Ms. Speaker and Other Trends
Sometimes you can actually feel the winds of history blowing.
During a post-election party at a seafood restaurant in Harlem on Tuesday night, someone in the crush of people around the veteran Congressman Charles Rangel asked if it was safe to start calling him “Mr. Chairman.” It was a little after 10:30 and a light rain was falling outside.
In Washington, Karl Rove was getting ready to more or less formally break the news to President Bush that control of the House was gone. (The two men were already sitting on the secret that Donald Rumsfeld would soon be gone, too.)
Also in Washington, Nancy Pelosi, the 66-year-old grandmother who had been portrayed as some kind of raving San Francisco radical in countless Republican campaign ads, began accepting the hugs and kisses of relatives and close friends as one Republican seat after another fell to the Democrats.
The George W. Bush era, which will ultimately be seen as a fear-induced anomaly in American history, all but breathed its last on Tuesday night. It will be replaced by a new, less fearful and more hopeful period, led by a cast of characters that is astonishingly diverse by American historical standards.
As the soon-to-be chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, with its oversight of such crucial matters as tax policy, Social Security and Medicare, Mr. Rangel, who is 76 (“I’ve stopped buying green bananas”), will become one of the most powerful African-Americans ever to sit in Congress.
Ms. Pelosi, as speaker of the House (second in line to the presidency, behind the vice president), will be the most powerful woman ever to sit in Congress. While these are important firsts, what seems more important is that it is starting to seem normal to have ethnic minorities and women holding — or seriously contending for — the highest offices in the land.
On Tuesday night, as Mr. Rangel and Ms. Pelosi were finally getting the news that the Democrats had taken control of the House, Deval Patrick was already celebrating his historic election as the first black governor of Massachusetts. The banner headline in The Boston Globe yesterday was: “It’s Patrick in a Romp.”
Not so long ago, these achievements were just about inconceivable. The winds of history are blowing a gale, and the landscape is seriously changing.
There will be 16 women in the Senate next year. The leading Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2008 is Hillary Rodham Clinton and the person most talked about recently as a threat to her nomination is Barack Obama.
Even the defeat of Harold Ford, who was vying for the seat held by the retiring Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, carried important kernels of hope for a more tolerant America. That a black candidate could mount a serious run at all in Tennessee was remarkable. A racist television ad was apparently effective in turning some voters away from Mr. Ford, but he still came within three percentage points of winning.
And there didn’t seem to be much evidence that white voters lied to pollsters about whether they would vote for Mr. Ford, a phenomenon that has occurred in other high-profile races where pre-election polls showed black candidates getting more votes than they actually tallied on Election Day.
President Bush deserves credit for making it easier for minorities and women to reach the heights of public service in the U.S. Whatever one thinks of Mr. Bush’s policies, the appointment of individuals like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to some of the highest posts in his administration helped normalize the idea of blacks and women serving in such high offices. People get used to it, the way they got used to seeing blacks and women as anchors on television.
Charlie Rangel smiled when the gentleman asked if it was O.K. to call him Mr. Chairman. “I think so,” he said, a little wary but also a little proud.
These are not radicals, just normal, talented people stepping into very high-powered positions.
How normal? Well, Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, Alexandra, who lives in New York, is due to have Ms. Pelosi’s sixth grandchild at any moment. When Ms. Pelosi’s phone rang early yesterday morning, an aide had to wake her. “Did we have the baby?” she asked.
No, she was told. It was the president on the line, calling with his congratulations.