Billionaire Businessman: Clinton Should be V.P.
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder talks about his 1992 presidential campaign and how Senator Barack Obama can build a coalition that wins the White House. But first, BET co-founder and NBA franchise owner Bob Johnson is famous for his business empire. More recently he's turned his attention to the political arena as a staunch supporter of Senator Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. She's expected to concede to Senator Barack Obama this weekend, several days after Mr. Obama actually secured enough delegates to win the nomination. Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton had a private meeting in Washington yesterday for what their campaigns called a productive discussion about the way forward in November. Many Clinton supporters hope that discussion includes an invitation to be Mr. Obama's running-mate.
Bob Johnson recently weighed in with a letter to Representative James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, asking him to encourage the Congressional Black Caucus to urge Mr. Obama to put Mrs. Clinton on the ticket. Bob Johnson is here with us to talk about that. Thank you so much. Good to talk to you again.
Mr. BOB JOHNSON (BET Co-Founder, NBA Franchise Owner): Hey, Michel. How are you?
MARTIN: I'm great . Now I understand, just to clarify, I understand from previous interviews that Mrs. Clinton didn't ask you to send a letter, but you told her you were going to send it and she agreed. Is that about right?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. That's about right.
MARTIN: OK. Why do you think she should be vice president?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, first of all, I just want to make clear to your listeners that that decision is of course Mr. Obama's and whether or not Senator Clinton takes it is her decision alone, and as she has stated she is not at that this time seeking the vice presidency, but she also said that she will do everything possible to help the Democratic Party win the White House. And so from that I say that if one wanted to make sure, with a level of certainty, that the Democrats take the White House, the way to do that would be to take the demographic voter groups within the Democratic Party that she attracted, almost 18 million voters, match that with the demographic voters that Senator Barack attracted, again almost an equal number of voters, that to me is the closest thing to certainty that the Democratic Party will be united, and Senator Obama will be the first African-American president. And that, I think, is a paramount objective for everyone in the Democratic Party.
MARTIN: When President Bush elected Dick Cheney as his running mate he gave three reasons. He said there are three criteria for the job. One, that the person be loyal. One, that the person be someone he gets along with, and three that the person be someone who could step in on a moment's notice and be president. Do you think Mrs. Clinton fits all those three criteria?
Mr. JOHNSON: I think without question, Michel, she meets every one of those criteria. Her involvement in politics goes a long way back. Her involvement in the White House as first lady was probably the most extensive first lady involvement, even greater than that of Eleanor Roosevelt. She certainly has all of qualifications to be the commander-in-chief that you would expect, if something unfortunately happened to Senator Obama. She also is somebody who just has a great record of working with people. I think Senator Obama and Senator Clinton could get along very well as two individuals who have the same objectives and the same policy goals, and at the same time I think Senator Clinton would be very effective in helping Senator Obama govern.
MARTIN: Given that Congressman Clyburn, to whom you directed the letter, who is the House Majority Whip number three in the House leadership, also the highest ranking African-American, which is I believe obviously one of the reasons you asked him to speak to the CBC on Senator Clinton's behalf. Given that Mr. Clyburn is among those who believe that Senator Clinton's campaign used inappropriate and racially divisive tactics in the campaign, to the point where he publically criticized the campaign, do you think now that he really would advise the caucus to support Senator Clinton in that role?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, Michel, you have to understand there's probably an equal number of members of the caucus. Like Charlie Rangel, powerful chairman of ways and means, Stephanie Tubb Jones, a dynamic elected official in Ohio, Sheila Jackson Lee, from Texas. So the caucus is split equally divided. Charlie Rangel today said he'd love to see Senator Clinton on the ticket, but, you know, in the heat of a campaign, Michel, people say things - they're passionate about their particular candidate. Each of the candidates - each of the parties in the primary said things that were divisive.
Senator Clinton feels that things that she said were taken the wrong way and taken out of context to imply racism. Congressman Clyburn took some thick statements that Bill Clinton said about Jesse Jackson as implied racism. So, you know, those things are behind us now and we're united to beat John McCain. I don't think any of those things should keep Senator Clinton, if she's interested, from being fully considered to be the vice president.
MARTIN: A number of Obama supporters and some outside observers have suggested that this latest campaign, what appears to be a campaign for the vice presidency, might not be helpful to the party in the long run. It makes Clinton look graceless. It has the potential to make Obama look weak. What do you think of that argument? In essence, the question is, could this backfire?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, let me say this, I liken the president to being a chief executive officer. I've been a CEO of companies for over 30 years, and if you're the chief executive officer and you know, or in this case you're the party nominee, you control the party apparatus, nothing is going to intimidate you. Senator Barack Obama has all of the authority vested in him by the Democratic delegates. He is this ultimate person to make that choice, so no way you can pressure Senator Obama to do anything he doesn't want to do and all the people who were chanting Senator Clinton are simply saying she didn't get the top ticket, but boy, wouldn't she make a great addition to the ticket for the reasons I mentioned earlier. I think people overplay this, that it is as if he's being pressured. You can't pressure the person who's going to be potentially the most powerful person in the free world.
MARTIN: He should be tough enough to take it.
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. You can't pressure a president to take somebody. He's going to do what he wants to do, but you can certainly advocate. I mean, keep in mind we've been advocating for Senator Clinton for, you know, eight months, and to say that now that she's lost at the presidential level, don't advocate for her to be the vice president when you think that's the best way to win the White House, I think people are overreacting and trying to make something out of essentially nothing.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm speaking with BET founder Bob Johnson about his support for Senator Clinton's vice presidential nod for Senator Hillary Clinton. Mr. Johnson, you know, you're a couple of forays into public advocacy for Mrs. Clinton did not go well this year. You are believed to have implied that Mr. Obama had been a drug user as a youth. You said that, you know, your remarks were taken out of context, but you did wind up apologizing to Senator Obama and his family. You also raised eyebrows when you raised remarks - when you agreed with some remarks that Geraldine Ferraro made about Mr. Obama's qualifications that many of his supporters considered racially tinged, and I'm wondering if that might suggest that could it be that perhaps your political instincts are not as finely honed as your entrepreneurial ones?
Mr. JOHNSON: I would say just the opposite. The one thing I believe is speaking what I believe and if we're in a society where you can't say what you feel, even though in the case of the issue of drugs it was a joke - joke went wrong, apologized, so no harm no foul. On the fact of if Barack Obama had not been African-American would he have received 92 percent of the votes out of Pennsylvania when, you know, go back four years ago, 80 percent of - eight years ago 80 percent of black votes were voting for Bill Clinton.
I think that that's an observation of a truth, and if people can't accommodate the truth, then I think that's a problem. In the business I'm in we're required in transparency in business to tell the truth to shareholders, tell the truth to regulators. If I tell the truth in a political circle and people can't seem to accommodate it, I'm not going to change what I believe in, in order to be politically correct for MSNBC or for somebody who's passionate about their candidate. I think we get too caught up in trying to make everybody sort of walk a politically correct line and not speak the truth.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of the business you're in, your career has been so identified with empowerment of the African-American community, with the black experience, with giving voice to the black experience. And some people have always been curious about why you supported Senator Clinton over Senator Obama, who is a young African-American who nobody thought could do what he did, which is exactly what some people thought about you when you were just starting out when people said you can't do that. Nobody can, you know, build a cable network aimed at the African-American audience, and you did it, and so some people wonder, you know, why?
Mr. JOHNSON: Michel, I think the simple answer is that we should not be making our decisions based on what people perceive to be this one is of your class, this one is of your race, this one is of your sex - so you got to go that way. I've known the Clintons for over 22 years. I met them before he was even governor of Little Rock, and I've known him his presidency and known Senator Clinton almost the same amount of time I've known President Clinton. And she asked me to support her, I supported her before, and I told her I would support her for a presidency.
People should know that when Senator Obama came to Washington, Congress - former Congressman Bill Gray and I held the first fundraiser for Senator Obama at my restaurant in downtown D.C. People should also know that I've been a Democrat all my life and will be a Democrat after Senator Obama's elected and Senator Clinton is - whether she's vice president or not, I'm still going to support the party. But the idea that because I've sort of achieved first - an empowered African-American, to say that therefore I should empower - should also be required to vote for Senator Obama when I think Senator Clinton is equally qualified to be president - I've known her, I respect her, but I also did the same thing for Senator Obama.
Senator Obama called me and asked me to support him. When I told him I was going to support my lifelong friend Senator Clinton he said Bob, I respect loyalties, I understand it. So again, a lot of this is just people trying to find reasons to interject divisiveness in an issue, but I - and that's one of the reasons I'm really supporting Senator Clinton now is because I think from a historic standpoint, think of this, Michel, two classes of people who have been most oppressed in this country since its founding have been African-Americans and women.
Wouldn't it be a huge paradigm shift, a triumphant expression of our diversity becoming full circle - if an African-American male would put on the ticket a white female who both contested mightily to lead the Democratic Party, to me, that's the ultimate goal. Not the Democratic Party nomination - there are a lot of guys running around who got the Democratic Party nomination - John Kerry, Al Gore - we don't want that to happen to Senator Obama. We want him to be the President of the United States.
Mr. JOHNSON: This is the most significant thing - probably more significant than the emancipation proclamation, if he walks in that White House, and that's what I want.
MARTIN: All right. We're going to have to leave it there. Bob Johnson is the co-founder of BET and the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, and a supporter of Senator Hillary Clinton. He joined me by phone from his in Maryland. Mr. Johnson, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. JOHNSON: Take care, Michel.
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