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Friday, September 18, 2009

AUDIO BOOK REVIEW: The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill

Annoyed that I've started so many books without actually finishing them, when I saw Gwen Ifill's book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama in audio form at the library, read by the author, I decided that this would be a more productive way to read a book. Then I got a whole bunch of new CDs and didn't listen to it at all for the first four weeks and had to renew it.

In her introduction, she addressed "the controversy" over her moderating the debate between Vice-Presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. As you may recall, there was a considerable amount of flak suggesting that she should disqualify herself as moderator because writing this book would have made her biased towards the Democrat, Biden. As it turned out, she did moderate the debate; I thought her effectiveness in cutting off the rambling and non-answers to her questions - Palin famously said she was not going to answer question A but would instead answer with stump speech response B - was compromised. Ifill in the book and also on Meet the Press expressed her discomfort of being the subject, rather than the reporter, of the story.

It's almost too bad she couldn't have shared her notes of the book, because this is no love story about Obama. It's about how the various factors, not the least of which is race, played in the campaign. And the campaign's outcome, whether he won or he lost, was largely irrelevant; if he had lost, she might have to change some conclusions but little else.

The early chapters served as a rehash, an instant history of the campaign, with issues of, e.g., how some black female politicians were split as to which "first" they should be supporting, a first black president or a first woman President. Likewise, black men supporting Clinton or white women supporting Obama were seen in some circles as traitors to their race or gender, an issue white men did not have to deal with.

But the bulk of this book is not about Barack Obama at all, or only peripherally. It's covering an array of young black leaders who came to the fore in this century. Some are sons of black leaders, such as Harold Ford and Jesse Jackson, Jr. Others are mayors or other local politicians. Whole chapters are dedicated to Corey Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ; Artur Davis, congressman from Alabama who wants to be governor; and Deval Patrick, who became Massachusetts governor, as Ifill points out, not even having been elected dogcatcher in the state.

The common thread for almost all these politicians is this: they are relatively young, they are impatient and don't feel they have to "wait their turn". They respect the old guard civil rights leaders but aren't beholden to them. And their strategy of getting elected generally involves appealing to white voters and hoping black voters will understand and eventually follow.

This happened with Barack Obama. Despite a revisionist culture that suggested that the black population was always going to go with the black candidate, polls in South Carolina in December 2007 had Obama losing the South Carolina black vote by two to one, in large part because the Clintons had paid their dues to the black community nationally and Barack had not. It was not until the Iowa primary, when Obama won a 98% white state, "transformative" as Ifill quotes Obama aide David Axelrod, that black people flocked to Obama in SC, and he won the primary handily. The reason Bill Clinton's remark about Jesse Jackson winning the state twenty years earlier was seen as racially insensitive, Ifill suggests, is that something very different took place. Jackson may have won because he was black; Obama won, almost in spite of that fact.

For Obama's campaign, quite consciously avoided talking about race, which may comforted whites ("post-racial!") but became a concern in some blacks that he didn't address their specific concerns during his campaign. In fact, if it weren't for the Jeremiah Wright controversy, Ifill notes, he probably would not have talked about race at all.

The chapter that most resonated with me was the one on Deval Patrick. He attended the Milton Academy in Massachusetts, and when he was home back in Illinois on a break, his sister taunted him with "you talk like a white boy!" Ifill reports how, decades later, that really stung him, and maybe still does a little. (All I'll say on this point is: boy, can I relate.)

I should note that she reads her own prose well, although one can sometimes tell when the recording breaks occur because the new text is slightly louder or softer. And I don't know if this is intentional, but occasionally, when quoting certain speakers, she seems to be taking on their vocal patterns and accents as well.

I'm glad I "read" this book. While the early chapters retold what this political junkie already knew but might have forgotten, the non-Obama chapters, particularly the ones on Booker, Davis and Patrick, were especially interesting. An Amazon review the last chapter as reading "a little like a baseball scouting report from the minor leagues, listing the hottest young prospects for future seasons"; I agree with that assessment.
From Salon: What role does race play in who likes the president? His BLACK support is higher now than on Inauguration Day. The Blackening of the president by Joan Walsh.
Barack Obama's coming to Troy, NY on Monday.


1 comment:

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

I have to admit, I stopped a minute when I read "Annoyed that I've started so many books without actually finishing them…" That's the story of my life! Maybe that's a topic you could explore on it's own.