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Radio interview
Alan Keyes on NPR's Fresh Air radio show
August 11, 2004

DAVE DAVIES, HOST [SUBSTITUTING]: When the Illinois Republican Party lost its candidate for U.S. Senate to a messy divorce scandal, party leaders looked at a number of options for a replacement--including former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka--but in the end, the party settled on someone certain to keep the race lively, conservative commentator and two-time presidential candidate Alan Keyes.

Like his opponent, Barack Obama, Keyes is African-American--but he isn't from Illinois. He'll move from Maryland to run for the seat.

Since his last campaign in 2000, Keyes has been writing and speaking for conservative causes. He's hosted radio talk shows, and in 2002 had his own MSNBC show called "Alan Keyes is Making Sense."

Keyes received his undergraduate degree and Ph.D in government from Harvard. He spent 11 years in the foreign service, and headed a conservative advocacy group called "Citizens Against Government Waste."

Besides his presidential campaigns in 1996 and 2000, Keyes was twice the Republican nominee for United States Senate from Maryland, in 1998 and 1992.

I spoke by telephone to Alan Keyes in his campaign office on Wednesday.

[begin taped interview]

DAVIES: Alan Keyes, welcome to Fresh Air.


DAVIES: Your opponent, Barack Obama, made quite a bit of his biography, of his family lineage, in his speech--the, kind of, diversity in his background. How would you describe your own family background?

KEYES: Well, I think my family background--my father was a career soldier and my mother was a homemaker; my father was from Maryland, my mother from North Carolina--I think on the one side of the family, I guess on my mother's side, there was a combination of various things. I even have a little Cherokee Indian blood. And on my father's side, mainly I'm a descendant of slaves who worked on the plantations in Maryland. So I guess it's a pretty standard black American background.

DAVIES: As a black student at Harvard in the late '60s, I mean, you had to be part of a very small minority. And this, of course, was at a time when radical politics were sweeping college campuses, and the Black Panthers and other militant groups were in full bloom. Give us a sense of what your political thinking was then. I mean, were you moved at all to left-of-center politics?

KEYES: Not really, no. I think that was one of the reasons why I reacted against the things that were taking place at Harvard. I just didn't find that some of the things that were being said and done had much logical or intellectual validity. I was at that point very serious about trying to understand, at a very serious level, what the basis was for certain ideas, including the ideas of the freedom that are at the basis of the American system. And I was engaged in reading the Founders, reading a lot of the philosophers, ancient and modern, that had been involved in their thinking and influenced it.

So, I'd already decided that this is what I wanted to concentrate on. I thought that was, in fact, a serious way to prepare oneself to deal with some of the issues that were obviously very much on my mind--slavery, injustice, segregation, issues involved in the Civil Rights movement. I think you had to have a response that was more than emotional, a response that involved more than rhetoric and slogans and outbursts, I guess, that might be consonant with your anger. I thought you had to try to the best of your ability to really think things through in such a way that you could develop in yourself an effective tool for addressing these issues in the long run, and that that was what I was supposed to be doing as a student.

DAVIES: You've been known for advocating an approach for issues in the United States--but in African-American communities in particular--of valuing the family, of personal responsibility, of moral clarity. Are there experiences that sort of crystallized that view for you? Where did you really pull that together?

KEYES: Well, I wouldn't say, though, that it's experience. I mean, a lot of what I think is the result of thinking, it's the result of trying to look at facts and information. I mean, I wrote a book some years back, Masters of the Dream, and it was during that period that I was working on it--it took several years--that I really spent a lot of time delving into the history of black Americans, from slavery forward. And the question I had in mind at that point was, given everything that was against people, both in slavery and after, why had people survived?

I mention in the book that there were writers who had said that if blacks were freed from slavery, within a few decades the black people in America would be extinct because they wouldn't be able to survive, wouldn't be able to take care of themselves.

Well, this turned out to be untrue, despite the fact that the environment that prevailed after slavery, after being freed, was really hostile. Especially throughout the South, where most black people lived, the institutions turned against black people. Things were done to deprive folks of education, to keep them economically without advantage, and so forth and so on. And yet, in the years from the time slavery ended until around 1910-1915, great progress was made in reconstituting the family--in spite of the destruction wrought by slavery--and making advances in literacy, in developing structures within a community oppressed by segregation that would support the family and support an approach of responsibility.

And so, I was just very, very struck by this, and wanted to try to understand what had made it possible--and I found, in the course of the reading and research that I did, that two things seemed to be most important: family and faith, in the context of an understanding that these things became the motive, as it were, for pursuing education and laying that kind of a foundation under the individual's abilities.

So, these are all things, by the way, that involve serious moral elements--because, when everything material is against you, the basis for your own self-esteem and self-respect has to be your moral response to your environment, to the people in it, to the family. Because, if you don't have anything, what you do have to offer, however, is your ability to remember the obligations you owe to family and community, and to really have the self-respect that comes from knowing that you are submitting yourself to a discipline for their sake.

And I think lots of black people accepted that and were able to work against the odds to raise decent children, to get them educated and to try and motivate them, in spite of the fact that so much in the world was turned against them.

DAVIES: You ran for the Senate twice before in Maryland, and in 1992, I believe I read that you felt that the Republican Party had sort of abandoned your race. Because you were black, I mean, you saw racism at work in this. And I wanted to ask you, I mean, I know you've thought a lot about Affirmative Action and such issues. I mean, given that you believe that, at least back then, that racial discrimination against you played an important role in that political race--this is a big question, but take a crack at it--I mean, how much of a role does racism play in maintaining the conditions that African-Americans find themselves in inner cities?

KEYES: Well, I think nobody who is a black person in America would deny that racism has played a role in their lives. What I would say is that it doesn't play nearly as much a role in the overall reality that we've been talking about, as some people say it does, because I think that right now we live in a world where a lot of doors are open, and where other factors are keeping people from pushing against those open doors and moving ahead.

And racism--in some sense, the sad truth is that racism is no longer necessary to do that, because internal mechanisms of self-propulsion have been dismantled. Was that dismantling the result of racism? That's something I've often thought about.

Because, when you look at the kind of stuff in music and other things that have been pushed at black children, when you look at the preponderant location of abortion clinics--and people always have talked in history about liquor stores and things of that kind--it seemed like folks were put in an environment which encouraged the breakdown of moral discipline.

There was also a sense in which the whole rhetoric of victimization started to push people down a road where, instead of being a constructive reminder of reality, and where folks were coming from, and the challenges they faced, it became almost an excuse for failure and started to discourage people from taking a hold of themselves and moving ahead or giving them a feeling that it didn't matter what they did--because, at some point, if you concentrate too much upon the negative, that itself becomes debilitating.

And so, I think all these factors played a role.

I certainly wouldn't want to suggest that there was some kind of orchestrated or even conscious racism involved, but at the same time, but at the same time, I think that it would be foolish to deny that a lot of this is not a coincidence and that we have to see in it the operation of the understanding that was influenced by inherited racial stereotypes, inherited attitudes that kind of denigrated the capacity of black folks to address their own situation, and therefore was more open to approaches, understandings that really left black people in the position of helpless victims instead of respecting the capacities that people have in themselves to control their communities and their families, and challenging them in a tough-minded way to do it.

DAVIES: OK. Well, let's talk about this Senate race that you are very busily engaged in, and let's get this one question out of the way first.

You were quoted as saying in the year 2000, quote, "I deeply recent the destruction of federalism represented by Hillary Clinton's willingness to go into a state she doesn't even live in and pretend to represent people there."

You're from Maryland, running in Illinois. Have you changed your mind, or are the standards different in your case?

KEYES: Oh, no, no. The standards are the same, and I have not changed my mind. And I think that what Hillary did, I would still criticize roundly, because she self-evidently shopped around America, looked carefully to pick a state that would serve her personal ambition, prepared the ground, went in in order to construct a basis for pursuing her personal ambition, and was consciously translating her national standing and reputation into a bid for a seat for power--regardless, really, of the principles of representational integrity and state sovereignty. That's not what I'm doing.

DAVIES: Well, you are a man of some . . . yeah. . . .

KEYES: I didn't have any thought whatsoever of coming here to run. It was not something that was on my personal agenda in any way. I was approached by people in Illinois, by their own decision--which is what makes it formally consistent with sovereignty. But even more important, the federalism issue that I raised is very important to me, but federalism has two components, which, as I've reminded people, are wonderfully summed up in the state motto of Illinois. It's "state sovereignty, national union."

Federalism has two parts. I think we ought to respect the state sovereignty part and not sacrifice it to personal ambition--but when the principles of our national union are at stake, Lincoln, for instance, recognized in his statesmanship that you must limit your allegiance to state sovereignty in order to defend the principles of our national union.

And those principles are at stake in this race because Barack Obama is deeply committed to a stance on abortion and other moral issues that rejects the founding principles of this country. And as I thought it through, I said, "Look, I have a moral obligation, after all I've said in life, to go in and defend those principles, because if I didn't, people would think I was an outrageous hypocrite."

DAVIES: Well, let's get to that. I mean, you made a lot of headlines in the Illinois papers early in this campaign by saying that Barack Obama had, I believe, "the slaveholder position" on life, because of his position on abortion.

KEYES: Absolutely.

DAVIES: Awfully strong words.

KEYES: Not so much, just logical. It's just rational. It's an argument, because the slaveholder position--as reflected in, say, the position of somebody like Stephen Douglas. He was a pro-choice candidate back [then] on slavery. He said he didn't care whether it was voted up or voted down, so long as it was done by popular sovereignty, which meant "the people's choice."

And Abraham Lincoln came forward and excoriated him because of the stance of indifference to our fundamental moral principles, and Lincoln referred to the Declaration of Independence: "All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." The same indifference, exactly, is involved in the issue of abortion, the notion that somehow you can look at the life in the womb and say the mother's choice determines our respect for it, when our principles say that every human being, regardless of circumstance, development, or condition, the worth of that human life comes from the Creator--that's what the Declaration states.

So, just as the slaveholder and people like Douglas were willing to disregard the worth of black Americans on the basis of their choice, so we have people like Obama today saying we can disregard the God-given worth of that babe in the womb because of our choice--and in doing so, they reject the fundamental principle that Lincoln asserted, that Martin Luther King asserted, that Frederick Douglass and others asserted, that we must respect the conscience shaped by the Declaration on which this country was founded.

I believe that, and I think that it's clear that Barack Obama does not.

And so, I'm not calling him names or anything, I'm just saying, "Look! The principle at stake is the same, and his position is like the position of Stephen Douglas and others who were the slaveholders' favorites in those days."

DAVIES: Well, his position on abortion, it seems to me, is at least colorblind--and when you bring the rhetoric of "slaveholder position," it seems to me you're bringing a racial element into that conversation.

KEYES: That's nonsense, I'm sorry. And I have to be very blunt.

One of the things I learned--because I had slave ancestors, and I, as I said, have deeply looked at, and thought about, meditated on the injustice involved in slavery.

Slavery is not a RACIAL issue. It's an issue of human justice! And that means that when someone is enslaved, in violation of the fundamental premise of human dignity, we are turning our backs on our decent humanity.

That's not a racial issue, and abortion is not a racial issue, but the principle involved is the very principle that lay at the heart of the kind of arguments that the slaveholders made in denigration of black Americans. But it was not RACE in fact that caused that denigration, it was an utter disregard for decent humanity.

DAVIES: On abortion, you said that his position really is [antithetical] to the fundamental principles of the Declaration of Independence. He has cast you as an extremist on this issue, saying that you would ban abortion in cases of rape and incest. Is that your position?

KEYES: Why, yes, it is. It always has been. It's quite clear that there's a deep injustice involved in [abortion], and I often ask people, "So, we are supposed to punish an innocent child because its parents committed an offense like incest or its father an offense like rape? Would you like to be punished for the deeds of your parents? Would you want to be killed because your parents committed an offense?"

We know that that's not fair. We know that that violates, just on the face of it, every principle of justice.

So, of course. No argument. See, people like to make assertions. He [Obama] makes assertions. We should make arguments for the positions that we take, because otherwise we're just engaging in name-calling. And I say, I make an argument for what I believe. Let him come forward with a valid argument for what he believes, and let's compare the two.

DAVIES: Apart from abortion, give us one other issue that you think is going to be critical here and how you think your views differ from your opponent's and why it matters.

KEYES: Well, I think that we're going to see critical issues that involve, first of all, the defense of the family, from the assault that is being made now on the traditional male-female family. And I think the stand that is taken by Obama is contradictory. He says he respects the family, but he's against everything--the Defense of Marriage Act, the Federal Marriage Amendment, and so forth--that's being done to defend the family.

DAVIES: Well, I believe his position is, he supports civil unions, opposes gay marriage. I mean, how would . . .

KEYES: No. I'm telling you, his supposed "opposition" to gay marriage is false. He is against everything that is required, in fact, to defend traditional marriage against the assault now being waged against it on behalf of gay marriage.

So, I'll state it quite simply and clearly. That is a contradictory position that is not in fact an acceptable and sincere one--and I think that's going to require on his part an explanation.

DAVIES: And tell us why you think voters should understand that gay people having their unions recognized are a threat to the traditional, heterosexual family.

KEYES: Meaning no offense, marriage, we're talking marriage here. And marriage is about procreation.

People who cannot, in principle--I'm not talking about incidentally, in terms of health or other things like this--but people who cannot, in principle, procreate cannot get married. It's very simple. It makes marriage an absurdity. It means that marriage is just the relationship of two individuals for the sake of, what? Hedonistic self-gratification.

This is not what marriage is, and to adopt that view of it means that you have substituted for procreation and the implied responsibilities that are involved in it a sense that the marriage institution is just, I don't know, an institution that is devoted in hedonism. And that's not the case--and in fact to suggest that it is deeply threatens the true understanding of marriage that's needed for people to make a life commitment that is commensurate with the responsibilities of family, procreation, parenting, and so forth.

DAVIES: Can you name all the Chicago sports teams?

KEYES: Um--I think I can name most of them.

DAVIES: [laughs]

KEYES: But I have to tell you, when people do that, I tell them I don't make no bones about it. Nobody's pretending I'm from Illinois. There'll be a learning curve with respect to various things, but as I said in my speech, I may not know all these details, but I think there is a community of heart and spirit between me and the majority of people in Illinois, and we will see the results of that community on election day.

DAVIES: Alan Keyes, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KEYES: You're welcome.

DAVIES: Alan Keyes. He's currently the Republican candidate for United States Senate from Illinois.

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