July 5, 2012

Alternative history: First black President, 1985

I'm always struck by all the people claiming they had never believed before Obama was elected that there would ever be a black President in their lifetimes. Personally, though, in the summer of 1981, I dreamed up an unlikely but not utterly implausible series of events that would have made my boss's boss's boss the first black President.

In the summer of 1981, I had this odd summer job (remember those?) working for Mayor Bradley's Los Angeles-Africa Relations Commission. We organized an exhibition of Benin bronze sculptures at a big downtown museum that was popular, and, much less successfully, tried to stir up interest among L.A. business people in trade with Africa (not surprisingly, Asia was much more alluring to them). 

When I was asked by job interviewers what this project was really about, I'd reply that part of it was to do something nice for artsy and/or entrepreneurial blacks in L.A., whom Tom Bradley hadn't been doing a huge amount to please. (Blacks only made up about 15% of the population, so Bradley's highest priorities were A) to please liberal Jewish business interests on the Westside while B) not outraging whites in the San Fernando Valley: this moderate liberal strategy won him five elections from 1973-1989.) 

But, there was a more interesting aspect: Bradley, having just won his third term as mayor was looking to run for governor of California in 1982. If he won, becoming the first black governor since Reconstruction, and the governor of the largest state in the Union, he'd inevitably get his name mentioned as Vice Presidential Timber for the Democrats in 1984. A governor or senator of California is often a big deal nationally, going back to Nixon becoming Eisenhower's running mate in 1952. Reagan won two terms and Jerry Brown won Democratic primaries in three different years (1976, 1984, and 1992). 

But, Bradley had always been a local politician with local interests, with little to zero foreign affairs-related experience to make him a credible Veep candiate. So, this tiny L.A.-Africa commission was something that could be mentioned briefly in an article about Bradley as a Vice Presidential possibility in order to show that he wasn't just a pothole and zoning ordnance politician, that Bradley had Global Vision.

Here's roughly the chain of events, as I saw them in 1981, that could have made Tom Bradley President.

- Bradley is elected governor of California in 1982. (In the real world, Bradley famously lost narrowly. Bradley was leading George Deukmejian in the polls right up to election day  -- the "Bradley Effect" of voters being afraid to tell strangers they were going to vote for the white guy instead of the black guy. But, finally, when all the absentee ballots had been counted a few days after the polls closed -- frequent fliers tend to be Republicans -- Deukmejian had eked out what became a storied victory. Less excitingly, they had a rematch in 1986 and, with the economy booming, the Republican won easily.)

- Walter Mondale, looking for a non-traditional VP choice to demonstrate his Commitment to Diversity, picks the governor of California. (In the real world, Bradley was the first Veep possibility interviewed by Mondale in June 1984, but there's a big difference in Veep Timberhood between a mayor of Los Angeles and a governor of California. Mondale picked the fairly obscure Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on the national ticket, to demonstrate his love of diversity.)

- The economy stays poor through 1984, hurting Reagan's re-election chances. (In the real world, it turned around a little under 2 years before the 1984 election.)

- Something I hadn't foreseen in 1981 was that Bradley as the Democrats' VP pick would have turned out to be an excellent choice because the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics became a huge success and launched a spontaneous wave of patriotism. (In the real world, Reagan benefited from Olympic Fever, but if Bradley had been on the ticket, he would have had a better claim because he was the man who brought the 1984 Olympics to America. In the late 1970s, Bradley had been the only mayor in the world with the audacity to want the Olympics. Bradley's claim to be the political architect of the 1984 Olympics would have helped defuse worries about a black Veep.)

- With the economy bad, and Bradley helping tilt California to the Democrats in the Electoral College, Mondale wins narrowly in 1984. (As you may recall, Mondale actually lost.)

- President Mondale drops dead for some reason and VP Tom Bradley is sworn in as the first black Chief Executive.

Okay, so none of that actually happened, but it's not crazy stuff. By the standards of alternative history, it's quite boring.

A more minimal version of this is that Bradley is elected governor of California in 1982, Mondale picks him as his running mate in 1984, and they lose like Mondale-Ferraro did in the real world. But in that world, where a black man had already been on a national ticket 24 years earlier, it's hard to see Obama being considered Presidential Timber.

The Republican almost had a black nominee in Colin Powell in 1996. In the fall of 1995 Powell was about even in the polls with Bob Dole, but he chose not to run.

What I hadn't expected in 1981 was the subsequent decline in the quality of black politicians. I had expected more cautious blacks like Bradley to come along, and one of them to make it to the top, but the 1982 Voting Rights Act and other factors pushed black officeholders on average in the direction of Marion Barry rather than Tom Bradley.

Oddly, this decline in black politician quality worked to the advantage of Obama. Despite his lack of accomplishments (relative to, say, Mayor Bradley: compare "I brought the Olympics to America" to "I helped get some asbestos partly removed"), Obama was presentable, and by 2004-2007 that was good enough to make him Presidential Timber.

46 comments:

Anonymous said...

Steve has the best baby boomer stories. I was running tight game on Grace Slick at the Go-Go when some clown yanked the lapels off my short sleeve polyester suit and..."

Anonymous said...

"but the Voting Rights Act and other factors pushed black officeholders on average in the direction of Marion Berry rather than Tom Bradley.'

Yeah, and more in the direction of a re-named Barack Obama than Tom Bradley sorts with at least some governing experience...hell, at least some JOB experience.

Anonymous said...


The Republican almost had a black nominee in Colin Powell in 1996.


"The Republicans almost had ..."

Actually, I think he was a big affirmative action recipient.

I cannot determine whether Condi Rice is the real deal or another Affirmative Action recipient, however.

Anonymous said...

"but the Voting Rights Act and other factors pushed black officeholders on average in the direction of Marion Berry rather than Tom Bradley.'

For those of us unfamiliar with the effects of the Voting Rights Act and U.S. political history during this period, can someone elaborate how it pushed black officeholders in that direction?

Matthew said...

"For those of us unfamiliar with the effects of the Voting Rights Act and U.S. political history during this period, can someone elaborate how it pushed black officeholders in that direction?"

Because of the requirement to create majority-minority districts, it means that black politicians often wind up running in districts where they only need to cater to black voters to win, which pushes many of them to the radical black left.

If elections favored black pols who were winning white voters, we would wind up woth black pols more presentable to the larger populace. There are plenty of black representatives (thanks to VRA), and mayors (thanks to desegregation and busing) but black senators and governors tend to be few and far between.

Average Joe said...

For those of us unfamiliar with the effects of the Voting Rights Act and U.S. political history during this period, can someone elaborate how it pushed black officeholders in that direction?

It meant that black politicians were less dependent on white voters and so could afford to be more extremist. Bradley was quite conservative because he needed white votes to win.

Veracitor said...

I have long regretted Bradley's 1982 loss to that jerk Deukmejian, mostly at the hands of the upstate bluehairs mailing their absentee ballots from their retirement homes. With typical SF arrogance they simply assumed Bradley was a slick conman like their own Willie Brown, when he was really a different sort.

I wish someone would make a quality Tom Bradley biopic because of his almost Shakespearian arc. He was really clean and earnest for a big-city pol-- "he worked to be better than any white man--"* until after he lost to Deukmejian and realized that he could never move up from LA. The upstate racists and ignoramuses wouldn't let him win a statewide election, and if he took any other gigs like a Federal cabinet job, people outside of SoCal would regard him as just another affirmative-action placeholder. Bradley looked at all those alternative futures fuzzing out into the multiverse and said "screw it, I'm gonna fill my retirement fund."

So he got into the kind of favor-trading that he had always minimized over the years and became pretty much the mayor faraway people might have expected. It's hard to blame him, and it's tragic that 1% of the vote in 1982 gave us Bradley as tragic hero instead of Bradley as example-to-all.

*Bradley was certainly better than Yorty.

Anonymous said...

Majority-minority districts have really helped wreck the quality of black politicians, who no longer have to build cross-racial coalitions and appeal to whites the way Bradley did.

Aside from Obama, you've either got creepy opportunists like Harold Ford Jr., or extremists. Cory Booker is pretty impressive and white people genuinely like the guy, but he's sui generis and probably gay so probably not a viable national candidate.

irishman said...

Nah...

No way a northern liberal and a black could have won in '84 short of a depression.

The better bet might have been Bradley getting elected in '82 and winning in '88 or '92. That's plausible. The most plausible and the one that requires the least twist of history is Powell running in '96. An exit poll had him beating Clinton by 48% to 36%. It would have been closer in reality but was definitely plausible that Powell could have won.

Let's! said...

Wonder why Mondale didn't pick Bradley, who was one of the people he trotted out for the cameras during his VP interview/grandstanding process (along with Cisneros and Feinstein)?

Must have been vetoed by an envious Jesse Jackson is all I can figure. Ferraro in her autobiography talks about how resentful and entitled Jesse's supporters were in demanding jobs in her campaign, while she naturally chose to reward black supporters of Mondale first for their loyalty.

Jesse probably thought his minions (including '72 candidate Shirley Chisolm) could bully Ferraro more easily than they could Bradley.

agnostic said...

"President Mondale drops dead for some reason"

That's the least "hypothetical stretch" part of the whole thing. Reagan was nearly assassinated just a few months after his 1981 inauguration. A few months later the even the Pope was shot.

In '75 Squeaky Fromme tried to kill Ford, then Sara Jane Moore fired at him a few weeks later. In '74 Samuel Byck nearly hijacked a plane to slam into the White House. And of course JFK being shot in '63.

The earlier crime wave of circa 1900 to 1933 also saw lots of attempted and realized assassinations. In such periods, people use violence to reach all sorts of goals, not just low-level robbery and rape, but also high-level political influence.

kaganovitch said...

but that was never true of mayors and governors (i. e. doug wilder)marion barry was different because DC is super majority black.In this he was like the various detroit wretches (coleman young , dennis archer, the great kwame etc)

Dennis Dale said...

What I hadn't expected in 1981 was the subsequent decline in the quality of black politicians.

That's the elephant in the room. People compare Obama to Jackie Robinson--this is absurd.

Robinson represented a professional class, black ballplayers, who were the best in the world. The Big Leagues just gave in and started hiring them because they were so good.

Barry represents no similar class of black professionals. Just try saying "black cognitive elite" with a straight face! The analogy is clueless.
Jackie Robinson was no token!

But the forbidden aspect of race in America is the black talent that hasn't shown up. It's ugly. Now I'm depressed. Think I'll go watch Ion TV. Black Lady Judge Land, take me away!

Steve Sailer said...

Ion TV -- that's the only network that reliably comes in anymore on "Digital Broadcast."

kaganovitch said...

on second thought Archer probably doesnt belong on that list- he was more like a David Dinkins type I think

Lugash said...

I am Lugash.

Steve,

It looks like the real life Denzel Washington from Training Day might have turned up:

http://byliner.com/evan-wright/stories/how-to-get-away-with-murder-in-america-excerpt

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/06/cia/

I am Lugash.

Anonymous said...

If you have Ion, watch Psyched.

Henry Canaday said...

Another reason is that the practical black and multiracial politicians don’t seem interested in running for president. Perhaps they know they would be expected to, and expect themselves to, do something major for the black underclass if they won. But after trying hard to do that in local offices they know they don’t have any new answers.

In the end, the only thing President Obama has been able to do for the black underclass is providing a bit more health insurance and food stamps. In other words, make misery a bit more bearable. Every other liberal solution has been tried for 40 years.

Ed said...

Irishman beat me too it.

Steve's scenarios is not good alternative history because too many things have to change. Bradley has to get elected governor AND the economic boom in 1984 doesn't happen AND Reagan doesn't win reelection for other reasons AND Mondale picks Bradley as his Veep AND he drops dead in 1985.

Each of these things by themselves are plausible Polls in late 1983/ early 1984, before the economy turned around, showed Reagan losing, and Mondale actually caught up to Reagan at one point in October after the first debate. Bradley's election loss was narrow. Mondale did consider Bradley for his vice presidential pick. But the chances of all of these counterfactuals happening are remote.

Historically, the US was in a Republican era in the 1980s in presidential elections. Between Lyndon Johnson's victory in 1964 and Obama's in 2008, a Democratic candidate for president got a majority of the popular vote only once, in 1976, and then just barely. The Cold War was also something of an incumbent's era, you had four presidents reelected with something around 20% popular vote margins, in 1956, 1964, 1972, and 1984. Through in the economy and its hard to tease out a Mondale elected counterfactual in 1984, though Mondale as a candidate was more analogous to Adlai Stevenson than either McGovern or Goldwater.

A much more plausible scenario is that Bradley gets elected as Governor of California, runs for president in 1988, and wins. If he is a reasonably popular governor of California, the people he has to defeat in the Democratic primary are Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and Richard Gephardt, probably Jesse Jackson wouldn't even run in this situation. He then has to run a better campaign than Michael Dukakis in the general election. There is also no "Willie Horton" ad, for obvious reasons. So you have just two counterfactuals with this route, both pretty plausible.

To address some of the other comments, I think the quality of ALL politicians has declined since the 1980s, not just African-American politicians. Check out who Obama's opponents were in 2008.

Kylie said...

"But the forbidden aspect of race in America is the black talent that hasn't shown up. It's ugly. Now I'm depressed."

Are the last two sentences meant to be funny? I honestly can't tell.

In any case, it's just silly that the absence of black talent could be an ugly fact that would depress anyone. It simply is what it is.

But the failure to recognize it and deal with it practically is both ugly and depressing. And ultimately, suicidal, too.

Dutch Boy said...

Bradley was leading until Deukmejian made a big issue of Bradley's support for gun control (which alienated working class white Democrats - shows you how far politics has changed in Cali since the 80s).

Anonymous said...

Veracitor, surpassing even Evil Neocon, lays down the craziest iSteve blog comment yet.

Talk about alternate history. Mayor Tom Bradley was Mr Clean until a final, grievous blow dealt by the racist voters up north sent poor Tom over the edge. Enter Mr Dirty. Mr It Wasn't My Fault I'm Dirty!

Mr. Anon said...

"Veracitor said...

"He was really clean and earnest for a big-city pol-- "he worked to be better than any white man--""

"Bradley looked at all those alternative futures fuzzing out into the multiverse and said "screw it, I'm gonna fill my retirement fund.""

That's an interesting qualified character endorsement: He was straight-up and honest - as long as he was under scrutiny. Then, when he wasn't, he just became a shameless grafter like the rest of 'em.

I'm not disputing what you say, mind you. Most white politicians are pretty venal too. I've never seen a poor Congressman.

Jim Oliver said...

Douglas Wilder could have been in slightly different circumstances. I think that he would have made a great first black president. He was rather conservative for a Democrat.

not a hacker said...

I was running tight game on Grace Slick at the Go-Go when some clown yanked the lapels off my short sleeve polyester suit and..."

It's a good thing you're not in film. When Grace Slick was a name, only car salesmen wore polyester. And you didn't have to run any game on her, either.

helene edwards said...

I don't get Veracitor. In '82 in California the issue was crime. If you didn't want Deukmejian elected, blame Rose Bird, not some imaginary NorCal "racists."

Steve Sailer said...

The Weak Version of this alternative history is merely first black on a national ticket in 1984, which only takes two counterfactuals:

- Bradley wins California in 1982
- Mondale picks him instead of Ferraro, and they go on and lose

The first almost happened, and the second was a possibility in the real world even without the first happening.

This has to be the most boring alternative history ever!

Baloo said...

Don't know if this is more or less boring, but how about: Gerald Ford picks Edward Brooke for VP in 1974 and he actually becomes VP. Then of course he's on the ticket in 1975. That's if we can really count Brooke as Black. More exciting, _Nixon_ makes him VP and then dares everybody to impeach him.

Dennis Dale said...

But the failure to recognize it and deal with it practically is both ugly and depressing. And ultimately, suicidal, too

You say you don't understand, then repeat what I said! Behind a conjunction, as if it's your point. Readers!

But it isn't so much failure to comprehend black inadequacy as it is active suppression of the fact. Is there a plainer truth more universally and rigidly denied? The culture as a whole is suffused with this denial.

Hence, Ion TV. I cancelled my cable, and they keep pumping Ion over the wire, like some kind of punishment. Criminal Minds, Cold Case, that show with Timothy Hutton I refuse to learn the name of (but I do know his team of diverse, hot do-gooders features a cool black computer geek--oh just f-off already Hollywood! We're not idiots! Not all of us I mean!)

beowulf said...

Surviving an assassination attempt made Reagan pretty much unstoppable in 1984. I think your counter-factual is missing one small detail.

"After failing to get a job at the end of February of 1981 as he’d promised his parents, John flew to Hollywood. Staying there only one day, John Hinckley Jr.... was able to find a job with the Los Angeles-Africa Relations Commission and a place to live with the family of his new friend Steve Sailer. However, within 6 hours of moving in, Steve's father Ernie Sailer had secured John's involuntary hospitalization by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health."
http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/hinckley/hinckleykeyfigures.htm

beowulf said...

I cut the part where you end up marrying Jodie Foster, seeing as it didn't really provide any value added to the Bradley presidential run. :o)

Kylie said...

"In the end, the only thing President Obama has been able to do for the black underclass is providing a bit more health insurance and food stamps. In other words, make misery a bit more bearable."

How much time have you spent around the black underclass? Most of them could have a decent, if very modest, life on the freebies and bennies the government provides. That they are miserable anyway is entirely due to their own attitudes and actions.

In other words, they are miserable precisely because wherever they go, there they are.

Kylie said...

"You say you don't understand, then repeat what I said!"

No, what I said is not what you said.

You said the failure of black talent to appear was ugly and depressing. I said I didn't understand that but what I did find ugly and depressing was the refusal to recognize and deal with that failure in a practical way. Not quite the same thing.

"Readers!"

Indeed.

"But it isn't so much failure to comprehend black inadequacy as it is active suppression of the fact."

With one exception: discussion of black inadequacy is allowed when attributed to the pernicious effects of white racism on blacks.

"Hence, Ion TV. I cancelled my cable, and they keep pumping Ion over the wire, like some kind of punishment."

I cancelled my cable almost 2 years ago and it's been wonderful. I watch only movies and old TV shows from Netflix or my DVD collection. I had to google ION tv. Looks horrid, I can't stand any of that multi-culti crap. (The name of the Tim Hutton show is "Leverage".)

Maybe I could recommend some good movies to you if you'd give me some idea of the genres you like.

Dennis Dale said...

Ion ("Positively Entertaining"; apparently aiming at women):
Runs syndicated repeats.

Criminal Minds--fetishizing criminal profilers and their Olympian sufferings as they pursue endless iterations of the Great White Male scourge. Often finding him in religious guise.

Cold Case--real dregs of the pc police procedural. A wispy, anemic-looking blonde detective solves cold cases. Leans in and delivers Dirty Harry-like threats to GWM baddies (is there a more worn cliche?), "I will destroy you..."
Rights pc wrongs--the other day they were revisiting the early days of AIDS. Closeted gay Republicans were the culprits, I believe. Republicans! Is there nothing they can't do?

Even I can't bring myself to watch Flashpoint. But it appears to concentrate on the emotional struggles of SWAT personnel. A common theme with these shows directed at women: the focus is on the emotional struggles of the heroes. Lots of unbearable man-to-man earnestness.

Also, they seem to be un-ironic celebrations of authority. Further, wait a minute; excuse me, Ghost Whisperer is on--

Whiskey said...

Dennis Dale -- Most Whites never deal with Black people on a daily basis, and so actually BELIEVE in a diverse, non-White genius team of crimesolvers finding those icky White murderers, who are racist AND beta males besides!

Its on TV, so it must be true. Particularly since it appeals to women's prejudices the most (most TV is aimed at women, just watch the commercials).

Like Prester John, or any number of fables, people desperately WANT this myth to be true, instead of accepting Black athletic superiority and cognitive inferiority as part of the racial differences among humanity. That makes Blacks neither unter-mensch or a Super Race, just different. But that is too much icky science and women in particular like comforting fairy tales.

NOTA said...

Alternatively: Dick Cheney drops dead from a heart attack from all the excitement of the 9/11 attacks. Bush chooses Condi as his replacement.

Cut to 2008, and the idea of a black VP is not all that shocking to anyone. Obama remains an Illinois senator for another few years till he's seasoned enough to be a sensible candidate, and is elected president in 2016. At that point, he actually is prepared and has a relatively successful presidency. The debt crisis and the big falling out with China mercifully wait to happen till he's out of office a couple years, and a much diminished America looks to him as a wise elder statesman, the last good president before a run of failures.

Less speculatively, Powell runs for president and wins. Years later, Obama ends up as mayor of Chicago, and after his retirement and a short prison term for corruption, he and his buddy Bill Ayers coauthor a very popular set of political thrillers, and get rich. (All the money is some consolation for the way his wife left him for that sleazy Arkansas ex-governor and law professor.).

Anonymous said...

Black actor Morgan Freeman doesn't believe that Barack Obama is the First Black President. He recently called him the First Mixed-race President.

Anonymous said...

The next big historic presidency will be a totally black guy married to a blonde woman. Chris Matthews's leg will blow up in new paroxysms of orgasmic thrill.

Kylie said...

"Ion ("Positively Entertaining"; apparently aiming at women):
Runs syndicated repeats."


My idea of hell. I'd spill the beans faster than Noriega listening to Guns N' Roses if forced to watch that tripe.

I check out a lot of movie credits but I don't even use the IMDb homepage as my bookmark. I go straight to my profile page so I can skip all the tripe and hype.

You must be so stalwart.

Anonymous said...

I was running tight game on Grace Slick at the Go-Go when some clown yanked the lapels off my short sleeve polyester suit and..."

It's a good thing you're not in film. When Grace Slick was a name, only car salesmen wore polyester. And you didn't have to run any game on her, either.


Albertosaurus, can you confirm this?

Mr. Anon said...

"helene edwards said...

I don't get Veracitor. In '82 in California the issue was crime. If you didn't want Deukmejian elected, blame Rose Bird, not some imaginary NorCal "racists.""

Quite right. Deukmejian was the response of California's conservatives (still numerous then) to eight years of Governor Jerry "Moon Beam" Brown and the Rose Bird supreme court.

Peter said...

One assumption in your alternative history that didn't turn out was Walter Mondale's premature death. He's still going strong in his mid-80's, having outlived Tom Bradley (and even his own daughter).

Peter said...

A much more plausible scenario is that Bradley gets elected as Governor of California, runs for president in 1988, and wins.

Dunno. He would have been 70 on Election Day, turning 71 before inauguration, older even than Reagan. Age might have been too much of an obstacle.

Kylie said...

"'It's a good thing you're not in film. When Grace Slick was a name, only car salesmen wore polyester. And you didn't have to run any game on her, either.'

Albertosaurus, can you confirm this?"


If that's your sly way of insinuating that Grace Slick is a classical musician, I feel sure Albertosaurus will not rise to the bait.

Likewise, if you're implying his wardrobe was, then or now, composed of any material not featured in Ackermann's Repository, I feel equally sure he will not respond to your rather childish ploy.

Anonymous said...

Northern Californians would never vote for an L.A. mayor, then or now.

ben tillman said...

If that's your sly way of insinuating that Grace Slick is a classical musician, I feel sure Albertosaurus will not rise to the bait.

I always get a kick out of Grace playing the recorder on the Great Society records. Did Mozart write anything for the recorder?