deputy Attorney General, Department of Justice): No. To find ourselves where we are today is, as Barack has indicated, I think, extremely improbable. But having met Barack and then having seen the impact that he had on the convention, you know, four years ago, and then talking to him, getting to know him, about what he wanted to do with the country and really kind of think tapping into what I think the country has wanted, I thought that there was at least a possibility, a real possibility, that he might be successful. And so, you know, here we are.
MARTIN: When did you actually confront the possibility that there could be this African-American man with his African-American family living in the White House? Do you remember when you actually confronted that real possibility?
Mr. HOLDER: My first trip to Iowa. It was still warm, it was probably the spring of '07, and I remember going to a bunch of places in Iowa, small towns, and there was an enthusiasm there for Barack that I found, frankly, surprising. I thought I was going to have to go out and sell him. And what I was getting was people asking pointed questions. People in Iowa will take their role very seriously. Asking pointed questions but also, we got the sense that they were excited about Barack. Now these were white folks. I mean, they're - there are not many black people in Iowa. And so it was - I thought, if, you know, these mid-Western, white folks being excited about this black candidate, this African-American candidate, this could happen.
MARTIN: Do you remember how it felt to you to confront that yourself, as an African-American man yourself? Because the interesting thing, of course, your whole career has been about equality of opportunity. I mean, you've been educated in very fine schools just like Senator Obama. You've sat on the bench, you've worked at the highest levels of government - former U.S. deputy attorney general, so your whole career has been about seeking the possibility of allowing people to pursue their dreams, right? Or to have a level playing field. But now, at this high level, for example, does it change your sense of the way the world works?
Mr. HOLDER: Yeah. I think in some ways it is a logical progression. We're getting there a little sooner than perhaps I thought. But in some ways, I think Barack is part of a tradition. It starts, you know, you could look at Booker T. Washington. You can, you know, go to DeBoise, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm, Martin Luther King, you know, progress has always been made. Jackie Robinson. I mean, in my household growing up, Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis were gods - gods to my father. I grew up thinking, you know, that you couldn't root for him unless, you know, they wore Dodger Blue. That is, until I left New York. And in some ways I think that he is the logical extension of that. But again, this happened a little sooner than I thought, you know, than I thought possible.
MARTIN: There are some people, and I'm sure you've heard this, who have very mixed feelings about this, even among African-Americans. There are some who actually feel that an Obama presidency is a negative because it will allow, if you want to put it that way, white folks to no longer feel any acknowledgment or responsibility, perhaps, for past discrimination. And I wonder, what do you think about that argument?
Mr. HOLDER: I think that would be an argument that would have some validity if the person were different than Barack is. Barack is a person who is proud to be an African-American, cognizant of our history in this country, and not somebody who has turned his back on who he is or his people or his background or what this nation has done in its treatment of African-Americans and the work that still needs to be done.
You know, this country is going through a period of demographic diversity unlike it's seen ever. 2050, 2042, something like that, there'll be more people of color in this country than white. If we embrace that diversity, we can make ourselves stronger. If we don't deal with this fact, we'll be weaker, and I think Barack can help in that regard.
MARTIN: Well, some people argue the opposite. They say, in fact, because he's African-American he is less able to raise some of these issues than perhaps a more traditional politician would be because he has to be aware of being perceived as favoring the community from which he comes. He has to be mindful of not seeming to overemphasize race. For example, when he made this joke that he made on the campaign trail a number of times about, well, yeah, I don't look like the guys on the dollar bills to this point, some people thought he was playing the race card and bringing - clearly the McCain campaign thought so. So there are those who would argue that in fact he has less maneuvering room to talk about race. What do you think?
Mr. HOLDER: I mean, I guess, you could allow yourself to be put into that corner, but he's not. I mean, he's not shied away, it seems to me, from talking about racial things and identifying himself as an African-American. I mean, certainly, there's a lot more to Barack Obama than the fact that he is an African-American candidate. He's a guy who's shown, I think, good judgment, he's good in foreign affairs, he's good in economic policy, good in energy policies and all those things. But at his core, he's not walked away from who he is and has not been afraid to embrace the issues that are still of concern to people of color in this country.
MARTIN: Does it change what it is you're telling your kids about what's possible for them?
Mr. HOLDER: You know, it's interesting. I'm not sure you have to. They get it in a way - I mean, their television - they watch way too much television - and they are on the Internet in ways that I'm not, and I think that just through the media they get a sense of possibilities that they didn't have before, in the same way that I think my daughters during the Clinton - while Hillary Clinton was running, were seeing things that were very positive for them and engendered hope in them about who they might be as women when they grow up.
MARTIN: One of the things that has come up a lot in the course of this campaign, at least in African-Americans, is the fear question. There seems to be - and Michelle Obama has talked a lot about this, but she seems to have talked about it perhaps more than he has. Fear that something will happen to him, fear that he might not succeed and that somehow that would be bad for all African-Americans in general. I think that maybe Joe Lieberman probably experienced some of the same thing as a first Jewish American to be on a major party ticket. But do you - can you talk about that for a minute, the fear? Do you ever feel that way?
Mr. HOLDER: Sure. As the first African-American to be U.S.-trained here in D.C., first African-American to be deputy attorney general, and there's a part of you when you are the first that makes you want to do that extra thing, because you don't want to let people down. You want to demonstrate to the larger community that African-Americans are capable of doing the job. But you also don't want to let down the people who sacrificed to put you there. And so I'm sure that Barack feels that, you know, at some level/
And is there fear, you know, on my part, that, you know, he might not succeed? Not really. I think if given the chance, I think he'll, you know, he'll do just fine. I think he's uniquely qualified to be president and I think he'll make not only African-Americans but Americans generally proud.
CORLEY: That's Eric Holder, Jr., national co-chairman of the Obama for President campaign speaking with Michel Martin this past weekend from his home in Washington. We'll have more of that conversation coming up, including Holder's role in the selection of Senator Joe Biden for the choice of vice president. And I'll also have more details on another top adviser in the Obama camp, the senator's wife, Michelle Obama. That's all coming up after a short break on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley.
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I'm Cheryl Corley and this is Tell Me More from NPR News in Washington. Michel Martin is in Denver to cover the Democratic National Convention. In a few minutes, I'll share with you a report I did on Michelle Obama, but first, we return to Michel's conversation with Eric Holder, Jr., national co-chairman of the Obama for President campaign. Holder is a former attorney general and most recently co-chaired the vice-presidential search committee. ..TEXT: This past weekend, Michel visited Holder in his home to ask him about that experience, as well as the larger question of what it might mean for the racial dynamics of this country if an African-American were to win The White House.
MARTIN: There are already some whites who, looking at the census figures, who say that whites will now be a minority in the U.S. - in a long time, to be sure, I mean, that's - you know, 2042 is a ways from now - but it already creates feelings of being minimized, or feelings of having to change their relationship to the world in ways that perhaps is not welcome.
Mr. HOLDER: Yeah. You see, I don't think there should be that feeling of minimization as much as an embracing of what essentially is the American Dream, this notion that we welcome into this country people from different parts of the world and, you know, what we're now experiencing is that we're bringing in people who come to this country with different color skin. But at the end of the day, we're all still going to be Americans and we'll have, in a lot of ways, a unique advantage over other countries, other competitors, the more racially homogeneous societies.
As this world kind of gets smaller, the ability to have people of color in significant numbers who can be - prep the ambassadors in terms of economic things, political things, diplomatic things, is a real advantage for this nation. I think we should embrace this and that help whites, as well. We'll all be better for it.
MARTIN: I wonder whether - what happens, though, to the traditional, so-called African-American leadership, the traditional civil rights leadership that comes out of the clergy, for example. There are some who say, what happens to that voice who has always spoken truth to power?
Mr. HOLDER: Yeah. There's a transition that's going on, and there'll be some adjustments that have to be made. Part of it, I think, is generational. There's a new generation of people who are coming to the floor, whether it's Adrian Fenty here in Washington, D.C...
MARTIN: The new mayor of Washington, D.C.
Mr. HOLDER: Corey Booker, you know in Newark, Barack - there are new leaders. But that's not a bad thing, either, change in who are considered to be African-American leaders in this country. People stay on the stage, they have their time, they move - the movement, they move the ball. It's a natural progression and again, something I think that ought to be embraced.
MARTIN: Have to ask you, though, about the vice-presidential selection, given that you're also the co-chair of the vice-presidential selection effort. Is it a great relief to have that over with?
Mr. HOLDER: It was a lot of hard work. I think we ended up with a good candidate. I think Senator Biden's going to be a great complement to Barack. Caroline Kennedy was a great partner and I think the process gave us a good candidate.
MARTIN: When he selected his vice president, George W. Bush said, you know, eight years ago, that his top concerns were - one, that the person be loyal, two, that it was someone he got along with, and three, that the person be ready to step in on Day One should something happen to him. What were Barack Obama's top three criteria?
Mr. HOLDER: Well, it's interesting because his first one was, this is a person that has to be able to step in and be president, and that was first, second and third. And after that, there were other things that were considered, but what he told Caroline and I was that you have to come up with people who at the end of the day, should something happen, can step in and be an effective president of the United States. Chemistry matters, some congruence with regard to political views, although Barack even there said, you know, it's good to have people who have different views, you know, different thoughts and through that we'll come up with, you know, better positions.
MARTIN: What do you think was Joe Biden's most important quality that led to his selection?
Mr. HOLDER: I think a couple of things. Certainly, his familiarity with foreign affairs, his familiarity with the law enforcement community in, you know, in this country and his familiarity with law enforcement issues. His background, you know, he comes from a working-class family in Scranton. He's a guy with a very compelling personal story. He's been in Washington for a good number of years and yet he goes home, you know, every night. He's a person who works in Washington but he's not really of Washington. He's always had that kind of - I think a different kind of view of the nation's capital, and I think that he's that rare combination of experience, but not a person who's necessarily a part of what I would consider in some ways the negative parts of the city.
MARTIN: Was Senator Hillary Clinton ever seriously considered? It's been reported that she wasn't even asked for the customary vetting documents. Is that true?
Mr. HOLDER: She was very seriously considered. In conversations we had - I mean, I sat through them, and to heed those reports is really kind of jarring to me. She was very seriously considered. There's only so much that you need to do to vet Hillary Clinton. She's led her life in a very public way for the last 20 years or so, and led it well. You know, I was proud to be a bit a part of the Clinton administration. You know, what questions would you have to ask Senator Clinton about her financial life, about her political views. So she's very seriously considered.
MARTIN: What about Bill Richardson? Some people wonder why he doesn't seem to have been considered and he certainly has extensive foreign policy experience, as well as extensive domestic policy experience, particularly in issues that are of very great concern right now. And he's a governor, and he has some management and administrative experience which neither Barack Obama nor Joe Biden seems to have at this point, other than running campaigns in Senate offices.
Mr. HOLDER: Yeah. I don't want to go into all the people who were considered and, you know, what we did with them. But I can say - we'll say this, to go that far, that Senator - that Governor Richardson was a very, very serious candidate. He was one of the finalists.
MARTIN: He was one of the finalists.
Mr. HOLDER: One of the finalists, yeah.
MARTIN: The irony, of course, being - what some people remember of Senator Biden. He's run for president before. But what they remember about this campaign is a gaff at the very beginning when he called Senator Obama, famously: clean, articulate, you know, mainstream, I believe. And there were a whole - I know because I did one whole show, it was about, you know, what the heck is he talking about? And for some, that kind of exemplifies just the kind of bone-headedness that some people unfortunately have about what it is to be African-American. I just wondered, when you consider where he started out and where he ends up, as sort of on the ticket, did that say anything interesting?
Mr. HOLDER: You know, I think that was a poor choice of words by Senator Biden. I don't think that reflected any kind of negative racial thing. I think he was trying to be complimentary of Barack and talk about the historical possibility that Barack represented. And he chose some bad words and you know, very early on, Barack said, you know, there's nothing bad about Joe Biden. You know, he's got a good heart and he meant well. But I think the fact that, you know, even though there was that incident, that ultimately Barack picked Joe Biden, says, I think, a lot about Barack in that, you know, he put that comment in perspective. It didn't bother him, and picked the guy - picked that particular person to be, you know, his vice president.
MARTIN: And final question on this point, though. Is it possible, though, as part of the logic here that the country was not ready for a ticket with two minorities, or an African-American and a white woman at the top of the ticket, or an African-American and a Latino-American, that the country just isn't ready for that, that you needed to balance this young African - relatively young African-American man with someone who has a more traditional profile?
Mr. HOLDER: I think the country - I think that, you know, if, for whatever reason - for whatever reason - the selection had been Governor Richardson or Senator Clinton, that, you know, that the country would have embraced that ticket. I think it's just that Senator Biden brings a unique skill set, a unique set of experiences, a unique personality that I think will mesh well with what Barack wants to do, and he'll be embraced, I think, by the country.
MARTIN: Is there anything about Obama that has caused you to think differently about being black?
Mr. HOLDER: Well, I'll tell you. He engenders in me a lot of pride. I studied American history in college. And as I said earlier, to see - I guess I feel like I'm an older guy at this point - but to see this younger guy really take the world stage and have people not only in this country but around the world embrace him and place in him their hopes, has for me been something that's been really heartwarming to see. And so there's been a great deal of pride that he has generated in me.
And also, you know, you can't help but feel as you look at him, you can't help but think about all the people who have gone before him and who denied opportunities and who made this possible. I mean, I think about my dad who loved this country as only an immigrant can, and who told me about how...
MARTIN: Where is he an immigrant from?
Mr. HOLDER: He's from Barbados, in the West Indies. Who told me when he was in the army, World War II, how he was not allowed to eat in certain places when he was out in the Midwest and how he had to stand in the back of a train while he was in uniform - while he was in uniform! And to think that we've gone from that to having the possibility of a black man being president of the United States, it says a lot about this country, generally, and engenders in me a lot of pride and hope.
MARTIN: Eric Holder, Jr. is national co-chair of the Obama For President campaign. He's also a former U.S. attorney, a former deputy attorney general, a former judge and he was kind enough to join us from his home in Washington. We thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. HOLDER: Thanks for having me.