- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008


one of the two major political parties nominates an African American man as its candidate for president.

But that’s nothing more than a major political moment etching its way into history books and news archives.

The platitudes and feel-good reflection might seem appropriate, at first. But let’s keep it real. The star-struck piety and “black first” euphoria that always creeps into the conversation, ultimately diminishes the real value of the achievement. Sen. Barack Obama clinched this through pure calculation, political mastery and flawless organizational skill mixed with fund-raising octane.

Listen, learn and take notes. Dispense with the civil rights nostalgia, give momentary thanks to the almighty and move on into the realm of political power and maturity.

Multiple stories now emerge. The race is on between the Illinois Democrat and the Arizona Republican. The symbolism, contrasts and dichotomies in this race are tectonic and unprecedented.

The race is between a Hanoi prison of war hero vs. a tellurian biracial love child of ‘60s Shrangri-la. One is an heir of a military family set; the other a humble global nomad who finds his destiny somewhere between scraped nickels in New York and community organizing in Chicago. One is a white-haired, aged white man who seems strikingly familiar and same in our perceptions of Free World leader and American politics; the other defies convention with his blackness propped against a language of racial commonality.

Yes, here it is, folks: black man vs. white man. Classic. A brother of many lands takes on … “The Man.”

But the language on race will be very different, very crisp and, at times, nuanced by slick campaign commercials and 527 trickery. “Fairy tale?” Former President Clinton almost got it right - no: simply titanic literary plot-line come-to-life.

Still, when the historic page groans and turns, we find ourselves doing away with many of the traditional norms in politics. It will be tempting to perceive this race through the debilitating prism of race - to blame every misstep, insult and gaffe on ugly cultural habits and racial iniquities. And, unfortunately, there are those in the elections business who will sharpen their knives and have at it, carving away at every blistering scab within the social fabric.

That is why discipline from both candidates will be key. Sen. John McCain must resist overtures from narrow-minded political hacks who want to pull a play-on-stereotype special. Mr. Obama must continue his attempt to stay above it all, and he must defy the pettiness of business as usual.

In the general election, self-definition will be the most critical game plan in Mr. Obama’s campaign arsenal. To win, he cannot latch onto the racial significance or Afrocentricity of this moment. He cannot be the amazingly “articulate” or exceptionally African American with Ivy League credentials. He must be the senator from Illinois and the qualified Democratic nominee. He cannot market himself as prodigious and rare. In other words, his strategy must be based on vision and plan - from “Yes We Can” to “Here’s How We Do It.”

In the meantime, Mr. McCain will stubbornly persist with his thick line in the Iraqi sand, his position firm on U.S. troop presence in the Middle East. There is a tremendous challenge before him, managing his embrace of an unpopular war while condemning pork-barrel Washington.

In this new landscape, Mr. McCain must find a way to push his political experience and represent change or a departure from the Washington establishment. That has been his strong suit for more than three decades.

What makes Mr. McCain different? We’ve watched him two-step a strange dance these past several months - a quixotic portrayal of himself as the “maverick” candidate we’ve grown to appreciate while clearly molding himself as the leader of a party unaccustomed to such.

Ultimately, this race appears destined for a unique generational struggle between bitter old and energetic new. Should the graying man of Beltway yesteryear win, it is because he found a way to look new and fresh against the sharp 46-year-old only four years in the U.S. Senate and several historic steps away from once-unimaginable American history. There is a hunger for freshness this election cycle, and each nominee must avoid looking backward. This is the campaign about looking forward.

Neither man or running mate can talk about yesterday. All must focus on tomorrow.

Peter C. Groff, president of the Colorado Senate, is founding executive director of the University of Denver’s Center for African American Policy and founding publisher of Blackpolicy.org. Charles D. Ellison is senior fellow at the center and chief editor of Blackpolicy.org. They host the radio show “Blackpolicy.org.”



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