Linguist John McWhorter Makes Case For Obama As the presidential election approaches, Talk of the Nation will ask guests to make the case for the two candidates on foreign and domestic policy. John McWhorter, a linguistics professor and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, explains why Barack Obama is the right choice in 2008.
NPR logo

Linguist John McWhorter Makes Case For Obama

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Linguist John McWhorter Makes Case For Obama

Linguist John McWhorter Makes Case For Obama

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following today at NPR News. General Motors asked the United States government for a loan that would make it possible to buy rival car maker Chrysler. A decision from the U.S. Treasury could come as early as this week. And both Republican presidential candidate John McCain and now his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, have called upon Alaska Senator Ted Stevens to resign. The senate's longest-serving Republican was convicted yesterday on 70 felony counts in a corruption trial here in Washington D.C. Details on those stories coming up later today on All Things Considered from NPR News.

Tomorrow, at this time on Talk of the Nation, John Updike, famous for the rabbit novels and "The Witches of Eastwick" joins us. His latest book revisits his coven as the three woman reconvene in Rhode Island 30 years later, "The Widows of Eastwick." That's all tomorrow on Talk of the Nation from NPR News. As the presidential election approaches, we've asked four people to make the case for the two major party presidential candidates on foreign and domestic policy.

Yesterday, we heard from Michael Gerson, who made the conservative case for Senator John McCain. In a moment, John McWhorter will join us to tell us why he supports Senator Barack Obama. Later this week ,we'll hear pitches from two candidates on foreign policy. Former deputy assistant Secretary of State Sarah Sewell tomorrow for Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger on Thursday for John McCain. So, Obama supporters make the case for your candidate on domestic policy, your final argument.

Our phone number, 800-989-8255, email us You can post your final argument on our blog as well, that's at Linguist and writer John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He joins us now from our bureau in New York, and nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation.

Mr. JOHN MCWHORTER (Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute): Thank you Neal.

CONAN: And you're generally known as conservative in political circles. So why do you support Barack Obama?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, for one thing I think, I'm much more of a moderate, but I support Barack Obama for two reasons. One of them is that he is somebody who can think. And, after the past eight years, I think that this country could use a president who is actually reflective and likes to think. And in particular, Barack Obama is good at splitting the difference and looking at both sides and trying to come up with a combination. And I suppose that reminds me of myself, and I just - it appeals to me. And, so I think that he is the better man because the qualities that I just described don't happen to correspond as well to John McCain, although I have nothing against him.

And then the second reason is that I honestly believe that if there were a black man in the White House with his black family, especially for eight years, then I think it would show that even though racism is not dead in America, and even though I don't think racism will ever be completely dead in America, that's something really important has happened. I think that with Barack Obama in the White House, anyone who wants to say that America is founded upon racism and America is still all about racism. And that any impression otherwise, is just a matter of not being able to see beyond the superficial will be pulled down to earth somewhat.

It won't eliminate that kind of rhetoric, but I think that Barack Obama's presence would make people have to reconsider that maybe Martin Luther King did not die in vain, and that maybe we actually have made some genuine and striking progress. And, I especially think that whatever we grown-ups think that if there were a generation of people, and this is black, white, yellow and everything else who grew up seeing not just Barack Obama but the Obamas in the White House. If we saw those two girls grow up in the White House, if we saw Barack and Michelle together there every single day on your laptop, on TV, getting in and out of Air Force One. Anybody who grew up with that as a norm would be highly unlikely to when they were adults think of America as a country founded upon racism.

They will think of America as a country that's come a long way since the 1960s. And I think that we would have a more productive dialogue about what to do about the problems that we really do have. And, so it's not that I don't think that there's racism in America, it's not that I don't understand that the playing field isn't level. But, I think that in 2008, we've gotten to a point where - when people's primary response to that is to say we need to get rid of racism. I'm not sure what the point is, because there's no group that has required the playing field to be completely level in order to achieve. And I think for all sorts of reasons that I don't have time to go into here, that that's not what the main problem is now, it's not racism isn't a problem, but it's no longer the main issue. And, the sense that the good thinking person is supposed to look towards racism first when we talked about what poor or black people's problems are for example, is something that ends up holding people back.

Because, what I'm interested in what the Manhattan Institute is interested in is solutions. What makes people's lives better? What actually has results? And these days, talking about how we have to change the way all white people feel. We're talking about how we have to wait until the playing field is perfectly level. I don't think it helps anybody. And I'd like to pull the general dialogue away from that. That is a kind of dialogue that I think people who grew up watching Barack Obama as president would be uniquely poised to have. So those are the reasons that I suspect that a week from now, give or take a few hours, I am going to be a very, very happy man.

CONAN: In a column in 2006, you wrote, let's imagine a white guy with all of Mr. Obama's plusses. I do not think that man would be touted a year-end change into his Senate appointment as a presidential possibility. Do you believe on the experience issue that Barack Obama is ready to be president of the United States?

Mr. MCWHORTER: He is and what I said in 2006 is true now. Frankly, if he were not black, he would not be where he is. We are at a magic time where his being black helps, and that's a wonderful thing. I have no problem with it but in 2006, before anybody had any idea we are going to get to this point, that was just something I pointed out. But as far as experience, to be perfectly frank, I thought Hillary Clinton had more experience than - now the gradient was not large enough I think to matter, and I was for Barack Obama during the primaries too.

But he is intelligent enough, and he is quick enough a study, that whatever experience gaffe he has compared to for example, Senator McCain, he could easily make up for. And, when we are talking about differences in experience that are relatively minor in this case where there is a lot of learning to be done very quickly, I think that there are other issues. There are issues of charisma and symbolism, there are issues of where someone falls politically and in terms of what works and in terms of what I'm for, whatever my general reputation is. Barack Obama fits in with me much better than Senator McCain.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the conversation. Now, we're talking about final arguments for Senator Barack Obama on domestic issues today. Let's talk with Tom, Tom is with us from Chillicothe in Ohio.

TOM (Caller): Hi, there. Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, Tom.

TOM: I wanted to mention that the domestic program that I really like is his effort to recruit new teachers by exchanging scholarship and/or help with tuition in exchange for four years of service in schools that are kind of struggling, schools that might be in areas where there might not necessarily have as much opportunity as the rest of the schools. I just think that will really diversify those that go into teaching. And even if they don't necessarily stay in after four years, I think that they'll definitely help the rest of the teachers, those of us who are in it for the career, to gain a little bit of how do you say - understanding and sympathy from the rest of the public.

CONAN: Perhaps an elevated status.

TOM: Yes.

CONAN: John McWhorter, what do you think?

Mr. MCWHORTER: I think that's definitely true, and it plays into a general phenomenon with Obama. Which is that again, I think that he is interested in things that would work rather than the same old patterns. He has actually spoken before a teacher's union, heavy crowd and been booed for a couple of the things that he said. And it's because the school question is very, very complex, but anybody who thinks it's just a matter of poor schools don't get enough money from on high is understandably so, but mistaken. That's not what the problem is, and Barack Obama understands that. And, so I think that he would be poised to make a difference.

He also realizes that No Child Left Behind, despite its good intentions needs to be either deeply revised or scrapped, and that is something that is important. He also cares about education to an extent that John McCain simply constitutionally does not. So, once again, I think that he is a better person for this moment.

CONAN: Tom, thanks for the call. Appreciate it.

TOM: Thank you very, very much.

CONAN: Let me ask you, John McWhorter, if Barack Obama is elected president next week, a week from today, he will be working with a Democratic-controlled House and Senate as well. How do you think he is going to be able to cope with these very experienced inside politicians who are going to have agendas of their own, agendas that may not comport necessarily with his agenda, who may want to enact programs of their own?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, you know, Neil, it seems to me that what you just described is what it is to be a President of the United States. And so, the question is how would Barack Obama deal with it? I think that he would deal with it pretty well given that he is someone who I think, - talk about what someone as constitutionally is constitutionally inclined towards trying to bring the best of both sides together into something constructive. And so, of course, he will be presented with differing agendas, and he'll do his best. It's interesting, people seem to look at his voting record in the Senate and suppose that he's actually under the impression that that's the kind of presidency that he would put forward.

CONAN: A highly liberal voting record.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Yeah, and he isn't. I mean, nobody could realistically think that in this country which is basically a center right country, that that would be possible even with the Democratic majority. That's just not what even Democrats are about. And, so what he's going to do is run the country in a way that works well for him but is also all about compromise, because that is what it is to run a government. I think he will do just fine.

CONAN: Jeff is on the line. Jeff calling us from Kenosha, Wisconsin.

JEFF (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to propose my final argument as to why he should be and is the most viable candidate. And, I believe he is the most viable candidate for sort of the re-welding of our fine melting pot in this country back together, reaching across all barriers from senior to young people, across races, across religions. Whether he is negotiating with Canada and Mexico or NAFTA, or whether he is negotiating accords in the Middle East, he has this sort of come let us reason together empirical attitude that lends itself for listening to others, reasoning with others, and I can't see the angry John McCain in that role. I've never been able to fit him in that role.

CONAN: Let us focus on Barack Obama for just a moment and just to pick up your metaphor, Jeff, in the cauldron of the presidential campaign - Barack Obama, as we just heard in the previous segment has generally declined to embrace Muslim Americans and Arab Americans and has pretty much avoided the issue of immigration.

JEFF: I believe the first thing he has to do is run for office and overcoming fear in the campaign is not in a way that you can directly answer that question. I think it can be answered and will be answered once he becomes president, however.

CONAN: John McWhoster?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Oh, well, yeah, I mean I think we have to understand. People are often surprised to find out that Obama is a politician. There is a kind of a Jesus air that people seem to put around him. And yeah, obviously, he has to avoid having Muslims appear with him. He has to avoid talking about those issues because for reasons that all of us are dismayed about as we heard in the past segment. There are people out there where their vote might tip one way or another based on whether or not they associate him with Islam, and that is not a good thing. But just because it's not a good thing doesn't mean that it isn't true. And so, yeah, let's wait to see what happens when he gets into office.

It is interesting there are certain things that will always be with us like for example, once he gets in, yeah, there will be people on bar stools saying, well, now that the blacks have a president, what more do they want? There will be those people. There will roughly every six weeks be discovered a plot by a bunch of idiots where they are pretending to have a plan to assassinate the president. There will be those things, but I think that there will be so many good things about Barack Obama in office including race relevant legislation such as bringing fathers back into contact with their children, such as prisoner re-entry programs. These are really important things - faith-based and non-faith-based. I think it will be a wonderful time although it will not be utopia because we'll never have utopia.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. We're talking about final arguments for the candidates. Yesterday, we heard Michael Gerson make the conservative case for John McCain on domestic policy. Today, we're listening to John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute make the same case for Barack Obama. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's go to Gordon. Gordon with us from Elk Rapids in Michigan.

GORDON (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

GORDON: Yes. I'm a disabled veteran, and when Barack was first elected, I was watching the Veterans Committee reports for new budget and they were just trying to pass through the regular budget and made cuts in the VA. And Barack, he was on the Veterans Affairs Committee. And Barack said that you can't do that. we're fighting wars on two different fronts. There are veterans that are going to need hospitalization and mental health. And he was able to actually add money to the budget that year. And I thought, now this man has really has his priorities correct. I'd work for him.

CONAN: Gordon, a lot of veterans would say he's a man without military experience, who declined to don the uniform.

GORDON: That has a little to do with being president of the United States. What has more importance is whether he cares about veterans and their actual welfare.

CONAN: John McWhorter?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Yeah, and one of the most interesting things about the debates was to see that Barack Obama as far as the notion that the Democrats are soft on defense, actually almost seemed hawkish in terms of his stance on Pakistan in comparison to John McCain. It's been an interesting campaign in that is one thing that we have not been able to see lobbed at Barack Obama, that he somehow doesn't understand that a country has to defend itself. And the anti-Americanism that he's been accused of, it's quite clear to any thinking person how hollow that kind of rhetoric is when it applies to him. And, I did want to touch on one other thing about him bringing the country together. Certainly, on the international scene, there will be value to us having somebody, especially somebody with Hussein as a middle name as our chief representative.

Here in this country, I don't think we want to get too rosy about everybody all of a sudden melting and realizing the commonality of all humanity once he's in office. But, I think that definitely with the younger people, there will be that. The president will be black and it won't mean anything to them. And to them, the idea that there was a time, especially a recent time when people were walking around saying, oh, there could never be a black president will seem historical and peculiar. It'll be like flash cubes are to me at the age of 43. And so, that's something to look for. It'll be the future America that he will help bring together more than the America that's already set up. But still, I look forward to that.

CONAN: I could never make those flash cubes work. Gordon, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. And let me finally ask you, a lot of people very concerned about the economic situation in this country right now, not just in this country but around the world, John McWhorter. What do you think of Barack Obama's approach to solving this problem? Again, it's not something the president does alone. But in a way, it's almost more of the role of the president as the chief of state as well as president as chief of government?

Mr. MCWHORTER: To the extent that he's interested in rolling up his sleeves and making sure that individual members of the American public are hurt by this mess as little as possible, to the extent that that seems to be where his heart really is as opposed to his heart really being in trying to make things as easy as possible for the people who created the situation. I think that this is what we need. There are a lot of inexact sciences being dealt with in terms of how we get out of that crisis. And, I think that once again, he's the right person because he's interested in making sure that this isn't like, for example, what happened with the savings and loans scandal where basically, America took a bath. So he's trying to learn from the past rather than repeating it. And I've admired him for that.

CONAN: John McWhorter, thanks as always for your time.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, with us today from our bureau in New York City. He's most recent book is "All About the Beat: Why Hip Hop Can't Save Black America." Tomorrow, Sarah Sewall joins us to make the case for Barack Obama based on his foreign policy agenda. Then on Thursday, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger will argue on behalf of his favorite for the president of the United States, John McCain. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.