Gender, Race, Heartache, and the Campaign

The long road to the national election gives us time to agree on who we are and to discover what we care about

Posted on Across the Ages: March 4, 2008 6:32 AM

My colleagues in Canada find the U.S. Presidential campaign process exceedingly odd—months and months of debate. What's the purpose?

But I don't mind the length. I wonder if the process isn't as much about finding ourselves—sorting out our current national personality—as it is about the candidates finding us. They catalyze our national conversations—and serve as symbols of our decisions. Most of us are not digging into the detail of competing health care plans or war strategies. We are imaging ourselves represented by these individuals—listening to them reflect our values and ideas back to us and to the rest of the world. The campaign gives us time to agree on who we are now, this year, at this point in time. What do we care about? What progress have we made? Whose voices are loudest and strongest today?

And, they mark important milestones in our shared history.

I remember watching the Nixon-Kennedy debates with my father. Being from central Michigan (a Republican stronghold in those days—I'm not even sure those small mid-Michigan towns ran general elections), there was no choice in my father's mind—Nixon was the man. I remember listening politely to his views before pointing out the obvious—the other guy was going to win.

And I remember the awe of having Geraldine Ferraro on the ticket in 1984. I lay awake nights trying this amazing idea on for size. A women might be Vice President—maybe even President someday. I didn't hear many favorable things about the ticket from my family (Republican stronghold, remember), but I was stunned by the vision that that one campaign instilled in our national eyes—its reflection reshaped my view of myself and my life options.

I get how important Barack Obama's candidacy is to our national conversation—to our view of ourselves. I am thrilled that there are young and not-so-young blacks in America trying on a new image of themselves as they listen to Obama and imagine him in the White House. I heard Colin Powell speak recently of his life before the Civil Rights act of 1964—of being denied access to a hamburger stand. I suspect Obama's candidacy makes us all proud that we, as a nation, have reached this point today.

And, Obama is shifting our nation's generational markers again, as Kennedy did for me. Not technically, of course—Obama is a Boomer—but, as Gen Y Andrew Romano's poignant article in Newsweek, declared, "He's One of Us Now."

Over a year ago, when the current campaign was just beginning its lengthy march, my son mater-of-factly informed me that Obama was going to win, in an eerie echo of my own confident voice for Kennedy. He patiently explained that "everyone" in New York (this meaning of course "everyone he knows," therefore people under 25) were passionate about Obama—and deeply committed to his success. If I hadn't had such a strong memory of my own childhood conviction I might have laughed. But I'm happy for his passion. I love having him try on a new image for America that suits him better.

And, while I appreciate all these things, I think the emotion I will remember most from this campaign season is heartbreak.

In her inimitable way, Tina Fey, during her guest host appearance last week on Saturday Night Live, did a better job of capturing how I feel watching Hillary Clinton's campaign than any (real) reporter has. Setting aside nuanced positions on Iraq, or the economy, Clinton simply reflects my image better than the other candidates do.

As I've discussed in previous posts, Boomer women and their predecessors have bequeathed to our daughters and our sons an incredible gift—the gift of taking women's role in the world for granted. The idea that a woman could be the CEO of a major corporation or a head of state doesn't fill them, or probably any of us, with the same awe it did twenty years ago. We all know women can and do fill these roles, and many more today.

This assurance is a wonderful thing. Part, maybe most, of me is happy that we having a campaign in which Clinton's gender, as well as Obama's race, are not issues. We've come along way.

But my heart would love to see someone of my image, whose path resembles mine, in the White House…at least once.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.