Andrew Young’s telephone conversation with Donald Trump on Monday delivered one of those déjà vu moments that could carry you back five decades in a single heartbeat.
In more dangerous times, voting rights organizers would send a rabble-rouser into town – often the passionate Hosea Williams, clad in his trademark overalls – to stir up the local black populace.
Young would follow on Williams’ heels, playing the cool and calm “good cop,” and the real negotiations with the ruling white hierarchy would begin.
That’s exactly what happened, appropriately enough, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This time, U.S. Rep. John Lewis was the rabble-rouser, the firebrand who said he would boycott Trump’s inauguration, because Russian hanky-panky – the congressman contended — had tainted the election.
It was Andrew Young who was again playing the role first assigned him in the early ‘60s. But instead of some Southern sheriff, Young was attempting to smooth the ruffled feathers of a president-elect — who had used his itchy Twitter fingers to batter both Lewis and his “horrible” district. That is to say, us.
“It was touchy,” Young said after he arrived back in Atlanta.
The call from Trump Tower had been arranged by Martin Luther King III and his sister Bernice King, and came while Young was in Nashville, in the midst of a newspaper interview that had followed a breakfast speech.
Young’s end of the extraordinary conversation was videotaped, and can be found on YouTube:
“We talked about you. And really, we ended up all having hope for your administration,” Young told Trump, congratulating him on his choices for secretary of state and the treasury.
And about Congressman Lewis. “John is a good … a very good man, he is really a saint,” Young assured Trump. “He is kind of disillusioned right now, but he will come back.”
After they were disconnected, Young told the newspaper reporter present that both parties, Lewis and Trump, were in the wrong.
“John is a saint. But I disagree with him on the Russians rigging the election. Not that they did not try. And not that they do not interfere in U.S. politics,” Young explained — once he was back in Atlanta.
Since Nov. 8, Democrats have been in a dither over how they should respond to being thrown entirely out of power in Washington, and much of the rest of the country. Young has been among those advising against panic. Good has come from stranger places, he argued on video, three days after the vote. “In fact, the harder and tougher the president, the better we’ve done sometimes,” Young said.
Since then, he has also endorsed Trump’s pick of Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., for secretary of state.
“[Tillerson] has had more on-the-ground, person-to-person experience in dealing with problems of the world than all of the other secretaries of state I know,” Young said Tuesday. “There’s a certain reality to the world that political [barnyard expletive] cannot deal with.”
When you’re closing in on 85, you can say things like that. We just can’t print it.
Lewis and Young have a complicated relationship. They have disagreed before. They were on opposite sides of the fight over extending Ga. 400, which at that time went no farther south than I-285. As mayor, Young favored it. Lewis opposed it.
And yet Young credits Lewis, eight years his junior, with bringing him and his wife Jean to Atlanta in 1961. “When we saw the Nashville sit-in story, we had just bought a house in Queens. That day she made me promise to quit my job,” Young said. (He’d been an associate producer of a CBS religious program aimed at teenagers: “Look Up and Live.”)
This week’s Lewis-Trump-Young episode was, in a sense, a well-timed history lesson that reflected the experiences Young and Lewis brought to the civil rights movement, and the strategies they employed.
Lewis grew up poor on an Alabama farm. Getting in “good trouble” has been his trademark. Young, the son of a New Orleans dentist, was born in better circumstances. He has always been about what happens after the confrontation. And he’s always, always been an economic development man.
“I’m still economically conservative,” Young said. And then he turned to the recent presidential contest.
“We focus on human rights for gay marriage, for handicapped people, minorities, immigrants – and all of that I agree with. But the fundamental human right is a job. We forgot that in the Democratic party. And that’s why we lost. It was not the Russians,” he said.
Three-quarters of Democratic cash was spent attacking Trump rather than building up Hillary Clinton, Young argued. “And that is a prescription for disaster. We should have known better, because 16 or 17 Republicans had done the same thing. They attacked Trump and lost,” he said.
Attacks simply harden Trump’s base.
“The reason I opposed John Lewis is that we don’t want to keep doing that. That only gives [Trump] more power. By and large, [Trump] is a master at street fighting. But you cannot street fight in today’s world. And you cannot street fight in this economic order. You have to have a clear vision,” Young said.
In other words, there is influence to be gained through engagement with Trump, by helping him formulate an economic vision more realistic, more international, than the tariff-dependent one the president-elect currently espouses.
Young’s foundation has been working on four projects that the former ambassador thinks could change the world. One of them is to create an “enterprise zone” — fueled by tax breaks, credits and such — the full length of the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to Minnesota.
“That’s why I want to talk to the secretary of the treasury,” Young said, referring to Trump nominee Steve Mnuchin. “Because he’s the Goldman-Sachs guy – and I don’t want him to use taxpayer money.
“If we can get people out of talking about race and human rights and feeling sorry for themselves, if we can deal with these issues in dollars instead of emotion, we can solve them,” Young said.
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