tv Gwen Ifill Oral History Interview CSPAN May 30, 2017 9:39pm-10:36pm EDT
like their children who look like their children. so the idea that -- we didn't grow up with the idea that everything was automatically available to us even though by the time i was born, a lot more was available, we grew up with the understanding that you had to fight for almost everything you got, that people were going to deny you if they could and that you shouldn't carry it as a chip on your shoulder but as a way of setting up what your standards ought to be to overcome. so my father fancied himself a civil rights activityist. my mother feared he would be deported to panama. we just understood that growing up in the '60s was actuary about you lent. and it didn't mean that you went around expecting the worst all the time of your fellow man and woman but it meant that you had to find a way to always factor
it into your thinking. so brown, even though it was a done deal by the time i went to school, it still was the kind of backdrop for everything else that was to come for us. >> was it a signal to you and your family that the country wanted to treat you right? >> we didn't talk about brown precisely. when you think about the civil rights legislation that became law while i was 9 years old, yeah, that was a signal. it was optimism. it was a promise that you could do all the things that my parents told us we ocould do anything. they mistakenly told the doctors that as well as the sons so we took them at their word. as a result, you saw laws and barriers falling as you went along. you came away from that hopeful and optimistic about the possibilities. >> and looking back over this period, civil rights law, brown in '54, '55, all these things,
have these turned out the way you thought at the time they'd turn out? >> yes. >> have they accomplished what at the time you may have thought they would? >> yes in terms of they provided access. i never had to doubt whether i was going to be able to apply to any college i wanted to apply to. it never occurred to me that i would be denied something like that education because of limitations that were put in place by law. all that was done, all that was sealed. it never -- does it mean that i didn't go south for the first time in my life with some trepidation. we were raised in the northeast and i didn't go south until i was an adult. i knew the history books and it made me nervous. i didn't automatically to assume that people wouldn't allow me to stay in a hotel or provide me with -- allow me any vehicle conveyance i wanted to. you always were aware of the history and the possibility of
it so when you were denied something as simple as a decent table in a restaurant it was all lurking. it hasn't completely gone away and in the northeast it had not completely gone away. it wasn't just the south. >> but did you ever discover what you thought was an a-ha moment turn out to be they just put me at another table? >> probably. you can't spend a lot of time assuming the worst about why people do things. it almost always has nothing to do with you. it has everything to do with them. it has to do with their biases, their constraints, with their inability to imagine anything more and so rather than -- i tell this to young people, rather than going around a-ha they didn't give this to me because i was black or a wonl, you stop and think, they didn't give it to me because they couldn't imagine me in this role and it's my job then, it's a tougher job than my white counter parts have, my job is to force them to see me in a different role and then you act
on that. >> and one instance in your life, this treatment worked out well for you, this ugly note left for you in the newsroom where you're working or where you're interning and the result is that you get a job. >> that's true. i was working my very first job at the boston herald american and it was an internship a summer internship and i was happy to be in the newsroom. it's what i always wanted to do and i was a go fer. i was just a kid in the newsroom. there were several of us. i was the only one of color and they put me in the photo department to be the go fer there. i discovered years later that they put me there because they didn't want me in the newsroom proper. i didn't know any of that at the time. i came to work one day and found a note for me on my little work space and it said, nigger go home. my first response was, i wonder who this was for.
i didn't automatically think what an insult. i automatically thought what an odd thing to find here and when i showed it to my boss he instantly got what it was and was apologetic. of course by then it was dawning on me that it was for me. and it was an older white guy who felt threatened by my premgs. they didn't want to punish him or fire him which is what they had to do. so instead they said, listen, you know, if you ever need a job, you ever need a place to be, come back to us. we love you, we think you're great. in other words, don't sue us which of course i was too naive to have considered at the time. i put that in my back pocket and had no intention of ever taking them up on it because in my 1977 way i thought that i would never work for these racist but i also realized a year later when i was looking for a job that there were no other jobs so i went back and said remember this promise and they gave me a job. but then it was on me.
getting in the door because i had survived this insult or being paved in a certain way was one thing. when i got in i had to prove to them that i could write and meet a deadline, that i could be a good colleague in a newsroom and newsroom environment where once again i was one of very few people of color. so once -- just getting in the door isn't enough. it's what i always say about affirmative action. it's nice that the door opens but what do you do once you walk through it and that was the next challenge for me. >> let me back up a little bit from your working at the newspaper. who were the people who influenced whom the person you are today and i'm assuming you're going to say parents and so i want you to talk about them but others too? >> parents are a huge for me partly because our lives were so prescribed by being immigrants and my father was an ordained minister. >> what does being immigrants mean? >> it means african-americans in west indian americans aren't necessarily on the same page.
maybe it's the same from alabama and georgia, i don't know. i just know we were different. but that was -- that was exexacerbated by the fact that my father was a minister. so we were always being put in positions where we were new, where we were the other, not just with people of other races but also within our race. and we were the preachers kids so everybody was watching us and keeping an eye on us and making sure we weren't misbehaving. there was a lot that made us tighter as a family because we were the only people we knew in a certain situation. in addition to that, my father was outspoken. he was a loud mouth. he was someone who didn't take no for an answer. he was incredibly articulate in the best meaning of that word. he was someone who didn't ever -- he saw injustice and spoke up which meant that he was
often in awkward positions but i watched that. i watched that. i also watched my mother who was at first glance look to be pretty meek preacher's wife who carried the water for everyone else but that's not true. she raised an incredible family and she raised -- all together there were four boys and two girls so she had a hand in shaping us and telling us what the possibilities were and that's -- when i say my parents i don't mean because they were nice parents and raised us well, because they never told us what the limitations were first. they always told us what the possibilities were first and therefore when i then went into the workplace and people told me no, you can't do that my first instircht wasn't you're right, my first instinct was what are the possibilities here. i encountered people who saw that in me. my first college journalism professor, a guy by the name of
aldin pool, he had grown up as a newspaper man. and he would tell stories and inn class about newspapering which i just loved. but he also saw possibilities in me, even though -- he'll tell you now my first classes were not great. they were c's that were scored in my first journalism classes but that didn't make him look at me sane say she'll never work. he assumed there were possibilities for me. he saw it in me and didn't say so. didn't come and praise me or make me his pet in any way. and was able to realize that -- when people look at you and say oh, sure, you can do that, it makes you think oh, yeah i can do that. and along the way -- i seldom realized it at the time, i kept
encountering people, who said you can do tv. i didn't know that. i didn't expect it or aim for it but because he expected it of me i thought maybe i can. along the way you keep meeting people like that and it makes you who you are. >> in some ways you're a different mix of the kind of person who sat across from me in the series of interviews we've done and one thing that makes you different isn't gender necessarily, but it's being in the ame church which is out of the -- not out of the mainstream, but out of the baptist, so it's ame church, immigrant, the child of immigrants, and the interest in this profession which not everyone follows, and the feeling that you've received from those around you that you can do these things. i wonder can you parse those as one dominant, one more powerful than the others? >> the ame church is significant because it was a church -- we're
very -- wedded to the history of the church. the church formed by free slaves who tried to worship in a episcopal church and were pulled off their knees. the idea that richard allen walked out of his church, walked to his blacksmith shop and started his own denomination, now around the world. it was a very empowering idea. you couldn't grow up with -- knowing that history without thinking -- without saying and then say i can't do it. you were part of a tradition, historic tradition and faith tradition that was about saying i can -- >> also strikes me as a fighting church. as opposed to the others. not that the others never fight, but ame is -- >> it is a very political church. i first learned politic and learned to love politics in the ame church because we have an episcopal form of government, which means we have elected bishops and politics in the ame church was as political as anything i've covered in national life. and i learned what that was like and what trade-offs were like
and what bartering for votes was like and what full campaigns were like, that quadrennial -- wasn't that far different from the republican national conventions i covered. so i got an appreciation for politics. i also got an appreciation for the connection between what politics is and what even faith is, and what actual action is. and so it made sense to me that there was a continuum among all these things. and that my life was directly affected. i couldn't say, oh, civil rights, that's nice but it has nothing do with me. i was always clear it had a direction connection in what i could do. all these things do probably made me who i was and because we got the newspaper in our house every day, we watched the news every night, very clear that the march was against the vietnam war and national assassinations and moments of grieving that
those came right in our living room, first time i saw my father cry is when john f. kennedy died. it felt very real to us. so that's what brought me -- it nurtured my interest in current events and nurtured my interest in seeing if i could find a way to write about it, to be in the front row and ask about those questions. >> i don't want to dwell on the church too much, but i also think the ame church is a church which just doesn't fight among the members. but fights for rights. fights for justice, fights for things. is that right? >> the church i'm a member of here in washington, d.c., frederick douglas sat in the pews there. it matters that rosa parks was an ame to us. we weren't told to sit quietly and wait for the world to get better. you were supposed to -- there was a connection. we looked at jesus as someone who was an activist, not just someone who was a religious figure. that made a big difference. >> your father's engagement as a civil rights activist, how did he communicate this to you, to
the children? how does he let you know what he's doing and why he's doing it? >> he had a pulpit. that makes it easy to communicate to your children and to everyone. he didn't hesitate to put on his dashiki and wear it in the pulpit. he didn't hesitate to get involved. i remember when we lived in central pennsylvania outside of harrisburg, in a food co-op program, downtown, he brought his activities home and talked about it. and preached about it from the pulpit. and we had no choice but to listen. after a while, it sank in. >> mm-hmm. and the move, because of the ame church, like the methodist church, moves its ministers on regular intervals, you are making new friends over and over and over again. how did you feel about this. >> hated it at the time. i thought it was terrible. especially when i was uprooted in high school and i thought i was going to be a member of, you know, the band or whatever i was aspiring to. it wasn't a great for one social
life growing up. but looking back on it now, i realize what it did was put me in new situations all the time, where i had to start from scratch, where i had to make myself known and liked and where i got to learn brand-new things every time. as a result, now i'm in a position where i'm often thrust into new situations with new people where i wake up in the morning and there is a coup in macedonia and i have to know about macedonia by 6:00 that night. and i have the capability of pulling all that in. part of that is being thrust into new situations over and over again. and making new friends. >> besides education, religion, what else in your world or the larger society pushed and pulled on you? let me jump back to school very quickly, did you -- were you active in student government of any kind? class president, that kind of thing? >> we were nerdy kids. we weren't allowed to go out much.
had to have a fun -- yeah, we were involved in student senate, student forum, student government, we sang in the college choirs and church choirs and part of that was because of the way that our family was structured in which, you know, my brothers were instructed never to leave me at school. we had to come home to get together and go to school together. so if my brother was involved in student government, so was i, if one of us was in the choir, so was the other. not sports so much or those kind of social activities but activities which really -- our fun place to go on the weekends as kids was the library. i wanted to be a librarian for a while, i loved the idea of being surrounded by books and knowledge and anybody would let me have a book and read it. that's not something a whole lot of young people who now have, you know, interactive little psds to play with or whatever it is called, but for us that was an escape. that was a great place and it was a place our participants
felt safe letting us go. >> sounds like great kids. >> we turned out okay. >> fast-forward to your profession now, you're a journalist and the profession is under assault. financially, in many different i -- ways. what's going to happen? >> i don't know. i actually am very troubled about the direction of the newspaper industry, especially. it is not so great in television either. because it's the same problem which is resources. it is seriousness of purpose. it is finding a way to tell the stories and telling them seriously, not being distracted by the next shiny bright light that goes by or the next missing college students who gets -- who goes away. and actually trying to remember what is focused. the distinction -- the dilemma for newspapers is pretty distinct. i worked at four newspapers before i came into television. so it didn't occur to me that i'd ever be in television so that's where my heart is and to find that newspapers are now the place where they can no longer make the financial model work, that the classified advertising
is no longer the engine it used to be because craigslist has popped up or there's no way to tell a story because there's so many other ways to get stories. the problem is "w" that is not that -- more information is good. i think it's great. there's lots of places for people to get information. but there's this huge blurring that's underway but what is information and what is news. if i turn on my home computer, i will find my home page will pop up and it will tell me the three most important stories of the day and they might not be important at all. it might be about something that somebody said at a music video award ceremony but is that news. there are more important stories. it's why i think public television has a niche because it will always be a place where you know you can go and find it. there will always be people who want to find it in depth. there are so many ways to be distracted and to go off in other directions and i'm an old fashioned hold a newspaper in my hand kind of person. partly because even though i know i can find the information on the web, i'm more likely to
read a story about something i'm not otherwise interested in if i come across it in the paper. if i'm looking at it online, i'm just going to click on what i was already interested in so that immediately shrinks my knowledge, what i'm capable of learning that day and that bothers me. >> if it's happening to you, it's happening to all of us and it really means a sort of dumbing down of the american public. >> and we end up going in search of sources that tell us what we know already. or i think "x" is bad. i'm going to go and watch the channel that tells me "x" is bad. i'm not going to go engage in a debate with anybody about why the other side has a point. that's the basic problem for me. which is there are fewer conversations now where two people engage in either side, enter it with the possibility that the other guy has a point and it shrinks our understanding. >> i've read and we've talked here and i've read things about you about why -- how long you
wanted to be a journalist but was there -- i've had other women tell me it was brenda star. >> nope. >> did you ever have a brenda star moment? >> melba tolliver. >> i heard about melba -- tell us about who that is. >> she was the only african-american woman i had ever seen on television. she had a big afro. i believe she worked for cbs at the time. i never met her, all i know is she left a very big impression upon me because i didn't want to be in television. here was a black woman asking the questions. i liked that. i could see that and to this day when people approach me and tell me they're glad to see me on television because they have daughters who see me and they see that same thing, that makes my day. that's what i want to know. the sense of possibility. i wanted to be a journalist because i like to ask questions and i like the idea that someone might feel responsible for answering them. i liked to watch presidential news conferences. i loved to watch political
conventions, watching john chancellor get carried off the floor, or dan rather. i found that all terribly romantic. so it wasn't even about a woman or even about an african-american it was just about the idea of being in the middle of the mix and getting the questions that i had answered and that wasn't always possible just sitting on your hands at home. >> and are you thinking when you're asking these questions or thinking about the questions you're going to ask that you're asking them for other people who are not there, can't sit there where you sit. >> absolutely. absolutely. if it would just be an ego trip if i thought i was asking them for myself. i've moderated two vice presidential debates and in both cases i entered the question preparation process thinking very carefully about what can i bring to this that will make people at home say oh, i didn't know that or that would inform the understanding of the vote i'll cast. if it were about me then i'd ask a smart question and kind of preen and chase them around the table, why didn't you answer my
question, mr. senator. that doesn't really add anything to the conversation. in fact, it detracts because it makes me the story. i'm much more interested if someone at homes says, that's something that i hadn't thought of, that's why i'm asking questions. >> are there times when you're covering a story where you feel you are personally involved? what about boston school desegregation problems which certainly involve people of color, did you feel that you had to maintain a distance? >> i don't remember feeling that. it was really interesting covering the boston schools because in boston in the 1970s you could easily feel personally threatened in a situation you were in no matter what color you were. if you just crossed the wrong bridge into the wrong area of town. i found it was a test for me to talk to people who i had nothing in common with whatsoever. members of the boston school committee who were adamantly against bussing and given the chance denied me every
opportunity i'd ever had in education. but i wanted to hear what they had to say to my face. i wanted to see how they related to me. i found out so often that they related me perfectly fine. that the antiwas against a general idea of something not against me personally. so i was almost always able to separate out my sense of who i was, i don't know if they were, but i was -- from what it was i thought they believed. i covered pat robertson when he ran for president in 1988. my first campaign and i remember thinking at the time, oh, i don't know. i've heard all these things about pat robertson. is he going to be hostile to me. not only was he not hostile but the more important the people who attended his rallies were not hostile. they were welcoming. they wanted to tell you what they thought and why they thought it. now if i had walked into those rallies saying oh, they're going to hate me because i'm black i wouldn't have heard them what they're saying. in fact they would offer me a chair and they reminded me as
much of the people i saw at jesse jackson rallies. if you suggested they wanted to listen they were perfectly welcoming. it was -- it taught me those early experiences taught me that the wider and understanding i brought to any story the more likely i was to hear something i hadn't thought of before. and that people were not going to knee jerk reject me just because of who i looked like. >> when did a time come in your life or did a time come into your life, when you said to yourself, maybe not in these words because i look at you reacting against this -- i am a leader. >> i don't think i've ever said those words. >> not in those words -- >> you know why -- it happens at home with family. you're conscious at some point that your -- that people are listening to you and that your presence or absence in any
debate or situation can change the outcome. it -- if i came home for thanksgiving i knew it was a different mix than if i didn't come home from thanksgiving from college. i knew that my presence in the family mix made for a different -- i don't know, experience. it was empowering to know that my presence or my absence mattered and in this business that comes home to me mostly when i talk to young people. when young people react to me in a way that makes it sound like they're listening or that what i've said has sunk in or they recite something that i've said, then i think i am leading them somewhere. i have a much more since i've been in television because people ascribe so much power to people who are in their living rooms in a little box and so therefore people listen more carefully. they didn't necessarily know who you were. when i worked for the "the new york times" i was covering the white house for the "the new york times" as powerful a position you can have in
journalism but it wasn't until i started appearing on television talking about the work i was doing for the "the new york times" on washington week that people started listening in a different way, sort of returning my phone calls, starting treating me with a different level of respect. not because they think television's better than print because they felt they knew me after seeing me. >> it also says they knew you because they saw you as opposed to reading your by-line and knowing just your name. >> right. >> and television made that great a difference? >> it made a huge difference. it made my job easier to do as a print reporter because people felt, whether it was correct or not, they had a sense of who i was. now in television -- i mean, this backfires because it's possible to do television in a way where you're a mile wide and an inch deep and people don't know very much and you don't know very much. and you can have a very successful career in television without knowing very much.
thing secret is to hit that balance. >> and how do you make sure you're hitting that balance all the time? >> you don't all the time. you try. you listen to yourself. you police what you do and how you say it and you try to make sure that you're asking, you know, not the how do you feel questions, but the what does it mean questions and that requires a constant awareness of what it is that you're saying and what you're doing and how you're saying it. and then listening to the answers. my great fear in my interviewing is that i ask a question someone says, well and that's when i killed my wife and i don't hear it because i'm thinking of the next question. you want to really always be on and that's harder than people think. >> that's never happened, has it? >> not quite that, but close. sometimes you don't hear it. >> would you think of yourself from the this description that television had a much greater impact on return phone calls and access that you had. >> um-hum. >> and that talking to young people you get a greater feedback from what you say than
you may if you talk to adults i'm guessing? >> when "saturday night live" did a spoof of the vice presidential debate and queen latifah played me, i got huge street creds with kids in a way that the news hour and pbs didn't always pull off. so that's fine. i look at it as a way in, people will listen. >> i wonder if that means you're a role model a leadership figure. you're a role model because let's say young girls can see you and say, a woman just like me. >> i very much embrace the idea of being a role model and i guess i embrace that more than a notion of leadership because leadership means that you set out to take people someplace, whereas i set out to be and to let you see from what i am that you can be that too. that to me is role model and i will listen and advise and encourage every opportunity i
get young people who are trying to figure it out for themselves, but there's nothing more powerful than my just doing it and doing it well. >> and you show them there's a different way to get information than typical as seen on tv and in some print press. there's a different way to get information and we're going to show it to you. >> having the time is key. the dirty political secret about television that you have five minutes and they talk for a long time the five minutes is up whether you've gotten to the heart of the story or not. but if you've got ten minutes you're going to get back to the point. you have a little time to drill down and a little time to make sure that they're listened to. that makes all the difference in the world. i don't fault my commercial colleagues in the commercial world who do morning television or evening television and can't quite get to the heart of the story because they don't have the time to do it. that's why there has to be all kinds of choices out there for people to pursue.
>> the knowledge that they're built-in no choices or built-in bad choices has to be distressing? >> yes, what unlike is a bunch of choices, some of them or bad. you just balance them out. >> it strikes me that we don't hear enough complaint about the bad choices that are forced upon the profession you practice. you don't -- >> we see the bad results. >> if we do they're internal and those of us on the outside watching don't ever hear them. >> we do see the bad results of the bad choice it. it's like the schoolteacher i was talking about who didn't feel like he had any choice but not to deny some of these children access to the president's speech. he had bad choices he had to make. but you make the best of it. whining about it doesn't get it done. >> maybe shouting and yelling about it. >> we do some of that. >> okay.
what do you see as the difference between vision, philosophy and style? how do these interact for you, vision, philosophy, style? >> style can exist without vision or philosophy. you can be all style with nothing else and we can name names but why do that? a lot of people who are very stylish. stylish can help however. it can help you if you do have a philosophy that you want to get across. it helps to be accessible. television is still a medium in which you really want to connect with the people you're talking to, you want to break through the screen and speak to them. otherwise if you're boring or if you're in otherwise -- you're just running on and you don't have in penuche, why should anyone listen? vision is the most important part of it? a lot of people have philosophy but have no vision. but if you have a vision which means which to me means that you
are trying to accomplish something, there's a curb, then there is something at the end of the rainbow for you, then your philosophy can drive that and the style can achieve it. but you have to have the vision first. to me that's the most important part. >> i read some of the research we did for this and business officer in '09 this year that you said your vision for your career is to be an intermediary for the public. what did you mean by that? >> did i say that? i like that. it's a version of what we were talking about which is i'm not there because i'm there. i'm not confused about why i get to be in the interview with the president. he's not talking to me because i'm gwen. he's talking to me because he's speaking to someone over my shoulder and that's the reason why i'm there. so my responsibility is not just to say, you know i was wondering what you ate last night because i was curious. who cares? that might be my curiosity but i'm not speaking for anybody.
so my responsibility and that's why i get the chance to be in these chairs is to try to do that. in washington we got responsibilities not just to say, there was a guy who yelled at the president on the floor of the house, but to go beneath that and say he was driving that, who was that? what effect did it have on the substance of the matter at hand and what was the substance of his complaint. that is not just my curiosity because i can be at shallow as anybody, it's a question of did i have the responsibility to speak for someone else. >> something categorized the making of leaders in three ways, first great people cause great events, movements make leaders and last, the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the time. which of these, if any, or a combination of these fits the path that you followed? great confluence of events --?
what are the three again? >> great people cause great events, movements make leaders or the confluence of unpredictable events. creates leaders appropriate for the time. >> it's the confluence part. i didn't predict anything about my career. i knew i wanted to be in journalism. i thought i would maybe get to be a reporter. i didn't think i would be in television. i didn't think i would be an anchor on my own program. i wasn't even sure i'd be in washington. i wasn't certain that i would be able to do anything that anybody thought was any good. i didn't have that much self confidence. but the confluence of events in my career and life have put in position to have an impact which i don't think i necessarily anticipated. >> had you been born 20 years earlier, would this have happened? do you believe? do you think? >> i don't believe it would have happened because for all the reasons we talked about. there were laws in place by the time i came along, those confluence of events which
allowed people to look and see me standing there. otherwise, i wouldn't have even got on the the front door. even in high school, i had a guidance counselor who told me you're not going to be able to get into this school who spent a lot of time discouraging this and his name was mr. mcduffy, i always think about the mr. mcduffy's in my life who told me no, don't bother, don't try. yeah, mr. mcduffie could have easily had an effect on me had i not grew up in the home that i grew up in. so the confluence of events, the home i grew up in, people who told me i could do it, people who countered the mr. mcduffy's. and every step along the way. who without making a big deal about it assume idea could do it. i'm not really those people that had a five or ten years plan but things have worked out. >> worked out well. do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow
your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement? >> it's articulation. i don't necessarily think of what i do as leading a movement, though. >> as a movement for sober discussion of issues. >> or a movement for explaining. >> yes. >> explaining the why. >> you don't have to be walking down the street with a picket sign. >> i wouldn't mind doing that sometimes. i don't know what i'd be picketing for, i like the idea and romance of it. i do think it's a matter of being able to be explanatory and it's amazing how rare it is to know how to ask a question the right way or to be quick enough on your feet to recognize that you have just learned something and that this is something that needs more expansion on. the best interviewers, the best people who do this for a living are people who are at the end of it, curious. they're leaning in, they're
listening carefully. they're picking up on things we haven't heard before. if you're bored by your own conversation people at home will be bored too. that requires over time, a certain amount of accumulated skill. how do you do that? how do you stay curious even if you weren't curious about the issue? i come to work every day and i'm very likely to get an assignment about something i never previously cared about. by 6:00 i have to communicate to the folks at home that this is important and this is why. >> how do you get to care about it? macedonia, we mentioned earlier on. if you never knew about macedonia and you don't know any macedonians. how do you get an interest in it? >> the reason you don't care about it is because you don't know any macedonians. every subject that rises to the level of being a news story once you peel back the first couple layers are fascinating. there are people who are engaged and doing heroic things. there is issues at stake and there is money at stage.
at some point it really effects my life. i may not have cared about fannie mae and freddie mac but a whole lot of mortgages were effected by those company. when lehman brothers failed i didn't know what lehman brothers did. but their collapse had incredible ripple effects. so it's just reeducation every single day, getting to the bottom of it. finding out why it matters. >> has there ever been a case where you couldn't find out where it matters? >> yes, there has. i'll never tell. >> okay. do you have a general philosophy that guides you through life? has it sustained you through challenges or moments of alienation. >> yes. >> and what is that philosophy? >> that god will never leave me lonely, that i'm here for a purpose and that i have a safety net, that is always there and it doesn't mean that i'm always going to get what i think i want, it doesn't mean that i'm going to achieve the life that i imagine for myself at every turn but it does mean that there is a
reason for my existence and there's a reason for what i'm doing and that i've ended up where i've ended up for that reason and i don't have to always understand what it is. >> let me ask you some questions about race. how does race consciousness effect your work? do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or society or both? is there distinction? and is there such a thing as a race transcending leader. >> to the last question, no. there's not such a thing as a race transcending leader. if i've learned anything, in the last year or two when i wrote this book i wrote there's no reason for there to be a race tr transcendence. why do you even mention that the president is african-american. they want to know? they don't understand why it matters. didn't we just get passed that.
and my answer is always this, why does it bother you to talk about race unless you consider race to be a negative? if you consider race to be a positive as i do, a wonderful characteristic which makes you who you are, which gives you a set of cultural norms and backgrounds which doesn't make you -- it's not a threat. it's not taking anything away from anybody else, it's just part of what shapes me. why wouldn't we talk about it? why wouldn't we talk about gender or talk about anything else? and to me it's an enhancing. it would be enhancing to me as a nation and as a world i goes talk about race in a way that wasn't about blame and redress and argument and guilt. that's what people are scared of when you bring up race. they're afraid you're going to accuse them of something. whether you're black and being insufficiently black or whether you're white and being accused of being a racist, whether you are a latino, whatever it is, race is a factor. we should just embrace it as a factor, not the everything of what we are.
>> do you think that the mentioning at all is a threat not that you're going to threatening them later, first put on the table then i'm going to accuse you of something. but just the fact that i mention it. why is that? >> there was a very funny headline in a blog right after the president spoke up about henry louis gates junior's arrest and it was a stupid effort about the cambridge police and the headline the next day was, breaking news, the president's a black guy. and that got to the heart of what everybody's discomfort was, he was speaking as an african-american but the deal that we thought we cut with him was that he was going to be nothing. he was going to be other. he never said that. nobody else ever said that. and there's no reason why he should be that, this is part of what his experience was. once he betrayed that race consciousness, a lot of people were made nervous of that. some of my best white friends, some of my best friends are white as they said and they were made nervous by that. and i don't know why we should.
i have to live inside the skin and inside the circumstances that my skin color creates for me in this nation and it doesn't necessarily -- i don't consider it all to be a bad thing. in fact, i think it to be pretty darn good. >> right. do you have a different leadership style and maybe this is not a good question for you, do you have a different leadership style when you deal with groups that are all black, mixed race or all white? >> i probably speak differently. we all have our codes that we do in different settings. i don't -- but i don't ever -- i'm never in a leadership role in that way. i speak to groups which are all black or mixed or all white and i find that with all black groups you can speak in a lot more code. there are a lot of things you can say when everybody gets the joke without you having to say this is what it means.
but it's the same approach in every case which is to be as accessible as possible and to make people feel comfortable that they're listening to someone that's not judging them. >> the book called the authors quote william allen who writes, the danger of continually thinking in terms of race or gender, he writes, until we learn once again to use the language of american freedom in an appropriate way that embraces all of us, we're going to continue to harm this country. you see a danger of divisiveness when we focus on the concept of black leadership? >> i don't. because it depends on what you mean by that. i think that when you look at where we've come in my lifetime, the fact that there is such a thing has black leadership and it's not completely defined by black folk voting for black folk it's quite remarkable and worth exploring and worth talking about why it is. and how we've come to this
point. that's the idea that it's somehow to talk to speak its name is to somehow be negative or to put us in a difficult position. we have to speak its name. it hasn't gone away. there is still a tremendous amount of -- and i hate the word racism because people get all worked up about that word, but it's a question of someone thinking that you're taking something from me. we got to talk about it. how did we even get to the point whether -- where we understand how we as a country are growing and how we are evolving unless we at least mention it and find out what it means. half the time we're speaking at cross purposes about what we mean when we say race. >> do you think that black leaders have an obligation to help other african-americans? is there a point at which that obligation ends and one can pursue his or her own professional ambitions, if you have an obligation to the race? does it stop sometime and you can go about your business?
>> no, it never stops. it only stops if you wake up the next day and you are no longer of color. i can't imagine it stopping. it's an obligation but it's not the same obligation for everyone. it doesn't mean you get up in the morning and put the bag of stones over your shoulder and say here i go on that uphill battle to save the people. everybody has a different role to play. you still have to always be clear about who you are and what your role is and how you got there. you didn't just land there by accident because someone decided you were great. often race played a factor positive and negative in whether you got that or will you didn't. just factor that into your thinking and keep going. >> or it may well have played a role as a motivator. >> absolutely. >> what do you see as your greatest contribution as an african-american leader? we've agreed you are a leader. >> if we must. i think it's being there. i think it's exploding myths about who we are. there are a lot of people for years who could very
conveniently fall into this notion of defining black folk as just being people on the street corner or people who don't know about anything or heroic. someone standing on the steps of the lincoln memorial or being an athletes but nothing in between. there aren't a whole lot of folk and i probably know them all, who do exactly what i do. and that explodes a whole notion about what journalism is, about what broadcast journalism is, about what someone who can speak for the country and asking someone who's running for president or vice president a question. my presence explodes a lot of notions. i'm very keen on that, about what limitations are and i don't really care if it explodes notions for people who were thinking the worst of black people. i care that it explodes notions for my god children and that they take it for granted that it's possible or that someone is
supposed to be in that chair or that when barack obama was elected and i said to my 12-year-old at the time, isn't it great? we have a black president. >> and he said, yeah, uh-huh, can i go play? we did what we did so he can say that and be impressed but not overly impressed by this. for him is life is a lot broader than that and not defined solely by that yet. he sees that there and that means there are possibilities and that's important. >> i'm surprised when you began speaking about this you said you didn't care as much if it exploded myths held by people who think poorly of you. why not? >> i just can't spend a whole lot of time -- >> i don't want to spend all your life -- >> i mean, there are people who are going to form opinions and expect you to spend your life proving to them that their opinions of you are wrong. i don't got time for that. a good examples before the vice presidential debate in 2008, a lot of people decided i was a
terribly, horrible biassed commentator because i was in the middle of writing a book in which barack obama was going to be a featured player, a book about race. i believe that they were more upset that i was writing a book about race than i was writing a book about barack obama. because it wasn't a book about barack obama. no one had seen it. i hadn't written it. i knew they were reacting to something else. and because they were reacting to something else and because i knew it was something to be incorrect and wrong i didn't spend a lot of time trying to prove to them i was fair. i just had to do the job. and i had to do the job and i had to do the job as much for myself as well as those who were nay sayers. >> did you think that some of those people may have been simply misinformed in having some information might have made them -- >> they were willfully misinformed. >> in his book "race matters," cornell west writes -- that's such a great title -- the crisis
of leadership is a symptom of black distance from a vibrant tradition of resistance from a vital community bonded by ethical ideals and from a credible sense of believable struggle. do you see a crisis of leadership similar to this and if you do, what makes that so? >> it's a crisis of leadership if you think that african-americans uniquely need to be led as if we need to anoint someone to take us from the wilderness. i think we're past that. i think we're at the point where it's a broader swath of leadership we're talking about. i consider leadership to be people who run for public office but also for people who open up storefront stores in area town which might not otherwise get commerce. i consider leadership to be volunteers who work with young girls. i consider leadership to be a broad range of things which
don't have to the with the '60s notion of the one guy leading -- or almost always the guide -- leading everyone else. so sure, if you say -- if your definition of leadership is a leader or a couple of leaders, maybe there's a crisis because that's not the lead in any more and because of the sacrifices and because of the things that the single and dual leaders did now we have this much broader idea. we have the luxury of having a broader idea of what leadership is. >> but isn't that '60s definition of leadership, just that a '60s definition and in an earlier period in american history and our history the definitions of people working with the girl scouts or working opening the store would have fit leadership more aptly and therefore that when we think about leadership we ought not just think about the '60s people. >> absolutely. we have to think about lots of ways in which we're -- i'm on a board of a politics -- institute
of politics -- at harvard where the students at harvard they're also doing a million different public service initiatives. now by doing public service initiatives, is that politics? is that our old definition of what politics is? no it's a new definition of what politics is. that's where young people are motivated to move and just the same way in our community we have to think about leadership in a broader sense which is not just about standing in a pulpit or standing at a podium. >> our society today, what kind of leaders does it demand? >> it demands moral examples as well as intellectual examples. it matters that the black family is in crisis and that when you have as a leader of the free world, a black man who's married to a black woman who two little black girls that sends a different message not only to the people who are the nay sayers who don't believe the black family's together but also
the people that are going to be the future black families that say, here's a standard that i can try to meet. it matters a great deal that we find a way to speak in a broader sense about what our problems are and not just have it all become a knee jerk, well i'm black so they did it to me. >> how can we foster the most effective leaders for the future? how can we make sure that whatever the definition we attach to them is that there are sufficient number of them trained, equipped and so on. >> the first thing we do is what you just discussed and raised which is broaden our notion of what leadership is. if we broaden our notion of a -- what leadership is then we can train people up to do a million different things which aren't just one narrow destination. you can -- part of it begins where my parents begin with a sense of possibility and then
the next part is the part of responsibility. you just don't go and make a lot of money for yourself and say look what i've done for the people, no. the next part is execution. and then what do you do and how do you do it. and then the entire -- the moral standard, the fact that you are there. the fact that you are -- as you live you're conscious especially if you're in a visible role, the fact that a lot of people are looking at the way you do things how you execute it and then trying to -- and hopefully you're setting a standard they can strive to meet. >> thank you. thank you for setting a high standard. thank you for being with us. >> thank you, julian. american history tv on c-span3 continues wednesday night with a look at appalachian history and culture including the 1870s moonshine wars. american history tv in primetime begins at 8:00 p.m. eastern on c-span3. it resulted in a naval
victory for the u.s. over japan just six months after the attack on pearl harbor. and friday, american history tv will be live all day from the macarthur memorial visitors center for the 75th anniversary of the battle of midway. the five star admirals who won the war at sea, elliot carlson with his book, the odyssey of the code breaker who outwitted yamamoto at midway. the co author of shattered sword and timothy orr, co author of never call me a hero. watch the battle of midway 75th anniversary special live from norfolk, virginia on friday beginning at 9:30 a.m. eastern on american history tv on
c-span3. elaine jones served as president and director of the naacp legal defense fund. elaine jones, thank you so much for doing this. welcome back to the university of virginia. >> it's good to be back. >> this is an exploration in leadership and i would like to start with your earliest years. it is difficult sometimes for people for them to be introspective. but you can from a household with a strong mother and a small father -- and a strong father, what effect they have on you? >> tremendous effect. there were three of us children and the older brother and younger sister. and it was a story of us at the
dinner table. mrz my mother and fatherable highly verbal people. they say opposites attract but that's not what happened there. at the dinner table each night, one of us, parents included, would have to defend ourselves. we would be taken to task by the other four of them. for something that happened that day or did not happen. you found yourself trying to sink or swim. it was a very active dinner table. the food was secondary. it was the conversation that was primary. and from the earliest i can remember, that happened. so when i was growing up in the segregated south and i saw the wrongs, i said to myself i have to do something about this.