Some chief executives grow and gain in stature after they leave office, but former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder is not one of them.
Although he has deservedly basked in the glow of being the first black elected governor of a state, he now seems to have forgotten that the deeper significance of his election is that it disproved the canard — used by both Republicans and Democrats to justify the explicit racialism of “majority/minority” districts — that whites would never vote in sufficient numbers to elect a black. And that is a shame, for in forgetting that, as demonstrated in his recent article for Politico (“Obama or Clinton better for blacks?”), Wilder has tarnished the other foundation of his reputation: that he never campaigned or governed as a black candidate but as “a voice for all Virginians.”
Wilder never agreed with author Toni Morrison’s highly publicized notion that “Clinton was our first black president,” he wrote in his Politico column, but now, after “more than three years after Obama’s win,” he’s not so sure.
Obama was elected in a flourish of promise that many in the African-American community believed would help not only to symbolize African-American progress since the Civil War and Civil Rights Acts but that his presidency would result in doors opening in the halls of power as had never been seen before by black America.
Has that happened? I am forced to say, “No” — especially when comparing Morrison’s metaphorical first black president to the actual first black president.
Wilder goes on to name a dozen or so blacks named to high level positions by Clinton and concludes, “Clinton may not have been the nation’s first black president — but he did make appointments like he was. Obama would do well to look a little closer at the Clinton template.”
When Wilder asks “what legacy Obama will leave,” it turns out that what he means is not whether he left America in better shape than he found it but only what did he do for blacks.
What will he have left for black Americans beyond an electoral point in time? Who will follow him? Who will be the second to Obama’s first, and what has he done to help prepare for that?
There follows what I think is the saddest, most revealing passage in Wilder’s depressing retreat from his “voice of all Virginians” persona. Wilder relates that in discussing Obama’s legacy, i.e., what he did for blacks, with his students at Virginia Commonwealth University, “one astute young man raised his hand and asked me the natural follow-up question: ‘Governor, what did you do when you had the chance?’”
“It’s a good question,” Wilder replied. He answered by listing the blacks he had named to important positions, concluding with the boast that he had appointed “the most black members to state boards and commissions ever seen in Virginia’s history.”
So, what did Gov. Wilder do when he had the chance? What legacy did he leave? According to Ex-Gov. Wilder, what he did was appoint blacks.
True, he gives fleeting lip service to the old Doug Wilder — “We did not govern for any single specific segment of Virginia’s population” — but he clearly wants to be remembered for what he did for blacks. Yes, blacks, not minorities, for he then faulted Obama for not naming a black to the Supreme Court, for bowing instead “to the conventional wisdom [that] he needed to court the Latino vote and name a Latino to curry favor with that growing electorate.”
Since most Americans of all hues continue to believe that civil rights means treating people without regard to race, not creating a new spoils system for blacks, the fact that many Democrats seem to agree with Wilder’s argument that Obama has not been black enough, that black politicians should be judged by how much they do for blacks, may do more than anything the Republicans could ever do to ensure that it will be a long time before either the first black governor of Virginia or the first black president of the United States is followed by a second.