John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


50 Years

Posted on August 28, 2013

A Big Year for 50-Year Anniversaries

This is a big year for 50-year anniversaries.

Today is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and his famous “I have a dream” speech.

In November, the nation will mark the 50th anniversary of assassination of John Kennedy, better known as the end of America’s innocence.

And in December, I will turn 50.  Middle age.  Great (he said with resignation in his voice).

Much has changed in 5 decades, which I guess goes without saying, but I said it anyway.

Each decade has had its own flavor.

The 60’s,  full of revolutionary fervor.  The 70’s,  the “Me” generation.  The 80’s proved that greed could be good.  The 90’s, when the baby-boomers finally grabbed the reins of power after the end of the Cold War.  The 2000’s when the American ideal was under attack in the Age of Terror.  And this decade, where we are still grappling with who we are and who we want to be, as a nation.

Racial Healing

Through my own prism, racial healing and progress has been slow and uneven.

When I was a kid, we lived on the South Side of Chicago.  It wasn’t the baddest part of the town when I was four, but by the time I was a 10, (and after we moved to the suburbs) it sure wasn’t the greatest part of town either.

We were part of the white flight generation.  And that can leave a mark.

My first memory of meeting a black person was Charlie, the mail man.  We loved Charlie and my dad would give him a cold beer on a hot day (he probably couldn’t take that beer these days).

My parents were relative liberals back then, but that would change.  During the 1968 riots, my Dad had to drive fast through some very tough neighborhoods on is way home from work.  A cop advised him to run through every red light, which he did, just so he could get home alive.  Scary times.

A conservative is a former liberal mugged by reality.

Then we moved to the suburbs.  We didn’t have many black kids in my grade school, but we had a few in my junior high.  I played basketball with many of them and several became my friends.

My high school had a sizable black population.  They usually sat at their own table, during lunch, self-segregating.  But not all of them did.  The jocks hung out with the jocks, and if you were a jock, it didn’t really matter what color you were.


When I left high school, I went to Marquette, and there were fewer black kids there, as a percentage of the University.    There, the jocks hung out with the jocks, but they were segregated from the rest of the school.   You didn’t really interact with the basketball players very much.  There were in their own universe.

Marquette was its own island inside a fairly rough part of Milwaukee and Milwaukee had its own racial history that wasn’t very pleasant.    Mayor Meier and Chief Breyer didn’t put up with the malcontents and Milwaukee tended to be a segregated city.

The problem for Marquette (and part of the allure, I guess) was that we were in the less desirable segregated part.  My freshman year, a coed was stabbed outside my dorm.  That sobered us up for a while.  You learned to be careful.

Chicago's First Black Mayor

Just as was leaving Chicago for Milwaukee, the City with Big Shoulders elected its first black Mayor.  There was a nasty internal struggle within the white vote (Jane Byrne vs. Richie Daley) and Harold Washington was able to sneak in and grab the reigns of the city.

The City Council, dominated by a lot of white Irish Catholic politicians, didn’t take it well when the city’s patronage system started to be redistributed by other folks.  Racial feelings were pretty raw in Chicago in those days.

By the time I got back to Chicago, after graduation, a Daley was reinstalled as Mayor and all seemed right again.

We didn’t love the Daleys in our family, but he was better than Harold Washington.

Daley was smart.  He didn’t fight endless wars to antagonize the black community.  He found ways to co-opt them.  Like hiring Valerie Jarrett, who would ultimately be the political Godmother to Barack Obama.

I was a Republican and I didn’t think I could find political work in Chicago, so I moved to Washington DC.

Washington, DC and Marion Barry


When I first moved to DC, Doug Wilder was running for Governor of Virginia and Marion Barry was running the City.

I didn’t think Wilder could win (it being the Old Dominion and all), but he did win and he did a remarkably good job at Governor.   He doesn’t get enough credit, in my view.  He is kind of like the Larry Doby of politics.

Marion Barry was another story.

He ran DC into the ground.  The crack wars were overwhelming the nation’s Capitol, and Capitol City became know as the murder Capitol of the world.

When Barry got caught doing crack on videotape with a woman who was not his wife, it said all that needed to be said about the nation’s capitol.

It was dangerous to live here.  Two Hill staffers were murdered blocks away from the Capitol building in separate instances.  A friend of mine was kidnapped, stripped and driven from ATM machine to ATM machine, forced to withdrawal her money by two gangbangers.

Somebody was held up at gun point outside the house I rented, and I decided that I had enough of living in the District.  I moved to the Virginia suburbs, where crime wasn’t much of an issue.

In the suburbs, in the 1990’s, the racial complexion was changing.  It wasn’t black and white anymore.  It was black, white, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Korean, Arab, Indonesian, and all kinds of other people.

Virginia was becoming a true melting pot.   It seemed to take the edge off a bit.

The 90’s were a lost decade in DC.  After Barry left office in 1991 – thanks to the crack conviction – he was followed by Sharon Pratt Kelly, who was largely ineffective.  He returned to office in 1995, just in time to do battle with Newt Gingrich who had become Speaker of the House in the election of 1994).

Gingrich and Barry made a colorful pair.  Both bombastic in their own ways, they represented two completely different strains of American politics.  Gingrich used the powers vested in the Congress to dictate terms to Barry.   And Barry bitterly resisted.

I was working in the Congress at the time, but living in Virginia.  There was no way I would live in the District with Marion Barry as its Mayor.

Things change though, and so do Mayors.  Eventually, Anthony Williams became Mayor and the dark clouds of turmoil suddenly lifted.

Williams decided that attracting more tax payers to the Nation’s Capitol meant providing decent services for its citizens, cracking down on crime and generally stopping the race baiting.

His leadership attracted me back to the city, and I wasn’t the only one.

With crime down, young urban professionals flocked back into Washington, and real estate prices went through the roof.    I wasn’t married at the time, and living on the Hill was not only a safe alternative;  It was also a smart alternative.

The Catholic Church that I attended on the Hill from the early 1990’s started booming again, and the black Churches had once packed the streets with parked cars, started closing down.

I got married and had a baby boy.  Most folks assumed we would move to the suburbs.  That’s what everybody had been doing for decades.   And we looked at the suburbs.  Bigger houses and better safety and better schools.

But we decided to stay in the city.   We liked the racial mix.  We liked the easy access to some of the great features of city living.   The Hill was much, much safer than it used to be.

Sure, there was some crime, but there was crime in Georgetown too.

DC Baseball

Shortly after my son was born, there was a move to attract a baseball team to Washington DC.  Williams wanted the team here, but several black politicians, including Marion Barry, bitterly complained that it would be a terrible waste of money, money that could be spent on his constituents.

Black residents of DC didn’t want baseball, but white residents, like me, wanted it desperately.

Williams sided with the business interests and eventually, baseball returned to Washington.  A new baseball stadium was opened in an area of the city that needed a good dose of urban renewal.

Part of that renewal was shutting down projects that had been the source of crime during the 90’s.  That made it easier to make the decision to stay in the city.

Williams retired, and his successor, Adrian Fenty (who had once been an opponent of the baseball team located in the city), decided as Mayor to follow in the same footsteps as his predecessor.  He was all about staying the course.

Fenty made improving the public schools his top priority.   And he defended the school’s czar, Michelle Rhee, against attacks from the Teachers’ Union that she was an uncaring racist who didn’t care sufficiently for the black students in the school system.   Rhee became the focal point of Fenty’s reelection campaign, and he lost because the unions largely convinced D.C.’s African-American community that neither Rhee nor Fenty really had their best interests at heart.

Barack Obama

I didn’t think Barack Obama would beat Hillary Clinton in the primary.  When he did, I didn’t really think Obama would beat John McCain, despite what all of the polls said.

I thought people were lying to the pollsters.  I was wrong.   And it should have been obvious that I was wrong.  Republicans had done a pretty good job of screwing things up.  The economy was in terrible shape, and we were wasting billions of dollars in two countries that would never, ever become the stable democracies that we once hoped for.

Obama ran a superior race.  McCain ran a terrible one.

But history was also on Obama’s side.  The financial crisis was the final nail in the McCain campaign’s coffin.  It was over.

I was worried not about Barack Obama’s race when he assumed office in 2009.  I was worried about his lack of real political experience.  He had been a Senator for less than a full-term.  He had never run anything outside of the Harvard Law Review.  He had no experience as an executive.

But Obama was likeable.  He offered a hopeful message.  He had an attractive family, he had flashes of self-deprecating humor.  He had a warm smile.

And how he was our President.

When a Republican Congressman shouted out in the House Chamber, “you lie.” I wrote a column condemning the actions of the Congressman.

In the face of hate-filled invective, I wrote another column saying that it was perfectly acceptable and probably good politics to publicly like this President  while opposing his policies.

When Glenn Beck called the President a racist on his television show, I called Beck stupid on another network.

I didn’t like what the President was trying to do for the country, but I didn’t think he was an Arab-loving Muslim Marxist who was actively trying to bring America down either.

When the Tea Party rose up, I initially thought it was a natural reaction to a Washington political class that had gone out of control.

But the more I saw the Tea Party’s hate-filled rhetoric, the bolder I got in attacking its excesses.

The idea of Barack Obama as President has been better than the reality, especially when it comes to race relations.

The President has done little to lead on the issue, other than to be a symbol of progress.

I have called for a surge in the inner city, to help the black community fight crime, restore moral order and get jobs.  The President hasn’t done that, even in his home town.

He took the side of Trayvon Martin without knowing all of the facts.  He called a cop who was investigating a possible break-in of Skip Gates home (it turned out that Skip Gates was entering his own home) stupid, which may or may have been the case, but the President didn’t need to say that.

Racial Conflict

When he speaks on race, he speaks only from the perspective of his black father, not from the perspective of his white mother.    He would have been far more effective in bringing the people together if he had shared both perspectives.

Things on the Internet are not great, nor on cable television.  There are a lot of racists out there.  White supremacists.  Black nationalists.  Kooks.  Haters.   Etc.

Some people are hinting at a race war.  Some expected such a war to explode, once George Zimmerman was acquitted.  It didn’t, thankfully.

But there are plenty of instances in the news of racial attacks.  White people shooting black neighbors.  Black kids murdering old men or shooting Australian baseball players, simply because they are bored.  Black kids doing flash mobs in stores.

But these instances of racial conflict shouldn’t overwhelm signs of racial progress.  America elected twice a black President.  They are going to elect another black Senator in New Jersey.  South Carolina has a black Republican Senator, for Chrissakes.

There is still a huge income gap between black and whites, but I bet if you look at the numbers, the gap between blacks in the middle class and whites in the middle class are pretty small.

The numbers in the African American community are dragged down by persistent poverty in the inner city, those parts where social order has broken down and economic progress is impossible.

That is the part of American society that needs to be fixed.

It is the weakest link in the chain that ultimately leads to the failure of the chain.

We have a duty to fix that weakest link.

Over the last 50 years, I have seen a lot of progress and some stumbles.

That’s how life goes.  The key is to keep moving forward and to get back up after you fall.

Martin Luther King should be pleased with the progress we have made, thanks in large part, to his inspirational speech 50 years ago.    We aren’t free at last of racial division and the bitterness that accompanies it, but we are freer from it than we once were.

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