Smiley keeps working for a better America

February 23, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

What makes Tavis Smiley run? That question has intrigued me ever since I met him 11 years ago in Los Angeles. He was 31 and a failed City Council candidate but a popular radio commentator, often the last refuge of failed politicians.

Back then, he had just written a book of commentary and Time magazine had named him one of "50 Young Americans to Watch."

Yet he was seeking my advice. "How do you do it?" he asked, wondering how I juggled a newspaper column, TV appearances, radio commentaries, my family and my sanity. (I'll tell ya, kid, it ain't easy.)

Actually, I had little of value to offer him but my best wishes. He was already becoming nationally famous with black audiences on Tom Joyner's hugely successful radio program. BET had just hired him to host a nightly news-talk program. He was way ahead of me. Within a few months, I would be asking him for advice.

Fast forward. Today, Mr. Smiley's fame has grown, and so has his unusual brand of leadership: part pitchman, part political activist, part Oprah.

He has published almost a dozen books.

He hosts celebrity-studded talk shows on public television and radio.

He has founded a foundation and has organized eight annual "State of the Black Union" symposiums hosted by Mr. Joyner and him and broadcast on C-SPAN.

The 2005 forum led to The Covenant with Black America, a book of essays by activists and other experts on what Mr. Smiley describes as "how to make black America better." The Covenant soared to the top of The New York Times best-sellers list without help from Oprah Winfrey's book club, the Today show or virtually any other publicity but Mr. Smiley's tireless pitchmanship.

Now its sequel, The Covenant in Action, enters the Times' paperback best-sellers list at No. 14.

Fast forward again. The Public Broadcasting Service has announced a new triumph for Mr. Smiley. He will host two unprecedented televised debates by both parties' presidential candidates on historically black college campuses. Questions at the "forums," as Mr. Smiley prefers to call them, will focus on issues raised by the Covenant books. The Democratic candidates will meet June 28 at Howard University in Washington. The Republican forum will follow Sept. 27 at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

For Mr. Smiley, the candidate forums are another dream come true, after much prodding and cajoling of party leaders, the network and others. "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired," he told me, quoting an old civil rights era slogan on his way to a Covenant-related town hall meeting in Chicago. "[I'm] always hoping that one of those questions at a presidential debate would be about something of concern to us [black Americans]."

True enough. It's significant to Mr. Smiley that the Covenant's success came after Hurricane Katrina.

He may be too polite to say it, but I think the book's popularity is a measure of growing black frustration with the shortcomings of our leaders, whether they are elected or media-anointed.

What makes Mr. Smiley run, I asked.

"The short answer is that God gives every one of us a gift," he answered. "And for every gift, he also provides a corresponding need. When your gift finds its need, you are fulfilling your purpose. I'm trying to fulfill my purpose, wherever it may be."

Sounds like he has been asked that question before.

Mr. Smiley does have gifts, especially the gift of gab. If his gifts can help us to shake loose from outdated and ineffective models of leadership, more power to him. After all, "when you make black America better," as he likes to say, "you make America better."

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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