Juan Williams stands in for Obama at Fox debate
The GOP celebrates MLK day by booing the black pundit as Gingrich belittles him for asking tough questions on race
BY JOAN WALSH
JAN 17, 2012
The Fox News debate began auspiciously, with moderator Bret Baier noting that it was our national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Then his actual question had nothing to do with Dr. King. But those of us who feared the debate would duck racial issues worried for naught. The night climaxed with the South Carolina crowd giving Newt Gingrich a standing ovation for smacking down Fox’s leading black contributor, Juan Williams, for his impertinent questions about race.
Williams asked for it, of course. What was he thinking making tough racial queries at a GOP debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.? First, he asked Romney how he squared his harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric with his own family’s story of moving to and then from Mexico seeking religious freedom. He asked Rick Santorum, who purports to care about poverty, what he would do about high African-American poverty rates. He asked Ron Paul whether he thought the nation’s harsh drug laws were bad for black people. Then he made the mistake of asking Newt Gingrich about his comments that poor urban children came from communities that lacked a “work ethic,” and his calling Barack Obama “the food stamp president.”
Gingrich couldn’t believe his luck. With a gleam in his eye, he thrashed Williams, and Steve Kornacki believes he may have given his candidacy one last shot with his savvy thumping of Fox’s leading black commentator. It hurt to watch. If Newt gets the nomination – he won’t, but a Democrat can dream – he’ll have to thank Williams at the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., even before he thanks Callista.
Sure, Santorum took his chance to demagogue on race, telling Williams that it only took three things to stay out of poverty in America: “Work, graduate from high school, and get married before you have children.” He didn’t allow that any residue of racism or discrimination might make it harder for African-Americans to work, graduate from high school or marry. Santorum also made unfounded allegations, again, about the Obama administration forbidding certain federal programs from talking about marriage. But at least he answered Williams with some personal respect.
Gingrich looked as happy about Williams’ questions as he looked deflated at the last New Hampshire debate. The former NPR analyst referenced Gingrich’s belittling comments about poor kids lacking role models with a work ethic, and the NAACP “demanding” food stamps not jobs, and asked, “Can’t you see that this is viewed at a minimum as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to African-Americans?”
“No,” Gingrich said petulantly, with a slight pause, “I don’t see that.” The crowd screamed with glee. Gingrich went on to bash unionized janitors in public schools, and I realized that his student-janitor comments represent a right-wing political trifecta, bashing anti-business regulations like child labor laws, public sector unions and lazy “urban” kids. Oh, and he also got to attack elites this time around, insisting his janitor plans drew liberal disapproval because “only the elites despise earning money.”
But Williams didn’t back away. “The suggestion you made was about a lack of work ethic,” he told Gingrich. “It sounds as if you are seeking to belittle people.” The crowd booed Williams lustily, and Gingrich got a special twinkle in his eye. He looked at Williams like he was a soon-to-be ex-wife.
“First of all, Juan” – and there was a slight cheer when the former speaker called the Pulitzer Prize winner “Juan” – “the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. I know among the politically correct you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.
“Second, you’re the one who earlier raised a key point,” he continued. “The area that ought to be I-73 was called by Barack Obama a corridor of shame because of unemployment. Has it improved in three years? No — they haven’t built the road, they haven’t helped the people, they haven’t done anything. I’m going to continue to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and someday learn how to own the job.” The crowd jumped to its feet screaming “Newt! Newt! Newt!” Fox cut to a commercial.
Where to start? Of course Obama hasn’t “put” anyone on food stamps. The Bush economy nearly doubled the poverty rate...
The Story of Juan
Juan Williams was a sometimes-controversial star at NPR until an inflammatory comment about Muslims sent him further into the arms of Fox News. A look at his career through the eyes of several old and skeptical colleagues.
By David Margolick
Jan. 18, 2012
A graduate of Haverford College, Williams launched his journalistic career at The Washington Post, which he joined as an intern in 1976. He was clearly talented and ambitious, but many thought his life there additionally charmed because of his friendship with Donald Graham, son of the publisher, who, having once been a cop in D.C., took a liking to Williams. (Asked whether he’d ever paved Williams’s way or, later, gotten him out of scrapes, Graham replied, “The answer is no—N.O.”)
Williams won praise for his willingness to cover rough parts of town and take on liberal black icons like Mayor Marion Barry long before scandals brought him down, thereby incurring charges of disloyalty from Barry and betrayal from the black mainstream. In 1980, he began writing for the Post editorial page. That December, at a convention for black conservatives in San Francisco, he met 32-year-old Clarence Thomas, then an assistant to Senator John Danforth of Missouri. An op-ed column Williams wrote praising Thomas—whose conservatism was, Williams wrote, “born of the same personal anger at racism that fired the militants of the 1960s”—called him to the attention of the Reagan administration, which led to his first presidential appointment, which effectively led to the Supreme Court. (In 1987, by which point Thomas headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Williams profiled him in The Atlantic. The notoriously wary, reclusive Thomas opened up to him: what resulted was by far the most probing and insightful piece about him ever written. Williams and Thomas have remained friends and still lunch together occasionally; Thomas attended Williams’s 50th-birthday party.)
Continuing his expedited march up, in the early 1980s Williams became the paper’s junior reporter at the Reagan White House. Colleagues recall he was eager to get into print—sometimes too eager, jumping to conclusions, seasoning stories with his own opinions, failing to make that crucial last phone call. “Juan had talent and drive,” said Lou Cannon, the Reagan biographer who was then the Post’s top man at the White House. “If he’d been more interested in journalism than in being in the limelight he could have been a great reporter. That’s more essential to understanding him than putting him on the liberal/conservative spectrum.”
Civil-rights groups often complained that their side of things went especially unrepresented or misrepresented in Williams’s stories. In September 1985, a dispute emerged when Ralph Neas, then head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, accused Williams of distorting his words in a news story. Neas was promptly summoned to the Post, where he found a tribunal—consisting of Ben Bradlee, Robert Kaiser, and Boisfeuillet Jones Jr.—then the Post’s executive editor, assistant managing editor for national news, and general counsel, respectively—convened, it appeared to Neas to, find out more about Williams’s work. What emerged, Neas recalled, was a “gentlemen’s agreement”: Williams would stop writing about civil rights. (Bradlee did not return messages; Kaiser declined to comment; Jones says he does not recall such a meeting.)
Williams disputes Neas’s story, and says that his contemporaneous notes proved Neas’s charge unfounded. Nonetheless, within a year he was moved to the Post’s less illustrious magazine.
EYES ON THE PRIZE
Williams turned out plenty of high-profile pieces at the magazine. One story, about a family devastated when one of its members was murdered, was made into a prime-time special by Oprah Winfrey. He went to South Africa to interview Nelson Mandela. And he scored a rare interview with Justice Thurgood Marshall that would later grow into a biography. (Considering Williams untrustworthy, Marshall’s wife, Cecilia, urged her husband and their friends not to speak to Williams for the book. For years, the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund, which Marshall long led, denied Williams access to key Marshall papers.) Williams’s editors at the magazine recall that whatever appeared under his byline usually had to be re-written from the ground up. Fame, not craft, was key.
In 1986, the producer of Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton, asked Williams to write the companion volume to what would become the legendary series of civil-rights documentaries. Some of Hampton’s co-workers, noting Williams’s lack of sympathy or any discernable ties to the movement, vehemently opposed Hampton’s choice. But Hampton was in a hurry—the films were nearly complete—and Williams was a name brand from a prestigious paper. And, unlike others who’d begged off, he was ambitious and self-confident enough to think he could do the job quickly.
Here, too, according to people who worked with him, Williams’s work was slipshod, even though he was supplied with all of the research materials. It was also slanted—skeptical or hostile to the people being portrayed sympathetically on the screen—and skewed: inordinately focused, for instance, on the sexual peccadilloes of some participants. Many felt that the project’s editorial director, Robert Lavelle, should have gotten co-writer credit for the companion book. Instead, the byline originally read “Juan Williams with the Eyes on the Prize Production Team.” But in interviews Williams always takes sole credit for the writing; indeed, in later printings, any reference at all to his co-authors has mysteriously disappeared. Some press accounts have even cited the book as the basis of the documentary, rather than the other way around—a misimpression which, his former colleagues complain, infuriated Hampton (who died in 1998), and which Williams has done little or nothing to correct.
Williams calls charges that he has taken excessive credit for the book “ridiculous.” “There are a lot of people who are jealous in the world, and crazy,” he said. Here as elsewhere, even Williams’s critics marvel at his sheer brazenness. “The one thing people could learn from him is the ‘parlay,’” said Callie Crossley, one of the producers of the original batch of Eyes documentaries, who now hosts a public radio show on WGBH in Boston. “Honestly, he was doing branding and inventing himself long before people were talking about it.”
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
In 1991 Williams got attention of a different, less welcome variety, for making sexually suggestive comments to women. They were more jerky than menacing—Williams wasn’t their boss, nor did he press himself on anyone—and seemed designed to grab attention more than anything else. But they were chronic and tasteless, some extremely so. (“With your fingernails painted like that, they look like cherries, and I’d just like to eat them up,” he told one Post employee. On another occasion, he told her that he wanted to put his face where she’d just sat and inhale.)
Grumbling about Williams’s catcalls persisted for several years without ever percolating up to management. But a complaint had just reached Williams’s superiors when, during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in October 1991, Williams wrote a column defending Thomas and calling Anita Hill a mere tool of Democratic activists. Women at the Post grew outraged, demanding that the paper disclose Williams’s own predilections. The paper resisted, but when other news outlets reported on the dispute, the Post had to, too. The charges were “absolutely false,” Williams told Howard Kurtz, who covered the story for the paper, then went on to describe it in his book, Media Circus; the women had taken “a passing word” in the wrong way.
Williams was exiled from the Post newsroom for a couple of weeks, and the matter died down. But when he returned, and told other publications the Post had effectively apologized for treating him so harshly, things reignited. Post editor Leonard Downie then had to meet with 50 women in the paper’s cafeteria; later more than a hundred employees signed a letter complaining about Williams and the paper’s handling of him.
Downie concluded that the allegations were “serious”; Williams acknowledged he’d misbehaved and promised to “change [his] ways.” But his contrition quickly faded. What he told Kurtz shortly thereafter remains his position today: the imbroglio had everything to do with the Thomas-Hill dispute, and little to do with him. In fact, he sees himself as the real victim of the fracas.
The next year Williams went on leave to work on his Marshall book. He continued to work part-time for the Post’s Outlook section, where an editor routinely checked, and corrected, his facts. Williams was more trouble than he was worth, the Post’s top editors concluded; they longed for some politically palatable way to get rid of him. “We hoped for some Act of God that would solve the problem,” one said. “God” then came in two guises. The first was Roger Ailes, head of the then-fledgling Fox News, who in 1997 signed up Williams for part-time punditry. The second was NPR.