Breaking Through the Clutter

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

Ifill devotes a chapter to the struggle between gender and race that played out in the Clinton-Obama primary battle. Especially poignant are the quotes from black female political activists—Ifill conducted dozens of interviews for the book—who felt as if they were being forced to decide which aspect of their identity to disavow.

For me, though, the most revelatory chapters of The Breakthrough are those dealing with other new-wave African-American political leaders who, unlike Obama, haven’t been on the cover of Time a dozen times. Yet.

There are full chapters on Alabama congressman Artur Davis, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Another chapter offers mini-profiles of a host of other rising stars, such as former congressman Harold Ford Jr., Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Many of them share common attributes: Ivy League education, relative youth, congenital impatience. Davis and Booker won office by brashly challenging the black political powers-that-were in their jurisdictions—just as Obama tried to do in his unsuccessful run for Congress against incumbent Bobby Rush in 2000.

Even more fascinating are the myriad links among these rising political stars. Davis and Obama, for example, first met at Harvard Law but then fell out of touch. They reconnected years later in Washington at a party given by … Harold Ford.