Marking the milestone the United States just passed

by DG Martin

Let’s put a note somewhere to mark this past week as a point in our nation’s political history that we should remember.

Years from now, historians will write about this time and call it a sign of a major transformation in American politics.

They will note that two of the three leading announced candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination come from groups that had never held the presidency before.

Hillary Clinton leads the Democratic field today. Previously, no woman had ever made a serious challenge for that party’s nomination.

Barack Obama is a serious challenger to her. Although a number of blacks have competed in Democratic presidential primaries and debates, none of them became serious contenders for the nomination.

The third of the top three contenders, John Edwards, comes from a group that has monopolized the presidency recently – Southern white males. But from the Civil War until fairly recently, no Southerner could expect to be nominated by either party.

Should New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, arguably better prepared to be president than the current top three, emerge as a serious challenger to the current top three, then there will be another milestone – the first serious Hispanic or Latino contender. His mother was Mexican and, although he was born in the United States, he was raised in Mexico until age 13.

It is too early in the campaign to predict that we will have our first woman president, or our first African-American president, or our first president with a Hispanic background. Too early even to predict that any one of them will win the Democratic nomination. (Of course, many North Carolinians, by their support of John Edwards, will work to keep them from that prize.)

But it is not too early to bet that the Democratic nomination will go to someone outside the mold of white, non-Hispanic, non-Southern males who held locks on the major party nominations for such a long time.

Nor is it too early to declare that the presidency of the United States is now open to those long excluded.

Today we can make that assertion, mark the importance of this time and celebrate.

And, we can ask ourselves, why and how? What brought about this change?

First, we should acknowledge that our country’s progress in opening the doors of opportunity for minorities and women is an important factor. No one would argue that the civil rights movements or the women’s rights struggles are complete. Too much is left to be done. But there has been great progress. Along with this progress, our attitudes about the role of minorities and women in politics have changed. By their performance in public life, they have earned a growing acceptance by a majority of American that they can lead at the highest levels.

Secondly, it must be said that the top candidates seeking the Democratic nomination bring extraordinary qualities to the contest. Even those people who oppose Clinton and Obama or Edwards and Richardson must concede that these people have special talents and experience that merit consideration for the highest office.

The front-runner, Clinton, has gained high marks as an able US senator. She is a smart and savvy political operator. And, for obvious reasons, she knows better than any other candidate the complex challenges of the presidency.

Obama has much less experience to bring to the table. He is yet to be tested on the national campaign trail. But his intelligence and ability to communicate with the public are strong assets.

Edwards’s strengths as a charismatic communicator and campaigner are proven.

Richardson’s long public service as a congressman, ambassador to the United Nations and governor give him the kind of experience and resume that seem an ideal background for the presidency.

All that said, something else about each of these candidates plays an important part in their acceptance as serious candidates. None of them is running as the candidate of their particular group. Each has cultivated an appeal that reaches beyond identification as a woman, African American, Southerner or Hispanic.

Whatever the reason, the emergence of these serious candidates marks a real opening and an end of an old order.

DG Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina “Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at 5 p.m.