Mendell covered Obama's early career as a political reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the 2007 biography Obama: From Promise to Power. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted June 19, 2008.
“He's always been very adept at walking this fine line between two dramatically different worlds, whether it be black and white, liberal and conservative. He's just extremely adroit at walking that tightrope.”
- Highlights from this interview
- Marrying Michelle Robinson helped Obama with his "black credibility"
- What Obama felt he could learn from Rev. Jeremiah Wright
- Obama's 2002 speech against the Iraq war
- Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention
Let's start when you first come across Barack Obama. What's your impression? ...
The first moment I met Barack Obama was in 2000, when I just happened to be a weekend reporter thrown at a press conference for the Chicago Tribune. He was in his race for Congress against Rep. Bobby Rush here in Chicago, and it was a really ill-fated press conference for him because ... he had missed a vote in the state Legislature just a couple of weeks before, a very key vote on gun control. ...
So he had this press conference about health care, and as soon as that event got through, then the media had at him, and he was up there trying to defend the fact that he had missed this vote. His excuse was that he was vacationing with his family, and his daughter had become ill in Hawaii. And I just thought, gee, this is a really calculated response; he's got a sick child that he has to tend to in Hawaii, of all places. And I really didn't buy his explanation. ...
Years later, when I got to know him, as I put together the story of his life, I realized that probably was the case. ... He was having a tough time with his wife. He had been on the campaign trail for months and months and months at that point, and she was very irritated with him. They had already truncated that trip that they take to Hawaii every year from usually a couple of weeks to five days. Then he's over there, and sure enough, work calls, and they want him to come back for this vote. He had to make a decision -- family or career -- and it was one of probably the few times in his life he made the choice of family, that he stayed with his family on the vacation. So that was my first meeting with him. ...
Compared to other politicians that you knew or had covered, what was his level of greenness at that time?
He looked like someone who had a lot of talent and a lot of potential, but yeah, he was somewhat green back then as far as running for any kind of national office. ... … He didn't look like he should have been in the big leagues quite yet at that point, but he looked like he was traveling that path.
But this event diminished him in the Chicago area and among his constituents because he had missed this really important vote on this piece of legislation that just barely failed by three votes.
He's running against Bobby Rush. Who is Bobby Rush?
Bobby Rush was this very well-liked, well-known congressman on the South Side of Chicago. He used to be in the Black Panthers, so Bobby Rush had these tremendous black credentials, so to speak. He was beloved and looked at with great esteem in the black community on the South Side. And Obama at this time is sort of fighting off these "Is he black enough?" issues in that community.
What does that mean?
First of all, he is biracial. He grew up in a white family, went to Harvard Law School and taught at the University of Chicago Law School. … To some members of the black community on the South Side, they looked at him with a little apprehension because he was in these white power establishments. ... In fact, the third candidate in that race for Congress had come right out and accused him of being a white man in blackface. So he was at that point still trying to get himself known outside of his state Senate district and in that broader black district.
He also was not connecting real well at that point with black audiences. He was doing a lot better in the white sections of that congressional district. ...
There was something about him, I presume, that was able to connect with white liberals?
He was beloved in the progressive community of Chicago. Folks like [former judge, U.S. representative and University of Chicago professor] Abner Mikva and [lawyer and former Federal Communications Commission chairman] Newton Minow had taken him under their wing and really thought a lot of this guy. They saw the potential that he had.
So that group really embraced him, and because that group had embraced him so much, ... that made some members of the black community -- particularly sort of the more militant members, and we still have those here in Chicago -- that made them a little curious as to where he was really coming from, if he really was one of them.
... But how do you react when you are African American and the charge is leveled that you're not black enough?
He didn't respond real well in that first congressional campaign. He wasn't connecting with black audiences very well. He was a little too intellectual, a little too policy-wonkish, and he wasn't talking enough to people about their individual concerns.
In the U.S. Senate race, what he did to combat those charges ... was he went through his political résumé. And in the subsequent years, ... he had gone back to the Illinois Legislature and been responsible for the passage of a lot of legislation that helped the black community. He expanded health care coverage to poor children, which helped a lot of black families in Illinois. He worked on racial-profiling legislation. ... He knew how to talk to a black crowd. He had the "street cred"; he had the credentials. And they embraced his candidacy as soon as they learned who he really was and he could present himself to them in a different way.
Lots of people had told him: ... "Don't run this race. Don't do this thing. This is not your time." Minow told us, "I called all the guys on my list, and I got zero money for this guy." ... Why does Obama run in the face of that?
He was very much a man in a hurry back then. He was in the Illinois Legislature. He didn't see himself accomplishing much there. ... And what he learned from that race is, no matter how good you look or how good you sound or what you have to offer people, it's a lot about timing and what they want, not what you want. ...
Did he have a message? What was the message?
It was very much the same message he has now. If you look back at the quotes he was giving and the long interviews he gave, it was very much this theme of unity: We can all get along with one another; we should help the most vulnerable in our society; we need to rebuild our communities from the ground up. It was much the same message. That has not changed. It's just [that] it was a different political dynamic in that race and at that time. ...
... He needs to get some black "cred," as you say. ... Some people have said that means he's got to join a church; that means he's got to marry a black woman from the community -- not that he doesn't love her. … Tell me about those things.
Those things helped him immensely. If you look at it in real time back then, I don't think he necessarily made these judgments for his political career. But why he joined the black church, I think he was a community organizer back then, and he did need some street credibility when he's going into these housing projects to talk to these audiences. They'd be like, "What church do you go to?," and he thought, "Gee, I'd better join a church, or these folks aren't going to look at me the same way."
He was working for an agency that was funded by both prominent Jewish members and Catholic members of the city, so there was a little bit of antagonism, perhaps, or a little bit of wariness because he came from this agency. By joining a South Side black church, that really helped him with his credibility when he was working as a community organizer.
It also certainly helped him later on, when he was running for political office in those communities. When he was at a church on a Sunday morning, speaking in his political runs, he would never fail to mention that he belonged to Trinity United Church of Christ and Jeremiah Wright was his minister. ...
The other thing that certainly did help his black credibility was he married a black woman and rooted himself in the black community on the South Side and had two young African American children. His campaign aides would say the first question they would get in that congressional race was, "Well, did he marry a black woman, a white woman or someone else?" When the aide would respond that he had married a black woman, that gave him credibility in that community.
Who is Michelle in the community? I mean, what of the Robinson family? What credentials did they have? How woven in were they?
Michelle's father worked in a ward organization and was politically active, so that helped [Obama]. He was working for the city, and he was in a union. You have to do that in Chicago to keep your job. But her family did have some political ties. She also knew the Jesse Jackson family very well. She baby-sat for young Jesse, Jr.; she was a few years older than he was.
So they had these ties into the black elite or the black professional class, even though her family was of very modest wealth. They lived in a very modest bungalow on the South Side and South Shore, and her father certainly didn't have a real prestigious job. He worked at the water plant and was pretty much a blue-collar worker. And her mother didn't work while the kids were young, so they had a very meager income.
But the family, by all accounts, was a very cohesive, nuclear, loving family. Obama always says that she grew up in Ozzie and Harriet while he grew up sort of as an orphan, so they had different perspectives growing up.
Do they love each other?
Michelle and Barack? They seem like an extraordinarily devoted couple. She has put up with a lot in his political career, and he seems to understand that she's put up with a lot in his political career. ... My first impression when I saw them together was, these are two people who look like they fit together. ...
Minow tells ... how Obama walked into the office [at Sidley Austin, the law firm where Michelle worked and he was a summer associate] and said, "Sit down; I'm going to take something from you," and it's her. ...
… By all accounts, when Barack saw Michelle, it was just almost love at first sight. He really had his sights set on her when he met her. I haven't heard anyone dispute that story. It took a little convincing for her to come around to him. She was very quick to jettison a boyfriend; if he didn't act just perfectly straight, boom, he was set out to the curb.
So Obama knew he had sort of a tough task ahead of him. She thought he had all these terrific attributes, professionally and personally. But what she said really convinced her that he was the real deal was she had an uncle who had some personal issues, alcohol issues. Obama was in law school at Harvard at that point, had a real bright future, but he met Michelle's uncle, and she said he treated her uncle like an equal. And she felt that that said a lot about his character. That's what she said really convinced her that he was somebody who she could trust and give her devotion to. ...
One of the moments everybody talks about as being revelatory about him, which is the Harvard Law Review, Harvard Law School. … What did the experience at Harvard come down to?
... Harvard Law, I think in his own mind, really helped him establish himself as an elite person in our society. It taught him that he could manage various worlds. Here he was in this very rarified environment, and people took to him there. And he was also in the projects of Chicago, and people there seemed to take to him as well, take to his personality and what he was trying to do and his, I think, genuine sense of mission. So I think Harvard Law did all that for him.
It also immediately gave him a credential. He was set for life after that. ... And to his credit, he came back to Chicago and went to work for a law firm here that did a lot of pro bono work. But it was also an entrée into politics, which is what he I think really wanted to do. ...
He has this moment where he's at the Law Review. It's a very racially charged environment, ... and he has to kind of I guess pick and choose. Does he represent the African-American perspective? The [conservative] Federalist Society guys are there banging away, too. Who is that Barack Obama who moves through that argument?
He has always been very adept at speaking to people who hold polar opposite viewpoints and coming away with each side shaking their head and saying, "He made some sense." He is extraordinarily adept at finding consensus between two polar vantage points.
So the conservatives may not have agreed with his ideology at Harvard, but they thought he was a guy who would listen to them, who would at least give them a fair hearing. And the liberals agreed with him in their measure of thought. He's always been very adept at walking this fine line between two dramatically different worlds, whether it be black and white, liberal and conservative. He's just extremely adroit at walking that tightrope.
... As you say, he comes back [to Chicago]. ... I guess by then politics he's been bitten by the bug and he's going to go do it. Is that what it boils down to?
I don't know if he'd been bitten by the political bug; he certainly has lot of bites now. When he was a community organizer, ... he saw how Harold Washington [the first black mayor of Chicago] had immense power in City Hall to change lives. He was a community organizer down in the South Side, trying to get potholes fixed, trying to get asbestos abated, and he looked at Harold Washington's example of having a very prestigious law degree, being a very charismatic personality, and that driving his political power. I think that's another reason why he went to Harvard: He saw Washington's example. ...
So he immediately jumped into the political world in Chicago once he got back from Harvard, and I think the Harold Washington example is what he was trying to follow. And when he was at Harvard, by all accounts Chicago mayor was the job he sought. One of his friends there told me that he would always talk about the people on the South Side of Chicago who he had been working with as a community organizer, and that those people were still his mission. He wanted to come back to Chicago, I think, and get into City Hall and try to change those lives.
His relationship to Mikva and Minow and other older men -- Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright, for example -- what's up with that?
There's a theory that he has this series of father figures who have come into his life, who have kind of adopted him as their own: Rev. Wright; Abner Mikva; Newton Minow; Emil Jones, Jr., the president of the Illinois Senate; Jerry Kellman, who was a community organizer who hired him. At first I really bought into this father-figure kind of mentality, but these people seemed to pick him out. Rather than him always picking them out, they seem to find him.
More than anything, Obama is such a political creature that he has found people who can abet his political career along the way. [He's] been very good at selling himself to them or been very good at learning what he can from these individuals. And it's almost always a mutually beneficial relationship.
With Kellman, he found a young black man who could work on the South Side of Chicago. With Mikva and Minow, here was this young, up-and-coming African American rising star in the political world who they could point to and help along the way. With Emil Jones, Jr., it was sort of the same thing. Obama appealed to the president of the Illinois Senate by saying, "You can make a U.S. senator," and there was nothing that appealed more to Emil Jones. Power is his aphrodisiac. ...
And Rev. Wright?
Obama, I think, felt he could learn a lot from Rev. Wright. When he was working on the South Side, he was still trying to really get a feel for African American culture, particularly working-class African American culture. He had been around a lot of blacks who were middle class or well-heeled, but he had not been dropped into the projects until he got to Chicago. And Rev. Wright could school him in the lives of working-class African Americans, and he also schooled him in just how important the church and Scripture is in the lives of working-class African Americans on the South Side of Chicago.
He knew the politics of the South Side very well. The ministers on the South Side, especially back then, were sort of in control of their communities, more so than the aldermen, more so than other politicians. The ministers are the ones who have various congregations, and they decide what politician is going to come in to speak in their church. ...
I think Obama was attracted to Rev. Wright on an intellectual level. Here was someone who was very well educated and very well read, and they could connect on that level. He also was a very dynamic speaker. Obama was still trying to learn how to communicate to a black crowd at that point, and Wright was influential in that. Wright had some political connections with the city. So all of these things lead Obama to Rev. Wright, and Rev. Wright was not shy about embracing this intellectual, charismatic young man.
My understanding of it is a lot of people drive to Trinity Church. It's not of the community in that sense. ...
It has both. The perception of Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side is very much [that it] is for the well-heeled professional black class. And you certainly see a lot of white-collar blacks attending services there, but there are a fair number of poor folks, too. It's in a part of town that is very impoverished.
It's much more open-minded and liberal than your typical African American church. Rev. Wright, uniquely, had a lot of gays and lesbians attend his church, and he set up a ministry for gays and lesbians. ... You would actually see more white people in that black church than any other black church on the South Side of Chicago, because gays and lesbians would bring their significant others, and there were just a few white people who were attracted to that church.
So you would see white people in the pews in Trinity. I think this multicultural aspect of that church, as well as Rev. Wright's intellectualism, are the things that really appealed to Obama when he was seeking a church.
Is it a religious conversion for him? ... Or is it like joining a very important -- I don't mean to diminish it in this sense, either -- social and political club?
That's an excellent question, and I don't know what's in the man's heart. I have to take him at his word that he wanted a place to feel at home. He writes in his book [The Audacity of Hope] about his mother's agnosticism and how she was alone in the world; because she was not of one particular religious denomination or group, she felt a lonely existence at times. As sort of an orphan as a child, I think he wanted to be accepted somewhere. ... I think he partly joined the church as a credential in the black community; he partly joined that church to find some community in which he also felt like he belonged. I think it was a combination of events.
Is there any question that he didn't belong, that as far as people there were concerned, he's not descended from slaves? ...
On the South Side of Chicago, there's a strain of black militancy down there, mostly among older residents, so there were people who had some apprehension about who he is as a black person. But what I found in interviewing blacks on the South Side is they were more than willing to accept someone into their community. ... As he says, when he goes to play basketball down there, they don't see a guy with a white mother. They see someone whose appearance is decidedly African American. ...
At some point, I guess you decide to follow him, write the book, dig into his life.
That came a few years later, when the Chicago Tribune assigned me to cover the Democrats in the U.S. Senate race of 2003-2004. There were five viable candidates in that race, and quite frankly, I would have put him probably third in the pecking order of who might win.
You had a multimillionaire [Blair Hull], a former securities trader who was going to spend up to $30 million in this race. You had an Illinois comptroller, [Daniel Hynes], who had very good name recognition throughout the state, who had the backing of some unions. His father was a powerful alderman.
So those two guys looked like they may have been ahead of Obama. But Obama did have one thing that made him a top-tier candidate, and that was David Axelrod. As soon as I learned that David Axelrod was his consultant, it immediately bolted him up to that top tier.
David Axelrod is the premier political consultant here in the Midwest. He knows how to run a political campaign. He knows how to fashion a message. He knows how to sell a candidate, particularly on television. He's just extremely skilled at this. And I think what you had between those two is you had this raw talent in Obama, and Axelrod is sort of the coach who nurtured this talent and built him into what we have today.
Specifically, what kind of things [did Axelrod do]?
He helped him with his message. Like I said, in that congressional race, he was talking way too much about policy. ... Axelrod said to him: "You need to tell people stories. You need to connect with these people on a personal, an individual, a human level." And so when Obama started doing that, he saw the reception he was getting from the audience.
He's extraordinarily adept at picking up the current of an audience, whether he's connecting with them or not. And that just came from, as he put it, practice, practice, practice, just talking and talking. He was going out to African American churches every weekend, and going to three or four of them every Sunday morning. He was learning the cadence of ministers and how to speak to that audience.
Axelrod really helped shape that message and helped him with his public-speaking skills. Oddly enough, he did this through Michelle, because there's nobody who Obama listens to more than his wife, Michelle. Axelrod told her, "This is what he needs to do to connect with audiences," and Michelle kind of imparted that wisdom to Obama, and off to the races he went.
Is Axelrod the man behind the curtain, the wizard of Oz? ... Do they fight? Do they argue? Are they intense in their relationship?
It's an intense relationship between those two. Yeah, they have some arguments, but they're not vicious arguments, I don't think. They're not heated arguments. ...
What do they argue about?
There were some moral issues, I think. ... Obama, in his heart, is a true liberal, and he's been resistant, I think, at times to say what the political advisers want him to say: You've got to attack the other candidate; you've got to do this. He's a generally very amiable, conciliatory type of individual, and he's not comfortable with that sometimes.
When he became the front-runner in that U.S. Senate race, and there was a final debate, his advisers said: "These guys" -- the other opponents -- "they're going to come out and attack you. You need to be ready, and you need to lodge some frontal assaults right off, because otherwise you're just going to be trying to catch grenades all through this thing."
And Obama clearly stepped out. He was uncomfortable throwing the first punch. Once the punches started coming at him, he was magnificent at fending them off and even landing a few punches back. But his advisers, I know, told him, "You've got to go out there and be more aggressive." That isn't who he is. So I think they've had some arguments along those kind of lines.
Axelrod is supposedly or by legend really good at running black candidates, especially running black candidates. Why? In what way?
David Axelrod is especially adept at running black candidates, especially in areas where there's white constituents. ... He came here to Chicago and covered Harold Washington's rise in Chicago, the first African American mayor of Chicago, and he saw how Washington married some white, progressive-movement activists to the African American constituencies, put those two forces together and successfully won. He was the reporter at the Tribune who covered that race. ...
Now, I will say that Axelrod sat down with Obama when Obama wanted to run for the U.S. Senate, and he told Obama: "I don't think this is the right race for you. We have to run downstate. It's not quite the right time for a black candidate. You might want to sit back and wait to run for mayor."
Obama didn't heed that advice. He thought, the way that the dynamics of the candidates were set up, and he had taken some trips downstate, that he was the right person in that race. He eventually turned Axelrod into a really big believer in him in that regard, and it worked out marvelously for him. ...
I read ... something about, there's a parade in Chicago where he's last in the parade. ... Tell me about that.
That was when he first ran for the U.S. Senate, when he first launched his campaign. He looked like a credible candidate, ... but he still was sort of a third guy in line, or even the fourth or maybe even the fifth in handicapping that race.
The St. Patrick's Day parade comes around. ... This is a parade that all politicians have to attend, ... and where you are placed in that [parade] kind of shows the political power that you wield. And the mayor, Mayor [Richard] Daley, is always up at the head of the line, and he's usually the king of the parade, being Irish himself. Obama, in that first St. Patrick's Day parade, he was dead last. That showed where he was politically. Some of his aides are like: "Why did I join this campaign? We're dead last."
But the next year would change his fortunes dramatically, and he sort of took over the parade the next year. It was something exceptional to see. ... I say a lot of people have what they call their Obama moment, where they become convinced that this guy is the real deal and is going somewhere. For me, that was the Obama moment, when he winds up at the front of this parade and he's up next to Mayor Daley and the other politicians, and the crowd of white people from neighborhoods in Chicago where black people don't venture were yelling, "Obama! Obama!" He was the king of the parade at that moment. ... This had come right after Axelrod's television campaign had hit. ...
What do you mean by "Axelrod's television campaign"?
David Axelrod put together this extraordinarily handsome television campaign for Barack Obama in 2004 that really propelled him into the mind's eye of the constituents of Illinois. It was everybody's first indication, I think, that this guy really looked good on TV, first. ... Second, it showed that he had a political story to tell, and Axelrod knew how to pick out the various aspects of that story and really sell them to voters.
His community-organizing days went over extraordinarily well with blacks. His time at Harvard -- you said to white people he came from Harvard, suddenly whites are very accepting of him. ... So that television campaign really sold voters on the story of Barack Obama. ...
Well, it was hard to know at that point. He knew it would be an important speech, the anti-war speech that he gave in 2002. He was called by an influential fund-raiser and supporter of his who knew from private conversations that they had had together that he was vehemently against the invasion of Iraq, so she thought he would be perfect at this event. Her name was Bettylu Saltzman.
So Bettylu Saltzman calls Obama and says, "Will you speak at this event?" And Obama initially isn't sure whether he should go or not. ... He was not a declared candidate yet for the U.S. Senate, but he knew that that issue was hot-button enough that whichever side he came down on, it would perhaps define him for some time to come. Ultimately, ... one of his aides said, "If she's asking you to go speak at this, you have to go speak, but you need to be careful what you say."
He was extraordinarily careful in how he wrote the speech. At that point, he's such a good speaker off the cuff that he rarely wrote speeches out, but he sat down and decided he was going to write this speech out. ... So he writes the speech. He waits until the night before the event to finally give her the thumbs-up that he will give this speech. ... And then he gives this speech that, that day, was a good speech, but it wasn't one of the speeches that the crowd really remembered so much, because it was measured in some ways. ...
He started it off by saying, "I'm not against all wars; I'm against a dumb war." And there were a lot of pacifists in that crowd; there were a lot of people in that crowd who just didn't like war in general. That kind of opening was often effective to media and reporters, because it sounds like you're giving your authentic viewpoint; you're not just pandering to the crowd.
As it turns out, that speech would be of great value to him. He set himself out against the war from the very beginning, while other candidates, such as [Sens.] Hillary Clinton [D-N.Y.], John Kerry [D-Mass.], [John] Edwards [D-N.C.], these folks had to combat their votes on that topic when the tide of the country moved the other way. That anti-Iraq war speech that he gave in 2002 was the gift that just kept on giving for him.
I'm certain that he felt that way in his heart, but also it perhaps wasn't as risky a speech as everyone thinks. At that point, he's trying to bring two constituencies to his side if he runs for the U.S. Senate -- progressives and blacks -- and he's trying to marry these two constituencies to win that U.S. Senate race. Both of those constituencies were against the invasion of Iraq, so he was going to win those audiences over. ...
And so, for political reasons, it wasn't necessarily as risky as someone who was sitting in the U.S. Senate deciding whether they're going to run for president one day. He's just trying to win a U.S. Senate race in which that kind of speech would probably help him, not hinder him. ...
... The way that everybody falls out of that [U.S. Senate] Democratic race, the way that he becomes the kind of presumptive candidate, I think Bobby Rush said that it was divine providence that was at work there. Does Obama think of himself as lucky in that way, or the subject of divine providence?
Well, Bobby Rush is a very religious man -- I think he became a minister -- so that's why he looks at it in that way. I think if you got Obama in a very candid moment, he would tell you he's had a lot of good fortune politically over the years.
But I think he also understands, when he ran for that U.S. Senate race and when he decided to run for president, he looked at where he fit in that field of candidates and what his potential was and was very deft at picking the right spots, after that first race in which he picked the wrong spot.
A lot of politicians who are successful later in their careers have that early loss that they learn something from. ... It humbles you a little bit. It makes you also see when things are not viable for you. ... Losing the Bobby Rush race was the first time in his life where people didn't just really accept him immediately, where things didn't really go perfectly for him. ...
Along comes the moment of 2004, where he gets invited to give the keynote address at the Democratic convention. How does that happen?
To go back to divine providence, he was in the right place at the right time. The Democrats in 2004 were looking for someone just like Barack Obama. [Then-Rep.] Harold Ford [D-Tenn.] was the guy they used in 2000, and his speech kind of fell flat. So they were looking for this charismatic young minority candidate, and along comes Barack Obama with this tremendous speech and this message of unity that we're part of one country. It was something that resonated with Democrats back then. He also had the credential of being anti-war from the very beginning, or anti-Iraq war, against the invasion of Iraq. So all these things have lined up just perfectly; if any one of them weren't in place, he probably wouldn't be where he is today. ...
What happened to Harold Ford's speech? Why did that flop so badly?
My understanding is that the [Al] Gore campaign really controlled that speech and rewrote it. What Obama wanted to make sure of -- and his people were very smart in this way -- is they wanted control over that speech. They made sure that it was the speech that Obama wanted to deliver, that he felt passionate about, they said. Obama was, at that point, not very good, believe it or not, at reading other people's words. ...
So they wanted that speech to come from his heart, they wanted it to be his speech, and so they negotiated hard with the Kerry people to keep some lines in that speech that Obama felt very strongly about.
You mean Obama wrote a draft of a speech that had to pass muster through the Kerry people?
Right, it had to be vetted by the speechwriters for Kerry. And Kerry actually stole one of the lines out of it for his speech.
It was the line about ... "We are one nation, united." He wanted to say, "under the red, white and blue," which would have been a perfect run-in. And the Kerry people loved that line, and they stole it for Kerry's speech. ... He was very angry at first. He said, "They're stealing one of my best lines." But ultimately he delivered it, "We are one nation, the United States of America." ...
... How much do you figure he knew, this is the moment where I strike the match and light the fuse, and if I do it right, I'm on a rocket ride?
That's why I started my book the way I did, with this anecdote about how he's walking around the outside of the Boston FleetCenter arena. He was in this real cocky strut of his, which you can see quite frequently. He was like an athlete gearing up for the big game, and he kind of looked like that. ...
I said: "You seem to be doing fine this week. Everybody seems to really be taking to you well." And he said: "Well, you know, I got some game. I can play at this level. I'm LeBron, baby." He was comparing himself, obviously, to LeBron James, the phenom in the NBA at that point.
And it was an apt analogy. ... He had to hit that key shot if his career was going to go where he wanted it to go. And so he, like a gifted athlete, has to be in that frame of mind that they want the ball in the final minute. ... And Obama has that psyche for a politician: He wants to be in the game; he wants to be the go-to guy. ...
He's not a man who is short on self-esteem or short on ego. Michelle has always been the one to try to counteract that a little bit, because he can get a little over-inflated at times and that can come across. … He's an extraordinarily confident man.
Where do you think that comes from?
I think that comes from the fact that his mother really built up his ego when he was a child. I think she felt like, here's this African American child, growing up in a white family, whose father has left him. He may suffer from some self-esteem issues. So she built his character up from the very beginning. She told him he was from almost a superior race of people and that he had this extraordinary intellect, that he was someone very special. And he was taught from the time he was a small child that he was a special person, to the point that he seems to still believe that today.
He would tell people, "I'm descended from kings," and stuff when he was a kid.
When he was a kid, yeah. The other kids would look at him and think, "Who does this kid think he is?" But that's what his parents were telling him, and you believe what your parents tell you as a child. It wasn't until he got older that he discovered, much to his chagrin, that his father's family was one of poorer tribes in Kenya, and that some of them lived in mud huts and they didn't have the political power, even in their own country, much less around the globe. ...
... How was Michelle taking the pressure?
Michelle, I imagine, she didn't want him to go out there and come across as too arrogant, although to me, he came out, and he was a little nervous. But she gave this little "Don't screw it up, buddy" line to him, which probably calmed his nerves a little bit.
He was clearly nervous at the beginning of the speech; you can see he stammers a little bit at times. But there was a moment where he channels in. ... I think it's when he mentions his mother in Kansas, and the Kansas delegation gives him a shout-out. ... A bit of a calmness washes over him, and he feels that connection with the crowd. And he just started rolling from there on out to the point where, as the speech crescendos, he's just in this groove where he is almost like an actor delivering those key lines that grab the audience.
So Michelle sees this happening before him, and even some of his aides are standing in the background wondering, what is going on here? There seems to be something beyond just a speechmaker giving your typical political speech going on at this moment. Michelle has tears streaming down her cheeks. I'm sitting in the crowd, and a woman next to me is crying, bawling her eyes out. And she just keeps screaming: "This is history! This is history!"
So you could feel that there was something intangible going on at that moment. It was the making of a star. That was the moment that set him on the course where he's going today.
... Axelrod, [communications director Robert] Gibbs, Michelle, did they know?
They knew he had delivered, but nobody knew quite the extent of it, I think. It wasn't until he got back to Illinois. ... I remember distinctly, in DeKalb County, going to an event. We're sitting in the car, and one of his aides, Robert Gibbs, is ... irritated that the schedulers have put an event on Sunday morning, because people are either in church or they're enjoying their lives; they don't want to go out to a political rally on Sunday morning. So Gibbs is worried that there's just not going to be anybody here. ...
Well, we turn the corner to go into this park, and there are 1,000 people down there waiting for this guy who hasn't even been elected to the U.S. Senate yet. ... And Obama didn't know how to react to this. He clearly was taken aback and still trying to figure out why people are coming to him like this, even though he's sought it out. And I remember walking down, and I just looked at him and I said: "Well, you know, you're LeBron. That's why they're here." He didn't respond verbally to that, but gave me a kind of a look, because he had remembered the quote that he gave a few days before. ...
When he gets elected and goes to Washington, to what extent do Axelrod, Gibbs, [former Senate majority leader Tom] Daschle, all those people believe that this is the guy, that the presidency is on the near horizon?
I don't know if they really realistically thought that he could run as soon as 2008. They were hoping that perhaps that could be the case --
Is that right?
Axelrod, I think he was actually really rooting for a Kerry victory because he thought Obama needed some time to understand the ways of Washington. ... If Kerry went into the White House, the focus would be there, not on this freshman senator, and he thought that would take some of the heat off of Obama. Kerry didn't win, and so Obama was going to get that focus.
So what they did, his aides, they put together a two-year plan to put him at the highest possible political peak going into the 2008 election cycle. Now, they didn't know where that would put him in the pecking order: whether he would be the go-to vice presidential selection; whether it would just mean he was a star who would go out and raise a lot of money for other candidates, appear at events and put a lot more political chits in his pocket so that he could run one day for president; or, if everything just worked out perfectly, perhaps he would be at a point where he could legitimately seek the nomination. Well, things seemed to go right according to script, and here we are. ...
It seems astonishing, so quick.
Yeah, politics is so much about timing, luck. It's like life. He was the right guy at the right time. And in this era, especially with media -- I mean, his power in the media has been enormous. They have controlled the media. They have been able to sell this candidate through the media in amazing fashion, and his people have understood that. His sense of power hasn't been, certainly, through his legislative work, but it's a force of personality. It's a force of biography, and it's a force of how the media has given him so much attention and bestowed so much power on him.
... He's managed to tell his own story perhaps better than any politician we've seen, because he's an extraordinarily gifted writer and storyteller himself. In his public speaking and in his writing, he's been able to craft this story of his own life and been able to control that story to a large degree. ...
Even when he wrote his own book [Dreams From My Father] and he's rolling out the drugs thing -- marijuana, cocaine, all of that -- it feels almost like he was clearing the decks, getting it out there.
If you look back on it, yeah, so many things look like they could be political calculations. I'm not sure that they all were. More than anything, I think what he was trying to do with telling the world that he had used drugs was he perhaps was trying to gain some credibility among the black audience; that he had some street credibility; that he could have gone off the path and fallen in a ditch and not gotten up, like so many. He was trying to find some sort of bond with other African Americans. I think that's more than anything why he put that in the book. And also, it was accurate of his life.
I don't think that he could truly foresee that every morsel of his book or anything in perhaps a biography about him would be examined to the extent that they are today. But that was another bit of luck or good fortune. In his U.S. Senate race, one of the other candidates [Blair Hull] was accused of being in rehab and having cocaine problems, and he had to admit to it publicly. Well, Obama had cleared the decks. He could just say, "Listen, I told everyone this 10 years ago in my book," and so it just completely blunted that as a potential liability for him, politically. ...
... What are the things that worry him about his own biography and his own story that could be either taken out of context, pulled apart?
He doesn't seem to worry too much about anything. He's so confident in his own persona and that people will react positively and he can win them over. He's just extraordinarily confident....
But politically, realistically, there are a few things. Some of his votes in the Illinois Senate might be able to be manipulated for political gain. For instance, he believes in judicial discretion when it comes to sentencing prisoners, so he's voted against legislation that would specifically put away criminals for a certain length of time. That's something that's popular in the public and can be used against him, I'm certain, by a conservative political candidate. ...
There is a certain lack of understanding, I think, in some quarters of the country about where he comes [from] here in Illinois, in this Hyde Park neighborhood. You've got this milieu of folks who are very liberal; some of them are somewhat radical. And he has had some associations with those people as the state senator there and as the U.S. senator in this state. Those are some associations that probably can be used against him. ...
There was talk at the beginning among his friends as they were plotting a presidential run. Somebody says, "What are you going to do about race?," and he says: "What do you mean, what am I going to do about race? I'm not a black politician; I'm a politician." Sound about right to you?
He's run as a very race-neutral candidate. He has not tried to bring up race, and I think that's sort of appealing to people in a way. ... He has looked to black people and said, "Listen, I advance, we all advance as a society or as a culture." But he also looks at white crowds and says, "I don't base my decisions solely on race," and that plays well with a lot of whites. So he's kind of struck gold where other black politicians before him have failed miserably. ...
He's sort of the first, I think, of this new generation of African American or minority politicians in which we don't label them specifically in that category of a minority politician that people of the broader culture feel some connection to. I think he's really the first who's ascended to the national level, and we'll see more of those.
Of course you can run, but you can't hide, so that when it's South Carolina, and Bill and Hillary Clinton feel their backs against the wall and a kind of slippage of their pre-eminence with the black voter, suddenly the race card is played, and Obama must address what he does not want to address.
Right. Yeah, he finally had to come out and give a speech on race. But he has lived his life in a black skin, so he understands the equation. And he knew that he was going to have to give that speech; it apparently was ready to go. He had written a lot of this speech weeks, if not months, in advance. ...
But as far as South Carolina, what the Clintons did is they were trying to paint him in sort of the old standard of just being your typical black politician who, all he cares about is the black vote. ... It probably worked in some areas, but it backfired on them inside the Democratic Party. It emboldened blacks. He didn't have to worry about a single black vote after all of that, because it really invigorated black constituents to come out. He hasn't had to work for their vote since.
Exactly. So when you were talking about his certain knowledge that at some moment, the Rev. Wright or Rev. Wright-like stuff was going to come out and he was going to have to address it, I guess this goes all the way back to Springfield, when he had to disinvite him from giving the invocation at the announcement [at the start of his campaign].
I don't know what all went into the vetting process, but at some point the light bulb went on inside his campaign, and they realized that Rev. Wright was going to be a liability. They needed to distance themselves from him, and Obama needed to himself. I'm sure that was a painful thing for him. They had a bond together. They were very close at one time in their lives. ...
When he gets tagged with the elitist charge as a result of what he says in San Francisco about clinging to guns and God, does that resonate in any way? Did it sound familiar to you, ring true to your ears? ...
Yeah, he's certainly vulnerable to charges of elitism. He has grown up in a fairly rarified place. He's gone to Harvard Law, he's gone to private schooling in his life, so he has maneuvered in some elite circles and been accepted in those circles. And he doesn't have any shortage of self-esteem. You put those two things together and they can come off as, you feel like you're a little better than the rest. And so some people get that impression from him. Whether they're just jealous of his accomplishments or jealous of who he is and the gifts that he has been given, that's also something he's had to fight, too.
When he got into the Illinois Legislature, some of the other African American legislators there clearly were jealous that he seemed to be the chosen one to the president of the Illinois Senate, Emil Jones, Jr.. ... He had to introduce himself and temper some of those jealousies, as well as try to suppress his own ego, and it didn't always work out so well. He had some heated discussions and arguments. One even spilled out on the Senate floor with one member of the Black Caucus there. ...
There was some distaste for how things operated in Springfield. Oftentimes a lot doesn't get done that should get done, and he's not someone who likes for his time to be wasted. He feels his time is precious. ... And he was very frustrated that so many folks in Springfield seemed to be just interested in holding onto their jobs or moving onto the next part of their political career. ...
He's always been a guy who's been in a hurry; he left the legal world for that reason as well. He felt that the court system didn't affect change fast enough for him. So he got frustrated in the conservative movement of the court system, how slowly things wended their way through the courts. I think that's another thing that took him over to politics.