For years, blacks and women have dreamed of the presidency. This year is their best opportunity ever.
Charlene Mitchell, the 1968 Communist Party nominee, was the first black woman to run for president.
Eight years ago today, Al Gore began an undefeated run through the Dem contests by trouncing Bill Bradley in Iowa. On the GOP side, George W. Bush won handily as well.
Political history is filled with those who run for vice president and who, one election cycle later, decide they are worthy of being the presidential nominee of their party.
In the last four decades alone, we saw it with Ed Muskie, Hubert Humphrey's running mate in 1968, who went into the 1972 campaign as the Democratic front-runner for the top spot. There was Sargent Shriver, a late addition to the Democratic ticket in '72, running for president in 1976. The list also includes both those who made it to the vice-presidency, such as Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle and Al Gore, as well as those who didn't, like Bob Dole and Joe Lieberman. All wanted to make the move to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
To no one's surprise, John Edwards is on that list. Unlike everyone previously mentioned (except for the senior Bush), Edwards is that rare breed of candidate who was named to the ticket the same year he ran for the nomination. However one regards his 2004 efforts, there was no surprise when he launched another bid for 2008.
Edwards was under no illusions about '08. He knows there was no guarantee that just because he was on the ticket in '04, voters were going to reward him with the nomination four years later. Look what happened to Shriver, Dole (in '80), Quayle and Lieberman: their White House bids went absolutely nowhere. But I can't help but think that Edwards expected to fare better.
Then again, it's not every day that the contest for a presidential nomination comes down to a woman and an African-American man, let alone ones who have managed to raise more than $100 million each. With all due respect to Edwards, who has run a good campaign and has been impressive in the debates (and with apologies to Dennis Kucinich, who has not made an appreciable impact in the race), the Democratic nomination, by all appearances, has come down to a choice between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
The mailbag has been filled the past week or so with comments from Edwards supporters who are angry/disappointed with how the media — including NPR — have written off Edwards as a serious candidate. They especially resent how we described Nevada as a two-person race, when the pre-caucus polls showed Clinton, Obama and Edwards all within a couple of points of each other. Don't forget, they would tell us, the media were writing Clinton off before New Hampshire, and dismissing Mitt Romney before Michigan. Heck, we all but buried John McCain last summer. Their message: Stop obsessing about polls! Talk about issues, not personalities!
And they are right. (I especially appreciated the notes from Ginger Gambaro of Labadie, Mo; Judith Cichowicz of Las Vegas; and Kate Parkerson of Robbinsville, N.C.)
But then came caucus night in Nevada, and Edwards finished with 4 percent.
Saturday is the next test — the South Carolina primary. It's the state where Edwards was born, the (only) state whose primary Edwards won four years ago. It's not fair to call it do-or-die for Edwards, when more than half of the Democratic electorate is African American and Obama is leading in the polls.
But if not South Carolina, then where? Ten days later comes Super Duper Tuesday, when 8 million states will be holding primaries and caucuses at the same time. Where exactly is Edwards going to break out from the obsessive coverage of Clinton and Obama and win?
And that may be the Catch-22 for Edwards. He is going to have to triumph somewhere for people to sit up and take notice. It's nice to finish a strong third, but it's not going to get you the nomination. This is not an indictment of John Edwards; if anything, it's an indictment of us. If all we can see or talk about are those two rock stars also in the race — the first serious African American and female presidential candidates in history, by the way — it might be too much of a hurdle for Edwards to overcome.
A CHOICE, AND AN ECHO: When you think of the great one-on-one battles for the Republican presidential nomination in the past half-century or so — Eisenhower vs. Taft in 1952, Goldwater vs. Rockefeller in 1964, Ford vs. Reagan in 1976 — you're reminded of their ideological intensity, how each particular contest was defined as a fight for the soul of the GOP.
Not so with Clinton vs. Obama. With some gradations, the two are on the same page vis a vis Iraq, health care, the environment, the economy. I'm sorry, but quibbling over whether it's more important to be a visionary or a manager doesn't do it for me. And "slumlord" vs. "Wal-Mart" is hardly comparable to past debates over slavery, or Vietnam.
Still, unless something completely unexpected happens, one of them — a woman, or a black man — is going to be the nominee of a major political party.
I just read that last sentence back to myself, and wow, that's pretty remarkable stuff. One thing to remember, however: Other political parties got there first. It's never happened before with either the Democrats or the Republicans. But not so of the minor, so-called "third" parties. What follows is a somewhat complete list of female and African-American presidential nominees of such parties over the years. (Send me additions and I will amend in subsequent columns.)
WOMEN: Victoria Woodhull (Equal Rights Party, 1872); Belva Lockwood (Equal Rights Party, 1884 and 1888); Charlene Mitchell (Communist Party, 1968); Linda Jenness (Socialist Workers Party, 1972); Margaret Wright (People's Party, 1976); Deirdre Griswold (Workers World Party, 1980); Ellen McCormack (Right to Life Party, 1980); Maureen Smith (Peace and Freedom Party, 1980); Sonia Johnson (Citizens Party, 1984); Willa Kenoyer (Socialist Party, 1988); Lenora Fulani (New Alliance Party, 1988 and 1992); Gloria La Riva (Workers World Party, 1992); Helen Halyard (Socialist Equality Party, 1992); Marsha Feinland (Peace and Freedom Party, 1996); Mary Hollis (Socialist Party, 1996); Diane Templin (Independent American Party, 1996); Monica Moorehead (Workers World Party, 1996 and 2000).
BLACKS: Clifton DeBerry (Socialist Workers Party, 1964); Charlene Mitchell (Communist Party, 1968); Eldridge Cleaver (Peace and Freedom Party, 1968); Dick Gregory (Freedom and Peace Party, 1968); Lenora Fulani (New Alliance Party, 1988 and 1992); Ron Daniels (Peace and Freedom Party, 1992); Monica Moorehead (Workers World Party, 1996 and 2000).
TACKLE THIS ONE: Before this week's questions from the readers, a Super Bowl trivia question from me. This is the fourth time the New York Giants have appeared in the Super Bowl. What member of their 1986 championship team later ran for Congress? (Answer below)
And now, your questions:
Q: Isn't Hillary Clinton (as well as her husband) risking keeping African-American voters from turning out in November by their "take no prisoners" assault on Barack Obama? - Fran Porter, Columbia, S.C.
A: They obviously don't think so. Ultimately, I assume they feel their tactics are, or will be, successful, insofar as getting Hillary Clinton the nomination; otherwise, they wouldn't be doing it. But it is risky.
Check out Maureen Dowd's column in Wednesday's New York Times, where I think she hit it right on the head. The Clintons, she wrote, "always go where they need to go, no matter the collateral damage. Even if the damage is to themselves and their party. Bill's transition from elder statesman, leader of his party and bipartisan ambassador to ward heeler and hatchet man has been seamless — and seamy."
Prediction: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will not run on the same ticket together.
Q: Has Florida ever played such a significant role in the primary season before now? And has there ever been a candidate who, like Rudy Giuliani, has focused most of his attention and efforts on a single state, foregoing the earlier contests? - Julia Moss, Washington, D.C.
A: There have been memorable Florida presidential primaries in the past, but I think the ones held in 1976 were the most significant. On the Republican side, Ronald Reagan was long thought to be a certain winner against President Ford; a win for Reagan in the Sunshine State just might have become the first step of his wresting the nomination away from Ford. But Reagan lost, 53-47 percent, in a stunner. The former California governor continued his pursuit, defeating Ford in 10 primaries along the way. But his failure in Florida was crucial.
For the Democrats in 1976, all eyes were on George Wallace. The Alabama governor won the primary easily four years earlier, and was expected to triumph again this time. But when another son of the South — Georgia's Jimmy Carter — beat Wallace in the primary by four percentage points, it sent a signal that not only was Wallace no longer unbeatable in the region, but that his days as a presidential powerhouse were finished. It also told the world that Carter was for real.
Alas, I suspect that Giuliani's strategy of betting the farm on Florida will not pan out for him. It's hard to persuade voters to vote for someone who has shown absolutely no electoral strength in the earlier contests. It reminds me, somewhat, of what John Connally attempted in 1980. Once gushing with money, he found himself spending freely and getting nothing out of it. Nearly broke, he made the decision early in the year to let it ride on South Carolina. But by the time of that state's primary, Ronald Reagan — who had won a landslide victory in New Hampshire and had proven himself to be the darling of the conservatives — was unstoppable. And Connally's presidential hopes were gone.
Q: I keep hearing on NPR about Nevada having the first Western caucus this year, and the first ever in January. Ahem, but is Wyoming not a Western state? - Chris Valiante, Driggs, Idaho
A: It is indeed. And whether or not Wyoming's caucuses were a true test of candidate strength, the point is we should have said that Nevada is the first Western state to hold caucuses in both parties. Apologies to our friends in the Equality State.
THE DEPARTED: It's Oscars season, but this list has more to do with political dropouts than the Academy Awards. On the presidential front, Fred Thompson ended his campaign on Jan. 22, following his disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina, seen as a must-win state for him. For all the ballyhoo of him being a Reagan-like candidate, Thompson never came close to matching the hype. Perhaps had he entered the race earlier, when the plaudits were widespread, he might have stood a chance. The view here is that by the time he got in the race, in September, it was too late. (And not to speculate or anything, but had he gotten out of the race a week or so ago, Mike Huckabee might have won South Carolina.)
On the gubernatorial front, Missouri's GOP Gov. Matt Blunt announced the same day that he would not seek a second term. Blunt, the most vulnerable of all governors whose terms expire this year, had been trailing in the polls to state Attorney General Jay Nixon (D). One possible Republican replacement is Rep. Kenny Hulshof, who considered running four years ago.
MARTIN LUTHER KING: Forty years after his assassination, Dr. King has figured prominently in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. The three candidates were asked at Monday's debate in Myrtle Beach, "If Dr. Martin Luther King were alive today, why should he endorse you?" Of all the answers, I thought Obama had it right: "I don't think Dr. King would endorse any of us. I think what he would do is hold us accountable." While King never ran for office, or even considered running, there were some who dreamt of a President King in 1968, as these buttons illustrate.