Thursday, November 6, 2008

Presidential Reflections

Lunch on Wednesday was a happy affair. We were all delighted with the election results as the man we had supported won this time around. For most of us, that hadn't been the case for many years. We certainly all also appreciated the enormity of the vote from an historical perspective. Even those Americans who supported McCain were surely touched by the significance of our nation, with its fractured racial history, electing an African-American man to the presidency.

At lunch, I talked some about how affected I had been by seeing African-American men on television trying to digest the reality of what had just happened. Seasoned political reporters seemed at a loss for words. Jesse Jackson had tears streaming down his face. These men had all achieved great things, educations and careers and a role in national forums, but they had never before seen a President-elect who looked like them. I can only imagine what an emotionally overwhelming moment that was.

My female colleague and friend was sitting across the table from me as I spoke. I looked at her and remarked, perhaps wistfully, that I couldn't help but wish it was us who could finally experience the feeling of seeing someone who looked like us ascend to the presidency. One of our lunchmates said, "Can't we just get past this idea of us and them?" It was not a confrontational tone, but there was a hint of exasperation or maybe annoyance. I didn't say anything at the time, but what I thought was, "Said like someone who's never had any trouble seeing himself in the President." Basically spoken like a white male.

White boys in this country have never had difficulty really picturing they could grow up to be president because they have always had examples of white men who did grow up to be president. Rural or urban, rich or poor. White boys have never needed much imagination to see themselves doing great things. Pictures through our history were full of white men ruling. But girls or African-American kids had to draw something new into the picture to put themselves in it. I don't think we should be faulted for having the occasional failure of imagination.

This country has a long and storied history of discriminating against racial minorities and of treating women like the weaker sex. Surely that's undeniable. We've made tremendous strides on both fronts, especially in the last 50 years. That is equally undeniable. As I wrote in an earlier post, I do believe that the women a generation younger than me have been raised to believe that a woman can, and someday soon will, be president. Yay! That's great. But you can't just expect minorities and women to wake up the morning after Barack Obama is elected president and say, "Ok, we're all better now. Our history is totally and completely behind us in all respects. No subconscious vestiges remain. It's all done."

Yes, we should all act on the assumption that anyone of any race or sex or sexual orientation can be elected to any office. Children should be raised to believe that and to strive, therefore, for whatever they can dream up. Believing it's possible is 90% of the battle. But the bottom line is this: seeing is believing.

So don't blame me for desperately wanting to see someone JUST LIKE ME make it to the top. You can't just expect me to take it as a given that this country is ready to elect a woman. The fact is we haven't. And you can't just expect me to take it on faith that sexism really had nothing to do with Hillary's loss in the primaries. I don't believe it was the only factor, but I absolutely believe it was a factor. And Sarah Palin was a joke, who only served to damage the perception that a woman could be a serious candidate on the issue that is the biggest problem for female politicians: foreign policy.

In the rational, reasonable parts of my mind, I do believe that we have reached a point in our nation's history where the right candidate can be elected president, regardless of race or sex (probably not religion or sexual orientation yet). But the ranks of "right" women or minorities are just a whole lot more limited. I can't even think who the next serious contender for president could be. (Don't dare say Sarah Palin to me.) So deep down, in my heart of hearts, I'm not convinced we're really all ready to put a woman in the highest office in the land.

And so I reserve the right to harbor a secret, little doubt that won't go away until I see it happen. And, oh, how badly do I want to see it happen!

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