Two Firsts

By Jim Wallis 6-10-2008

The fact that an African American and a woman each ran so strongly in the long primary season of this election year speaks very well of the country. Having two "firsts" competing for the presidency, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, makes this a very historic political year. But it was perhaps unfortunate that the two firsts ended up running against each other. After a hard-fought campaign, there inevitably remain some hard feelings among the supporters of both candidates, but especially among many women, who were the core of Clinton's campaign.

Many of them feel she was treated badly by the press, with many instances of overtly sexist attitudes and commentaries that would never have been directed at another male candidate. I, for one, think they are right -- there were many media comments about Senator Clinton that were sexist and that would never have been used against a man. Indeed, there are often regular comments in the media about women that would simply not be acceptable if similar things were said about men or even ethnic minorities. As a culture, sexist assumptions, attitudes, and language are still far too acceptable to us.

Race is a factor in this political year too, and will undoubtedly appear in the fall campaign. The fact is that we were not going to transcend the realities of either race or gender in this election year because the demons are simply too great and run too deep in our society. But the fact that an African American and a woman did so well, despite the racism and sexism that is still with us in America, is a cause for grateful celebration. And now, as many have said, it's time for some healing.

While I agree with those who saw sexism in the primary political coverage, I also agree with most political commentators who don't think it was the ultimate reason Senator Clinton came short of becoming the Democratic Party nominee. I won't rehearse the now commonly agreed-upon analysis of some of the Clinton campaign's mistakes and miscalculations or how the Obama campaign ran a little smarter strategy, but, clearly, several strategic considerations were decisive factors.

It is also clear that this political year will be a "change" election. All the candidates, in both parties, ended up running on the country's clear desire for a change in direction after eight years of the Bush administration. Barack Obama made change the core of his message, and John McCain has been a beneficiary of that same mood in the Republican Party. And while Hillary Clinton was also clearly a change candidate, as the first woman with a real chance to become president, she was still a Clinton, which also made her a "restoration" candidate as well as a change candidate. That ultimately hurt her this election year.

But after her gracious and magnanimous speech endorsing Barack Obama this weekend, the tremendous and historical accomplishments of her presidential campaign are clear for all to see and celebrate. Regardless of whether everyone agrees with her positions on every issue or whether they liked all of her campaign tactics, a clear breakthrough for women in America has taken place. It will now be much more acceptable, possible, and "normal" for women to compete for every political office in the land, and that fact will open up even more doors for women in virtually every area of public life and leadership in this country. And for that, we all have a great deal to thank Hillary Clinton and her loyal supporters for. Marie Wilson, founder and president of the White House Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that aims to advance women's leadership, wrote this weekend in The Washington Post about

this country's next generation of female leaders -- women of all ages and persuasions who have been searching for the means and encouragement to step into positions of leadership in their communities; women of all political affiliations who thank Hillary Clinton for making the impossible finally appear possible.

Many moving things have been said about how so many little girls now believe that they can be anything they want to be because of Clinton's impressive campaign. But I want to also point out the impact on little boys, like my own two young sons. They have grown up with a mom as a priest, an ordained clergywoman who they have often seen preaching, speaking, presiding over the Eucharist, and doing weddings and baptisms. The leadership role of women in the church is simply normal and expected for them-it's what mom does. Clinton's presidential bid has had a very similar effect on both of them.

My 9-year-old son, Luke, considers Hillary a "friend," having met her at a New Year's weekend retreat that both of our families attended. Hillary very graciously sends him little personal notes to congratulate him on his Little League baseball successes. It's a wonderful gesture that utterly defies the harsh commentaries on her style that she sadly so often receives. At the CNN candidate forum on faith, values, and poverty that Sojourners co-sponsored last June, Luke got to meet her again and told the senator privately, "Hillary, I can't vote, but if I could, I would vote for you." She beamed the biggest smile back to my son and said, "Oh Luke, that means so much to me!" Luke has remained totally faithful to Hillary during the primary political season, proudly wearing a Clinton button on his safety patrol belt, and was one of her disappointed supporters when she finally had to concede. Five-year-old Jack voted just the way his big brother did in their D.C. public school primary, resisting the Obama landslide.

My boys, like lots of little girls and boys, now believe that a woman running for president is normal, possible, and to be expected, as they do for an African-American candidate. Luke is looking forward to the day when a black woman will be able to run. "Wouldn't that be cool, Dad?" he says. It surely would, and for that we have both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to thank.

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