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The Legend of Barack Obama
Comments () | Published November 1, 2006
He’s gone from wearing tattered sweaters and looking like a graduate student, even as a constitutional-law professor at the University of Chicago, to dressing in sharp suits from Barneys. Part of the difference is money: This year his reissued 1995 memoir brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars; the $1.9-million advance he got for his new three-book deal allowed him to pay off 15-year-old student loans and move his family out of an apartment and into a new $1.6-million house in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.

The financial security has boosted Obama’s already considerable confidence. Advisers say he’s more relaxed now that, for the first time in his life, he doesn’t have to worry about paying next month’s rent.

“One of the questions that Michelle kept asking when I was planning to run for the Senate was how are we going to manage all this?” Obama says. “I explained that what’s going to happen is, I’m going to win the primary, win the general, and then I’m going to write a book.” He laughs and fast-forwards to his arrival in Washington. “At the Mandarin hotel for orientation, we got off the elevator, I’d gotten my book contract, and she looked at me and said, ‘I can’t believe you pulled this off.’ ”

Obama’s biggest accomplishments as a freshman senator have taken place outside the Capitol. His “Call to Renewal” speech at DC’s National City Christian Church this past summer was perhaps the most important dissection of the political world and the role of faith made by any Democratic politician in a generation. Faith, he argued, was an important part of the American reform tradition—and yet Americans must remember that it was the most religious Founders who insisted on the separation of church and state so people could not be persecuted for their beliefs. More broadly, he has inspired in a generation of political activists a measure of hope for a better, more united America.

Obama’s broad appeal was evident in the thousands who turned out to see him in Iowa in September. College student Veronica Czastkiewicz, 19, drove three hours to hear Obama speak at the steak fry even though she’s a Republican. “Barack’s attitude is awesome. If he runs, I’d love to vote for him over any of the other names I’ve heard,” she said. “Barack’s the only Democrat I’d vote for.”

In his Call to Renewal speech Obama said Americans are seeking guidance in the uncertainty of modern life, and for politics to ignore, or worse, demean that search for meaning is a disservice to the nation. “They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives,” he said. “They need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them—that they are not just destined to travel down the long highway towards nothingness.”

He was talking about Americans, but he might have been talking about himself.

Obama’s unusual family history is cited frequently as an embodiment of the American dream. His mother’s parents went to school on the GI Bill and bought a house in Kansas with an FHA loan. His father grew up herding goats in a Kenyan village before attending the University of Hawaii and Harvard. Obama was born in Hawaii, and his father, also named Barack, left when his son was two to return to Kenya. At age six Obama and his younger sister, Maya, moved to Indonesia with their mother when she remarried. After four years in the Pacific-island nation, Obama returned to Honolulu to live with his mother’s parents. His father died in a car accident in Kenya when Obama was 21.

In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama writes about his struggles over his absent father, his white mother, his mixed-race heritage, and his faith and how he fell “into exaggerated stereotypes of black male behavior.” He tried marijuana and cocaine; he didn’t use heroin because he didn’t like the dealer who tried to sell it to him. In time he straightened himself out, heading to the mainland for Occidental College in California. He then transferred to Columbia University; in New York City he was surprised by the racial tension he encountered. He moved to Chicago in 1985 to work as a community organizer for a church-based group on the South Side.

Obama’s confidence stems in part from his education—from his days at Punahou, Hawaii’s elite prep school, to Occidental to Columbia to Harvard Law School, where he was the first black editor of the law review. “The kind of education I received makes you confident in your ability to understand problems—not necessarily to have good answers but at least understand the nature of the questions,” he says.

Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, one of the nation’s leading constitutional scholars, calls Obama “one of the two most talented students I’ve had in 37 years in teaching. . . . When I look at my kids and grandkids and ask what makes me hopeful about the future—one thing is Barack Obama.”

After law school, Obama shunned clerkships and high-powered law-firm jobs to return to Chicago, where he organized a big voter-registration drive and got involved in politics, running for a state-senate seat at the urging of colleagues—and winning—in 1996.

He was greeted in the capital, Springfield, by much the same situation he would find in 2005 in Washington: The Senate Democrats were a minority in a state controlled by a Republican governor. Emil Jones, now the president of the senate and then the minority leader, recalls that Obama came to him and said, “I want to work.”

“That’s very rare,” Jones says. “He’s always someone who has wanted to work and champion causes. He’s always been that way.”

“When he first came to Springfield, many resented his good looks, his articulate speaking ability, and his intellect,” recalls state senator Kirk Dillard, a Republican. But Obama’s desire to move issues forward won over Dillard and many of his colleagues. “He’ll show up at any meeting that requires his attention,” Dillard says.

In Springfield, Obama made friends and built coalitions with the help of a weekly bipartisan poker game. He championed ethics reform and reform of the state’s death-penalty process. When Democrats became the majority, he chaired the health committee, but his best-known accomplishment was a requirement that police videotape interrogations in capital cases.

“It’s remarkable that a reform-minded newcomer could get as much accomplished as he did,” recalls federal judge Abner Mikva, who had tried to recruit Obama to clerk for him after law school. “He made a lot of friends.”

By 2000, after four years in the state senate, Obama was impatient. He was teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago and working in the legislature. In an ill-advised run against Democratic congressman Bobby Rush in 2000, Obama was beaten 2-to-1 in the primary, leaving him almost broke and prompting a Chicago political reporter to ask on the air, “Is Obama dead?” The campaign was, according to his advisers, a valuable political lesson.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 11/01/2006 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles