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Tavis Smiley Book Signing: Accountable

March 3, 2009


I went to Tavis Smiley‘s book signing for his new book, Accountable: Making America as Good as its Promise.  He was a very engaging and passionate speaker. He positioned himself as an important, transformative, and influential figure in the African-American community, and the audience was largely African-American.  I used to watch his interviews with politicians and famous figures, and always thought he had a balanced and entertaining style.

Smiley spent the first part of his talk putting his new book into context.  It is essentially the third book in a trilogy; the first two were (loosely) targeted towards African-Americans, although he makes the point that their appeal is more general (otherwise, he claims, they would not have become New York Times Bestsellers).  The second part of his talk honed in on the specifics of his new book, which focuses on how we can hold our politicians (including President Obama) accountable for their words and actions.

Accountability, in addition to being the central theme of his new book, is the central theme of his career as a talk-show host.  Smiley stressed this point repeatedly — promoting accountability among public officials is what he claims to have always been the focus of his career.  It is something that says he applies consistently, even (or especially) to politicians he likes, such as Obama.  He talked about how sticking to his guns on accountability can get him into trouble, but that is no excuse for him to back down.  In particular, he recounted how last year, he ended up in a controversy over taking Obama to task for not attending his State of the Black Union event in New Orleans; to summarize the controversy, Obama at the time was campaigning in other states during the Democratic primaries, and thus couldn’t attend Tavis’ popular yearly conference.  (Hillary Clinton did attend the conference.)  Tavis took this as a sign that Obama was not giving due importance to Black issues.  Because of Obama’s extreme popularity among the Black community, Tavis’ perceived “disloyalty” led to substantial backlash against him, to an extent he did not expect.  Smiley pointed out that he tries to hold every politician accountable, whether he personally supports them or not, whether they are friends of his or not.  For instance he said how he had taken his friend Bill Clinton to task over the Sister Souljah moment, and Al Gore to task for the way he avoided recounts in certain Black districts in Florida during the 2000 election, to avoid tinging the recount effort with “race”.

Smiley recounted numerous entertaining anecdotes.  Among them was one about just how unknown Obama was only a few years ago.  During the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Obama, who was just an unknown state senator from Illinois, was not allowed into the convention — he had to cajole his way just to get into the building.  Four years later, he was the keynote speaker at the DNC in Boston.  Four more years and he was nominated Democratic candidate for President of the United States.

One of Smiley’s strong beliefs is that if you love a candidate, it becomes all the more important to hold him accountable.  Great presidents are not born, they are made, he claimed.  In particular, he feels that politicians must be pushed and escorted into greatness by holding their feet to the fire.  He was emphatic that the current state of the world is fertile ground for achieving greatness — all of the chaos and crises facing the world gives Obama the chance to shine.  It is only a chance though, and there is no guarantee that he will succeed. But if he does, then he will have secured his status among the Great Presidents.  Tavis mused that Bill Clinton probably regrets not having had the opportunity to prove his greatness, not having been faced by global crises of the sort facing us today.  He ended by reminding us that it is up to all of us to hold our politicians accountable, and in doing so, perhaps elevating some to greatness.

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