Another week, another James T. Harris clip on YouTube. The conservative radio host first shot to national attention at a McCain-Palin town-hall meeting earlier this month when he literally begged Senator John McCain to attack Barack Obama more aggressively. Then last week, Harris, who has received backlash from hundreds of African-Americans nationwide, surprisingly stormed off of a live CNN interview after a fellow Black conservative criticized him. ESSENCE.com caught up with the embattled Harris to talk about the CNN incident, what McCain whispered to him that night at the town hall, and why, in spite of all the hateful mail and confrontations, he still has no regrets.
ESSENCE.COM: After you spoke at the town-hall meeting, John McCain whispered something in your ear. You said you’d be willing to tell us after the final debate, so—what did he say?
JAMES T. HARRIS: He said, “Thank you, thank you. We’re gonna take it to him.”
ESSENCE.COM: Having watched the final debate, do you feel that he kept his word?
HARRIS: You know, I think that Senator McCain comes from a generation where politicians are able to argue and debate vigorously on the floor, then go out for drinks and play a round of golf at the end of the day. That’s not how things are today. The younger generation, the boomers and X-ers, are idealists and all about action. I think, in a gentleman’s way, he put it out there. Did he attack him the way I would have? No. He was raising the issues, but he didn’t finish the job. At the end of the day, it’s going to take the base, the true ideologues, to grab him by the scruff of his neck and pull him across the finish line.
ESSENCE: Have you heard from the McCain campaign?
HARRIS: Oh, no, not at all. I thought I would have heard from the Obama campaign. I think it would have been a brilliant move if Barack Obama jumped on a plane and flew to Milwaukee and said, “The way my brother James T. Harris is being treated is not in the spirit of hope and change. It’s not in the spirit of change we can believe in, and I’m calling on the people who are supporting me to knock off the nasty mail and the threats.” Don’t you think that would have been powerful? I would have been like, “Thank you very much. I’ll never vote for you, but I appreciate that we can have dialogue and civility.”
ESSENCE.COM: Were you expecting to hear from either campaign?
HARRIS: No. As a matter of fact, I was doing an interview with a Black radio station, and the brother asked me if I’d heard from any of the Black conservatives like Shelby Steele, J.C. Watts, or Michael S. Steele. And I said, “No.” But then again, I wasn’t expecting to.
ESSENCE.COM: Speaking of Black conservatives…last week you stormed out of the CNN studios during a live segment with fellow African-American conservative Shelly Wynter. He said you were selling out your political beliefs by supporting McCain, who he believes is not a true conservative. Why did that upset you so much?
HARRIS: Okay, I’ll give you the background. I was on CNN before that, and I got sandbagged by [anchor] Don Lemon. When he introduced me, he read all this hate mail, and then he asked me a question like, “What’s your problem?” I tried to answer, but he kept cutting me off. I was very upset. Then I found out from my wife that my daughter, who is 7, walked in when he was reading the hate mail. She started crying and said, “Why do people hate my daddy?” I became furious.
The next four or five days, CNN blew up my phone with five or six calls a day, every day. I didn’t take them. One of the messages was from Kyra Phillips, who said, “Look, James, I’m not going to sandbag you. I’m going to bring in another African-American conservative Republican, and we’re going to talk about the issue in Pennsylvania with the union leader.” I said, “Okay. I’m willing to do this, but there are preconditions. If you bring me on there and you talk to me about anything other than this, it’s off. My family is under intense pressure. We’re getting thousands of pieces of hate mail. My radio station is getting calls. I don’t want to talk about this angle. If you go there, I’m walking off your show.” So we did it. She brought on Shelley Wynters, who said, ‘Mr. Harris is a sellout, not for his race, but for his ideology.” When the camera came to me, all I was doing was praying not to lose it on national television. I launched into my response, saying that I never said John McCain was a conservative; I am a conservative, and I have a better chance of bringing a moderate conservative like John McCain to my side of the fence than a liberal socialist, and I wish people would back up off the name calling.
When he called me a sellout, I had been reading hate mail for five or six days. I felt all the weight of the world on me. He tried to bore back into me, and that’s when I decided I was done with this and walked off. When the camera went off, I totally lost it. I had a breakdown. I cried hysterically for maybe about 20 minutes.
ESSENCE.COM: How has the attention affected your family?
HARRIS: I’m still vigilant, but my family is fine. I live in a close-knit neighborhood, and I belong to a close-knit church. I’ve also received a strong national response of support. Yesterday a package arrived from Chicago, and someone who was moved by what I said made a shirt that said, “James T. Harris, American Hero.” But I’m also the most hated Black man in America. I got off an airplane in North Carolina, and the flight attendant said, “Are you James T. Harris?” I said, “Yes,” and she said, “I’m mad at you.” I said, “Get in line.” People follow me into the parking lot. There are two Americas with White people who say thank you for saying at the rally what I’ve wanted to say and Black people who call me an Uncle Tom, Sambo, Sellout, who’s setting the race back.
ESSENCE.COM: Do have any regrets about saying what you said?
HARRIS: Yeah, I do. I would have added a few more names. I should have thrown in some Barney Frank, Franklin Raines, the people who messed up Fannie [Mae] and Freddie [Mac.]
ESSENCE.COM: Do you wish you hadn’t said anything at all?
HARRIS: No! Hell no. I don’t regret any of that. I don’t have any personal hatred for Barack Obama. With love in my heart, I hope he loses every state.
ESSENCE.COM: In general, after all of the negativity you’ve received, how are you feeling about the Black community right now? Have you distanced yourself in any way?
HARRIS: I can tell when people are looking at me, but I don’t change what I do. Do I have any resentment toward Black folks? No. Most of my friends are Black liberals. I’ve heard from all of them: “I disagree with you, but I got your back.” So in my circle of the world, I’m fine. I don’t give a hot bloody damn what people think of me. I have the support of thousands of people who appreciate what I said. I’m humbled by the fact that God uses me in such a powerful way. I actually hope my 15 minutes of fame are over! But if not, I’ll be fine.