With John Edwards’ valiant campaign at a close, it is certain that the Democratic presidential nominee will be either a woman or a black man: History made, heads or tails.
But this is not the first time a woman or an African American has run for president. More than 35 years ago, American had both. Throughout this long primary season, I can’t help but hear in my head a song lyric, looped over a Steve Miller Band sample, from Biz Markie’s “Nobody Beats the Biz”: “Reagan is the pres but I voted for Shirley Chisholm.”
Biz’s apparent anachronism aside (perhaps he wrote her in on the ballot, seeing as Chisholm’s historic 1972 presidential candidacy predated Ronald Reagan’s by eight years), the line is a reminder that a woman or African-American candidate in the Democratic primaries is not as novel as the media suggest. Time indeed keeps slippin’ into the future. It is, nonetheless, sad commentary on our society that, at this late juncture in American history, the prospect of an African American or female actually winning a major party nomination is such a huge deal.
At this watershed moment, one would imagine that such a confluence of gender and race would prompt a more in-depth discussion of the issues than “Ooh, she’s a woman” or “Look! He’s black.” And one would be wrong. I daresay that if we don’t get out of Iraq, fix the health care mess, revitalize the economy to allow people to earn a living wage, and restore some semblance of progressiveness to the tax code, the psychological benefit of having a black or female president will be small consolation to millions of Americans.
How the discussion of the candidates has been framed limits the degree to which Clinton or Obama could champion their respective constituencies. The extreme hatred that Karl Rove-era Republicans have for Clinton is inexplicable, unless you factor in a deep-seated, seething resentment of her as a highly intelligent, capable woman who, while in the White House, dared to use her talents on matters of important national policy.
Obama, meanwhile, is doggedly trying to avoid the racial minefield by transcending it. Good luck with that. He’s carefully calibrated his blackness to just a few drops over “Magic Negro” status, on some Bagger Vance Goes to Washington steez, but it hasn’t worked entirely. Post-Iowa, the Clinton campaign mischaracterized him as just an orator, a dreamer. Obama responded by pointing out that vision-casting worked well for the country when done by folks like Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, whom he hoped to emulate.
A few weeks ago, Clinton rather clumsily countered that it took President Lyndon Johnson to realize King’s “Dream,” and the racial undertones of her comments pissed off a lot of folks. During the fallout created by her poor choice of words, the Clinton campaign pointed fingers at Obama’s campaign, holding them responsible for the ensuing criticism that coursed through the black community. (The media reported that phenomenon, largely uncritically.)
And in case that racially charged exchange was too subtle, former President Bill Clinton went on an unprecedented, incendiary spree of negative campaigning in advance of the South Carolina primary, apparently calculated to draw attention to Obama’s blackness. As that week unfolded, it seemed to me as if the Clintons (now decidedly a plural entity, with her coronation unsure) invited the trouncing of Hillary in South Carolina, because Obama’s victory there, on the strength of an irate and energized black electorate, could be used as evidence to marginalize his candidacy.
And sure enough, when it came to pass, Bill compounded the insults of the prior week by dismissing Obama’s showing as equivalent to Jesse Jackson’s winning that state in 1984 and 1988. If race were not the primary signifier, the former president could have chosen to highlight a more recent election cycle, say, 2004, when John Edwards won there, as proof of the irrelevancy of South Carolina’s voters. Bill’s calculated comment was a smack in the face to Obama, a sitting U.S. senator and former two-term Illinois senator who’d already compiled a major victory in lily-white Iowa and had a strong run in New Hampshire.
The cynical nature of the Clintons’ slash-and-burn act took me back to Bill’s 1992 race, during which he presided over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a black, mentally handicapped inmate in Arkansas. As part of the murder-robbery that landed Rector on death row, he botched a suicide attempt, effectively giving himself a frontal lobotomy. Rector didn’t eat the dessert that came with his last meal, telling his jailers that he was saving it for later, in a famous and stunning display of his lack of mental capacity. (The Supreme Court didn’t outlaw capital punishment of the mentally retarded until 2002.) Clinton on the campaign trail, however, Rector’s execution was insurance against the disaster that happened with 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and convicted murderer Willie Hortonand a way to deflect publicity from the Gennifer Flowers sex scandal.
I didn’t vote for Bill Clinton in 1992, even though I seethed with discontent during Reagan and Bush the Elder. What turned me off was a campaigning Clinton’s contrived abrading of Sistah Souljah, a young community activist-turned-rapper whom Clinton publicly rebuked in what was largely seen as a repudiation of Jesse Jackson’s influence within the Democratic Party. Oh, he can clap on beat all day at black churches, but former Bill’s dealings with black folks always err on the side of personal political expediency, which brings us back to today.
Talk of a “dream” ticket of Clinton/ Obama or Obama/ Clinton seemed on hold, indefinitely, after South Carolina. The Clintons, not too subtly, are signaling that if Hillary doesn’t win, they would rather pull the whole thing apart. Her reneging on the spirit, if not the letters of the Democratic Party’s agreement (and her own pledge) not to recognize the primaries in Florida and Michigan testify to her capacity for divisiveness.
Historicity aside, with so much at stake, Sen. Clinton’s campaign appears willing to exploit and exacerbate schisms between groups that comprise the core of the Democratic Party if it will guarantee her victory. In the run up to the Nevada primary, a member of the Clinton campaign remarked, on the record, about Hispanic voters’ perceived unwillingness to vote for an African-American candidate. It seems a very real possibility to me that, should she win with these tactics, the throngs of voters responsible for the record turnouts that we’ve seen thus far will stay home come November. And if that happens, an opportunity for our electoral process will be left, like so many of our other ideals, burnt on the altar of power and politics: the Dream, deferred.