Tavis Smiley ignited fireworks last month when he penned a commentary accusing black leaders – Al Sharpton, Ben Jealous, Marc Morial, Dorothy Height, Professor Charles Ogletree and Valerie Jarrett – of singing the song that President Obama does not need to focus on a black agenda.
“I must have missed that choir rehearsal, J., because I don’t know the words to this new hymn,” Tavis proclaimed. “The president doesn’t need a black agenda, they sing. He’s not the president of Black America; he’s the president of all America, and he need not focus specifically on the unique challenges Black America is facing, they sing.”
During one of his recent shows, Sharpton said not only was Tavis off-key, he cited the wrong lyrics.
“First of all, we never said that,” an enraged Sharpton told Smiley. “And second of all, the New York Times never said we said that.”
Sharpton said he placed a call to Tavis and did not get a return call. And when Tavis unexpectedly called Sharpton’s syndicated radio show, the civil rights leader issued a scorching point-by-point rebuttal.
Tavis kept saying how much he loved Sharpton and no matter what Sharpton does, he can’t diminish Tavis’ love for him. Sharpton basically said, “What’s love got to do with it?” and proceeded to dismantle Tavis’ feeble defense. Tavis Smiley essentially showed up for a battle of wits unarmed.
For the record, I’ve never been a Tavis fan. I think he is a poor interviewer who has more style than substance. No journalist worth his or her salt makes the question in an interview longer than the answer. But Tavis is not a journalist. Never has been one. And it shows.
Until now, I’ve never mentioned Tavis’ name in print. But now that he has publicly questioned the integrity of civil rights leaders he formerly courted, it’s time to place some additional things on the record.
When I was editor of Emerge magazine, I got a call from Deborah Tang, his producer and one of my longtime friends. “Tavis wants to be on the cover of Emerge,” she said. I thought Deborah was joking and replied, “People in hell want ice water.” She continued, “George, I’m serious. Can we go to lunch to talk about it?”
Realizing that she wasn’t joking, I asked, “Has Tavis ever read Emerge? If he had, he would already know that he’ll never be on the cover of Emerge.” Tang persisted until I told her that I could afford my own lunch and there was no need to waste time discussing the prospect of Tavis being on the cover of Emerge.
I chalked the exchange up to Tavis’ oversized ego and didn’t think about it again until more than five years later when two producers on Tavis’ radio show independently asked me if I knew I was on Tavis’ secret hit list. I replied that I didn’t know that Tavis kept such a list. Each producer told me in separate conversations that they had suggested using me to discuss stories on his radio show and were later taken aside by other staffers and informed that I would never be on his show because I had done something in the past to offend Tavis.
When told that I had offended Tavis, I searched my memory but came up with a blank. Tavis and I were always cordial when we met in public. We were neither friends nor enemies. At least, I didn’t consider him an enemy. I was never a fan of his in any sense of the word. I was never invited to any of his dog and pony shows and never wanted to participate in them.
The nation got a glimpse of Tavis being a legend in his own mind during the presidential election. In 2008, he asked candidate Barack Obama to participate in one of his town hall self-promotions in Louisiana, a state that he had already carried two weeks earlier. Hillary Clinton, seeking to win over more black voters, accepted Tavis’ invitation. Obama, trailing Clinton in Texas, declined to attend but offered to send his wife, Michelle. Tavis rejected the offer as well as a second plea from Obama that Michelle participate. Consequently, many of Tavis’ previous followers on Tom Joyner turned against him, prompting him to quit the show.
Tavis likes to pretend public opinion turned against him because he had the gall to stand up to Barack Obama. No, people were more disappointed that he was eager to lie down for Hillary Clinton. And he still lies down for the Clintons, even calling Bill the nation’s first black president.
Tavis’ testy exchange with Al Sharpton is merely exposing a side of him that others of us had already experienced. It’s a pity that he chose to be so petty.
George E. Curry is former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service.