First diverse, now divided

The Baltimore Sun

BOSTON - Is there anyone who still remembers the folksy winter tableau? Eight Democratic candidates against the picturesque backdrop of Iowa and New Hampshire. It was a feel-good photo op of diversity. The Democratic Party was black and white and Hispanic, male and female and proud. Our party, its leaders said, looks like America.

As for Barack and Hillary? Yes, there were the predictable magazine cover stories asking whether America was "ready" for an African-American or a woman. But these were not long-shot candidates, a favorite son or daughter running to prove a point.

Sen. Barack Obama presented himself as the American sum of his roots. He wasn't the "African-American candidate" but the post-racial, post-divisive orator whose presence and eloquence promised to turn that page. For her part, Sen. Hillary Clinton seemed to leap over the old gender barriers simply by being the front-runner. For once, a woman was the experienced candidate, the tough guy in the race.

Now what? The sense of freshness, the pleasure of breaking barriers, has been nearly exhausted. We've gone from party love fest to food fight, from having our eyes on the prize to feeling like partisans at a prizefight.

Look at any blog where opinion-hurling - Racist! Sexist! - has become a bitter sport. The pollsters have sliced and diced us into demographic tidbits of race, gender, class and age, producing self-fulfilling prophecies of splinter. Now national polls say a quarter of all Clinton supporters won't vote for Mr. Obama. And the feeling is mutual.

This is what America looks like?

As one supporter told Mrs. Clinton in an e-mail, "It's not over until the lady in the pantsuit says it is." But the campaign obits are written and waiting for release. So, for many women, the feel-good tableau is tainted by a 5 o'clock shadow of bad feelings. A historic campaign has opened fissures along historic fault lines.

The deepest is between women and our culture. The campaign was rife with reminders of how women charging forward are pushed backward. Clinton supporters aren't the only women who have rediscovered a word rarely spoken outside of women's studies class: misogyny. How else to explain the focus on Mrs. Clinton's cackle and cleavage, the T-shirt that read "If Only Hillary Had Married O.J. Instead"? Or the casual use of the B-word? Or the "hilarious collectible" given to the husband of a prominent politician on his birthday: a Hillary nutcracker?

All season, cable news anchors displayed boorish contempt for a woman Chris Matthews called "Nurse Ratched." A radio host, Randi Rhodes, called the senator a "----ing whore" while calling herself a progressive.

There are fractures as well, long dormant, between black and white women. Sisters and sisterhood. Who defines a double bind? Who limits that identity?

And the generation gap? Has it become an unbridgeable chasm? Many feminist elders see Mr. Obama as just another man leapfrogging over a qualified woman to the corner office. Many post-feminist daughters describe the former first lady as "old politics" and define progress as voting for the person, not the gender.

As for class divisions? Many urban professional women whose lives followed the same arc judge Mrs. Clinton as if she were running for Perfect Woman, while down-the-economic-ladder women identified more with this Wellesley graduate for president.

And as if that weren't enough, at the last minute there was a wedge driven into the reliably Democratic abortion rights community. In a gratuitous slap, NARAL Pro-Choice America pre-emptively endorsed Mr. Obama, prompting one among thousands of angry, pro-choice women to write: "Et tu, Brute?"

I am sure there will be endless postmortems written on this primary. How did race and gender tip the balance? Was this a loss for women or one woman? Did Mrs. Clinton blaze the path or leave an ugly footprint for the next woman?

Time and the specter of John McCain may patch these crevices. But we have watched the political become (too) personal. We have watched the first blush of diversity get bloodied with tribalism.

Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama brought new voters and energy into the compelling narrative of this campaign. But how hard will it be to rebuild the Humpty Dumpty of diversity into the portrait of what America looks like, at its best?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears regularly in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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