Leading into the 1960 presidential race, John F. Kennedy’s aide, Ted Sorensen, wrote that “assuming that his personal appeal, hard work, and political organization produce as before, Senator Kennedy will win in November, unless defeated by the religious issue.”
Sorensen’s recognition then about the nation’s only Catholic president amounts to an inverse and clearly more artful way of saying pretty much the same thing that Sen. Harry Reid said about then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 bid to become the first black president.
When Reid said that Obama would be a successful candidate in part because he didn’t have a “Negro dialect”—unless he “wanted to”—evident in his standard English oratory, he marked himself as woefully unversed in 21st-century nomenclature. But he might have also been right.
Americans like broken barriers. We don’t always think about the ways they get broken.
Reid observed that Obama toggles back and forth between the king’s English and African-American vernacular. That he possesses the useful ability to make a cross-section of voters comfortable with him as an individual.
There’s a real debate about how “offensive” Reid’s comments were. Not the hollow Republican charges of a Democratic Party “double standard” on racial issues, but about whether someone who leads the U.S. Senate—the world’s most prestigious deliberative body—understands the practical implications of the words coming out of his mouth.
But what seems a fair takeaway from Reid’s comments, as reported in the recently released Game Change, is that Reid understood Obama’s success as a national candidate and ascent to the presidency in the context of his Ivy League pedigree, his family background, his break with Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his willingness to eschew racial score-settling. An African American won by leaning on, not overtly challenging, the system.
Kennedy and his team understood that he had to convince voters that he could govern as a president of all the people while staying true, on a personal level, to his Catholic roots.
Obama knew that his appeal was as a citizen of the world, but he was recognizable as someone rooted in the black community. He spoke in soaring terms using, as linguist John McWhorter writes, a “black sound.”
It wasn’t merely that Obama and Kennedy both succeeded because they were good-looking and eloquent, with young attractive families. They succeeded because those traits overwhelmed any reservations in the electorate about their status as “firsts.”
And the cycle will likely be repeated.
In 2012 or beyond, when the first woman becomes president, she’ll go through some version of the process Reid so inelegantly described. She’ll find a way to connect with male voters without forsaking the qualities that distinguish her as a woman—and then someone will probably write a book explaining how Sen. John Doe decided to back President Jane Roe because she had a “feminine sensibility” but could “talk like a man.”
That notion would be just as controversial as Reid’s statement, but still ring true because it’s the task of the trailblazing politician to create a new conventional wisdom without directly taking on the old one. A black man had no shot at being president—until he did. Men won’t vote for women, and straight people won’t vote for gay people—until they do.
Reid was clumsy, but his observation was as cold-eyed as Sorensen’s. It’s less about taking umbrage or excusing transgressions than it is one about how we view our society.
Salon’s Blair Kelley, acknowledging that “black candidates that look and sound more like a racially neutral ‘norm’ are more easily accepted by white voters,” also laments the risk that “accepting this as a matter of course degrades the quality of our democracy.”
As long as Reid’s premise holds, each time a barrier is broken—Sonia Sotomayor, Annise Parker—we’ll have some kind of “Negro dialect” moment. His awkward truth-telling isn’t exactly cause for celebration. In this context, to know Americans is to love us, despite our flaws. Reid diagnosed. Someone else will have to offer a prescription.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.