Howard Fineman is of our best-known and most trusted political journalists. Mixing vivid scenes and figures from the campaign trail with forays into 400 years of American history, Fineman shows that every debate, from our nation’s founding to the present day, is rooted in one of thirteen arguments that–thankfully–defy resolution. Here's an excerpt from "Thirteen American Arguments":
One Who Is a Person? The sky was cloudless that sunny morning in Springfield, the air was so brutally cold it felt almost viscous—so cold you could barely think.
As far as Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was concerned, the temperature did not matter. He was oblivious to it in his elegant wool overcoat. Springfield, capital of Illinois, was where he wanted to be—needed to be—on that frigid February 11, 2007.
It was there, he knew, that he had begun his political career as a state legislator only a decade earlier. It was there, he knew, that another Illinois legislator, Abraham Lincoln, had asked a question that ultimately led to the deadliest, most profound argument in American history: Is everyone, including a black man, a person?
And it was there, in Springfield, that Obama hoped to begin a quest that would answer the question empathically by making him the first African American to win the White House. In a personal sense, Obama’s trip to Springfield was a political homecoming.
A mixed-race son of Kenya and Kansas, he had lived in many places—Hawaii, Indonesia, Los Angeles, New York City, and Cambridge—before finally finding love and identity on the South Side of Chicago in the security and striving of its fabled black community. His wife, Michelle Robinson, was a Princeton-educated pride of the neighborhood and, like Obama, a graduate of the Harvard School. He settled down to build the foundation of a political career as a community organizer, civil rights lawyer, and law professor.
In 1996, he was elected to the state senate from the South Side, and quickly made a name for himself in Springfield. Like Lincoln, he was a tall, gangly fellow with a wry sense of humor and a knack for speeches, deals, and poker. But was he like Lincoln in other ways? Did he in fact need to be? Now, after spending a mere year in the U.S. Senate, Obama was back in Springfield with a message of national unity. He wanted to make racial history, but this time, paradoxically, by ending our national preoccupation with it once and for all.
The story of Springfield gave reason for both hope and caution. In Springfield, Lincoln has transformed himself from any easygoing shopkeeper into an inspiring politician. As a state legislator, he had become a champion of a cause—The Cause—of ending a system of slavery that, at its root, denied the basic, elemental humanity of the people it enslaved. With increasing sophistication and determination, he argued that slavery, as entrenched and familiar as it was, violated the central idea upon which this country had been founded: that all souls—not just white male citizens of the United States of America—were entitled to personhood, dignity, and the respect of their fellow men.
This is our first and most fundamental American Argument: Who, in our constitutional scheme, is a “person?” Lincoln won the cause and the war that flowed from it, but not necessarily the hearts of the country. Springfield’s story was sometimes as ugly as it was uplifting. Forty-three years after Lincoln’s death it was the scene of a shocking, murderous race riot.
In the fall of 1908, a black man accused of having raped a white woman was spirited out of town by local police worried for his safety. News of his transfer spread to an angry crowd, which metastasized into a mob that rampaged through the city. The crowds overwhelmed the police; the governor sent in the Guard to restore order. At least four blacks died. This Springfield story alarmed the country: a race riot in Lincoln’s hometown in the historically antislavery state of Illinois. The lesson was clear. While civil rights for blacks existed in theory, it did not exist in fact. A few months later, spurred by the Springfield riot, a new civil rights group held its first full organizational meeting.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) dates its founding in 1909 from Lincoln’s birthday, February 12. Now, on the eve of Lincoln’s birthday, Obama stepped forward. The spot he chose was the lawn of the old state capitol, a Greek Revival edifice of worn golden sandstone. His advance team built a stage that would allow him to be framed in the morning light against the backdrop of the templelike building. They cordoned off the streets to squeeze the crowd—most of it young, much of it adoring—against the office buildings and storefronts on the capitol square. When it came time for the speech, the candidate appeared with his wife and two little girls at his side.
“Lincoln’s will and his words,” Obama said, “moved a nation and freed a people. It is because men and women of every race, from every walk of life, continued to march for freedom long after Lincoln was laid to rest, that today we have the chance to face the challenges of this millennium together, as one people—as Americans.”
Cheers echoed off the flag-draped buildings. Once again, the people of Springfield were witnesses to the history of an ongoing American Argument. This new chapter had less to do with Obama’s campaign per se than with the larger narrative that it evoked, and the question that it asked once again. Obama did not stress his own racial heritage. He was not running a “race-based” campaign—just the opposite. Nevertheless, in earlier times, a man who looked like Obama might well have been chased down the streets of Springfield. A war had been fought in the name of assuring him, and those like him, equal rights.
And yet here he was, in effect, asking the crowd and the country: “Are we really ‘one people’?” That Obama was the candidate posing the question showed how far we had come. That he was posing it at all showed how far we still needed to travel.
Ann Richards, the treasurer of Texas, prided herself on being one imperturbable lady. She wore her silver hair in a mile-high beehive and cloaked herself in the distantly amused, I’ve-seen-it-all-before demeanor of a truck stop waitress in Waco, where she grew up. And yet here she was, at fifty years of age, in the back row of the Texas delegation to the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco—crying. Rivulets of tears streamed down her face as she waited for what she knew would be a historic moment.
The lights dimmed in the hall. Chariots of Fire music washed over the crowd. Suddenly, out of the darkness, a lively blond with a winsome smile materialized on stage. She wore an elegant white suit, which made her more visible and somehow almost sacramental as she stood alone in the blue-white glare of the spotlights. She waved as the party faithful set up a thunderous cheer and an announcer said: “The next vice president of the United States, the Honorable Geraldine Ferraro!” More cheers—and more tears in the Texas delegation.
“I didn’t think I’d live to see this,” Richards said to no one in particular. “Lordy.” Ferraro, a New York congresswoman, went on to lose, of course, the lower half of a Democratic ticket with Walter Mondale that was flattened (losing 49 of 50 states) by Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” reelection campaign against what he called “The San Francisco Democrats.” Still, Ferraro’s star turn was a milestone reached and a fire lit. She was the first woman on a major ticket in American history, and she inspired a new wave of women to enter politics and to move fully and finally out of electoral shadows and into the sunlight of full legal and political personhood in the American scheme of things.
Among the women inspired by Ferraro that night were a San Francisco party activist named Nancy Pelosi and the spouse of the governor of Arkansas, a lawyer named Hillary Rodham Clinton. As for Richards, within six years of that night in San Francisco, she was sworn in as governor of the great state of Texas. “But nothing topped that Ferraro night,” she told me. For women, it had been a long road from the Philadelphia of the Founders to the Bay Area of the 1980s. Whatever the men who gathered in the State House in 1776 thought about women, the Founding Wives thought it was rather less than full personhood in the eyes of the law and the country. In early America, as in England, women could not vote and a married woman in particular was lacking in legal rights, unable to control property or even her own marital destiny in most cases in most courts. Women were essentially barred from a college education or much education at all. This did not sit well with, among others, Abigail Adams, whose husband, John, was helping to forge the country’s independence in 1776.
“[I] would desire that you remember the Ladies,” she tartly wrote him in Philadelphia, “and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” Her plea came with a sharp warning. “If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies,” Abigail wrote, “we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or representation.” Those were fighting words, and it was a long fight. In fact, it took nearly a century and a half for women to win a Constitutional right to vote, and nearly that long for them to fully escape the bonds of legal tradition and social custom that viewed tham as children, or chattel, or both.
No sooner had one fight essentially ended than another one began. For many women, a logical and necessary feature of American personhood was the right to control the functioning of their own bodies—even and especially as that related to child-bearing. But when their theory was accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade in 1973, a new cultural war arose, this one between abortion right supporters (among them Richards, Ferraro, Pelosi, and Clinton) and the foes of the medical procedure, who insisted that life (and personhood) began at conception, and abortion was a form of murder. In the end, science may moot the issue by making the termination of a pregnancy almost instantaneous, self-administered, and virtually undetectable.
In the meantime, however, advances in science and genetics are raising an equally profound question: Who controls, and who should control, the genetic destiny of mankind? Those questions were distant thunder on the day that the San Francisco matron—now Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California—was sworn in as the first female Speaker of the House in January 2007. Viewed from the press gallery in the House of Representatives, the event looked like Washington’s largest family reunion, as Pelosi’s extended family and other children gathered around her on the speaker’s rostrum. “This is an historic moment,” she said, “for the women of this country. It is a moment for which we have waited more than two hundred years. For our daughters and granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling. For our daughters and granddaughters, the sky is the limit.”
Two weeks later, that Arkansas political spouse—now Sen. Hilary Clinton of New York—announced her candidacy for president and later told students at her alma mater, Wellesley College, that she was “ready to shatter the highest glass ceiling.” Soon after that, Ferraro—long since retired, but still active—endorsed Hillary. By electing the senator from New York, she declared, “we can smash the ultimate glass ceiling once and for all.” As she campaigned for the nomination, Hillary targeted female voters—now a 54 percent majority of the electorate—and moved around Iowa and New Hampshire with her mother and daughter in tow. Clinton did not have to talk about abortion rights. None of the Democrats did: They all agreed that such rights were enshrined in the Constitution. (The Republicans did not discuss the issue either: Every one of their candidates was “pro-life.”) Had she lived, Richards would have been out there campaigning for Hillary Clinton. The former governor had passed away only a few months before the senator had launched her bid.
At the funeral services in Austin, folksinger Nanci Griffith sang “Across the Great Divide.” Richards had crossed several in her life, and there was not a dry eye in the place. Even Hillary shed a tear, a friend later said, and that was rare. Who is a person? As the first country created by “the people” in the name of “the people,” our first question (even if we do not always acknowledge it) is: Who is entitled to be regarded as a full-fledged human being within the meaning of our law? Our first founding document requires us to ask, answer, and argue this question. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson anchored a new nation on the rock of a single, revolutionary, but to him “self-evident” truth: that all men are created equal.
This was not self-evident to everyone, however, and we have always debated—and even gone to war over—the proposition. As devoted as we claim to be to the Jeffersonian ideal, America has an equally deep penchant for denying what we now call “human rights.” In the search for profit or political power, in the fervency of faith and fear, we have limited or ignored the legal personhood—even the elemental humanity—of a long list of people, from Native Americans to alleged terrorists. It’s a paradox that fires this first American Argument. Jefferson himself was the living embodiment of it. Who is a “person” in our eyes and Constitution? As a leader, Jefferson said “everyone,” and yet as a slave master, he said “not everyone.”
In 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that slaves could not be persons in the eyes of the Constitution, sparking a civil war that lasted, in cultural form, until at least a generation after Martin Luther King Jr. Other, newer versions of the age-old argument arose, and arise still. Were women entitled to full personhood in the eyes of the law? It took them generations to progress from what amounted to legal chattel to full-fledged citizens. Are you fully a person if you are not allowed to “marry” in the eyes of the law? Are corporations “persons” with legal rights? Perhaps only in America, the land that puts “personhood” at the center of the universe, would that be a question. The answer: Yes, corporations are persons in American law.
Do we really want to be “one America,” as Obama put it? What about groups for whom personhood is a settled issue, at least in terms of the law? Do we owe them for their suffering? Do we owe them preference in hiring or education? And what do we do when some persons insist on their claim to separateness—which used to be considered a sure mark of inferiority? What happens when a focus on human rights turns into the kind of “identity politics” that dwells on differences of race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation? Don’t our founding ideals require that we ignore such distinctions? Is there such a status as personhood-plus? Are we really “one America”?
Excerpted from "The Thirteen American Arguments" by Howard Fineman Copyright © 2008 by Howard Fineman. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.