Breaking Through the Clutter

Eugene Robinson reviews Gwen Ifill's 'The Breakthrough.'

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During the presidential campaign, Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera provided a little comic relief when he imagined that political superstars Barack Obama, Deval Patrick and others must have attended some sort of “black genius camp” where they learned the secrets of winning political power. Now it turns out that Geraldo was onto something.

The Breakthrough, PBS anchor Gwen Ifill’s illuminating new book, offers a rich portrait of the post-civil rights generation of African-American political leaders, now emphatically come of age with Obama’s election as president. One of Ifill’s most striking discoveries is the extent to which these ambitious young turks have encouraged, supported and learned from one anotheralbeit not while toasting marshmallows.

The book’s subtitle is Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, and it’s only natural that Ifill, whom I’ve known for years, opens with a narrative of the new president’s groundbreaking campaign. It’s a story whose twists and turns have engrossed the nation for the past 12 months, but Ifill uses her skill as a reporter to bring new perspectives to bear on episodes we thought we understood.

Her targets are the points at which the Obama campaign was drawn into the thicket it so carefully tried to avoid: the politics of identity. The sections on Obama offer the fullest account we’ve had to date of when he was questioned first for not being black enough and then for being too black. (Even in Ifill’s adroit telling, the contradiction remains unreconciled.)

She captures the sense of dislocation felt by much of the African-American political establishment as Obama defied consensus—basically, line up behind Hillary Clinton and wait your turn—to strike out audaciously on his own. Her voice is that of a reporter, not an advocate. The reader comes to understand how the Rev. Jesse Jackson could become so frustrated that he would huff and puff about castrating the future president—though understanding Jackson’s pique doesn’t make it any more acceptable.