Barack Obama interview
Supplementary information to the Chicago Tribune  COLUMNS of   ERIC ZORN


I've not yet interviewed Democratic Senate candidate Barack Obama, but I intend to. Meanwhile, Jeff Berkowitz, host of  "Public Affairs," a cable talk show that airs  Monday nights at 8:30 pm on  Cable Ch. 21, has given me permission to post a partial transcript of two interviews with Obama  taped July 24, 2003 and June 27, 2002. The most recent material, first, was aired August 18, 2003

July 24, 2003
Jeff Berkowitz: ?Let's go right to the [Iraq] war. You have made a big point of that. You said you were there last fall; you were at the Federal Building and you were speaking out against the War then; and you are saying there are seven other candidates in the [Democratic] primary and a number of them oppose the war in Iraq; oppose taking military action but they weren't speaking out [last fall]. Is that your point?

Barack Obama
: I can't tell because they were silent on the issue at the time. And, I think that part of the issue in terms of the War is that this is a difficult, complex question. I am not somebody who is a pacifist, who thinks that we shouldn't exert our military power under any circumstances. I think the threats to our national security are real and genuine. And? I think Saddam Hussein was a genuinely, dangerous despot.

The question, though, is out of the United States Senate and out of the Democratic Party we have to make tough choices the same way the President has to make tough choices, and we have to analyze and evaluate it, and my analysis said that Saddam Hussein was not an imminent threat and that if we acted multilaterally, it would be better for our long term security because we would be able to have a multinational coalition and force that could have contained Saddam Hussein, conducted vigorous inspections and if we ultimately had to overthrow him, we would have built an international coalition that could have moved forward.

Now, some people may disagree with me on this, but what absolutely we can't have out of our U. S. Senator from Illinois is somebody who waffles on the issue and somebody who ducks the issue, and puts their finger out to the wind and waits to find out how the wind is blowing before they make a statement that, well, "We had concerns about the War." Everybody had concerns about the War. The question was -how would you have voted on a specific resolution giving George Bush carte blanche

Berkowitz: You mentioned the U. S. Senate race. I was just about to mention Joyce Washington. Let's talk politics a bit. Let's be frank. Let's be candid. In fact, when we want to be candid, we turn to Laura Washington. We have [already] discussed this issue, but in a somewhat different context. You [and Laura Washington] were on this show last November [25, 2002] and I said, at that time:

"That leaves us with Blair Hull, Barack Obama, Dan Hynes, Gary Chico and possibly Carol Moseley Braun [as Democratic Primary candidates for the U. S. Senate Seat in March, 2004], so, Laura Washington, what happens here?"

And, Laura responded, "Well, if you have an Obama and a Braun, I think one of those white guys is probably going to win. One of those white guys, or Gary Chico. Although, I wouldn't over-estimate Gary Chico's hold on the Latino Community..."

All right, Carol Moseley Braun appears to be running for the Presidency... she is not running for the Senate, but Joyce Washington is; She is African- American, You're African- American. The point is, and Laura Washington is not here to say this-- but Laura might say the same thing-- that is, Joyce Washington is a real problem for you because you are both attempting to tap into the same "base," just as an Irish person, an Hispanic person...

Obama: Let me respond to the question. A couple of things.
No. 1, I am rooted in the African- American community, but I am not limited to it. And, we are going to be competitive in every part of this state in every demographic because the message that I have in terms of dealing with economic development and jobs in this state, dealing with health care issues, dealing with education issues are ones that cut across the board. No. 2, Carol Moseley Braun was the best known politician in this state. When we polled her last year, her name recognition was higher than [Mayor] Richard Daley's; so I think to compare her, to suggest that somehow any other African- American candidate is fungible with Carol Moseley Braun is mistaken.
Berkowitz: Joyce Washington came in second [of three], running for Lt. Governor. She carried Cook County, right? She got 350,000 votes. She has some name recognition, right?

Well, look, I am not going to spend my time running down other candidates. What I would suggest would be that we are very confident about our ability to project a message that will resonate in the African- American community and outside it and I tell you what is absolutely not true is that somehow African- Americans or any other group votes on the basis of race in a United States Senate race. Now, that may be true in lower level races: for example, the Lt. Gov. race, where people really don't know what the Lt. Gov. does and are not exactly sure what kind of power the position has.

Berkowitz: So, what is the African-American base going to focus on in this race?

What they are going to look at is who has a track record of effectively working on behalf of the issues that they care about. And, I come out of a legislative session where I sent twenty-five pieces of legislation to the Governor's desk, including:
--landmark videotaping legislation of interrogations and confessions, the first in the Nation.
--racial profiling legislation that has been called a model for the country.
--healthcare legislation that expands the Kidcare program to ...
--an expansion of the earned income tax credit...
--a hospital report card that...

So, African- Americans, like every other voter, are going to look and see who do we have confidence in, in terms of being able to work on the issues that are going to matter in my life and my family's life.

Berkowitz: Is education important to the African- American community?

Education is very important to the African- American Community.

Berkowitz: How do you differentiate yourself from the other candidates on Education?

: You know, I don't know enough about the other candidates to know--

Berkowitz: Speak to me as if I were a part of your base in the City of Chicago. Speak to me as if I were a parent with two kids in the Chicago Public Schools ("CPS"). (As you know, one out of every two schools in the CPS is labeled as a failing school). Speak to me as if I am an African-American and my income is $30,000. What are you going to do for me [about education].

: Here is my only question, Jeff. Am I going to have to talk about [school] vouchers right now?

Berkowitz: You have to do it for a minute or two.

How much time do we have?

: Two minutes.

Can't we put the old tape [of our prior voucher discussion] on?

Berkowitz: Well, your views might have changed. Last time, you said you will do anything that improves the [school] situation and you were open to school vouchers. Did I get that right?

What I said was--I think that we have to consider every possibility of improving what admittedly is an intolerable school system for a lot of inner-city kids. I do not believe in vouchers. I am a strong supporter of charter schools, as you know. I think that we do have to innovate and experiment to encourage competition in the school systems. I also think that at the federal level (because most of these issues are state level issues)--at the federal level the most important thing that we could be doing, and you don't need to pull out your props--with the vouchers

Berkowitz: Hey, you have to do it. Everybody has to do it. Here is my [school voucher] backpack, right here.

I have done the backpack thing, Jeff

Berkowitz: But, you haven't done it as a Senate candidate. Here it is. It has changed now. We are now spending about $9,000 [per kid per year operating cost in the CPS]. It went up from $8,000 [per year per kid]. Here is the [school voucher] backpack. I am the parent. I am serious. I want to know. Barack Obama, could you give me that backpack? That is, $9,000 for each kid [of mine.] $18,000 that I could spend at a school [of my choice for my two kids]. You don't want to do that for me?

Jeff, Jeff

Berkowitz: [Berkowitz offers the school voucher backpack to Obama]. You don't want to take that backpack? I didn't think so.

We are going to get in this debate again. As I have said before, I believe that the voucher program is, although I believe that there are very sincere proponents like yourself, I think that the ultimate result of initiating a voucher program ends up being to, over time, not foster competition, but, in fact, to reduce the options available particularly for the hardest to reach kids because a private market system will not ultimately try to reach the toughest to teach kids. That's a debate that we have had before. What I do know is at the federal level what we can do on the education front is make sure that programs like "Leave no child behind," actually don't leave the money behind, which is what's happened with [President] George Bush.

Berkowitz: Well, that [No Child Left Behind] doesn't give choice. You and I agree on that?

That I certainly agree with. I think the notion that somehow these kids now have options if they are in failing schools when in fact they don't -

Berkowitz: [Holding up the $18,000 voucher backpack for two kids]. This is an option: $18,000. It is $18,000; School of your choice.

: It is not true. Because the kids on the South Side of Chicago; the kids in King High School, or in Crane, or in other of these schools will not end up going to New Trier High School.

Berkowitz: They don't have to. They just need to go to a BETTER school [than their current one] and eventually there will be a New Trier. But it doesn't have to be New Trier overnight.

: Jeff, eventually is not true. We can look at examples of -

Berkowitz: Look at where they are now. Why do you compare it with New Trier. I just want to teach kids how to read.

What I am going to compare it to, a voucher system that we already have in operation, which is the public housing system where we have a terrific voucher system called Section 8 and what has happened?

Berkowitz: No, it is not a terrific system.

Exactly, and the reason it is not terrific--

Berkowitz: is not because it is a voucher system. It is because it is not set up right. We could set it up right. A fully funded voucher [system] for education.

But the point is--

Berkowitz: Last time you said you might consider it [a school voucher system]. You are not going to consider it this time; that's a change...

June 27, 2002
There is no reason why the market won't necessarily replicate the same imbalances that currently exist with respect to per pupil spending and performance. Now, having said all of that, I think this is a legitimate area for debate and I think it is going to be something that is going to be debated at the state level and the national level for many years to come and I look forward to the debate, and I am also willing to say that I am not close minded on this issue so I think everybody should go into this with the basic attitude that the bottom line is--how are we providing the most effective education for students at every grade level and every economic strata, and if we are doing that, then we shouldn't be didactic or ideological about how to best deliver that.

Berkowitz: So, I take that to mean that under the right circumstances you, Barack Obama, possible U. S. Senate Candidate from the State of Illinois, could support school vouchers and could even do so in your role as a state senator in the Illinois Legislature.

No, what you can take that to mean is that I am willing to listen to these arguments and see if there-- If I can be persuaded that ultimately kids would be better off, then--

Berkowitz: Then you would support it.

: I would support anything that is going to be better off for the children of Illinois.

Berkowitz: Including school vouchers, if you are persuaded?

Whatever is on the table I think has to be debated.

Berkowitz: Quite a concession. I am going to quit while I am ahead. Let's go over to the Pledge of Allegiance. Yesterday, another major decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals...
Upcoming programs:
Monday, August 25, 2003-- Nancy Skinner, U. S. Senate Candidate, Democratic Primary and Media Personality, 
Monday, Sep. 1, 2003-- Major General John Borling, potential candidate for the U. S. Senate, Republican Primary, 
Monday, Sep. 8, 2003-- John Cox, U. S. Senate Candidate, Republican Primary and Host of the "Progressive Conservative" radio show,