For those five days between Iowa and New Hampshire, I could not get out of my mind the face of a man I met 20 years ago outside a country church in Mississippi.
Bud Cole was a parishioner of Mount Zion Baptist, a church that was torched by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 after its congregation allowed civil rights workers to hold a voter registration meeting inside. Cole was brutally beaten that night, and a day later three men were murdered, their bodies hidden in a Mississippi swamp in Neshoba County.
The deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner are the most enduring memory of what was called Mississippi Summer, an effort to challenge the grip held on that state by the unholy partnership of the Klan, the Democratic Party and government, from the counties right up to the state Capitol in Jackson.
Twenty years later, in 1984, I was in Mississippi to cover the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s first presidential campaign. By the time I met Bud Cole on the grounds of the rebuilt Mount Zion, two things were pretty clear: one, that Jackson was not going to be the Democratic nominee; two, that his message had inspired great hope among African-Americans, especially in the deepest South.
“There will be a black president some day,” Bud Cole told me.
He was a tall, wiry man, stumbling and bent from his beating the night his church was burned.
“I took a beatin’ for it, and it may not be in my lifetime, but there will be a black president in America one day. I believe it.”
In those five days from Iowa to New Hampshire, it really seemed that we were ready to turn that corner with Barack Obama. Old people like me were saying they haven’t felt this good about politics since the days of John F. Kennedy, and young people were turning out in numbers never seen before.
New Hampshire’s results reminded us that the job of the first two states is not to pick the president, just to kick off the process. As they usually do, Iowa and New Hampshire put some things into focus and left many others blurred.
The biggest losers on Tuesday were the pollsters who confidently predicted an Obama victory by anywhere from five to 13 points. Hillary’s firewall state produced the result she needed, and it was clear that women, who swelled Obama’s victory margin in Iowa, were not ready to give up on the possibility that this might be their year to win the White House. Those who see gender as even more restricting than race made their point in New Hampshire. Women were the base of Hillary’s win.
It also was clear that Bill Clinton is not the asset that many assumed. In an angry, red-faced rant on Election Day, he called the Obama phenomenon “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen” and caustically blamed the media for giving the first-term senator a free ride. A few days earlier, Mr. Clinton told a Hillary rally that if you don’t have the proper experience, a major crisis can come up, “. . . and just swallow your presidency.” An unfortunate choice of words, at best, and a reminder of the burdens of having Bill around again.
On the GOP side, Tuesday’s results showed Mike Huckabee what it is like without a strong evangelical Christian base. New Hampshire ranks near the top of least-churchgoing states, a far more secular environment than Iowa. Two second-place finishes for Mitt Romney will enable him to soldier on, though he seemed rattled and less confident in New Hampshire. He asked one crowd, “Do you want the folks who ran Katrina to manage your health care?” Romney seemingly forgot who managed Katrina.
A resurrected John McCain will now go to Michigan, Romney’s firewall state, where his father was a popular governor. There it will be mano a mano, with Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani mostly on the sidelines.
Then it’s on to South Carolina, John Edwards’ home state, where he won the primary in 2004. If he does so again, it will truly scramble the Democratic field. Roughly half of the Democratic voters in South Carolina are African-Americans, but it’s a closed primary, so Obama cannot rely on independents. And South Carolina may put Huckabee back in business with its strong evangelical Christian base in the Republican primary.
Twenty-five states vote in the next five weeks. It’s far from over.