Tavis Smiley Comes to Washington

Just as the nation's capital is bracing for a power shift, the ubiquitous talk host brings his road show to President Obama's front yard. You can bet he's going to raise some hard questions.

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Tavis Smiley is unabashed about bringing his controversial road show to President Obama's turf. The talk show host, a persistent critic of the president, has been an advocate of a "black agenda" that would focus federal resources directly on issues that affect black America.

Next week Smiley will preside over a three-hour discussion in Washington, D.C., that he has billed as America's Next Chapter, with a subheading of "Recovering America's Greatness." The panel will include Princeton professor Cornel West, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, Republican strategist David Frum, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, CBN columnist David Brody, CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo and Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino. The forum, scheduled at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium on Jan. 13 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., will be broadcast live on C-SPAN and rebroadcast on three consecutive nights on Smiley's PBS television show.

For Smiley, timing is everything, and he feels that this is the right moment to raise important issues in the heart of Washington. "There are so many things happening over the next couple of weeks that make this moment quite propitious," he said in an interview with The Root. "We're days away from halfway points of President Obama's first term; we're going to see change as the Republican Party takes power in the House; we are weeks away from people starting to declare they're running for the White House."

Smiley brushes off suggestions that there is already plenty of talk in Washington or that his own PBS show provides a sufficient forum for discussion. He argues that politicians on both sides of the aisle spend a lot of time paying lip service to the "middle class" but hardly have anything to say about the poor. "The issue of poverty does not get discussed in Washington," he cites as one example. "I guarantee it will not be left out of this conversation."

His role, says Smiley, is to give "a platform and a voice to issues that are not being raised high enough on the agenda." The makeup of the panel will also be a departure for Smiley. In the past he has brought together many of the black best and brightest; this panel will be "multiracial" and "multicultural" -- black and white, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican.

Smiley concedes that he has been subjected to harsh criticism from some African Americans for his persistent questioning of President Obama. He shrugs it off as part of the territory. "2011 is my 20th year in broadcasting," he says. "I've been at this for a while; I know how the game is played. I've only talked about one thing over the last 20 years: accountability."

Smiley says that his conference will be looking for solutions. "I think that this is not about bashing Obama -- it is about finding a way forward," he says. "This is not the Fox News channel; that's not what I do."

One of Smiley's concerns is the bleak outlook many Americans have about the future. He cites recent Rasmussen Reports telephone surveys that show Americans are deeply pessimistic about the economy. The group's Dec. 7 survey report said that just 36 percent of Americans believe the economy will be better off a year from now.

The black perspective becomes even more important in hard times, says Smiley. He cites the way many Americans were traumatized by the 9/11 attacks. "Black folk have been living with terrorism for 400 years in this country," says Smiley. He quotes Cornel West, who has participated in many of his forums. "What can a blues nation learn from a blues people?" says Smiley. "We know what it means to have the blues: The blues is holding on to hope in the midst of despair."

Joel Dreyfuss is the managing editor of The Root.