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Why Right Is Wrong

Craig Sjodin-ABC

Talking Out of the Left Side of His Mouth: Author and radio pundit Tavis Smiley counters the rightward slant of the airwaves.

Tavis Smiley is the anti-Limbaugh

By Nicky Baxter

TAVIS SMILEY didn't plan on becoming a talk-radio host. At the age of 13, Smiley was "bitten by the political bug" when he met former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh at a campaign pit-stop in Kokomo, Ind., not that far from Tavis' home. As Smiley tells it in his new book, Hard Left: Straight Talk About the Wrongs of the Right (Anchor Books), he wanted to make a difference via elected office. But something happened on his way to Washington: talk radio.

Although he admires JFK, Smiley cannot be categorized as an unreconstructed Camelot Kennedy liberal. On his syndicated show, The Smiley Report, he has developed a reputation as an in-your-grill opponent of the ultra-right who isn't afraid of waxing pragmatically on the ideological flaws afflicting liberals.

"I think the term 'pragmatic progressive' is an accurate description of what I'm about," he says. "I want solutions that are pragmatic, practical and progressive." He contrasts this perspective with his perception of the right: "Their entire agenda is repeal, abolish and rescind. You can't move this country forward going backward. That's the problem I have with their agenda."

Curiously, despite its title, Smiley's book is far from radical. He is, for instance, a firm believer in (North) American values: "The right acts as if they are the only ones who believe in patriotism, morality and family." Yet, unlike many of his current Democratic Party compatriots, Smiley is not bashful about being down with gay rights and affirmative action.

Still, there's a bit of the politician in Smiley. Ask him if he recognizes the distinction between liberalist and leftist politics, and he responds like a cagey beltway Washingtonian, maintaining it is principally a matter of semantics. "I don't waste time in my book, or anywhere else, defining terms," he huffs. Still, titling a book Hard Left implies a particular POV. "The title," Smiley blithely explains, "only suggests that the country needs to take a 'hard left' away from the policies espoused by conservative extremists"--nothing more, nothing less.

Smiley does toe the line on traditional liberal concerns, but he is most assuredly attuned to the nation's current belt-tightening era. Hence, he readily acknowledges the right's concern that affirmative action policies require some retooling. Moreover, while he is all for equality for homosexuals, he is opposed to legalizing same-sex marriages.

Equally intriguing, although Smiley could never be confused for a "race man," in the traditional sense of the term, he's had it up to here with what he refers to as "angry white males" who believe that their economic angst is attributable to affirmative action. "In fact," argues Smiley, "the jobs are not going from white to black, but from north to south."

What we need, he declares, is "a healthy economy where everyone must be allowed to be a productive player in the American work force. We don't have a single American to waste." And that's the straight truth as Smiley sees it.

Tavis Smiley appears Wednesday (July 10) at 7:30pm at Barnes & Noble, 3600 Stevens Creek Blvd., San Jose. (408/984-3495)

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From the July 3-10, 1996 issue of Metro

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