NABJ Postcard #4: Nobody Asked, But Obama Says it Anyway -- Of Course I'm Black Enough; Deggans on CNN Tonight
LAS VEGAS - No one asked him the question, even after a sprawling, 30-minute Q&A session which covered everything from genocide in the Sudan to whether Hillary Clinton might serve as his running mate.
But presidential candidate Barack Obama knew the National Association of Black Journalists convention here had been buzzing for days about a single issue: Was he, the Harvard-educated son of a Kenyan man and white woman, "black enough" to champion issues important to African Americans?
So, facing a standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,500 attendees Friday, Obama answered what the audience had been too polite to ask.
"In part, we're still locked in this notion that, if you appeal to white folks, there must be something wrong," said the candidate, sparking a burst of applause from the crowd. "Part of it has to do with fear - we don't want to get excited because we might be let down in the end. My response is, why not try?"
Obama was an undisputed rock star at the convention, welcomed with a standing ovation from much of the crowd and an audience larger than the group drawn by his biggest rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton.
Initially, the candidate deflected the black enough question in his opening remarks, apologizing for a late arrival by saying "You guys keep asking whether I'm black enough…(so) I figured I'd stroll in."
The avalanche of applause which greeted that line, showed he was in friendly territory. Much as some attendees had hoped the journalists' group would show reserve and objectivity during Obama's speech - NABJ co-founder Les Payne had urged members not to applaud the candidate during a panel discussion Thursday - many here showed unreserved enthusiasm for the senator who might realistically become the first black man elected president.
Obama began by citing a campaign visit to Oakland Wednesday in which he helped a 61-year-old elderly care worker do her job. Noting that the woman earns a salary under the poverty line while working a second job and caring for three foster children, he pledged to serve as a voice in Washington D.C. for the working poor.
He played the uniter in answering a question about whether illegal immigrants take jobs from working class black people, insisting that curbing illegal immigration still creates a huge pool of black and Hispanic laborers who need help.
On Clinton's recent criticism that he is naïve in agreeing to speak with dictators without concessions, Obama talked about shutting down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay to improve America's human rights standing globally, stressing the importance of sound judgment over experience.
"Nobody had more experience than (vice president) Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld," Obama said, alluding to their roles in starting the Iraq war, which he has called "a fiasco. "I don't think they have standing to tout their experience relative to mine."
And on the question of whether Clinton might make his short list for vice president candidates: "She would be on anyone's short list…but she's on the short list for president, too."
Obama's speech here - smoother and more confident than he's been in many settings - capped an opening session that included a panel discussion on the Don Imus controversy with the presidents of NBC News, CNN and NABJ, among others.
Moderated by PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, the session allowed NABJ members to ask news executives why they feature hosts such as Imus - who drew criticism for years over racially insensitive commentary -- until his derogatory comments about the Rutgers University female basketball team sparked an NABJ-led protest which cost him his job.
"I never saw such reaction as when (Today show weatherman) Al Roker got mad," joked Ifill, referring to public comments by Roker critical of Imus which helped seal the shock jock's fate. "People said, '(Roker's) so jolly. If he's mad, there must really be something to this."
Eventually, Obama pressed a theme Clinton also stressed during her time here Thursday; by improving circumstances for black Americans, he will improve circumstances for everyone. And he stressed concrete talk on issues involving race -- incarceration rates and the achievement gap -- rather than rhetorical debate such as apologies for slavery.
"As president, obviously the day I'm inaugurated, the racial dynamics in American will change," he said, alluding to the power of having a black first lady and black children playing in the south lawn. "It changes how white children think will about black children and how black children will think about black children."
Deggans on CNN at 8 p.m Tonight
Sorry for the short notice -- like a half-hour or so -- but i just got an email from a CNN producer saying an interview I did with them eons ago about the ABC TV show Cavemen will air tonight in a story within the show once hosted by Paula Zahn - now simply called Out in the Open.
Check it out and let me know what you think!