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The Tuesday Ten: An Interview with Rep. John Lewis

By Asher Smith Posted: 04/21/2008
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1) As a superdelegate who recently de-aligned with Sen. Hillary Clinton and committed to Sen. Barack Obama, do you think most of the undecided superdelegates will heed the advice of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and align themselves with whichever Democratic candidate leads in pledged delegates?

I do think the great majority of the superdelegates will be supporting the Democratic candidate who has earned the majority of pledged delegates.

2) To what degree did the tactics and rhetoric of the Clinton campaign influence your decision to align yourself with Sen. Obama?

The rhetoric and tactics of the Clinton campaign had little or no effect in moving to me to endorse Sen. Barack Obama. I endorsed Sen. Obama because I realized that he was a part of a much larger movement of the American people and that his candidacy was consistent with what I’ve been fighting and struggling for all of my life, to bring people together and create a truly interracial democracy in America.

3) With your wealth of experience fighting for civil rights, how did you view the reactions to Sen. Obama’s recent speech urging a “national conversation’”on race?

I believe that Sen. Barack Obama’s recent speech about creating a national discussion on race was a significant step toward engaging this country in a broader conversation about the issues of race that still trouble American society today.

4) Would you have handled the situation regarding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who Sen. Obama refused to denounce, differently?

I would not have handled it any differently. I think Sen. Obama did what he had to do, and I think what he did was right.

5) You were one of the first major House figures to suggest impeaching George W. Bush. Why do you feel that this argument never gained traction?

Actually, I did not call for a unilateral impeachment of President Bush. What I suggested was that if he were found to have systematically and deliberately violated the rights of individuals in our society, that the Congress should consider the impeachment process. However, I think that most people believed the country was not willing to submit to another long, drawn-out and painful debate on impeaching the president.

6) Do you feel that our nation was short-changed by not engaging in that debate?

That’s difficult to assess. In a democratic system, the majority rules and there was not sufficient public or political will to pursue the process.

7) Which political figures that you served with have you most admired?

The political figure I most admired was a man I did not serve with in the Congress, but I got to know this politician during his lifetime. His name was Robert Kennedy. I think the political figure with whom I served that I admired the most was the late Claude Pepper of Florida. He was a man of great courage, skill, know-how and a man of integrity.

8) Almost two years after the midterm elections what would you say is the biggest advantage you yourself gained following the Democratic takeover in the House?

Under this Democratic majority, I have been elevated to chairman of the subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Ways and Means Committee. The Ways and Means Committee has oversight over important areas of American life including taxes, Social Security, and Medicare. Also, my role as majority Senior Chief Deputy Whip gives me the ability to guide meaningful pieces of legislation out of my subcommittee, out of the full committee, and with the help of the Democratic leadership, to bring them to the floor of the House for a vote. I have a much greater opportunity to pass legislation that benefits my district [which includes Emory University] than I have ever had before.

9) During your tenure as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman you were sometimes critical of the Kennedy administration’s tentative handling of the Civil Rights issue. Do you feel the comparisons between Sen. Obama and President Kennedy are accurate, or do you believe that there exists any better historical comparison that could be made of Sen. Obama?

I think Sen. Obama has emerged as a national politician who inspires and moves people in a manner that is similar to President Kennedy. At the time of his presidency, Kennedy was new to the whole question of civil rights and race. He had never been tried and tested on these issues, and he did not want to do anything to offend Southern Democrats. Since then, however, we have come such a distance and made so much progress. I think Sen. Obama’s background and history should make it easier for him to be a leader in the area of civil rights.

10) What more do you think could have been accomplished by the Civil Rights Movement had Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy not been assassinated in 1968?

If both Dr. King and Sen. Robert Kennedy had lived, this nation would have made much greater progress toward the building of a truly interracial democracy, and I believe it would be much closer to the building of a Beloved Community — a nation not polarized or locked in struggle, but a nation at peace with itself.

—E-mail Interview by Editorials Editor Asher Smith

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