Juan Williams at ACLU dinner 

Juan Williams goes both ways politically — sometimes liberal, sometimes conservative, usually outspoken, often controversial.

As a commentator for National Public Radio and Fox News, how could he be anything but?

So it's fitting that he's in town Friday night to speak at the ACLU of Indiana's annual dinner, since civil liberties is one area where thoughtful liberals and conservatives sometimes find common ground.

"It's not just liberals who have problems with something like the Patriot Act," Williams said in a phone interview. "It's not just liberals who are concerned about transparency in the government and release of things like the torture memos. In my experience, this crosses your normal ideological lines. In Indiana, my understanding is that the ACLU is doing pretty well. I think this is an opportunity to celebrate that and to celebrate the idea that people stand for civil liberties as the epitome of American freedom."

Williams said his talk will focus on how the country is changing and the ways the ACLU can remain a standard bearer for civil liberties and civil rights.

"I want to talk to them about the wave of immigration coming through the country, the racial change that's impacting the country," he said. "They are the civil liberties crowd. When Obama was complaining about secrecy and things like photographers not going to Dover, Del., to take pictures of the caskets returning, he's speaking to that crowd's desire for more openness on the part of government and for government to be transparent. That's an ACLU home run winner."

Here's more of what he had to say.

NUVO: When I Googled you to do some research, I found a number of sites that said, "He's not a bad guy for a liberal" and a number that said, "What is this conservative doing on NPR?" So, liberal or conservative, Juan?

Williams: My sense is that I've always tried to be a reporter. That's my roots. I never think of myself as an ideologue, but in the current media environment, people want to know exactly who you are and what do you stand for. So here's the thing: I work for National Public Radio, and that's usually identified as liberal, although as a part of NPR, I'll say we try to deliver the news as honestly as we can. Then I work for Fox, which is identified as conservative. And Fox is overtly and proudly conservative. But at the same time, they believe that they should have people who voice other opinions and act as foils for their big personalities. I play that role too.

My sense is, we have to take an issue and then allow me to define it. As I've gotten older — I'm 55 — I think one of the things that's happened to me is I've developed my own voice. I think people can hear my opinion and not just my reportage. For example, the last book I wrote is called Enough. And it's got this very provocative subtitle: Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements and the Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America — and What We Can Do About It. That's my voice. That's really what I think. Here's what I think about high high-school dropout rates. Or here's what I think about what is just a tragedy in America today: high rates of out-of-wedlock births, especially in the minority community. I think it's a tragedy because kids without parents are more likely to end up dropping out of high school, ending up in jail, all the rest. I think it's a tragedy that there's such a high poverty rate — almost 14 percent in the country and 25 percent in the black and Hispanic communities.

When I say these things, a lot of liberals say, "Why are you talking about problems in our community? You should be attacking the system. Instead of talking about personal responsibility, you should be talking about racism or systemic economic problems or systemic corruption by politicians." And then they say that means you've become more conservative because now you're shifting. I've never shifted. I've always been concerned about the condition of children in this country. I've always been concerned about the poverty issue. And I feel as if sometimes it's a case of the liberal community gets more intolerant when you say, "Here's what I'm finding, here's what I'm generally thinking." I'm not trying to play to any formula for saying "I'm a conservative" or "I'm a liberal." I'm saying here's what's gripping my reportorial imagination at this moment.

If you said to me, "What about abortion?" I'd say I'm pro-choice. How about gun control? I live in a big city, I'm afraid of drug dealers and their guns, so I would say I'm in favor of some gun control — not absolute; I don't want to take people's guns away — but some gun control. What about religious liberties? I am in favor of them; I go to church every Sunday. So that would put me more on the conservative side on that issue. Again, it varies by subject. I try to tell people what I think and why I think it.

NUVO: I guess a short answer would be: Hard to pigeonhole. You're not a liberal or a conservative.

Williams: I'm a registered Democrat in the District of Columbia. The blessing of my job is, I get to talk to lots of people; people return my phone calls. I listen and I try to make sense of things. And I do it the best I can. I'll tell you what I think after I've done some reporting. It's not a matter of shooting off at the lip or trying to please one side of the political fence or the other. I try to be my own man.

NUVO: You did a report this morning (Nov. 4) on NPR about what the election results meant. Could you have done the same commentary on Fox News?

Williams: I did.

NUVO: You said the same thing -- that the results were not a referendum on Obama?

Williams: I did that one (on NPR) at 6 and I did the Fox one at 9.

NUVO: How did they take that at Fox?

Williams: There was a conservative who said, "Well, the White House might think that, but here's the reality," and made the case that it was a big deal. So what you got was the two sides of the debate. And I acknowledged in both reports, by the way, that independents shifted away from Democrats yesterday, which was not good news for the White House. So it wasn't the case that, even in the NPR report, it was no problems for Obama.

NUVO: What I took away from what you said this morning was that more than half the people in New Jersey and Virginia still support Obama.

Williams: But there's a key thing here in looking at the exit polls that I was trying to express, which is that people said it wasn't a referendum on Obama, and Obama's approval rating exceeded the performance of the two candidates. That's why I said it wasn't a referendum on Obama. But clearly it's going to be interpreted as a big day for Republicans.

NUVO: And New York 23rd (where a Democrat won a congressional seat for the first time since the 1800s), how did conservatives spin that?

Williams: My take on it was chaos in the Republican Party. I thought it was telling because you had the Sarah Palins of the world, the Fred Thompsons, come in and say that the Republican nominee was not sufficiently conservative for them and they want the conservative candidate. They got the conservative candidate, and the conservative candidate lost. So why that dynamic is most interesting to me is, we've had all the tea parties. The energized base right now in this country is on the right. Are they going to define the Republican Party and its candidates going into 2010? If they do so, I think they're going to get a 23rd Congressional District of New York scenario (elsewhere) and they're not going to do well. If they take the (Virginia Gov.-elect Bob) McDonnell strategy, they're going to do pretty well.

NUVO: Talk about punditry. I look at what goes on and I don't care if it's Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann, it drives me crazy and I think it contributes to a coarsening of this society. I tune you guys out.

Williams: There's all sorts of variety. I think informed opinion has tremendous value. It helps people to understand the events of the day, to put it in some context. What I try to do is, I try to have informed opinion. I'm reporting, I'm talking to people and I'm forming an opinion and giving you the basis for it so you can understand. Like this morning, I was looking at exit polls and talking to people on both sides inside the campaigns who are trying to spin me one way or the other. But they want me to know what they're thinking because if you're talking on Morning Edition, you're talking to 14 million people. So they want to give me their side of the picture.

If you hear me talking, I hope you're thinking, "It's worth listening to this guy because this guy's going to give me informed opinion. It's not just blather or hyperbole and it's not just his opinion." When you said, "I don't even bother listening," I think -- I'm being presumptuous here, but allow me -- you're saying "Rush Limbaugh, I don't know that that's informed opinion. That's Rush giving me his ideological take." And his ideological take is not necessarily helpful if you feel it coarsens the dialogue in the country. I think Limbaugh's a radio personality. He wouldn't be on NPR. They wouldn't hire him. Maybe they would occasionally have a debate between somebody who is identifiably liberal and someone's who's identifiably conservative. They don't hire me for that.

NUVO: I don't know what anybody gets out of the argument between the liberal and the conservative. I don't know how that benefits anybody. It tends to reinforce people's views. But you've said some incendiary things. I don't think you're a Rush Limbaugh by any stretch of the imagination, but you called Michelle Obama "Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress." Does that help?

Williams: I think you have to put it in context. Go back and listen to that interview. That's been widely misinterpreted. It's frustrating for me. What I was saying was, she can't be the person who is a "Blame America First" person. She can't become a polarizing figure in the White House. She can't be Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress. People say, "You called her Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress." I said she can't BE Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress.

[What he actually said was: "[i]f you think about liabilities for President [Barack] Obama that are close to him -- [Vice President] Joe Biden's up there -- but Michelle Obama's right there." Williams continued: "[S]he's got this Stokely Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going. If she starts talking, as [Townhall Magazine contributor and Weekly Standard contributing blogger] Mary Katharine [Ham] suggested, her instinct is to start with this 'blame America,' you know, 'I'm the victim.' If that stuff starts to come out, people will go bananas, and she'll go from being the new Jackie O to being something of an albatross." http://mediamatters.org/research/200901270002]

NUVO: When Clarence Thomas was up for the Supreme Court, you said he wasn't considered conservative enough in the Reagan White House. If I've read what you've said correctly, you've defended him as a pick for the Supreme Court.

Williams: Yeah, I did.

NUVO: Clarence Thomas has turned out to be, next to Antonin Scalia, the most reliably conservative justice. Were you wrong?

Williams: Nothing you just quoted was wrong. He was not considered to be sufficiently conservative in the Reagan White House. That's a fact. Where I was wrong, I think, was that Clarence Thomas, as I reported on and knew him, was much less of a predictable conservative than he is today. But I just want to be very clear on this point with you: You said I supported his nomination. When people would question his qualifications and his credentials, I would say, "Wait a second. Look at other people on the court who have much less in the way of experience and no one has ever questioned their credentials." And I thought it was unfair. I thought it had become an ideological fight over the fear that he was going to be a fifth vote against abortion rights in the country. And people were attacking him because they didn't want another conservative on the court. I thought it was unfair to him.

I had written a book about Thurgood Marshall, another Supreme Court justice who was attacked because he had been with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. They attacked him as someone who had communist ties, that he wasn't smart enough — you know, black guys aren't smart enough — not patriotic enough. This was nonsense. They did it because they didn't want a liberal on the court. Now I saw the same thing being done to another black man — in this case, because they didn't want another conservative on the court.

NUVO: So are you surprised at what Thomas has ended up being like as a justice?

Williams: I think he's a very good justice. Not someone I agree with on lots of issues; he's far more conservative than I am, if that's what you mean. I understand that everybody, when they hear a Supreme Court ruling, they say, "Did that guy vote with me or against me? Did that guy vote in a way I did agree with or didn't agree with?" I don't view it that way. I view it as: Can I read his opinion and understand it? Or do I think this guy is so rigid that he is not considering the facts and that he is not engaged in the debate about this larger subject and how it conforms with the Constitution and impacts our society? I think Clarence Thomas, when I read his opinions, is holding to a very high standard. I don't see him as lacking in intellect or thought or failing to engage the issue.

NUVO: You made a fairly big deal of Obama's association with Reverend Wright. Do you have any second thoughts about that?

Williams: Oh God, no. Wright is even more pronounced now in his anti-Semitism and anger at the United States. He's a political weight to this day for President Obama.

NUVO: You really think that? I think he's a peripheral issue.

Williams: Again, context is everything. President Obama, when he was running for office, literally had to disassociate himself from Rev. Wright, as you remember. But the reason he did it wasn't because he was a peripheral issue — it was because he might have impacted the way people viewed Barack Obama and whether or not they were willing to trust him to be president of the United States. That's not a peripheral issue. Now he's a peripheral issue because now we have a President Obama and there are lots of other ways to judge Barack Obama, and Rev. Wright becomes something of a comical figure. That wasn't the case in the middle of the campaign.

NUVO: It wasn't, but I think people made a much bigger deal of it than it needed to be. You got a fairly good sense of what Obama was like. The "God damn America" thing (which Wright said), Obama never said it, Obama never thought it. It seemed to me that Wright was one of many peripheral issues like bowling scores that have nothing really to do with the election.

Williams: I think what you're missing here is that people try to get to know candidates in ways that are unscripted. Because American politics is so scripted and there's so much performance involved where they are creating images for us. People are trying all the time to look behind the curtain and say, "Who is this person really? Who am I voting for?" They may have the official positions and the official platforms, but people are thinking: How does this person behave? Who is in their church with them? Who is in their clubs with them? What's this person's soul like? And I think that Rev. Wright was a way people could look at and say, "Oh, so that's what he really thinks."

NUVO: Give me a grade for Obama. It's been a year since he was elected. What grade do you give him?

Williams: Incomplete.

NUVO: What does he have to do to earn a grade?

Williams: He had such high expectations. He's such a brilliant man. And yet he made a lot of promises about ending wars that have not ended — in fact, it looks like we're going in the other direction. I don't think that's what his supporters voted for. I think he made promises in terms of national security issues and he has taken the side of keeping things secret and private. Again, I don't think that's what his voters thought was going to happen. I think he made promises in terms of ending bipartisanship; he has made some genuine efforts, but I don't think it's been achieved. Healthcare, we don't know what's going to happen there. Climate change is not happening. Immigration reform is not happening. So that's why I say the big achievement that Barack Obama has had so far is he's not George Bush. He beat the Republicans, got George Bush out. And the second thing I'd say is, he's the new face of American politics — a black man as president is unprecedented. It's a tremendous political achievement. And he does it with such grace and class. So I give him points for that.

NUVO: And if you had to give him a grade?

Williams: I'd give him a C. Sort of average.

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