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Historical frame of reference: 1956

Election 2008.

Watching the primaries-concluding speeches of Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, voters of a certain age might be excused for feeling that they had in their lifetimes witnessed history.

My 21st birthday was less than a month before the 1956 general election, so I was barred from voting. The rules: age 21, registered a month before the election (in Oregon, at least).

And there were other “rules,” mostly unspoken but recognized, if you wanted to be president of the United States:

  • You could not be Negro (the ’50s term) or otherwise non-white. Hispanics were still invisible.
  • You would be male, and heterosexual.
  • And Protestant.
  • Married, never divorced.
  • A veteran, if you were of appropriate age, of World War I or II.
  • Your wife would be allowed an “appropriate” career, that of teacher or nurse, but would not have an independent profession. Ideally, she would be a “housewife.”

Over the years of my life, as voter and reporter, I saw the “rules” broken:

John F. Kennedy broke the Protestants-only rule. Ronald Reagan broke the “divorced” rule. Bill Clinton broke the “veteran” rule, and his wife the “housewife” rule.

But never in my wildest dreams of 1956 could I, or anyone I know, have imagined a day when an African American would defeat a woman for a major-party nomination in the closest and hardest-fought primary in history — and have at least an even chance to be elected president.

Two of the three greatest barriers (race, gender, sexuality) broken by one party in one year. Zounds!

In this time of American malaise and sense of decline, what a long way we have come. Perhaps it is time to congratulate ourselves as a people and nation.

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