The disclosure that Gwen Ifill’s The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama was in the works—just days before the author was scheduled to moderate the one debate between vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden—drew a storm of protest from right-wing pundits. Columnist Michelle Malkin asserted that the book was proof positive that Ifill was “in the tank” for Obama and, thus, too tainted to host the event. Fox News analyst Greta Van Susteren fretted about Ifill’s “appearance of impropriety.” Their alarms were misplaced: The Breakthrough is not a valentine to Obama or a hymn to his political views; Ifill merely reports what she sees as she surveys the profusion of young black politicians now serving in elective offices from city halls to the White House.
The young pols Ifill spotlights here, apart from Obama, are Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick; Alabama congressman Artur Davis; Illinois congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.; New York governor David Paterson; former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr.; Missouri congressman William Lacy Clay Jr.; Florida congressman Kendrick Meek; the mayors of Newark, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Columbus (Ohio), Washington, D.C., and Buffalo; and various other up-and-comers. Even those who ascended to offices their parents formerly held, she says, acknowledge the need to move beyond identity politics and appeal to a wider electorate. Moreover, they all are impatient with the notion of moving up through long apprenticeships in conventional party politics. They decide on their own when they’re ready to run.
Besides interviewing these office-holders (and dutifully chronicling their known blemishes), Ifill also gathers the speculations of civil rights leaders, academics, former opponents and pollsters on what all this ferment means. The cauldron from which most of this talent bubbles up, she shows, is more likely to be Ivy League law schools than demonstrations and picket lines. Ifill also probes the race-gender issue that surfaced in the Obama-Clinton tilt, as well as the lingering question, “Is he/she black enough?”