Obama Audacity of Hope
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Obama Audacity of Hope

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Obama Audacity of Hope Obama Audacity of Hope Document Transcript

  • Obam_0307237699_3p_all_r1.qxp 9/19/06 10:48 AM The Page i A U DAC I T Y of HOPE
  • Obam_0307237699_3p_all_r1.qxp 104 9/19/06 10:48 AM Page 104 T h e AU DAC I T Y o f H O P E hard-pressed to name better storytellers than Ted Kennedy or Trent Lott, or sharper wits than Kent Conrad or Richard Shelby, or warmer individuals than Debbie Stabenow or Mel Martinez. As a rule they proved to be intelligent, thoughtful, and hardworking people, willing to devote long hours and attention to the issues affecting their states. Yes, there were those who lived up to the stereotype, those who talked interminably or bullied their staffs; and the more time I spent on the Senate floor, the more frequently I could identify in each senator the flaws that we all suffer from to varying degrees—a bad temper here, a deep stubbornness or unquenchable vanity there. For the most part, though, the quotient of such attributes in the Senate seemed no higher than would be found in any random slice of the general population. Even when talking to those colleagues with whom I most deeply disagreed, I was usually struck by their basic sincerity—their desire to get things right and leave the country better and stronger; their desire to represent their constituents and their values as faithfully as circumstances would allow. So what happened to make these men and women appear as the grim, uncompromising, insincere, and occasionally mean characters that populate our nightly news? What was it about the process that prevented reasonable, conscientious people from doing the nation’s business? The longer I served in Washington, the more I saw friends studying my face for signs of a change, probing me for a newfound pomposity, searching for hints of argumentativeness or guardedness. I began examining myself in the same way; I began to see certain characteristics that I held in common with my new colleagues, and I wondered what might prevent my own transformation into the stock politician of bad TV movies. One place to start my inquiry was to understand the nature of ambition, for in this regard at least, senators are different. Few
  • Obam_0307237699_3p_all_r1.qxp 9/19/06 10:48 AM Politics Page 105 105 people end up being United States senators by accident; at a minimum, it requires a certain megalomania, a belief that of all the gifted people in your state, you are somehow uniquely qualified to speak on their behalf; a belief sufficiently strong that you are willing to endure the sometimes uplifting, occasionally harrowing, but always slightly ridiculous process we call campaigns. Moreover, ambition alone is not enough. Whatever the tangle of motives, both sacred and profane, that push us toward the goal of becoming a senator, those who succeed must exhibit an almost fanatical single-mindedness, often disregarding their health, relationships, mental balance, and dignity. After my primary campaign was over, I remember looking at my calendar and realizing that over a span of a year and a half, I had taken exactly seven days off. The rest of the time I had typically worked twelve to sixteen hours a day. This was not something I was particularly proud of. As Michelle pointed out to me several times a week during the campaign, it just wasn’t normal. Neither ambition nor single-mindedness fully accounts for the behavior of politicians, however. There is a companion emotion, perhaps more pervasive and certainly more destructive, an emotion that, after the giddiness of your official announcement as a candidate, rapidly locks you in its grip and doesn’t release you until after Election Day. That emotion is fear. Not just fear of losing—although that is bad enough—but fear of total, complete humiliation. I still burn, for example, with the thought of my one loss in politics, a drubbing in 2000 at the hands of incumbent Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush. It was a race in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong, in which my own mistakes were compounded by tragedy and farce. Two weeks after announcing my candidacy, with a few thousand dollars raised, I commissioned my first poll and discovered that Mr. Rush’s name recognition stood at about 90 percent, while mine stood at 11 percent. His approval rating hovered around 70 percent—mine at 8.
  • Obam_0307237699_3p_all_r1.qxp 106 9/19/06 10:48 AM Page 106 T h e AU DAC I T Y o f H O P E In that way I learned one of the cardinal rules of modern politics: Do the poll before you announce. Things went downhill from there. In October, on my way to a meeting to secure an endorsement from one of the few party officials who had not already committed to my opponent, I heard a news flash on the radio that Congressman Rush’s adult son had been shot and killed by a pair of drug dealers outside his house. I was shocked and saddened for the congressman, and effectively suspended my campaign for a month. Then, during the Christmas holidays, after having traveled to Hawaii for an abbreviated five-day trip to visit my grandmother and reacquaint myself with Michelle and then-eighteen-monthold Malia, the state legislature was called back into special session to vote on a piece of gun control legislation. With Malia sick and unable to fly, I missed the vote, and the bill failed. Two days later, I got off the red-eye at O’Hare Airport, a wailing baby in tow, Michelle not speaking to me, and was greeted by a frontpage story in the Chicago Tribune indicating that the gun bill had fallen a few votes short, and that state senator and congressional candidate Obama “had decided to remain on vacation” in Hawaii. My campaign manager called, mentioning the potential ad the congressman might be running soon—palm trees, a man in a beach chair and straw hat sipping a mai tai, a slack key guitar being strummed softly in the background, the voice-over explaining, “While Chicago suffered the highest murder rate in its history, Barack Obama . . .” I stopped him there, having gotten the idea. And so, less than halfway into the campaign, I knew in my bones that I was going to lose. Each morning from that point forward I awoke with a vague sense of dread, realizing that I would have to spend the day smiling and shaking hands and pretending that everything was going according to plan. In the few weeks before the primary, my campaign recovered a bit: I did
  • Obam_0307237699_3p_all_r1.qxp 9/19/06 10:48 AM Politics Page 107 107 well in the sparsely covered debates, received some positive coverage for proposals on health care and education, and even received the Tribune endorsement. But it was too little too late. I arrived at my victory party to discover that the race had already been called and that I had lost by thirty-one points. I’m not suggesting that politicians are unique in suffering such disappointments. It’s that unlike most people, who have the luxury of licking their wounds privately, the politician’s loss is on public display. There’s the cheerful concession speech you have to make to a half-empty ballroom, the brave face you put on as you comfort staff and supporters, the thank-you calls to those who helped, and the awkward requests for further help in retiring debt. You perform these tasks as best you can, and yet no matter how much you tell yourself differently—no matter how convincingly you attribute the loss to bad timing or bad luck or lack of money—it’s impossible not to feel at some level as if you have been personally repudiated by the entire community, that you don’t quite have what it takes, and that everywhere you go the word “loser” is flashing through people’s minds. They’re the sorts of feelings that most people haven’t experienced since high school, when the girl you’d been pining over dismissed you with a joke in front of her friends, or you missed a pair of free throws with the big game on the line—the kinds of feelings that most adults wisely organize their lives to avoid. Imagine then the impact of these same emotions on the average big-time politician, who (unlike me) has rarely failed at anything in his life—who was the high school quarterback or the class valedictorian and whose father was a senator or admiral and who has been told since he was a child that he was destined for great things. I remember talking once to a corporate executive who had been a big supporter of Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 presidential race. We were in his suitably plush office, overlooking all of midtown Manhattan, and he began
  • Obam_0307237699_3p_all_r1.qxp 108 9/19/06 10:48 AM Page 108 T h e AU DAC I T Y o f H O P E describing to me a meeting that had taken place six months or so after the election, when Gore was seeking investors for his thenfledgling television venture. “It was strange,” the executive told me. “Here he was, a former vice president, a man who just a few months earlier had been on the verge of being the most powerful man on the planet. During the campaign, I would take his calls any time of day, would rearrange my schedule whenever he wanted to meet. But suddenly, after the election, when he walked in, I couldn’t help feeling that the meeting was a chore. I hate to admit it, because I really like the guy. But at some level he wasn’t Al Gore, former vice president. He was just one of the hundred guys a day who are coming to me looking for money. It made me realize what a big steep cliff you guys are on.” A big steep cliff, the precipitous fall. Over the past five years, Al Gore has shown the satisfaction and influence that a life after politics can bring, and I suspect the executive is eagerly taking the former vice president’s calls once again. Still, in the aftermath of his 2000 loss, I imagine Gore would have sensed the change in his friend. Sitting there, pitching his television idea, trying to make the best of a bad situation, he might have thought how ridiculous were the circumstances in which he found himself; how after a lifetime of work he could have lost it all because of a butterfly ballot that didn’t align, while his friend the executive, sitting across from him with the condescending smile, could afford to come in second in his business year after year, maybe see his company’s stock tumble or make an ill-considered investment, and yet still be considered successful, still enjoy the pride of accomplishment, the lavish compensation, the exercise of power. It wasn’t fair, but that wouldn’t change the facts for the former vice president. Like most men and women who followed the path of public life, Gore knew what he was getting himself into the moment he decided to run. In politics, there may be second acts, but there is no second place.