The cover of the book- at least the edition I have- is misleading. Looking at it, you would think that the story was focused on the 2008 Democratic Primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Obama that turned on the support of the African American political establishment, intellectuals and voters at large. Indeed, Reid does spend a fair amount of time on it, but she also details the reconciliation between the two politicians. Reading this one would leave with the impression that the two were not only allies but also friends. (And if that doesn't jibe with other accounts you've read of their relationship, I think we all need to make ourselves comfortable with the fact that we're never really going to know.)
The relationship between Obama and the Clintons is an important part of this book, but it's only part of the story of how Democrats came to embrace civil rights (and specifically the Civil Rights Act) and what it did to the party. While Kennedy was publicly sympathetic, it was Lyndon Johnson who shepherded the passage of the historic bill through Congress. While Johnson had decades of political capitol at his disposal and was famous for his negotiation skills, he knew that doubling down on the passage was going to cost him and the party. When Strom Thurmond famously left the Democrats as a result, he was just the beginning of the exodus of Southern Democrats.
Obama is hardly the first black politician to rise to national prominence: while the scandals of Jessie Jackson's later years have sullied his legacy, Reid reminds us that he was responsible for a massive voter registration effort that undoubtedly shaped subsequent elections. He never thought he could really win the 1984 or 1988 nominations, but his strong showing demanded that African American concerns be addressed at those Democratic conventions. And he was preceded by Shirley Chisholm, the New York Congresswoman who declared her candidacy for president in 1972. (Her candidacy never got off the ground, however, because much of the African American political establishment was concerned that she was too focused on women's issues.)
As important as African American voters might be to the Democratic party, they continued to be the bogeymen of the Republican party, and literally so in the form of Willie Horton during the 1988 fight between George Bush and Michael Dukakis. To win both the party nomination and the general election, a successful Democratic candidate needed to triangulate both the concerns of African Americans and fears of them. As part of Governor Bill Clinton's run in 1992, he made a point of returning to Arkansas to oversee the execution of the mentally compromised Ricky Ray Rector. While the move horrified and angered many in his party, it also silenced any credible complaints that Clinton was going to be "soft on crime." (It's a credit to Reid's skill as a writer that she describes the execution in enough detail to let her readers feel disgust but doesn't indulge in indignation herself.)
While the fight in 2008 between Clinton and Obama included some cringeworthy moments (I think it's univerally agreed that Bill Clinton didn't do his wife too many favors in that cycle), the harshest feelings left over from that fight were from African American intellectuals and thought leaders, particularly Tavis Smiley, Cornel West and, to some extent, Jessie Jackson. While many would agree that some of Obama's pre- and post-election speeches spent more time lecturing Black Americans than consoling them, it's difficult not to return to the original complaint: Obama, by dint of not being raised by his African (not African American) father, simply wasn't "black" enough to earn the loyalty of the voters. A frankly ugly charge- as Reid points out, living in this country with dark skin and suffering the social consequences of it are the prima facie definitions of "the black experience"- and one that rank and file voters simply did not believe was true in the end.
This book focuses on the split between the moderate and more radical forces for Civil Rights largely between the Lyndon Johnson Civil Rights laws and today. The more radical forces wanted to bring redress for 400 years of white exploitation of Blacks of the institution of slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow and segregation. The more moderate forces diminished these ideas and backed tiny steps towards equality of the races. Obama, thinking he might get more cooperation from Whites, took the tiny steps approach, but found that White Racism was so imbedded in the American system that even these tiny steps lifted the rock revealing the worst of America's white racism.
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