In Episode 002 of the Origin Stories: A Podcast About Politics and People, longtime talk radio producer Brent Jabbour speaks with former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele about growing up in Washington D.C (and spending time in the south) during the civil rights era. He also talks about his time in seminary school and his transition into politics.

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Transcript:

(Intro)

Brent Jabbour:

This is episode two of Origin Stories: A Podcast about Politics and People. My name is Brent Jabbour your gracious host, I guess if that is what you want to call me. Today we are going to have a conversation with former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele.

Now, the reason I chose Michael Steele, is because, in the lead up to President Trump being elected, he was very very critical of the man. And, I thought made him reasonable guy. It made him a guy who didn’t necessarily walk the party line to get ahead, to get that Supreme Court seat, which we actually talk about. But, also, when I was doing research into him, I found him fascinating. He went to seminary school, he was planning to become a Catholic Priest.

He kind of fell into the world of politics. Also, we spoke about Civil Rights and racism in America. What it was like growing up in Washington D.C. during the 1968 riots. He lived not too far away from U Street in Washington D.C. where much of it was burned after Dr. King was shot and killed.

So, it was a really, really, interesting conversation. He was running a little late so I had a lot of time to think about things and prepare for that particular conversation. I prepare, but a lot of times I just want to have a flowing conversation. I just want to speak with people. So I don’t want it to feel like an interview with a bunch of prepared questions. It’s more so a conversation about where that person came from and how they came to be, so we can all relate to them.

There is a little bit of a funny scenario that happened. As I do this, I don’t actually have a location. I don’t have a studio or anything. So, generally what I will do is pack up my bag full of gear and I will take it to the office of the person I am interviewing. Now, Michael works remotely very often. Kind of here, there, and everywhere. And, so while I was arranging it, and I really wanted to get him in, he could do it while he was in Bowie, MD, which I believe is also where he lives.

But, since I didn’t have a space to do it, I had to essentially figure something out. So, what I did is, I rented a hotel room, and I didn’t want the full rate, because I guess I was just being cheap. So, I actually made an arrangement where I came in in the morning and rented a room by the hour. And, as an anxiety-ridden young man I kept thinking the whole time, people are going to think something is going on. There is a certain connotation about a man who rents a hotel room by the hour first thing in the morning. But, nobody really thinks those things, it’s just all in my head. It’s irrational anxiety as I like to call it.

Once Michael Steele came in, it was just a pleasure to talk to him. He had kind of a family deal going on so he tried to make it quick, but I held him for about an hour. And, I think we had a really, really good conversation. He had similar experiences to me because I grew up going to an all-boys Catholic High School as did he. So we kind of have these mutual situations that went on in our lives.

So, I think you will really, really enjoy this. Thank you so much for listening to the previous two episodes. If you really like it, go ahead and share it with your friends. Because I would love everybody to get in on these conversations. And thanks for following me on Twitter @BrentJabbour and remember to subscribe on iTunes so it gets delivered right to your phone every Thursday when we release new episodes.

So, here it is Episode number two, Michael Steele, Former Republican National Committee Chair, Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, Here we go:

(Music)

Brent:

So, you brought up family to start and I won’t get into depth into that portion of the conversation. You grew up in D.C. correct? In Petworth? And one of the things I realized is you would be have been nine-ten years old during the riots of 68…

Michael Steele:

The 68 riots, I turned ten that October. Yeah.

Brent:

And what was that like. Were you cognizant of what was going on at the time?

Michael:

Yeah. Very much so. In fact, that April, when Dr. King was killed, my mother and I were in downtown DC. We had gone to Julius Lanzburg which was a big department store, a furniture store at the time. And we were on our way back up Georgia Avenue. And, someone jumped on the bus and yelled: “They killed King!” And there was a huge gasp on the bus and it was the weirdest thing because for the rest of the ride home it was dead silent. I mean, buses are usually quiet, but you hear some little chatter here and there. But you could hear a pin drop on this bus.

And, It was one of those moments when we got home, and my mother was very upset, and sort of explaining what had happened. My dad comes in, having navigated his way uptown and actually came through areas where they had already started to burn buildings and started to turn over cars and he was very bothered and said: “Folks out here are crazy. They’re burning up everything.”

But, it was really at that moment that you began to understand the impact, that King had had. My mother referred to him as a friend of the family. And so, her explanation to me was that a friend of the family has died. So, that put into context for me what Dr. King meant, not just to the black community at large, but specifically to my narrow slice of it, ya know, my family.

So, it was a very impactful day.

Brent:

Just so I can clear everything up, so I have the full Michael Steele story. You were adopted correct?

Michael:

I was adopted yes. My sister and I adopted.

Brent:

And I imagine (by) an African American family based on the reaction (to King)?

Michael:

There weren’t too many white folks adopting black kids back in the day.

Brent:

It’s still D.C.

Michael:

They were progressive, they weren’t that progressive.

Brent:

When you are in school and everything at that time, are you learning about Dr. King? Did you already know who he is?

Michael:

No, not really. Dr. King was not on the curricular because it was a real-time experience. Today, he is in the history books. He’s an entire class in some courses. Back then, a lot of people forget, Dr. King was anathema to a lot of folks. A lot of folks were not appreciative of the marches and sit-ins and his approach. There was a reason why he wrote the letter to the pastors from the Birmingham jail. Because those pastors were ticked off at him and he wanted to clarify for them that they were the ones who were standing on the wrong side of history. So, that gives you some understanding and appreciation. The same with these towering figures of the day. Malcolm X who was another one who I would grow to understand and appreciate and really get his philosophy.

These were, back then, the way we look at political and activist figures today. They’re an annoyance. They’re loud. They’re taking up time on my news. And so, you had that perspective, that tension, that pull and push by what was going on at the time. And I think for a lot of people, particularly for young folks like myself. We were much more concerned about watching Batman, as opposed to paying attention to the politics of the day.

Brent:

And, did you start to learn and understand the Civil Rights movement after that day.

Michael:

Well yeah, well again, I’m ten years old. So, from an academic perspective, the answer is no because there really was no context to that until I got into high school. That was a short three or four years later, but still, it wasn’t a real-time experience where you would sit down and say, ok, this makes sense.

Where a lot of that education would come would be from my parents in their limited way. They weren’t towers of political activism or journalism. They weren’t writing the narrative. Or even following the narrative that way. But they did put it in the context of what it meant to be a black person in Washington D.C. in the 1960s. It did put it in the context of being a black family from the south. My mother is from Orangeburg. So, we would spend our summers in Orangeburg.

I remember even going visiting my great aunt in 1982. And taking her to work, because she worked at a country club. And taking her to work, and I dropped her off at the front. And she said: “Baby, I can’t go in the front door.” I was like “Why not?” And she pointed to the top of the mantle, and it said: “For Whites Only.” This is 1982, they are still displaying the sign.

It was family that contextualized the racism and challenges that black folks had to deal with every single day. It wasn’t something that you got in a classroom setting. It wasn’t something you got in the workplace. It wasn’t something you got on the playground. It was really that learning and understanding came from how your family presented that narrative to you.

Brent:

And, now you’ve become, a spokesperson, a public figure at this point. And when you are in High School. You’re getting into high school, maybe you are 16 years old, and this is in the 1970s. And there is still a long way to go. There is still a lot of racism. And D.C. is probably one of the most African American cities at the time. Do you start to get involved then? Do you start to speak up?

Michael:

No. No. I was not an activist type. I have never been an activist type. As pro-life as I am, I’ve only been to one pro-life March and that was by accident. And it’s not because I don’t support the cause, that’s just not my thing. That’s not how I express my activism. I’d rather personalize it so you pay attention. I don’t want to necessarily get lost in the groupthink. I want you to understand where I’m coming from. For me… I went to a Catholic high school. Archbishop Carroll High School. It was a place where a lot of the… It was an all-boys Catholic high school. So it was a place where a lot of the children, the sons, of political figures, they sent their kids there.

So, I had this wonderful cross-current of class, race, as well as other intangibles that you kind of find in a place like that at that time. And Carroll was unique in that it was, they had achieved that balance between black and white. So, it was fifty percent black, fifty percent white school. And you had an opportunity to interact with kids from the suburbs. I was a city kid. So, we had a very different view of the boys from Bowie. So, it was a lot of that. It was the experiential, it was the in the moment for me that kind of taught me how to best do and be and exist. And from that learn how to express my views.

So, being surrounded by these kids, and getting to know their parents. I took a liking to politics. And, really thought about doing that at some time. But, my core was focused on becoming a priest. So, while the politics was fun, my calling was to be a priest in the Catholic church. So my thinking was geared toward that. And I would later move into that.

Brent:

It’s weird because I have a similar experience, although not wanting to become a priest. But, I went to an all boys Catholic High School in Toledo, Ohio. But, unfortunately, that made it more segregated. Because it’s a city of 20 percent African American. I grew up, my stepfather is black, so I had been used to that. By the way that is one of the hardest things to tell people. Because I, as a liberal, semi-social justice warrior type person, I don’t ever want anyone to think that I’m just telling you I know black folks. I don’t want that. But I got lucky in the way to have those experiences, so I have family that is black. But in my high school, because it is a private Catholic High School, and even went to a private Catholic Grade School, but that was coed.

There were 4-5 black kids in our school. It was mostly upper-Middle class kids, some very wealthy, and I think a lot of the black kids that was, unfortunately, just checking a couple of boxes. And, also at the same time, they were helping the community. And, of course, the school was not in the best neighborhood. It was by the University, but 2-3 blocks away from the most dangerous parts of Toledo Ohio. And, so it was one of those things, where I felt like, I wish I had the opportunity to go to a public school.

Michael:

Well, the experiences are there. But even in that limited space, what you had, was the experience of home. And that contrasted with 3 or 4 black students who went to your school. It still contrasted with the majority of the experiences you would have at the school because, on any given day, your encounter with those 4 black individuals was probably very limited, unless you became close friends with 1 or 2 of them. Outside of that, and I always believe this, because, from my own experience, home life is outcome determinative.

So, I know people who have had very limited exposure to African Americans but have a heightened sensitivity and understanding and appreciation of the black community in a very respectful way. Not in a condescending, oh let us help you poor thing, kind of way. And that is because of how they were raised. They were raised with the sensitivity of understanding that that community and our community, while they look different, we are the same because we are Americans because we live in this area, you find all of these reasons to connect to that community.

And, I’ll give you a good example of what I mean by the outcome determinative nature of those personal experiences. I had a friend of mine, this was in the early 1990s, she was in Dupont Circle here in D.C. with her little boy. She is African American. He is African American. And he was playing. So, this other little boy, as boys tend to do, came up and started playing with him. and he was a white kid, and they were just playing and having a good time. Well, this white kid’s mother comes over and snatches up her son. And told her son: “what did I tell you about playing with them?”

Now, this is the 1990s. This is a young mother. This is not a woman who is “grandma.” This is someone who is in their late 20s, maybe early 30s, who is clearly instilling in her child racism. Looking at someone who is not white as other. And that is going to have an outcome-determinative effect on this kids expression and appreciation and view of black people. Now, the long story short, my friend who heard this exchange, went up to this woman, picked up her son, and proceeded to smack the crap out of the mother. And said: “How dare you teach your child to be a racist.” And walked away. She literally smacked her. But, that’s my friend. I can understand. If you knew her, you would say: “Yeah, I see that.”

So, when you take that experience in 1992, and you relate it back to King’s death in 1968, you can see how even though it’s a connection, that all of those steps of achievement in between that there are gaps. There are gaps. There are gaps that come from ignorance. There are gaps that come from a sense of disconnection. There are gaps that come because you come from a line of racists. I mean, there are all these things that still push forward this negative narrative. So the family piece, for me, is a critical part to beginning to address a lot of these issues around race. Because race is not an innate experience, it is a learned one.

Brent:

Right, and I think that is part of the reason I started this project. A lot of it has to do with the idea that… I am talking to young people, my friends, they are in their 30s and in their late 20s, and they have kind of shut themselves down now. Because, they see somebody with that learned racism, with that learned take on whatever issue we face today, and they say: “I don’t want to talk to that person. I can’t relate to that person, I don’t want to be around that person.”

Okay, I can not relate to a lot of people, but number one, we all have shared human experiences. But, also, you can’t…

Michael:

You can’t walk away from that. They have to… Look, the only way you are going to start to change that cycle is to engage. Imagine if King decided: You know what? I just can’t relate to Boss Hogg, I can’t relate to what’s happening in Mississippi, or what’s happening in Arkansas, what’s happening in places like… You know, everyone thinks about the south, but the greatest experiences of racism I have had have been in the north.

Brent:

You can actually look at cities like Boston. I mean Boston is probably the most racist city in… I don’t want to crap on Boston, but the fact is…

Michael:

Their history is more profound than… One of the things I learned growing up, spending a lot of time… Again, I grew up in the south, I grew up in D.C. D.C. is a southern jurisdiction. It’s below the Mason Dixon Line. But, I spent a lot of time in my parents’ backyard in South Carolina and in Virginia. The one thing you could always appreciate is they just let you know right out front: “Naw, I’m not feeling you.” And in the north, people put their arms around you, they pretend, then they do all those other things that aren’t so Christian.

Brent:

I think the point that I was trying to make is: You have to understand these peoples’ experiences to understand why they got there. And as you said, when it comes to racism, that poor white kid… Well hopefully, there are two scenarios that could come out of it. One, he is going to continue to be racist because his mom is going to continue to reinforce that. Plus, to be fair, he also saw a black woman slap his mother, with a being a young boy not having any context to understand why.

Michael:

Well yeah, I hadn’t thought about that side of it, but yea.

Brent:

But, you are also going to have the possibility where she learned a lesson that day. Or, maybe he learned that lesson to say that these people aren’t so different and that what she was saying was wrong. That’s hard because it is hard to look at your mom and at 5 years old say: “Oh, she’s wrong.” In something that is a big grand scheme of things understanding. So, that was really, almost the full reason why we are doing this.

Why are there people who are like this? Well, they grew up that way. They learned bad habits. Whether that’s true or not, you get to decide that yourself.

So, Michael, you said you wanted to be a priest. I was also going to bring this up, when I was in high school I wanted to be the Pope. However, I didn’t want to be a priest. There were loopholes.

Michael:

Yeah, you can be pope without being a priest. But you gotta have connections to do that.

Brent:

But, you went to school to become a priest, correct?

Michael:

Yeah, I joined, after graduating from Johns Hopkins, I entered the Augustinian Seminary at Villanova. And, I started the journey of discernment and expression of vocation, which was probably the most profoundly important thing I have ever done. And I would highly recommend it to anyone. Seriously, because what it did, was it taught me, and I was in for about 2 and a half years, it taught me the limits of my own understanding. It taught me the unrelenting love that God has for us. In our most banal, gross, just total craziness, God still says: “Lord I love you. Yeah, I love you, baby. Come on, you’ll work through it, I love you.”

So, that is a very powerful moment of understanding. Then, the next level of that is turning that into an expression of understanding towards others. So, I look at people very differently. I see people very differently. I hear them very differently than I did before. It’s because, in everyone’s voice, you can hear pain, joy, fear, resentment, anxiety, all of these things we try to mask. And, it’s one of the beautiful parts of vocation, for those who are called to that understanding, and that expression is that one of the gifts, one of the graces you receive, I believe, and it makes sense, that your senses are heightened.

Think about a priest in a confessional for 5 hours listening to folks come in and just unload all kinds of humanity on them. Think about the grace it takes to sit there and for every one of those persons, to individualize that moment. We make jokes about, yes, go say three Hail Marys and an Our Father and that’s the joke. But that is a very individualized moment. Those three Hail Marys and Our Father are specific to that person. So, that priest has to have an understanding of what that person is saying. He has to be able to listen in a way that God requires him to listen. That for me was just a wonderful wonderful time. In fact, it has defined most of what I have done publicly since. I bring that aspect of my seminary life into my expression as RNC Chairman, so that is very high profile, political. Or, as Lieutenant Governor, an elected official, responsible for service to the people of the state of Maryland. And as a husband, as a father, you try to figure out ways in which you do that.

And my mother summed it up for me. And again, I believe in arcs, and how one moment in time connects to another moment in time. So as a young boy, my mother always used to tell me: “You need to shut up and listen.” You need to shut up and listen. So, I understood as a young adult, connecting that moment in time from when I was a young kid to this moment in time as a Seminarian and future moments in time as an elected official, as a political leader that the core of that is to shut up and listen.

Brent:

That is something so hard, especially for my generation, for this rapid information culture. Because, you get stuck in this position, where you are having a conversation, like you and I are, and you get to this position you said something five minutes ago that I wanted to respond to. And, all I’m doing now is thinking about what I’m going to say. I’m better than that because I do this… But it happens to a lot of people. There are a lot of times where I am having a conversation with somebody about something very important and I can tell that they are not listening to me, instead, they are just waiting to talk again. I have the patience to deal with it, it’s just what it is.

I was going to bring up one more point about the Catholic upbringing. I’m no longer a practicing Catholic. Maybe an atheist, I’m not one hundred sure these days.

Michael:

Well, that’s a leap.

Brent: Well, that was a truncated version clearly. It wasn’t…

Michael:

You woke up one morning, and: “I’m done with that.” It’s all good. God still loves you.

Brent:

I had a moment like you said the arcs when I was in high school. I think we were on a retreat. And, I was doing a confessional style thing with a priest. and I was just talking to him about something, and I was talking about my faith. Not that at that time, I was still full faith, but I didn’t know that I loved the Catholic church but I was at that point. I asked him about something personal to me, I think my mother, and she was divorced and remarried. And at the time when that happened, she was divorced in the mid-eighties, the church was still much in the camp of…

Michael:

And they are still there. This Pope is pulling the church in a different direction on this issue of divorce. And there are a lot of folks inside the church who are very troubled by that. And I know such rules seem arbitrary and not really fixed to anything. There are Gospel underpinnings that support this idea of the indissolubility of marriage. But, you do then have to… Again, with the arc… Put it up against situations. Because life at the end of the day is situational.

So, I remember asking a priest friend of mine as I was going through my processes and trying to contextualize and understand. So, if a woman is in a marriage in which she is beaten every day. Should she stay married to that individual? Or should she divorce? Now the accepted answer is she stays married, she just separates from that individual. She doesn’t stay in the house where she is beaten every day. But, she is still married. So, then the next question logically goes: OK so two years later she’s now living apart from her husband so she is now “estranged” they’re separated. So, she is now in this limbo. She wants to move on with her life. Yet, she is tied by this marriage to an individual that if she goes back to will resume beating her. But, she can’t move forward and find someone who will love her and do all the things that are set forth in the vowes: love, honor, yes and even obey on both the man and the woman’s part. So what does she do? He didn’t have an answer for that.

And that’s the moment we are now in the church. Where Pope Francis is Divining not defining but Divining an answer. Because he understands the scriptural context. And people relate back to the marriage at Cana they find all these connections. He’s also got to make it relevant to what people are actually experiencing today because you don’t want through church dogma and so forth to alienate people from God. So it’s a very interesting track and it’s one of those things that I think a lot of people are willing to jump to particular conclusions. And the one thing, having certainly been inside the church, you come to understand there is a reason it has been around for 2000 years. It’s nothing if not patient.

Brent:

And I think, I was what I was going to say, he eventually said, some things are some things and some… He didn’t really have an answer. But it helped me develop that pragmatic view that I kind of realize this man who is a priest. He was saying: “Well, There are no absolutes.” Things can change…

Michael:

Well, there are absolutes. We have ten absolutes by God himself. We call them the Ten Commandments. And then everything else after that is not up for grabs, but… in other words. God has given us what he wants and what his expectations are of these frail things he calls humans. And he has done it in a way in which he fully respects the one gift he’s given us. Which when you stop and think about the wisdom of God, you would say why’d he do that. This Idea of free will. And he says: “OK, you have free will but here are ten things I need you to do.” And just ask yourselves: How hard are they? And yet, every day we find a way to break one or two of them. And, it speaks to why God loving us, is the core piece because it is the only way it works. Because otherwise, he would be too pissed off at us.

Brent:

When it comes to the whole “I may be an atheist” conversation. By the way my mother, I mentioned it to her one time she… I was like, I’m 34 years old, I’m allowed to have a crisis of faith every now and again.

Michael:

Yeah… Not in front of your mother.

Brent:

I think it was a lot of, I understand exactly what you are saying when you say God himself handed these ten rules.

Michael:

Everything else is man made.

Brent:

But it’s hard for me because I look at the nature of man. And you can look at the Catholic church, but you can look at any church, any organized religion as it is. It feels to me like so many of the rules, they have a reason for them. They made these rules because… A lot of that, let’s look at procreation, that was all to grow the churches.

Michael:

Of course, you can’t take away from the practical truth of why certain things came into being.

Look, we all know, staying with the Catholic Church, we used to have a married priesthood. We had a married priesthood for about 400 years in the 2000 year history of the church. And the reason they stopped having a married priesthood is because when a priest would die, the property of that priest would go to family members and not the church. So they wanted to correct that. This is that greedy period in the Church’s history. Where you had a lot of man interest as opposed to what is in the interest of God. And so, I understand that. Which is why some of these rules that we adhere to today, they don’t make sense if you know the history. Because, you can’t sit there and say, we have a celibate priesthood because Christ was celibate. Well, then how do you explain the 400 years when we didn’t.

Christ was still a celibate back in his days. I get that and understand it. But for me, the institution is a human institution and all that it means. But, the faith that is born out of that institution comes from God. And either you buy into that or you don’t. And, a lot of times, I think what happens is we allow ourselves to be distracted by the clothes we wear or the buildings we’re in. As opposed to what God has given us innately. Which is a love for him and a love for each other. And the rest of it… Look, if I’m alright by loving you, then it doesn’t matter whether or not there is a structure in which I have to go and do that every week like a church. Or, any other type of behavioral restrictions, that should not, in an ideal world, interfere with that. But we know it does.

Brent:

Well, and that is what I was going to say. You say there are the Ten Commandments and everything else is man-made. And I will give you the pro-life argument because we don’t need to argue it. But the fact is, you see many elected officials using specific lines in the bible to go against gay marriage.

Michael:

No elected official should ever use the Bible for anything other than Sunday school and church services. They need to… You live that out, you don’t dictate it to others. So, if you are pro-life Catholic, like myself, then you live that out. I don’t need to judge you because God has made it very clear he doesn’t like it when we judge each other. That’s not my job, that’s his job. You can look at the Bible as a source for the theology, as a source for the tradition, capital T, and that’s fine. You can accept that or not accept that. You can make the case or not make the case.

I choose to look at Deuteronomy where you are very clearly commanded to choose life. And I use that as a way to underpin not just my support for the unborn but my opposition to the death penalty. Because I’m not empowered to distinguish between the life of a child and the life of an adult who happens to be in prison. The church now, with the Pope, is coming around to that latter position. The Pope having recently changed the church’s teaching on the death penalty to make it consistent with the idea that we are pro-life. We want to support a culture of life, it doesn’t take away from punishment. Yeah, you a bad boy, you are going to get punished. But, there are limits to that punishment.

And I think for political leaders, and what we have seen since the 1980s and the rise of the moral majority. The inculcation of that into a political system, thereby weaponizing religion via politics is one of the signs of end times. That to me is one of those signs that you’ve turned a corner now where you are using religion… And I think this is why you find so many people turned off more and more by religion because it has become more and more of a political theatre in which I get to sit in judgment of your behavior and your thinking and your philosophy. As opposed to as a political actor being more concerned about your welfare and the fairness of the governmental system and all of the things political leaders should be concerned about.

Brent:

And I think, just to wrap on this religious discussion, although I could do this for hours, I just think, and I basically think what we’re saying here is, just live your best life. When it comes to things like that… see, I think the death penalty and abortion are two very separate issues actually because the government is not saying that you should get an abortion or that you have to get an abortion. They are giving you your right to choose. You may disagree with that, that’s perfectly fine, but you don’t have to do it. Nobody is going to force that. The death penalty is something that is put down by the government.

Michael:

But it’s still an option. You have options… it’s not required.

Brent:

A government official, a judge, or whoever is doing the sentencing, makes that decision; who is technically a government official.

Michael:

I would argue that the government has already decided in the first instance by writing the law that allows it; so the government has made a decision. Now, has been supported by the people when they, if by referendum they support that, or by the courts in representing the judicial approach, but there is government action on both ends. So, it’s just a matter of how you view that. The government passed a law, so it dictated the terms of engagement on that issue, on abortion. On the back end, again, the government is acted. Yes. You’re talking about the action of committing the death penalty, but there was a law that was put in place to allow that action to occur just as there’s a law in place, to allow the action of an abortion to take place. So, the government is, in both scenarios in my view, a main actor. That’s fine. Which is why my core argument around both of these issues is communities need to decide for themselves. No federal government role is required here because you’re going to find, as we have found, that not just on issues like abortion and the death penalty, but on a whole host of issues, gay marriage, and the like, most communities want to come to their own, and should be allowed to come to their own conclusion as to what best represents the values of this community. Now if you don’t like those values, typically most people don’t live in that community. They go someplace where those values do work and if they can’t do that; we do live in a society in which we have this little thing called ‘majority gets to.’ You can go out there and make your case and if your case wins, great. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

Brent:

Michael, you’re kind of telling me, ‘if you don’t like it, get the hell out.’

Michael:

No, I’m not telling you that. I’m not telling you that. I’m just… look, look. If you and I disagree on something, what do we do? How do we resolve that? So, a third person comes into this conversation. It’s going to take one of two sides. So guess what? That third person, the one who is on the short end of that stick, has got to live with the decision of the other two. So, what do you do otherwise? At that point, I can either get up from the mic and leave the room or I get to say, ‘okay, we can finish the conversation although I hate this decision.’ That’s how this is supposed to work. That applies to everything, not just the very sensitive topics of abortion and gay marriage and all that. That’s how this is supposed to work. That’s why we’re a pluralistic society.

Brent:

You got into politics, I assume now, having spoken with you in the beginning here, because you got the interest in politics while you were in high school because you were friends with people, who I assume, were sons of politicians. You went to school to be a priest and then you said, ‘you know, I think it’s time to do some civic duty?’

Michael:

Yeah. I’m sort of the accidental elected official; accidental party official. I never set out to be county chairman, state chairman, national chairman. Never set out to be an elected official. I liked politics. I liked being engaged in politics, but I was still, even at that time, very much involved in my church. I was a Master of Ceremonies in my parish assisting the priest. I trained the altar servers in the parish. So, I was much more still focused on a lot of those things, but these opportunities kind of came up and I found myself saying, ‘okay, yeah, I’ll do that, sure.’ I remember the first time I ran for office in 1998, for Comptroller. I wasn’t thinking about becoming Comptroller of Maryland, but Ellen Sabre and her team came to me said, ‘we’d like to have you on the ticket.’ My background was as a corporate finance lawyer. Very familiar with tax law and all that good stuff; so it’s not like I didn’t have the cred to actually do the job, but it wasn’t something that I was thinking about. ‘Oh, yeah, I want to be an elected official.’ For me at that time my expression of service was different. It manifested itself differently. My approach to these things is, you know, God finds a way to put in front you, people who he wants there for a reason; for a particular time and a particular purpose and he knows you don’t necessarily see what he sees, but, hey, you know, do it. Now, again, free will. You know, you just say, ‘no, I don’t want to run,’ but it did trigger in my brain another aspect of service. How do I carry out… because I think, for me, a lot of that after I left the Seminary, was how do I carry out this innate desire to serve people. I want to be as helpful as I can. I hate seeing people living in certain conditions in which I think are unnecessary, particularly given the vast amount of opportunities and wealth and things like that, that are available. Why are you somehow isolated from all of that. So, for me, this public service piece was that bridge to connect or to answer the question: Why are you isolated from all of these opportunities? Let’s look at that and let’s fix it. That really kind of motivated me.

Brent:

You mentioned being the RNC chair, the Maryland party chair and you were the first black… I’m going to say you’re the first black conservative?

Michael:

Well, it’s the first African American state chairman in the country. I was the first one on the Republican side and national chairman, was the second black, but the first in the Republican party, because Ron Brown was the first African American elected to a National party chair. It’s pretty good company.

Brent:

Let’s be honest here. You can see it right now with a lot of Trump supporters. Do you face a lot of racism as a…

Michael:

You didn’t face it. You know its there. Look, not everyone’s going to love you, and they love you for different reasons. Some people don’t like you because you threaten their interests. Some people don’t like you because of the color of your skin. You know, I had people say some very stupid things to me when I was chairman and you take it for what it is. You appreciate it for what it is. You know that it’s going to be something that you’ve got to address, but here’s the thing; a lot of people sort of think that this is the purvue of Republicans only. Trust me, it isn’t. Democrats come off like this holier-than-thou, like there’s not a racist bone in their body, you know. I’m like, you understand where the KKK came from. It’s your roots. It’s there. Everybody has some connection and it animates itself at some point in time and history. It just does, but that, for me at least, is not the main part of the story. The main part of the story is: how do you press through that? Now you can sit back and you can become a victim of it and just sort of cower in the corner or be mad and angry – or – you can confront it and just call it out for what it is when it is and press on to do what you need to get done. You can’t let those things, and I use King as the example, you can’t let them handicap you.

Brent:

Of course, I wasn’t blaming all Republicans and the point I was making about, today that you see, is the refusal by this administration to fully say that the ‘alt-right’ or whatever they are, are bad people and we’re giving them a voice. I think that’s not just what’s happening now because of the politics and things, I think it’s the 24-hour news culture. They know that they can say something stupid and MS, CNN… all these people are going to put them on. They’re going to give them a voice and I feel like they’re such a small sect of America.

Michael:

But they’re not. Let me address that. Let’s understand how we are where we are. We’re here because for good, bad, and I think largely for bad, the current President, then candidate, pricked open a scab and marinated that wound. It gave license to people to openly express what they secretly harbor and think and feel and he used their fear as a weapon against themselves. I think that when you have the situation with Charlotte, you have the policies that are expressed, the Muslim bans and things like that, that is as much against those communities as it is a clarion call to those underbelly feelings that people have about those communities, and now you can go out and you can say it because I’m standing here and I’m giving you the green light. That, to me, is a very dangerous space to be in.

Brent:

I agree with that and I think that that scab, the wound was initially opened, I mean not initially opened, but this recent wound was opened during the Obama administration and a lot of them were saying that under their breath. I feel like, people like John McCain and people like Mitt Romney, they didn’t say those things, so those people didn’t feel emboldened and like you said, this President did on the campaign trail. That’s an issue. I brought up my iPad because I wanted to bring some facts in here just to put a wrap on the RNC issue. You raised $198 million during the 2010 congressional cycle when you were on ‘fire Pelosi bandwagon. You won 63 House seats; biggest pick-up since 1938, where you took the House. They were the most successful elections on House races, over 600 seats, since 1928. Why weren’t you reelected as the RNC chair?

Michael:

…because no good deed goes unpunished. That’s why.

Brent:

In my head, I had for a long time I had this thing where I was like, ‘Michael Steele must have been a terrible RNC chair,’ but that’s not the case.

Michael:

That’s the narrative though, so let me tell you what the backstory to that is. The back story is, when I was running for chairman, members from around the country, what we call the 168, they’re comprised of the national committeeman and national committeewoman and the state chairman of each state and territory. The number comes to about 168. That’s the composition of the RNC. You go and you campaign for the job and I think I’m the only chairman who was a county chairman, a state chairman, and an elected official at the time he became chairman and so a lot of the members of the committee knew me from back when I was a county chairman in the 1990s. They knew me when I was state chairman in the early 2000s before I got elected to Lieutenant Governor. So they knew that I’m a grassroots guy and they knew that I resented the way the RNC did business with them, with that State parties. They wanted a champion and this so much explains Donald Trump in that, they wanted someone who would come in and break up the cabal that had festered inside the RNC. The special contracts. The no-bid contracts. The cozy arrangements. The consultant class that had taken over the management of the building, the operation of the building. The dictates that said, alright, if you want money from the RNC you have got to take our vendors. You’ve got to use our vendors. Even though those vendors didn’t have a damn clue about your state or your jurisdiction or your candidates, but you had to pay a premium in order for the RNC to do business with you.

They wanted an end to that. I was the guy to do that because I was willing to go in and break those eggs and in the process of doing that, pissed off a lot of people. I got rid of the no-bid process. I canceled about $20 million worth of contracts when I came in the door. You know that’s going to piss off a lot of people and it did, and so you started hearing, literally within the first 30 days. I think the first call for my being fired happened three weeks after I got on the job. How the hell does that happen? Well, it happens because you’re in there, I fired the entire building when I came in. I said ‘no’ to a lot of contracts that were already supposed to be paid for. Now the election of 2008 is over. Campaign’s over. Why do I have all these people working at the RNC and why am I still writing checks from a campaign that was over?

That disrupted the process and I made a lot of enemies. I will admit, I probably could have been a little smarter in dealing with some of that, but there is this sense that being smarter may, may not necessarily be the best thing. Following your instincts and your gut and once you start down that road you just do. I mean, I totally get it, so you have this situation and RNC was a microcosm of what would play out six-years later in that the body wanted someone to come in and clean it up. Clean up the swamp. To drain the swamp inside the RNC. Oh, guess what? Six-years later that’s now a national message that those members and their constituents, the voters and their respective states and jurisdictions are saying, we want someone to clean up the swamp. I can see that arc; that connection there.

Brent:

So, what you’re telling me is, you were the proto Donald Trump.

Michael:

In a little sense, yeah. Without all the crazy, yeah. Look, I said to, I’ve known Donald Trump a while, and I said to him that I love that Maverick style. This idea of shaking up the system.

I didn’t have a problem with Donald Trump calling out NATO, alright, because it needed to be called out. It had become a moribund institution. You know, no one had paid attention to it in about seventy-years and so, yeah, let’s reevaluate, not necessarily the relationship, which is where Trump went, but let’s reevaluate how we’re doing business with each other and whether or not this is… we’re modernized, so we’re all on the same page… I got that.

It was the same principle I applied at the RNC. Going in and shaking up the institution from within, but see my goal was to expand the party, so we did a lot of things to… the way we were able to win and how we elected Hispanic governors and African American State Legislators and Judges on the Texas Supreme Court was expanding the breadth of the party, it’s reach and it’s conversation with communities that didn’t look white and over 65. That was the strength. What we’re seeing now is a contraction away from that and they’re using that contraction as a strength, but I think it’s a great weakness to its own detriment.

Brent:

I have an issue because I understand. I understand the NATO things, the UN things, a lot of the dumb shit that Trump says. I understand it, however, I don’t understand how Republicans, voters, that is to say. I get the white working class of voters. I understand them thoroughly. They voted for Donald Trump because he doesn’t talk too different than they do. He said he’s going to do something for their jobs and frankly, you know what, my Stepdad, worked as a UAW worker who faced a lot of racism from stupid people over the years. So the fact is, is that that doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is men and women in your position who supported him. Who voted for him and they said, you know what, a Supreme Court seat is more important…

Michael:

That’s politics.

Brent:

Right, I understand, but that’s more important than being morally right?

Michael:

Look, I did not support the President’s election in 2016 and I didn’t for… along the moral grounds. The Access Hollywood tape, the whole thing, that is like… this is… there’s more to the office than just putting a man or a woman in it. There’s got to be something tethered to something that’s morally sound, but you’re talking about looking at the broad electorate. You have to ask yourself a question. If all of that is true and there is this, you know, there should be this distinction between your moral behavior and, a very clear distinction, that if you’re morally off track, that that should be disqualifying, or whatever. Ask yourself then, why, after everything he’s said and we know about Donald Trump and his relationship with women and the Access Hollywood tape, 52% of white educated women voted for him? He won the majority of the white female vote. He won 30% of the Hispanic vote after ‘all Mexicans are rapists’ and so forth. He won 10% of the Black vote. Remember, that was 0% at one point in the campaign. He grew it to 10% and the only thing he says is, ‘what have you got to lose?’ and all of a sudden all of those Black folks say, ‘oh, okay.’ What I tell people is, take the blinders off. Take the blinders of anger and just ‘I hate Donald Trump’ and all of that and try to understand the answer to the questions. Why these constituent groups voted for the man who is clearly antithetical to everything that they at least espouse to be about. When you begin to do that, then you begin to see America as it is because regardless of your station, regardless of your class, your race, there is a thread that he’s able to pull on and he pulled on it well. Well enough to win a Presidency and folks need to fundamentally understand that because it says more about us then it does about Donald Trump.

Brent:

Absolutely and I’ve had the conversation a million times since the 2016 election with my progressive friends and I …. [interupted for time]… The reason I invited you here was because I thought you were as reasonable of a guy as you have been and it’s been a great conversation and like I mentioned in my e-mail to you, I worked for Ed Schultz for about eight years and I remember seeing you on Bill Maher’s show with him and you guys screamed at each other and it was such a great argument and you guys were having a good time and then the best part about it to me was you were willing to come on the Ed Show sometime the next week and you sat down with him and now you’re an MSNBC contributor. So you can say you got my man Big Eddie to thank for that right?

Michael:

Yes, indeed. I loved Ed. He was a Maverick. He was a guy who pushed against convention and made the conversation real. He was not afraid to tell you what he thought; what he felt. That got him into trouble at times. I can identify with that. Those types of voices, you know, people like to try to put in a box and say, well he was this flaming Liberal or he was this flaming Progressive. Well, Ed was complicated. Ed was a lot of things. If you sat and talked to him you realized that he had some nice conservative positions as well. You understand his history, you know where he came from. That all makes sense, but what you can’t lose sight of is that he was authentic and he was the same guy on TV as he was off camera. He was the same guy in the airport as he was in the studio and I think that that level of authenticity is what generated the audience that he had and I think that the kind of support, even when his time was up at MSNBC, that carried with him and stayed with him and that was reflected in his love for his family and the work that he did. So, yeah, I have a lot to thank Ed for. We had great conversations whenever I was on his program and we would go after it on that Liberal/Conservative thing, but it really wasn’t about Liberal/Conservatives, it was really about having a conversation.

Brent:

That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing today. I had a blast. I hope you had fun.

Michael:

It was a lot of fun and I do appreciate it, bro.

Brent:

Can we do this again?

Michael:

Absolutely. Anytime.