Twelve years ago, the most popular man in American political life was an African-American -- Colin Powell. A four-star general who had served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as national security adviser, the Brooklyn-born Powell had presidential timber written all over him. A number of leading Republicans -- Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp leap to mind -- talked him up at the time. New Hampshire polls of Republicans in 1995 showed Powell leading the pack. Powell declined to run and Robert Dole got the Republican nod that year, ultimately losing to Bill Clinton. Exit polls suggested that Powell would have defeated Clinton by 50 to 38. (I did not climb on board the Powell bandwagon because he was insufficiently conservative for my taste -- a judgment that has been amply vindicated.)
It's important to remember this history lest the ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency be interpreted as evidence that "only now," 45 years after Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, is the nation ready for a black president. Yes, it's wonderful that we're ready now. But it's equally or more wonderful that we've been ready for a long time. We've had two black secretaries of state (not that the Republicans who appointed them get any credit for that), black CEOs of major corporations, black TV stars like Oprah Winfrey advising millions on how to live with integrity (as she sees it), black radio hosts (on all sides), black movie stars, black doctors and lawyers and teachers and astronauts. Yes, segregation and racism were facts of life within living memory, but this country set its face against that history hard and fast and almost completely. It has been for so for my entire life.