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Obama Not Feelin’ the Love from Smiley

BY Laura S. Washington

Talk show host Tavis Smiley is putting Barack Obama in a no-win position, going after the presidential candidate for apparently upstaging him.

Now that Sen. Barack Obama has taken care of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Tavis Smiley appears to be the next black contender for an ‘08 smackdown with the presidential candidate. But this time, black folks are taking care of it on their own.

Obama’s April was a month full of stormy Mondays, thanks to Wright, the senator’s former spiritual adviser and longtime pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side. Obama’s campaign endured a hail- storm as the controversial preacher dominated the cable talk fests, a presidential debate and multiple news cycles.

Wright’s April 28 appearance before the Washington Press Club provoked Obama to do something he should have done more than a year ago – deep-six Wright and his anti-American rantings.

Now, it’s Tavis’ turn.

In the last decade Tavis Smiley, a self-appointed spokesman for black America, has morphed from a little-known mouth at Black Entertainment Television into a one-man multimedia machine. Smiley hosts a nightly talk show on PBS, a weekly program on Public Radio International, writes and publishes books, runs a foundation and mounts museum exhibits. That’s just the short list.

His website, TavisTalks.com, pitches his branding slogan: “Enlighten, Encourage, Empower.” He wants black people, as he puts it, to “feel the love.”

He also knows how to bring in the bucks. Some of America’s best-known corporate monoliths have backed his enterprises: Allstate Insurance, ExxonMobil, McDonald’s, Verizon, Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo.

But lately, Smiley has run into a bit of trouble with the love. The Internet has been sizzling with commentary about Smiley’s big dis of the Democratic presidential wannabe.

It all started at Hampton University in Virginia, at Smiley’s 2007 State of the Black Union confab – an annual series of discussions Smiley has with some of the biggest names in black America.

Smiley, it seems, was ticked when C-SPAN’s broadcast of the conference was interrupted for the kickoff of Obama’s presidential campaign in Springfield, Ill. He went on to preside over a lot of grousing among participants, like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Princeton Professor Cornel West.

Back then, I dropped a dime on Smiley for his backbiting of Obama. I noted that Obama wouldn’t take the White House by pandering to the Smileys and the Sharptons. The race men don’t care if Obama gets anywhere – unless they get a piece of the action.

Cut to February 2008: Time for another State of the Black Union. Smiley extended an invitation to Obama but, again, Obama was rather busy – this time immersed in a brutal Democratic primary battle with Sen. Hillary Clinton.

In a letter responding to the invite, Obama praised Smiley’s conference: “The exchange of ideas raised at this annual symposium are invaluable as our nation strives to address the critical issues facing not just African Americans, but Americans of every race, background and political party,” he wrote.

However, Obama added, he must concentrate on the crucial March 4 primaries. “In the final stretch, I will be on the campaign trail every day in states like Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin, talking directly with voters about the causes that are at the heart of my campaign and the State of the Black Union forum.”

Smiley made his displeasure clear and gave Clinton a prominent role in the event. “I think it’s a missed opportunity on Mr. Obama’s part,” Smiley told CNN at the time. “Now, I am not interested in demonizing him for his choice, but I do disagree with it.”

Smiley’s pique has turned off many of his fans. The talk show host says he has been barraged with angry e-mails, and he told the Washington Post that he has even received death threats. “I have family in Indianapolis. They are harassing my momma, harassing my brother. It’s getting to be crazy,” Smiley said.

Black people are no longer feeling the love.

That’s the problem. It’s all about Smiley. Until Obama landed on the national scene, Smiley was enjoying an oversized media profile as an arbiter of African-American culture, values and politics. Now, like Wright, the possibility of America’s first black president is overshadowing his oversized ego.

Like Wright, Smiley is putting Obama in a no-win position. And he is beginning to wear out his welcome with the black folks.

Those corporate sponsors may not be far behind.

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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