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Mark Shields: American Politics Will Never Be the Same Again

Obama's election as president will make him the political role model for the next generation of blacks.

Theodore White in his masterful work, The Making of the President 1960, describes a reception hosted in June of that year on the lawn of Gracie Mansion by New York Mayor Robert Wagner. Sen. John F. Kennedy, by then the clear front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, was there and so, too, were the hard men who ran the tough New York Democratic organization.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields
Kennedy, in a commanding position, was relaxed but also “distant and frosty,” as White reported.” The old-line politicians of Tammany blinked at the scene in the sun, their cigars put away, their predatory faces baffled yet not hostile. This handsome young man was seed of their seed, stock of their stock ... yet he had gone to Harvard and was tailored in England and was somehow different from them — as they hoped their sons would be different.”

Kennedy was on his way to doing what none of them believed an Irish-Catholic in America could ever do: win the presidency in a heavily majority Protestant nation.

Today, nearly a half-century later, substitute for the professional politicians of New York City the large majority of the country’s senior black politicians, including the membership of the Congressional Black Caucus. They are the men and the women, along with prominent black clergy, who have — before 2008 — spoken to, negotiated with and made demands upon White America on behalf of Black America.

Sen. Barack Obama changed all those relationships. He did what most black politicians were certain could not be done — certainly not against a political powerhouse like Sen. Hillary Clinton — to win overwhelming primary and caucus victories in overwhelmingly white states such as Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Just as after Kennedy, political candidates who were Catholic or Irish or Italian or Greek believed there were no limits to the office they could seek, Obama, an alumnus of both Columbia and Harvard Law School and equally comfortable among both blacks and whites, will serve as the political role model for the next generation of young black women and men with solid educations and ambitions for elected office. And those offices, after Obama, will no longer will be limited to City Hall or the House of Representatives. One unintended consequence of Obama’s spectacular achievement is that his example will undoubtedly encourage challenges by young veterans of his campaign to senior elected black officeholders in city councils, state legislatures and Congress.

It is a time for all of us to feel better about America. Just 60 years ago, President Harry Truman, facing a tough re-election campaign, signed Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the U.S. military and declared that every serviceman and woman would be judged not by their race but by their ability. Truman was challenged by fellow Southern Democrats led by South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond, who ran for president on a segregationist States’ Rights Democratic Party ticket and took the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina away from Truman.

Twelve years later, because of Truman’s leadership, for the first time in my life I slept in the same quarters with blacks and took orders, as a matter of course, from blacks at Parris Island, S.C., in Marine Corps boot camp, where I cast my absentee ballot for Kennedy for president.

It is 40 years, plus one, since the first American president since the Civil War from a state of the Confederacy, President Lyndon Johnson, nominated the first black, Thurgood Marshall, to the U.S. Supreme Court — to which he was confirmed with only 11 senators in opposition. It is exactly 40 years since Sen. Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., both champions of civil rights, were assassinated. And here we are, barely four decades later, knowing only for certain that, after Tuesday, American politics will never again be the same.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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