A Run for the Ages?

Historic: Sen. Strom Thurmond, right (with Sen. John Danforth), ushers Clarence Thomas into a 1991 hearing on his Supreme Court nomination.
Historic: Sen. Strom Thurmond, right (with Sen. John Danforth), ushers Clarence Thomas into a 1991 hearing on his Supreme Court nomination. (The Washington Post)
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By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5, 2008

Already, the adjective "historic" seems permanently attached to news media descriptions of Barack Obama's emergence as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. News anchors and pundits deploy the term with abandon, but what do actual historians think?

"I think this will be in a class by itself," said John Hope Franklin, who at 93 is the dean of the American historians who think and write about race. Obama's campaign "is the most radical, far-reaching, significant [undertaking] by any individual or group in our history," he said. "This strikes at the very heart of national ideology on race and the political patterns of this country's history."

Obama's candidacy is "monumental," said Manning Marable, 58, professor of history at Columbia. "It can redeem American history from the specter of race that has plagued us for nearly 400 years."

"Race is the original sin of American democracy," said William Chafe, 65, professor of history at Duke, so "this will be historic in a thousand ways." It could be, added Alan Brinkley of Columbia, "a very important event in the effort to put race to bed as an issue."

These scholars were all talking about the phenomenon -- unexpected for all of them -- of a black man becoming a leading candidate for president in 2008. They agree that this is something big, even if it is too early to know just how big. And several of them agreed that it is also something complicated.

So Obama began his first speech as the presumptive nominee in St. Paul Tuesday night with eloquent thanks to "my grandmother, who helped raise me . . . who poured everything she had into me and who helped to make me the man I am today." She is Madelyn Dunham, Obama's white grandmother.

Race in America has never been a black-and-white matter. Many Americans have a mixed racial background, "but that is something we have never wanted to acknowledge," said Clement Alexander Price, 62, professor of history at Rutgers. "For a long time, the races [in America] have been joined at the hip." A further refinement: Obama's African ancestry is not traceable to an American descendant of slaves, but to his Kenyan father who in 1959 arrived in the United States, where he met and married Obama's white mother. So the candidate's pedigree, like his new standing in history, is unusual.

"It is one of those exquisite moments in American history," said Johnnetta B. Cole, 71, former president of Spelman College and an anthropologist, "that teaches all of us, especially the young, what is possible in this country."

Ultimately only history can determine what is historic. Obama's status in history will depend on future events that are today mostly unknowable, though the first -- whether he will or won't be elected president in November -- will be known relatively soon.

Even if he wins, the important presidencies are the ones that change the country and its politics, said David Blight of Yale. A President Obama's place in history "would depend so much on whether he truly can develop a new coalition" that creates a new politics. "It was a huge change in 1936, when Democrats first won a majority of the black vote and the old Republican Party was no more," Blight said, describing the year when Franklin D. Roosevelt solidified the New Deal coalition and won his second of four presidential elections. But that was only the second great realignment of American politics in the nation's history, Blight said -- the Civil War created the first.

Sometimes, he added, events that appear historic when they occur turn out to be something less to subsequent generations. John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 looked historic then as the first time a Catholic had won the presidency. Half a century later, when anti-Catholic prejudice has largely disappeared and a majority of Supreme Court justices are Catholics, only scholars and theologians are likely to remember that "historic" aspect of Kennedy's election -- historic now for other reasons.

Several scholars said they were surprised that Obama's success had come so quickly, and had come now. Stephen Carter, 53, a law professor at Yale and a native Washingtonian who remembers racial slurs from his 1960s childhood here, recalled a conversation with a school friend about when it might be possible to have the first black president: "We assumed it would never happen in our lifetimes."

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