Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
The moment when Hillary Rodham Clinton suspended the state-by-state roll call vote she had demanded, moving for the 2008 Democratic Convention to nominate Senator Barack Obama by acclamation, was extraordinary. Network cameras, inevitably, zeroed in on African-Americans, young and old, beaming, as tears poured down their cheeks. For the first time in American history, a major political party had nominated a black man to be president. Critics have ample time left to bash Obama for various shortcomings. But this week, anyone who cares about justice, equality, democracy and the American dream can rejoice that Barack Obama was nominated to lead the Democratic Party, once the voice of America’s ugliest racists.
Yes, we can appreciate the extent of America’s turnaround on race by exploring the Democrats’ shameful history. America’s progressive party today – which boasts of being the world’s oldest continuous democratic political party – was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the prince of American paradox, whose slaves waited on him as he wrote the magical words that would eventually free them: “all men are created equal.” By contrast, the Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln, founded in the 1850s to abolish slavery.
Thus, before the Civil War, as the party of the South, of a weak central government, and of Jeffersonian liberty, the Democratic Party defended Southern plantation owners’ freedom to own slaves. After the Civil War, Democrats celebrated the “Lost Cause,” misremembering the attempt to keep human beings enslaved as a noble fight against Big Government and for private prerogative. In the 1930s, the Democratic Party was the party of the powerful Southern Senators who opposed federal laws banning lynching.
In the 1960s, the Democratic Party was the party of the powerful Southern Senators who opposed the Civil Rights Movement. Some tried torpedoing the now legendary 1964 Civil Rights Act by adding a sweeping amendment promising women equality too. These Southern racists assumed their fellow sexists in the North would never accept such an absurdity. The strategy backfired. The 1964 Act has benefited women and African-Americans.
Of course, by the 1930s, thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party was becoming the party of the forgotten, the oppressed, the left behind. For three decades, Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, tried propping up the collapsing coalition between Northern Democratic liberals, including blacks, and the recalcitrant Southern racists. When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he understood that the Democrats would lose the white South for decades – resulting in today’s diversity-obsessed party, now led by the son of a white woman who married a black African.
Barack Obama has campaigned as a leader of all Americans not the great black hope. But, inevitably, in multicultural democracies, the lines blur. True, Obama’s biggest problem has been being too green – inexperienced – not too black. True, he is of a new post-Baby Boom generation, freed of Jesse Jackson’s anger, Al Sharpton’s antics, Louis Farakkhan’s hatred. But whenever an individual from a distinct, historically oppressed, subgroup bursts through a glass ceiling, it is an individual and group achievement. A popular if unprovable story about America’s first Jewish Cabinet member, Oscar Straus, recalls that when President Theodore Roosevelt met leaders of the American Jewish community celebrating the appointment, he told them what they wanted to hear. TR insisted: “I chose Oscar Straus because he was the best man for the job.” Then, the legendary banker Jacob Schiff, now old and deaf, thanked the President, saying that when President Roosevelt told him it was time to have a Jew in the Cabinet, Oscar Straus was the obvious choice.
And so, with Barack Obama having received the Democratic nomination, Americans and freedom loving people everywhere honor his individual achievement – along with the welcome breakthrough for people of color and oppressed minorities everywhere. We toast apostles of freedom like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, whose love of liberty laid the groundwork to free their country from the great contradiction of slavery. We recall the millions who suffered through slavery, and the 600,000 who died in the Civil War to end America’s original sin. We can finally bury “Jim Crow,” the horrific system Southerners then improvised to imprison freed blacks in a maze of local laws keeping them second class citizens. We mock the slavery-loving nineteenth-century Southerners like Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and the “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever,” twentieth-century racists like Alabama Governor George Wallace, who tried their hardest to put off this day. We mourn that martyrs like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- and countless other anonymous civil rights activists -- never lived to see this day. And we remember the four young black college students who, when asked how long they had been planning their sit in to desegregate Woolworth’s lunch counters in 1960, replied “Our whole lives.”
So many of us, black and white, Democrats and Republicans, Americans and Canadians, have waited our whole lives for this moment. Barack Obama’s slogan “yes we can” is a hope and a prayer, a challenge and a yardstick. Much work remains to be done. America is not perfect, racism is certainly not eliminated. But this 47-year-old self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” had proven to us all that “yes we can” change things for the better; and “yes we can” live long enough to see things improve. No matter what happens the rest of the campaign or for the rest of his life, for this achievement alone, Barack Obama deserves and has earned historical immortality.
Watching Bill Clinton’s performance Wednesday night removed any doubts about this admittedly ungenerous interpretation of Mrs. Clinton, who had made an impressive comeback in her own historic presidential quest. The ex-President was characteristically charming, charismatic, compelling – and completely self-absorbed. He gave the Democrats exactly what they wanted – an enthusiastic, eloquent endorsement of Barack Obama that was far more specific and substantive than his wife’s vague okay the night before. But this Clinton catharsis was a con because, like a compulsive flirt who everyone knows will succumb eventually, the drama was all self-made – and damaging.
By acting so ungracious for months, by being so petulant about Obama, the whippersnapper who dared seized the mantle both Clintons decided Hillary had earned, Clinton created the crisis his endorsement resolved. Thus the convention – and this particularly historic day -- ended up being far more about the Clintons than it ever should have been. By working himself so relentlessly and effectively into the Democratic story line, Clinton repaired much of the damage he had caused to his own reputation during the campaign, and made himself relevant in the 2008 Convention. But it came at great cost to Obama and the Democratic campaign. Far too much time and energy was expended in Clinton-crisis-management. Every moment reporters spent speculating about the joint will-he-or won’t-he and will-she-or-won’t-she endorsement questions was one less moment spent boosting the Democrats’ candidate, Barack Obama.
Moreover, ultimately, despite Bill Clinton’s clever, skillful endorsement, both Clintons made Barack Obama look weak. One Fox News commentator suggested that had the Clintons been the winners, they would have imposed a deal on Obama. They would have pushed supporters to cover the defeated rival’s campaign debt on the condition that he maintain a low profile at the convention and follow their script to a tee. Instead, as always with the Clintons, too much of this convention was all about them, rather than about Barack Obama and his historic but now somewhat distracted push for the presidency.
Instead, Hillary Clinton mostly provided a laundry list. She ticked off various programs she advocated, particular policies she liked, and specific individuals she met on the campaign trail. She did what she needed to do, getting in a few good shots against George W. Bush and John McCain, urging her disappointed supporters to vote for Barack Obama. In fairness, she was also commanding, charismatic, and quite moving when she linked her campaign to women’s historic aspirations for equality. But even when she spoke about women’s rights – and quoted Harriet Tubman so effectively – she offered no vision of what women could do for America as women, she triggered no thoughts deeper than “it’s our turn,” and “our time has come.”
The speech again illustrated one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the nomination failed in the first place. There was no overriding idea propelling her candidacy forward, nothing deeper than “it’s MY turn,” and “MY time has come.” Observers can argue about whether Barack Obama is an old-fashioned liberal or a post-baby-boomer synthesizer transcending the black-white, red-blue divisions of yesteryear. But at least there is something substantive behind his various stands, some broader, deeper, thought-provoking and soul-expanding message.
Hillary’s speech was that of the diligent grade grubber not the romantic poet, of the hardworking ant not the soaring eagle. It was in keeping with her history as Bill Clinton’s dutiful behind-the-scenes supporter rather than a Clintonesque riffer who can at once charm and inspire, making Americans feel good about themselves while being challenged to think about how to better their nation.
And speaking of duty, Hillary Clinton fulfilled her obligation to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. In fact, she was far more gracious – and far less destructive – than Reagan was in 1976 or Kennedy was in 1980. Still, it was quite obvious that she was following the party script not speaking from her heart. She had specific compliments for Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, Obama’s life-mate and running mate, but was quite vague when it came to Obama himself. Hillary Clinton endorsed Barack Obama generically as a fellow Democrat not specifically as a candidate.
Of course, the whole scene must have been excruciating for her, and she deserves credit for handling it so well. In fact, watching her, it was striking how far she had evolved from the brittle, insecure, angry woman she was when she debuted on the national stage in 1992. Hillary Clinton seems to be having a great time as her own woman, as her own politician – her opening riff about the pride she took in her various roles mentioned “mother” but skipped over “wife.” If she could only find a little more poetry in her prose-laden politics, if she could only learn to bring the various pieces of her policy jigsaw puzzle together into a compelling package, she could be an even more formidable politician – and a greater threat to both of the current candidates.
In a lovely address that was more about setting a tone than solving problems, Mrs. Obama offered her more conventional biography of South-Side-Chicago-girl-made-good as a way of Americanizing her husband’s famously unconventional biography. Michelle Obama began by repeatedly emphasizing her humble origins, her parents’ values, her up-from-the-bootstraps life story. Standing by the podium radiant and – thank you Joe Biden – not just articulate but eloquent -- Michelle Obama was implicitly saying to Mr. and Mrs. America, “I’m just like you. I began in a small room in an undistinguished neighborhood, and look how far I have come.” And then, rhetorically embracing her husband, blurring her story with his, she proclaimed: “And you know, what struck me when I first met Barack was that even though he had this funny name, even though he’d grown up all the way across the continent in Hawaii, his family was so much like mine. He was raised by grandparents who were working class folks just like my parents, and by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills just like we did. Like my family, they scrimped and saved so that he could have opportunities they never had themselves.”
Taking the American dream as their common lodestone, she said: “And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
Prior to Michelle Obama’s warm, uplifting speech, Ted Kennedy, the perpetual crown prince of the Democratic Party, made his emotional plea for a Barack Obama presidency. Slower and bloated, but still passionate, Kennedy deputized the young Illinois senator as the heir to Camelot. Speaking of dreams, and channeling his own extraordinary, fiery, and heartbreaking “the dream will never die” consolation speech at the 1980 convention after losing the Democratic nomination to President Jimmy Carter, Kennedy proclaimed: “The work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on.”
In the one false note in an otherwise powerful opening, the video tribute to Senator Kennedy spent a lot of time filming him as he steered various younger Kennedys on a majestic sailing ship. It seemed pretty clear that this schooner was part of the Kennedy fleet and not a one-time rental. In a week when Democrats were busy mocking Senator John McCain’s many houses, a quiet scene at home – or at the office -- might have been politically wiser.
Of course, the beauty of the American Dream is that it allows our politicians to be far wealthier than ordinary Americans –as so many are. The Obamas have to emphasize their humble origins because, having converted Barack Obama’s newfound celebrity into newfound riches, they do not want to lose their once-common touch. American Dream rhetoric soothes have-nots with hopes of joining the haves, taking the sting out of class differences. The Kennedys have long been a family humanized by both heartbreaking tragedies and soaring liberal idealism despite their vast wealth. McCain erred by appearing doddering and out of touch, relying on his staff to count his and his wife’s houses.
While Americans are not always tolerant of the ways of the wealthy -- as John Kerry discovered when he was mocked for windsurfing in 2004 – Americans frequently put up with loaded pols. Perhaps less acceptable are overloaded intellectual credentials. In his botched, sexist introduction of his wife during his debut as Vice Presidential nominee on Saturday, Senator Joe Biden seemed to mock his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, for being a braniac – or at least awkwardly try insulating her from those charges. He said: “Ladies and gentlemen, my wife, Jill, who you'll meet soon, is drop-dead gorgeous. My wife, Jill, who you'll meet soon, she also has her doctorate degree, which is a problem. But all kidding aside, my Jill, my Jill, my wife, Jill, and I are honored to join Barack and Michelle on this journey, because that's what it is.”
The true American journey, which catapulted the Obamas, the Bidens, the McCains and the Kennedys to the stratosphere, acknowledges difference while seeking equality of opportunity. Great wealth is acceptable – but so should be great intellectual achievements, which certainly helped Michelle and Barack Obama get where they are today.
It was one of the interesting anomalies of the 2008 Democratic race. There were three Washington veterans with decades of experience who went absolutely nowhere during the campaign. Senator Joe Biden, Senator Chris Dodd, and Governor Bill Richardson failed to get any traction, despite decades of governing and countless days and nights of hobnobbing with Beltway insiders. The three frontrunners, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had far better claims to outsider status – Edwards served only one term in the Senate, Clinton was just starting her second term, and Barack Obama was the most famous Senate freshman in decades.
Biden was a particular embarrassment on the campaign trail, shaming himself and his institution with his awkward, seemingly condescending remarks describing Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” After winning 9,000 votes and finishing fifth in Iowa, Biden left the race, proving how little American voters are impressed by a three-decade Senatorial resume. Obama’s ability to forgive Biden’s gaffe suggests a personal grace and generosity that is nice to see in politics; but this choice may fuel questions about Obama’s political and policy judgment.
Beyond this stunning – and recent -- political failure, Biden’s supposed foreign policy experience may alienate both liberals and conservatives. Liberals will note that, unlike Obama, Biden voted for the war in Iraq - -just as Hillary Clinton and John McCain did. Thus, in the future, Obama will have to be a little more cautious when he mocks McCain’s judgment about initially supporting the war. At the same time, conservatives will note Biden’s failure to support the surge. This suggests that for all the media hype about Biden’s brilliance in overseas matters, he is just a conventional, finger-to-the-wind type, buffeted by the political trends of the moment. Holding fifty-plus Senate hearings and appearing repeatedly on Sunday morning television shows reveals a mastery of the Washington game not the intricacies of foreign affairs.
At the same time, centrists will mourn the fact that Joe Biden is neither a fresh face nor a bridge-builder. He lacks Obama’s outsider credentials and McCain’s track record in seeking bipartisan solutions. Biden is a good Democratic soldier, who has consistently stayed within party boundaries and helped create today’s destructive, angry, overly-charged Washington quagmire. In fact – and this we are told is part of his appeal – Biden knows how to throw hard political punches, as demonstrated by his partisanship during the Robert Bork and Samuel Alito hearings.
To be fair, Biden seems to be a decent man who has demonstrated tremendous personal grit over the years. The poignant story of the tragic loss of his first wife and daughter in an automobile accident shortly before he entered the Senate, his ability to raise his two boys on his own and eventually start a new family, his comeback from two brain aneurysms, and his record of thirty years in Washington without a major scandal – or it seems, a big payday – are all extremely admirable. But virtue does not always guarantee votes – as George H.W. Bush learned when Bill Clinton defeated him in 1992.
In fact, speaking of Clinton, Obama would have done much better had he learned from Clinton in 1992. That year, amid doubts about Clinton’s youth and inexperience, Clinton showed great moxie in refusing to nominate an elder statesman to compensate for his supposed weaknesses. Instead, Clinton thrilled voters by choosing another young Southern politician, Al Gore. This vice-presidential choice reinforced Clinton’s message of change; Obama’s choice, unfortunately, muddied the waters, suggesting that, at the end of the day, 2008 is going to be another conventional campaign and Obama may be just another conventional politician, like his new best friend, Joe Biden.
In some ways, both of the presumptive nominees are stuck in the same narratives that ended up in their respective party victories; yet this time, only one can win. John McCain spent much of the nomination campaign being eulogized, criticized, and counted out, only to surge when it counted on his way to a surprisingly easy victory. Barack Obama enjoyed a happy hurricane of hype after his Iowa victory, only to watch the predicted cakewalk get complicated as criticisms of him mounted and his opponent fought back tenaciously but ultimately unsuccessfully.
Still, no matter how self-confident he might be, watching the doubting Thomases proliferate cannot be fun for the presumptive Democratic nominee. Whether he wins or loses, this pre-convention period will be remembered as Barack Obama’s lost summer of missed opportunities. Rather than breaking away from McCain in a grand push toward political immortality, Obama is entering the campaign appearing to be just another political mortal, with a surprising number of vulnerabilities.
The modern presidential campaign is a struggle over competing story lines. For the last few weeks, the Republicans have been able to shift the plot-line away from talk about this being the Democrats’ year, to talk about how could the Democrats appear vulnerable in what is supposed to be a Democratic year.
Next week, despite the inevitable Clintonesque distractions, Barack Obama has an opportunity to seize control of the campaign narrative once again. He will start with his vice presidential choice. As George W. Bush acknowledged when he chose Dick Cheney, from the electorally insignificant state of Wyoming, in modern campaigns vice presidents are props. Obama’s choice will help shape the Obama story, as will general perceptions of the management of the convention. But for someone who has come so far so fast on his oratory, the big moment will remain Obama’s acceptance speech. Not one to shy away from the challenge, Obama has upped the ante historically, by choosing to deliver his speech on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Obama has upped the ante dramatically, by shifting the venue to a 70,000-seat stadium.
When delivering the speech, Obama will not only be competing with Dr. King. He will be competing with himself, trying to outdo his rhetorical brilliance four years ago at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The stakes are high. Given that the Republicans meet right after the Democrats, the Democratic bounce from the Convention could be minimal. Obama has to deliver big time to jumpstart his campaign and remind Americans why so many rushed to nominate him last spring.
The news that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s name will be placed in nomination at the Democratic National Convention not only cheered her still-disappointed supporters. It also delighted television network executives saddled with the task of attracting viewers to the Democratic National Exercise in Rubber-Stamping. All of a sudden, the drama of the Obama-Clinton battle may be repeated. All of a sudden, both Bill and Hillary Clinton are back where they love to be, where they need to be – front and center, even if this convention was supposed to be Barack Obama’s star-turn.
The roll call charade will evoke conventions of yesteryear when these quadrennial gatherings actually made a difference and designated an often surprising nominee. But the modern message underlying this traditional ritual will be quite clear. After months in the spotlight, Hillary Clinton virtually disappeared from the public radar screens once Barack Obama eked out his victory over her. But Senator Clinton – and her ex-president husband – want to remind the American people that she won more than 17 million votes, and many of those votes came from enthusiastic women devastated by Hillary’s loss.
Whatever Hillary Clinton loses by appearing too brazen, she gains much more with this power play. Just as fighting to the last primary battle boosted her standing – and illustrated the depth of her support – the successful demand to star in this convention psychodrama underscores just how significant a role she and her husband continue to play in the Democratic Party.
Obama’s is the riskier move here. He cannot appear to be cowed by the Clintons. He has to be magnanimous without being swept up in the Clinton cyclone. Obama cannot play the stolid William Howard Taft to the charismatic Theodore Roosevelt. He cannot allow former-President Bill Clinton to undercut him as Dwight Eisenhower undermined Richard Nixon in 1960, by asking for a week’s time to remember any of Nixon’s Vice-presidential accomplishments. Obama also cannot allow Hillary Clinton to give the kind of soaring consolation speech which steals delegates’ hearts, as Ronald Reagan did in 1976 or Ted Kennedy did in 1980.
Of course, the alluring Obama is no Taft. He is banking on the fact that the renewed excitement and drama will redound to his benefit – after all, the conclusion is pre-determined (warning: spoiler ahead): Obama has enough delegates to win the nomination. Moreover, he is banking on the same constellation of forces that helped him win in the first place. He – not Hillary – is more likely to steal the show – and American hearts – with a dazzling display of eloquence. If Hillary Clinton had those skills, she would be the one doling out convention slots and figuring out how to satisfy her rivals – and would be well on her way to the White House.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both born in 1946, represent the two sides of the political fault line that the Baby Boomers 1960s’ earthquake triggered (John McCain, born in 1936, pre-dated the Baby Boom). Clinton and his buddies were traumatized by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, tormented by the Vietnam War’s draft, yet inspired by their political and cultural revolution’s transformational potential. Others, like George W. Bush, enjoyed the “sex, drugs, and rock n’roll” moment, but, politically, triggered the conservative backlash.
As a Baby Buster, born as America’s birth rate stabilized, Barack Obama was too young even to lie as so many Baby Boomers did about being at Woodstock in 1969 – he was only eight. Rather than being children of the 1960s, we were children of the 1970s. We stewed in the defeatism of Viet Nam, the cynicism of Watergate, the pessimism of Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis rather than the triumphalism of the post-World War II world. Most of us did not experience “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” moments teaching us life was so simple; with the divorce revolution fragmenting families all around us, most of us watched Michelle Obama’s favorite show, “The Brady Bunch,” with knowing, pre-post-modernist smirks.
Moreover, thanks to Stagflation, that unique seventies combo of inflation and unemployment, we – and our Depression-era parents – were anomalies in modern America: we grew up doubting the fundamental American idea of progress, doubting we could fulfill the American dream of outdoing our parents and bettering our own lives. In college, many of us felt inadequate for being less radical and influential than our older peers, even as we considered them tiresome and self-righteous.
Surprisingly, after all the Baby Boomers’ experimentation, in our generation, the rebellious ones were the straight ones. For anyone in the left or the center who did not want to be tagged as – heaven forbid – a goody-goody – it was easier to “do it” than to abstain. Even today, when Barack Obama talks about traditional morality and political moderation he risks being mocked by his peers and his usual ideological allies among the “let it all hang out” Boomers.
Of course, demography is not destiny; the generational game – which the Baby Boomers typically overdid – should not be overplayed. Still, it is not surprising that it was Jon Stewart, born in 1962, who has been among the few public figures to champion moderation, blasting the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire for dividing America. And it is not surprising that Obama came to prominence with an un-Boomer-like call for unity and healing.
In his book “Audacity of Hope” and during the 2006 Congressional campaign, Obama emphasized this generational divide. But the Baby Boomer cohort remains too large to risk alienating during a tight presidential contest, so he has done less Boomer-bashing lately. Still, as he demonstrated in defeating Hillary Clinton, born in 1947, Obama is more nimble than many Baby Boomers. He is less starry-eyed and less battle-scarred, thus less doctrinaire, freer of the great Baby Boomer fault line and more anxious for national healing.
Those of us born in the early 1960s have long been upstaged by our louder, more self-righteous, older peers and siblings. Wherever we stand politically, many of us understand that Obama’s syntheses of tradition and innovation, his calls to transcend the usual divides, reflect a collective generational frustration. Many of us are fed up with the older generation’s media-hogging, polarizing, tendencies. Demographers called Boomers the pig–in-the-python because they stuck out demographically. Their attitudes often simply stuck in our craws as we yearned for a less bitter, less zero-sum politics – which is what Obama the birthday boy, at his best, is promising.