Friday, June 6, 2008

History, As It Happens

The poet and critic Matthew Arnold once famously described journalism as "literature in a hurry." Sometimes, I also like to think of it as history, as it happens. There are moments during this long, fascinating presidential campaign when it strikes me that I do actually work for a history company - except, lacking the perspective of decades, or even centuries, I study events in the moment, and then disseminate my findings almost immediately.

And who said, when I got that history degree, that the history firms weren't hiring?

It might be easy in the raucous tumult of the 24-hour news cycle to overlook the historic importance of Barack Obama's Democratic primary victory. Don't let it get lost in the sauce. I hope you'll put your own cynicism, weariness or politics, whatever they may be, on pause, to savor and appreciate just what we are witnessing in 2008.

Obama isn't just the first black nominee. He breaks the 220-year hammerlock on presidential candidacy by white men of Northern European descent (and all Protestant, too, with the notable exception of JFK). His ascendancy opens the door for Italian-Americans, women, Jews, Latinos, or any ethnic, hyphenated American. Obama may not win, but his nomination means there could be a President named Cuomo, or Feinstein, or Martinez, or Jindal. This goes way beyond the color of his skin, to the very essence of what America means.

It has special resonance for me, too. Yes, I am as privileged a white man as you'd ever care to meet, incredibly fortunate to have been born free, white, male and American, probably in the top point one percent of the planet, socioeconomically. But I grew up in a civil rights household, with my father deeply involved in issues of race and discrimination in the 1960s. He was part of the legal team that successfully sued the United States on behalf of the syphilis victims of the Tuskegee experiment. As soon as I was old enough to read, I was stumbling across NAACP Legal Defense Fund briefs and Thurgood Marshall opinions and slave memoirs. When we moved to Wisconsin, where we were among the very few Jewish families, I experienced anti-Semitism that left me forever sensitive to prejudice and discrimination. I still recall the shock of my sixth-grade classmates, back in New York City, when I stood and delivered my book report on the 1860s diary of a slave woman, right after Tracy Present gave hers on "Stuart Little" (I won't even get into the jawdropping reaction to my short story about the beating death of a sharecropper's son for stealing food, which, needless to say, stood in sharp contrast to my friend David Grossman's story about Boris the talking spider).

Every presidential election is pivotal and historic. The 2000 race was described as "the most important of our lifetime." So was the one in 2004, being the first after 9/11. But 25 years from now, at whatever KCBS radio and become by then, some future instant historian will be assigned to do an anniversary piece on that groundbreaking campaign of 2008, when a lanky guy named Barack Obama became the first presidential nominee who wasn't an Anglo-Saxon white dude. Maybe that reporter will go back into our archives and pull some of the sound we've been posting on this website. You can say you were there, and you heard it live. As it happened.


Anonymous said...

And you'll be on that feed, Doug ...!

Anonymous said...

It's true that the long drawn out primary campaign process diminishes the impact of its conclusion. Who would have thought just a few years ago that a major party's candidate would have a name like Barack Obama?

Anonymous said...

"History as it happens." Sounds like a promo.

Doug Sovern said...

Thank you all for your comments. I will save any pithy remarks for my next post...

Anonymous said...


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