Toward the end of the presidential campaign, when both candidates were mentioning Harry Truman, I kept thinking of another name from that era -- Branch Rickey of the old Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the Mahatma, as he was called, who chose Jackie Robinson to break organized baseball's color barrier.
In Robinson, Rickey had the perfect pioneer -- self-disciplined, self-reliant and, as anyone who saw him play can tell you, a sensational baseball player. The lessons of Rickey were forgotten this year.
This, after all, was the year of firsts. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was the first black to run for president, and Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated for the vice presidency by a major political party. Almost anyone who attended the San Francisco convention, who saw bth Jackson and Ferraro on the platform at the same time, knew they were witnessing a historic moment. Blacks were ecstatic; women wept; and even those who were neither black nor female could feel the excitement of the moment: American politics would never again be the same.
Maybe, when the final tallies are in, we will be told that Ferraro and Jackson did make a terrific difference. Maybe we'll be told that blacks turned out in massive, historic proportions, that they provided the margin of victory in certain congressional races and that Ferraro brought more voters to the Democratic ticket than she drove away from it. Maybe. But none of that seems likely. Instead, from what the pollsters are saying, it's as if Ferraro and Jackson never even happened.
Why? As in all things, there are probably numerous reasons, not the least of them being the distinct possibility that nothing could have made the difference this year. But the old Mahatma would probably have something to say about the choices. Mostly, they were -- and they remain -- symbols. Neither one of them could really play ball.
Jackson, of course, was never just a symbol. His accomplishments were real. His campaign energized the black vote and produced an increase in registration. That's real, and so, too, was the belief -- the hope -- Jackson instilled in others.
The same holds for Ferraro. She broke the sex barrier, and that's something. There's a good chance that from now on no presidential election will again be an all-male affair and no more will issues such as abortion be discussed in a strictly theoretical way. When Ferraro in her debate with George Bush talked about the chances of her having an abortion if she were raped, American history was made.
But still, both candidacies were mostly symbolic. Jackson was not really running for president. He was doing something else, and doing some of it very badly -- like alienating Jewish support with his insulting statements and his alliance with the Rev. Louis Farrakahn. As for Ferraro, no matter what Walter Mondale said, the fact remained that she was chosen for the ticket because she was a woman -- not because she was a qualified politician who happened to be female.
Both Ferraro and Jackson made mistakes, and neither was truly qualified for the office being sought. The American people recognized that and discerned the difference between the symbolic and the real, and that accounts for why, toward the end of the campaign, they seemed to make so little difference. Both women and blacks had to know that ultimately not a lot had changed. Symbolism, as Rickey knew, can only take you so far.
But there is something else to be said, and it has little to do with either Ferraro or Jackson. It has to do with us, the voters, and the sort of nation we are. The fact remains that in 1984, the presidential contest really remained an all-white, all-male affair -- a contest open to less than half the population. A black ran for president and a woman for vice president, but in the end their candidacies hardly mattered. They were symbolic of a breakthrough, of course, but they were even more symbolic of something else: how far we still have to go.