Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Clinton Administration, Red Baiting, Spelman, and Gender

BOND: Now, you know, your use of the term "administration" leads naturally to the Clinton administration. You become a part of the transition team for education for incoming President Bill Clinton. And immediately a firestorm erupts.

COLE: Too mild a word.

BOND: An explosion, your politics. Cuba. What did that do to you? I imagine this had never happened to you before.

COLE: It had not. I mean, nothing that was even close to the intensity, and I would say the viciousness, of that red baiting. It was horrible. There is no word that I can use more accurately than horrible. And for me, Julian, it was horrible fundamentally because I was the president of Spelman. And so here was a moment when my worst nightmare could come true. And that is that I could bring harm to Spelman. Remember a little earlier I had said that I was convinced that Marian [Wright Edelman] not only thought I could do good for her school, but I would never do anything to harm it. And it just -- it was a horrible nightmare to live through. And I must tell you that not only Marian but at that time Robert Holland, Bob Holland who you may remember for a while was the CEO of Ben and Jerry's. And that board stuck by me in a way that was truly admirable. And that I am convinced cut the possibility that I could bring harm to Spelman. When they came out immediately in my support, then where could anyone go with this? But it was a wretched period to live through.

BOND: What about students? I imagine for students this is an unusual thing for them to find themselves in the middle of. These young people -- this is unusual for them to find the head of their institution under, subjected to this kind of attack. And it may be that they're saying, "You know, could this be true? Is she a bad person?" How did they react?

COLE: Hate to be schmaltzy, but they reacted lovingly. You know, it would have been hard I think for Spelman students to really convince themselves that the person that they knew, who they saw walking around campus, and who they would vie to walk with in early morning walks, or with whom they sat in open office hours or who led them to the polls to vote, that all of a sudden this woman was the most dreaded thing in America: a communist. It was just -- it did not compute for them. And so, you know, I got a lot of "Dr. Cole, don't you worry, I'm with you. This is nonsense." But I'll tell you the truth, a whole lot of students just saw it -- to use their language -- blew it off.

BOND: But it's amazing how much salience red baiting had in this period, this modern period. I mean, the menace of the Soviet Union we've got to think that's yesterday, that's history. Why was this bite so strong? Do you think that it had anything to do with both your race and your gender? That you somehow the combination of female, black and red, was just too much?

COLE: I think a lot of things --

BOND: Or was it too easy?

COLE: A lot of things contributed. Do not underestimate the Miami Cuban community. Do not ever underestimate that community. The proximity of Atlanta to Miami, I think, was important. Secondly, perhaps I overstate things, but I think a lot of folks saw the Secretary of Education post as having far more influence than it really does, ever did, and ever will. And the notion that, you know, someone they could so dread would be in that position. And then, thirdly, I think that it was an early sign that Bill Clinton was going to have some folk coming at him in all kinds of ways. It was an experience I do not want to live through again. It was also an experience that I think with the end of the Cold War and that the, in quotes, "dread of communism." We should not take deep breaths over and say -- [deep breath] -- never to happen again, because what I went through can be reconfigured. And it can be reconfigured in the area in which we live where to question things that are going on now in the aftermath of September 11th is to set one's self up to be unpatriotic.

BOND: We already see people losing jobs and being condemned and threatened and so on, because they do dare to question. It's a scary, scary phenomenon. I had not thought of the possibility of replicating this Cold War hostility in a new phase, under a new guise, in a new way.

COLE: Under a new guise.

BOND: And it is amazing that Clinton seems to me to attract a higher level of enmity for relatively little cause than any public figure in my lifetime.

COLE: In my lifetime as well.

BOND: It's just amazing.

COLE: In my lifetime as well.

BOND: I don't know what it is about him.

COLE: I don't know either. Sometimes I think it might be a touch of color there. He's just going to attract it. I don't know.

BOND: Maybe so. Well, I think that surely part of it that he does have this, for better or worse, strongly, weakly, this affinity for African Americans, and that's got to be so upsetting to so many people.

COLE: Got to go to the last nerve of lots of folk.

BOND: Indeed.

BOND: Back to Spelman. So, high SATs, high endowment, fabulous improvements on the campus, intellectual climate, heightened, improved. What didn't you do that you wish you'd done? What didn't get done?

COLE: What didn't get done, and the easiest way to describe it, is greater institutionalizing of those things. You know, things can change very quickly.

BOND: Sure.

COLE: And I think that perhaps more years would have allowed what I hoped to do to become more solid.

BOND: But -- so, why then just ten years? I'm guessing you could have had another ten, or another ten, or another ten after that. Why were ten years --

COLE: There is no question I certainly could have had more than ten. I mean, the board I think the point when I went to them and said I thought it was time I know the board was prepared for me to stay for another hunk of time. Julian, I had this dread of staying too long.

BOND: Yes.

COLE: And when I look at our institutions, our colleges and universities, and our organizations, I am really convinced that we have done great harm by staying too long. And so I've always wanted to go when people still wanted me to stay. I went to Emory. Three years, folk were asking me why did I need to retire. Because folks still wanted me to stay -- best time to leave.

BOND: Yes, I'm just reading it's best to leave while people still want you to stay.

COLE: It really is.

BOND: But how do you know when they still want you to stay?

COLE: Well --

BOND: And are they sometimes just saying, "You're great, you're wonderful, you're fabulous."

COLE: There were many signs. I mean, it was, in my view, a magical era. It was a very special presidency. And when I think about why -- you know, I really have to go to general biblical expression: "The least among you." And in real terms, one can say that African-American women have been put in the position of being the least among us. Black, female, and so often poor. And so to lift up a place of African-American women is to do a mighty task.