By GAIL FINEBERG
Diversity is arriving soon with the coming-of-age of a younger generation for whom matters of race and gender are irrelevant, ABC/WJLA-TV anchorman Leon Harris said in off-the-cuff remarks to an audience of middle-aged Library staffers gathered in the Mumford Room on Tuesday, Feb. 12, for his African American History Month presentation.
“Diversity is coming,” Harris announced. “It’s going to come whether you are prepared or not.”
He described the excitement of throngs of young people trying to get into T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., the previous Sunday night to see and hear Sen. Barack Obama, whose presidential campaign appeal for national unity seems to transcend race, gender, age, education, socio-economic class and other demographics of interest to pollsters.
“The crowds were ridiculously enthusiastic and ridiculously large, between 10,000 and 12,000,” said Harris, who was assigned to interview Obama after the speech for a 30-minute WJLA broadcast.
Harris said he was mobbed by kids wanting tickets to get in. “’Hey man, you got tickets? Surely you got tickets.’ Since when do scalpers sell tickets to political events? These were 12-to-15-year-olds, white kids and black kids, who wanted to buy tickets to hear a politician give a speech.”
“This moment is a moment in history that probably Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950, the father of Black History Month) would never have dreamed he would see,” Harris said. “This is not just a black man running for the nomination, but he is running against a woman.”
To further illustrate his point that race is becoming a nonissue, he reported a recent exchange with his young son, who was getting ready for a date “with a young woman with an exotic name.”
“Where’s she from?” asked father Harris.
“She’s from Maryland. What’s it matter? Dad, what’s wrong with you?”
“I just wanted to know what she looks like.”
“She looks fine when she’s with me,” his son retorted.
For Harris, the assignment to interview Obama was a welcome break from the WJLA studio in which he anchors weekday newscasts at 5 and 11 p.m. and co-hosts Capital Sunday, which requires late-night researching and writing in preparation.
An award-winning CNN reporter in Atlanta for more than 22 years before coming to Washington about six years ago, he misses the excitement that came from the chance to report on the top stories of the day—Sept. 11 terror strikes, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Asian Tsunami of 2004, the explosion and crash of TWA Flight 800 and the Los Angeles riots. His reports won commendations and awards, including Emmy awards and multiple Cable Ace awards for Best Newscaster.
After pleading with his WJLA boss to be let “outside” (“I’m not a house dog. I’m a yard dog.”), he drew the Obama assignment after Sen. Hillary Clinton had agreed to be interviewed the same length of time in the studio.
An old hand at covering national politics for CNN, he had interviewed presidential candidates, and reported live from both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Harris shared one question he asked both Clinton and Obama in confidence: “What happens if the superdelegates get to Denver [for the Democratic National Convention] and make a deal in a back room, and you-know-who gets it? You know what that would mean—the “d” word—disenfranchisement. That would destroy the unity of this country. In other words, would you be willing to be the person to heal this country, even if it means losing the nomination?”
The unequivocal answer, he said, was: “Absolutely.”
Asked whom he would endorse for the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, Harris responded that he endorses no one, and he does not even vote in an effort to remain objective in his treatment of the political candidates he covers.
Then he thought for a moment and said: “However, if my mother were to die, I would want Obama to deliver the eulogy and Clinton to serve as executor of the estate.”
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.