He is the community activist who gave Obama his first job in Chicago, organizing black neighborhoods to push for local change. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on July 24, 2008 for The Choice 2008 (42:36)
He is the community activist who gave Obama his first job in Chicago, organizing black neighborhoods to push for local change. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on July 24, 2008 for The Choice 2008
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So how'd you meet him?
I received a resume. We had put an ad in a number of newspapers for a community organizer in South Side of Chicago, and Barack sent me a resume. We then did a phone interview. And based on that phone interview, I decided I wanted to interview him in person. I was going to New York City anyway. My dad lived on the Upper West Side. And I arranged a meeting in a coffee shop on Lexington Avenue, and we did a two-hour phone [interview]. I offered him a job and he said yes.
The story, the way it's been written is, you get off the telephone with this guy; you don't even know quite what his race is. So take us to that telephone call. He calls you, or you call him?
No, I called him based -- there's a phone number on the resume. And at this point, I'm looking for anybody who might be a good organizer. But I particularly need somebody who's African American, because I'm doing the organizing in the large African American portion of the area we're organizing. And it's tough. I mean, it's tough to get doors opened. It's tough in terms of the way ethnic politics play out in Chicago. We really needed somebody who can be identified as an African American organizer.
And I talked to Barack, and there's really no way to tell if he's African American or not, except somewhere in the conversation, he indicated some kind of interest in some African American activities at Columbia. So I thought he was.
But when we're through the interview, I'm looking at the name, which is Obama, and I see he's from Hawaii. I'm fairly convinced that he must be Japanese. Obama is a Japanese name also. And he's not. So I really did not know much about him initially, but my job was to learn as much as I could about him in the interviews.
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Why he thought Obama would make a good organizer
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- Obama's Motivation
So you sat down with him in a diner. Tell me where you meet, what your first thoughts are about him, what you think of him.
Sure. Well, there's the surface impression, and then there's the more substantive impression. The surface impression was that he was personable. For 24 years old, he seemed relatively stable emotionally, fairly confident, neat and I'm not sure if I said personable, but he was personable. That's the superficial sort of impression.
What was important for me was his motivation. I mean, the whole purpose of this interview for me was to ascertain his motivation, because we had not had good experiences with people who were as young as he was in organizing. They would burn out very quickly. The work was very, very frustrating. There was a lot of failure. And the fact that someone had been successful in previous endeavors, including in their academic career, was not necessarily a plus in terms of the organizing, because young people who have been successful would, for the first time in their life, encounter significant failure. And they would often unravel on us.
And so I wanted to see whether his motivation made sense to me, and that he'd be able to withstand some of that stuff in the early stages of learning the work. And the way I needed to do that was to get as much of his story as possible. And the organizing itself was always based on a narrative, which gave Barack a good jump-start with the work, getting to know people's story and building a relationship with them around that story, and then challenging them to move out of that story, to change their life along with other people in the present.
And so it was natural for me to try to pull Barack's story out of him. And I did. And based on that story, I was convinced that he had a good shot at doing the work.
What I noticed about his story, that I responded to, were three things. First of all, Barack was, to my mind, an outsider. He had been a foreign kid. He'd been American growing up in a foreign country. He had traveled back in high school without his mom to Hawaii. Although he was biracial, he was certainly identified as someone who was black and African American. There were very few people like him in Hawaii. He had moved around a lot, and he just had the experience of being an outsider.
And what he did with that, which attracted me, was he used that to identify with other people who were outsiders. And for the work we were doing, people were poor. People had faced racial discrimination. They're certainly outsiders. So Barack used his own experience of being an outsider -- although he had more opportunities, certainly, than the people we were working with -- to identify with other people.
The other thing about the outsider piece is that he had a tendency, as people who feel that way, to step out of things, to be reflective, not just to get caught up in the action, but to step out and think about things. And he was reflective. So that was the first thing.
The second thing is he was very idealistic. What Barack really wanted, I thought at the time, was to be a civil rights organizer. But he was 10 or 12 years too young for that. That was for those of us who were a little bit older. And this was the closest thing he could find. But he had been inspired by the civil rights movement and by Dr. King, in particular. That sort of inspiration, idealism, was particularly powerful for a young man who was half African and who was trying to figure out how to put the various pieces of his identity together. So there was that idealism.
And finally -- and this is true of him today -- he was very hungry to learn. He really took the job to learn how to do this kind of grassroots work. And what he did in the interview, which is what I always would look for, is he sort of turned it around on me. I mean, in addition to my asking him a bunch of questions, he wouldn't let me get out of there without he asking me a bunch of questions. And I thought that was good. And his questions were really pointed toward what would he learn? You know, could we teach him anything? Was he going to be able to learn enough? And how would he survive financially? What were we going to pay him?
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How would a kid like him at that point, 24, and with his interests, be drawn to a city run by Harold Washington? Did that come up in the discussion? Did you ever talk about politics? Was that one of draws for the job in some ways?
Well, I want to be clear, because people get this wrong. Barack was not interested in electoral politics. And his first experience with elected officials in Chicago, if he was interested, would have probably drummed that out of him, because there was a lot of things to make you cynical about elected officials in the city of Chicago.
I think that when the question is asked to him, it is, "Why are you interested in doing this? You should be working for Harold." And although he says, well, he sent a letter, they didn't respond, if he'd wanted to work in the Washington administration, he certainly could have. And he wasn't interested. He was interested in doing the grassroots kind of thing.
I think that Harold Washington made it clear to people that Chicago had a major black community. I mean, I don't know that Barack knew the data, but in fact, the largest single black community in the United States was the one he came to work in, the South Side of Chicago, almost a million people. And it's diverse. And it's different kinds of incomes and origins of where people come from. And I think that the fact that Chicago had elected an African American mayor in Harold Washington sort of emphasized with Barack that he was coming to a city where blacks were a major presence and had some significance.
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- Obama's Search for Identity
And when he writes about this period of time, this is still during that period of time where he's struggling to figure out his identity in a lot of ways. Did that come through? ...
Certainly in terms of even career, I mean, Barack was trying out this organizing. His other choice at the time was he still held some hope of becoming a novelist. I mean, he really liked writing. He really liked narrative. He wrote short stories when he was here. When he got here, that was the other choice that I think was very, very alive for him at that time. So he's figuring out career.
And certainly he's figuring out how he proceeds with this life with all his diversity. I mean, Barack not only is racially diverse, but he's able to hold different ideas together. He's a person who does very well with difference in holding it together. But the world doesn't always do as well as he does. And so where does he fit in?
When people usually ask about figuring out his identity, they usually start with Dreams From My Father and the racial issue. What was happening at that time, beginning to happen -- it happened more after he got here -- is he was having conversations with his half-brother and -sister who had come to the States as graduate students. And so for the first time, he was learning something about his father. And that was very important to him.
But it wasn't so much a racial identity thing, as any kid, any young person who would have known his mother but really not known his father, known much about his father, only what his mother had said -- and his mother hadn't really known his father most of Barack's life. Here was the first chance he had to get a glimpse of where he came from on that side of it. And that was important to him.
First time to learn where he came from by talking to his half-brother and -sister?
That's right. At least the story. And he didn't get the full story. He didn't get the full story until he went to Kenya and met his grandmother and saw the village and all of that stuff. But as much as he could, he was getting -- particularly from his sister, Auma, he was getting a strong sense of his father's biography.
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How introspective was this guy? When you talked to him, did he always connect the dots in a much more three-dimensional way where he would -- his family life, his racial background, the work he was doing, history and civil rights? Did you get from him something different than most guys that you were hiring, how he looked at this work and his role in it?
Barack was reflective. But the best organizers always are. He didn't distinguish himself, I think, in his degree of reflectiveness. But there are all kinds of distinguishing features about Barack.
Well, let me describe what he had to do. When he first got to Chicago, his job was to learn to listen. And he's a naturally good listener. So he would go out with me and we'd do six or seven conversations a day. And he'd watch me, and then I'd watch him. And in those conversations, he'd be looking for narrative. And very quickly, he was out on his own, just talking to people, day after day. And then at the end of the day, or late in the evening, he'd come home and he'd take his notes -- and he wasn't taking a lot of notes, but little index cards maybe on each person -- and then just put it together. How do these things connect? How do these people connect to each other? Who are they? What are some of their aspirations? What are they facing in the community?
So he's doing that for the people he's working with. And of course when you do that for other people, you naturally begin to do it for yourself in a very systematic way. So he was linking narrative to community, to power. That was his job. And in doing so, he naturally, whatever skills he learned doing that, he turned on himself. And I think that was a very healthy process. It was a very significant period of growth I think for him, his two years in Chicago.
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The young activist's reading list
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You mentioned that in connecting it to power, power is what this is all about in a lot of ways. Explain that.
Well, I gave Barack two books to read. And the first book was by Robert Caro, who's written this wonderful multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson. But I gave him The Power Broker about [New York City architect] Robert Moses, and how power is often exercised behind the scenes and the public doesn't have access to it, and it's exercised for all kinds of reasons other than the stated reasons, so sort of the dark side of power which he learned personally in Chicago, too.
Other hand, I gave him Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch's first volume, biography of King and the civil rights movement, so maybe the upside of power at the same time and where they fit together.
But yes, power. We were working with people who had no power, and what we were trying to do was at least level the playing field in terms of power. And I think that, as we move into seeing what Barack, what positions he takes on public policy, a lot of this is about leveling the playing field, not to seize power from one group and give it to another, but to give people an equal shot at the economic resources, the social resources. ...
And part of the lesson I suppose in becoming a good community organizer is to figure out how one attains power. What are some of the lessons that are taught that he had to learn about power and how one attains it?
...Certainly what he learned is that the stated reasons for people doing things were not necessarily the actual reasons. And he came to Chicago, and the last of the great political machines, the Democratic organization, the regular Democratic Party of Cook County, was still very much intact when Barack got here. Harold Washington had been elected mayor, but the city council was controlled by the machine.
And Mike Royko, the columnist of those years, said the city motto of Chicago was, "Where's mine?" And Barack learned that very quickly. It didn't matter who was the state representative or the state senator or the alderman -- that's the city councilman of Chicago. It mattered who the Democratic ward committee man was. He called the shots or she called the shots. Whoever is the official representative of the Democratic Party gave the marching orders to the public officials.
And then when you met with people who were the ward committeemen, you needed to know something about them. You needed to know their side business. Were they an attorney? Did they sell insurance? Were they a real estate developer? Because often what they did was dictated by that kind of motivation. Who were their relatives, and who did they work for?
It quickly dissuaded him of any illusions he had about self-interest and how it's used in the political process. Barack came to Chicago very idealistic. Part of our job was to make him more practical. He left idealistic, but he left with a strong streak of practicality; that if you're not practical, you don't do anybody any favors, and you and the people you're working for get their brains beat out. ...
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So what's the job? What were the practical things that were being accomplished? How did churches become a very big part of the constituency or the people that needed to be worked with or through, whatever?
This may be a digression, but let me set the scene for you in terms of why this organization was organized. It's called the Calumet Community Religious Conference. And we organized it because the Calumet region, which is a bi-state region of Indiana and Illinois, was the largest producer of steel in the world. And those steel mills began to shut, one by one, or go down to skeleton crews, and with them, all the related factories and jobs. So this is an area that had faced enormous economic devastation.
And the face of that in neighborhoods was physical deterioration, disinvestment, all kinds of social problems, crime, kids getting into trouble with gangs and drugs, just a lot of human devastation. So we organized the project to deal with the fallout of that. And we believed that you needed an institutional base to organize. You just didn't organize individuals, but you'd organize organizations.
And the unions were just beat down. They were not ready to do anything more. They were just crushed by this experience. And the churches were the only thing that was left, were an institution that had a big stake in the neighborhood and had any kind of hope of doing something. So it was to organize an organization of churches.
And initially, we set aside part of the project in one area, which happened to be mostly African American, where the churches were poorer. Each church was paying dues to help us get organized. And a church in even a blue-collar, a white or Hispanic area might be able to pay $5,000 a year.
The churches in the area where we sent Barack were much poorer. They could maybe manage $1,000 a year. So there wasn't enough money for budget. We had to apply for a grant from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. And to do that, we had to define the areas as poverty. We set it off as a separate organization. We called it the Developing Communities Project, and that's who Barack specifically came to work for.
His job was to take that base of a handful of Catholic churches and make it ecumenical, make it broader in terms of the community, certainly Protestant. There were not many synagogues or mosques, so it was basically a Christian organization, Catholic and Protestant churches, and to take people who did not necessarily agree on things, who might even dislike each other, and get them to work together and take people who had given up hope of anything changing and get them to the point that they were willing to, one more time, try it again to have enough hope and confidence in him to get involved one more time.
The way he did that, first of all, was to understand what was going on in the community. And he did that through a massive number of interviews, what we would call one-on-one interviews, listening to people and trying to make sense of it. When that was all finished, he was ready, you know, with some advice from myself and others who had done this work a long time, to try to invite those people to come together to do something. ...
There was a housing project where he had found out that asbestos was being removed from the manager's office. Now the manager's office was just another apartment. So if there was asbestos in the manager's office, then it was everywhere in the housing project. And the Chicago Housing Authority was just going to leave it there.
And Barack called some of the people he had met together, people he thought had leadership abilities, people who had followings in the community, and said, "This is what the CHA is doing." And these folks who couldn't have been less concerned about an environmental issue -- not because there weren't environmental problems; there were probably more toxic waste dumps, superfund sites around this area than anyplace else in the country -- but they needed jobs. They needed to keep their kids out of trouble. And environmental issues didn't seem to mean much for them.
What Barack did was to say: "Look at the inequity here. One more time, they're taking care of themselves, and they're leaving you to breathe this crap and, you know, essentially die, and your children, too." And there was an inequity that enabled him to organize people for the first time and to pull them out, where many people had tried to organize people in that project and failed before.
And from that point on, he was their coach. It's hard for people to conceive that his job was not be on camera, not to have his picture in the newspaper, when he's probably the most photographed person in the world right now. But in those days, it was his job to help them get on camera. You know, it was their community, and he was their coach. He was in the background. He was taking people who, because of income, because of education, had no experience working with large corporations and challenging them or government, and didn't have the basic public skills that some other people might have.
So from scratch, he needed to work with them on how to organize a meeting, how to talk to a powerful person, how to negotiate, how to talk to the news media, how to get the news media to cover you, how to do research to find out the nature of the problem.
So he was really a teacher during this period, a coach. But he did it in the midst of constant action. The organizing is constantly moving. There's give-and-take as you begin to take up an issue. So he worked on that issue, and then began to have to work several other issues simultaneously, coaching people with the same leaders and different sets of leaders. And in time, he had to be concerned about developing a stable base for the organization and a stable budget, a stable group of leaders, respect in a church community that was very threatened.
While this is going on, people are threatened by an organizer, so they're calling him names; they're trying to discredit him. And very quickly, he's getting a baptism by fire.
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Couple things about that, the asbestos: the big meeting that everybody talks about where he gets everybody together and he sort of has them scripted and they're going to meet the main guy from the city that is dealing with the issues, which was not seen as a great victory. It kind of came apart. Explain what happened that day and why it's important, I mean, what it taught Obama.
I don't know whether it taught him this, or this is the nature of Barack, but when he met frustration or defeat, he's very good about -- I mean, he's initially either angry or kind of depressed about it, but very quickly he's resilient. He steps back from the situation. He regroups, and he steps back in. ...
... What happened that one day, the meeting where it all sort of came to a head.
I think that Barack describes the meeting better in detail in his own book. But I think that the key points for Barack were that he didn't feel -- people didn't stay on script. They didn't handle the meeting in their own best interest. They let their emotions run wild and get out of hand. And he as an organizer was powerless to prevent that.
At the same time, they were disappointed in him because they had put themselves on the line to bring out their relatives and their friends and everybody with hope that something would happen. And they get down there, and they kind of have the door slammed in their face. So there's a sense of, on some people's part, that he let them down, which was a heavy burden for a young man. And there was a sense that they were treated blithely with disrespect by the city.
And all that culminated in a sense of failure. He had worked for months to get to this point, and it did not go well. And ultimately he was the person responsible. So in some sense, there was nobody else to blame but himself. Obviously other people make mistakes, but if you're the person in charge, then you're responsible. You know, at least it should be that way. It's not always that way.
So he had to regroup strategically. And it was a test to see whether a big public failure -- and it's a public failure, because it's a big meeting. There's media there. I mean, it isn't anything you can just sweep under the rug.
So did he sit down in those situations with you afterward and sort of say: "OK, here's what happened. What happened? What do you think? This is what I think"? What took place after that?
Barack at this point was, I think, probably already in charge of this piece of the organizing. And the first people I sat down with is his leaders, the people he worked with. The discipline was, you evaluate what happened right away. You sit down and you figure out what happened, and you discuss it collaboratively, because it's a learning experience. You're always a teacher. Even if you feel like crap because the city has just kind of slammed the door in your face, you still can't miss the teaching opportunity.
And part of that evaluation session is that people support each other. I mean, they figure out what happened, but they also kind of console each other as in a wake, you know, so they feel better and they can go on.
Beyond that, I think Barack's tendency was always to have some time to think it out for himself. He would talk to lots of people. He would bounce things off people. He would be collaborative. When something major happens for Barack, he needs some time by himself to figure it out for himself and get a sense of what his own feelings about it, his own insights into it.
And that's what he would do. And then after that, he would talk to other organizers and other people who were experienced. It wasn't simply: "What did I do wrong? You tell me what to do right." I mean, very quickly I think he learned that nobody has all the answers.
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The first time you hear about Jeremiah Wright was how?
Barack is meeting lots of pastors, and he's getting to know the church. He would have to go to lots of services on Sunday. I mean, one way to get the pastor to feel good about you is to show up at church on Sunday. And you get introduced to the congregation. So a lot of the clergy, which was key to Barack's organizing, he would write up in his reports, and we would talk about them and who they were and what they were doing.
And how was Wright viewed at that point?
Trinity is a very activist congregation. And on local issues, they've done a wonderful job. They work with people who have AIDS. They feed the hungry; they help the poor. But most of all, they do wonderful work with youth, and that was always an attraction to Barack. Barack clearly perceived that young people are at risk in these kinds of communities. And Trinity's work on the self-esteem of young people, getting the kids to not defeat themselves, to take their studies seriously, not to accept the image that society might offer them as young black kids, but to understand that they have potential and self-esteem, not to depend on the easy way but to work hard, Trinity did brilliant programming in that area. And that was deeply influential to Barack. ...
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Obama finds a home in Chicago
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Pastors were absolutely essential to the work that he was doing. But he's written and other people have written about the fact that it wasn't easy. When he first got there, he was sort of questioned as being the outsider. What was the problem that he encountered, and how did he start dealing with that?
There is tendency of people to protect their turf, even if it isn't much. So both local politicians and local pastors, sometimes who can act like politicians, were threatened by Barack organizing something else in their community. And he had to convince them that this something else was something that was for them and not just in competition with them.
But those pastors who were most self-interested and least interested in what would happen in the community, would use anything. I mean, he was called a pawn of Jews and Catholics, certainly an outsider. This whole issue of, you know, is he black enough began to arise, and other scurrilous kinds of things.
But the source of that were people being threatened by the loss of their little power base and also by change. And we see that today. I mean, Barack has been threatening to some people, leaders in the black community who have developed a certain way of doing things. And now Barack has challenged all of that in terms of how we move forward with race relations. ...
Back to the churches for a second. One of the things was -- I think maybe Reverend Love said, “It’s hard for you to sort of be involving all these people and getting them to jump onboard with you when we don’t even know what church you’re involved with,” whatever. Did he understand that in fact he needed to become more involved with the community and with the churches?
An organizer has to keep some distance from the community. That's what we were taught, at least a community organizer. Civil rights organizer, on the other hand, would be very much of the community and from the community.
And just personally what Barack found in Chicago was a home. I mean, he had traveled a lot, and from the time he got here, people received him very graciously. He was a skinny young man, and in some of the communities he worked, there were a lot of single moms, single grandmothers, and they wanted to take him in and feed him and fatten him up. He was an eligible young man. They wanted to introduce him to their daughters and to their granddaughters. ...
A lot of what happened in Chicago was taking the theoretical and the book knowledge and making it real. Barack knew that the church had sustained African Americans from the very beginning, that when there was no place else to turn, that's where they would turn for hope. That's where they would turn to be fed. And it was the sustaining institution of the community.
He also knew that the cadences of rhetoric and political speech, that was most powerful. Our two great speakers in American history, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, both of their speeches just ring with the rhythms of Scripture.
So Barack understood that this was the central institution where people gathered for community and for justice and when they were in trouble, either collectively or personally, to find God. So he understood all that stuff. But it was somewhat academic for him. He had to relate to it personally.
So he was reticent, I think initially, to move in that way. And eventually he became more comfortable. He was spending his time in churches. He was knowing people; he was knowing pastors.
But I don't think this thing works itself out until he meets Michelle. He's not really part of the congregation at Trinity until he's moving toward a family.
And the hard thing about leaving Trinity is that his family was rooted there. His kids met other children, and his family met other families, and he was married there, and the kids were baptized there. ...
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When do you see the first spark of interest in politics?
In electoral politics?
I don't really know he's going to go there until he tells me he's leaving organizing, he's going to go to law school, and he's going to do that.
But when he tells me that, he tells me why. And it makes sense, that what he wanted to see was large-scale change. And community organizing changes small issues in people's lives, and we transform people's lives in terms of teaching them skills and giving them hope they didn't have before. But it structurally was not going to change racial discrimination. It was not going to change poverty in the United States. There simply would not be enough power there.
That would only come through electoral politics. And that's what he said to me when he said he was going to leave. That was one of the reasons for leaving organizing. But I did not see that he'd go in that direction until he told me.
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Why Obama went to law school
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Why the law degree? Why did he think he needed the law degree from Harvard?
Barack was part of a world that most people running for president never impart, a very grassroots world, the world of the streets, so he understood that part of the world. But you also as president have to deal with the wealthy and powerful. I mean, most people only have that experience. I mean, I think probably George Bush was given the card, the Skull and Bones at Yale, probably when he was baptized.
Barack didn't have that experience. He had the grassroots experience. He had the experience of being an outsider. He didn't have the experience of connectedness to the levels of public policy and academia and government that other people might have had. And to do that, he needed to connect with one of the major universities.
And law school made a lot of sense to him. If he had a hero as a president, it would have been Abraham Lincoln from Illinois. Lincoln was a lawyer, and certainly many of the great figures in the Democratic Party, Roosevelt, Kennedy, you know, they had been attorneys. It was the logical choice for him to make. ...
You said that his dad's legacy comes into play big time on his decision to go to Harvard. What did you mean by that?
Well, the second reason that he gave me when he told me he was leaving -- and understand, we're at Harvard at the time. We're attending a conference on the black church, which is sponsored by the Harvard Divinity School, and we're walking around the campus. He was just getting to know his father's biography in a more detailed way. I mean, his mom really wasn't in touch with his father; there was nobody giving that information. But his half-brother and half-sibs were beginning to come over to the States and to Europe to go to -- and then to the States to visit, to go to graduate school from Kenya, and so he's getting the story.
And the story as he understood it was that his dad had been overly idealistic and not practical. They had fallen on the outside of the government in Kenya. And not only had he been ineffective at dealing with his own ideals, but he ended up impractical and destitute financially.
And although Barack didn't have much interest in wealth, he had a strong interest in having a secure income to marry and raise a family. He did not want to follow in his father's footsteps. He wanted to be more practical in his choices and more practical in terms of how he might bring change to the country. And so his perception of who his father was figured in that.
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When he comes back from Harvard, how is he different? Is he changed? ...
Remember, he doesn't go off to Harvard and disappear. Every vacation is spent in Chicago. He's always coming back here. This is his home now, and more so once he meets Michelle.
And when he's back, he's worried about DCP. You know, he's got this, for a young man, an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. And he's running in to see if the budget's there, if the organizers are screwing up, you know, trying to induce us to help out since he's not on the scene anymore. He doesn't lose sight of that.
He's still growing and exploring. He gets this book contract, and the major thing is that it's a big advance. And he owes a ton of money for law school and law school debts. But he's so busy he can't get himself to write the book. He finally graduates, and he's almost at the deadline. And he goes off on the beach to write the book.
But everything tends to happen for a reason. And Barack used the book as an opportunity to explore, you know, who he was and his own story and to write it down in a disciplined fashion, something he wouldn't have done probably at that stage if he hadn't been forced to.
He's very much the same person, with the exception of probably meeting Michelle and moving into that phase of his life. His roots begin to sink much deeper.
He becomes anchored, you know, in a new way in that marriage and with those kids. And he's able to move out into the world with a lot more confidence and lot more perspective, because he married a woman who just doesn't buy into everything he says, who will challenge him in a variety of ways. And that's very healthy. ...
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- An Early Setback
You explained why he ran for Congress, because it was one of the few opportunities for a black politician. What's the lessons learned when he loses? I mean, he's a bit despondent for a while. But when you look at it, when you talk to him during that period of time, what does he gain from that?
There's a couple of things. One is that Barack doesn't do well with ethnic politics. You know, you're running in an Italian district. Who's more Italian or who's more Jewish or who's more Irish or who's more black? He does not do well with that. Barack's gift to the world is diversity and being able to live in different worlds at the same time, different kinds of people.
And here he is trying to hone himself into the representative of the black community. He moves from Hyde Park, which is a much more racially diverse Senate district into a much more black congressional district. He loses doing ethnic politics, and he does badly with it. And he also gets caught in some of the narrow self-interested kinds of local politics that will happen in that kind of race.
And at some point, he ends up looking at a office where his gifts for working with different people together and bringing diversity together will be helpful to him, rather than a minus, as it was in the congressional campaign, where his broad sense of narrative and of getting to the roots of issues rather than the more superficial ward heeler, if you will, kind of issues are much more important.
So the only option left to him is the option that he has gifts for, which is he's just stronger in a larger arena. He's weaker in that small arena. He's not weak one on one, but the more self-interested and narrow things become, the more he has to turn himself inside out in order to make that appeal. And he simply wasn't good at it.
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- Obama's Ambition
What is your take on him? Every two years basically, he was jumping to the next large step on the ladder toward amazing power. Where does he get that from? ...
I think we read that back into the timeline, rather than it being the reality. When Barack returned to Chicago, it was to eventually run for the United States Congress. I mean, that was clearly the position that he wanted and that he aspired to. And if part of the road to that was working in the state Senate, and that was part of it -- the point he's running for Congress, that's what he was pointing toward, probably once from the time he decided to enter politics, which begins probably with Harvard Law School.
The jump to the Senate wasn't something he orchestrated. I mean, it was thrust upon him, because there was nothing else left. Politically, his back was to the wall, and if he was going to go anywhere, it would have to be to the U.S. Senate as a major public figure.
But once he begins to go to the Senate, something else begins to happen for Barack, which is that he begins to have a team of people to collaborate with. I mean, Barack is brilliant at pulling together a team of people and getting them to work together, and to work with him. ...
And then he gets invited to give the speech at the Democratic Convention. And suddenly I walk into a supermarket, and half of the magazines -- and it doesn't matter what they're dealing with; I mean, maybe for all I know, he was on Field & Stream -- have Barack's picture on it. He becomes a media phenomenon. ...
So when he takes on this next role that he's always taking on, and the presidential role, does he see it as opportunity or obligation? How does he view it?
Well, I can just say what I know of Barack, and this is, the largest influence on Barack is his mother. And his mother imbued him with a strong sense of achievement, that he should be the best at whatever he does.
But she also imbued him with a strong sense of service. This is a woman who, when I met Barack, was in Bangladesh developing microeconomic lending programs so women could have spinning wheels in Bangladesh. I mean, a strong sense of service.
Nobody runs for president of the United States unless they're ambitious. Anybody who thinks otherwise is silly. And Barack does want to be the best. He wants to achieve personally. But he's also got this strong, strong sense of service to others. And so they coexist. ...