Tavis and Barack talking about the Audacity of Hope in Oct 2007 — Before the Playa-Hate

In the wake of the recent dustup between Tavis Smiley and Barack Obama, Tavis personally reached out to us here at Jack and Jill Politics to explain himself.

Well actually some probably very nice public relations people sent us a press release with no further context. There wasn’t even the usual nice little note at the top like “Hi Jill, big fan of your big bad black blog. Thought you might find this of interest to your readers.” Outreach strategies that make you go, hmmmm?

Here’s the full text of what was sent though I am omitting the publicists’ names and contact info:


LOS ANGELES — In a radio commentary on Thursday, Feb. 14, Tavis Smiley made it clear that he has no personal “animus” toward Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Speaking on the “Tom Joyner Show,” Smiley reminded listeners that he has enjoyed a collegial relationship with Obama for many years.

Smiley also expressed strong admiration for Obama’s wife, Michelle, and her “quintessential” American journey from the South Side of Chicago to Princeton, Harvard Law School and beyond.

Talk of a Smiley-Obama feud broke out in the blogosphere in recent days after Smiley criticized the candidate’s decision not to attend Smiley’s annual State of the Black Union forum, which will be held the weekend of Feb. 23 in New Orleans. Sen. Hillary Clinton has agreed to speak at the symposium, while Republican candidates John McCain and Mike Huckabee have not yet come to a decision.

Smiley said it would be a “missed opportunity” for any candidate to skip the forum, and that it was his duty as an outspoken black commentator to hold all political candidates accountable, particularly when it comes to issues of importance to African Americans.

He stressed that he has been close to Obama since the days when he invited the rising young political leader to address his youth leadership program. In fact, said Smiley, he has been criticized in the past by the press, including the Washington Post, for trying to “stack the deck” in Obama’s favor.

While he acknowledged the historic candidacy of an African American for the White House, Smiley also underscored his own mission as an advocate for African American issues. It’s not his job, Smiley made clear, to be in the endorsing business, whether the candidate is Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

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I credit Tavis and/or his staff for recognizing the communications, uh, challenges here. I am a little confused by this press release since there seems to be a lot of subtext. In order to win, Obama has correctly assessed that he needs to portray himself as a universal candidate who is interested in the welfare and success of all Americans, no matter their color or creed.

Some Republicans and even Democrats are even now trying to put him back in his place as the black candidate” who will serve the interests of African-Americans above all citizens. Would attendance at the State of the Black Union weaken his universality? Probably not. But here’s what isn’t in the press release: Barack Obama offered to send Michelle Obama in his place while he continues on the campaign trail in one of American history’s tightest political fights to the finish. It feels a little like Celebrity Death Match. Here’s Barack’s recent letter dated Feb 13 to Tavis (emphasis mine):

Dear Tavis,

Thank you for the invitation to participate in the 2008 State of the Black Union forum in New Orleans, Louisiana February 21-23. The exchange of ideas raised at this annual symposium are invaluable as our nation strives to address the critical issues facing not just African Americans, but Americans of every race, background and political party.

I especially commend you for hosting this dialogue in New Orleans. On the eve of the Louisiana primary, I visited this great city for the fifth time since declaring my candidacy to share policy proposals for rebuilding the Gulf Coast so that we never experience another Hurricane Katrina. On February 9, I was deeply humbled to win the Louisiana primary with 86 percent of the African American vote and a 14 point lead among all voters who said they were adversely affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Uniting our country and creating a national constituency for fundamental change is why I am running for President of the United States. We have come a long way in this race, but we still have a long road ahead. In the final stretch, I will be on the campaign trail everyday in states like Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin talking directly with voters about the causes that are at the heart of my campaign and the State of the Black Union forum such as affordable healthcare, housing, economic opportunity, civil rights and foreign policy. I am committed to touching every voter, and working to earn their vote.

That is why with regret, I am not able to attend the forum. I understand that you have declined the campaign’s request to have Michelle Obama speak on my behalf. I ask that you reconsider. Michelle is a powerful voice for the type of real change America is hungry for. No one knows my record or my passion for leading America in a new direction more than Michelle Obama.

Tavis, this is our movement and our time. I look forward to working closely with you throughout this election. Thank you for your continued support.

Tavis — my advice to you is to stand down and give the playa hatin a rest. Accept Michelle Obama’s generous offer to attend. As an African-American, personally, I would be very interested in what she has to say. I feel I’ve heard a lot from him — half Kenyan, half Kansan — in the media, in debates, in clever YouTube music videos, etc and not nearly enough from her — regular old slave-descended black folk like me.

Allowing her to participate would the graceful thing to do. It would allow African-Americans and those who love them a chance to get to evaluate her perspective on our issues even more carefully. It might even win over older black women like my moms who might relate more strongly to Michelle’s experiences as a sister who has worked hard to get where she is today. Let Barack Obama do his thing and hopefully this time next year, he might be an even bigger audience draw and “get” than he is today. Geez — Don’t hate the playa. Hate the game.

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