2008 Archives

'Firsts And Lasts'


The following commentary by William B. Lawrence, Dean and Professor of American Church History at SMU's Perkins School of Theology, was broadcast on KERA public radio on Dec. 17, 2008.

December 19, 2008

One of the old jokes that endure in academic and professional circles is this. "What do you call the person who graduates last in her or his class in medical school?" The answer, of course, is "You call that person 'Doctor.' "

William B. Lawrence
William B. Lawrence

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The joke works because it confronts us with something surprising and unimaginable. We Americans don't attribute any value to being last. We Americans are obsessed with the notion of being "first."

  • Businesses pursue more than profits. They seek market shares that allow them to rank first among the companies with whom they compete.
  • Universities desire more than a fine track record in educating students. They want to climb the ladder of academic rankings as they aspire to be first in their fields.
  • Children rarely just go out and play. They join organized teams, enter competitions, and endure the experiences of tears and triumphs until someone emerges as first in the ratings.

That's why the national psyche of the United States was shaken to its core when the Russians were the first to launch a satellite into space and the first to put a human being into orbit. No wonder John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic president, gets so much praise for his bold initiative that made sure Americans were the first to land on the moon.

We are peculiarly obsessed with firsts when it comes to our nation's Presidents.

We describe the occupants of the White House as the first family. We list their puppies as the first pets. Since all of the Presidents thus far elected have been men, we refer to their spouses as the first ladies. And now, in light of the 2008 election, in about six weeks, when a new first lady and first family and first pet officially enter the nation's first residence, we will inaugurate the first non-white President of the United States. He will also, by the way, be the first President of the United States to have a family name that ends in a pronounceable vowel. James Monroe, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Calvin Coolidge all used a final "e" to spell their names. But the peculiarities of English pronunciation meant the vowels were never heard—the way they would have been if some President with a Mediterranean ancestral name like Zorba or Pacino had been elected.

So Barack Obama will be the first person in a first family to have a physical appearance and a foreign ancestry and a family name that rank him rank first in the number of firsts that anyone in the first office has ever been able to claim.

With congratulations and best wishes to the first President about whom I have been personally enthusiastic in a long time, I think we should balance our obsession with firsts by considering some things that are lasts. Harry Truman, for example, will probably prove to have been the last President to move into the White House without a college education. John McCain will probably prove to have been the last major Presidential candidate with military experience in Vietnam. All of them — Gore, Kerry, and McCain — will have finished last in the major parties' two-way race for the White House.

We may have moved beyond Vietnam in Presidential politics — at last.

And I am hoping for a few more lasts.

Not long ago, at a campaign rally in Georgia leading to the runoff in the Senatorial election, John McCain uttered the words "President Elect Barack Obama" which unleashed a chorus of booing from the audience. I hope that's the last time a group of Americans feels the need to show such dreadful disrespect for another human being.

And, while we are on the subject, I hope that Mr. Obama is the last President that our news media feel compelled to modify with an adjective or a hyphenated word, just to make him first—as in "the first African-American to be President of the United States." Until we at last reach the point that we no longer need to insist on such qualifiers, we will continue to racialize the culture and the politics of this nation.

The real measure of the 2008 election is not merely to assert that Barack Obama is the first person of color to hold the office. The real measure of the election is whether he will be the last person of color to do so.

Then we will really know if we are free — at last.

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