Rep. John Lewis Weighs Endorsement Options As a civil-rights hero, the endorsement of Rep. John Lewis is valued by presidential hopefuls — including Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. Lewis talks about being courted by two Democratic rivals.
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Rep. John Lewis Weighs Endorsement Options

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Rep. John Lewis Weighs Endorsement Options

Rep. John Lewis Weighs Endorsement Options

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

There's a new development in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jessie Jackson, a former candidate himself, tells the Associated Press that Senator Barack Obama, quote, "has my vote." The Democratic frontrunners are competing heavily for the black vote.

And NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams sat down with another civil rights leader who, though courted heavily, has not made up his mind.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Democratic Congressman John Lewis is one of the heroes of the civil rights movement. In 1965, he led a march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He and others were badly beaten by police. Lewis returns each year to commemorate the Bloody Sunday anniversary. This year, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama where there too. They both want Congressman Lewis' vote. And when I met with him on Capitol Hill yesterday, he told me it's a difficult choice.

Why is this a hard decision about - do you endorse Obama, do you endorse Hillary Clinton?

Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): First is all, I think it's much too early to endorse. And second, they're both friends. It was tough decision. And so, we like to put the decision off as long as possible.

WILLIAMS: What does Barack Obama represent in terms black politics, and the growth of black politics in the country?

Rep. LEWIS: Barack Obama represents something different, something new, something very exiting. He's hot. He's almost like a rock star. But he's more than just a new face. There is something about him that he's able to tap into this growing sense of discontent in America. He has an appeal that goes far beyond race. He is able to arouse that interest, yes, of African American voters, white voters, women, and all segments of the American society.

WILLIAMS: Well, what's curious to me is his base has been in the white community, not the black community. What do you make of that?

Rep. LEWIS: For a long time, many African Americana didn't know Mr. Obama. So, they're getting to know him. That's why it was important for him to show up in Selma, and be visible in the heart of the American South. But he ran in a state that is majority white, and he got elected. And I think he will continue to pull together very large crowd, similar to what Bobby Kennedy did in 1968.

WILLIAMS: You see analogies to Bobby Kennedy?

Rep. LEWIS: Obama maybe the first candidate for president since Robert Kennedy, to energize such an unbelievable make up of the American quilt.

WILLIAMS: Let me ask you about how Hillary Clinton reflects changes in American politics that you have worked a lifetime to try to create, opening doors for people.

Rep. LEWIS: I think Senator Hillary Clinton has open doors. She entered doors that maybe to other people open. Shirley Chisholm, Carol Mosely Braun, and others ran for president. But she is a serious candidate. She is a serious contender. And maybe, just maybe, the American people are prepared to lay down the burden of gender and the burden of race, and elect a woman or an African-American to the presidency.

WILLIAMS: How are the campaigns approaching you and seeking your endorsement? Do they call?

Rep. LEWIS: I've talked with President Clinton. And I've had a call from Mrs. Clinton, but neither have asked for support, they just asked how do I think things are going. And Mr. Obama has called and ask for my help and my support.

WILLIAMS: So, Mr. Obama has asked for your endorsement, but Mrs. Clinton has not?

Rep. LEWIS: Mr. Obama has asked for my endorsement. We have talked. I said, Senator, my friend, my brother, let us continue to talk. I would like to be helpful.

WILLIAMS: Do you think that Mrs. Clinton or Barack Obama are going to, at some point, say we need you to do it now?

Rep. LEWIS: I don't think Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama are going to put any undue pressure on me.

WILLIAMS: Why do you think your endorsement matters so much to the two frontrunners for to the Democratic nomination for president of the United States?

Rep. LEWIS: I think an endorsement from me or some other elected official who happens to be African-American from the deep South, who have played a role in the civil rights movement, could be helpful encouraging other African-Americans in these key primary states.

WILLIAMS: When you look at the reluctance of some of the civil rights leaders now, to embrace Obama. I'm wondering, are they just more comfortable because the Clintons are a known quantity, as opposed to this unknown quantity in Obama?

Rep. LEWIS: Well, I have heard some African-American elected officials. I know President Clinton, I know Hillary. They've been around awhile. They know the songs. You know, Bill Clinton is one of the few presidents that can stand up and sing every verse of "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

I could remember a few short years ago candidate Bill Clinton came to Capitol Hill. Two young black men said to me, Congressman, Bill Clinton act more like a brother than a lot of brothers. So it's a connection there.

WILLIAMS: Well, what would you say about Mrs. Clinton?

Rep. LEWIS: There is this feeling I think, that if the president is good, if the husband is good, then the wife is going to be good and Mrs. Clinton would be good as president. I think you have some of that.

WILLIAMS: Going forward, do you find it surprising that you have two candidates competing in this way. Is that something that you could've envisioned back in the days when you were fighting for voting rights?

Rep. LEWIS: No. If someone had told me back in 1965, 42 years ago, when we were walking across that bridge in Selma, Alabama, that one day a white woman and a black man would be vying for the African-American vote, I would say you're crazy, you're out of your mind, you don't know what you're talking about. It's a different world, but it says something about the distance we've come. It's a good position to be in.

WILLIAMS: Mr. Congressman, thank you so much for giving us this time. We appreciate it.

Rep. LEWIS: Well, thank you very much. I'm delighted to be with you.

WILLIAMS: Congressman Lewis has not set a date for endorsing either candidate. Jesse Jackson's decision to endorse Senator Obama appeared to be as difficult as Congressman Lewis's deliberation. Jackson has known the Clintons for some time, even standing by them during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, as did Congressman Lewis. Still, Chicago resident Jesse Jackson tells the AP, Senator Obama is Illinois' favorite son. And now Jesse Jackson's favorite candidate.

Juan Williams, NPR News, Washington.

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