There came a day, many years ago, when I took my assigned seat on a Delta flight and a man seated to my left was easily recognizable. It was Andrew Young, then the Mayor of Atlanta. He seemed eager to talk, to swap stories and jokes for the first half of the flight. He would never remember this but during the second half of the leg into Atlanta, I was thrilled to be able to talk to him pointedly about black and white human beings throughout the country who deeply love one another, religious bias, how people hate what they do not know, and other such things that have endeared him to me ever since.
Last Sunday – seven days from yesterday – Ambassador Young appeared on “Meet The Press” with another I have admired from afar for years, J.C. Watts. In the late ‘70s, Watts was a wishbone quarterback at Oklahoma who led the Sooners to back-to-back Orange Bowl victories. More unbelievably, he was a Baptist preacher who at one time was one of two minority members in Congress and, on top of that, he was a conservative!
Now, consider this fact: I’ll guarantee you not five percent of us waste our precious moments on a Sunday watching “Meet The Press.” It is a talk show for old curmudgeons who can no longer get out of their chairs. That, in itself, is a minor tragedy because Sunday a week ago they had two of my heroes who said more in 15 minutes than anybody else said all week.
So today allow me a “re-run.” I have gotten a transcript, courtesy of NBC News, of what J.C. Watts and Andrew Young said following the debacle in Charlottesville. Remember, this tape was just a week after a girl was killed in what is now proving to be a horribly mismanaged catastrophe.
Host Chuck Todd admitted he was perplexed that day when not one – not one – Republican member of Congress had the fortitude to come on the show and talk about the party’s response to the Charlottesville tragedy. Hello! So he got in touch with Watts – not one to flinch – and blended Watts’ views into an interview with my 85-year-old friend Andrew Young, a true American statesman who I so admire. I love this:
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CHUCK TODD: Well, let me ask you that question. Why do you think -- why is it easier for you to come out and speak out? The conversation you and I had earlier in the week. You’re here this morning. Why do you think so many of your former colleagues, who currently are the leaders of the Republican Party, are hesitant?
FMR. REP. J.C. WATTS: Well, Chuck, as I said to you earlier in the week, I’m not concerned about what others are thinking or what they’re saying. My conscience would not allow me to keep quiet, and when I was asked my thoughts on this issue, I chose to speak out simply because I think all presidents have what we call -- what I call -- “right-now moments.”
Inevitably, Republicans, Democrats, every president is going to have a “right-now moment” and I think President Trump had a right-now moment last weekend, and I don’t think he responded the right way. Now, he probably disagrees with that. But I don’t think he responded the right way.
Rev. Martin Luther King said I am an heir to rape, rope, fire and murder. And he said, “I’m not angry about that. I’m not ashamed of that.” He said, “I’m ashamed of those that would be so inhumane that they would do that to other human beings.”
And I think that when circumstances like last weekend happen, I think we need moral clarity. A president speaks for himself, for his values, in those “right-now moments” and he speaks to -- he speaks for the values of our country. And you saw the exodus of many people on the business council, who resigned, who said those are not my personal values, those are not our corporate values, and those -- we don’t believe -- are the values of our country.
We had someone from the president’s faith council that resigned, Rev. Bernard out of New York. I’m quite disappointed, Chuck, that we didn’t have more --
CHUCK TODD: Wow.
FMR. REP. J.C. WATTS: -- on the faith council to resign or at least speak out. And so I just felt like when you asked me “Would I?” I said that I would be delighted to come and share my thoughts.
CHUCK TODD: Let me ask you this. It sounds like you think the president has, at least temporarily, lost moral authority. How does he regain it?
FMR. REP. J.C. WATTS: Well, Chuck, I think any president always has to have -- having multiple advisers and counselors -- I think that is critically important. And not only should you have them, you should listen to them. I don’t know of anyone that’s in his inner circle that would be able to say to him “Mr. President, when it comes to civil rights, when it comes to race issues, let me give you some hindsight, some insight and some foresight on these issues. And I just don’t know if there’s -- now, he may have and he just doesn’t listen to them.
But in the last seven months, he’s had more than one “right-now moment,” and when you continue to give the impression that you don’t understand the magnitude of being the president, being the leader of the free world, and you espouse that not only are those your values, but those are the values for your country, people around -- not just people in the United States -- but people around the world take note.
CHUCK TODD: It feels like we’re stuck. The party’s stuck politically. We’re a little bit stuck as a country. If what you’re saying about the president -- and I think you’re not alone in being concerned about this -- how are we going to get unstuck if the president doesn’t either repudiate his comments or at least take some step in the direction to at least acknowledge that some people misheard him, to be generous?
FMR. REP. J.C. WATTS: Chuck, first of all, one thing I will agree with President Trump on is this: the racial divide didn’t just happen when Donald Trump got elected. They didn’t just happen when President Obama got elected. I think they were probably heightened. I think they were probably intensified under President Obama and I think they carried over into the Trump administration.
But nevertheless J.C. Watts as an elected official, as a leader if you will, or President Trump or President Obama, we all have obligations as leaders to not put salt in the wound, to bring a decency and a respect to the table to say, “Look, we’re going to call evil what it is. We’re going to stare evil down.”
And when you’ve got people who feel like “My two-year-old granddaughter, because of her skin color, would say she should be eradicated or that she shouldn’t be on the face of the earth or we don’t want to live in harmony with her.
Chuck, she doesn’t even know those people. And again, when any of us speak to the side of evil or we maybe unintentionally give the impression that we’re siding with the evil, that’s a tough ditch to get out of.
CHUCK TODD: If you were still serving in Congress, and you were in leadership, how would you handle President Trump right now? Would you still try to work with him? Would you -- if he doesn’t repudiate, would you just sort of have this uncomfortable distance from him? I mean, what’s your advice to Paul Ryan, to Mitch McConnell, to these folks?
FMR. REP. J.C. WATTS: Well, first of all, Chuck, I think there’s been ample opportunity -- to use your word -- to repudiate the president over the last seven, eight months and obviously during the campaign.
But he got elected, so he’s the president.
And over the last seven months there’s been ample opportunity to disagree with the president on many issues and this is not a time for us to be afraid of being tweeted. This is not a time for us to suppress our convictions. I know a lot of those members of Congress and they don’t think like that. They don’t think how the white supremacists or the KKK think. However, Chuck, if they’re silent, they wear the cap saying, intentionally or unintentionally, they wear the cap of saying, “We agree with that.”
And thank God for Ben Sasse and Rand Paul and John McCain and Lindsey Graham, you know, those members that have come out to say we totally disagree with that. That’s not who we are. That’s not the country that we live in. And it’s not the party that we want to represent.
CHUCK TODD: Alright, J.C. Watts, I’m going to leave it there, former republican congressman from Oklahoma. Good to see you, sir. Thanks for coming on. Appreciate it.
FMR. REP. J.C. WATTS: Chuck, thank you.
CHUCK TODD: You got it.
Yesterday I spoke with one of the early leaders of the civil rights movement, Andrew Young. He was executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the SCLC. Afterwards, of course, he was also the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter.
He was a congressman and a two-term mayor of Atlanta, and today he's chairman of the Andrew J. Young Foundation. When I spoke with Mr. Young, I began by asking him to put this past week in context.
FMR. AMB. ANDREW YOUNG: Well, it’s a week of misunderstandings. We originally sought to redeem the soul of America from the triple evils of race, war and poverty. Most of the issues that we’re dealing with now are related to poverty. But we still want to put everything in a racial context.
The problem with the – and the reason I feel uncomfortable condemning the Klan types is – they are almost the poorest of the poor. They are the forgotten Americans. And, um, they have been used and abused and neglected.
Instead of giving them affordable health care, they give them black lung jobs, and they’re happy. And that just doesn’t make sense in today’s world. And they see progress in the black community and on television and everywhere and they don’t share it. Now it’s not our fault. We’ve had a struggle from slavery.
But black – while they call themselves militants, but they’re not militants, they’re chicken – we never tried to take advantage of anybody else. Our job was not to put down white people. Our job was to lift everybody up together. To come--so that we would learn to live together as brothers and sisters rather than perish together as fools.
CHUCK TODD: It feels like we’re in a moment where we’re stuck and we’re stuck for a lot of reasons. And the, and the president – you have, some have even said, there’s a growing cabal of folks who believe he has already lost his moral authority to be a healer in all of this, to help with reconciliation in all of this because of what he did on Tuesday.
FMR. AMB. ANDREW YOUNG: I don’t know what I would say because I think he’s caught in a trap. I don’t think there are any easy answers.
CHUCK TODD: What’s the trap?
FMR. AMB. ANDREW YOUNG: The trap is that he’s still politicking and thinking nationally, as a nationalist, and so is almost everybody else, including those who are trying to think back and blame it on the Civil War, which was hundreds of years ago. But the problem we have is that we’re not living in a nationalist environment. And that’s also his problem, personally, that he’s-- his business is all global. His business is in a global economy and he’s trying to the run the country from a national economy.
CHUCK TODD: You just said, you don’t know what, quite--you don’t know how he can get out of his trap. So what would you say to him now if he’s asking you for help?
FMR. AMB. ANDREW YOUNG: I don’t know. But for instance I think that he made a mistake in thinking that living was easy and it just is not. I mean, it’s hell to pass a bill. It’s hell to change an attitude. It’s hell. And almost any changes and -- I tell you what -- I admire his family. And I think that the thing that the president has to do is think of the American people, all of us, as his family. And I try to think of him as a potential leader, not only of the United States of America, but a leader of the free world and of the enslaved world.
CHUCK TODD: You come from the non-violence movement. That was successful. What do you say to those activists, two generations later who think violence is the right way to go?
FMR. AMB. ANDREW YOUNG: No it’s more like five generations later and there were those who thought violence was that right way then. And they aren’t around and they weren’t killed by white people. They were killed by their own anger and frustration and their inability to turn down their emotions and turn on their mind.
And, from 4-years-old I was always taught--my father use to tap me in the face to try to get me upset and if I swung back at him he would slap me upside my head. He said see, if you start getting emotional in a fight, you’re gonna lose the fight. Don‘t get mad, get smart. And that’s been serving--that served me well.
And it served me walking in the midst of the Klan alone at night without a gun, without police protection, and the only reason I did it was because the only ones that were courageous enough to go there with me and who insisted that I go were women and children. The men, you know, hide behind militant solutions, but we have to keep our eyes on the prize - and the prize is not vengeance, not getting even, but the prize is redemption.
CHUCK TODD: By the way, I also asked Mr. Young about the Confederate symbol debate. And he said removing these symbols can sometimes be more trouble than it's worth. He even cited the Georgia flag controversy in the early part of this 21st century. He said because of that, the state lost millions and millions of dollars.
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“Don’t get mad, get smart … the prize is not vengeance … not getting even … the prize is redemption …” How I wish more of our nation could have watched “Meet the Press” a week ago.