Appearing on Meet the Press on Sunday, PBS host Tavis Smiley doubled down on remarks about President Obama‘s response to the George Zimmerman not guilty verdict in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin — comments that caused a big backlash against Smiley on Twitter.
Smiley began by accusing the president of only speaking out on Trayvon Martin because he was “pushed,” saying: “I appreciate and applaud the fact that the president did finally show up. But this town has been spinning a story that’s not altogether true. He did not walk to the podium for an impromptu address to the nation. He was pushed to that podium. A week of protests outside the White House, pressure building on him inside the White House, pushed him to that podium.”
An administration source on Friday told theGrio that the president watched the verdict, along with millions of Americans, last Saturday, and by Thursday, following intense conversations with members of his family, and with friends, Obama decided that he wanted to speak. The official told theGrio on background that Obama called a meeting of his senior staff late Thursday and told them he wanted to make a statement, but that he didn’t want to give a scripted speech, or even warn the press.
Instead, he walked out to the podium unannounced, taking over the daily press briefing. The press had not even fully convened for the briefing, and so the front row of the press room was practically empty.
Smiley, however, believes the president’s remarks didn’t go far enough. He told NBC’s David Gregory that when Obama “left the podium, he still had not answered the most important question, that Kingian question, where do we go from here? That question this morning remains unanswered, at least from the perspective of the president. And the bottom line is, this is not Libya. This is America. On this issue, you cannot lead from behind. What’s lacking in this moment is moral leadership. The country is begging for it. They’re craving it.”
Responding to the president’s statement that politicians might not be the best people to lead a real national discussion on race, Smiley said: “I disagree with the president, respectfully, that politicians, elected officials, can’t occupy this space on race. Truman did, Johnson did, President Obama did. He’s the right person in the right place at the right time, but he has to step into his moment. I don’t want him to be like Bill Clinton, when he’s out of office, regretting that he didn’t move on Rwanda. I don’t want the president to look back and realize he didn’t do as much as he could have in this critical moment.”
Congressional Black Caucus chair and Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, former RNC chairman and MSNBC political analyst Michael Steele, Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree and National Urban League President Marc Morial were also a part of the “Meet the Press” panel.
Smiley also argued that there is no evidence that Obama has tried to have the conversation about race in America, and questioned why he was able to take leadership on the issue of gay rights, but not on race.
On a subsequent segment, a panel of journalists, including New York Times columnist David Brooks and MSNBC Political Director Chuck Todd evaluated the president’s remarks in an historical context, while Ogletree argued that the president has tried to push forward issues of black progress, but that he is not solely responsible for making that conversation happen.
Watch that part of the discussion below:
Editor’s note: a previous version of this story incorrectly stated Tavis Smiley is an NPR host.