One day this past January, Mary Kim Titla's parents left their home on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in southeastern Arizona and drove across the desert to Phoenix with a single purpose: getting an up-close glimpse of Barack Obama.
With them they brought two things: handmade signs that said “Apaches for Obama” and their grandson, Titla's nephew, a third-grader. Carefully, they told him why he was there that day.
“This man,” they told the little boy, “is going to make history.”
Across the republic, we're hearing it everywhere in recent months, weeks and particularly in the days since Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee: In America, people say, the winds of history are blowing. And many are excited.
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Last week, history was a buzzword. Jon Stewart mashed up clips of pundits rhapsodizing about history lessons. “Historic Choice: Obama,” trumpeted the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Barack Obama enters the history books,” enthused CNN anchor Tony Harris.
“This is one of the most significant moments in American history,” says Francine Childs, who in July 1956, at 14, sat at a Dairy Queen window every day for 30 days until she was served ice cream at the whites-only counter.
Obama is the most obvious historical figure. But he, John McCain and Hillary Clinton have each spent months vehemently rejecting the old ways, promising that change is at hand. Each has professed to be the one to maneuver us through what they all call a pivot point in history.
“America, this is our moment,” Obama said last week as his winning delegate count became apparent. “This is our time – our time to turn the page on the policies of the past.”
But such moments have everything to do with history – what has happened in the past, and the instant or era when things change. And each of the major candidates this year is deeply connected with some unhappy aspect of our past, and the urge to move on.
For Barack Obama, it is the American tradition of racial discrimination – and finally hurdling it. For Clinton, who on Saturday suspended her campaign, it has been gender inequity – and the promise of a woman in the White House. For McCain, it is the legacy of Vietnam.
In American history, certain years – 1776, 1865 and 2001 among them – have revealed themselves as obvious crossroads. But not since 1968 have we had a presidential campaign that summons so many of the fundamental tensions of our history.
So it's worth asking amid the sense of wonder: Is this election year a pivot point? When we talk about making history, can we really ever learn from our yesterdays? Are there lessons from the past for the candidates to carry into the fall campaign and the administration beyond?
“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner, one of America's greatest writers, wrote. “It's not even past.”
And so it is in 2008. We are riding history's unpredictable currents – no matter how passionately we want to move on, no matter how much control we think we have, no matter how loudly our would-be leaders insist that tomorrow is where our priorities lie.
What is happening in American politics this year is linked, in the oddest of ways, with Commonwealth of Kentucky Death Certificate No. 26469, a bare-bones account of the Nov.4, 1930, gunshot murder of a 60-year-old “colored” carpenter named Ed Doneghy.
“Ed Doneghy Killed at Louisville Polls,” the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, reported a couple of days later.
Today, the Rev. Martin McMickle, 59, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, cannot stop looking at the smeared ink of the words on that death certificate. When McMickle was doing his family history several months ago, he learned of his link to Doneghy. He found out that the man was killed for trying to register to vote.
And in August, 78 years after a lethal gunshot at a Kentucky poll felled a man who wanted to vote, Doneghy's relative, Martin McMickle – minister, teacher, civil rights activist – will travel to Denver as a delegate to cast a vote for Obama as the Democratic nominee.
A pivot point in history? You bet. And not just because of Obama's triumph, either. To McMickle, this is a historic moment because of Clinton and McCain, too.
On Clinton: “I'm also mindful that my mother, who was born in 1914, was born into a country where women did not have the right to vote.”
On McCain: “The whole idea that a person who is a senior citizen but has the energy and the vigor to sustain so far the primary campaign and is on the verge of beginning the general campaign says an awful lot about senior citizens and about when people ought to consider their active life has ended.”
“So,” McMickle says, “I think there's a wonderful biography in all three of them that can be instructive for the broader public: voting rights for African Americans, voting rights for women in America, and the importance of people continuing to live long beyond the artificial timelines of 65 or 70.”
This sense of something special afoot – with Obama emerging last week as the most visible engine, but also including the other firsts of this unusual primary season – is part of why people who have had their own brushes with history feel a sense of it right now.
Paul Matthews, a retired pharmaceuticals executive in Houston, has seen history and studied it. And he puts Obama's achievement in a very personal context.
In 1967, Matthews was a college student, a black man marching in a green ROTC uniform on a Prairie View A&M campus fired up by the battle for civil rights. He began to wonder about his choice to serve a nation that continued to treat blacks like second-class citizens.
He resolved his doubt by combing through books on military history. There, he found two paragraphs about the famed Buffalo Soldiers – the black regiments formed in the wake of the Civil War made up of men determined to show their worth as Americans.
It changed his attitude, and Matthews shipped off to Vietnam two years later. He logged 11 months, 29 days in a medical battalion.
Today, he runs the institution he founded: the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, a place where people discuss not only blacks' experience in that war but the larger issue – how American blacks over the centuries have served a system that scorned them. And now …
“I'm so elated that starting from a situation where blacks couldn't serve in the military to the possibility of having a black man as commander in chief. … That's quite a leap,” he says. “If that's not a teachable moment, we'll never have one.”
What's really historic?
America and its past have always had an uneasy relationship. We fashion elegies to a simpler, more unified and politically pure past, yet often brush our real history aside in the name of an optimistic, forward trajectory that is part of the basic American DNA.
The candidates don't always help, either.
“You see history abused so much in the political process,” says Seth Masket, who spent part of Bill Clinton's administration answering letters and fashioning the president's written communication.
“A lot of these historical metaphors are strained; a lot are inaccurate,” says Masket, who now teaches at the University of Denver. People's relationship to history, he says, is visceral: “It's an exciting time to be alive, but it's also very scary. People who like the idea of tradition aren't sure what to cling onto anymore.”
Then, there is the uncomfortable feeling that no matter what we do, we can't quite shake off the past. Andreas Killen, for example, surveys 2008 and sees 1973.
The themes in Killen's 2006 book, “1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol and the Birth of Post-Sixties America,” sound familiar today: an unpopular president presiding over a divisive war; a country full of malaise and nervous energy trying to make sense of the civil rights and women's movements; rising gas prices; a faltering economy; and an expanding unease about the government and the American message.
A generation later, every item in that list weighs upon Obama and McCain.
The heritage of the early 1970s – war, malaise – could hamper the next administration “no matter how much of a mandate for change that president has,” Killen says. History isn't always willing to let go.
Opportunities from the past?
In the end, there is this, too: We are raising a generation less mindful of the American past and its messages than any that came before.
According to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, students can graduate from the nation's top 50 colleges and universities without ever taking a course in U.S. history. And the National Geographic-Roper Survey of Geographic Literacy found in 2006 that only 37 percent of young Americans can find Iraq on a map. A recent national news broadcast, showing a screen on the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Sen. Stephen Douglas, put up photos of Lincoln and … Frederick Douglass.
“The baby boomers were forced as college students to take Western Civilization or to take American history. This new generation never had to do any of that,” says Davis, a professor at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama who ran for the U.S. Senate in 1996.
“These folks are in the moment. They cannot line up three presidents in the 20th century in terms of order,” she says. “They are absolutely ahistorical. … It's about them – the world that surrounds them at that moment. And there's no looking back because they don't know what to be looking for.”
And of course there is that niggling thing Americans have to deal with every day: the ravenous beast called the present.
“We care about politics. On the other hand, we're not going to spend that much time worrying about it,” says John Hinshaw, a historian at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania. “We're worried about $4 a gallon gas and what's going on in our kids' lives. It's intensely interesting to certain groups, but a lot of it is just not what we do all the time.”
And yet … there are times when Americans make history, or at least appreciate that they are witnesses to it. Times like 2008.
“The United States of America is an extraordinary country,” Condoleezza Rice said at the State Department the other day, reacting to the flurry of Obama news. “It is a country that has overcome many, many, now years, decades, actually a couple of centuries of trying to make good on its principles. And I think what we are seeing is an extraordinary expression of the fact that ‘We the people' is beginning to mean all of us.”
That means the Rev. Martin McMickle, staring at a death certificate that chronicles an injustice and preparing to rectify it in a small way. It means Paul J. Matthews and David Anderson, preserving parts of the American past that they believe must be remembered.
It means Mary Kim Titla, whose parents journeyed from the reservation to see Obama. Two decades ago, she became the first American Indian TV reporter on the air in Arizona. This year, she is trying to be the first American Indian woman ever elected to Congress.
And it means Francine Childs, the black girl at the Dairy Queen counter who grew up into a student activist, professor, author, world traveler. “Did I ever think this would happen?” she says. “It was something I'd always dreamed about, but (I was) never sure I would see that dream fulfilled.”
Is 2008 shaping up to be a historic crossroads? It's always difficult to judge from within; in presidential election years, history is never far away and “historic” flows easily from the lips.
But this is, most certainly, a teachable moment – for the candidates and for the people they presume to lead.
In a country defined by fast-forward but never all that adept with rewind, it's a chance to move ahead with real change – not merely to leave our national scars behind but to fashion ways to carry them with us. An opportunity to show that we can do more than lose ourselves in our own history; we can find ourselves there, too.