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Fast Track, Left Lane : Up-and-Coming Author Tavis Smiley Urges Liberals to Speak Out

July 22, 1996|EDWARD J. BOYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even for Tavis Smiley, whose normal pace approaches fast-forward, the tempo has tangibly quickened.

He has been hitting a city a day for the past three weeks, promoting his new book, "Hard Left: Straight Talk about the Wrongs of the Right."

After a day back home in Los Angeles for a book signing, he was off to Washington to debate conservative icon Oliver North and black conservative Armstrong Williams on talk radio. His book tour has been extended to include repeat stops in several cities.

For Smiley, 31, "Hard Left"--now going into a third printing--is the culmination of more than a decade of running on the political fast track and winning a network of friends and allies among power brokers impressed by his infectious enthusiasm and intelligence.

In 1994, Time magazine named Smiley one of its "50 for the Future," a group of promising leaders under 40. He has a copy of that article autographed by President Clinton, whom Time had selected for the same group 20 years earlier.

Smiley's bookshelves hold several photos of him with prominent political figures: Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, late Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown.

He is an unabashed liberal whose book is an in-your-face challenge to like-minded thinkers to stand up against the popular onslaught of conservative ideology.

"I'm tired of the dogmatism of the right," he said in his signature rapid-fire delivery.

He accuses conservatives of believing that they are the only ones who believe in God, family, morals and virtues," and calls the Republican Party "the party of the rich and the lucky. It has been the Democratic Party that has always fought for the working class, the disadvantaged and Americans in the middle."

Smiley, who is African American, also takes dead aim at black conservatives such as economist Thomas Sowell and English professor Shelby Steele. The right routinely marginalizes them, Smiley said, by seeking their opinions on race, but rarely their comments on economics or literature.

*

Smiley, who wrapped up a 22-city promotional tour Wednesday at Inglewood's Eso Won Bookstore, is the oldest of 10 children.

After finishing his junior year at Indiana University, he decided to drop out of school, feeling that he had done "everything I wanted to do in college except graduate."

He had worked for the mayor of Bloomington, Ind., and the university's vice president while traveling the country for three years as a member of the debate team.

"I decided early on that I was going to start making all the contacts I could all over the country so that I wouldn't be stuck like the rest of my upper-classmen friends, who had literally papered the walls of their rooms with rejection letters from employers," he said.

A friend talked him into taking a semester off for an internship rather than dropping out. While attending a conference in Los Angeles in January 1985, Smiley met a former aide to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley who offered to help in getting an internship in the mayor's office.

"I mean my face lit up because I was the biggest Tom Bradley fan," Smiley said.

And so began a campaign that saw Smiley call Bradley's office two or three times a day for five months. He even flew to Los Angeles three times and sat in a corridor outside Bradley's office. But he never got to see the mayor.

The worst day of his life came, he said, when he received a rejection letter from Bradley's office.

On the advice of a friend, he sent a handwritten letter to Bradley--one with writing smudged by his tears that dropped onto the page, he said. By that time, Bradley knew who he was, and he got the job.

The political bug bit him as he worked for Bradley in South-Central Los Angeles, and in 1991, he left the mayor's office to unsuccessfully challenge Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. He ran well for his first time out, finishing third, and the defeat left him wondering how to keep his name before the public for a possible later race.

He settled on doing radio commentaries and found sponsors for his one-minute Smiley Reports on KGFJ radio, a black-oriented station. He quickly developed a following, and his growing popularity eventually landed him at KABC radio and television, with occasional guest spots on network television shows.

He also co-hosted "Twentysomething Talk" on KMPC radio with Ruben Navarrette.

"I was the only black male liberal on mainstream radio in L.A.," Smiley said, "and everything in this city started to break: Rodney King, the riots, the second King trial, O.J. Simpson."

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Having been tagged a comer while still in his 20s, and now with a hot book on his hands, Smiley is weighing his options. He has made no firm decisions, but he knows the role he wants to play.

"I want to get a chance in a legitimate forum as a young black man to talk to thinking white people--I don't mean that I change everybody's mind," he said. "And I take that very seriously."

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