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Ahead of History-making Speech, Writers Look at Obama’s Career

Ahead of Thursday's eagerly-anticipated speech during which Sen. Barack Obama will accept the Democratic nomination and become first black American to lead a major party into the fall elections, a panel of Chicago writers discuss the Illinois senator's career path.

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    We're joined now by two Chicago writers who've long covered Barack Obama.

    David Mendell is the author of "Obama: From Promise to Power." He was a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune for 10 years.

    And Laura Washington is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, who's followed Obama since his days as a political organizer in Chicago in the 1990s.

    And, David Mendell, you often hear, even today, that people don't know Barack Obama. But very few Americans have written two best-selling memoirs by their mid-40s and had you write a biography about him, too.

    How come people still say that at this point?

    DAVID MENDELL, Author, "Obama: From Promise to Power": Well, I think he just doesn't fit neatly into any one demographic. He is a biracial man from Hawaii who was raised in a white family, has spent time in Indonesia, has bounced around the continental United States, went to college in L.A., New York, Boston, and then landed in Chicago.

    So he's a hard character to get your arms around. And I think people don't have a good sense of what that is, what he is, after that unique biography.


    Even after almost two years of pretty intense scrutiny, Laura?

  • LAURA WASHINGTON, Chicago Sun-Times:

    Intense scrutiny, but there's been an incredible fanfare. He's been awash in the celebrity that the Republicans have criticized him about.

    You go back and think about that day when he announced in Illinois, in Springfield, that freezing cold day, and 17,000 or 18,000 people showed up, and they were crazed with excitement about him. He's taken on sort of this mythic, iconic stature throughout the country.

    So people — and because of that, I think people attach to him whatever their own dreams and whatever their own beliefs are. Some people believe in him because he's a black man. Some people believe in him because he's been overseas. Some people believe in him because he's young. Some people believe in him because he talks about change.

    And so everyone thinks he is who they want him to think, but, really, no one knows who he really is.


    Well, David, in your book, you used words like "imperious, mercurial, self-righteous, extraordinarily ambitious." It seems there's more to know about this guy in your book.


    Well, yes, those are certainly characteristics he has. He can be a little bit imperious, especially with reporters and those who kind of invade his world. This whole celebrity thing was a very uncomfortable fit for him at the beginning.

    As much as he sought it out, as ambitious as he is for both he and Michelle, his wife, it was a — you know, it freaked him out at the beginning. And he's had a — it's been a learning curve for him to figure out how to deal with that over this period of time, so…