By Reviewed by Alan Cooperman
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Politics and Race in the Age of Obama
By Gwen Ifill
Doubleday. 277 pp. $24.95
When Deval Patrick was 6 or 7, his mother took him to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak in a park on Chicago's South Side. Patrick, now 52 and serving as the first African American governor of Massachusetts, says he does not recall a single word of King's speech. But he does remember "what it felt like" to be in that park: "Nothing but hope."
Patrick's reminiscence -- described by PBS television reporter Gwen Ifill in her perceptive new book, The Breakthrough -- captures something essential about the rising generation of black political leaders. These are men and women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who inherited the hopes of the civil rights movement without having to go through its confrontations. While the worldview of older black politicians "was defined by limitation," Ifill writes, the new generation was "raised to believe they could do anything. Their schools were integrated, and Ivy League colleges came looking for them. . . . They lived in a world shaped by access instead of denial."
Ifill's book, the first she's written in a long and distinguished journalistic career, caused a ruckus months before publication. As she prepared to moderate the only vice presidential debate of 2008, the Oct. 2 face-off between Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. in St. Louis, some conservatives questioned her neutrality on the grounds that she was writing a "pro-Obama" book. In the "Saturday Night Live" skit about the debate -- which was at least as memorable and probably more widely seen than the real thing -- Ifill (played by Queen Latifah) repeatedly held up her book to the camera.
As it turns out, however, The Breakthrough is not primarily about Obama. It contains just one chapter on how he won the election, a 19-page analysis that contains no news-making revelations and largely follows conventional wisdom (he had the right "temperament"; he ran not "as the black candidate, but as a candidate for president who happened to be black"; he showed that white voters "were willing to embrace a black man who did not make them feel guilty about race.")
The book's real departure, and its real value, is that it treats Obama not as the breakthrough candidate but as one, fairly typical member of a breakthrough generation of African American politicians. The bulk of the book consists of short profiles of this deep bench "crammed elbow to elbow with mayors, state lawmakers, and other rising stars poised to grab at the next brass ring," from Newark Mayor Cory Booker to San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, Louisiana House Speaker pro tempore Karen Carter Peterson, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and Washington's own Mayor Adrian Fenty.
Ifill makes several provocative points about this cohort. She does it in a mild, unargumentative fashion, mostly by quoting one black leader after another saying pretty much the same thing until the message sinks in. If anything, in her book she is too neutral a moderator: She lets everyone talk and talk, all too rarely delivering her own crisp judgments. But some patterns become clear.
One is that the breakthrough generation is not willing to bide its time. In Newark, Ron Rice Jr. ran for city council in 2006 even though his father, a local political powerhouse, did not think he was ready. "I ran with Cory Booker against his support -- against him, to be frank," Rice told Ifill. "But it wasn't because I loved Cory Booker more than my dad. It was because my dad's generation told him constantly to wait your turn, wait your turn."
The younger generation of African American politicians also is mastering the art of running "from the outside in": wooing white voters first, then reassuring the black base. As Ifill describes it, that's not only how Obama won in 2008. It's also how Michael Coleman became mayor of Columbus, Ohio, in 2000, how Artur Davis captured a seat in Congress representing Birmingham, Ala., in 2002, how Patrick engineered a landslide in Massachusetts in 2006, and how 24-year-old state legislator Bakari Sellers might someday occupy the South Carolina governor's mansion.
Ifill writes admiringly of these and other African American politicians who put "whites at ease without alienating blacks," but she is refreshingly skeptical of the oft-heard claim that Obama has "transcended" race and ushered in "postracial" politics. "White Obama supporters seemed to take deep satisfaction in this idea," she notes. But "of the scores of black achievers interviewed for this book, none was willing to say race had not in some way enhanced or hampered the voters' perception of his or her political fitness. . . . The candidate may be judged not black enough or too black, but one way or another, race counts."
Another lesson comes from women politicians, who seem to agree that sexism is even more intractable than racism. History bears them out: Black men got the right to vote when the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1870, but women -- white as well as black -- had to wait 50 more years for suffrage. Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first African American woman elected to Congress, "always maintained gender was the higher hurdle," Ifill reports. Carol Moseley Braun, the only black woman ever to serve in the Senate, thought so, too. But Ifill's position, if she has one, is hard to discern. In her chapter on Obama's Democratic primary battle with Sen. Hillary Clinton, she asks rhetorically whether sexism really hurt Clinton more than racism hurt Obama. "In exit poll after exit poll," she observes, "voters who said race mattered voted against Obama, while voters who said gender mattered voted for Clinton."
Many members of the older generation of black politicians, whom Ifill calls the "surviving lions" of the civil rights movement, initially supported Clinton over Obama. That's another way in which the new president is typical of the breakthrough generation: "Those who marched back then," Ifill writes, "often turn out to be the biggest critics of those who are poised to take over now."
Old habits die hard -- for journalists as well as politicians. After 30 years of reporting for newspapers and television, Ifill is programmed to give both sides of the story and avoid expressing an opinion. She lends a sympathetic ear to Obama and Clinton, to the surviving lions and the impatient upstarts, to those who want to erase race from politics and those who think race is indelible. Perhaps that's why, in the end, her book is gently persuasive. Without cheerleading for any individual, it gives us something to cheer about: a breakthrough that is bigger, even, than Obama's. ·
Alan Cooperman is a senior editor of Book World.