Columnist and longtime Fox News correspondent Juan Williams, 60, author of “Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary,” “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965” and “Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate,” will discuss the Civil Rights Act and events leading to its passage 50 years ago during an “On Topic” interview with Baylor University President and Chancellor Ken Starr beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday in Waco Hall on campus. In an interview with the Tribune-Herald in advance of this event that reveals his willingness to critique both liberal and conservative stances, Williams discusses the gradual erosion of the Civil Rights Act in recent times; his evaluation of the George W. Bush presidency; the wave of anti-government fervor most recently displayed in Nevada involving rancher Cliven Bundy and federal law enforcement; and his working relationship with others at Fox News.
Q First, let me compliment you on your brand of commentary. One can pretty well guess how a Sean Hannity or a Rachel Maddow is going to come down on any given issue, but you’ve long been a wild card who defies predictability or knee-jerk ideology of the left or right. Is that because of research and deep thought or just plain contrariness?
A That’s an interesting question. In a lot of ways, I’m like a Forrest Gump character crossing a lot of journalistic experiences. I mean, when I started out in journalism, I was trained as a newspaper reporter. The first newspaper I worked for was an afternoon daily. We don’t even have afternoon dailies in the United States anymore. Then I went to the Washington Post, which was a morning paper, and of course morning papers are in decline now. And then I went to this Friday news and review show, then CNN, then radio and now I do TV and, of course, in the midst of all that, the Internet. So I’ve crossed lots of platforms in this business. But today I think a lot of it has to do (with the fact that) people (on TV) are largely personalities who drive the ratings in prime time and I’m still a guy who believes in looking at what the facts show us and what we are able to discern, even if it may not please everyone. I’m afraid that this sounds self-serving, but that’s who I am and that’s what I try to do. I want people to feel that if they give me their attention, it’s worth their time.
Q Oldtime politicians often ruminate on how badly things have changed on Capitol Hill, that lawmakers from different parties or ideologies no longer socialize with one another, that everything is about raising money and political posturing. Has the news media also changed?
A It’s changed so radically. As a young person in this business I recall reading a book called “The Boys on the Bus,” by Timothy Crouse, and it talked about the deans of Washington journalism being people like David Broder. Those people were part of the political media establishment in this town and the TV and radio people fed off the news reporting and the news columnists, who had this higher level of associations and contacts with the political establishment. All that has been thrown topsy-turvy because what drives Washington now is largely the cable news. So what you see if somebody is running for office or trying to raise money, which is the essence of all activity, they don’t care what the mainstream media — and by that they mean the newspapers — think. They care about talk radio or cable channels that appeal to people who would vote in their primaries. So you get people appealing to a very specific audience and that cable audience has people anchoring or hosting who are trying to affirm pre-existing opinions on their part, because that’s what people want. They don’t want to hear the other side. That’s a huge change. The culture that I came up in was one where great journalists had a saying: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Well, now, that too has been tossed on its head. Now it’s that you just affirm for the comfortable whatever their position is so they can feel comfortable with their position.
Q Putting aside extremists on either side of the political spectrum, most Americans say they’re pretty fed up with gridlock. If you look through history you can find other difficult periods, but is this one different in your opinion?
A I remember once having a conversation with Don Rumsfeld, former secretary of defense, and I was saying, “Boy, things are terrible up on the Hill.” I know almost all of the senators and some of the congressmen and none of them really knows what one another is up to. It’s like they live in separate universes. When I first came into this town and came into contact with those people, they were one. I mean, these were guys who played ball together at the gym and their families got together on the weekends. That just doesn’t exist anymore. And let me just say, Obama is part of this paralysis. He doesn’t want anything to do with them. So nobody’s talking to anybody. They’re talking only to their base but nobody else. Given that you’re from Texas, there’s all this romance and nostalgia for President Johnson and the fact he could make deals with conservatives, that he could be persuasive in getting them to do what he wanted them to do. But the reason he could is because he knew those folks, he knew their kids, he knew their wives’ names. Now everyone is just a caricature to others, so to some conservative congressman, another guy might be just a wacko lefty. It’s not “Jim” anymore. And they use that person as a piñata to beat them up for fund-raising or to stir their own constituency. And that’s not hyperbole, that’s true. Now, when I told this to Rumsfeld, he said, “Oh, stop! Back in the 1960s the town was burning and we had students on the college campuses being shot with the Vietnam protests and it was a terrible time and there were lots of questions about government authority.” And you think about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers and all that, and the kind of reporting by then coming out of Vietnam, making the nation’s leaders out to be liars — well, for him, that was the pits, the low point. But even then, even when you had Nixon and Watergate and all that stuff going on, the Congress was productive. You could get bills through. You saw people working together. You saw respect for the idea of leadership, not just a perpetual political campaign.
Q You did a landmark, much-praised biography of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Given the work of the court when he was on it, how does it rank alongside the Supreme Court today? I mean, do you think Justice Marshall is spinning in his grave?
A I don’t think there’s much doubt about that, especially with the decision (last) week on the referendum in Michigan saying that the state should have its rights protected, but when it comes to the rights of the minority, they don’t have any protection from a referendum vote that would potentially obviate their rights (Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action). Now I say that with some caution, because what Justice (Anthony) Kennedy in particular said was that we’re not talking about individual rights for the minority but rather classifying them as a group. And as a result, he thinks the general public should have the right to say this is what we believe public policy should be with regard to racial neutrality and it does contradict earlier Supreme Court decisions about busing and things. Marshall was all about trying to get the courts to say that a constitution that allowed slavery, legal segregation and the enforcement of racial boundaries in our society that oppressed one racial group — that constitution should also be about repairing that damage. And to suddenly say we all need to be color blind and respect equal rights, 14th Amendment rights, as indicating that there can be no awareness of racial difference, is to invite a blindness to the realities of racial difference in our society.
Q We’re seeing a lot of anti-government fervor these days, most recently with this armed standoff involving a rancher in Nevada grazing his cattle on federal land but refusing to recognize federal custody of that land and refusing to pay his grazing fees. And Wisconsin Republicans are talking about their right to secede. Is all this because we have a black president and some people can’t handle it or do we have a serious problem of federal overreach and intrusion into personal lives and business?
A I don’t think it’s one way or the other. I don’t think that’s a fair way to frame the discussion. I mean, when you think about government overreach, I think about something like the creation of Medicare. And people didn’t react that way (when Medicare was created); they didn’t say, “Oh, my God, this is Big Government gone wild!” Nobody said that. To the contrary, people thought this was an effort to make a better or great society. But today the way that it’s interpreted by the critics is it’s government interfering with your life. I think there’s more than a little bit of irony in the fact that so many of the people who are opposed to the Affordable Care Act are the same people who will tell you that they don’t want the government to interfere with their Medicare or Medicaid provisions. I just think we’re in a very different time. The partisanship is so much higher. I don’t think LBJ would be able to get something like Medicare through right now. And remember it was just 2003 that President Bush did Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit, and I didn’t hear anyone say, “This is government going wild!” Now, yes, people talked about the funding or what this was going to do to the deficit, but nobody said, “This is more big government and they’re going to be telling us what to do!” Yet that is the heart and soul of the critique of the Affordable Care Act. So when you ask me, “Hey, is this about the fact Obama is black?” — well, I don’t see how you can get away from that being one part of the conversation. I think there are people who are just uncomfortable. There are just a lot of people out there who are concerned about the growth and size of government, taxation, and I’m not quick to dismiss their concerns at all. Now in the Cliven Bundy case, he indicted himself with his racial rhetoric.
Q Our newspaper operates a dozen or so miles from President George W. Bush’s former Western White House. The former president is given to saying many of us will be dead by the time history has rendered its judgment on his two-term administration. Care to hazard an opinion on how he ranks before then?
A Oh, sure. I think he’ll be seen as a president who tried to do his best under a very, very adverse and crazy situation, which was largely 9/11, which sort of hijacked his agenda. One of the things that often gets dismissed in assessments of the second President Bush is that he came with an agenda suggesting he was going to be a compassionate conservative, that he was going to be a different kind of conservative. I think that’s what brought him to the point that, while he didn’t win the total vote against Al Gore (in the 2000 election), it brought him close. And I think that was it, because otherwise I think Gore would’ve won by even more. But I think the whole thing was he had worked with Democrats in Texas and was able to extract a record number of votes from minorities there and wanted to be a different kind of president. I think 9/11 and Dick Cheney changed a lot of that. I think history will record that he was in a reactive mode, that he was trying to dance on the fly as events were moving at breakneck pace, that he was trying to cover all his bases so that he wouldn’t be like Clinton, who didn’t take bin Laden out earlier. History will record that a lot of things went wrong but they’ll also have a sense of how desperate and difficult that situation was.
Q You’ve worked for newspapers, CNN, for a long while with NPR and now with Fox. What’s that like for someone who doesn’t fit any ideological mold easily?
A One of the ironies of my life being a child of the 1950s — and I’m 60 years old — was I always thought the Archie Bunkers were all on the right. You know, those people who were close-minded. But one of the most amazing things to me is that people on the left are so intolerant that if you vary from their orthodoxy in any way, you’re viewed as a traitor, especially when you factor in race. Like when I say, “I don’t think some of our black leaders are serving black people very well,” you can be condemned by folks on the left. I’ve found it personally painful. In terms of Fox and people on the right, I have found that even though they disagree with me, they’re more than willing to allow me to speak my mind. I’m appreciative of it. I think that’s a good thing. I think it allows for a free-flowing debate and discussion that is so important to our media.
Q Given all the gridlock and political posturing of the day, are you optimistic about anything in Washington?
A At the moment, it’s a pretty dark picture and my sense going into elections this fall is we’re still operating in that framework where people on the left are afraid of people who are even more left than they are and people who are on the right are afraid of people who are more right-wing. Nobody talks to anybody. Everything is about this perpetual campaign. Even an issue such as the one I’m coming down to Baylor to talk about — the Civil Rights Act — it just couldn’t happen in this era. If you’ll recall, President Johnson took a lot of risks and he knew punishment was coming, but he was able to get Republicans and Democrats to achieve history. Couldn’t have done it without Republican support. And that’s just impossible these days. It’s a fantasy.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.