Forecasts of Gathering Storms

, Daniel Allen, Leave a comment

The Salon Speakers Series began in 2004 as an idea of Rudyard Griffiths and Patrick Luciani who felt that Canadians would benefit from learning more about international issues through conversations with those who know the issues best. This effort has grown and expanded, and now attracts some of the West’s most qualified experts.

In late 2007 and early 2008, the Salon Speakers Series invited speakers from the U.S. to discuss the developing battle for the presidency. In a book called The Race to the White House that was published following the discussions, four distinguished professionals discuss the personalities of the candidates and the importance of the race for Democrats.

Camille Paglia, a professor and feminist who has followed the Clinton’s careers for many years, delivered the first speech, in which she discussed Hillary Clinton. The writing is less engaging than the speaking would have been—it is obvious that the text was adapted from a conversational atmosphere. Nonetheless, Paglia offers insights into a strong but severely flawed Hillary that we rarely read about.

Paglia describes Clinton as a skilled politician that simply has too much baggage ever to be president. She was opposed to Hillary being nominated as the Democratic candidate from the start, because with a troubled past and an unpredictable attitude, “she would be the easiest by far to defeat.”

Her conclusion is that the time to elect a female president has come, and the country is ready—“But it’s just that this particular woman may not be the right woman.”

Discussing the other name on the Democratic ticket, Shelby Steele’s explanation of Barack Obama’s persona and the issue of race provides a fascinating post-inauguration read. Steele is an author and fellow at Stanford who specializes in race and culture.

Steele explains that Barack Obama is entering the political landscape of a country that suffers from what he terms “white guilt.” He explains that ever since racism was acknowledged to be wrong, whites have suffered from an inescapable guilt, whether they recognize it or not. This guilt, he says, “became an enormous power for black Americans that we still, of course, wield and rely on today, sad to say, and it has changed the very nature of our society: whites are now stigmatized as racist and are in the position of forever having to prove a negative that, ‘I’m not racist,’ which of course is impossible to do.”

What makes Obama an extraordinary leader, though, is that he has been able to avoid the “white guilt” that manifests itself through affirmative action. This he did on merit alone, through his books and early career and educational achievements. “It is these two qualities, his natural talent and his separation from affirmative action, that make Barack Obama the first black in American history to plausibly run for the presidency.”

Steele believed that a President Obama would be impossible, however, because he would never be able to please both blacks and whites. As he plays to one crowd, he alienates the other. Obama had not yet found a set of principles to give him a solid personality that he could offer to the country and say, “take it or leave it.” That is what Obama would need to win the presidency, according to Steele, but “a lifetime of being caught in a bind like this means that not enough attention has been paid to an inner self.” Perhaps that is exactly what President Obama found, and what propelled him into the White House.

The Race to the White House also features speeches by James Carville, a political consultant and the lead strategist of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, as well as David Gergen, a political consultant and advisor to four presidents who is most widely known for his commentary on CNN. They discuss, respectively, the unprecedented nature of the 2008 campaign and the serious challenges that will be endured by either Democratic candidate.

This book’s subject material would be dull, outdated and repetitive if it weren’t for the speakers who were selected. They each provide unexpected insights on the two Democratic leaders—one, a feminist Democrat who doesn’t think Hillary is presidential material, and the other an African-American intellectual who didn’t think Obama could do it.

Daniel Allen is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.


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