Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama

by Gwen Ifill
Doubleday Books
Hardcover, $24.95
288 pages, illustrated
ISBN: 978-0-385-52501-5

Book Review by Kam Williams

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
 Barack Obama, Election Day 2008

“Barack Obama’s success has changed attitudes. A majority of all voters said in a post election survey that the Obama victory would lead to improved race relations overall. [However] in four southern states – Aabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas – Obama did more poorly than John Kerry did four years ago...
During Reconstruction, there were as many as 16 black members of
Congress, but by 1901, black Southerners had been virtually expunged from politics, even as voters… Governing is complicated, so merely winning an election does not constitute the end of the battle.”
 Gwen Ifill, Excerpted from pages 237-245

The day before the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and
Sarah Palin last fall, Republican operatives attempted to swift boat the Obama campaign with an October surprise suggesting that PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill should be disqualified from moderating the event. Why? Because she was working on a book entitled The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.
However, no one in the McCain camp mentioned the fact that when they had approved her participation many months earlier they had been made well aware of Ms. Ifill’s upcoming literary project. But that didn’t stop them from mounting a futile, 11th hour effort to turn the tide by trying to impugn the integrity of this very highly-regarded journalist.
It is sad, that out of desperation, the Republicans would so recklessly play the race card to ruin the career of an African-American they knew to be non-partisan. Did they care where was she supposed to go to get her reputation back after the election was over?
Regardless, now that her literary debut has finally been published, it is clear that Gwen was, in fact, an honest broker and not a secret Obama cheerleader. And Ifill doesn’t restrict herself to a discussion of just Obama, but devotes considerable attention to the recent rise of the rest of the crop of emerging, young black leaders, including Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, Washington, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, Tennessee’s Harold Ford and many others.
More importantly, her timely tome contains a cogent, historical analysis of the evolution of U.S. politics along the color line. Curiously, Ifill indicates that what these inspired, young Democrats have in common, besides their party affiliation, is an impatience to implement a colorblind agenda decidedly different from that of the aging Civil Rights Movement generation.
Ultimately, the author has some tough questions to pose, such as “What is the point of electing African-Americans to high office if their ties to the black community do not bind them tightly enough to black causes?” An added bonus is that Ifill is generous enough to include a few personal anecdotes which reveal a very likable, intimate side her fans never get to see on TV.
Did she vote for Obama? Her dedication of the book says it all: “For my parents, Oliver and Eleanor Ifill, who did not live to see the day.” An excellent deconstruction of the state of American politics by a seasoned reporter with not only access to the pivotal players but also a knack for picking their brains in a way which gets to the heart of any issue.

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