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Focusing on Who's Most Qualified to Lead

Paul F. deLespinasse: At some point the news media that harps on "firsts" stories may be so obviously overdoing it that people will laugh them off.
Most Qualified to Lead

Jeannette Rankin

When Kamala Harris was elected to the vice presidency, news reports and commentators had a field day noting that she was the first Black, the first woman, and the first person of Asian background to achieve that office.

A triple crown.

The press has often noted that former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttegieg is the first "openly" gay person, to do various things, including becoming a member of the Cabinet. He is U.S. transportation secretary. 

Thurgood Marshall was the first Black to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, as we were informed repeatedly at the time and ever since.

Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman.

Going back in history we were informed that Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor for Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the first woman to head a cabinet department.

Even further back, Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, which happened in 1916 even before the 19th Amendment prohibited denial of the right to vote on the grounds of sex.

But we never hear much about her, since as a Republican she does not fit neatly into Democrats' claims to a monopoly on political progress.

At some point the news media that harps on "firsts" stories may be so obviously overdoing it that people will laugh them off.

And since she was a pacifist who voted against declaring war in 1917 and the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan in 1941, Republicans would rather forget about Rankin, too.

Will we ever run out of "firsts"?

One can hope, but I fear that the hunger of news media for "man bites dog" stories combined with endless opportunity to discover new firsts will keep reports like this coming for a long time.

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As the old adage goes, when a dog bites a man it is not news, but when a man bites a dog it is news.

The people who are the first to achieve a certain high position are generally members of some historically repressed or disadvantaged part of the population.

It would be therefore wonderful if their achievements became so common that they were no longer "news."

At some point the news media that harps on "firsts" stories may be so obviously overdoing it that people will laugh them off.

Imagine the glee with which people would poke fun at a report that the new secretary of state was the first left handed bassoonist to achieve that job.

But in between that sort of obvious absurdity and today's reports of firsts based on race, sex, or sexual orientation there is plenty of room for creative story writing.

Of course, since all individuals are unique in one way or another, if we dig deeply enough we can find that anyone is a first. For example, if I were appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court I would be the first non-lawyer, the first person over 80 when appointed, the first person to have read Pravda — in Russian —for 29 years, the first . . . I'll spare you.

Some wit once claimed that the ideal Democratic candidate for the vice presidency would be a Black nun from Cincinnati who is a member of the AFL-CIO, because she would appeal to so many interest groups.

While many recent "firsts" may suggest that a similar strategy is being followed, they are still basically good news.

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For high public office, the most important thing is finding the right person for the job, a job which could affect millions of us. Getting the best person is most likely if the pool of candidates considered is as wide as possible.

But at some point one hopes that our press will stop playing this game, which currently draws public attention to categories — racial, sexual, etc. — into which we can pack people but the importance of which we would all do well to stop exaggerating.

Paul F. deLespinasse