White. Male. Protestant. With the exception of John F. Kennedy, those words have accurately described every person this country has ever elected to its highest office. (Kennedy was Catholic; still, two out of three). And while we’re still nearly two years away from the 2008 election, we’re already seeing the pool of candidates expand to include many people that traditionally would have been considered unelectable.
Of course, the name that springs to mind first for everyone is Barack Obama. Born to a white mother and Kenyan father in Hawaii, his inspiring background is a quintessentially “only in America” kind of story. Before becoming junior senator from Illinois, he worked in the projects on Chicago’s South Side and was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, making his background quite different from the silver spoon-fed politicians of yore. Obama isn’t the first black American to run for president, that honor belongs to Shirley Chisholm – Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun ran more recently – but all were quick to have “unelectable” pinned to their names.
The other person making waves with her announcement is Hillary Clinton. Even our own state is not innocent of holding females in unequal regard. In 1958, Minnesota’s first female representative, Coya Knutson, had her political career destroyed by a DFL party angry at her refusal to back the party choice for president and enlisted her husband to write a public letter asking her to “come home,” insinuating she was not being a good wife or mother.
Adding to the growing candidate melting pot is Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who is Mormon and Bill Richardson, the current governor of New Mexico, whose mother was a Mexican-American.
Of course, just because someone is of a different race, gender or religion does not automatically make them the better candidate. But if the last six years of presidential candidates have taught us anything, it is that the pool of so-called “eligible candidates” desperately needs to be expanded.