Gwen Ifill’s ‘The Breakthrough’

A look at the much-anticipated book on black political leaders in the Obama generation.

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From the book The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill.  © 2009 by Gwen Ifill. Posted by arrangement with Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.. 

chapter three 

baRack obaMa  

If you were to get a handbook on what’s the path to the presidency, I don’t think that the handbook would start by saying, “Be an African American named Barack Obama.”  —Barack Obama  

Two events in the course of Barack Obama’s tumultuous twenty-one-month campaign for president stand as testament to the clashing impulses of race and politics. One occurred on a bitterly cold morning in Atlanta, Georgia, the other on a perfect balmy evening in Denver, Colorado.

A light snow dusted rooftops and a thin sheen of ice coated the reflecting pool at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site on Auburn Avenue the January day Obama arrived. This was unusual weather in the Deep South, and all across town, churches canceled Sunday morning services. But not at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Not on the King holiday weekend.

Obama, who almost exactly one year later would be sworn in as the nation’s first African American president, had an appointment that day in Dr. King’s pulpit—or at least in the new version of it. The congregation at Ebenezer now worshiped in a soaring, modern sanctu­ary directly across the street from the old red brick church, which still stands. The future president laid a wreath on the graves of Martin and his wife, Coretta, who are buried next door. 
Obama had come to Atlanta, a city where every other downtown street seems to be named after peaches or 1960s civil rights leaders, to pay his respects. Just the night before, Hillary Clinton had beaten him like a drum in the Nevada Democratic caucuses, and he was in need of reassurance. The warm and welcoming Sunday morning crowd was eager to supply it. 

Two thousand worshipers filled the sanctuary to the rafters. Hundreds more who could not get in braved the frigid weather out­side to listen via loudspeakers. Here was the familiar: an African American candidate for office entering a sanctuary while a choir sang James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Negro national anthem. (Bill Clinton famously knew every word of every verse.) Next the candidate and the ministers clasped hands as the congregation swayed and joined in the full-throated sing­ing of “We Shall Overcome.” The choir, surrounding the candidate on three sides and draped in kente cloth, broke into the rollicking gospel song “Victory Is Mine”: I told Satan, get thee behind; victory today is mine. 

“We don’t take this pulpit lightly,” the Reverend Raphael G. Warnock said as he introduced Obama. “We invited this brother be­cause he’s committed, he’s brilliant. He has a spiritual foundation. And he is the embodiment of the American dream. Regardless of whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, or an independent, when you think about the long history of America, Barack Obama makes us proud.” 

Congregants, crammed into every seat on the floor and the balcony, all but willed the young senator to bring them to their feet. But the candidate had other things in mind. This sermon would not be about race. Not exactly. 

“Unity is the great need of the hour,” he told the worshipers. “It is the great need of this hour as well. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.” 

Then Obama slipped into what would become a running theme when he addressed black audiences: spreading the blame around. “All of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays—on the job, in the schools, in our health care system, and in our criminal justice system,” he said. “And yet, if we are honest with our­selves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community.” 

This was classic Obama. When given the chance to talk about race in the ways most expected to hear, he resisted. Race was worth talk­ing about, he thought, but only in the context of broader issues. You would never catch this black man with his fist in the air.

 

“The men and women who gathered there could’ve heard many things,” he said, referring to the March on Washington. “They could’ve heard words of anger and discord. They could’ve been told to succumb to the fear and frustrations of so many dreams deferred. But what the people heard instead—people of every creed and color, from every walk of life—is that, in America, our destiny is inextricably linked, that together our dreams can be one.”  

This too was classic Obama. He did not deny his race, but he gen­erally didn’t bring it up either. You had to look in the pages of his ac­claimed autobiography, Dreams from My Father, to learn about his admiration for Malcolm X and his collegiate flirtation with black ac­tivism. But the book also held these words: “My identity might begin with the fact of my race,” he wrote. “But it didn’t, couldn’t end there.”

Obama and his advisers decided early that he was not going to win the presidency by playing up his race. Those who would be drawn to that aspect of his biography would vote for him in any case, they rea­soned. The toughest votes to win would come from those who might overlook or distrust him because of something he could not control— the color of his skin.  

“The thing is, a black man can’t be president of America, given the racial aversion and history that’s still out there,” Cornell Belcher, an Obama pollster who is himself African American, told me after the election. “A black man can’t be president of America. However, an ex­traordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.”  

So Obama was to become the world’s most famous black man not by denying his biracial identity but by embracing parts of it selectively. On the podium at the Democratic National Convention, we saw his Indonesian half sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, but not his Kenyan half sister Auma Obama. And the omissions in his biography were not limited to race: There was just passing reference made to Michelle and Barack Obama’s elite educations at Princeton and Harvard and to their law degrees.  

“He appreciates and embraces his blackness,” observed Michael Eric Dyson, the Georgetown professor and author who climbed aboard the Obama presidential campaign bandwagon early. “But he doesn’t want that to exhaust his agenda, or determine what his vocational trajectory will be. What he will say, what he will do, how he will behave, how he will act.”  

It was a fairly perilous tightrope Obama walked, and one that had never been managed at this level before. He had to integrate the tacti­cal with the strategic, reaching out to some voters without alienating others, and change the face of black politics altogether. He did this in part by crafting his persona and his speeches to appeal to all listen­ers. On the night he won the Iowa caucuses, he was making history, but he allowed others to interpret his meaning when he bellowed, “They said this day would never come!” “I knew that it would have multiple meanings to multiple people,” Obama’s twenty-seven-year­old white speechwriter, Jon Favreau, acknowledged later.2 Obama’s caution continued even after he won the presidency. Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes asked him after the election what he thought of his racial breakthrough, and Obama once again spoke of other people’s reac­tions—the faces in the crowd, his mother-in-law—not his own.  

But it became clear early on that this would be no color-blind cam­paign. During the heated and competitive primary season, an edgy and alarming debate took place between Hillary Clinton and Obama about race, gender, and even the legacy of Bill Clinton. The former president had famously deemed Obama’s plan for Iraq a “fairy tale,” and com­pared Obama’s South Carolina victory to Jesse Jackson’s twenty years before. Then Hillary Clinton credited Lyndon B. Johnson rather than King, it seemed to critics, with getting the Civil Rights Act passed. “It took a president to get it done,” she said. “That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people’s lives, because we had a president who said were going to do it and actually got it done.”  

Obama called her remarks “ill-advised.” Senator John Edwards told a black church audience he was “troubled” by the comment.

The Clintons were furious at being accused of playing the race card. There was “not one shred of truth” to suggestions that she was trying to exploit racial tension in the campaign, Hillary Clinton said indig­nantly on Meet the Press. “I don’t think this campaign is about gender, and I certainly hope it is not about race.”

“She started this campaign saying that she wanted to make history, and lately she has been spending a lot of time rewriting it,” Obama re­sponded tartly.

And in a widely noted address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—the nation’s oldest civil rights orga­nization—Obama admitted he was aware of the sensitivity his com­ments stirred. “I know some say I’ve been too tough on folks, talking about responsibility,” he said to the three thousand members gathered in Cincinnati. “At the NAACP, I’m here to report, I’m not going to stop talking about it.”  

Later in that speech he added, “When we are taking care of our own stuff, then a lot of other folks are going to be interested in joining up and working with us and taking care of America’s stuff.”

Many conservative black churchgoers applauded this approach, ris­ing to their feet in venue after venue to cheer him on. But some black leaders wondered if something wasn’t missing. Why wasn’t Obama speaking as a champion for black people instead of pointing out their shortcomings? Why wasn’t he talking specifically about racial dis­parities when he discussed issues such as education, health care, and criminal justice? Or, as Jesse Jackson famously whispered into an open microphone, was Obama “talking down to black people”?

Obama was not in this to prove he could lead or speak only to black people. The goal here was to romance the entire country. When I asked Obama in the summer of 2007 about whether the prospect of electing a black president was affecting how people viewed him, he recounted a conversation he’d had with Jackson.  

“He said something that’s very accurate,” Obama told me. “He said, ‘Barack, we had to break the door down, which means sometimes you’re not polite. You get bloodied up a little bit. You get some scars. You haven’t had to go through that, and that’s a good thing. That’s part of what we went through. I don’t expect you to have the same battle scars that I did.’”  

Obama made his most overt attempt to acknowledge the racial debt in March 2007, when every living member of civil rights royalty gathered in Selma, Alabama, to observe and reenact the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march across the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Georgia con­gressman John Lewis, who’d had his head bashed in with a brick dur­ing the original protest forty-two years before, spent part of the day attempting to get Obama and Hillary Clinton to link arms for the photographers. It did not work, but Obama was there with another goal in mind anyway. He needed to silence the naysayers within his own community, many of whom had known the Clintons long before they had ever heard Obama’s name.  

The risks were many. Obama received Secret Service protection ear­lier than any other candidate in history. In the days after he won the November election, law enforcement agencies reported that threats di­rected at the newly elected president spiked dramatically. Such serious safety concerns made some of the racial gibes aimed at Obama during the campaign seem juvenile, but they acted as reminders that not all of America was buying into the notion of racial transcendence.

It’s hard to pick a favorite outrage. There were the men who wore monkey shirts to Obama’s rallies, and elected officials who called him “uppity.” There was the Kentucky Republican, Representative Geoff Davis, who referred to Obama as “that boy” during a GOP dinner in Frankfort.9 There was the GOP vendor in Texas who marketed but­tons that read, “If Obama is president . . . will we still call it the White House?”10 And there was the ten-dollar box of “Obama Waffles” sold at a conservative political convention, complete with a picture of a black man with pop eyes and big lips, smiling at a plate of waffles.11 There was the newsletter distributed by a California Republican club that featured an Obama caricature surrounded by ribs, watermelon, and fried chicken—all on a fake food stamp.12 I could go on.

The taunts did not come only from white Republicans. During the heated primary campaign, Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television and a prominent Clinton supporter, man­aged to allude to Obama’s teenage drug use. “Obama was doing some­thing in the neighborhood,” he said, as if steering around a confidence. “I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in his book.” He also sug­gested Obama was a sellout, comparing him to Sidney Poitier’s char­acter in the interracial romance drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. This earned a rebuke even from the conservative columnist George Will. “For the uninitiated,” Will wrote, “that is how you call someone an Uncle Tom in an age that has not read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’”13 

“We’re letting other people pick our leaders,” Johnson later com­plained to the Washington Post.14

“I think we looked like we were going to win, and I think that an element of overt race awareness kicked in,” campaign manager David Plouffe told me in the spring. “Which is really, ‘Should it be this easy for this guy? Is he getting a break because he’s an African American political superstar?’ Each time he’s looked like he could secure this thing, there’s been a backlash.”  

Most of the time, Obama refused to be drawn into the racial dra­mas. Whenever he did, as when he suggested mildly that he did not look like other presidents seen on U.S. dollar bills, he was accused—as John McCain’s campaign manager once said—of playing “the race card . . . from the bottom of the deck.”15 

Axelrod and Plouffe had worked for black candidates before, notably Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, and they were convinced talk­ing about race was not going to get their candidate elected. Axelrod said it was a “function of math.” “It was obvious that if you were going to play in a larger venue and not just a majority-black one, you needed a candidate who could appeal” to nonblack voters, he said.  

This worked for Patrick when he was elected governor in 2006. “I don’t care whether the next president is the first black president or the first woman president or the first whatever, to tell you the truth,” the governor told a Boston Common crowd early in the Obama campaign. “I care that the next president has moral courage, a political backbone, the humility to admit what he doesn’t know, and the wisdom to learn from others.”  

This approach, however, was thrown spectacularly off track in spring 2008, when Obama’s pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr., almost derailed the Obama candidacy. The campaign had wor­ried about Wright enough to yank him from the program at Obama’s February 2007 announcement of his candidacy. But that was be­fore snippets of videotape surfaced featuring Wright at his most incendiary.  

His pastor’s comments, Obama said, lapsing into the harshest lan­guage he would use all week, were “stupid.” “We benefit from that past,” he told me. “We benefit from the difficult battles that were taking place. But I’m not sure that we benefit from continuing to per­petuate the anger and the bitterness that I think, at this point, serves to divide rather than bring us together.”16 

The next day, Obama channeled this thinking into a speech that decried the nation’s “racial stalemate” and returned to his campaign’s most uplifting themes—change and hope.  

“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society,” Obama said. “It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this coun­try—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still ir­revocably bound to a tragic past.”  

Wright himself suggested that Obama was ducking a race debate: “I do what pastors do. He does what politicians do. I am not running for of­fice.”17 But by then, Obama was not much listening to Wright anymore.  

Plouffe told me the campaign and the candidate had hoped never to have to give a “race speech.” “The Wright thing made it more than necessary, and he needed to put that in context,” he said. “He’s obvi­ously running to do big things domestically and internationally. And if the campaign gets defined by ‘Are we going to have racial reconcilia­tion or not?’ I think a lot of that gets crowded out.  

“The issues he raised in that speech are not essential to his candi­dacy,” Plouffe added. “They are essential, they’re important problems we’re dealing with in this country, but it’s not like in August and September and October he’s going to keep reprising his speech and offering his candidacy as a way to heal the country.”  

Indeed, just as Plouffe, Axelrod, and the candidate himself planned, Obama never gave a speech exclusively about race again. “Barack’s can­didacy, while he spoke to those issues, it was pitched in a much broader way,” Axelrod said after Election Day. “He came to this not primarily as the black candidate, but as a candidate for president who happened to be black.”  

It is impossible to overstate how complicated a feat this was to pull off in a nation where the races worship and socialize separately, listen to different music, and watch different television shows. Somehow, instead of becoming a dominant feature of a historic campaign, the divisive is­sue of race—in Obama’s words, “a part of our union that we have yet to perfect”—was ultimately reduced to the occasional eruption.  

Part of the reason this happened is the temperament of the candi­date himself. Obama was convinced that focusing the conversation on race in and of itself was a losing argument for a crossover black politi­cian. “I’m sympathetic to efforts to have a racial conversation in this country,” he told the National Association of Black Journalists at their summer 2007 convention. “But I find that generally there’s a lot of breast-beating and hand-wringing and then not much follow-through. The kind of conversation I’m interested in having about race is very concrete. Do we have a criminal justice system that is color-blind? If we do not, how do we fix it? . . .  

“My belief is that African Americans, like other racial minorities in this country, are much more interested in deeds than words,” he continued. “And that’s the kind of leadership that I want to show as president of the United States.” 

Obama campaigned in much the same way as he talked to us that day. On one occasion in South Carolina, a black woman stepped for­ward to tell him that her elderly father was not convinced a black man could win. “If I came to you and I had polka dots,” he responded, “but you were convinced that I was going to put more money in your pock­ets, and help you pay for college and help keep America safe, you’d say, ‘OK. You know, I wish you didn’t have polka dots, but I’m still voting for him.’”18 

“I would always get the question, ‘What is Barack Obama’s agenda for black America?’” Corey Ealons, who directed campaign outreach to African American media outlets, told me. “I would respond by say­ing, ‘It’s the same as Barack Obama’s agenda for all America.’”  

Obama’s star turn at the 2004 Democratic National Convention arose out of the efforts of a trio of black Democrats—Brazile, Minyon Moore, and Alexis Herman—to lobby for black speakers in prime speaking spots. They called their plan the “Barbara Jordan Project,” an homage to the Texas congresswoman who delivered a memorable convention keynote in 1976. Obama was just fifteen years old at the time, but Jordan’s words sounded the themes he would utter from that podium twenty-eight years later. “Are we to be one people bound to­gether by common spirit, sharing in a common endeavor, or will we become a divided nation?” she thundered. “For all of its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future.”20

It was little noted how much Obama’s words in 2004 echoed Jordan’s. “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America,” he said. “There is the United States of America. There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America— there’s the United States of America.” 

The future, Obama was convinced, could not be painted in black and white. “I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina,” he said in 2008 after trounc­ing Clinton in the Palmetto State’s primary. “I saw crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children.”21 

Erasing race had another side benefit. Before he could be taken seri­ously as a national candidate, Obama had to get conventional wisdom on his side. Since white opinion leaders rarely engaged in race-specific conversations and largely found them uncomfortable, color blindness was considered a good thing. They were willing to embrace a black man who did not make them feel guilty about race.  

This conventional wisdom about Barack Obama began forming, as it so often does about rising stars, in Washington—at Georgetown dinner parties and in fussy ballrooms all over the nation’s capital, where the city’s most self-referentially powerful lawmakers, government offi­cials, and journalists meet to socialize.

Membership organizations such as Washington’s Gridiron Club are almost entirely white. (Until 1974, the journalists’ group was entirely male as well.) How white? The first time I attended one of their annual spring dinners, in the mid-1990s, Donna Brazile and I were greeting each other amid the sea of white ties and white skin, happy to discover at least one other African American in the room. Suddenly, we felt our elbows encased in a firm grasp, and Vernon Jordan leaned in. He was grinning, his teeth very white against his very black skin. “This isn’t what they expected at all,” he chortled. We laughed too. When these clubs were created we were expected to be serving, not dining. Even now, I’d bet most people in that room possessed not a single black friend. And if they did, it was likely to be Vernon or Donna or me. 

So it was that much more remarkable when Obama strode onto the dais at the annual dinner in March 2006. It could have been an intimidating evening. The room was filled with movers and shakers of the first order. But Obama, who had spent a lifetime challenging preconceptions about race, politics, and political timing, seemed en­tirely at home. He made fun of himself, poked light fun at President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and even sang a little. He was a hit. 

Roger Wilkins found Obama’s racial straddle to be shrewd poli­tics “that effectively calls on Americans to get serious about their nation’s founding ideals, including we don’t torture people, we don’t get involved in wars of choice, we don’t get wildly into debt as if the future doesn’t count, and we don’t ignore global warming because we think scientists are stupid. The racial issue gets subsumed in what he’s doing—and that’s a good thing. It’s very sophisticated and it’s very complex and sensitive; but right now he is pulling it off.”22 

But Obama was not naive. He was well aware there were voters who would never support him—the ones who bought the waffles and laughed. “I don’t believe it is possible to transcend race in this country,” Obama told me one day while he was on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. “The notion that if we just ignore race, somehow our racial problems are solved, is the kind of unfortunate thinking the Supreme Court recently engaged in on the Seattle schools case.” Obama was referring to a Supreme Court decision that limited the Seattle school district’s ability to use race as a factor in promoting integration.  

“Race is a factor in this society,” he said. “The legacy of Jim Crow and slavery has not gone away. It is not an accident that African Americans experience high crime rates, are poor, and have less wealth. It is a direct result of our racial history. We have never fully come to grips with that history.”  

“You just don’t walk away from the past,” Michelle Obama told me separately. “You bring it along with you. It is always a part of the tradi­tion. You don’t move to the next phase without understanding what happened in the civil rights movement.” 

Like many people of their generation, the Obamas operate at some­thing of a remove from that movement—speaking of it with respect but not with the passion expressed by their elders. Michelle did more of this than her husband did, and even then much was under the con­ventional political radar. While campaigning in South Carolina, where the black vote was crucial, she would invoke the names of Coretta Scott King, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. “These were all women who cast aside the voices of doubt and fear that said, ‘Wait, you can’t do that. It’s not your turn. The timing’s not right. The country’s not ready,’” she told an Orangeburg audience in a speech the campaign circulated to black voters online and on DVDs. “That gnawing sense of self-doubt that is so common in all of us, is a lie—it’s a lie,” she said, breaking into a preacher’s cadence that belied her Princeton and Harvard education. “It’s just in our heads. See, nine times out of ten, we are more ready. We are more prepared than we could ever know.”  

Obama saw himself as the bridge between those fears and the possi­bilities his candidacy represented. “Part of what happened in the sixties after the initial civil rights era was we lost some balance and we started thinking in terms of either-or,” Obama told me during the campaign. “Either you were picking yourself up by your own bootstraps, you were an integrationist, you were Sidney Poitier, or you were burning down the house.”  

Obama’s fiercest critics often came from the left. Princeton’s Glaude, who early on was one of Obama’s most prominent black skeptics, said he was frustrated with the way the nation’s first black presidential nominee was handling race.  

“He’s supposed to be a transformative figure,” Glaude told me. “Why is it the case that he can’t simply say, when we talk about health care, we know it disproportionately affects poor people and black peo­ple? Why can’t he begin to talk about these issues in ways that iden­tify black communities, without trying to sound like Reverend Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton? The thing is, the very way that Jesse and Al have exploited the theater of racial politics, he’s doing it from a different vantage point. We haven’t changed the game. That’s what makes me so angry. He hasn’t stepped outside of the game.”  

Perhaps he hadn’t. But an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken one month before Election Day pointed to the reason. Forty percent of whites, and an equal percentage of self-described swing voters, de­clared themselves bothered that “Barack Obama has been supported by African American leaders such as Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Al Sharpton.”23 This was the backlash risk the Obama campaign had been worried about.  

In the end, nothing succeeds like success, and most of Obama’s black critics were muted, some because they believed political sacrifice was a necessary ingredient for victory. “We inherently believe that what he’s doing he has to do,” Kevin Wardally, a New York political consultant, said. “He has to not be in Harlem to get those white votes.”24 

Others, however, are playing wait-and-see. Will the nation’s first African American president deliver? And what does delivering mean anymore if the normal corridors to power are not more readily avail­able to African Americans by virtue of the fact that the man in the Oval Office is black? 

There is every chance the Moses generation, in ceding the next round to the Joshua generation, may have to adapt to a new defini­tion of success. There is also every evidence that Barack Obama has not transcended race. But his election has provided new proof that he has redefined what racial politics is.

Gwen Ifill is host of ''Washington Week'' on PBS.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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