John Lewis Still Not Ready to Choose

I talked yesterday with U.S. Representative and civil rights icon John Lewis, whose political support has been the prize in a very public tug-of-war between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Assessing their performances in Selma this weekend, Lewis said that both candidates convinced him of their civil rights chops, but, for the moment, neither is getting his endorsement.

Obama’s enthusiastic reception by the largely black audiences this weekend, Lewis said, “tends to demonstrate more than ever before that he can, and did, relate deeply and strongly with the African American community, I think he made it very clear in his message at Brown Chapel A.M.E Church, he said in effect that without the civil rights movement and without the march 42 years ago that he wouldn’t be where he is.”

But he also said that Bill Clinton would continue to be a unique asset for Hillary in appealing to African-American voters.

“President Clinton is so well liked among a large segment of the American population but especially among African-Americans. There was somebody who hollered out at the foot of the bridge, ‘I wish you could run again, Mr. President.’ I hear that all the time when I’m around him,” Lewis said. “Without any question, I think he is a tremendous asset to his wife. She is a beneficiary of the strong and positive standing of his in the African-American community.”

Lewis denied a suggestion in Sunday’s Times story that he had held off from endorsing Obama before this weekend because of a call from Bill Clinton.

“He never suggested to me that I should hold off,” said Lewis. “He never, ever — he just called me and had a very friendly chat about what was going on, and we talked about a little of everything.”

Lewis said that when Clinton called, he had no intention of supporting either candidate.

“If I was going to endorse someone I wouldn’t pick last weekend to do it,” he said, adding, “It is very early and I will not publicly endorse anyone this early. It could be the end of this year and it could be of the beginning this year. I like them both. I like Mr. Obama but I also like Mrs. Clinton. They are both good and different.”

Lewis, who was severely beaten on the Edmund Pettus bridge during the 1965 crossing, said that besides the obvious political overtones the candidates brought to the commemoration, Obama and Clinton’s attendance signified something far more historic than just an intensifying campaign.

“More than anything else, 42 years later, to have an African-American and woman as the leading two contenders for the nomination is unheard of,” said Lewis, adding that, along with Bill Richardson, a candidate of Hispanic origin, the 2008 election showed that “America had moved to the point where you could have three people from a group that wasn’t even being considered just a few short years ago.”

–Jason Horowitz