Watching the round-table on the NewsHour tonight, with Gwen Ifill leading several observers:
Rev. Joseph Lowery, who with Dr. King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; he will deliver the benediction at tomorrow's swearing in; Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a NewsHour alum who was also the first African-American woman to attend the University of Georgia, she's now a special correspondent in Africa for NPR and other news organizations; Ta-Nehisi Coates, contributing editor for the Atlantic and a fellow at the Nation Institute; and Rael Nelson James, a development associate for KIPP DC, a network of high-performing inner-city charter schools in and around Washington, D.C.
... my friend asked me, "If Hillary had won the election, would we have a panel talking like this, about the "transcendental" nature of her election?"
Yes and no. It would be different.
If Hillary were elected, I don't think that the world's reaction would be quite the same. The world has seen a few quite prominent and powerful female leaders. Major nations today are led by female presidents (or similar titles). If America had elected Hillary Clinton, I think the world would be relieved that it wasn't McCain and the Bush era was ending, but I don't think they would be quite so rocked to their core. For all the misogyny in the world, women leaders are not so unknown.
(Stay with me, I'm coming back to Hillary in a moment.)
If you've traveled overseas in the past few years, you might know that, as racist as America has been (and still is), the rest of the world is on balance more racist. "Ethnic cleansing" is a foreign thing, not an American thing. Frankly, much of the world truly believed that America would never ever elect a black president.
And coming out of this darkest era in the modern history of the United States -- Iraq, torture, extraordinary renditions, surveillance, unilateralism -- the contrast of the impending Barack Obama presidency vs. the Bush presidency is pretty shocking. The world is relieved, astounded, hopeful, and I think inspired. We turned from the dark side. And this former slaver nation has elected Barack Obama!
So what about Hillary?
I'll say this: If Hillary had been elected, it would not be such a profound worldwide event, but it would be an earth-shattering change in domestic politics.
America does not have a strong history of powerful female political leaders. It's not just misogyny -- that's too easy. It's also a matter of cultural habit, and blindness.
It took an exceptionally intelligent, graceful, savvy, tenacious Barack Obama to cross the racial barrier. And perhaps it's his bipartisan rhetoric that has made it possible at all.
It will take an even more exceptionally intelligent, graceful, savvy, tenacious woman candidate -- also bipartisan, I think, to win against the prejudgers -- to cross the gender barrier.
Because there is a barrier, no question.
Hillary might have been that person, but I think she truly undermined her own candidacy. Someday a woman will win. And while the world at that moment may just shrug, it will be a transcendent event in America.
(Unless it's Sarah Palin, in which case America is doomed.)