Black president? Impossible: Congressman savors moment

Rep. Mel Watt was wrong, and he's so glad about it.

The nine-term Charlotte Democrat looks out the window of his Washington office. It has a spectacular view of the U.S. Capitol and the trees that flank the platform where Barack Obama will take the oath of office on Tuesday.

Despite all he's achieved in his own life, Watt never really believed he would see the inauguration of a black man as president.

More than six decades of life had led him to think it was impossible.

"I think people in my generation who came through my set of experiences could not have foreseen this," Watt says.

"It has the impact of shaping your vision of what your country is capable of. And part of my vision was we weren't capable of taking this step yet as a country."

Watt is not prone to hyperbole when he says that as a boy he could see the stars through holes in the tin roof of the home where he and two older brothers grew up with their teenage mother in a rural section of Charlotte once called Dixie.

Underfoot, the ground showed through the wooden floor.

To use the toilet, they had to go outside.

Away from home, restrooms and drinking fountains and schools drew a line between “colored” and “white.”

One of his first summer jobs in the 1950s was shining the penny loafers that college students wore with bright white socks in a barber shop in Davidson, a college town that's part of his congressional district now.

"I couldn't get my hair cut during the day," he says of the shop, owned by his black uncle but strictly for white customers until the shades could be drawn after hours. "Had to get it cut at night."

At 18, Watt arrived at the first integrated school he ever attended in 1963. Three students assigned to share his dorm room at UNC Chapel Hill were gone by the end of the first day, in pursuit of roommates who shared their skin color.

"I never spent the night with any of them," he recalls, then and now grateful for the eventual arrival of Marvin Mood, a white student from New Jersey prescreened for his views on living with a colored roommate. "It wasn't a big deal for him, but for me, it took guts for him to do that."

At the time, Barack Obama was 2 years old.

Though Watt and Obama didn't get to know each other until just four years ago, their paths first crossed in 1990 without Watt knowing.

As a student at Harvard Law School, Obama was supportive of Democrat Harvey Gantt's 1990 campaign to become the South's first black U.S. senator, a nationally spotlighted race that was being run by Watt, by then a Yale-educated civil rights attorney.

It would have a disappointing outcome for Gantt, the longtime Charlotte mayor, and it would forever shade the way Watt looked at the possibilities for African Americans in elected office.

Watt was impressed during his first conversation with Obama, a newly elected senator from Illinois in 2005, the year that Watt became chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

"It was obvious to me that he had a sense of history, that he knew he was standing on a lot of people's shoulders," Watt recalls. "As I tried to talk to him about him, when we first met, he was talking to me about me and the fact I had managed Harvey Gantt's campaign."

As Obama weighed a presidential bid a couple of years ago, he sought out Watt in a phone call.

The younger man had lots of questions: Is this doable? Would it be worth doing whether he won or lost? Was there value added even though Gantt lost that campaign so many years ago?

"I wasn't trying to move him one way or the other," Watt says.

Though he doesn't remember most of the details of their conversation, Watt's thoughts on Obama's prospects became clear. Though Watt considered Obama bright, smart, "a wonderful guy," he didn't endorse Obama initially, choosing instead a fellow North Carolinian, former Sen. John Edwards. Watt said publicly that he didn't think a black man could be elected president.

When asked about Obama's chances of winning North Carolina's electoral votes during the general election season, Watt repeatedly referred back to 1990. Gantt had been running ahead of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., in the polls, with 47 percent, and a large number of voters remained undecided before Election Day.

Helms won, in part by running his highly controversial "white hands" ad that suggested white people were losing out on jobs because of unfair advantages given to minorities. Gantt got his base of 47.6 percent, but picked up none of the undecideds.

The better part of two decades has passed since Gantt's loss, and Watt has achieved much on his own. He's been elected in nine consecutive campaigns for Congress. But doubts lingered for Watt right up until Obama's election, he says, because of all he's seen.“The great thing is Barack wasn't burdened by any of that.

"It wasn't likely I was going to jump up one day and say I think I'll run for president of the United States. You just don't do that. And if someone else does it, you say, 'I think I better stick with John Edwards, he has a better chance.' "

Watt laughs out loud.

He's 63 now, and with the country now facing a crippling economic crisis, Watt is brimming with hope that Obama will put the nation on a path toward financial recovery, energy independence and peace.

"I am so glad I was wrong," he says. "Our nation is better off that I was wrong. I'm big enough to admit when I was wrong. I love admitting when I'm wrong."