First up on last night’s prime-time PBS schedule was the opening episode of an odd eight-part series called The Contenders: 16 for ’16, about 16 oddly selected Presidential candidates whose campaigns supposedly said something about how the political process works today. First up were Shirley Chisholm, the Black woman Congressmember who ran for President in 1972 — and ran smack into the height of the liberal love affair with George McGovern, the first Presidential candidate I ever voted for; and John McCain, in a segment which focused mostly on his “Straight Talk” campaign for the Republican nomination in 2000 and gave less attention to his 2008 campaign, in which he trimmed his “maverick” sails (talk about a mixed metaphor!) big-time and became a pretty normal Republican, doing a 180° on immigration (from supporting comprehensive reform to a “border security first” position) and sucking up to the party establishment he’d disdained in 2000. Chisholm’s campaign ran smack into the “unthinkable” aspect — people were having a hard enough time wrapping themselves around the idea that a Black person might be President, and an equally hard time wrapping themselves around the idea that a woman could be President, and here was a candidate who was both.
Chisholm died in 2005 and there didn’t seem to be any interviews available of her looking back on the experience later — the only footage of her was from the 1972 Presidential campaign itself — but the show mentioned that she’d successfully run for Congress from a district in Brooklyn in 1968, just three years after passage of the Voting Rights Act (though the program’s narration somewhat exaggerated how extensively Blacks had been disenfranchised before 1965 — the problem wasn’t that Blacks didn’t have the formal right to vote, it was the bizarre patchwork of literacy tests, other obstacles to registration and out-and-out intimidation by employers and vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan that kept most Southern Blacks from voting, but in Northern cities like New York there were not only Black voters but recognized Black constituencies and a long-established Black Congressmember, Adam Clayton Powell, representing Harlem), and while in Congress she’d avoided cutting any deals with the Democratic House leadership or meeting with potentially influential donors. She called herself “unbowed and unbought” when she ran for President, and her biggest problem was getting taken seriously — the first National Black Political Convention happened that year but she didn’t get the endorsement because most establishment Blacks were supporting white candidates, at at the Democratic Convention itself Congressmember Ron Dellums, who was supposed to put her name in nomination, withdrew at the last minute and endorsed McGovern. (Fortunately Chisholm found another Black delegate to nominate her and thereby fulfilled her commitment to take her campaign to the floor of the convention — at a time when conventions were actually news events and there was genuine uncertainty as to how they would come out.)
The idea that a Black candidate — and a woman, at that! — mounted a serious Presidential bid when Barack Obama was 10 is something to be cherished and celebrated in the history books — Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in 1984 and 1988 are often cited as the trailblazers for Obama’s bid but Chisholm was there before Jackson and, unlike him, had genuine political experience in elective office and wasn’t just a guy who’d made his bones in another field and thought he could/should be considered seriously as a politician. There are clips from Chisholm and reminiscences of people who worked on her campaign that show what she was up against both as a Black and as a woman; her student coordinator said he was waiting for a shipment of Chisholm literature to start work on her North Carolina campaign, and when the boxes arrived at the airport someone had scribbled insulting slogans containing the “N-word” all over them. Chisholm herself is shown in clips from her tenure in Congress and her run for the Presidency being asked if her husband approved of what she was doing (ironically Chisholm served in Congress until 1982 but then dropped out to take care of her husband, Arthur Hardwick, Jr., after he was seriously injured in an automobile accident). She’s also shown saying that she didn’t get the National Black Political Convention endorsement because there were too many Black male delegates who wanted the first Black President to be a man.
After that the segment on John McCain was something of an anticlimax, though the clips of him from his 2000 campaign were interesting; when he railed against the Republican party establishment and promised he’d be independent of them, he sounded like Donald Trump; when he then said he wanted the Republicans to be a party of inclusion rather than exclusion, he sounded like an anti-Trump. The big thing everyone remembers about McCain’s 2000 campaign was that he got slammed by George W. Bush’s negative operation and in particular by Karl Rove’s ads that accused him of having a Black child out of wedlock (the child existed but she was from India and Mr. and Mrs. McCain had legally adopted her), which killed him in the must-win South Carolina campaign. (If anything, the 2000 McCain comes off more like a Republican Bernie Sanders than a prototype of Trump — he won a sweeping victory in the New Hampshire primary and also carried Michigan but came to grief in the South.) The show also analyzed McCain’s 2008 campaign much the way I did at the time (and still do): his choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate was a masterstroke that gave him a huge “convention bounce” and catapulted him into contention, and it’s an election he quite likely would have won if it hadn’t been for the economic meltdown coming into the home stretch — the polls showed McCain steadily gaining on Barack Obama until September 15, 2008, the date Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and passed into capitalist history, whereupon Obama’s poll numbers went back up again and he ultimately won.