Interview: Denzel Washington, Michael Phelps on NBC's MEET THE PRESS
In this week's Meet the Press "PRESS Pass" conversation, David Gregory sat down with actor Denzel Washington, Olympian Michael Phelps, and Boys and Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) President Jim Clark to discuss the challenges facing America's children.
Washington, who has lent his celebrity to the BGCA as a spokesperson for 20 years, is also an alumnus of "the club," as he refers to it. He says that he sees some of his own experience with the BGCA when he talks with current club members.
Eighteen-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps's shares Washington's passion for the club. The swimmer's new initiative with the group, in conjunction with his foundation, is aimed at teaching children water safety and swimming basics as a means to combat childhood obesity and a healthier lifestyle.
A full transcript of the interview follows:
PRESS Pass: Denzel Washington, Michael Phelps, Jim Clark
David Gregory: I'm David Gregory and this is PRESS Pass, your all-access pass to an extra Meet the Press conversation. This week, I'm joined by Oscar-Winner Denzel Washington, Olympian Michael Phelps, and President of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America Jim Clark. They are here in Washington to raise awareness about the crisis facing America's kids, and what the Boys and Girls Clubs do to really deal with that crisis and really help young people. Welcome to all of you. Thanks for being here. It's great to talk to all of you. Denzel Washington, let me start with you. This is a project, the Boys and Girls Club, that is very near and dear to your heart. You lend your celebrity to this and have for 20 years. Why? Talk about your involvement and what drove it.
Denzel Washington: You know, initially - and still - because it's so easy to talk about, because I'm a part of it; I mean, the stories I tell are true stories. And I've seen what it's done, not only for me, but for a lot of guys - in those days it just guys, the Boys Club - that I grew up with. And every year, and every time I'm around young people who are members of the club, I hear those same type of inspirational stories about how the club has saved their lives and turned them around.
David Gregory: It can be an oasis in a tough neighborhood, but it doesn't have to be just a crime-ridden neighborhood, it can be any neighborhood where there are adults for children to help with homework, to be companions, to play, to provides sports - a safe place to be.
Denzel Washington: Right, and to help mold you and teach you lessons about life. And, I was saying earlier, just the lessons you learn through sports - sportsmanship, losing with grace, and playing fair, and those kind of things.
David Gregory: Michael Phelps, you're coming off the high of another amazing Olympic Games, and yet this is something since 2004 that you've been involved with. Talk about your own involvement and what you've tried to bring to young people.
Michael Phelps: Well, you know for me, growing up, my mother has always been the world to me, and she's been in education for almost 40 years - and for me to be able to help kids, to be able to show them anything is possible, with anything. For me, I was a kid, I had a dream of being the greatest swimmer of all time and I wasn't going to let anything stand in my way
Denzel Washington: I'm sorry that didn't work out. (LAUGHTER)
David Gregory: Seems to be going ok for you.
Michael Phelps: So you know that was just, that's what I wanted as a kid. And I was essentially just like, 'I don't care what it takes; I'm going to do anything that I can to make sure that I have the opportunity to get there.' And you know, for me growing up, I had mentors, and I had people supporting me and helping me through the way. And when I started working with the Boys and Girls Club, for me that was something that was more exciting than anything else. You know, to be able to go into the clubs and to see the excitement that every kid had on their face, and to help them, for me, more recently than ever, is being able to live healthy and active lifestyles, to realize that anything is possible, to be water-safe. And these things are all things that are extremely important all over the country, and all over the world. And, you know, this is something that is exciting for me. I've finished the competitive side of my career, but there are so many other things I want to achieve and that I will achieve before I'm all done.
David Gregory: Jim, you don't have to tell me how excited you are to have men of this caliber contributing to your effort at the Boys and Girls Club. But talk about the state of these clubs around the country, what they need and what they represent in communities.
JIM CLARK: Absolutely. Well today, we serve almost four million kids in four thousand clubs in the United States, and around the globe on military bases. And the kids we serve are most in need. So our focus is really on helping them have a great future. And to do that, we've concentrated on three areas: academic success, healthy lifestyles, and good character and citizenship. It's our goal to have all kids coming through our door graduate from high school with a plan for the future. And why this is so important - it goes to your question - that today unfortunately, we're facing a crisis in America. Three out of ten - all kids - won't graduate from high school on time this year. And if you look at minorities, it goes to five out of ten aren't going to graduate from high school this year. So, our future is at stake. And it's with these kids, particularly the ones who need us most in America. And that's our goal, is to help them.
David Gregory: Denzel, you grew up through the clubs as you talked about, and as you look at communities that are, in a lot of cases, largely minority, crime-ridden, where the incidence of dropping out from school is so high, and where public education is suffering – there's a huge national debate - do you find that the clubs are almost stressed to the point of having to play this extra role, to Make Up For deficiencies in these other areas?
Denzel Washington: Well, we don't have to - we shouldn't have to do all the work. Someone mentioned a statistic earlier, I think we reach about four million young people, and there are about another 16 million out there that need help, or that are falling between the cracks. So, we're trying to obviously increase our footprint and our impact around the country. But I can't blame the children. Whatever problems these young people have, they're our fault. So we have to do all that we can do in the Club, but it also takes place in school, it takes place in the home hopefully; we're just trying to do our part.
David Gregory: The public education piece of this, Michael, is something that you're involved in as well. We see a big national debate; we're in the middle of a presidential election: This isn't simply a matter of funding, in terms of public education, but you've got so much neglect in the public education system that's creating far more need for a place for kids to go, after school.
Michael Phelps: You know, for me, I grew up in public education. My mother's been in public education, like I said, for almost 40 years. And anything is possible, in any way, shape, or form. It doesn't matter. That's the bottom line.
David Gregory: What do kids want to know, as you've been involved with this, and you interact with them, and you're teaching them water safety or some of the basics of swimming? What is it they want to know most from you?
Michael Phelps: I mean, I think that's the crazy thing, is that – you know, Denzel and I are just normal human beings. We're just like everybody else. We had a goal of something that we wanted to do and we went out and achieved it. I think something for me that I always just laugh about is all the questions or this or that. But it's just them being able to interact, and to see that we're just like everybody else, I think is something that is very special, and something that I've been able to see just with genuine smiles. You can see me whenever I'm in the club, I'm myself. You'll see a gigantic smile on my face the whole entire time, because I'm enjoying it. And these kids are the future of our country.
David Gregory: And Denzel, you've got stories of your own of people who believed in you, who were real mentors for the clubs. Tell me one of those.
Denzel Washington: You know, I mean, the chance to meet a Michael Phelps when I was growing up - they weren't walking through the door that much. But that's very important, what Michael was saying is they say, 'Oh okay, it's not that far. He's like a regular guy. He just tripped and fell, didn't he?' But, the people, this term 'role model' was thrown around loosely, but really the people that were in the club, the adults that were in the club, they were our role models; they were the ones we were getting lessons from. I was speaking earlier about one guy, CharLes White, who said to me after a debate I had with the mayor of our town - I was like nine years old and I had this debate. I just thought I'd ask him questions but wasn't accepting any answers he was giving me. So after they told me to be quiet, I was leaving the club, and I remember CharLes White saying to me, he says, 'You know, with your smarts you can do anything you want to do in life.' And I never forgot it. I remember that walk home like it was yesterday. And my expectations weren't that high. I was thinking like, 'Oh I could be a fireman if I want to. I could work at the garbage' - Whatever I was thinking at the time, I'd never heard that. 'Oh, I can actually do whatever I want to do in life?' So what we say to young people when we're around them, maybe even what any adult says to these young people, are very important, especially at such an impressionable age.
David Gregory: And I keep coming back to my predecessor, of course, Tim Russert, who had such commitment to the Boys and Girls Club. I remember him always talking about the importance of the most simple thing, a place to go after school. Having that place to go, Jim, is what matters, because once they're through the door, you can start to work your magic.
JIM CLARK: Well that's exactly right. And it's a safe place, it's a positive place, where there is an adult, a caring adult, in their life that's going to ask how their day was, that's going to ask do they have any homework. And, you know, kids are still kids. The answer's always the same – 'no.' But through our connections to schools and public education - which is a focus of ours, to connect better to the school day - we could say, 'Wait a minute, Michael. Come on over here. We do know you've got some homework and let us help you get that done.' So it is coming to a safe place, a positive place, where we can have an inspiration, a role model, and give them some hope and opportunity in their life. So, it's an opportunity for us to take advantage of that time, it's high-desire time, and kids want to be at Boys and Girls Clubs.
Denzel Washington: And let me just clarify one thing: I though being a fireman at the time was as big as it could go, I'm not knocking fireman. I really thought man, I could be a fireman, I could be a policeman or something.
David Gregory: Let me talk about the safety aspect a little bit. I mean here, you're engaged, to an extent, politically; you think about these things. One of the debates we seem to not be having in this country is about poverty, and about crime; about the role that guns are playing in some of our big cities, and our inner cities, where the guns are coming from, the level of violence plaguing a lot of our communities. How much do you think you can have some input on that, some imprint of the debate, through this work?
Denzel Washington: Well, we're already having a tremendous imprint, input, impact. We already are. That doesn't make the news, you see, that just doesn't make the news - well it will today - but it doesn't make the news. So we are turning out millions of good kids, who aren't involved with drugs, who aren't involved with guns and gangs. Yes, obviously those things are there, so we're saying, 'Hey help us help other young people. The more that we save, the less that are a part of that other number.'
David Gregory: Jim, can this be something that gets beyond the role-of-government debate, or does there have to be the government - federal, state and local - making a commitment to programs like the Boys and Girls Club, in addition to what private citizens can do?
JIM CLARK: Well, we do receive support from local, state and federal government entities, and it's a critical part of what we do, and I like to look at in terms of what we can do with that funding, and the return on that investment. You know, kids, coming through Boys and Girls Club; our alumni tells us that 92% graduate from high school. So, you think about the investment - and it's a small one - that's made in Boys and Girls Clubs through government funds, we produce active, caring, productive kids on the other side. So, yes, when it comes to government sources, it's an important revenue stream for us. But I think we are good stewards of that funding, and the return on the investment back to the American public is tremendous in terms of the 4 million kids that we serve every year.
David Gregory: Alright, before I let you two guys go, a final question area. Michael, you mentioned it, what's next for you if you're out of the pool competitively?
Michael Phelps: I have the rest of a long life ahead of me. I spent 20 years in the pool looking at the black line for five hours of the day. I have a passion for helping kids and working with kids, and that's been something that I've had my whole entire life. So when I started my foundation three years ago, I'm going to put more in, and much more into it. And this is something that does excite me. And I always want to have fun with what I do. And I know how important the youth is. And this is one step to, I guess to the next road of my life, and this is going to be enjoyable. And hopefully we can all continue to work together and show everybody how important that it is for the youth to understand that anything is possible and whatever you put your mind to you can achieve.
David Gregory: And Denzel, I was quizzing you before we sat down here about your roles as an actor, which I love, and a lot of the tough guy roles that you've been playing of late. Where does your desire lie at this point in terms of saying, 'I've done so much but there are some areas I'd like to stretch,' where would those be?
Denzel Washington: I also do theater - I shouldn't be bragging about this - but anyway, I do theater, and I direct films as well, and I'm going back to Broadway in 2014. So I don't search out so much the roles; I kind of see what's out there. I'm pretty much lined up for the next couple of years in different kinds of things. I'm also happy about, my children are all getting into the business. So I have this idea in my head about this Production Company that we'll all do together.
David Gregory: Now you can think legacy.
Denzel Washington: Yeah, they probably don't want anything to do with it.
David Gregory: No cautionary tales about the kids coming in?
Denzel Washington: Well, you know, they're well rounded, they're very bright. I've got two Ivy Leaguers, I got one at NYU, one that graduated from Morehouse. So they're doing alright.
David Gregory: Well congratulations to all of you for your work here, and thank you very much.
JIM CLARK: Thanks for having us.
Photo Credit: Peter James Zielinski