A longtime Democrat and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Minow is a friend and mentor of Barack Obama's from his days in Chicago. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted June 19, 2008.
“Barack combines two things - a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament - in one person, which is a rarity.”
- Highlights from this interview
- What it was about the young Obama which set him apart
- Barack and Michelle
- How he needed to win over the black community
- A 2006 conversation a few days before Obama's decision to run
When do you first hear about Barack Obama, and how?
Our daughter Martha, who is a professor at Harvard Law School, called me one day and said: "Dad, the best student I've ever had is coming to Chicago. You've got to meet him." I said, "What's his name?" She said, "Barack Obama." I said, "You'll have to spell that for me." ...
We're a big law firm. We do a lot of recruiting at Harvard Law School, so I called the head of our recruiting staff and said, "Write this name down, and when you go to Harvard, be sure to interview this kid." John Levi is our recruiter; he started laughing. I said: "What are you laughing about? It's not funny." He said: "We've already hired him. We heard about him. He's coming here for the summer."
So he came for the summer. He was only at the end of his first year of law school, which is unusual. We assigned a young lawyer named Michelle Robinson to be his mentor. And one night my wife, Jo, and I ran into Barack and Michelle at the movies. I think they were a little embarrassed. You weren't supposed to be dating the summer interns. But they fell in love at our firm.
Could you see something that night at the movies that you weren't supposed to see?
I suspected a little bit. At the end of the summer, we offered Barack a permanent job. And he came in to see me, and he said, "I love you guys, I love the work, but I can't take the job." And I said, "Why?" He said, "I'm going to go into some form of public service or politics." I said: "Well, Barack, that's good for the community. We'll try to help you."
Barack and I were both standing up in the office. He said, "I'd rather you sit down when I tell you the rest of this, because I don't think you're going to want to help me when I tell you the story." And I thought, what is this? So I sat down. He said, "You know Michelle?" I said, "Of course I know Michelle." He said, "I'm taking Michelle with me." I said, "You no-good worthless runt." He said, "Hold it." He said, "We're going to get married." And that's what happened.
That's a wonderful story. Take me back for a minute to Martha: When she called and recommended him, what was it about him, do you suppose, that caught her eye?
His judgment. We have a lot of smart people here; Harvard Law School, there's a lot of smart young men and women. But she said: "He's very, very extraordinary in his judgment. He sees both sides of an issue. He can articulate it very well."
She later told me a story. Robert Putnam at Harvard, before he wrote his book Bowling Alone, he had a seminar. I forgot the exact name, but there were people in it from all points of view -- from the far right, like Ralph Reed, to the far left, people in between. Barack was in it; Martha was in it. It went on for years talking about the problems of the country.
She said one day there was a hot argument between people on the extremes. Barack listened, and he turned to one side, and he said, "Let me see if I can state your position accurately," and he stated it. They said, "You said it better than we did." Turned to the other side, and he said, "Let me see if I can state your position accurately," and he did. They said, "You said it better than we did."
So then he said, "Well, let me tell you what I think." And then he tried to reconcile these two points of view, and did it fairly successfully. When it was finished, there was a break in the discussion, and Martha said she and four or five others went up to him and said, "Barack, when are you going to run for president?" And this was years ago.
What did he say?
The first time you met him, what was his aspect? What did he feel like? What resonated out of him for you?
I would say maturity. We all know a lot of people who are smart, and we know a lot of people who have a lot of charm and are fun to be with, but it's rare that you find the two qualities in one person. I think Barack combines two things: first-class intellect and a first-class temperament in one person, which is a rarity. And I think that's what he's got.
Did you think in any way when you first met him, this guy has a political future?
Yes, but I never thought of him being president. I knew he'd have a great career, because I could see that. But I never dreamed for a minute he'd be president of the United States.
Talk to me a little bit about the African Americanism of him, the blackness. How did he wear it?
Somehow he transcends the race issue. I read now people call him "post-racial." I don't know exactly what that means, but he transcends it. Somehow or other he manages to satisfy the white and black and Hispanic and Asian communities. He's sort of universal. Why that happens I'm not entirely sure, but it's there.
Have you seen anybody like him before?
No, I've never seen anybody like him before.
All these years and all these people?
No, and I've dealt with presidents and senators; I've had a very privileged life. He reminds me, in many ways, of Jack Kennedy. In fact, that's when I changed my mind. I didn't think he should run for president this time, but on a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 2006, I was switching channels, and on C-SPAN I caught Barack giving a speech in Iowa; Sen. [Tom] Harkin has this annual event there.
I watched it, and then the camera stayed with him for about a half hour after the speech, and I saw him talking to the people in the crowd. I turned to my wife, I said: "This is Jack Kennedy all over again. This is a 21st-century Jack Kennedy." I changed my mind, and I wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune in the fall of '06, urging him to run for president.
... Tell me about Michelle. Who is she? How did she come to the firm? What was she doing?
Michelle also was a Harvard Law School graduate. We use young people to do the interviewing mostly. They recommended to the firm that we hire Michelle, and Michelle came to the firm. I think she was with us for about three years. She was working in the area of intellectual property law. Everybody liked her. If she'd stayed with us she would have had a very successful legal career. But she decided, when she met Barack, to leave.
Whenever I see Barack, he starts with one sentence. He always says to me: "Thank you for introducing me to Michelle." And I said, "I didn't introduce you to Michelle." He said, "Well, but if I hadn't been at your firm, I wouldn't have met her." But he says, "Thank you for introducing me to Michelle."
What did they see in each other, do you think?
Well, I think she doesn't like politics, and I know for a fact she discouraged him from having a political career. I think he persuaded her that this was the right thing to do: for him, for the country, for their family. But she didn't like politics.
I think they're a wonderfully loving couple and very, very good parents, devoted to their kids. We used to take the two of them to Ravinia in the summer; Ravinia is our outdoor music festival in the summer out in the suburbs. At the beginning, nobody knew who they were, and nobody paid any attention. Now, if Barack and Michelle go to Ravinia, he's like a rock star.
What's that about?
I think that there's a match between what the country needs and wants right now and what Barack has to offer. And I think he came along at this moment when the country is looking for a change, looking for a different perspective. What I like most about what's happened is that young people -- I see this in my own grandchildren, and I've talked to hundreds of people who say, "My kids are the ones who talked me into going for Barack." I think that's the most promising thing that's happened.
... He goes back to law school and gets on the Law Review, then becomes president of the Law Review. What stories do you hear about him making it as president of the Law Review, and what is the meaning of that to a career of a young man like Barack Obama?
We have a couple of people who I know who were in his class; in fact, one of them is in our firm now who's a very conservative Republican, and another who is one of Barack's assistants in the Senate. They were with him at law school and with the Law Review, and I asked them, "What did you see in Barack?" They said, "He listens to all sides, and he respects all sides." Conservatives say, "And we knew he would listen to us." It's interesting.
When I read that he was elected editor of the Law Review, I saw the story in The New York Times, I was not surprised. ...
And the result of having been president often is a clerkship at the Supreme Court, something else?
Barack could have had that. I was a law clerk at the Supreme Court in 1951 and '52 for the chief justice of the United States, Fred Vincent. My friend [the former judge, U.S. representative and University of Chicago professor] Abner Mikva was a law clerk the same year for Justice [Sherman] Minton. In our class we had [former Secretary of State] Warren Christopher as a law clerk. We had some very distinguished people. So being a law clerk is a great thing.
I urged Barack to go for being a Supreme Court law clerk, but he said: "Look, I didn't go to law school until I was older, so I'm older than my peers. I want to get going on an active life in the world, so I'm not interested." He could have been a law clerk for any of the justices.
And that would have been a ticket to what?
Well, many of them become professors. Many of them are in practice. ... One law clerk who was there with us became chief justice, Bill Rehnquist. Byron White was a law clerk; he became a justice. John [Paul] Stevens was a law clerk; he became a justice. So it's a path to great distinction.
So he eschews that. He doesn't seem to be interested in money. Was he interested in money?
No. He called me one day, and he said he wanted to have lunch with me, wanted some advice. He told me he'd been offered a job, paid a good income, as head of a foundation, and what did I think? I told him to take it. And he said, "Yeah, but if I do that, I'll have to give up any political activity." And I said: "Well, it's worth it. Do that for a while. Get some financial security, and then you can go into politics."
And he thought about it and thought about it. He rejected that. A couple of years later, he called me again. He said, "I want to have a similar talk with you." He was at that time in the Illinois state Senate, and he said, "I want to be a senator." And I said, "Barack, you are a senator." He said, "I don't mean in the Illinois Senate; I mean in the United States Senate." And I said, "Are you nuts?" He said, "No, I think I can do it." I said, "Have you got any money?" He said, "Zero." "You've got anybody to help you?" He said: "Not yet. That's one of the reasons I wanted to see you."
The incumbent senator was a Republican and announced that he was not going to run for re-election, so there was a vacant seat. He ran in a hotly contested Democratic primary; he had six or seven opponents. He won, and then he ran in the general election, and he won again. And from there, the rest is history. ...
How close did you stay together? ... Does he stay in touch in '90 and '91, or do you reconnect after he graduates?
I think I saw him once while he was still in school; I think he stopped in the office. But I really didn't get back in touch with him until he came [back to Chicago]. My wife and I had a fund-raiser for him in our home when he first ran for office. Then we had another one when he ran in the Democratic primary for Congress.
Against [Congressman] Bobby Rush.
Against Bobby Rush. And I know a lot of successful black businesspeople in Chicago, so I got my phone numbers, called about a dozen of them. I said: "I'm raising money for this sensational black candidate, Barack Obama, and I want a contribution. He's running in the Democratic primary against Bobby Rush." I managed to raise exactly zero dollars, because they all said the same thing. They said, "Newt, he may be terrific if you say so, but let him wait his turn."
... How did he react when you said [you weren't able to raise any money for him]?
He was very disappointed. He managed to raise some money, mostly from white people, not from black people. Young black people would give him some money, but the black establishment would say, "No, no, no."
Well, I think part of it was, let him wait his turn. And second, I don't think they liked the idea of him running in the primary challenging a black incumbent. And so he had no support.
The fact that he lost was a very good thing, because I'm one of those who believe you learn most when you fail. You learn more when you lose than when you win. And he learned a lot from that experience.
He learned how to relate more with his black community. He learned more about how to campaign and how to reach people. Of course, it turned out he didn't lose the position he had. He was in the Illinois state Senate, so he continued there, built a wonderful record, and then ran for senator.
Suppose he had won the election. He would have been in Congress. I don't know anybody whose run for president who came out of Congress.
What does it mean to him to hear the words "Wait your turn"? He doesn't strike me as a guy who wants to wait his turn.
No, I think you're right. He's very self-confident, more self-confident now than when I first knew him. But he knows his mind. He has one wonderful quality that very few people have: He knows how to listen. He listens carefully to people. ...
He comes to Chicago the first time, then the law school, then back again with a kind of taste for politics, I think. ... But he's not of the black community, and he's certainly not of the white community yet. He's got to have some credentials in the community. How does he go about gathering them inside, first the black community and then inside the white community?
I think he did both at the same time. I don't think he at any point concentrated on one or the other. I think he simultaneously attracted support.]It took him longer to get the support of the black community.
I think there's a parallel here with Kennedy. When Jack Kennedy ran for the Democratic nomination in 1960, his principal obstacle were Democratic Catholic leaders, many of whom were old enough to remember Al Smith's loss in 1928, and they were nervous about having a Catholic candidate. The leaders of the big cities' Democratic organizations at that time -- Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York -- were all Catholic, and they didn't want a Catholic candidate, because they were afraid he'd lose. Jack Kennedy and [Kennedy's speechwriter and special counsel] Ted Sorensen figured out that you could make an argument that being Catholic was an advantage in a primary, and they persuaded [Catholics] finally, after he won the first one or two primaries.
The same thing happened with Barack. When Barack started out, the blacks were, "He can't win." And they were not going to vote for him. Then he won in Iowa, and suddenly the blacks said, "Oh my God, maybe this guy can win." So they started supporting him.
And so there was a parallel there between Kennedy and Obama, one dealing with the Catholics, one dealing with the blacks. ... Ted Sorensen and I are close friends; Ted knew Kennedy better than anybody in the world, except probably his family, and Ted sees the same exact parallel that I do.
Going back to your comment earlier, the problem with a guy who doesn't want to wait his "turn" is that maybe he doesn't stop to gain the experience, doesn't build a lot of water behind the dam. Do you worry about that?
No, because I'm more interested in judgment than experience. The people who got us in the Iraq war were the most experienced of our public servants. The people who said, "Don't get into the Iraq war," like Barack, which was an unpopular view at that time, had judgment. And I prefer judgment to experience.
The piece I wrote urging him to run included a story about Jack Kennedy. In 1956 I had tried to help him get the vice presidential nomination with my boss, Adlai Stevenson. He said, "Thank you for trying to help me get the vice presidential nomination." I said, "Jack, if you're still interested, I think you could get the vice presidential nomination next time."
He turned to me and said: "Vice president? Vice president?" He said, "I'm going to run for president." And I said: "Are you crazy? You're 39 years old." And he said, "If I'm ever going to make it, it will be next time."
I told that story, because to me it was relevant to Barack. I felt that the mood of the country, the desire for change, was a match for what Barack had to offer.
Did he, too? Were you talking about it earlier than 2004 when he gave that speech?
No, no. I know other people were. No, I didn't think so. ...
Bobby Rush says the luckiest candidate in politics he has ever seen is Barack Obama -- the way his opponents fell away, as if by magic, in the Democratic primary; the way the Republican becomes Alan Keyes, of all things. In some ways, Bobby says it's almost like divine providence here.
I think somebody upstairs likes him, because I think he got lucky in that Senate Democratic primary when the leading candidate -- leading in the polls at least -- got in trouble with his ex-wife. Then the leading Republican candidate got in trouble with his ex-wife. And the Republicans picked the worst possible candidate they could have picked; they imported a candidate. So he was fortunate.
Did he know it?
I think so. But I think he also, and I also believed, that on the merits he would have made it anyway.
... Along comes the summer of 2004. [Mass. Sen.] John Kerry is the Democratic candidate. ... The convention maybe needs some shot in the arm, and they invite this young presumptive winner of the Democratic senatorial race in Illinois to give a speech. Do you know that they've invited him before he goes and shows up for that speech? Does he ask you anything about it? Are you plugged in in that way?
Well, I remember when he was invited. The reason he was invited was, when Kerry was campaigning in Chicago, I think he heard Barack speak, and he met Barack. I think that opportunity for Barack -- that's when the country was introduced to him, and he hit a home run. It seems to me that without that, probably he would not be a candidate for president right now. So he's been the beneficiary of some very good fortune, but he deserved it.
What was it about the speech, Mr. Minow, that lit the candle for him?
He transcended race. He transcended the issues that were dividing the country. When he said, "I don't care about red states or blue states; this is the United States," the country wanted to hear a hopeful, idealistic return to the kind of politics that we used to have, not the bitter, nasty politics of the '90s and the early part of this century. They were hungry for that, and here was a guy who could articulate it brilliantly.
And a guy out of the blue.
Out of the blue. As he said: "I'm a skinny kid with a strange name, big ears, and here I am. There's got to be a place for me in this United States of America."
When you're watching your friend Barack Obama come out and give that speech that night, what are you feelings?
I had to brush away a tear. I felt America is growing up. And I also felt I wish Jack Kennedy could have seen this. ...
... Did you know that was in him, that speech, that delivery?
That didn't surprise me, no.
It's a very interesting moment. As you watch the speech, in the beginning he's a little nervous, and he's sort of stepping on his own lines. But there's some switch that gets flicked; it's almost like you could see it. It's like something else is taking him over, and he is unbelievable at that moment.
We saw him when he first started running, and he was not good as a candidate. He was not a good speaker; he was not good at answering questions. And Ted Sorensen tells me that that was also true of Jack Kennedy. When Jack Kennedy started, he was terrible as a speaker, not good at answering [questions]. You learn as you do it, and you develop more confidence as you do it. I think that's what happened.
So now it's the end of the speech. Are you yet a believer that the presidency is in his near future?
No. I never thought of him running for president until I saw that Iowa speech in 2006. I had a lot of friends who were urging him to run, and I kept saying, "No, no, no, this is not the time." But I changed my mind, and, as I said, I felt the country's needs and what Barack had were a perfect match.
When you were saying, "No, no, no," why were you saying, "No, no, no"?
At that point he was only in the Senate two years. You know, there are a lot of parallels with Lincoln. Lincoln served in the Illinois Legislature about the same amount of time that Barack did, and Lincoln served in the Congress for two years. And of course they both came from humble backgrounds, and both from Illinois. A lot of people were saying, "Well, look at Lincoln," and Barack would always say, "Well, I can't compare myself to Lincoln." ...
... There was a conversation with you and Abner Mikva and Obama, Christmas 2006. ... Give me that conversation for one second.
Barack said he wanted to have a talk with us, so Abner came to my office, and Barack came. And he said: "I'm going to make up my mind. I'm going away with my family to Hawaii. We're going to make a decision whether to do it or not. What do you guys think?"
And he said: "I'm very concerned about my family. I'm going to be away from my kids. I won't be home." And Abner and I said: "We think you ought to go for it. ... Between the two of us, we have six daughters; each of us [has] three daughters. ... If you were going to be away from your daughters a lot, better to be away when your daughters are very young than when they're teenagers, because our experience is that when a daughter really needs a father is when they're teenagers." I don't know if I'm right or wrong; that's what we told him.
He said, "That's very interesting." I said, "Besides, if you're elected, you'll be with your family all the time, because you'll all be living in the same place." And then Abner talked to him about the need for security; he didn't have the Secret Service at that time. Barack said, "Michelle's very worried about that," and he promised that he would get security.
And we said to him, "Go for it." I said the same thing I said earlier. I said, "You've got the intellect and the temperament to do this." And he decided, I think, within a week or 10 days after the family had said OK -- I think Michelle was still quite reluctant at that point -- to do it. And he announced his candidacy.
Did he talk at all about who was telling him to go, who else was telling him to go and who was telling him not to go?
No, except that he said, "Michelle doesn't want me to do this."
When you talk about security, she was worried about an assassination?
Yes. We saw what had happened to Jack Kennedy and Bob Kennedy. It's dangerous. ...
... In every political contest, there is trouble. It's the mistakes or the problems that are the forge that create the good candidate. So how well did [Obama's senior adviser David] Axelrod and Obama handle the challenges presented by the Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright revelations, for lack of a better word?
Well, I watched the episode of Rev. Wright at the National Press Club live on television, and I said to myself, Barack has got to split with him. And it took a couple of days, and Barack did. He had no option. ... I think he handled it as well as anybody could.
We tend, in politics today, to associate what a supporter says with the candidate. The candidate can't control everything that everybody says; there's no way you can do it. Sen. [John] McCain can't do it; Barack can't do it. So you just have to evaluate this situation individually.
What about the elitist thing?
That's absolutely ridiculous. People pounced on that with absolutely no understanding of Barack. If there's anybody who's non-elitist, it's Barack. ... And the press, I think, was really at fault for reporting that the way they did. That was so silly that it didn't deserve comment.
But that was a tough time for him, because he also had the debate [in Pennsylvania], the [flap over his not wearing an American flag] lapel pin. You had all those little things that [Time editor at large] Mark Halperin calls the "freak show" working him over right around then.
But it showed that Barack could take a punch. The pros all use that phrase. They all say, "Can he take a punch?" And I think he demonstrated that he could.
I thought the best part of Barack's campaign, the one that moved me the most, was his speech in Philadelphia on the issue of race, where I thought Barack historically moved the country forward in the right direction.
Mark Halperin wrote a book, The Way to Win, in which he talks a lot about ... what he calls the "freak show," which is the 24-hour news cycle of yelling and screaming, of the Chris Matthews show [Hardball], the effect that has on politics, the difference between the Kennedy era, even the Reagan era, and now. ... What are your thoughts about the "freak show" and the influence it has had on America?
I think it has an influence on people who closely follow politics, but I think for the overall general population, which does not follow politics that intimately, it's not that important.
The lesson of this year's politics that I think the historians will see is that people voted who normally didn't participate. What happened this time is that young people who are cynical, who didn't trust politicians, are going to turn out in huge numbers and participate. I think that's the importance of this election.
I think the fact that on the Democratic side the fight ended up between a woman and a black shows how far our country has come in rejecting the issues of sex, the issues of race. I think the Democratic Party should be very proud. And on the Republican side, I think the Republicans picked their best guy, because no matter what your view is on issues, you have to salute and say, this is a real patriot who loves this country. So the country's lucky.