Donna Brazile was the keynote speaker at the St. John’s University School of Law’s presentation Making History: Race, Gender, and the Media in the 2008 Elections.
Brazile, the first African American to lead a major presidential campaign (Gore-Lieberman 2000), wowed the assembled crowd with a combination of thoughtful insights, dry humor, insider anecdotes, and culinary metaphors. Currently the Chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute (NVRI) and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, Brazile spoke openly about her past and her hopes for the future.
Telling the audience, “I don’t fear being black or being female,” she identified herself as being willing and able to “tell the truth to power.” She said, “We’ve seen so much progress,” then added, “We haven’t come far enough.” In discussing the issues of the conference Brazile said, “The media spends so much time putting people back in their places…We spent precious time debating race vs. gender — as if they’re both not toxic. I saw it. I complained.”
Brazile went on to talk about the parsing of race in the discussion of “Who was black, who was too black, who wasn’t black enough.” On the question of whether black candidates could attract white voters, Brazile referenced Illinois. She paused, and with a one-two delivery said, “The last time I checked, Illinois was 80% white.” In the past, Democrats getting 40% of the white vote was deemed sufficient. Brazile noted, “Now we’ve changed the paradigm again — and we need 50%.”
During the closing months of the primary, Brazile stated, “I was very troubled. I felt as a black woman, I was invisible again.”
When asked specifically about Sarah Palin, Brazile responded, “I don’t get involved in the Sarah Palin narrative. We have lowered the bar for so many men. They just had to show up in a blue suit and a red tie. I try to keep my eye on her values and record in office. I can disagree without demonizing her.”
Acknowledging the first woman to be on the Republican ticket, Brazile continued. “Palin has benefited, because Hillary Clinton took the gender hit.” With respect to how the McCain team was handling her candidacy, Brazile said, “I think the campaign is doing her a disservice in shielding her from the press. They won’t let her talk to the media. She’s connecting emotionally with women. Don’t set us back! Put her out there! What are you afraid of?”
Looking forward, Brazile asked rhetorically, “Where do we go from here?” She answered the question with her projections for the future. “The pipeline of women candidates will grow. More women and minorities will be elected. Money will be less of a barrier due to the Internet. The media will continue to cover the story as if they were still in the 20th Century.”
Brazile expects that when exit polls are conducted, “change will dominate the conversation.” Although she acknowledged that there were some voters the Democrats would not be able to reach, she did think that the party “should try to appeal to them.”
It was with passion that she spoke about health care “for every child in this country.” She reflected on her own family of eight siblings, and said, “We couldn’t afford to get sick. We had to take castor oil every day.” She shook her head. “There are 13 million kids living in poverty. I want to make sure we give each of our children a healthy start.”
As a woman who grew up in Louisiana, Brazile admitted, “I never thought I would see this day.” She was silent for a moment and then continued, “I hope the media finally gets the story right…when people see us as individuals and not as groups.”