- Close Video

Cassandra Butts

A close friend and former classmate at Harvard Law School, Butts served as deputy White House counsel in 2009. She discusses their long friendship and talks about how Obama's unusual background has informed his approach to politics and policy. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Michael Kirk on July 10, 2008 for The Choice 2008. (60:19)

A close friend and former classmate at Harvard Law School, Butts served as deputy White House counsel in 2009. She discusses their long friendship and talks about how Obama's unusual background has informed his approach to politics and policy. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Michael Kirk on July 10, 2008 for The Choice 2008.

  1. Ψ Share
    Others on this topic:
    Harvard Law SchoolObama's Core Nature

    So when do you first lay eyes on Barack Obama?

    It was one of the first few days of our law school experience. We met at the financial aid office at Harvard Law School, which is in Pound Hall, which is very, very centrally located on the campus. And we were going through the process of filling out a lot of paperwork that would make us significantly in debt to Harvard for years to come. And we just bonded over that experience. ...

    How was he? What was he like?

    You know, it's interesting. The Barack that I knew at the time is fundamentally the Barack that you see today, the candidate. He was incredibly mature. He had spent three years as a community organizer in Chicago, so he came to law school without some of the angst I think that many of us had who were only a year or maybe less than a year away from college. He didn't have the angst. He was very mature, and he was very directed. He knew what he wanted to do. He knew that he wanted to get his law degree and learn as much as he possibly could and take that experience back to Chicago and work in the same communities that he had worked as an organizer, and use his legal skills to help people in those communities.

    And so, you know, it was one of those things that you got very early on. He was a very calm presence and someone who had a very good sense of himself and where he fit in, and a very good sense of what he wanted to do with his life.

  2. Ψ Share

    Calm presence in the heart of highly politicized Harvard Law School at the time, the Derrick Bell stuff, lots of other issues. Bring me there. What did that environment feel like, first as an ambitious young person as you were, and second, as an African American woman?

    Yeah. Well, for me, I was a year out of college. I'd spent a year working for a small publication in Durham, N.C., called African News Service. ...

    Historically, Harvard Law School had had about a 10 percent African American population, and it was about 10 percent when we were there. So you had classmates who you could identify with, just in terms of your background.

    But there weren't a lot of role models in terms of the faculty. We had about a handful of African American men who were on faculty, but we had no women of color on faculty, which ended up being the Derrick Bell protest and his decision to leave the law school, which I participated in, just in terms of organizing the effort, and Barack participated in also. ...

  3. Ψ Share
    Others on this topic:
    Harvard Law School
    Why Obama was drafted to lead the Harvard Law Review

    When he takes over at the Law Review, how important is that, that Barack wins?

    It was pretty significant. He obviously, as you know, was the first African American president of the Law Review. And the symbolism of it was very, very powerful. It was an African American ascending to what was the highest, most coveted position for a student at the law school, being president of the Law Review. And it was someone who we could identify with. So it was pretty significant.

    And for him personally, what does it mean? Ordinarily, it means Supreme Court clerkships and all of those things.

    Well, it was interesting, because, you know, I was as close to Barack as anyone in law school. He'd never expressed an interest in being president of the Law Review. It wasn't something that he talked about. And frankly, he was drafted by his colleagues on the Law Review to run. They made the case why he should run and why they thought that he could lead the Law Review. And they thought that he would be able to bring together the factions that had developed as a result of the divisions, the ideological divisions on the Law Review, on the left and the right. And they thought that he could bring people together.

    Why? What was it about him that they read that?

    Barack, from the start, had a leadership style that was very embracing. He was clearly seen as a leader, but at the same time, he didn't put himself out as a leader. We had a lot of people who were pretty ambitious at the law school. And you knew people who had political ambition. They were not quiet in their political ambition and putting themselves out as leaders.

    That wasn't Barack. He had a very quiet, yet very calm presence. And his leadership style was such that people were drawn to him and they embraced him as a leader, and they put him forward as a leader. And I think that what happened with the Law Review is a good example of that. And I think it's personality.

    But it's also a function of his experience as a community organizer, and that as a community organizer, you are not the person who's out in front. You want the community to be out in front. You want the community to be the ones who are voicing the concerns and who are the leaders. And you're the person in the background.

    So I think it was both a function of personality, but also a function of his community-organizing experience. So his colleagues on the Law Review came to him and asked him to run. He thought it through and decided that it's something that he wanted to do. ...

  4. Ψ Share
    Others on this topic:
    Obama's Search for Identity
    'Barack has had to deal with dueling identities all of his life'

    That search for identity, we've all been on one. He was really on one. Take me, to the extent that you know it, through what that search for identity was for Barack Obama.

    This was actually amusing to those of us who knew him during law school. Barack's identity, his sense of self, was so settled. He didn't strike us in law school as someone who was searching for himself or had searched for himself a few years previously and had come to this realization of who he was.

    No one is ever fully formed, but Barack was as fully formed as a person could be at that point in his life. And so when we read Dreams From My Father, we were surprised that he had gone through all of this angst and this search for identity and how tumultuous it had been and how recent it had been essentially, because that wasn't the person that we knew. But it clearly informed the person that he had become. And he was fortunate in that he had figured it out early enough in his life that he was able to put that behind him and move forward in ways that others hadn't done and were still trying to figure out.

    So it was surprising that he had had that much anxiety about his identity, because he was so far removed from that person and from that search when we knew him in law school, that it was -- you know, it was shocking actually.

    You know, as friends, is he somebody who talks about black kid, white mother, Kansas, Hawaii, Indonesia with a stepfather -- you know, the whole journey? Does he ever sit around and just sort of say, "God," you know, "I -- "

    I can't say that I got the entire narrative in one sitting. But you obviously, over the course of when we were in law school for a three-year experience, you get bits and pieces. And you ultimately get the entire narrative. So it wasn't one sitting where he ruminates about all of these experiences. It came in bits and pieces.

    What is the self-awareness that he has? ... I mean, I know you say he already seems to be fully formed, but did he ever talk to you about moments that mattered or how he got there?

    Yeah. We definitely talked about his experiences from going to Kenya and meeting his father's family for the first time, which he did prior to coming to law school, what it was like, the time he spent in Indonesia with his mother and his stepfather. You definitely got those parts of the conversation.

    He didn't talk a lot about his experience of growing up in Hawaii, in a household where his grandparents were white, obviously, and he was obviously nurtured by his white grandparents and his mother. But when he went out on the street, he was identified as an African American. He didn't talk a lot about what that meant to him. But it was clear that it had informed his thinking about obviously who he was, but also about the issues and about how he dealt with people.

    Barack has had to deal with dueling identities all of his life, you know? He, again, as I said, nurtured by a white family and identifying with that family, but at the same time, when he goes out, he's identified as something else. And he has had to make sense of that duality his entire life. And I think that that's one of the reasons why he's not prone to either/ors. He appreciates that it's usually a bit of both. And that's the way he thinks about the issues. And so you could say his life experience has informed his approach to politics and his approach to policy.

    Right, exactly, so that when he's sitting at a sort of supercharged, maybe dichotomous Harvard Law School, at least in terms of race and gender, I mean, he really is a kind of composite of an understanding. Yes, he's African American and looks that way, and whatever that means to him in lots of other ways is whatever it means. But presumably he can talk and be attractive to Brad Berenson, [associate White House counsel in the George W. Bush administration and one of the few conservatives on the Law Review staff], and the Federalist Society guys and to you and to anybody else.

    Yeah, no, absolutely. He essentially spent his life trying to synthesize the duality of being one person in one place and being another person in another place. And what I like to say to people is that Barack never meets a stranger. And I think that that's one of the things that makes him so effective as a politician, that when he meets people, when he sees people, when he's interacting with people, Barack isn't inclined to stereotype people. He never meets a stranger. He ultimately has met you before in some other experience or someone obviously just like you.

    And so he deals with you on the terms of familiarity, not with being a stranger. And I do think that that's a function of him having to figure out who he was and trying to make sense of those two worlds that he had to walk between.

  5. Ψ Share
    Others on this topic:
    Harvard Law School

    And problems for him? Did he ever talk about the things, about all of that that were problematic, that were challenging?

    I think expectations, what people expected of him, how people expected him to identify or not -- and again, it wasn't something that he talked a lot about. Once you knew the narrative, you definitely appreciated that that was a challenge. And he would talk a little about it, but not in any detail.

    Yeah, I think that some of the expectations that people had of how he should identify or how he shouldn't identify, the positions that he should have on issues and the positions that he ultimately had on issues, you know, Barack was not and is not predictable. He's thoughtful. He'll tell you what he believes, but it isn't always what you expect.

    So that hence, when I interview Berenson, and he says: "I love the guy. I really didn't expect to. We’re all the guys that run the Bush administration." ... And that he thought Obama handled the really supercharged issues like affirmative action and other things really right down the middle. Am I answering your question for you?

    I think that Brad is right in that regard. It wasn't without controversy in that there was an expectation, as I indicated, that he would be in one place just in terms of his ideological approach is to the left. And there was an expectation that as the president of the Law Review that he would side -- well, there was an expectation on the part of his more progressive colleagues at the Law Review that he would side with them on issues.

    But he recognized that his role was such that he had to bring both sides together. And in order to publish the Law Review and to be productive in his term as president, he had to figure out how to make it work and how to make both sides work together, which meant that he wasn't always going to side with his progressive colleagues, that he had to take the interests and the ideas of the people on the right into account.

    And it's not to suggest that where he was on the issue was being reflected in the decision that he made. But it did reflect what he needed to do as a leader in order to produce the Law Review.

    Did he ever tell you that was hard?

    Oh, it was certainly hard, you know, having people criticize him publicly, which, in fact, happened on a couple of occasions was very difficult. And I think that what was particularly hard for him was the lack of recognition on the people who publicly criticized him, what he was trying to do and what he needed to do as the president, as the leader of the group, and that they didn't understand that he couldn't be with them; that while personally he agreed with them, that in order to get the Law Review out and to reflect the positions of the entire group, that he had to come to a more centrist position. And I think that that bothered him that his critics didn't recognize what he was trying to accomplish.

    For sure. And you, Cassandra, have seen him over 20 years carry that attitude into many other things, yes? ...

    You know, I don't know if it's that. I don't know if he was that conscious. It was an approach that worked on the Law Review. And just thinking about his public experience or his experience as a public official in the Senate in Illinois, you know, it is Barack's natural inclination to reach across the aisle. It's [his] personality. And it's also just his intellect. He has a very engaging intellect. He's not interested necessarily in dominating the conversation. He wants to bring people into the conversation. He wants to understand different points of view. And understanding those different points of view informs the way he thinks about issues.

    It isn't necessarily that it's going to change his opinion, but it will make him more thoughtful as he approaches an issue. And I think that that is what has informed his experience in public life, what informed his experience on the Law Review, and what's informed his experience as a public official.

  6. Ψ Share
    Others on this topic:
    Obama as a Leader
    Obama's two most influential political experiences

    Does he talk at the time about Harold Washington, [the first African American mayor of Chicago], about Chicago, about putting roots down in Chicago?

    Absolutely. He was very influenced by Harold Washington and what Harold Washington was able to accomplish in Chicago. If I had to say what were the two most influential experiences for him, that have informed his approach to campaigning, to politics since, I would say that it was his community-organizing experience, but it was also the experience of Harold Washington in his campaigns that he ran successfully to become mayor of Chicago.

    What Harold Washington was able to do was to pull together coalitions. He wasn't a machine candidate. And understanding Chicago politics, you understand the significance of that. He ran outside of the machine. And what Washington was able to do was to put together these coalitions. And the coalitions were essentially African Americans, Latinos and progressive whites. And he was able to pull that together and beat the machine.

    And that kind of coalition building was incredibly influential for Barack. And you can see it. You can see it in his efforts in his Senate campaign, his state Senate campaign, his failed effort in his run for the U.S. congressional seat in Chicago against Bobby Rush. And you certainly saw it in his U.S. Senate campaign.

    But this notion of bringing together different communities and coalition building, that inclusiveness that you've seen in the presidential campaign, was definitely informed by Harold Washington's experience and how much Barack looked up to that. ...

  7. Ψ Share
    Others on this topic:
    Obama and Race

    ... And some of the people we've interviewed, they say there was this moment where [political adviser David] Axelrod or somebody says to Barack, "What are you going to do about race?," and he says, "What do you mean, what am I going to do about race?" ... Talk a little bit about that for me. Were you part of that conversation?

    ... I took a couple of months off from my position at the Center for American Progress and went to work for Barack to help him organize his Senate office, help him hire his staff, and help him think strategically about what he wanted to accomplish in his first term in the Senate.

    And we put together a one- or two-year plan about what he would accomplish and the milestones that he wanted to reach at certain points over that period. And the goal at that time definitely wasn't focused on a 2008 run for the presidency. It wasn't until the latter part of 2006 that he gave serious consideration to a run for the presidency. ...

    And so we started those conversations. And I do remember in one conversation -- I'm not sure if it was Axelrod, but the issue was race was raised. Essentially what we were doing, he asked us to challenge him on what he would face in running for president, to really ask the tough questions about, you know, would he be willing to give up his time with his family, to press him on that, to really give him a real-world sense of the commitment that it would take to run for president. And many of us around the table had had that experience at various times in working for candidates who run for president. And so he tasked us to really push him and give him a real-world assessment of what it would take and obviously to get him to respond and get a sense of, was he really ready for this?

    And so the issue of race was raised. And Barack did say that he wasn't interested in running as a black politician. He was going to run as a politician who is black, and that those issues would be addressed during the course of the race, but he didn't believe he needed a strategy to deal with the fact that he was an African American running for the presidency.

    And I do think that that is instructive or informative for how he thinks about his experience as a public official and how he's dealt with race throughout the course of his professional life.

    What did you think?

    Well, you know, it's interesting. You did make the comment about Barack being post-racial or his candidacy as being post-racial. And Barack doesn't think in those terms. He doesn't think of himself as being post-racial. He is very clear that race is still very much an issue in the U.S. And he's also very clear that there's a division between -- you know, you've got baby boomers who think of race very differently than their kids. I think I'm kind of in the middle. I'm not quite a baby boomer. And Barack is a baby boomer, but definitely at the tail end of baby boomers.

    And so he recognizes that there's a very different way of approaching the issue generationally. But he doesn't think of himself as a post-racial candidate. A lot of people say that, and I always want to be clear about that. And he's very cognizant of race and the role that race has played and continues to play in our society.

    What I thought about that conversation was that, you know, during the course of our friendship, Barack has always been the one to convince me that things are progressing, and that we're at a place where we can do certain things. He convinced me that an African American person like Barack Obama could run and win the presidency of the United States.

    I've always been confident in Barack's ability. And even after law school, I remember telling a couple of people that, you know, I know this guy who is incredibly talented and could be the first African American president of the United States. Now, granted, I wasn't telling a lot of people that, but I did tell a couple of people that.

    So I've always been confident in his skills, in his ability. But I have to say that I haven't always been as confident in the ability of people to see beyond race to embrace him and embrace his candidacy. But he's always been able to convince me that we're ready. And he's been right.

    So I trust his judgment on these things, and in that conversation I trusted his judgment. And I believed, as he believed, that he could do it. ...

  8. Ψ Share
    Others on this topic:
    An Early Setback

    ... Did he call you somewhere along the line and say: "You know what I'm thinking about doing? I'm thinking about running against Bobby Rush"?

    Did he consult about the decision? I think that he'd made the choice that he was going to run against Rush. Objectively, it wasn't a bad choice, because at the time, Rush had been weakened by his run against Mayor [Richard] Daley for the mayor of Chicago, and had lost pretty significantly, and had even lost to Mayor Daley in his district.

    Objectively looking at that, you know, you could say that there's a weakness there. And so I think that the assessment wasn't necessarily incorrect.

    But you have to appreciate at that time, I was working for Dick Gephardt [D-Mo.], who was the minority leader in the House of Representatives. And so Bobby Rush was a member of our caucus. And I knew what a challenge it was to mount a race against an incumbent, to mount a primary challenge against an incumbent.

    And I also appreciated that that was exponentially more difficult in a district that was predominantly African American. In African American districts, usually the member who is generally African American stays for quite a while, and to mount a primary challenge is just very difficult.

    So I think that before he got in touch with me, he had made a decision that he was going to run. And I don't think that anyone was in a position to talk him out of that run. And again, objectively, it wasn't a bad choice.

    But he just got his ass handed to him.

    Of course there's an irony that he couldn't win a congressional seat, but he could win the U.S. Senate. There's an irony there, obviously. But it's also just really informative to the broadness of Barack's appeal and his reach, and that the coalition building that we talked about, his experience and Mayor Washington's experience, and his recognition that you had to bring together coalitions. And he was able to do that with the U.S. Senate race, but he wasn't able to do that obviously in the House race. ...

    What did Bobby think of this upstart?

    I think he saw him as an upstart. I think he definitely saw him as someone who was more privileged than his experience had been. As you appreciate, Bobby Rush cut his teeth as a Black Panther in Chicago, and obviously Barack's background and experience was quite different. And so, you know, I think he saw him as someone who was an upstart, who was green and who had a lot of talent, but not necessarily -- he wasn't favorably disposed to Barack, to put it mildly.

  9. Ψ Share
    Others on this topic:
    Barack and Michelle
    His relationship with Michelle

    He says something -- I don't remember exactly what -- that essentially Barack has to get his black ticket punched before he gets to run on the far South Side of Chicago, or anyplace else if he hopes to get African American votes. ... He finds a church. He meets Michelle, which is mightily helpful. I'm not saying it was a crass decision, but it was a good move. It was a nice thing to happen to him and --

    It was a wonderful thing to happen to him.

    You know Michelle, obviously. You must have known about him finding her and their relationship. When he comes back from that summer and he has met her, does he talk about her to you?

    Oh, no, most definitely.

    And?

    And, you know, it was very clear how important she was to him. And Michelle would come and visit the law school. Obviously she had been to the law school previously. And as Michelle is very clear about saying, that Barack is older than she is, but she did attend the law school before him. So it was very clear how important she was to him and the fact that he found her at that point was very important and very wonderful for him.

    Wonderful, beyond just the personal, emotional, heart stuff? Was he happy about who she is and her family is, and just everything about the way that she helped connect him up to all of that?

    I think he certainly identified with Michelle and her experience and her family. But it was personal. I'm just very, very resistant to this notion that there was some calculation, there was some political calculation involved. It was a very important personal connection with Michelle. And the fact that she was so rooted in the community had obvious value. But it was very personal.

    If you, in one sentence, could say what the relationship is, what is it?

    In one sentence, it's loving; it's supportive. They ground each other. I think Michelle particularly grounds him, and Barack is very smart and very intellectual, but in Michelle, he found a partner who was able to ground him personally in ways that he hadn't been previously, in no prior relationships. And that has been profoundly important to him.

    So how did she feel about Bobby Rush and the run for Bobby Rush?

    I did not have a conversation with Michelle around the time, so I can't say definitively. The interesting thing is, Michelle has been -- she's turned out to be a great political partner for him, and has performed, I think, admirably during the presidential run. But she has been a reluctant political partner in that she appreciates Barack's ability and his ambition and has supported him, but she hasn't been someone who has necessarily put herself out as a public person. But she has gone along.

    She didn't necessarily oppose him running. But if she had her choices, yeah, she would probably have him do something else.

  10. Ψ Share
    Others on this topic:
    An Early SetbackObama's Ambition

    What did he take away from Rush? I mean, you always learn more when you lose than when you win. Did he ever talk about what it was that he learned from that experience?

    I know it was obviously incredibly informative. He didn't talk about it in great detail, about what he learned from the experience and how instructive it was for him in future races. But I think that it certainly allowed him to learn his strengths and weaknesses as a candidate, what he needed to improve on, how he needed to improve his pitch as a candidate.

    Again, he didn't really dwell on the loss as much as, you know, he internalized it and it became an important part of how he has thought about future races. But he didn't talk a lot about it. That's just generally not Barack's style.

    What's up with this guy? Is it, like, naked ambition? What's going on with him? I mean, he's so young. He's so green. And all of a sudden, bam, bam, bam.

    No. You know, he obviously describes himself as being restless and being ambitious. It's not naked ambition at all. It's not that he feels that if he doesn't run, then, you know, the world's going to fall apart. But he really believes that he has something to offer and that he can make a difference, and he can make a difference in the way people live their lives. I think as he continues to believe that, he'll continue to offer himself in public life. And that's where we are today. He's held that belief obviously through the good and the bad.

    It's not ambition to see himself in the limelight, you know? I think if left to his own devices, Barack, as I indicated, Barack would be a writer. He would be in a profession that was more -- well, I was going to say thoughtful [Laughs] -- in a profession that allowed him to be more thoughtful and to be more reflective.

    I think one of the challenges of running for president -- and this is one of the things that I impressed upon him when we were going through the session of, you know, these are the things that you've got to be prepared for -- is that you don't get a lot of time to reflect on what's going on. And that is very much Barack's personality. He wants to reflect and distill what's happened during the course of a day, and you don't get a lot of chance to do that in a presidential campaign.

    But it isn't an ambition that he must see himself in the limelight; he must see himself as the leader. It is that he really does genuinely feel that he has something to offer.

    Just an example, this notion of his ambition: I campaigned in New Hampshire and [former Sen.] Bill Bradley [D-N.J.] endorsed Barack at that point, and came to New Hampshire to do some campaigning for him. ...

    And he said that you see politicians and they're in front of a crowd, and they're soaking up all the energy from the crowd, and they're getting big, and they're swelling up, and that what attracted him to Barack was that when Barack is in front of a crowd, he isn't absorbing the energy that they're giving him and getting larger and becoming puffed up. He reflects that energy back on the people who are in the crowd. He energizes them.

    I thought that that was incredibly insightful. And it does go to this notion of, what's his ambition? And it goes back to him as a community organizer and the kind of leadership style that he has, that he reflects the energy and that ambition back to the people who are out there in the crowd. It isn't him soaking in their energy and being the kind of leader that is the only one on the stage. He has this ability to bring people in the process where they really feel that they're part of the process and that they can make a difference. And that's, I think, his skill as a politician.

  11. Ψ Share

    Speaking of speeches, 2004, the Democratic Convention, really lights the candle for this guy. ... Do you know that he's writing a speech and thinking hard about what to do?

    Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It was obviously an incredible opportunity. But in Barack style, he kind of took it in stride. I describe him as being pretty calm. He doesn't have ups and downs, you know? He's a pretty steady person. And when something happens that anyone else would describe as pretty phenomenal, he'll say, "You know, that was OK."

    So when he got the opportunity to speak at the convention, you know, he definitely was excited about it, but far more focused on the speech and writing the speech than basking in this notion that he would be the person to deliver this important speech.

    I was able to see an early draft of the speech. I didn't go to the convention. I watched it at home on television. And as a friend watching it, my desire was, you know, I just want him to deliver the speech. I mean, I'll be happy if he does it well, but I just don't want him to do it poorly, you know? [Laughs.]And what he was able to do obviously was just incredible. And I remember calling him after the speech and saying, "You know, that was pretty good," which is in Barack-speech, in Barack-think, you know, that's phenomenal, and just saying that, "You know, that was pretty good."

    Was he worried beforehand, too, in that practical way that, you know, "Oh, my God, I hope I don't stumble"? Because we know that Michelle walks up to him and says, "Don't blow this," like, right before he --

    And, you know, those of us who are close friends were thinking the same thing in that, you know, he just had never had this kind of opportunity. And you're more concerned about, you know, "Don't mess up," than you are thinking that he's going to do as well as he did.

    I think that he felt that he could deliver a pretty good speech, and that if it was written to his satisfaction, that it would come across well. And it did, obviously.

    And who could imagine that it would be what it turned out to be?

    Yeah.

  12. Ψ Share

    As [former presidential candidate Sen.] Gary Hart [D-Colo.] says, there's always a moment, this big moment of change where kind of the eyes and the aspirators of the voting public, or even the older guys and women who run the party, skip a generation, go looking for somebody younger to be the change agent. Obviously he immediately becomes one of the primary focal points of that aspiration. Does he know that?

    It was hard not to appreciate that he was seen by party officials, by the public as someone who was the next generation of leaders. And it wasn't so clear, I think as I indicated, when we were thinking strategically about what his first term in the Senate would -- what we wanted to accomplish. Again, it wasn't with an eye on the 2008 race. And so while you had a lot of questions about, you know, would he run for president, those questions were definitely more focused on 2012 or possibly 2016 if a Democrat was successful in 2008. But they definitely saw him as a new generation of leadership in the Democratic Party, with the potential obviously of leading the country.

    ... Talk to me a little bit about that, and about how he accumulates, gathers around him people who can help him.

    Well, it was a moment for Barack in coming to Washington. When I was helping him think through pulling together a staff for his Senate office, and we were thinking about who would be at the top of the list, the chief of staff, at the top of the list -- and this was definitely aspirational -- was Pete Rouse, who was Sen. [Tom] Daschle's longtime chief of staff. And as you indicated, Sen. Daschle [D-S.D.] had just lost his Senate race. And it was unclear to me that Pete would want to stay and work for someone who was 99th in seniority. And so it was certainly aspirational.

    And then we did some tentative outreach and found out that he was open to a conversation. So we met with him, and really, we were trying to sell him on why he would want to stay on Capitol Hill and move from working for the leader of the Democrats in the Senate to working for the 99th-in-seniority Democrat from Illinois. And we were fortunate that he saw the appeal. He was as impressed, as many people were, at the convention speech. And he saw in Barack a politician who he thought had the potential to do incredible things.

     It was a hard sell in the beginning, yes? I mean, he was kind of --

    It's just Pete, you know? It was a hard sell because he could have retired. He could have gone to work with Sen. Daschle at a law firm and make a lot more money. But Pete is -- I mean, he's a political animal. And he saw, again, something in Barack that made him want to stay.

    The fact that he was willing to be the chief of staff made such a difference, because through Pete, we were able to bring onboard a number of people from the Daschle network. And Sen. Daschle had seriously considered a run for president. And when Barack made a decision that he was going to run for president, we were able to bring in that network of people who had helped Sen. Daschle think through and set up to a certain extent, some of the infrastructure for a presidential run.

    So bringing Pete onboard made the difference. And he was able to attract a number of people in the Daschle network. He was able to connect Barack with Sen. Daschle, who was an early endorser for the presidential run. It was essential. ...

    We talked to Sen. Daschle who says he was blown away by Sen. Obama, and that they talked a little bit about the presidency, and that they had a famous meal together and talked about it. What do you know about what was said at that meal and what happened?

    We never had a conversation where he imparted the conversation.

  13. Ψ Share

    He told us, he says to Sen. Obama: "The window is open. It may never be open again." He said, "It was open for me once upon a time, and I didn't jump through it. And I'm here to tell you now, if the window is open -- and I think it is -- you ought to really seriously consider jumping through it, because you may not get another opportunity."

    Well, that was certainly a part of the calculation in his decision to run, that he would have only served in the Senate for a year and a half. There's always the challenge that the longer you serve in the Senate or in the House of Representatives, you get a voting record, and that voting record becomes fodder during a campaign. It isn't necessarily helpful the longer your voting record is, because people, your opponents can take votes out of context and blow them up to a degree that make you appear to be something that you're not, and caricature you as a candidate.

    So Barack was definitely advantaged by the fact that he had not spent as much time in the Senate. And the longer he would spend in the Senate, the more challenging it would be to make a run. He was definitely advantaged by the fact that, you know, even at that point, you were sensing that there was some fatigue in the party with the Clintons, and that while Sen. [Hillary] Clinton [D-N.Y.] was very well regarded by colleagues and by the public, that people were uncertain that they wanted kind of the dynasty to go from one family dynasty to another family dynasty.

    And so there was some question there as to whether the public would embrace, would fully embrace, the party would fully embrace another run by another Clinton. ...

  14. Ψ Share

    ... Talk to me about how Pete and others you brought to the table, including yourself, helped him navigate those early first year and a half. I mean, I know he's out campaigning; I know he's writing a book; I know he's raising money. He's writing the book.

    He's writing the book, yeah. And he wrote the book.

    In the middle of the night.

    And he wrote the book. I remember receiving draft copies of chapters at, you know, like, 1:00 in the morning: "Can you take a look at this?" You know, "I'd love your feedback." And he would. You know, he was incredibly disciplined. And I think having Pete as the chief of staff, it just made all the difference, because, you know, you appreciate Barack is a very talented person, and that he would be able to navigate Washington.

    But even as talented as he is, he had a learning curve. Although in his mind, Washington, D.C., was just a larger Springfield, he also appreciated that he would have a learning curve.

    And so it was really important to bring Pete onboard because Pete was able to, for all intents and purposes, to eliminate the learning curve. He knew the Senate. He knew what it took to be a good senator, and not just knowing who to call if Barack is interested in a particular committee. Pete knew the importance of constituency mail. As the chief of the staff, Pete answers constituency mail. He edits constituency mail. It's one thing to have this national profile and have this national reputation, but Pete understood better than anyone that if you're not answering constituency mail, if you're not doing what you need to do in Illinois, if you're not representing the people of Illinois, that weakens your ability to become this national figure. And Pete understood that.

    So Pete was able to basically eliminate Barack's learning curve and free him up to do some of the things that he was able to do, from writing the book to doing the fundraising for his colleagues, because he knew that everything was working the way it should work in the Senate office. So I can't say enough about how important Pete has been to Barack's success.

    And I could imagine that it was useful in this sense, purely social dynamic. Young rock star comes to Senate. There's McCain. There's Lindsey Graham [R-S.C.]. There's Hillary Clinton. There's, you know, Sen. [Robert] Byrd [D-W.Va.]. There's all these people who have no reason really to want to -- they want to say: "OK, rookie. Learn the way. Learn the ropes. Do the thing. Put your time in."

    And he was happy to do that. Barack has an innate sense of what he needs to do to connect in institutions with people. And he appreciated that while he had this national profile, it was important for him to establish himself with his colleagues as the junior senator from Illinois who was 99th in seniority.

    He looked to his colleagues for advice. Pete was very helpful on that front. He presented himself as he was, someone who lacked experience and knowledge of Washington. And he was able to absorb, and he reached out to them for their advice. And I think that they were very appreciative of that. ...

    As he comes in and Rouse is there and you're there and other people are there, where's Axelrod and the election apparatus? Are they on the edges waiting and watching and saying, "Let's go, you guys"? I mean, Axelrod told us: "No, no. We kept our head down. We weren't sure."

    Oh, no, absolutely. David has been a great adviser to Barack, and they have a wonderful connection. David was in Chicago and helped Barack think through, was a part of the strategic discussions about what Barack wanted to accomplish during his Senate term, his first Senate term, but wasn't pushing him in the direction of a presidential run. So no, I think that David's characterization of that is right.

    Part of the strategy was that Barack would keep his head down and that he would be the senator from Illinois and that he would do the things to help his colleagues. He has always been interested in policy, that he would stay engaged on the national policy front, but that he would keep his head down, that he would be the senator from Illinois. And he visited, I think, every county in Illinois his first year, or if not, almost every county in Illinois. He was very much representing the people of Illinois.

  15. Ψ Share
    Others on this topic:
    Barack and Michelle

    He's living above a yoga shop. How is his life?

    He was in the Senate, but Michelle and the girls were still living in Chicago. So he spent as little time as he needed to in Washington, D.C. When the opportunity presented itself, he was on a plane to Chicago.

    So there was no need for him to have grand accommodations in Washington. When he was here, he was doing his Senate work. He was writing the book. He was doing some traveling, again to raise money for his colleagues and raise money for the Senate Democrats. But it was a very spartan life.

    You know, we would try to have lunch -- I should say, we would try to have dinner at least once a month. Sometimes that would work out; sometimes that wouldn't. But he definitely wasn't a part of the Washington social scene.

    And the stress on the relationship -- any that you could perceive?

    Nothing that he talked about. But it was obviously challenging. Michelle, for all intents and purposes, was a single mom raising the girls while Barack was in Washington. He was very cognizant of that and would definitely try to carve out time where he wasn't on the road.

    One of the things that he tried to make sacrosanct was Sundays in which he would do no campaigning. That became harder. But he would try to keep time that was devoted to Michelle and the girls. But it would be difficult, I think, for any family to have one parent who was out of town for half of the week. But I think that they handled it really well. ...

  16. Ψ Share
    Others on this topic:
    Obama's Core Nature
    When your friend becomes 'the center of the universe'

    So let's talk a little bit about the thing you raised, because it's totally important to this, this idea that from now, this moment on, every room he enters, Barack Obama is--

    The center of the universe.

    Say it again?

    He's the center of the universe, for every room that he enters. Just a couple of stories: I remember early on in the process, when we were interviewing staff, that we wanted to grab some lunch, and so we walked from the Senate. Well, actually we walked from the Capitol, the Senate side of the Capitol, to Union Station.

    And we went down to the basement, which is the food court at Union Station, to grab some sushi. And no one came up to us. I think maybe people recognized Barack. But no one came up to us, and we grabbed some sushi and we ate, unmolested, at this table in the food court at Union Station.

    And you flash forward a couple of months, and he's in Washington, learning the ways of Washington, and he is the keynote speaker at one of the annual dinners for one of the civil rights organizations in town. And I hadn't seen him in a while, so I thought, I got an invitation; it would be nice just to go and say hello.

    So I go to this event, and Barack is -- he comes into the room, and he's like a force. He becomes the center of the universe, and everyone gravitates around him, to the point where it was impossible to say hello. And obviously, the longer he was in town, the more difficult it became. And so it was an appreciation that things had changed, dramatically, for him, and that he had an appeal that was beyond what I really appreciated at that time.

    You know, we all know politicians and movie stars and everybody else, who get in that bubble, and inside that bubble, they really do become the boy or the girl in the bubble. Very easy to lose perspective and to begin to believe things about yourself that may or may not be true. I know he has Michelle, but how does he keep his head on straight?

    He's got friends and family who help him on that front.

    You?

    He does, certainly. We chat as often as we can. One of the things that he complains about is that his friends don't call him enough, and I tell him that you're just, "You've got this little thing that you're doing; you're running for the presidency of the United States, and we want to be in touch, but we also appreciate that you're pretty busy." But he wants his friends to call. He wants to stay connected, which has been a challenge for him.

    And it's also Barack just has incredible perspective and that he appreciates that he's in the bubble, and he's trying very hard not to be in the bubble. I think one of the most challenging things for him in the presidential race was when he got the Secret Service detail, and that from that point on, he had people with him wherever he went. He was really in the bubble.

    And Barack has never been someone who had or needed an entourage. And I think that, to a certain extent, he is anti-entourage in personality, and that he wants the time where he can get away; when he was smoking, he could smoke a cigarette; where he could just find a point in the day where he could be reflective. And I think that that's been one of the most challenging things for him.

  17. Ψ Share
    Others on this topic:
    Obama as a Leader

    Can I ask you something that's personal? The way you introduced him, when we first started talking about bumping into him and he's a little bit older and he's whatever, is there an equivalence in your relationship? Are you kind of equals and whatever, or has he always been and is he almost always with everybody, does he have a kind of extra gravitas that, even though you can be friends with someone, he's more equal?

    He's a first among equals.

    You know what I mean?

    I do. I do. And I have to say that I've never thought about it that way. He's certainly different than any other friend that I have. [Laughs.] The fact that he's running for the presidency is very different. But certainly he has a gravitas about him. But when you're hanging out with him, you don't get that gravitas. One of the things that we did in law school was we would go to movies. You don't get that sense that he is different, but clearly he is different.

    One of the things I think is interesting about Barack -- we were talking about kind of a transition from politicians like Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle to another generation of politicians like Barack. And the interesting thing about Barack is that he's of the age of his advisers, or maybe slightly older or slightly younger, and that he's able to relate to his advisers, and his advisers are able to relate to him, in ways that they haven't been able to relate to previous politicians that they've worked for. And that there's a generational understanding that he definitely appreciates. And when you're in a conversation with Barack about an issue, if it's a policy discussion or if it's a political discussion, he's not the father figure in the room, which I think that had been the previous experience with older generations of politics.

    He's not quite the peer, obviously, because he is the principal, but it's much more of a peer, colleague relationship and engagement, than it is the father and the kids and the followers and the leaders or the staff and the principal. He wants it to be more of a conversation than it is of staff relating to a principal.

    So I think that, back to your point, that he certainly has that gravitas, but it isn't something that he uses in a way that makes you think that he's a person apart; that he is that leader that is more exalted than you are.

blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

The Rise of ISISOctober 28th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS
Frontline Journalism Fund

Supporting Investigative Reporting

Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Park Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Wyncote Foundation, and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.
PBSCPBMacArthur FoundationPark FoundationFord Foundationwyncote

FRONTLINE   Watch FRONTLINE   About FRONTLINE   Contact FRONTLINE
Privacy Policy   Journalistic Guidelines   PBS Privacy Policy   PBS Terms of Use   Corporate Sponsorship
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.