Obama, or a History of Black Presidents of the U.S.

Still trying to get a grip on Obamamania.

Still trying to get a grip on Obamamania. hide caption

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Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson is fighting for his political life in Saturday's runoff.

Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson is fighting for his political life in Saturday's runoff. hide caption

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Turned down in his bid to chair the House Intelligence Committee this year, Alcee Hastings

Turned down in his bid to chair the House Intelligence Committee this year, Alcee Hastings briefly looked at running for governor of Florida in 1990. hide caption

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Dick Armey

Fourteen years ago today, Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX) began his rise in the Republican House leadership ranks as an uncompromising conservative. hide caption

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In case the irony was lost, there have not been, and I checked this, any black presidents of the United States. Not a one. Further, none ever came close to winning a major-party nomination, and none ever made it onto a major-party ticket. And as long as we're going through the record books, since the end of Reconstruction, just two African-Americans were elected governor, and three were elected to the Senate.

I offer this brief history lesson in the wake of what can only be described as "Obamamania" — the almost surreal desire by many people to see Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) run for president in 2008. He has achieved near-mythical status among (mostly) Democrats of all races and nearly all political persuasions. Witness a recent cover article in Time magazine entitled, "Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President." Last month's Washingtonian magazine talked about "The Legend of Barack Obama." A quick Google search came up with no shortage of positive adjectives, everything from "superstar" and "rock star" to "electrifying" — and this quote, from a Republican operative: a "walking, talking hope machine."

Barack Obama has been in the Senate for all of one year and 11 months. He is also African American.

And yet, of all the things people are saying about the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, "race" is usually not one of them. That's a good thing, I suppose. Maybe it's a sign of progress. Maybe it's a hunger for someone so new and so promising who transcends race. Or maybe we're just deluding ourselves, and once he becomes a genuine candidate, all bets are off. It reminds me of the "draft Ted Kennedy" rave of late 1979, with Democrats begging him to take on President Jimmy Carter for the nomination. The next nominee for sure, gushed Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill. But once Kennedy got in, the Kennedy glamour vanished, replaced by memories of Chappaquiddick, and worse. Be careful what you wish for.

I'm not suggesting there are secrets in Obama's past that will torpedo his chances. I'm not egging on those who are obsessed with race. I'm just trying to get a handle on this phenomenon. And from what I've seen so far, it's been pretty phenomenal.

This tone should not be construed as a criticism of Obama or a reflection of any shortcomings of the potential Democratic field. I just don't know what to make of it. Clearly, something happened that Sunday morning in October when Obama gave Meet the Press host Tim Russert a straight answer to a direct question.

RUSSERT: But it's fair to say you're thinking about running for president in 2008?

OBAMA: It's fair, yes.

RUSSERT: And so when you said to me in January, "I will not," that statement is no longer operative.

OBAMA: The — I would say that I am still at the point where I have not made a decision to, to pursue higher office, but it is true that I have thought about it over the last several months.

RUSSERT: So, it sounds as if the door has opened a bit.

OBAMA: A bit.

Giving a straight answer is usually not the way things are done in Washington, especially when it comes to a question about personal ambition. But by doing so, Obama seemed to launch a force that hasn't been seen in presidential politics in a long time. And it seemed to accelerate a process that was slow in taking off: the sudden rush of moves by Democratic presidential wannabes. Witness the official declaration of candidacy by departing Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, or the announcement of the formation of an exploratory committee by Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana.

Add those developments to the fact that former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential candidate, has been all over the TV talk shows promoting his new book (and of course himself). Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut has been active on the fundraising circuit. Even Sen. Hillary Clinton, the most cautious of cautious politicians but, nonetheless, the 800-pound gorilla in the room (there's got to be a better expression than that), let it be known to prospective donors that she's serious. Other potential Dem candidates probably should include New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Senators John Kerry (MA) and Joe Biden (DE), retired Gen. Wesley Clark, and, who knows, maybe even former Vice President Al Gore (though I'm guessing not).

For the longest time, the conventional wisdom was that the choice for the nomination was shaping up to be between Hillary and Not Hillary. Obama's Meet the Press confessional/bombshell has transformed him, at least as of this writing, into the Not Hillary standard bearer. Some opine that an Obama candidacy damages Clinton, that his warm and engaging personality would favorably contrast with the reservations and worries many Dems have about the former first lady. Maybe yes, maybe not. What Obama's openness for '08 does seem to be accomplishing is that, by sucking all the oxygen out of the room, his entry could deny everyone else a chance to be the non-Hillary, even for 15 minutes. Just this week, a key Democrat whose smarts I've long respected told me Obama is the first candidate to get him this excited since Bobby Kennedy some 40 years ago. A John Edwards supporter in 2004, this Democrat now calls Edwards "yesterday's news," adding that it would be a waste of time considering anyone else if Obama got into the race.

There will be the series of questions, from the left and right, wondering what Obama has done in the Senate that makes him a serious presidential contender. But maybe that's what this is all about. Maybe the one way for Obama to squander this moment is to stay in the Senate, build up seniority, and run for president at another time. By the time they were their respective parties' presidential nominee, John Kerry, Bob Dole, Hubert Humphrey and others like them had already been in Washington for decades. Maybe this is the time for Obama to run — before he becomes like all those other failed candidates from that candidate swamp known as Capitol Hill.

Postscript: Last week's Rudin/Elving edition of the "It's All Politics" podcast focused a bit on the Obama phenomenon. Some of the mail that followed that conversation was less than enthused. Jonathan Levy of Chicago writes, "While I still like Barack Obama a lot, it is not true that no negatives have come up on him. A story recently came out in the Chicago Tribune describing his uncomfortably close real-estate dealings with an indicted political fundraiser. Obama also endorsed some state and local candidates who even many Democrats found seriously lacking. Obama still has a lot going for him, but he has remained closer to the unsavory parts of the Illinois political culture than he should. That could mean nothing nationally, or it could allow his rivals to paint him as just another Cook County politician."

And Dawn Simon, also of Chicago, decries what she calls the "media's obsession with celebrity candidates. … Whatever happened to the thought that we should be supporting candidates who believe in something and want to accomplish things? As opposed to candidates who offer nothing dramatically new, especially at a time when we desperately need something dramatically new?"

Programming Note. You must make sure to hear NPR's Mara Liasson's piece on Obamamania that is scheduled to air Friday on All Things Considered. The highlight, if you will: Nina Totenberg singing "Obama" to the tune of West Side Story's "Maria." Not to be missed.

On to the questions:

Q: What are your picks for the upcoming runoffs in TX 23 and the less consequential LA 02? In the Texas race, do you think [ex-Rep. Ciro] Rodriguez can pull off the upset? — Justin Cass, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. Similarly, Carl Malmstrom, Chicago, Ill.

A: First, an explanation for why these two congressional runoffs are taking place within the next few days.

Let's start with Louisiana's 2nd District, where voters will decide on Saturday, Dec. 9, the future of embattled incumbent William Jefferson. Jefferson, as you may recall, is the subject of a federal bribery investigation, though he has yet to be charged with any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, two former associates have pleaded guilty to bribing the congressman, and the FBI allegedly found $90,000 stuffed in Jefferson's freezer.

In Louisiana, as is the custom there, all candidates for a particular office run on the same ballot, regardless of party. On Nov. 7, neither Jefferson, who finished first with 30 percent, nor state Rep. Karen Carter (22 percent), received a majority of the vote in the 13-candidate field, so both advanced to Saturday's runoff. Both are Democrats and both are African-Americans. I would have thought that Jefferson was dead politically going into the runoff, but Carter has not put him away. She has won the official endorsement of the state party, but some members of the New Orleans political establishment are sticking with Jefferson; the congressman got a key endorsement from state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, who finished third in the initial voting. It's possible that many local Dems are doing so because they expect Jefferson to ultimately be forced out of his seat, opening up a most desirable job, whereas a victory by Carter blocks their path.

My gut still tells me Carter wins, but a lot — if not everything — may depend on their debate, which is scheduled to take place Thursday evening.

(Another programming note: NPR's Cheryl Corley will have a piece on LA 02 on Friday's All Things Considered.)

More important is the Texas 23 race, simply because it potentially could result in a party change. And the reason for this runoff is because the Supreme Court ruled in June that the district — as drawn by Tom DeLay and Co. — failed to protect Hispanic voting rights. So a court redrew the lines and forced the incumbent, Republican Henry Bonilla, into a special election with seven opponents. In the Nov. 7 election, Bonilla got 47 percent of the vote, finishing first but just short of the needed majority. He was thus forced into a Dec. 12 runoff against his leading challenger, former Congressman Ciro Rodriguez (D).

In a campaign that has become personal and harsh, one potential contentious issue that may have been resolved is the date of the election itself. The 12th is also the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a sacred Hispanic holiday. Latino groups threatened to sue the Secretary of State's office over the date, charging that it was a deliberate attempt to tamp down Hispanic turnout. A compromise was reached when the state decided to extend the early-voting period, ostensibly allowing more access to the polls for Latino voters.

I suspect Bonilla holds on to win; this, of course, coming from someone who had his share of wrong picks on Nov. 7. Bonilla, though of Mexican heritage (the only such Republican in the House), is not the particular favorite of many Hispanic voters; some refer to him as "Henry Vanilla," a Latino in name only who wins because of strong support from white voters. But he is a better campaigner than Rodriguez, who goes into the contest as having lost back-to-back Democratic primaries to Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) in a neighboring district. Rodriguez has, however, been the beneficiary of a recent influx of cash from the DCCC. And Rodriguez can make the case that if he wins, he would be part of the new majority in Congress.

Q: I thought the reaction by Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) when he lost out at becoming the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee was pretty classy. I'm very interested in learning more about the vote in Congress to remove him as a judge back in the 1980s. Did any Democrats vote to remove him? — Jon Maurer, New York, N.Y.

A: Yes, and some names on the list might surprise you. For the record, it was a Democratic-controlled House that voted first to impeach Hastings and a Democratic Senate that voted to remove him from office.

First, the House. On Aug. 3, 1988, it voted 413-3 to adopt the articles of impeachment against Hastings, claiming that Hastings had conspired with an attorney to obtain a bribe from defendants that were before his court. The case before the House against Hastings was made by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). The three House members who voted against impeachment were Democrats Gus Savage (IL), Mervyn Dymally (CA) and Edward Roybal (CA).

On Oct. 20, 1989, the Senate voted in favor of several articles to convict. Sixty-nine senators voted to remove Hastings from the bench — five more than the required two-thirds majority — while 26 voted against such a move. A breakdown of the tally showed 35 Republicans and 34 Democrats found him guilty; voting not guilty were five Republicans and 21 Democrats. Here's how those still in the Senate today voted back then:

GUILTY: Baucus (D-MT), Bond (R-MO), Burns (R-MT), Byrd (D-WV), Cochran (R-MS), Conrad (D-ND), Domenici (R-NM), Grassley (R-IA), Inouye (D-HI), Kennedy (D-MA), Kerry (D-MA), Kohl (D-WI), Lautenberg (D-NJ), Lugar (R-IN), McCain (R-AZ), McConnell (R-KY), Reid (D-NV), Rockefeller (D-WV), Sarbanes (D-MD), Stevens (R-AK), Warner (R-VA).

NOT GUILTY: Biden (D-DE), Bingaman (D-NM), Dodd (D-CT), Harkin (D-IA), Hatch (R-UT), Leahy (D-VT), Levin (D-MI), Lieberman (D-CT), Mikulski (D-MD), Shelby (D-AL)*, Specter (R-PA).

*Alabama's Shelby switched to the GOP in 1994.

Q: I do believe [The Washington Post's] David Broder was wrong about Ted Strickland (D) being the first Ohioan to go directly from the House to the governorship since Rutherford B. Hayes in 1867 (see Nov. 15 column). He forgot James Cox — and I have the buttons (from both campaigns) to prove it. — Peter Briggs, Rock Hill, N.Y.

A: And I believe you are right. Cox — best known as the 1920 Democratic presidential nominee whose running mate was some fellow named Franklin D. Roosevelt — was a member of Congress from 1909 until he was elected governor of Ohio in 1912. Good catch.

And, Peter, if you want to part with either the 1908 Cox for Congress button or the Cox for governor from 1912, I will trade you an extremely rare NPR pin from the 2004 conventions!!

Q: How many members of the "Republican revolution" of 1994 are still in the House? My congressman, Zach Wamp, is a survivor, and it got me to wondering about his "classmates." — Ingrid Buehler, Benton, Tenn.

A: Of the 73 Republicans first elected in the GOP tsunami of '94, only 24 remain in the House: John Shadegg (AZ), George Radanovich (CA), Brian Bilbray (CA)*, Dave Weldon (FL), Charlie Norwood (GA), Jerry Weller (IL), Ray LaHood (IL), Mark Souder (IN), Tom Latham (IA), Todd Tiahrt (KS), Ed Whitfield (KY), Roger Wicker (MS), Frank LoBiondo (NJ), Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ), Walter Jones Jr. (NC), Sue Myrick (NC), Steve Chabot (OH), Steve LaTourette (OH), Phil English (PA), Zach Wamp (TN), Mac Thornberry (TX), Tom Davis (VA), Doc Hastings (WA) and Barbara Cubin (WY).

Five were defeated on Nov. 7: J.D. Hayworth (AZ), John Hostettler (IN), Gil Gutknecht (MN), Charlie Bass (NH) and Sue Kelly (NY). Two others, the ethically challenged Bob Ney (OH) and Mark Foley (FL), resigned their seats earlier in the year.

Seven graduated from the House and are currently in the Senate or serve as governor: Saxby Chambliss (GA sen), Sam Brownback (KS sen), John Ensign (NV sen), Richard Burr (NC sen), Tom Coburn (OK sen)*, Mark Sanford (SC gov)* and Lindsey Graham (SC sen).

*Bilbray (CA) was defeated for re-election in 2000 but came back to win a different House seat in '06. Coburn (OK) and Sanford (SC) kept to their term-limits pledge before returning to politics and winning their respective statewide offices.

More Election Fallout: Dan Krassowski of Columbia Station, Ohio, wonders, "What might have happened in the Senate if ALL 100 seats had been contested? A pickup of 18 for the Democrats? A 63-37 Senate? I bet there are 35 Republican senators who are breathing a sigh of relief." Terri Armstrong of Tallahassee, Fla., writes, "I love how the Democrats think. Before the elections, they spread their conspiracy theories, expecting to lose. They blame Karl Rove and other Republicans who will 'steal' the election from them. Then they win [on Nov. 7]. But in the places where they lost, like in Florida [the 13th CD], they claim fraud and sue. Whiners!"

Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state.

This Day in Political History: In the minority for the 38th consecutive year, House Republicans unseat the chairman of their caucus, Jerry Lewis of California, and replace him with Dick Armey of Texas, a strong conservative. The vote is 88-84 (Dec. 7, 1992). Two years later the GOP wins a majority of seats in the House for the first time since the 1952 elections.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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