Friday, December 19, 2014

This moment in history

 

It is tempting to simply dish on the details of last night, by noting how Barack Obama was far more magnanimous toward Hillary Clinton than she was toward him. Or how Clinton signaled her intention to remain a major pla

This moment in history

 

It is tempting to simply dish on the details of last night, by noting how Barack Obama was far more magnanimous toward Hillary Clinton than she was toward him. Or how Clinton signaled her intention to remain a major player in the '08 campaign (I want the nearly 18 million Americans who voted for me to be respected"). Or how Obama signaled his intention to make her a major player in an Obama administration ("When we finally win the battle for universal health care - and we will win it - she will be central to that victory").

It is also tempting to simply dish the speculation, by wondering how well Clinton will pivot from her stated belief that the presumptive Democratic nominee lacks the requisite commander-in-chief credentials, to her inevitable claim on the stump that Obama is actually qualified after all. Or wondering how the elaborate dance between the two will actually play out, with Clinton presumably expecting Obama to make the first big overture about an autumn role, and with Obama presumably deciding to play it cool for awhile, because, after all, he's the nominee and chasing after her would look like a sign of weakness.

All this, and more, is great grist. But let us pause instead and simply acknowledge this historic American moment before it inevitably becomes subsumed by the day's political minutae:

An African-American has been chosen to lead a major party in a presidential election. In the space of four decades, the unimaginable has become reality.

When Obama was born on August 4, 1961, southern blacks could not sit with white patrons at lunch counters, or drink from the same water fountains, or use the same public toilets, or sit where they wanted on buses. They were routinely denied the right to vote. Civil rights workers known as Freedom Riders, who rode buses across state lines to protest segregation in transportation, were often dragged from the vehicles that spring and summer, and beaten with tire irons. Even accomplished black citizens got little respect; when NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall met that spring with attorney general Robert Kennedy to discuss the possibility of being nominated for a federal appeals court seat, RFK told him, "That's the problem with you people. You want too much too fast."

Even as recently as five years ago, the Democratic party - the self-advertised party of diversity, which officially vowed in 1973 to "achieve full participation of minorities...in all party affairs" - boasted not a single black U.S. senator, or black governor. And the two blacks running for president in 2004 were not worth any serious ink; the Rev. Al Sharpton had a long, sometimes sordid history of racial polarization, and Carol Moseley Braun was a former one-term senator who got dumped by the voters after a series of ethics violations.

Obama, joined in 2007 by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, are the only black Democrats currently holding statewide elective office (Harold Ford came close to winning the Tennessee Senate race in 2006), so one can't exactly say that political integration has truly been achieved. But it can be argued that Obama's historic ascendence will pry open a lot of doors that will only swing wider over time.

It is also important to mark his other historic achievement, one that has often been overlooked, particularly during his spring season woes:

Hard to believe, but he was not always the frontrunner. He came out of nowhere and defeated the most prominent female politician in America (and arguably the world), someone who is wedded to the only two-term Democratic president of the last 60 years, someone who supposedly would blow out the competition (especially a freshman senator) thanks to a combination of organizational muscle and financial prowess.

And it's important to remember that the political media (the same media that Bill Clinton whines about today) basically declared her the winner last year before a singe citizen had cast a vote. Indeed, on the day Obama announced his candidacy, The New York Times took care to remind readers that Clinton was dominant, due to her "years of experience in presidential politics, a command of policy and political history, and an extraordinarily battle-tested network of fundraisers and advisers."

Yet without any serious executive experience, Obama oversaw a $250-million campaign operation that, among other achievements, pioneered new frontiers in small-donor Internet fundraising, captured the "change" theme and owned it, and managed to survive 16 months of unprecedented battle without any changes in senior campaign personnel. Clinton lagged in the money contest, lost out on "change," and had to overhaul her hierarchy. She was consistently reactive. She was outfought, although she remains too graceless to acknowledge it.

Obama is probably tempted to savor this moment in history, to reflect however briefly on how far he has come, in defiance of the odds, and on his implicit message to aspiring non-white Americans. (Indeed, by sheer coincidence, he will deliver his Democratic convention acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech). But this moment for Obama probably will have passed by the time you read this.

So, for instance, what message did Clinton mean to convey last night when she merely lauded Obama and his supporters "for the race they have run," as opposed to showing some grace and praising the race they have won...let the dish begin.

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
About this blog

Cited by the Columbia Journalism Review as one of the nation's top political reporters, and lauded by the ABC News political website as "one of the finest political journalists of his generation," Dick Polman is a national political columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is on the full-time faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, as "writer in residence." Dick has been a frequent guest on C-Span, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC. He covered the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential campaigns.

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All commentaries posted before April 18, 2008, can be accessed at www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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