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Congressman gleefully admits he was wrong about Obama

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Monday, Jan. 19, 2009, at 1 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Rep. Mel Watt was so wrong, and he's glad about that.

The North Carolina Democrat looked out the window of his office. It has a spectacular view of the U.S. Capitol and the trees that flank the platform where Barack Obama will take the oath of office on Tuesday.

It's a setting he couldn't imagine as recently as a few months ago, when after six decades of life he still thought that a black man couldn't be elected president.

"I think people in my generation who came through my set of experiences could not have foreseen this," Watt said. "It has the impact of shaping your vision of what your country is capable of. And part of my vision was we weren't capable of taking this step yet as a country."

The 63-year-old, nine-term congressman is practically gleeful about being wrong.

Watt said that as a boy, he could see the stars through the tin roof of the home near Charlotte where he grew up with two older brothers and their young mother. Underfoot, the ground showed through the wooden floor. To use the toilet, they had to go outside.

Away from home, restrooms and drinking fountains and schools drew a line between "colored" and "white."

One of his first jobs was shining the penny loafers that college students wore with bright white socks in a barbershop in Davidson, a college town that's part of his congressional district now.

"I couldn't get my hair cut during the day," he said of the shop, which was owned by his black uncle but for white customers only until after hours, when the shades were drawn. "Had to get it cut at night."

Watt arrived in 1963 at the first integrated school he ever attended. Three students assigned to share his dorm room at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill were gone by the end of the first day, in pursuit of roommates whose skin was the same color as theirs.

"I never spent the night with any of them," he recalled, then and now grateful for the eventual arrival of Marvin Mood, a white student from New Jersey who'd been pre-screened for his views on living with a black roommate.

"It wasn't a big deal for him, but for me, it took guts for him to do that."

At the time, Barack Obama was 2.

Their paths crossed in 1990, but Watt first got to know Obama when the Illinois senator arrived in Washington in 2005, the year Watt became the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

As a student at Harvard Law School, Obama had supported Democrat Harvey Gantt's 1990 Senate campaign, which was run by Watt, by then a Yale-educated civil rights attorney.

In a close race, Gantt lost to incumbent Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.

The outcome was heartbreaking for Gantt, a longtime Charlotte mayor, and it forever influenced how Watt looked at other African-Americans' political prospects.

Fifteen years later, though, Watt was struck by his first conversation with Obama in Washington.

"It was obvious to me that he had a sense of history, that he knew he was standing on a lot of people's shoulders," Watt recalled. "As I tried to talk to him about him, when we first met, he was talking to me about me and the fact I had managed Harvey Gantt's campaign."

As Obama weighed a presidential bid, he sought out Watt in a phone call.

The younger man had lots of questions: Is this doable? Would it be worth doing whether he won or lost? Was there value-added even though Gantt lost that campaign so many years ago?

He doesn't recall most of his answers to Obama, but his public comments later are clear. Watt didn't endorse Obama initially, and instead threw his support behind a fellow North Carolinian, former Sen. John Edwards. When he was asked during Obama's general election race against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whether a black man could win North Carolina, Watt repeatedly referred to Gantt's defeat by Helms, the conservative stalwart who died in 2008.

At the end of the day, he recalled, none of the undecided voters had broken for Gantt, and Helms had won.

"It colors your perception of what you are capable of and what your country is capable of, and what's possible," Watt said. "And the great thing is Barack wasn't burdened by any of that.

"It wasn't likely I was going to jump up one day and say, 'I think I'll run for president of the United States.' You just don't do that. And if someone else does it, you say, 'I think I better stick with John Edwards; he has a better chance.' "

Watt laughed out loud.

"I am so glad I was wrong," he said. "Our nation is better off that I was wrong. I'm big enough to admit when I was wrong. I love admitting when I'm wrong."

During one of the worst economic crises of the nation's history, Watt's brimming with hope. He's hopeful that Obama can make progress turning around the economy, putting the country on a path toward energy independence, providing health care and building peace.

This hope, like his doubt, he said, comes, too, from his past.

"All of this shapes my experience. It enables me to imagine a brighter horizon," he said. "Maybe that's why I'm so optimistic now. I didn't have the benefit of all of this a year ago."

The view outside his window is spectacular.

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

McClatchy inauguration coverage

Inauguration of Obama as president resonates in South

Will Obama shatter negative stereotypes of black men?

Obama's new home was slow to accept integration

In Obama's victory, America comes to terms with past

South Carolina church helps black neighbors witness history

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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