Expand the conversation?

PBS's "All American Presidential Forum"

Last Thursday night, Tavis Smiley set out to “expand the conversation,” in his words, when the eight Democratic presidential hopefuls gathered at Howard University for the nation’s first “All American Presidential Forum,” broadcast on PBS.

“Expanding the conversation” is a tricky proposition, one that can be (and often is) hijacked by pundits and pols who simply want to gild their pronouncements with a sheen of something new, something beyond politics or punditry as usual. We’re not questioning Smiley’s sincerity—he did, after all, build the forum around some critical (and critically underrepresented) issues, including race and poverty, AIDS and economic disparity, crime and punishment. But it’s one thing to set out to “expand the conversation,” as it were, and quite another to actually make a dent in the tightly scripted, image-obsessed pageant that is the American presidential election.

The forum was noteworthy, too, as it was the first time that our presidential candidates were grilled on primetime TV by a panel comprised entirely of journalists of color, including Michel Martin of National Public Radio, columnist Ruben Navarrette of The San Diego Union-Tribune, and columnist DeWayne Wickham of USA Today.

And indeed, as Roger Simon, Politico’s chief political columnist, noted, the debate was in many ways a “panderfest,” with the candidates vying to win the African American vote with slick one-liners. In perhaps the slickest, Senator Hillary Clinton declared, “If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in the country.” (Think she’ll use that line in Denver at the Democratic National Convention?) John Edwards, of course, talked up his “two Americas.”

But the debate wasn’t a total panderfest. Woven into the platitudes and tailored soundbites were some clear ideas for solutions to the complicated problems on the table. Edwards and Senator Joe Biden mentioned measures to ensure early childhood education. Dennis Kucinich proposed a constitutional amendment that would guarantee access to education for all and universal free kindergarten. While in the previous Democratic debates, Hurricane Katrina was mentioned sparingly or not at all, this time the candidates discussed the disaster and its ramifications at length. No specific policy proposals emerged, but the seeds of such proposals were evident. Barack Obama, for instance, raised the idea of comprehensive education reform, of providing America’s best teachers with the incentives and tools to work in underprivileged school districts. On the issue of HIV/AIDS, all of the candidates agreed that more federal money should be secured for research as well as “prevention education.”

Smiley is hosting a second All-American Forum with the GOP contenders on September 27. He is encouraging African Americans to keep an open-mind and to listen to the insights of all of the candidates—good and bad—into the struggles of the African American community.

So it’s a start, however modest, and Smiley and PBS are to be commended for forcing these issues into the national political discourse. But the status quo is a powerful thing, and real change will take more drum beating than a couple of debates on PBS can provide.

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Alexander Heffner is an intern at CJR.