Editorial: Remembering That the Prize is the Presidency

By Becky O’Malley
Friday January 18, 2008

Let’s build our dream candidate, shall we? Experienced, smart, African-American, from an immigrant family though born in the U.S.A., and female.....wouldn’t we all be proud to support that person, don’t we wish she were running this year? Well, folks, I’ve been there, done that, in 1972, no less. I was one of the core group (non-hierarchical, of course) who ran the Michigan primary campaign for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, and it was a huge success: We got 5 percent of the vote. It was an enormously satisfying experience, right up until Richard Nixon was re-elected in a landslide vote. It’s all been downhill since then. 

Elections, unfortunately, are about more than self-expression. That’s why it’s profoundly depressing to see people who should know better expressing themselves loudly in public places (e.g. the New York Times op-ed pages) about how various candidates make them feel. Some women and men who should know better are reviving the pointless old debate about whether women or black people have been more oppressed in this country. One of them, Gloria Steinem, was part of the Chisholm campaign like me, yet she leaped into the arena at the first hint of a controversy between the Clinton and Obama campaigns over whether gender or race counted for more sympathy points in the contest for the nomination.  

She and Melissa Harris Lacewell, African-American and Princeton professor, locked horns on Amy Goodman’s show in an embarrassing exchange of postures that did neither candidate any good. Luckily Amy Goodman viewers don’t swing many elections. 

What’s most annoying about the media’s attempt to build up a few tense words between the candidates or their followers is that Hillary Clinton is not the Average White Woman, and Barack Obama is not the Average Black Man. Oppression in this country and many other countries has always been as much about class as it has been about gender and race.  

All over the world throughout history, certain women attached to the ruling class (and every society has one) have had a kind of free pass from some forms of gender oppression. That was true in Renaissance Britain, where rival queens Elizabeth I of England and the Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley once took tea. Elizabeth would have been no one without Henry VIII, and Gráinne Ní Mháille (the Gaelic version) learned everything she knew about sea-faring from her father. Benazir Bhutto is the most obvious contemporary example of daughters learning from fathers how to get ahead. 

But even for men in the United States it’s been conventional for family members to play off the success of their relatives, going all the way back at least to the two presidents named John Adams. It’s one career strategy, and as often beneficial for the country as harmful. John Kennedy was a pretty good president, and his brother Bobby would have been a better one. Ted Kennedy has been an excellent senator, and Robert Kennedy, Jr. has had an honorable career with more perhaps to follow. On the other hand, we have the Bush family, but gender is not the problem there.  

Hillary Clinton has had all the advantages of an upper middle class woman in her cohort. She received an excellent education with little trouble and no student loans to pay off. Her choice to throw in her lot with another smart young lawyer, Bill Clinton, was sensible, and has worked as expected. But her gender shouldn’t count either for her or against her for Democratic voters trying to make up their minds before Feb. 5. 

Barack Obama has similarly had many more advantages than those African-Americans who are the descendants of slaves and of recent ancestors who have suffered under segregation and racism. His African father seems to have been a member of the ruling class in his country of birth, and his European-American mother’s family was solidly midwestern upper-middle class, probably a lot like Hillary Clinton’s family. He has undoubtedly experienced a measured amount of race-based prejudice in his lifetime, but nothing compared to the experience of African-Americans from families long oppressed in this country. But again, this shouldn’t count much either for or against his candidacy. 

The candidates seem to have made a real effort in the last couple of days to counter the attempts of frivolous commentators like Maureen Dowd to turn the Democratic primary campaign into the feud between Britney Spears and her ex-boyfriend. They have participated in staged Kumbaya moments, and said nice things about one another. It would be great if they could keep it up, at least until Super Tuesday.  

What role will racism, the plain old-fashioned ugly kind, play in voters’ decision at that point? Not all that much, I’d be willing to wager. Most Americans have gotten, finally, to the point where they’d actually like to be able to vote for someone like Obama, just as they enjoy being fans of the right African-American music or sports celebrities. (This tells you nothing about their opinions on racial hot button issues like crime or welfare, however.)  

The racial component in choices made by voters, if there is one, will come from the handicapper mentality. It seems that increasingly, particularly in primaries, voters think that their job is to bet on the winner. In the Democratic primary, that leads some of them to this convoluted reasoning path: “I’m not racist myself, and I’d like see Obama as president, but since other people are racist, perhaps I’d better not vote for him.” This kind of one-degree-of-separation racial analysis could harm Obama’s prospects in the remaining primaries, if too many otherwise well-meaning Democrats fall for it.  

In the week in which we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, it’s useful to remember the exhortation which he made popular in the civil rights movement: Keep your eyes on the prize. What we’re trying to do here is choose a president, folks. 

In grade school we were asked to debate the question of “who was the greatest president, Washington or Lincoln?” I never had a moment’s doubt arguing for Lincoln, because of the whole log cabin thing: He’d overcome his humble background to rise to the top, a trajectory most admired in America.  

But in maturity I realize that there’s more to the story than that. Even if Hillary Clinton does represent women overcoming gender discrimination, or if Barack Obama does represent triumph over racial discrimination, those aren’t the best reasons to vote for either of them in 2008.  

It’s better to choose our elected officials on the basis of what they will do if elected, instead of on what they represent as symbols. Much more relevant is evaluating the choices they’ve made.  

It’s not the fact that Hillary Clinton chose to hitch her wagon to Bill’s star that counts against her, it’s what they, admittedly as a team, did with the presidency. She has experience, all right, but there is little to be proud of and much to be ashamed of in the Clinton record. The obvious comparison is to Eleanor Roosevelt, who made the same decision about her career, though she never had a chance to run for office on her own, but did much more good with her chosen path.  

Sen. Barack Obama has the advantage of an essentially clean slate. He is often compared to Sen. Jack Kennedy, who did a fair job with the presidency in the short time he had, but Obama, the same age as Kennedy was when he was elected, has achieved much more on his own than Kennedy had at the same point in his life. Kennedy was never a scholar like Obama, nor did he devote any time to community service jobs as Obama does.  

But in the last analysis, even by studying history, it’s impossible to predict with certainly what any candidate will do if elected. Like it or not, we fall back in the end on image: what a candidate seems to stand for.  

John Edwards is a tempting choice because his campaign invokes the best of the Democratic party’s past, but at the same time he reminds us of the party’s failures to solve many problems. Hillary Clinton has only experience as her product, only her partnership with Bill as her resume, and that’s tainted by his obvious shortcomings. What the Obama campaign is selling is not much more than hope that the future will be different from the recent past, but hope is a potent prescription. It might be the one that works this time.