Friday, November 09, 2007

A cosmic joke

It was the fall of 1972. Richard Nixon was about to hand George McGovern a historic defeat.

I was a high school sophomore, not quite 15, but very tuned in to current events and national politics.

We all were. It was a tumultuous time: Vietnam, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement. The events of the day were not abstract concepts; they affected us directly. Older siblings were drafted into the service and sent to Southeast Asia. Too many came home in coffins. The streets of the nation's cities were teeming with protests, some of which turned violent. Young versus old, black versus white, women versus men, peacenik versus hawk. And it was all on the nightly news, from the jungles in Vietnam to urban riots and campus demonstrations.

In 1972, for the first time ever, 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds would be allowed to vote in a presidential election, thanks to the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified the year before. That was big. Huge, in my almost-15-year-old eyes. It meant I'd be voting in the next presidential contest, in 1976. And I was convinced that young people would turn the tide in American politics. (Wrong.)

I remember sitting around the lunch table one day discussing politics. (Yes, we really did have discussions like that in the cafeteria. And, no, we were not geeks.) I faithfully wore my McGovern button on my blue uniform blazer every day that fall. My leanings got me into arguments with pro-Nixon classmates, who far outnumbered us McGovernites at my small Catholic high school.

Passionate and outspoken, I found myself engaged in heated debates during lunch more often than not. On this day, following just such a discussion, a couple of friends told me they expected me to be the first woman elected president of the United States. My immediate reaction, after calculating that I wouldn't be eligible to run until 1994 (you have to be 35 — ancient! — to run for president): No way! We'll definitely elect a woman president long before then.

Truly, I have been wrong about so many things along life's winding path. But the spectacularly wrong belief I professed with such certainty that afternoon in 1972 must rank among my all-time worst prognostications. I was so sure. It seemed so clear. But, boy, was it wrong.

So wrong that I still remember it vividly, 35 years later — when, not only haven't we elected a woman president, but this is the first time in U.S. history a woman has a real shot at the presidential nomination by one of the major parties.

And we're still discussing the fact that she's a woman. At least we've gotten beyond talking about what she wears or how she styles her hair.

How ironic that in this race, when a woman is finally on the presidential short list, a black man is also a serious contender in the race, also for the first time in history. Now, I'm not sure I'm ready to vote for Barack Obama for president — but not because of his race. It's just that I don't know if I'm ready to vote for a presidential candidate who's younger than I am.

We're careening toward an inevitable, historic clash of the long-overdue deliverance on unfulfilled promises in America: gender versus race. As the 2008 race heats up — albeit prematurely, even before we can digest the results of the 2007 local elections — Hillary and Barack will beat each other up, neutralizing each other and guaranteeing the status quo.

This is a practical joke of cosmic proportions, and probably proof that God is a wealthy, white, male Republican after all.

But, hey, I could be wrong. After all, I've been wrong before.

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