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The Courtier Chronicles

From the Scrapbook.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09
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"I never thought I'd see the day. What were the chances that someone who looked like me would come to lead the most powerful nation on earth? Slim."

--author Colson Whitehead,
"Finally, a Thin President," in the November 5 New York Times

We hope Whitehead was trying to be funny.

Thomas Friedman's Civil War

And so it came to pass that when Thomas (The World Is Flat) Friedman wrote his first New York Times column about the election of the first black president, he declared: "And so it came to pass that on Nov. 4, 2008, shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern time, the American Civil War ended, as a black man .  .  . won enough electoral votes to become president of the United States."

A sentence or two later Friedman suggests that the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Bull Run--actually, it was at Fort Sumter--but our point is that Barack Obama's electoral triumph, remarkable in itself, could benefit from slightly less breathless rhetoric. The American Civil War, which cost more lives than all other American wars combined, did not end in 2008 but in 1865--or, depending on your point of view, with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. It did not end with the integration of the armed forces (1948), Brown v. Board of Education (1954), passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965), or even with Rep. Shirley Chisholm's presidential campaign (1972).

Let's retire this tired, and misleading, cliché.

And while it is true that Senator Obama is our first African-American president, we would counsel the Friedmans and other hyperventilators to tread lightly around that particular hackneyed thought as well. The press has a long and condescending history of overexcitement about (and overinterpretation of) racial "firsts" in our country--so much, indeed, that the meaning of these particular distinctions is lost.

Just in the past few decades in America we have witnessed the first black mayor of Newark, the first black CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the first black senator since Reconstruction, the first black coach of an NFL team, the first black cabinet secretary, the first black star of a network sitcom, the first black Ivy League president, the first black to be a candidate for nomination as vice president by a major party, the first black admiral, the first black governor since Reconstruction, the first black astronaut, the first black Supreme Court justice, and the first black winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress. And the list goes on.

When Jesse Jackson ran for president the first time, in 1984, he liked to say, "American politics will never, ever, be the same again." He was right, of course--but not in the way he meant. The effect of Jackson's candidacy was to transmute its significance from politics to race. Did Jackson's 1984 campaign influence the course of the Reagan presidency or the conservative political ascendancy which ended this year? Of course it didn't. And the election of the first black mayor of a major city (Cleveland, 1967!) neither transformed Cleveland nor much affected conditions in urban America.

It will not be Barack Obama's race, or his status as the latest in a long line of "firsts," that determines his place in history, but his policies as president, which will either succeed or fail. For as Thomas (The World is Hot, Flat and Crowded) Friedman ought to know, but apparently does not, it was another, earlier president--Abraham Lincoln (1861-65)--who ended the Civil War.

The Richard Nixon Sore Winner Award

The story was told, by his law partner Leonard Garment, if we recall correctly, that Richard Nixon's private reaction upon winning his historic 1972 landslide victory was not delight but a surly vow to get the SOBs who'd opposed him. In that spirit, THE SCRAPBOOK hereby inaugurates the Richard Nixon Sore Winner award, which we will bestow on a semi-regular basis on angry lefties who don't know how to take yes for an answer. This week we honor Paul Krugman, whose morning-after November 5 blog for the New York Times celebrated the end of "the monster years":

For the past 14 years America's political life has been largely dominated by, well, monsters. Monsters like Tom DeLay, who suggested that the shootings at Columbine happened because schools teach students the theory of evolution. Monsters like Karl Rove, who declared that liberals wanted to offer "therapy and understanding" to terrorists. Monsters like Dick Cheney, who saw 9/11 as an opportunity to start torturing people.

And in our national discourse, we pretended that these monsters were reasonable, respectable people.