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Odds and Ends: Prime Donna
Odds and Ends: Prime Donna

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile talks politics, diversity, and playing herself on TV


Rick Tulka



Donna Brazile learned that all politics is local at age 9, when she helped elect a city council candidate who had promised to build a playground in her family's neighborhood just outside New Orleans. Thirty-one years later, she was named manager of U.S. Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, which had a stranger-than-fiction ending. Between those two milestones in her political career, Brazile worked on the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis; helped establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day; and advised then-President Bill Clinton. Since 1993, she's lectured at more than 140 college campuses worldwide on the role of race, diversity, and women in politics and taught at several institutions, including Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., since 2002. She demonstrates her plainspoken style as a political commentator on CNN and, more recently, in cameos on television dramas such as House of Cards and The Good Wife.

We recently commemorated the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. How do you assess the country's progress on diversity and inclusion in education?

Students of color are increasingly attending schools that do not reflect the diversity of our nation. The biggest metropolitan areas in the Northeast and Midwest have been epicenters of resegregation. Black students in the South attend majority-black schools at levels not observed for 40 years. The result is that the achievement gap, which steadily decreased during integration, is widening as resegregation occurs. Even 60 years later, "separate and unequal" is still alive.

Why is diversity important to society?

Students of color who attended integrated schools in the decades following Brown were more likely to graduate high school, go on to college, earn higher wages, live healthier lifestyles, and avoid criminality than their peers in segregated schools. Diverse schools can decrease prejudice and teach students how to navigate an increasingly diverse nation.

Why is teaching a college course important to you?

I love teaching. I think it was my first calling, and politics was my second. It allows me an opportunity to engage the next generation. When Al Gore called upon me to be his presidential campaign manager I had only one request: to ensure that I could come back home once a week to teach my class.

Do television shows and movies ever get politics right?

Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong, but often it's blurred somewhere in between. There were times watching The West Wing when I thought, "Oh my God, that is so real."

Of the political shows on TV now—Scandal, Veep, The Good Wife, House of Cards—do you have a favorite?

I love The Good Wife. I watched it before I was on the show, and I look forward to being back. The only problem is that when you play yourself you have to resist the temptation of telling the director, "That's not what Donna would say."

What's your view on social media's role in political and social activism?

I think it raises the voice of democracy. At times a minority of loud and vitriolic voices has an outsize influence, but I often learn so much from Twitter because I hear voices that are not ordinarily included in the day-to-day soap opera of politics.

Is it getting harder to convince young people to pursue public service?

We live in a representative democracy and we have to encourage future generations to take their seats at the table, even if they have to bring in a folding chair. But no one is going to give them a seat; they shouldn't wait for permission to be involved in politics. I say: "Why you? Because there's no one better. Why now? Because tomorrow's not soon enough."

—Interview by Theresa Walker

 

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