A Run for the Ages?
Scholars Say Obama's Campaign Is History in Motion

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."

But when dramatic events occur, historians tend to look over their shoulders in search of a context -- antecedents whose significance was not so clear before the drama happened. Obama's success this year, said David Nasaw, 62, of the City University of New York, a historian writing a biography of JFK's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, culminates 20 years of change that Nasaw dates to September 1991.

"When Strom Thurmond ushered Clarence Thomas [then a nominee to become only the second black on the Supreme Court] and his white wife into the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room . . that signaled that something was happening in American culture," Nasaw said. Thurmond, the long-serving senator from South Carolina who began his political career as an outspoken racist, was then the ranking Republican on the committee, and a staunch supporter of Thomas's confirmation.

Shelby Steele, 61, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, published a book about Obama late last year, "Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win." In an interview this week, Steele said he now regrets that subtitle -- "it's certainly possible that he could win" -- but he also predicted that Sen. John McCain would prevail in November. As to Obama's victory over Hillary Clinton (Steele earlier predicted that she would beat him), Steele said he was not surprised that a black man could win. "By the time these things happen, American society has rearranged itself. I've felt for some time that America was ready for this."

For Carter of the Yale law school, who is a novelist as well as a legal scholar, the context for Obama's success is an America where blacks have been enjoying unprecedented opportunities for some time. Two black secretaries of state, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, are evidence of that, Carter said. So were black chief executives of big financial institutions and corporations, mostly unheard of 20 years ago.

At the same time, Carter argued that "it's difficult to make the case that Obama excites people because he's black. The excitement that people feel about him, whether or not you think it's deserved, is precisely because he strikes people as someone who will transcend these easy classifications."

Nasaw of CUNY noted that Margaret Thatcher was elected Britain's first female prime minister in 1979. But she was a historically significant prime minister because her policies radically changed British life. Her gender has become relatively insignificant.

Older scholars seemed more cautious in their evaluations. Leon Litwack, 78, retired professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for a book on the aftermath of slavery, said he had "strong doubts about whether the American people could really elect Obama. . . . There are still strong feelings about race in this country; it is still a very significant factor in American life. I think it still remains, in many respects, a racist society."

Obama's candidacy "could be a turning point," Litwack said. "I have rather conflicted opinions."

But others said that even a defeat in November could not undo the importance of what has already happened. "If you think in terms of these young white girls, young white men, old white girls and old white men" who are supporting Obama, said Franklin, "and you see what they're up to, and they're acting like this is a natural thing! It's really astounding."

Many of these scholars commented on their students' excitement about Obama. "There's an enthusiasm that I haven't seen before," said Nasaw, who speculated that the number of new voters who will support Obama in November could outnumber those who will vote against him for racial reasons. The enthusiasm of the students suggested that "the country has turned a corner," said Harvard Sitkoff, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire.

But no student could be more enthusiastic than John Hope Franklin. "My mother used to tell me when I was 6 years old [in 1921], when people ask you what you're going to be when you grow up, tell them you're going to be the first Negro president of the United States. I worked up the courage to say it a few times, talking through my hat or somebody else's hat. And now here's the fulfillment of it, in my lifetime!"

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company