Guest Column

What is Bob Johnson up to?

A Black Commentator Investigative Report
February 24, 2005

In a transparent bid to boost Republican fortunes among Blacks, billionaire Bob Johnson attempted earlier this year to convene a secret meeting of prominent African Americans at BET headquarters in Washington, DC. obtained a copy of the invitation to the “retreat,” scheduled for January 13 and 14 and ostensibly designed “for the purpose of brainstorming ideas as to how we as African Americans can best confront the political and demographic realities of the 21st century.” None of the invitees were told the identity of the others and the press was scrupulously kept in the dark, but we have learned enough to report that the mix was high-powered and politically diverse. (Click here to view the Johnson invitation letter to the retreat. The page may load slowly for dial up users due to the large size of the image.)

The stealth gathering was postponed for lack of a quorum, but Johnson’s intentions were made clear in his eight suggested talking-points, not one of which dealt with issues such as jobs, health care, housing, social security, civil rights or war and peace. Instead, the BET founder, who was an early backer of Social Security privatization and organized fellow wealthy Blacks in support of George Bush’s bid to repeal the Estate Tax, crafted an agenda designed to peel African Americans away from the Democratic Party – his clear assignment in Bush’s second term. “It seems to me he was suggesting more cooperation with Republicans, or at least, less friendship toward Democrats,” said one invitee, who asked for anonymity.

With great cynicism but little guile, Johnson taps into the near-universal desire among Blacks for actions that will lead to greater operational unity and effectiveness – and attempts to channel these aspirations in Republican directions. Of the eight Johnson “questions” listed below, all but three implicitly urge collaboration with the GOP or a boycott of Democrats. The remainder – on forming a Black political party, running “favorite son” candidates, and fundraising over the Internet – are window dressing to create the impression of a broader agenda.

Should African Americans continue to vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party?

Should African Americans, in concert, make overtures to the Republican Party?

Should African Americans seek to form an independent party and vote accordingly?

Should African American-elected officials be encouraged to run as favorite sons in national elections?

 Should African Americans holding elected offices be asked to vote according to a multi-party system by using their voting power to leverage the Democrats against the Republicans and the Republicans against the Democrats in the best interest of African Americans?

Should African American voters be encouraged to vote for Republican or Democratic officials based upon the negotiated agreement with the respective candidates rather than based on party affiliation?

Should African Americans demonstrate our political cohesiveness, and therefore political power, by withholding votes from a particular candidate in a selected election?

Should African Americans invest in an Internet-based fundraising effort to form a totally independent source of political financing?

Bob Johnson doubtless kept the invitees in the dark as to each other’s identities, the better to control the direction of the slanted discourse by curtailing opportunities for pre-meeting discussions among invitees, such as, What is this guy up to? and, How was this list put together? or, Why aren’t there any talking points on the issues?

obtained, from a third party, a copy of NAACP Chairman Julian Bond’s response to Johnson’s invitation. Bond declined to attend “for scheduling reasons,” congratulated Johnson for his efforts, then offered a valuable, point-by-point critique. On the question of whether Blacks should “continue to vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party,” Bond responded:

”This strikes me as the wrong question – the correct one is ‘what party should we vote for, and what standards should we apply to choose the beneficiary of our votes?’ In every election in my lifetime from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush (with one exception in 1956) we’ve chosen the Democratic Party by large majorities. That choice was rationally made between two competing and general political philosophies – one which promised an aggressive defense of civil rights and the prospect of economic growth and security, the other offering the vicissitudes of the marketplace and less vigorous federal protection of – and in many cases a retreat from – civil rights. Using that general standard, we’ve consistently voted for Democrats, and I expect that pattern to be followed for the foreseeable future. In recent elections, our choice has also been a matter of the Republican Party repulsing us rather than the Democratic Party attracting us.”

Bond agreed that Republicans should be rewarded with votes if they “adopt policies deemed favorable” to Black interests. “It would be the height of idiocy, however, to suggest that having given our votes to one party for so long we ought to give them to the other for no reason except that we could,” said Bond. “The old mantra, ‘taken for granted by one party; ignored by the other’ isn’t remedied by giving our votes to a party that doesn’t make any rational appeal for them.”

The former Georgia state lawmaker engaged all of Johnson’s questions, and suggested there should be discussion on subjects such as the lack of urban issues in the recent election campaign, the folly of holding the first primaries in the unrepresentative states of New Hampshire and Iowa, and the unfairness of the Electoral College. But the crucial question, says Bond, is: “Who decides?” Who decides how monies raised for Black political campaigns are disbursed? Who decides who is to “negotiate” agreements between African Americans and the two major parties? Bond has confirmed the letter obtained is his. (Click here to view the letter. The page may load slowly for dial up users due to the large size of the image.)

When asked Johnson’s executive assistant, Michelle Curtis, about the status of the “retreat” we were met with a harsh, “Were you invited?” Informed that we were not, but that we thought the meeting to be of interest to the Black public, Curtis stated, repeatedly, “You weren't invited, so we have nothing to say.” Bob Johnson has not responded to our inquiries. However, he has done Othello-like service to George Bush’s state, parroting and even shaping the Republican political line at critical junctures since the beginning of Bush’s presidency.

True to his class

Johnson has a history of rounding up prominent Blacks to provide a veneer of “diversity” for the most reactionary Republican schemes. In 2001, in search of federal help in a complicated deal that Johnson hoped would deliver him a Washington-New York airline route, he became the Black point-man for Bush’s assault on the Estate Tax – dubbed the “Death Tax” by Republicans. Johnson gathered the signatures of a who’s who of African American wealth, endorsing repeal of a tax that affected only half of one percent of Black people.  Meanwhile, one hundred fabulously rich white people, including Bill Gates Sr., warned that repeal of the tax “would enrich the heirs of America's millionaires and billionaires while hurting families who struggle to make ends meet." Johnson and his rich friends were unmoved, and stood logic on its head:

“The Estate Tax is particularly unfair to the first generation of the high net worth African Americans who have accumulated wealth only recently. These individuals may have family members and relatives who have not been as fortunate in accumulating assets who could directly benefit from their share of an estate as heir. Elimination of the Estate Tax would allow African Americans to pass the full fruits of their labor to the next generation and beyond.”

In other words, laissez-fair capitalism for the Black rich is good for the other, 99.5 percent of Black America. No wonder Bob Johnson wants to hold narrowly framed meetings about electoral strategies with Black leadership, rather than discuss bread and butter issues – he is so far to the right, he’s off the screen of the Black Political Consensus.

President Bush praised Johnson at the April, 2001 gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors: “As Robert Johnson, of Black Entertainment Television argues, the death tax and double taxation weighs heavily on minorities who are only beginning to accumulate wealth" – a line that Johnson crafted in the interest of himself and his own tiny class. The Estate Tax was effectively killed.

A Pioneer privatizer

"We're all on the Titanic as it relates to Social Security and people are telling us it's the safest ship afloat. But we are heading for a disaster.'' – Bob Johnson

Only hard-core GOP Rightists shrilled like that in 2002 – back then, the Republican National Committee specifically forbade its congressional candidates from campaigning on the shaky ground of Social Security privatization. But Bob Johnson was on a Bush-mission to spread hysteria and confusion in Black America, and he performed shamelessly. Johnson was picked for a slot on Bush’s supposedly bi-partisan Commission to Strengthen Social Security – as a Democratic member! Thus, Bush got an African American commissioner who cared nothing for the interests of the masses of Blacks or Democrats. And he got a mouthpiece for the evolving GOP Social Security line for Black consumption. “African Americans who contribute to the Social Security system and payroll taxes also have one of the highest mortality rates, so in the end, they may not receive the full benefits of what they put in Social Security,” said Johnson, a message that would be repeated on hundreds of Black radio stations during the 2002 congressional elections.

Yes, Bob Johnson is a true media pioneer – a veteran polluter of the Black airwaves. His original “Black” rationale for Social Security privatization is now a centerpiece of White House propaganda – the context in which his call for a meeting of Black minds must be viewed.

However, it would be wrong to assume that Johnson is simply playing at right-wing politics because the Republicans control the government. He’s been hanging with the troglodytes since 1979, when he hooked up with John C. Malone, of Tele-Communications Inc. To ease his way into cable franchises in heavily Black cities, Malone needed someone to provide African American programming. He bankrolled Johnson for $500,000 in return for a 35 percent share in their new baby, BET. (Johnson put up just $15,000 in borrowed money.) Malone and Johnson have been joined at the wallet ever since; Malone never gave up his BET stock. When Johnson sold BET to Viacom for $3 billion in 2000, Malone’s company received $800 million in Viacom stock.

Johnson’s partner Malone is on the board of the Cato Institute – in the Right’s division of labor arrangement, the point organization on Social Security privatization. This is the political company Bob Johnson keeps, when he’s not using his wealth to tease cash-starved Black leadership structures into paying him undue attention.

A disruptive bank account

Donna Brazile, head of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute, would have attended Johnson’s meeting had it come off. “Look, on questions of partisanship, I am a strong and faithful Democrat,” she told . “But, I welcome a dialogue with those on the other side to see what, if anything, they are willing to bring to the table.  In the past, they have come up empty handed and with a stick to beat Democrats down. Now, if Bob wants to have a conversation with all sides, I am ready, but actions still speak louder than words.”

It’s not clear if Brazile considers Johnson to be on “the other side” or not. Indeed, it’s hard not to be at the center of attention when one comprises half of the total billionaire population of Black America. Johnson, who is leaving BET by the end of the year, will certainly enjoy a well-attended “summit” of his own choosing – whether secret or public – if he reschedules it wisely. But everyone in attendance should know what the real agenda is: to lure Blacks into a relationship with the Republican Party or, failing that, to cause splintering and confusion in the ranks.

Black Commentator article at: http://www.blackcommentator.com/127/127_cover_bob_johnson.html#

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