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An Impossible Dream Come True

ISSUE:  Winter 1991

Claiming the Dream: The Victorious Campaign of Douglas Wilder of Virginia
. By Margaret Edds. With an Introduction by Paul Duke. Algonquin. $18.95.

When the 1,787,131 ballots had been counted, and challenged, and recounted, and certified by three circuit judges six weeks after election day, the most famous victory in Virginia political history at long last was officially confirmed. The Democratic nominee for governor had defeated the Republican nominee by vote of 896,936 to 890,195, or 50.19 to 49.81 percent, a difference of 6,741 votes or less than four-tenths of one percent.

Aficionados of politics had already begun to count and recount the ways in which history was made at the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 1989. The first was the most obvious: In the 370th year after the first boatload of blacks landed at Jamestown, Lawrence Douglas Wilder, a grandson of slaves, had made himself the first black candidate to be elected governor of an American state.

Compilers of statistics could document other new superlatives: the two-man contest between Lieutenant Governor Wilder and John Marshall Coleman, a former attorney general, was certainly the closest, biggest, most expensive, and most widely publicized campaign for governor ever waged in Virginia. It also was probably the most erratic and the most unpredictable.

One outside event, which happened on July 3 just north of the Potomac, had a more profound impact on the campaign than anything else that happened inside or outside the conservative old commonwealth. In hindsight, it seemed to validate Wilder’s favorite quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Events are in the saddle, and they ride mankind.”

On the eve of Independence Day, when the candidates were sparring tentatively and cautiously, the United States Supreme Court delivered its opinion in Webster v Reproductive Health Services. A newspaper headline blared the message: “States Get Authority to Limit Abortion Rights.” The barn door was opened. An untamed horse galloped onto the hustings. Doug Wilder rode it to victory four months later.

Through winter and spring, throughout a long and hard-fought Republican primary, abortion had seemed to rank low on anybody’s list of issues likely to prove decisive. When the Supreme Court spoke, it was unclear how the abortion issue might bounce. Not until weeks later could a Capitol Square jester venture the comment that, at least this once, the Supreme Court had taken a hand in making the election returns, instead of following them.

The Webster decision, as Margaret Edds writes, served to turn Virginia’s 1989 gubernatorial race into “a barometer of public attitudes involving two of the most personal and emotional issues of our times, race and abortion.” In Claiming the Dream, an absorbing and quietly dramatic narrative that explores all the historicity of the 1989 election, Ms. Edds tells with fascinating detail how Wilder and his staff seized the unlikely and unforeseen issue, abortion, and used it so skillfully to make the impossible dream come true.

That, however, is only part of the rare Virginia story she tells. To remind readers just how impossibly impossible the dream must have seemed only 35 years ago, when young Douglas Wilder entered law school near the peak of Virginia’s “massive resistance” to racial integration, Claiming the Dream begins with an incisive introduction by Paul Duke. The calm and durable anchorman of public television’s “Washington Week in Review,” himself a Virginian who covered state politics for the Associated Press early in his career, provides succinct background on the politico-racial currents that during the turbulent 1950’s carried the Old Dominion onto the brink of becoming—as Jonathan Daniels once put it—not only the cradle, but also the grave, of American democracy.

The Wilder dream, of course, owed something to Martin Luther King Jr., but it derived also from the lines of a Langston Hughes poem which Wilder kept framed on his law office wall:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly

The dream began while the boy was growing up in a large family, with strong, loving, and strict parents. They lived in “gentle poverty,” which Wilder once defined to mean “we had music, the vases had flowers from the yard,” on Richmond’s Church Hill, not far from the site of Patrick Henry’s Liberty or Death speech.

But for the fact that he was catalogued racially as black— although observers striving for precision have more accurately described his skin tones as caramel, or ginger, or creamy tan—the pre-gubernatorial political career of Douglas Wilder would have seemed no more remarkable than those of dozens of white Virginians who, poor but proud, lifted themselves to parochial wealth and prominence by hard work, natural ability, personal charm, and political acumen, via the nation’s oldest legislative body, the Virginia General Assembly. Elected in 1969 to become the Virginia Senate’s first black member since 1891, Wilder won acceptance as a respected legislator, rose to major committee chairmanships, and after some 15 years legislative service—about par for Virginia gubernatorial candidates of the Byrd era—decided to make his bold bid for Virginia’s top political prize.

First he would run for lieutenant governor in 1985, with support from the new breed of white Democratic leaders who had recaptured the governor’s office in 1981 after a decade of GOP governors. Republican traditionalists made a basic mistake: they agreed with the conventional wisdom that anybody with a white face could trounce the best of well-known blacks in a still racially conservative Old Dominion where, 25 years after the collapse of Massive Resistance, a multitude of white Virginians still seemed to hanker for the good old political days of Mr. and Mrs. Massa.

On election day, 1985, the black turnout was relatively low, but Wilder netted some 44 percent of the white vote, polled 52 percent of the total turnout, and racked up a winning margin of 48,634 votes. Almost immediately, he began to plan for 1989. Conventional wisdom suggested Virginia Democrats would be better served by nominating Mary Sue Terry, Virginia’s first female attorney general, who had run 135,000 votes ahead of Wilder on that same 1985 election day. For reasons of her own, perhaps discerning that her main chance would come in 1993, Attorney General Terry chose not to run for governor. Instead, in April, 1988, she announced she would seek re-election in 1989. The way was clear for Virginia Democrats to harmonize and unite behind their lieutenant governor.

The bulk of Ms. Edds’ book is devoted to perceptive reportage and analysis of what happened in the next 18 months. Virginia Republicans mustered a thumping 60 percent majority for George Bush in November 1988 and vowed not to repeat their 1985 mistakes in 1989. Instead, they found other ways to shoot themselves in the feet. Instead of sticking to their traditional nominating convention, they opted to nominate their gubernatorial ticket by statewide primary.

The primary developed into a bitterly fought, expensive, and divisive clash of three topflight Republicans, reminiscent in some ways of the 1969 Democratic primary that almost demolished the Virginia Democratic Party. Marshall Coleman emerged a tainted winner: He had managed to paint himself into the corner of a no-abortion extremist, a far departure from the pro-choice stance he once took as the GOP nominee for governor in 1981. This accentuated his reputation as a quick-witted, nimble politician who could preach eloquently on either side of the issues. Apparently transformed from moderate to harsh conservative, he used negative television commercials to savage his chief opponent. Overall the GOP primary left the winner especially vulnerable to the campaign strategy Wilder had in mind.

On Labor Day Wilder’s theme-setting speech for the autumn campaign reflected that strategy:

“The force I represent,” he said, “is Virginia’s New Mainstream . . .(It) looks forward, not backwards. It tries to unify people, not divide them. It realizes that the greatest responsibility of government is to protect our individual freedoms, not allow self-appointed censors to use state government for the purpose of imposing their personal views on the rest of us.

“The opposing force, the one represented by my opponent, is Virginia’s New Extremism. This force advocates a self-righteous, moral majority approach to public policy . . . They believe government should dictate the most personal of personal decisions.”

Two weeks later a Wilder television commercial— generally hailed by both sides as the masterpiece of the campaign—zeroed in on the abortion issue. With lofty visual images of the American flag, Monticello, and Thomas Jefferson came the voice-over audible:

“In Virginia we have a strong tradition of freedom and individual liberty—rights that are now in danger in the race for governor. On the issue of abortion, Marshall Coleman wants to take away your right to choose, and give it to the politicians. He wants to go back to outlawing abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. . . . Doug Wilder believes the government should not interfere in your right to choose. He wants to keep the politicians out of your personal life . . . . Don’t let Marshall Coleman take us back.”

More than any other thing, that bit of videotaped libertarianism made Douglas Wilder the Virginia winner. In such a close election, however, as Ms. Edds suggests, any of several other factors might be said to have made the difference. Did subtle exploitations of racial considerations by both sides balance out in Wilder’s favor? There were internal bickerings and discords within each party and inside the campaign staffs. Which candidate suffered more from these irritants? Should not the Wilder victory, perhaps, be attributed to the skillfully planned and executed get-out-the-black voters maneuvers that on election day brought the racial minority to the polls in far greater numbers and proportions than in 1985?

Ms. Edds marshals the evidence and leaves the reader to muse over the final answers. Into 259 narrative pages she packs not only a sympathetic yet searching account of the Wilder dream and its achievement, but also provides fully balancing counterpoint, fairly and impartially composed, of how Virginia Republicans—without resorting to the “bloody shirt” racial tactics of the oldtime Dixie politics—tried to stop him.

Claiming the Dream is chock-full of previously unpublished details, quotations, and analytical comments from both sides, along with shrewd insights from the youthful author’s experience as senior political reporter for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. It deserves a place right beside Theodore White’s best comparable work on the presidential level. (In old Virginia, of course, the presidential level may seem to be a notch or so below the Virginia gubernatorial level.)

Leaving out racial considerations, readers familiar with Virginia political history might wonder: was not the 1989 campaign a sort of reverse image of another historic gubernatorial campaign, that of 1969, which made Linwood Holton Virginia’s first Republican governor of the 20th Century? Exactly 20 years earlier it was the Democratic Party that tore itself apart in bitter three-man primary conflict, and the defecting votes of Democrats provided the Holton victory margin. In 1989, could it not be said that defecting Republicans, resentful and restive, provided the difference for Douglas Wilder?

Across the 20-year span, another affinity seems evident. In his inaugural address, Governor Holton declared: “We must see that no citizen of the commonwealth is excluded from full participation in both the blessings and responsibilities of our society because of his race . . . . Let us now endeavor to make today’s Virginia a model in race relations . . . Let our goal in Virginia be an aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed.”

On Jan. 14, 1990, the newly sworn-in Governor Wilder spoke for a newer generation: “We mark today not a victory of party or the accomplishments of an individual, but the triumph of an idea—an idea as old as America . . .the idea that all men are created equal . . . .the idea that shows forth in our concepts of freedom and opportunity.

If the 1989 election of Douglas Wilder suggests Virginia has reached the goal of “an aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed,” Ms. Edds adds a cautionary epitaph: “The election told a remarkable story about evolving attitudes on two of the most fundamental issues of the century: abortion and race. It was perhaps no accident that the outcome was so close, suggesting that. . .the debate on either issue is far from ended.”

Ms. Edds also deserves the gratitude of future historians, and connoisseurs of political rhetoric, for recording verbatim passages of a moving speech Wilder delivered impromptu to a predominantly black audience at Virginia State University. Recalling his own college days in a different and racially discriminatory past, Wilder the politician became Wilder the poet. With very few, very minor elisions, here is what he said about his native state:

This is the same place that had someone write
That all men are created equal,
And that they are endowed by their creator
With certain inalienable rights,
And among these are
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This is the same place that George Mason believed in the
rights of man,
And the Bill of Rights—
The first ten amendments—
Were Virginia’s contribution.

This is the same place that
Gave rise to those who said
Give me liberty or give me death.
That was the Virginia that I believed in,
That was what I thought was possible for me.

I thought it wasn’t that I was born in Virginia
And that I could not be.
Or that I went to Virginia Union, and could not be.
Or that I went to Howard Law School, and could not be.
I never thought of any of those things,
Because I believed that the breath of freedom
Infused into this nation started in Virginia—
Started in Jamestown—started with people believing
In the fullest development of potential.

And that’s why it’s so important in November,
Not for the purposes of history,
But for the purposes of progress.
Not for the purposes of Doug Wilder,
But for purposes of people
Who may have looked like he,
Who may have felt like he,
Who may have been born under the same circumstances
as he.
You and I have the responsibility to make certain
That what takes place on November 7
Isn’t something that happens once in a lifetime,
But something that can be expected.

Don’t those words read like something Walt Whitman or Carl Sandburg might have written? And might they not be adapted into verses for a new state song, to replace the “Carry Me Back” lines against which Wilder rebelled when he first entered the Virginia Senate?


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