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Barack Obama: Under the Lights

The first-ever Barack Obama magazine cover


    Muhammad Ali insisted that champions aren't made in gyms. He said, "Champions are made from something they have deep inside them -- a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill."

"I think because I tend to be relatively even-tempered, people underestimate my resolve."

Fixed in 1965, in black and white, Ali stands over a pummeled Sonny Liston. Muscles clenched, staring down at his opponent, Ali hovers, his mouth open, clearly captured mid-sentence. Too legendary to seem real, the poster hangs on a blank, white wall behind Barack Obama's desk. The confident, not arrogant, senatorial candidate has been heralded a rising political powerhouse, an emblem of integrity and plainspoken honesty.

"When I'm working with voters or talking to them, I try to tell them that they're not necessarily going to agree with me on every single issue," Obama says. "There are going to be some issues in which I differ from them, as a matter of principle or just my assessment of what's going to work or doesn't work. But I think if they trust that I'm sincere and that I'm honest and that I listen to them, then usually it's not a barrier for them necessarily supporting me."

In a quiet office on the fifth of July, a time when he was still running without a Republican opponent, the Democratic candidate talks about his campaign and his beliefs over a breakfast of scrambled eggs from the Corner Bakery. He walked seven miles in the parades the day before. In a short-sleeved, cool, cream-colored linen shirt instead of his usual dress shirt and tie, with his sunglasses tucked in his shirt pocket, everything but Obama's dry, low voice denotes it's a carefree holiday. "I think because I tend to be relatively even-tempered, people underestimate my resolve," he says, biting off a piece of bacon. "I'm skinny, but I'm tough." Powered by an undeniable will and driven by deep dreams and desires, Obama undoubtedly stings like a bee.

In the March primary, Obama walloped his six other Democratic opponents, running away with 53 percent of the vote. All were vying for the soon-to-be open U.S. Senate seat of retiring Republican Peter Fitzgerald. Obama's squeaky-clean campaign proved that optimism can win, even against millions of dollars and the traditional party establishment. Obama defeated Blair Hull, who spent $29 million on his campaign, as well as Dan Hynes, the Illinois comptroller, who was backed by most of the Teamsters, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Democratic state organizations. After the primary the Obama campaign set an Illinois record for the largest amount raised by a senatorial candidate -- $4 million in the second quarter. He says he gives the same speech -- one of unity, equality and hope -- everywhere he goes, and it appears to be the one Illinois residents want to hear. Obama's support is strong across the diverse state -- from Chicago to Canton to Carbondale, within the black community, farming towns and the suburbs.

"You know, everybody talks about how divided the country is," says Obama, whose bright, clean-shaven face looks more youthful than his still-young 43 years. Only a few grays speckle his closely-cut, black hair. "But I don't think the country is as divided in terms of its core values as people make it out [to be]. I think people share a lot of common values, but I think that in order to score political points, the two parties and party leaders try to magnify those differences. Most people don't want huge bureaucratic government or oppressive taxes, but they want services that provide a safety net and ensure that we're investing in our future. Most people think that America should be militarily strong and be able to defend itself and take out aggressors who are seeking to do us harm. But most people also think that [peaceful] persuasion is more effective than invasion as a strategy to achieve our national interests."

Opposition to the Iraqi war has been a solid stance for Obama since well before President Bush dropped his first bomb on Baghdad. In a moving antiwar rally in Chicago in the fall of 2002, Obama conveyed that while some wars are necessary and valuable, the possibility of a war with Iraq was impulsive and about politics. Some opponents have pounced on Obama for his views on the war, labeling him as leftist when even Democratic presidential and vice-presidential candidates John Kerry and John Edwards voted in favor of the Iraq resolution in early 2003.

"My Republican opponents try to label me as liberal," says Obama. "There's been so much invested in tearing down that word and making it seem as if you're some nut. And the truth is, if you look at my legislative record and my public pronouncements, you know I don't claim to some particular orthodoxy. I think I am open to ideas from the left and the right. I was a big champion of the earned income tax credit, which was a program initiated by Ronald Reagan. I believed in welfare reform because I think work is better than welfare. I'm not a knee-jerk opponent of the death penalty, but I think the way it's applied right now is unacceptable and unjust. So I think those kinds of easy labels in terms of a political philosophy are incorrect."

Perhaps unintentionally, Barack Obama has always challenged labels. It hasn't been as a lifelong act of rebellion -- it's instead that nothing about him has ever been conventional. He was born in Hawaii, the son of Barack Obama, a student from Kenya, and Ann, a young woman who had moved from Kansas with her family. The young Obama grew up without his father, who left Hawaii to attend Harvard and then returned to Kenya to be a government economist. Raised by his mother and her parents, Obama spent most of his early life in Hawaii, except for four years in Jakarta, when his mother remarried an Indonesian oil manager.

"I think that those experiences remind me that children can prosper in any kind of family setting," says Obama, himself the parent of two daughters, ages 6 and 3. His wife, Michelle, is a lawyer, and their non-stop schedules keep them moving in every direction. "[My upbringing] made me really value the extended family because my grandparents really helped my mother in raising me. It tells me that the single most important thing I think any parent can give is unconditional love to their kids and willingness to spend time with them, nurture them. That can take place in a single-parent household or other family setting. I am reminded, though, now that I'm blessed to have a terrific family and a wonderful wife, that the value of raising children in a two-parent household is significant. My wife always jokes with me about how the nice thing about having another parent is that when you get fed up, you can step out of the room, and the other person is going to be patient or sees things you don't, and I think in that sense my children are wonderfully blessed to have a mother and a father. And I do see the absence of a father growing up as an enormous problem that a lot of young people, particularly young African Americans, struggle with. I think, particularly during my teenage years, I engaged in a lot of antisocial behavior that can't all be explained by the absence of a father, but I think that was partly accounted for by it."

In Obama's 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, he writes candidly about having tried marijuana and cocaine as a teenager. Forthright and truthful, his acknowledgment of having experimented with drugs has barely merited mention. It has instead been recognized as refreshing among politics of pretenses and cover-ups. Obama left Hawaii to attend Columbia University, where he earned a B.A. in political science. Upon graduation, with hopes of going into community organizing, he sent letters across the country to different organizations. He received a "cushy" job offer in New York, but declined, packing and heading off to Chicago to make $13,000 a year.

"[Chicago] was the only offer I got where I thought I'd be working at the grassroots level as opposed to studying the problem from some distance," Obama says. "A lot of these programs purport to help lower income people but are very removed and distant from the problem. People study statistics, and that's very abstract -- I didn't want to do that. This was the best opportunity I had to work directly with people -- and not just as social work. This was, also, trying to organize them so they could take control of their lives, empower their neighborhoods through churches and other institutions and get them to be more active in shaping the community."

Without a single contact in the city, Obama says he was lonely. At 24, he was working with people more than double his age. "I was working all the time, trying to set up job training programs for the unemployed, improve city services in communities that had been devastated by the steel plants closing," he recalls. "It was hard work, and it was cold. But I ended up falling in love with the city. I loved the people I was working with. I loved all the different neighborhoods and all the different ethnic groups I was interacting with. That work really taught me that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they're given a chance -- and that really inspired me."

After a few years, Obama left Chicago to attend Harvard Law School. In 1990 he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. It's been said that Obama could have gone anywhere and done anything after graduating. He chose to practice civil rights law in Chicago. The city that had once beckoned him with a lone job offer was now the only place he wanted to be. He began practicing law, working with cases of housing and employment discrimination, and then accepted a teaching position at the University of Chicago Law School. With his eye on politics, Obama decided not to pursue a tenure-track post. He ran for state senate, representing the South Side, the 13th district, won and has since held the office for seven years. When asked between him and Chicago, who found who, he sits back and smiles. "I have to say that I found Chicago, but Chicago loved me back."

The best advice he ever got was from his mother, he says. "Trust yourself -- she used to insist on that." This has hardened Obama's conviction to do what's right -- and formed his rationality to be critical when situations aren't. When he says things like "The right to free speech is not subject to the majority," and that the most important quality of a politician is integrity, he speaks with resolute certainty.

"Look, none of us are perfect," Obama says with a chuckle. "And there's no politician who doesn't at some point try to avoid conflict or people who disagree with him, but I think that what you do want from a politician is that, when it really counts, they're willing to stand up for something that they believe in. And that they're willing to talk honestly and forthrightly to the voters. And that they're not going to just sway in the wind and the immediate pressures of public opinion. And part of that is them being in it for the right reasons, regardless of their philosophy -- that they are genuinely interested in improving people's lives as opposed to simply following their own blind ambitions. And in that sense, listen, there are a number of Republican leaders who I disagree with but who I think have integrity. Then there are some Democrats who may agree with me on every single issue, but I don't trust them at all."

"I don't think you take away cynicism in one fell swoop," says Obama.

In the state senate, Obama has fought for welfare reform, death penalty reform, legislation to curb racial profiling and laws requiring the police to videotape all interrogations in capital crimes cases. As a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, he passed laws extending health coverage to children and families without insurance and sponsored legislation that would move Illinois toward universal health care. In 1998, Obama worked with Sen. Paul Simon and a handful of other legislators to pass Illinois' most stringent campaign finance reform law. An overarching theme of the Obama movement is to make people hopeful about government again.

"I don't think you take away cynicism in one fell swoop," says Obama. "I think you chip away at cynicism by showing people that the work that's being accomplished makes a meaningful difference in their lives. Part of it is programmatic. When I talk to voters, I don't over-promise what the government can accomplish. But I do say that we could have a situation in this country in which every child has decent health insurance. That's something that's within our grasp, and I can walk through how we can get there in a way that makes sense to people."

Inspired by the Bible, Toni Morrison novels and Lincoln's speeches, Obama says he's spiritually guided by a voice that tells him when he's "off course." Every politician has a certain amount of vanity, he says. "If you didn't think you should be up on stage then you wouldn't do it. But, if you're going to grow up as a politician or as a person, then at a certain point the vanity has to fade away. Then you have to be doing these things for something bigger than yourself." When he finds a few hours to watch a movie, he says he is "a sucker for the big, sweeping epics, like The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia."

Obama says the biggest mistake of his political career was in 2000 when he ran for Congress against incumbent Bobby Rush, "whose voting record really was not bad," he recalls. "I was just impatient. I got beat, and it was a good, real strong humbling experience."

The mistakes since then seem to be scarce. More recently, it's been the Illinois Republicans who've been humbled and forced to regroup. In June, Obama's opponent, Jack Ryan, was forced to exit the race after his divorce documents -- which he'd assured the public and his party contained nothing damaging -- revealed that he tried to convince his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan, to have sex in a public place. The Republicans have not, as of yet, filled the now-open ticket. Obama maintained throughout that Ryan's personal life shouldn't be an issue in the race. "If [the situation] has not been part of public life or public work, and there are no laws that have been broken, then I think it should be off limits," Obama says.

As the Republicans scrambled to find a candidate, with the most prominent of party names refusing to run, Obama has been covered with the confetti of national media and party attention. In July, he was keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention. "Barack is an optimistic voice for America and a leader who knows that together we can build an America that is stronger at home and respected in the world," John Kerry said in a statement when he announced Obama would be the keynote speaker.

If victorious in November, Obama will be the third black Senator since the Reconstruction. With allusions already abound that he could someday be on a national ticket, the expectations for this state senator, who had to take out a second mortgage on his family's Chicago apartment to run for U.S. Senate, are immeasurable. Yet with less than three months until ballots are cast, Obama, calm, puts his faith in the voters. Meeting them, he says, is what makes him most optimistic about American politics.

Ali said, "The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses -- behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights." Campaigning now for 20 months, driving hundreds of miles a week to meet with the people of Illinois, Barack is fighting -- more intent than ever to dance under the lights.

Published: August 01, 2004
Issue: Fall 2004


when you grow up to made reseacrh for new sain
hary wibowo, Apr-17-2009
Right on...
Great story! I wish I had done this interview :) As it is, I'm happy that Jerry Brown gave Chicago Life his attention in '91. Wonderful magazine still, Pam. I truly hope you are still living the dream. Best regards- jmccar2@sbcglobal.net
Justin M, Jun-03-2010