Talking the Talk 

Cal linguistics professor John McWhorter has become a darling of the right, installed on national talk shows and courted by Clarence Thomas. What's a good liberal doing in a place like this?

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"The review in Time magazine was the kickoff," McWhorter says, "That article made the book." Once White's column hit the stands, McWhorter's publicist was peppered with interview requests, including a short segment with Fox News prime- time talk-show host Bill O'Reilly, who takes particular pleasure in hounding Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other black leaders. Also on the phone was none other than Diane Sawyer, who asked McWhorter to appear on Good Morning America and chew over his book with a few critics and a roundtable of everyday black folks pulled off the streets of New York. The segment lasted twenty minutes or so, after which McWhorter wearily continued to debate his detractors off camera.

McWhorter had no idea what the consequences of appearing on Good Morning America might be, but he hoped it might lead to some invitations from other topical news shows. Still, he was baffled when he got his next big request: the producers of the ABC late-night show Politically Incorrect wanted McWhorter to sit down and trade quips with host Bill Maher.

Anyone who has watched Politically Incorrect more than once may walk away with the impression that the show follows a carefully scripted formula: Maher sits down with two or three Hollywood mavens, and together they do entertaining double-takes as a fringe conservative pundit says something outrageous. That, at least, was the formula that Maher's producers described to McWhorter -- and this time, they wanted him to be that conservative. "They were quite explicit that that was their game plan," McWhorter says. "The episode taped just before mine was [conservative pundit] Larry Elder, who was jumped by the three people he was with." Notwithstanding McWhorter's discomfort at being associated with Elder -- a man whose politics he hardly shares -- what particularly struck McWhorter that September night was that the show's producers didn't want him to talk about race and education, or for that matter, about any of the topics covered in his book. Instead, they wanted him to denounce rap music, a subject that doesn't once come up in Losing the Race.

"My job that night was to speak out against hip-hop, specifically the violence that erupted at the Source Awards," McWhorter says. "I told them that I don't have anything against hip-hop, and they said, 'well, still....' I was on Politically Incorrect for the very human reason that who wouldn't want to be on Politically Incorrect, at least once? At the time, it just seemed fun and flattering." During the commercial breaks, McWhorter says, producers scrambled up to him and whispered, "You're doing great, but don't be afraid to jump in and mix it up a bit, interrupt people." In response, McWhorter tried to spice up the show by suggesting that his fellow guest, rap artist Coolio, was throwing responsibility for hip-hop violence onto "whitey," but the show clearly belonged to Coolio, who flirted and mugged for the camera. "Coolio actually said to me during a break in the taping, 'I'm pretending to disagree with you more than I do to make good television,'" McWhorter recalls.

After the airing of Politically Incorrect, McWhorter's image as a black conservative was beginning to filter out more subtle readings of his book even as his visibility took a sharp upswing. In September, a Los Angeles television producer called McWhorter; he was putting together a nationally syndicated talk show with a Crossfire format, in which a conservative and a liberal fight over the issues of the day, and would McWhorter care to audition for the conservative role? (McWhorter promptly declined.) On November 29, the online magazine Salon published a critical review of his book by Trey Ellis, who wrote, "McWhorter reminds us of what every other black conservative has been reminding us of for decades.... [He] and his ideological forefathers Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell feel that a passive sense of whiny self-pity so pervades most of the rest of us black people that we've stopped trying to excel and instead wait around for whites to give us things." A January 3 Washington Post profile of McWhorter quoted Ishmael Reed calling him a "hustler" and continuing, "You have these academics who are removed from the African-American community who use anecdotes and gross generalizations to make a career for themselves.... He is sort of like a rent-a-black person."

But not everyone was so eager to dismiss McWhorter as another black conservative. In the December issue of the Washington Monthly, Jim Sleeper reviewed McWhorter's book and warned against the tendency to regard those who break with liberal orthodoxy as merely having joined "the other side." Calling McWhorter a "political maverick," Sleeper pointedly distinguished him from Thomas Sowell and concluded, "McWhorter's provocative contribution may not escape the 'racial conservative' epithet.... But Losing the Race is rigorous and substantial enough to accelerate the long overdue transformation of our racial discourse."

During this time, McWhorter kept perversely reinforcing impressions of himself as a conservative by writing essays for outfits like City Journal, the organ of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. On January 7, McWhorter scored perhaps his biggest coup, appearing on Fox News Sunday with Talk of the Nation host Juan Williams and Brit Hume, the network's most stentorian and dignified anchor. The eight minutes he spent hobnobbing with the cable equivalent of Sam 'n' Cokie irrevocably cemented his image as a black conservative in the mind of the public, even as the scene he encountered at the Beltway studio drove home to McWhorter just how weird things were becoming. Once again, the producers of the show were asking him to comment on something other than the subject of his book, presuming that McWhorter would happily offer a conservative perspective on anything related to race. "I was asked to come on Fox News Sunday to talk about the Bush election [and the Congressional Black Caucus]," he says. "That was a little out of left field, and I turned them down at first, because that's not what my book is about. But they begged and pleaded, and the sweetener was that Juan Williams would be on, and as a good lefty I listen to NPR, so I thought, 'I wouldn't mind meeting Juan Williams.'"


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