Andrew Cotto talks man-to-man with political analyst Jamal Simmons about the greatest social problems facing America, President Obama’s legacy, and what it takes to be a good man in politics.
Editor’s note: Jamal Simmons is one of the most respected political analysts of his generation. During the 2010 congressional election he was the Democratic political analyst for CBS News and before that a fixture on CNN during the 2008 election. His views and opinions have been featured in major publications such as The New York Times and Politico.
Simmons got his professional start in presidential politics traveling with candidate Bill Clinton during his successful 1992 campaign and was a political appointee during the first Clinton Administration with U.S. Trade Representative and Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor. In 2000, he was a communications aide for Vice President Al Gore during his presidential campaign and served as a Gore spokesman in West Palm Beach, Florida during the recount.
The Good Men Project’s Andrew Cotto had an opportunity to talk man-to-man with Jamal Simmons about Obama “going negative” against Romney, the greatest social problems facing America, and what it takes to be a good man in politics.
Andrew Cotto: You’ve been involved in politics since childhood. You got start as a volunteer in your Detroit community. What inspired your interest in politics at such a young age?
Jamal Simmons: Our parents were involved in local politics, so I’ve kind of always been around it. As a teenagager I’d end up helping out on weekends, putting leaflets in people’s mailboxes and that sort of of thing. So that was what got me first interested in politics.
AC: Did you go off to Morehouse College with the pursuit of politics in mind?
JS: I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I went off to college. I think if you look at my high school year book, it says that I wanted to be a financial planner (laughs). I changed majors three times and kind of bounced around my first couple of years, and when I got my act together in my third year of school I was a history major and thought I was on my way to getting a PhD in American History and becoming a college professor, and I got sidetracked by Bill Clinton in 1992 and never looked back.
AC: And since that time in ‘92, you’ve been immersed in Democratic party politics, in various capacities, most notably on five presidential campaigns, most recently President Obama’s, and as a staffer in the Clinton administration, and you’ve witnessed, up close and personal, the impeachment of President Clinton, the 2000 election debacle in Florida, the unpatriotic slandering of triple-amputee and Vietnam Veteran Max Cleland, the systemic undermining of President Obama, as well, I imagine, many other moments that might sour a lifer in the Democratic party. Yet, you seem to me like a well-adjusted, optimistic person. How do you, as a Democrat and a citizen, keep from becoming cynical?
JS: (Laughs) Well, I believe it was Winston Churchill who said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. I think, the way we resolve our problems is through political combat for the most part and not in the streets at each other’s throats. And so, we fight legal cases and we battle in campaigns, but were not at the point where we battle in the streets. So, I think that’s good. I also think that ultimately that everybody – regardless of where they’re from and regardless of their background, ethnicity, their gender – really comes at politics with the same goal in mind. They want to do better. Most want the country to do well. They want their children to have a great opportunity in our country and to be taken care of. Now, how you get there is what we all end up fighting about. But I think we can find a way bridge those divides if we are creative enough and open minded enough to try to do that.
AC: How would you define the term “good” in politics?
JS: (long pause) To be “good” as a political figure, I think means trying to do what’s best for people, and we often disagree about what is best and how to do what is best, but most politicians – and this is absolutely true despite their reputations – get into politics to try to make something better, to fix some problem. That’s not the reason why politicians often stay in politics, but it’s usually why people get into it. Very often you can appeal to that sense in them that got them started on this path. You can appeal to that sense of wanting to fix a problem by trying to find a way to bridge the divide. The politicians who stay in touch with the part of themselves that is in the arena to fix problems, to make life better for people, are the ones I would say are “good.”
AC: How many in Washington, in this arena you refer to, are still in touch with that part of them that wants to do good?
JS: (Rambling laugh) If God is who I believe God is, he will judge us on a sliding scale (laughter from both of us) – and the fact that repentance is real will save a lot of us.
AC: Let’s hope so.
JS: No one is good all the time, so no one is in touch all the time with that sense of why they are here, why are they in the political arena, all the time – I think most people in Washington, and I don’t know what that number is, have moments where their call to be in this profession asserts itself for the greater good. It won’t be in every moment, but the magnitude of those moments when they exercise that will be greater than the small petty things that they do for gamesmanship.
AC: The President of the United States is often responsible with being the country’s moral guide – I think of Kennedy/ Johnson with regard to civil rights, and moments like that where a president may focus effort towards something that is not popular but the right thing to do. What do you think is President Obama’s signature accomplishment in this regard:
JS: I think his biggest achievement is health care. The goal of providing nearly universal access to health care to all American is one of the most “good” things a politician has done in long time. People can review how it got there, and review how it was exercised, and whether or not the rules were set up the way they want them to be, but the goal of insuring that all Americans have access to health care is something that will go down in history as a positive.
The other thing I think that has been incredibly important and has the broadest reach is the effort to reform education. Something like “Race to the Top,” trying to get education focused on the best practices for the most students, particularly the ones who are being left behind, so when we’re living in a world where there is so much concentration of wealth and power in a small number of hands, increasing access to quality education to our kids is how the country and individuals will prosper. The more prosperous we are as a country, the easier it is to decide how to divide up the pie.
Where we get in trouble in politics, in times like we have now, is when we have a stagnate or shrinking pie, and so in order to include more people at the table means we have to take something away from somebody who already has it, but when the pie is growing, we’re reallocating benefits for people in advance, which is a much easier political debate to have.
The third thing I would add is his inclusion of different groups of Americans, which you have seen through Lilly Ledbetter, his defense of voting rights, and easing his stance on gay marriage.
AC: As you mentioned, the President recently came out in support of same-sex marriage. Politically speaking, do you think this was a smart move considering how conflicted it left so much of the African-American community?
JS: I think it’s a dangerous move. It’s hard to know how it shakes out. The African American community is split on it; but, in general, people of faith are split on it in America, Christians in particular. People always think of African Americans, but it’s Christians in general who are torn and conflicted by this because of issues of faith and culture and social training and upbringing. And so it’s hard to know politically how many people it will turn away from the president, but ultimately, I think, most people in America are fair; most people in America think that people should be able to participate in the rights of being a citizen regardless of who they are and who they love, and when we talk about having two people who care about each other, love each other, and want to commit to each other , there are a lot of other things we could be focusing on than the government trying to deny that.
AC: There seems to be a lot of disagreement amongst Democrats about the Obama campaign coming out with so much negativity towards Mitt Romney. What’s your thoughts on negativity as a strategy?
JS: It’s essential. Campaigns for president are choices. Ultimately, American voters will have to choose between two people on a ballot, and it is imperative for each candidate to try to educate the public about the other candidate. It’s imperative for President Obama, in particular, to educate the public about Mitt Romney because most people don’t know very much about him. The average person in the average town in the average American community may think about politics as much as many of us think about astrophysics. So, it’s important for the president and his team to communicate to Americans what they think they need to know about Mitt Romney right now while they’re making up their minds.
AC: It’s important to point out that we’re not referring to negativity that comes through disingenuousness or intentionally misleading information, but negative information that is rooted in the truth.
JS: They shouldn’t make up facts; they shouldn’t make up stories about Mitt Romney at all, but there are things that people may not like to hear about Mitt Romney, and it’s not President Obama’s obligation to cover those things up.
AC: What do you think is the biggest social problem facing America right now?
JS: I think the biggest social problem facing America is the feeling that the greatness of our country is slipping through our fingers. The more we feel like the country is sliding away or is less competitive than it should be, the more we begin to turn on each other and become competitive with each other versus banding together to try to be better.
AC: That said, are you optimistic about America’s future?
JS: Absolutely. Every time in our history when we have faced trouble, Americans have figured out what to do. We moved from an agrarian society to an industrial society. People left their friends and family and farms and went to the north and the Midwest to work in factories that powered the country; when we were faced with the persistent problem of segregation, Americans took their lives in their hands and their children’s lives in their hands and they went out and they demonstrated and faced dogs and fire hoses to change that reality.
Our history is filled with moments when Americans dug deep and did uncomfortable things in order to make the country better. And it’s not just politicians but the faith community, the business community, neighborhood captains – all our leaders have to begin to tell the truth about where we are and focus on how to be better as opposed to focusing on how we can beat each other back.
AC: On that point of it not just being politicians who must communicate to the people, you’ve mentioned before that politicians are not necessarily the best people to “carry the flag” for change. Can you explain that a little bit?
JS: Most social movements have not been led by politicians. Martin Luther King was not a politician. Susan B. Anthony was not a politician. Gloria Steinem was not a politician. These social movements are led by people. And we have to convince our neighbors, our friends and our family members of the rightness of our cause and then the politicians will be convinced to help us. There’s a key moment when politicians have to engage when were sitting on some teetering precipice about which way to go, one way or the other, and that’s the moment when creative politicians can exert the most influence. I think of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 as an example. But you have to build that movement outside of the electoral arena in order to force the electoral arena to react to it.
AC: Do you see yourself as a flag carrier?
JS: I see myself as someone who has worked for a long time for a political view that I believe in. And I work every day to make sure that more people who would not have access to benefits, jobs, education, have more access to those things. I believe that if you change decision makers, getting the right people in place, to sit around the table in the rooms where decision get made is a good way to help make things better. So I’ve dedicated my life to getting the people who I think are good decision makers in the place to make important decisions.
AC: You certainly seem to have the skill set of a politician. Do you ever think of getting involved yourself?
JS: I thought about it when I was young, but I think I’ve realized that my contributions lie elsewhere. I like to help influence the debate, push the debate, help other people involved push the debate, but electoral politics is not in my future.
AC: You appear as a regular guest on both national and cable TV news programs. As a guest on these political shows, you seem to handle the questions that come from the host or callers with great skill and thoughtfulness, which is in direct contradiction to the combative talking heads common to such programs. Does the general discourse of cable news, in particular, help our political situation or hinder it?
JS: Any time cable news can devolve into info-tainment, where it’s more about entertaining than it is about the news, that’s probably when it’s not at its best. But there are other times when you can have those people who don’t have the opportunity to follow the news all day like many of us do, and they may have ten minutes or half an hour to catch up on what’s going on, and what I try to do in the three minutes or the five minutes that I’m on television, when people might be paying attention, I’m trying to tell them one or two key things that they need to know when they think about the news of the day. And to try to help them do that, I don’t want to sugarcoat everything for the Democrats. I’m more willing to be critical of people who share my political philosophy, but for the most part I want to try to give people one or two nuggets that will help them make up their own minds about what’s going on in the country or the world. And that’s when I think it can be helpful.
AC: What’s the most important thing voters should look for in a leader?
JS: Ultimately, every leadership question is about trust. Which one of these people do I trust the most to sit in the room when I’m not there and nobody’s looking and make a decision with my interests at heart. I may not agree with them all the time, in every way, but I think they are approaching it in a way that I trust, and I think they’re being honest. I think finding someone that you trust, whose perspective and history convinces you to give them some of your power is the biggest challenge we have.
AC: Who taught you about manhood?
JS: My father and his father. My grandfather died when I was 12, but I can remember spending a lot of time with him when I was younger. And one of the earliest lessons was, “Stand up straight, look a man in the eye, and shake his hand firmly when you meet him.” So there was this little 5-year old boy trying to break people’s hands off when he met them (laughs). That was probably my earliest manhood lesson, but my dad really taught me about taking responsibility for yourself and those around you. And it’s not fun, but that’s ultimately what manhood’s about: taking responsibility.
AC: What two words would you use to describe your dad?
JS: I would say my dad is thoughtful and responsible.
AC: How are you most like your father?
JS: (Pause) I have fat hands (hearty laughter). No, I would say I try to be responsible, and I try to be considerate of people and respective of their perspectives.
AC: From what mistake or mistakes have you learned the most?
JS: Gosh, there’s so many…so many. My first two years in college I got really bad grades and was a hair’s breath away from academic probation. My father cut me off and refused to pay my college tuition during my junior year. And we got into a huge fight. I walked out of the house, slammed the door and went back and had to get two jobs to earn my keep, pay my rent and that stuff, and overtime realized I hadn’t taken responsibility for myself. And so we worked out an agreement to allow me to go back to school, and I made the honor roll every semester after that. Making the mistake of not taking school seriously, and then learning how hard it is to take care of yourself in the world without an education, taught me the importance of education and of doing the job at hand well.
AC: What dad in your life do you really admire for his parenting skills?
JS: I have a brother who is five years younger than me who goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure his daughter (my niece) knows how much he loves and cares about her and values her. We grew up in a household where there were no daughters, and for our high school years there were four of us who lived with our father, so it was a house of men, so I admire how my brother has adjusted and really learned how to parent a girl having come from a family where there weren’t really any girls.
AC: When was the last time you cried?
JS: I didn’t cry the night Obama was elected, but the next morning I was watching television in my hotel room, and I was watching these soldiers in Iraq who were watching the election results on television, and there were all these African American military men and women watching this African American man win the Presidency, and I sat there thinking about these people who have given their lives to service to our nation, and thinking about what they must be thinking about their nation: That this is the nation they are fighting for and risking their lives for every day. I just wept.
AC: What advice would you give teenage boys who are trying to figure out what it means to be a good man?
JS: I’d say a couple things. One is that being a good man has nothing to with your sexual prowess. That is not a marker of manhood. The second thing I would say is that the one thing I can’t guarantee you in life is that you won’t get thrown a curveball. No one expects you to hit every pitch and do well in every situation, but how you recover from mistakes will be one of the most important markers in your ability to succeed in whatever you end up doing in life.
AC: Do you have a most-cherished guy ritual?
JS: One of the most important things in my life is having really good male friends who hold each other accountable for our behavior. We have a lot of fun together, but we also hold each other accountable. That has been extraordinarily rewarding to have friends who can say, “Yeah, well, you screwed that one up.”
AC: Have you been more successful in your public or private life?
JS: I would say that it’s hard to distinguish the two, but every day is sort of a struggle to do better and be better at being a better person, and so every day I get up and try to find a way to do something better than I did before. I’m a big fan of sunrise, and one of the reasons I like sunrises more than sunsets is because sunrises speak to the promiseof being able to try it again.