Saturday, July 19, 2008

No Saints Need Apply
While the big political controversy of the week involved the New Yorker cover satirically presenting Barack and Michelle Obama as a Muslim terrorist and '60s revolutionary respectively, the far more interesting material is inside the magazine, where Ryan Lizza penned a very lengthy but fascinating account of Obama's early political career in Chicago. I appreciated the juxtaposition of the sensationalistic cover and the content within, which presents Obama's rise as utterly typical for any young, ambitious American pol: the expected themes of opportunism, self-improvement, strategic acumen and no small degree of cynicism are all present.

Lizza presents Toni Preckwinkle, Obama's local Chicago alderman (I think it's a gender-neutral term) and his first political mentor. She was among the first real believers in Obama--and among the first to become disillusioned with him:

Although many of Obama’s recent supporters have been surprised by signs of political opportunism, Preckwinkle wasn’t. “I think he was very strategic in his choice of friends and mentors,” she told me. “I spent ten years of my adult life working to be alderman. I finally got elected. This is a job I love. And I’m perfectly happy with it. I’m not sure that’s the way that he approached his public life—that he was going to try for a job and stay there for one period of time. In retrospect, I think he saw the positions he held as stepping stones to other things and therefore approached his public life differently than other people might have.”

On issue after issue, Preckwinkle presented Obama as someone who thrived in the world of Chicago politics. She suggested that Obama joined Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ for political reasons. “It’s a church that would provide you with lots of social connections and prominent parishioners,” she said. “It’s a good place for a politician to be a member.” Preckwinkle was unsparing on the subject of the Chicago real-estate developer Antoin (Tony) Rezko, a friend of Obama’s and one of his top fund-raisers, who was recently convicted of fraud, bribery, and money laundering: “Who you take money from is a reflection of your knowledge at the time and your principles.” As we talked, it became increasingly clear that loyalty was the issue that drove Preckwinkle’s current view of her onetime protégé. “I don’t think you should forget who your friends are,” she said.

Far from the narrative his most ardent supporters have suggested--that this man of unique background was propelled forward by his unique talents--Lizza describes how Obama essentially engineered his own public persona:

Obama seems to have been meticulous about constructing a political identity for himself. He visited churches on the South Side, considered the politics and reputations of each one, and received advice from older pastors. Before deciding on Trinity United Church of Christ, he asked the Reverend Wright about critics who complained that the church was too “upwardly mobile,” a place for buppies. [...] At the time, Obama was working on “Dreams from My Father.”

Many have said that part of the appeal of “Dreams” is its honesty, pointing out that it was written at a time when Obama had no idea that he would run for office. In fact, Obama had been talking about a political career for years, musing about becoming mayor or governor. According to a recent biography of Obama by the Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, he even told his future brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, that he might run for President one day. (Robinson teased him, saying, “Yeah, yeah, okay, come over and meet my Aunt Gracie—and don’t tell anybody that!”) Obama was writing “Dreams” at the moment that he was preparing for a life in politics, and he launched his book and his first political campaign simultaneously, in the summer of 1995, when he saw his first chance of winning.

Later, he describes how Obama pushed his own luck too far, running for Congress in 2000 against incumbent Bobby Rush, a local icon and former Black Panther, and getting stomped. The lessons Obama drew from that: he couldn't run his style of politics in a district, like Rush's, that was overwhelmingly black and overwhelmingly poor. His appeal was strongest amongst young white professionals--and accordingly, he redrew his Illinois State Senate district to better position himself for future success, including more deep-pocketed liberal donors. Money was crucial to his hopes: in 2002, as he began considering a U.S. Senate race two years off, Lizza quotes Obama's best friend recalling a statement of Obama's notable both for its crassness and acumen:

“Then he just laid out an economic analysis. It becomes about money, because he knew that if people knew his story they would view him as a better candidate than anybody else he thought might be in the field. And so he said, ‘Therefore, if you raise five million dollars, I have a fifty-per-cent chance of winning. If you raise seven million dollars, I have a seventy-per-cent chance of winning. If you raise ten million dollars, I guarantee victory.”

The more I think about this, the less it all bothers me. For one thing, the criticisms of the Clintons during the primaries--that this guy was too airy and idealistic to win against the fierce Republican machine--looks pretty silly in light of all this history. (I never bought that one; Obama's hobbies are pickup hoops and poker, and you don't go in for things like that unless you're pretty freakin' competitive.) Maybe more to the point, anyone who has studied the careers of Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt knows that those two men, whom I consider the greatest American presidents, did some things of which they shouldn't have been proud. Lincoln's shading on the slavery question from the late 1850s through the middle of the civil war surely infuriated the idealists of his day; the superb Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals, which Obama has enthusiastically cited over the last few months, celebrates Lincoln's sharply honed political instincts, not his idealism. Roosevelt climbed to the 1932 presidential nomination over the political corpse of his erstwhile closest ally, former New York Governor Al Smith, and won in a landslide despite a campaign notable for its lack of specific policy proposals.

About ten years ago, I worked briefly for the consulting firm Arthur Andersen in its political affairs shop while in grad school. One day the head of the division, a former chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, took me out to lunch at some swanky DC place. He told me stories about Joe Biden and some of the other big names he'd worked with, and imparted this bit of wisdom that has stayed with me: "They're all assholes. Anybody who runs for president has an enormous ego and almost no sense of his own limitations. And they have to be. It's not an undertaking that allows people who aren't assholes to succeed." With that in mind, Obama's less noble actions and attributes might be viewed as a feature, not a bug.

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