BET Founder Johnson Defends His Recent Criticisms of Obama

Robert Johnson is a longtime supporter of the Clintons.
Robert Johnson is a longtime supporter of the Clintons. (Kevin Clark - Twp)
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By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A day after his remarks about Sen. Barack Obama helped fuel a rancorous debate about race in the Democratic presidential contest, an unapologetic Robert L. Johnson described how frustrating it is to be on the other side of a candidate he compared to Teflon.

"We've always said we need a perfect, well-spoken, Harvard-educated black candidate who would prove we've transcended race," the billionaire African American businessman and supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) said in an interview yesterday. "Well, now we've got him and nobody knows how to campaign against him."

Johnson reiterated that he was referring to Obama's earlier career as a community organizer when he said during an appearance on behalf of Clinton on Sunday in Columbia, S.C., that the senator from Illinois needs to explain his past. And he elaborated on what he meant when he called Obama "Sidney," a reference to Sidney Poitier's well-mannered character in the film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

"What has happened, in my opinion, is that what we have created is the quote-unquote 'perfect candidate' that's like in the movies, that has absolutely no blemishes," a vision that is unrealistic, said Johnson, who started Black Entertainment Television and has been a friend of the Clintons for two decades.

He said Obama has avoided talking about race, a tactic that Johnson said made him acceptable to the largely white electorate of Iowa. Obama won the state's Democratic caucuses on Jan. 3. "White America is saying, 'He's safe for us, he should be safe for you guys,' " Johnson said, referring to blacks. "We're letting other people pick our leaders."

"The Obama campaign -- win, lose or draw -- is going to have to address race," Johnson said. "If we don't have this debate about race within the Democratic Party . . . we could find ourselves with a division in this party as we go up against whoever the Republicans put up."

Johnson said that one of President Bill Clinton's political strengths was his ability to connect with black voters, and that it is an ability shared by his wife. "This is a fight between who's going to control the liberal soul of the party," Johnson said. "The people who don't like the Clintons have found the Clintons' worst nightmare -- a very dynamic, talented black man to run up against them."

Johnson is known within the media industry as a tough-dealing, visionary businessman, apt to take a high-stakes risk in a sometimes unpredictable fashion, somewhat like fellow media mogul Ted Turner. He launched BET in 1979 with $15,000. Johnson earned praise for creating a cable channel that catered to black viewers, but he also drew criticism for its raunchy hip-hop videos, which some viewers said reinforced negative stereotypes.

Unbowed, Johnson and his wife, Sheila, became billionaires when they sold BET to Viacom in 2000 for $3 billion. The couple later divorced. Sheila Crump Johnson, now president of the Washington Mystics WNBA team, is backing Obama.

Johnson, 61, met the Clintons at a weekend retreat two decades ago at the Martha's Vineyard home of activist Marian Wright Edelman. He reconnected with them in 1988 and joined other prominent blacks from business and entertainment in backing Bill Clinton's presidential run in 1992, donating to the campaign and the party. "But I never got to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom," Johnson said.

Since 1990, Johnson has donated $2 million to congressional and presidential candidates, and 99 percent of that has gone to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He has given $14,800 to Hillary Clinton since she first ran for the Senate in 2000. He gave $4,500 total to Obama during the 2004 and 2006 cycles, but none so far during this campaign, the CRP reports.

After Bill Clinton left office, he and Johnson traded professional favors, Johnson said. When Johnson was bidding to buy the Charlotte Bobcats NBA team, he asked Clinton to call league Commissioner David Stern and put in a good word for him, which Clinton did.

Likewise, when Hillary Clinton was considering her presidential run in late 2006, Johnson got a call from her staff, asking if she and her husband could use Johnson's vacation home in Anguilla. Johnson said he was staying there at the time but left to make room for the Clintons.

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.

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