On Today: PBS's Smiley Attacks Obama from the Left, Claims He Favors 'The Rich and the Lucky'

NBC's Today show actually gave Tavis Smiley an opportunity to criticize the President, but it was from the left, as the PBS commentator claimed that Barack Obama has devoted "too much attention to the rich and the lucky."

Invited on Monday's show to promote his new book Fail Up: 20 Lessons On Building Success From Failure, Smiley was prompted by NBC's Ann Curry about what he thought was Obama's "greatest failure has been so far?" To which Smiley responded by listing a litany of liberal grievances against this president , as seen in the following exchange:

ANN CURRY: Well as president then, since you bring it up, what do you think his greatest failure has been so far?

TAVIS SMILEY: Well I think he's got a, he's got a full plate. But I think he's gotta be held accountable for a number of different standards. I think he's wrong on these wars. I think he's given too much time, too much attention to the rich and the lucky, not enough attention to the poor. Not enough focus on jobs. Again, there's a lot on his plate and I'm empathetic toward that. But ultimately are you gonna side with the weak or are you gonna side with the strong? And we gotta focus more attention on the weak in this country and less on the strong.

CURRY: You think this budget battle, this, this tangle-

SMILEY: I think-

CURRY: -is an opportunity for the President?

SMILEY: Yeah I think that budgets are moral documents. Budgets are moral documents. You can say what you say, but you are what you are. And when you put your budget on the table we know what you believe in and there's some questions, some real questions to be asked. The Republican budget is no better, but budgets are moral documents. And it's this budget here, says a whole lot about what our values and priorities are and quite frankly I don't like any of them.

The following is transcript of the complete interview as it was aired on the April 25 Today show:

ANN CURRY: Back now at 8:44am with social commentator and TV host Tavis Smiley. He is celebrating 20 years in broadcasting on PBS and public radio, and his 15th book hits stores on May 1st. It is called, Fail Up: 20 Lessons On Building Success From Failure. Tavis Smiley, good morning to you.

TAVIS SMILEY: Good to see you. Welcome back, we missed you.

CURRY: Oh c'mon! That's sweet of you.

SMILEY: You deserve it, but we're glad to have you back.

CURRY: Well let's talk about this book-

SMILEY: Yeah.

CURRY: -because just in time for graduation you're writing a book about personal feelings that even people close to you don't even know about. You talk about a check-kiting episode that got you arrested. An open-mic incident that spoiled an interview. A relationship with a well-known Hollywood director. And a firing from BET. Now, now why now? Why are you revealing all this now?

SMILEY: I think I'm comfortable in the skin that I'm in. These success scars I'm ready to show now. No one who's successful in any field of human endeavor, if they're being honest, won't tell you that they've learned more from their failures than from their successes. I think we learn more from failure than from success.

CURRY: This is a real effort to help other people with this?

SMILEY: I think so. And I think people can situate themselves in the stories in this book. I start out each chapter talking about my own personal failings. But I love what Samuel Beckett the great Nobel Laureate once wrote. He said, very simply, "Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." I love that. "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Failure doesn't have to be final. It doesn't have to be fatal. And we live in a world right now where everybody is so, I think, frozen by failure individually, in our families, in our country. We are afraid of the future. And I think we can fail through these things if we learn the lessons.


CURRY: You, you chronicle in your book the criticism, for example, that you faced when, when you used your broadcast forums to, to hold President, candidate and then President Barack Obama accountable. We should explain that as a social commentator you had been known-

SMILEY: Sure.

CURRY: -having a good reputation for holding politicians accountable. So what exactly happened here?

SMILEY: Yeah.

CURRY: Because you were actually, you know, really reviled for this.

SMILEY: Yeah. Well, the short answer is that, that black folk who had waited 400 years for this moment - and I understood that. I was on the anchor desk with Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw the night that NBC called this election for Barack Obama. One of the highlights of my 20 year career - being on that desk, at NBC, that night. But black folk waited 400 years for this moment, I understood that. They wanted him to win, if I can take Malcolm X's phrase, and if by any means necessary. So having somebody talk about holding him accountable -- even though I had done that for every presidency during my broadcast career -- there was something about this guy, this black guy, who they wanted to see elected and they didn't want to hear any kind of critique or accountability talk about it. So I didn't change, many in black America did. But that's part of what it means to learn from lessons in life. You have to stand in your own truth with courage, conviction and commitment and know, that over time, folk will catch up with you, if you're telling the truth and you're doing it in love.

CURRY: You were called a traitor. You were called a sell-out.

SMILEY: I got called everything. And the funny thing about is, Barack Obama, President Obama is the best example of failing up in this country. He ought to be the poster child. When he ran for the House seat, years ago, against a guy named Bobby Rush - Bobby Rush beat the breaks off of him 3 to 1. He came back a few years later, ran for the Senate, his opponents started falling off like flies. He walks into the Senate. In 2000 he can't get into the building for the Democratic Convention in my hometown of L.A., and in 2008 he's President of the United States. Pardon my English, if that ain't failing up, I don't know what is?

CURRY: Well as president then, since you bring it up, what do you think his greatest failure has been so far?

SMILEY: Well I think he's got a, he's got a full plate. But I think he's gotta be held accountable for a number of different standards. I think he's wrong on these wars. I think he's given too much time, too much attention to the rich and the lucky, not enough attention to the poor. Not enough focus on jobs. Again, there's a lot on his plate and I'm empathetic toward that. But ultimately are you gonna side with the weak or are you gonna side with the strong? And we gotta focus more attention on the weak in this country and less on the strong.

CURRY: You think this budget battle, this, this tangle-

SMILEY: I think-

CURRY: -is an opportunity for the President?

SMILEY: Yeah I think that budgets are moral documents. Budgets are moral documents. You can say what you say, but you are what you are. And when you put your budget on the table we know what you believe in and there's some questions, some real questions to be asked. The Republican budget is no better, but budgets are moral documents. And it's this budget here, says a whole lot about what our values and priorities are and quite frankly I don't like any of them.

CURRY: One of the priorities needs to be about finding people jobs.

SMILEY: Absolutely. That's, that's, that is the message.

CURRY: So, so, so what is it that you think needs to be done? What's your message to President Obama-

SMILEY: I think, I think-

CURRY: -and the Congress this morning?

SMILEY: I think the way to cut deficits is to provide jobs. That's the simple answer. If you want to reduce the deficit, get Americans back to work. That's true for Republicans and Democrats. Jobs, jobs, jobs. This country has to fail up as well.

CURRY: Alright. A man who never lacks for an opinion. Thank you so much. Tavis Smiley, the book is called Fail Up. 

—Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.