Douglas Wilder On Race, Politics And America Douglas Wilder became the first African American to be elected governor of a U.S state when he was elected in Virginia in 1989. Now, nearly two decades later, he discusses parallels between his historic race for Virgina's State House and Barack Obama's bid for the White House.
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Douglas Wilder On Race, Politics And America

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Douglas Wilder On Race, Politics And America

Douglas Wilder On Race, Politics And America

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And now, This American Moment. Since the Democratic and Republican conventions started in August, we've been asking politicians, journalists, writers, and thinkers to take a step back and put this election and this campaign season in context, to tell us what's at stake, what this election means to them. In just a moment, we'll hear from L. Douglas Wilder. In 1989, he was the first African-American governor since Reconstruction. Now, nearly 20 years later, there are parallels between his historic race for the Virginia State House and Senator Barack Obama's campaign for the White House.

And of course, we want to hear from you. What does this American moment mean to you? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our blog at

Former Governor Douglas Wilder is currently mayor of the state capital in Richmond. He joins us from the studios of member station WCVE in Richmond. I don't know whether to call you governor or mayor, but in any case, it's nice to have you on the program today.

Mayor DOUGLAS WILDER (Richmond,Virginia; Former Virginia Governor): Well, it's nice to be with you, and it really doesn't matter what you call me. Either one of them sounds better than some of the things I get called.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I want to ask you, obviously, we all see parallels between your campaign for the Statehouse and Senator Barack Obama's campaign. Do you?

Mayor WILDER: I do. As a matter of fact, I was speaking to a German journalist yesterday, and she remarked as to how much similarity she sees. And then she knows and you know that America had never elected an African-American, never until 1989. And I pointed out that this is as a result of many times people not having had the combination of things to take place at the same time, and that was the qualification of the individual, and the not running to make history and not running to let race be a part of it. And I thought Virginia would be the most appropriate place for that to take place.

I was not selected by any group, nor by anybody, by the peers nor the pundits. I was not groomed to it. I was not, as you would obviously know, not to the manor born. And so when you look at those similarities with Barack Obama's campaign and what I see in him, he didn't need the approval of others to determine for him when it was time. He has made it clear that the change that he's seeking to bring about wasn't orchestrated by others. To the contrary, it was born within. And I'm just thrilled to see what is happening from that 20-year period from my first involvement, 1988, when I ran in '89, to where we are now. It's a sea change and world recognition of America's experiment in democracy.

CONAN: I wonder. You've, I'm sure, seen some of the incidents that have been reported, the angry outbursts at political rallies, really on both sides, but some of them at Republican presidential rallies have taken on a racial tinge, given the nature of the campaign, given an African-American running for the presidency in the other party. You must have some experience with that sort of thing, too.

Mr. WILDER: Very slight. As a matter fact, I never had any personal direct experience with any individual who refused to talk with me, shake my hand, grant me audience. There was one occasion down in William and Mary when there was this rumor put out - out of Southwest Virginia that I had sort of backtracked and wanted to take Virginia down a different path, as far as the right-to-work law is concerned. And they even called it Wilder Gate at the time. The runoff newspaper, to its credit, editorially stated that it was crazy to suggest that this was something that I had met privately with union people who were on strike. That was the closest thing that came to my being roughly treated.

And I would have to say to you, race was never a part of it. Race never came up. It was the fact that they said that I had lied, and I later was vindicated. But it did lead to a little of the reduction in my poll numbers because people started saying, hey, wait a minute, this is a right-to-work state. We're not going to have a guy being governor that's going to change that.

CONAN: You're obviously a member of the Democratic Party. We know you've endorsed Barack Obama. You're an adviser to the Obama campaign. I wonder, though, from time to time, do you fear for him?

Mayor WILDER: Oh, you put your hand right on it. I've said that at least to two or three people today. And one was a journalist. The other was someone in another context. I do fear for him. When you have people saying what they've said at some of these rallies, not hints, not suggestions, but direct quote, "kill him," you got to be concerned about how that mentality can continue. And I do think it's incumbent upon all of us.

If it were the same thing being directed to John McCain, I'd be concerned. America cannot afford it. We cannot afford it. And more importantly, this young man sacrificed already a great deal of some of the rewards that would come to a gifted individual in terms of material gain. This is something that we don't need in America. The rest of the world is watching, and it's not that you should spare Barack Obama scrutiny, tough questioning. Hit him with it, but this type of thing, it's out of place.

CONAN: Senator McCain has come back at some of the people at his rallies and said, look, I disagree with Barack Obama, but he's a good man, a decent man, a family man, and you don't need to be scared if he's going to be elected president of the United States. And that's important to hear from both sides.

Mayor WILDER: It is good, and it's good that he's done that. But unfortunately, when he's done that, he was booed. And it's unfortunate that - you can't say it one time. You got to continue. John McCain, unfortunately, is - he will be a by-product of this historical moment, one way or the other. He'll be written in history either as the winner or the loser. And his name will never be forgotten. He should never want it associated with infamy, never associated it with that ilk that is pretty much kooky to be a part of a right-wing mentality, which doesn't really describe what I would call conservative thinking.

Anyone who would like to be a part of that - and I think when you hear Chris Buckley's comments, William F. Buckley's son, saying that these people are just out to lunch and these are not the people that his father would have defended for years, one of the staunch conservatives, that's a very difficult place that John McCain finds himself in, in terms of what he says tonight during the debate.

I'm going to take it to him. But take what to him? And sometimes the side comments, which I dismiss, I wouldn't take them seriously, like that one. Those are the kinds of things that made people believe, wait a minute, we've tried everything else. And that's when you get to that scary moment.

CONAN: It will be interesting to watch the debate tonight. Anyway...

Mayor WILDER: Oh, yes.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a question from here in the audience in Roanoke, Virginia. By the way, we're speaking with former governor of Virginia, Douglas Wilder, now the mayor of Richmond, Virginia. Here's a member of the audience here in Roanoke.

ADAM (Audience Member): Yes. I'm Adam Cohen(ph) from Roanoke and just I want to say, Governor Wilder, that it was my proudest moment as a Virginian the day you got elected as of 25 years ago...

(Soundbite of audience applause)

Mayor WILDER: Oh, thank you very, very much. Thank you. I really appreciate it. It was a proud day for a great number of Americans. I remember so well what Justice Lewis Powell said when he swore me in. And I wanted him to swear me in, being a Virginian. And he said, it's great day for America.

ADAM: Absolutely. The question was what - in historic context, what does this election mean? For me, there's two things. First, on economics. I believe that this is the most important election since 1932. We're lucky in that we don't have to wait three years for the Republican administration to change the direction of the country. But if you look back in history, I think we're finding that we're seeing something very similar. And the second thing that I think probably is more important once we get through this economic muddle we've gotten ourselves into, is that Barack Obama's unique history, his unique upbringing, his being able to see - you know, he's not a black candidate, and he's not a white candidate.

Mayor WILDER: Not at all.

ADAM: He's all of us.

Mayor WILDER: I agree with you.

ADAM: And his unique history is going to allow him to inspire that next phase in the healing of this country's racist past, which we have to get to. We've made a lot of strides since the civil rights movements, but there's a whole other level of healing that has to happen in this country, and I truly believe that he could bring that to this country.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mayor WILDER: I think you were right in many aspects, and you should be applauded for bringing them up. One of the things that I've experienced in the last several months - the interest that people around the world have in this election. I have talked with journalists from - you name it - Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Germany, obviously Great Britain, Korea, everywhere. Spain. And where I see us playing a different role is not only bringing America up to the preachment of the Founding Fathers in terms of the credo and our beliefs, but a new respect around the world for people who really love Americans.

They don't like our policies on so many occasions, but they love Americans and they want to be a part of it. The people in Germany, the respect that they have for this possible new leadership, and I'm so encouraged by the numbers of younger people who want to be a part of that government, who want to be a part of what I refer to as the polity, the decision-making process. It doesn't mean that everyone needs to be an office holder or to run for office or to be involved in politics. It doesn't mean that you have to seek office. That's the big mistake a lot of young people make, even before they prepare.

But what we do have is an opportunity, and I do agree with you. This perhaps is the most important election we've had since that period of what was the Great Depression, because a lot of people are now experiencing similar kinds of pain: lack of jobs, lack of opportunities, and lack of vision for real possibilities for their children and their young ones. And so we have to address this one right. And it's not a Democrat or Republican thing. I see a number of independents, and I see some Republicans who are saying, we've tried seven and a half years. We don't particularly agree with everything or disagree with everything, but my God! Where have we gone, and how did we get here? We need new leadership.

CONAN: Douglas Wilder is reflecting on This American Moment. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. Let's start with James, James with us from Louisville in Kentucky.

JAMES (Caller): Yes, that's right. Thank you.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JAMES: Well, I was thinking about This American Moment, and one of the things I've noticed about this election is that I think that journalists are now doing a better job of evaluating truth claims made by candidates. I feel like in the 2004 and 2000 elections, journalists - and not just during elections, but during the administration, the Bush administration - most journalists were acting as stenographers. The administration would say something, and journalists would report what was said, and there was no or not much visible in-depth analysis of the truth claims that was being said, which, of course, led to sort of the nation signing off on the Iraq War, and you know, the famous mea culpa published by the New York Times for not fully evaluating what the president had said.

But I am still seeing some of this in the current election where, in an effort to be even-handed, journalists will say, well, both sides are doing this, when that's not the case. And I think an example earlier was when you mentioned that both sides are, you know, they're like people are shouting horrible things at both Obama and McCain rallies. But as far as I know, there have been no reports of anybody at an Obama rally shouting, kill him, or terrorist, in reference to John McCain or Sarah Palin, that is going on at Obama rally - at McCain and Palin rallies. And so, there is - you know, that's not something that is equal. That's not equally happening on both sides. It is only happening on the McCain-Palin side.

CONAN: Well, to be fair, yes, certainly, there is a long and terrible history of racial violence in this country, but there is also a long and terrible history of violence against women in this country. And some of the remarks made about Governor Palin - well, they're pretty scary, too.

Mayor WILDER: Well, my response to the...

JAMES: In fairness, they're being shouted at the Obama rallies?

CONAN: And worn on T-shirts and sported on signs. So this is not unheard of.

Mayor WILDER: My response to the caller's questions, and I think they were very incisive, and I think they were most - for the most part, objective. What you have to recall and think of now is - I teach a class at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I tell them, as well I tell others, there's a one-word definition for politics: money. And they say, well, what do you mean? I say, well, you pick the subject and I will argue with you and show you that money involves itself.

Government or politics in America today is big business. Everybody makes money involving themselves in one way or the other, whether it's pollsters, whether they are policy wonks, whether they are pundits, whether they are those who believe that they must call it as they see it and then to be fair about it. Stick to the facts! That's the fairest way I know to deal with it.

And so you say, well, you know, you got six on one side and half a dozen on the other. What are the real facts? Who gives a real concern about what William Ayers may have done a hundred years ago or whenever it was, when Barack Obama was eight years old? Or oil - the minister - in terms of Ms. Palin, I've said this, and I say it now. There should be absolutely no criticism of her in terms of her being on the ticket. That's John McCain's judgment. He is entitled to pick who he wants to be that person that represents him in this campaign. The real question is the observation of the judgment that he would exercise in picking the next secretary of sate or the next secretary of defense...

CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call.

Mayor WILDER: Or any of those - secretary of the Treasury. And so they are the ways that those questions should be directed. Take the personalities out and discuss the issues.

CONAN: Douglas Wilder, thank you so much for your time today.

Mayor WILDER: Thank you very much. It's good to be with you.

(Soundbite of audience applause)

CONAN: Douglas Wilder, mayor of Richmond, Virginia. He joined us from member station WCVE in Richmond. Tomorrow, Lynn Neary will be here, Ira Flatow on Friday. We'll see you again on Monday. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting from WVTF and Radio IQ in Roanoke, Virginia.

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