Monday, January 19, 2009


The success of Barack Obama has exposed the nation to the next generation of black leaders, many of whom have a different worldview from their predecessors. As we embark on the age of Obama, it’s helpful to have a field guide to some of the key figures that also gives some historical and sociological context to the topic.

That’s exactly what Gwen Ifill has given us in “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” a well-reported analysis of an important component of the country’s political landscape.

Ms. Ifill, the moderator of “Washington Week” and senior correspondent of “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” has done extensive interviewing and numbers-crunching (more of the former) and her book likely will have wide appeal to general and academic audiences.

The generational tensions - which stem mostly from different life experiences - are at the center of much of this book. The older black leaders often preferred to take a more cautious approach, which caused many of them to endorse the candidacy of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton over Mr. Obama. It also caused many older black politicians and activists, such as Vernon Jordan and Andrew Young, to advise Mr. Obama to wait his turn and get some more seasoning before running for president.

Ms. Ifill spoke to some of the older leaders but devotes far more space to the younger ones. She has chapter-length profiles of Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory A. Booker; Rep. Artur Davis, Alabama Democrat; and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and shorter profiles of several others. Her take on most of them is positive, but she does include some of their shortcomings (such as Mr. Patrick’s arrogant demeanor) to round out the portraits.

Though she writes of the pride she felt watching Mr. Obama accept the Democratic nomination last summer and how thrilled she was that Americans elected him president, she contends that the country still has a long way to go to heal the racial divide. Ms. Ifill strongly disagrees with the idea that the nation has entered a “postracial” period, a view posited by some younger black leaders, though not Mr. Obama.

“My well-reported suspicion is that it is the type of code language that conveniently means different things to different people. For those interested in resisting any discussion of racial difference, it is an easy way to embrace the mythic notion of color blindness. For civil rights veterans it is a term that sparks outrage,” she writes. “[W]hen it comes to any issue, debate or ambition shaded by race, we have not yet come to a common place.”

That’s an interesting conclusion, but it conflicts with recent political history. Some exit polls showed that for many voters who supported Mr. Obama, his racial heritage was an important part of his personal narrative but not a central factor in their decision to pull the lever for him. One might say they were making the Rev. Martin Luther King’s dream that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” come true.

Ms. Ifill’s book is at its best when she focuses on reportage. The insightfulness so often on display in her television appearances is in abundance.

She is able to draw out her subjects and get them to be more candid than they otherwise might be, especially in her chapters on Mr. Davis and Mr. Patrick. In the Booker chapter, however, she lets her subject get away with some self-serving navel-gazing when he tells her, “I’ve realized that the biggest, most important challenge is not to change myself, but to be myself.”

Fortunately, that’s an exception, and the reader comes away with a great understanding of contemporary black political power. No doubt many books will be written about this subject in light of Mr. Obama’s extraordinary achievements. In “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” the first post-election book on this aspect of the contest, Ms. Ifill has set a high standard against which subsequent works will be judged.

Claude R. Marx has reviewed books for publications such as the Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly and Kirkus Reviews.

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