Editorial: A historic journey
We’ve become so accustomed to automatically referring to this as a “historic election” that the phrase is in danger of losing its significance, in the same way that oft-repeated catch lines like “new and improved” or “money-back guarantee” bounce emptily off the brain.
On Tuesday, however, as Barack Obama in effect concluded his quest to gain enough delegates for the Democratic nomination, the enormity of the moment came into its full and stunning focus. An African-American, the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, is the presumptive nominee to be his party’s standard-bearer for the nation’s highest office.
How did this happen so quickly, one might ask ó and why did it take so long? As individuals, we measure our disappointments and achievements in minutes, hours and days, but the accumulation of events that we call history reveals itself in the trickle of years, decades, centuries, millennia. It has been a scant five months since the pre-Iowa world in which Sen. Hillary Clinton was deemed the inevitable nominee, and Obama was simply another name in a field that included John Edwards, Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson. Now, Obama stands alone, not only the first black presidential nominee, but, at age 46, one of the youngest as well. His candidacy has aptly been described as a political phenomenon, a torrent that surged across the electoral landscape. How did this happen so quickly?
From the longer perspective of American history and the issue of race, it didn’t come quickly. The journey has at times seemed as grindingly slow and grudgingly yielded as the erosion of bedrock in a torpid river. Obama’s ascent comes 44 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, and 143 years after the abolishment of slavery with passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. In theory, black Americans gained the right to vote in 1870. Yet a full century and more would pass before the nation lived up to that promise ó and its higher ideals of equality. Over the long years and decades when the battle for black citizens concerned the freedom to vote, not vie for office, the notion of a black man or woman running for president appeared only as a distant mirage ó or a cruel joke. Why did it take so long?
Obama’s candidacy isn’t the only thing that makes this election historic. While Senator Clinton did not gain the nomination, she established another milestone by pressing the electoral fight further than any woman previously has done. Geraldine Ferraro made history in 1984 when she became the first ó and, as yet, only ó female vice presidential candidate for a major political party. Sen. Elizabeth Dole created some excitement with her short-lived campaign for the Republican nomination in 2000. Yet, while Clinton, Dole and many other women have risen through the ranks to serve in the U.S. Senate, in Congress and in statehouses across the nation, the presidential nomination has remained an elusive goal. Clinton came tantalizingly close. While she drew votes from across many demographic lines, the intensity of her female loyalists speaks to the symbolic power of her pursuit.
Now, there are hints she might yet be Obama’s running mate. For the moment, however, what we know for certain is that this phase of the race is over. Barack Obama and John McCain have won the right to be their party’s presidential nominees. The words “historic election” carry real resonance ó and the real campaign is just beginning.