So I watched the All-American Presidential Forum on PBS tonight. All in all, I thought it was well-run, though there were some significant audio problems. It had a well-structured pacing to it that prevented the normal boring speechification. Tavis kept a tight rein. I thought the questions were great. Tavis’recognition of 4 schoolchildren from Memphis who saved up to travel to the Forum was moving. It would have been inspiring had one of them been able to ask an actual question.

In general, it would have been great to have some audience participation of some kind. There were a lot of VIPs in the audience — many members of Congress especially your CBC members, Donna Brazile, Cornel West, Sidney Poitier (I think). Many black and latino bloggers were on hand as well (see a feed of credentialed bloggers here). It would have been interesting to hear their thoughts either before or after on the TV. Clearly though it was more of a See and Be Seen (but not Heard) style event, ya dig?

That said, I am not sure if there were any big winners. Clinton in particular did not receive the love that her husband would have had he been there and she would have been smart to bring him. Her answers were well-received in general and I particularly appreciated her take on AIDS and its impact on African-American women which received a standing ovation from some black female attendees. You’ll be hearing more about this later.

Edwards did very well in most of his answers and I was certainly impressed at his thoughtful, practical and on-point responses. The Edwards campaign reached out to me and sent me a document with his answers to the Covenant for Black America best-selling book. I especially liked #2:

Covenant #2: Education

The Covenant recommends investing in child and parental development, federal support for all levels of education, a well-rounded curriculum, well-paid and culturally sensitive teachers with small teacher-student ratios, and improved school facilities.

John Edwards believes we all pay a price when young people who could someday find the cure for AIDS or make a fuel cell work are sitting on a stoop because they didn’t get the education they needed. More than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, our education system remains shockingly unequal. African-American and Latino students have only about a 50 percent chance of graduating high school with a diploma. States spend $900 less per student in their most diverse school districts.

To make our system of public education the sturdy ladder of opportunity it should be, Edwards will invest more in teacher pay and training to attract the best and brightest to be teachers where we need them most while reducing class size. Edwards will also invest in preschool, fund special education, and strengthen high schools with a more challenging curriculum. Edwards will also create second-chance schools to help former dropouts get back on track.

As the first person in his family to go to college, Edwards knows firsthand the difference a college degree can make-and it is more true now than ever. That’s why in 2005, he helped start a pilot program in Greene County, North Carolina, that will help more than 125 students enroll in college next fall. It pays for one year of public-college tuition, fees, and books for anyone willing to work part-time in college, take a college-prep curriculum in high school, and stay out of trouble. Edwards has proposed expanding the College for Everyone program nationwide. As president, he will also simplify the process of applying for student aid and increase access to college counselors in high-poverty high schools.

Biden, Richardson and Dodd – sadly weak. Richardson seemed quite unprepared to discuss HIV/AIDS which was odd. Did no one tell him this is a big deal for African-Americans? Gravel played his usual role saying what no one else has the courage to say. I love that guy.

Kucinich did very well. He’s always been the sleeper candidate. The crowd loved his answers. The big three candidates would do well to pay attention to why people like him — he talks about the things people care about in ways that are compelling, down-to-earth and stunningly sensible.

And then there’s Obama. He did so well in tapping his fingers on the touchstones of our culture in thanking Howard, its president, Thurgood Marshall, the Covenant with Black America authors, etc. He referenced history and put himself in that context. He mentioned that justice in America should not be about “just us” – a well-known black in-joke. He was certainly the hometown hero. At the beginning of the session, there was a call-and-response, so intrinsic to our culture. A deep male voice rang out: “OBAMA!” And the crowd roared back in welcome and jubilation. That was a heart-stirring moment.

Still that early advantage was eroded with overall lackluster answers. He was fine, but I can’t think of many standout moments where he electrified the audience. I’m so proud of him – it’s true. But I can’t help but expect more from him.

In terms of topics, I thought Katrina, AIDS, education and today’s terrible Supreme Court decision, Darfur, and inequities in criminal justice were covered well. I am confused why Iraq which is such a strong issue in the African-American community did not receive more attention, leaving the candidates to bring the issue up themselves in their responses. Immigration also seemed to receive only a light touch with the focus instead on NAFTA and trade.

I’m looking forward to seeing some really insightful commentary and more clips online from the debate. (PBS says video will be available at 7am EST on their site Friday.)

In the meantime, here’s Tavis Smiley and his planned debate questions being attacked yesterday (using Hillary Clinton as a trope) by Fox News and Hannity & Colmes. Why did he go on their show knowing their agenda, one asks oneself at the end of the clip…Enjoy.

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