The night before the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum was dedicated, Barack Obama sat awake in his room at the Renaissance Hotel, agonizing over a speech he would deliver about a man he calls his political hero.
As midnight approached, after excusing himself from official functions, he searched for a fresh start. He wanted to reach for something profound, something equal to the keynote address last summer at the Democratic National Convention that launched his rise to national prominence.
One obvious topic, of course, was race. Obama certainly could express gratitude to the former president. His very presence at the ceremony stood as a testament to the country's evolution and struggle since Lincoln's time.
So Obama scribbled his thoughts on a yellow legal pad and refined them on a laptop computer. He praised Lincoln's character and his courage. Interestingly, by the time he finished, he had barely touched upon race, at least not in an obvious way.
"Lincoln was not a perfect man, nor a perfect president," Obama told the crowd the next day. "By modern standards, his condemnation of slavery might be considered tentative."
Obama did not craft those words to be critical. Rather, he said, they were designed to show his admiration for a man who hesitated and equivocated before finding his ultimate course. And that's where Obama offered a modern-day political lesson to an audience that included President Bush:
"At a time when image all too often trumps substance, when our politics all too often feeds rather than bridges division, when the prospects of a poor youth rising out of poverty seem of no consequence to the powerful and when we evoke our common God to condemn those who do not think as we do, rather than to seek God's mercy for our own lack of understanding--at such a time it is helpful to remember this man who was the real thing."
His carefully chosen words received little attention. Moments after Obama finished speaking that April morning, television stations cut away to images of white smoke at the Vatican, signaling the election of a new pope.
But the speech offered a window into how Obama approaches the issue of race. He does so with subtlety and subtext, often intentionally weaving the message inside a broader point, packaged so it does not sound too abrupt or too harsh.
Still, at an event designed to celebrate Lincoln, he managed to deliver a pointed critique of his political rivals who in their own speeches simply cited some of Lincoln's most famous lines.
"When I hear `With malice toward none, with charity toward all' being quoted, and all we have around here is malice toward all and charity toward none, it gets me frustrated," Obama said after he returned to Washington. "There are risks in including that kind of approach in a speech like that because it's a feel-good event, but one of the things that I'm trying to be mindful of is not starting to get so comfortable or risk-averse that I end up sounding like everyone else."
A complex biography
Indeed, Obama's most valued currency might be that he is different. He is not a progeny of the civil rights movement or the black church. Rather, his life has been a study in racial fusion.
The complexity of his biography--a black father from Africa, a white mother from Kansas, adolescence in the white world, adulthood in the black--has added to his allure as a public figure.
To a generation of Americans, he is the first of his kind in an era when the most dramatic struggles for racial equality are now grainy images from a distant past. Color alone does not define him, yet race is never far from the conversation when Obama is the subject.
It is still, after all, considered remarkable when a black man wins a seat in the U.S. Senate.
So when Obama was elected last fall, becoming the third African-American senator since Reconstruction, he inspired a bountiful hope that has long been percolating, a promise that includes the prospect of even higher public office.
For blacks it is a hope born of violence and discrimination, struggle and triumph. For many whites as well, Obama embodies a sense of hope that transcends traditional tensions and ambiguities of race.
Those ambiguities, for Obama, are his biography.
Without directly saying so, he offers something for all audiences. He keeps one foot in the black political world and one in the white, a balancing act with little precedent in American politics that requires careful navigation.
As much as Obama wants to broaden his agenda during his first year in Washington--talking about global competition and worrying whether the U.S. is doing enough to ward off the threat of nuclear attack--he also cannot escape the expectations placed upon him.
That said, in his ambitious array of plans, becoming the leading spokesman of black America is not atop the list.
"We have a certain script in our politics, and one of the scripts for black politicians is that for them to be authentically black they have to somehow offend white people," Obama said in an interview. "And then if he puts a multiracial coalition together, he must somehow be compromising the efforts of the African-American community.
"To use a street term," he added, "we flipped the script."
In winning the Democratic Senate primary in Illinois, Obama drew as many as two white votes for every black one, showing nearly unprecedented crossover appeal for a black candidate in a statewide race.
Obama acknowledges, with no small irony, that he benefits from his race.
If he were white, he once bluntly noted, he would simply be one of nine freshmen senators, almost certainly without a multimillion-dollar book deal and a shred of celebrity. Or would he have been elected at all?
`He speaks with one voice'
As Obama arrived to deliver a Memorial Day address at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill., he had taken only a few steps across the thick grass before a woman rushed up to him and offered a prediction that could test any politician's humility.
"You're going to be the first black president of the United States!" declared Sandy Voss, 58. Obama smiled politely and moved on after she had secured a long handshake.
After he was out of earshot, Voss, who is white, said she couldn't recall voting for a black politician before Obama, but she quickly explained: "His color doesn't make a difference to me. He speaks with one voice."
That voice, however, often sounds different as he moves from predominantly black audiences to white audiences or from the Senate floor to a church pulpit. And when he addresses African-Americans, a different cadence emerges.
In Detroit, on an evening that is expected to earn a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest sit-down dinner in history, Obama appeared before a crowd of 10,000 last month to receive a lifetime achievement award from the NAACP.
"America has a new senator! Your people have been given a new insight," Rev. Wendell Anthony said, introducing Obama to the giant crowd with six head tables in a hall that stretched beyond the length of a football field. "We need this brother from the 'hood who made it good. We need the glow of his spirit."
Obama didn't bother correcting the pastor by pointing out that his upbringing in Hawaii, where his mother and father met, almost certainly would not qualify as the 'hood.
When he took his turn, Obama said with a self-deprecating air: "I don't like talking after preachers. I can talk pretty good for a politician, but when you compare me to a preacher, sometimes I fall short."
Unlike many black politicians and civic leaders who preceded him, Obama did not hone his speaking style from a pulpit. In fact, he was in college before he first set foot in a black church.
On this night in downtown Detroit, though, his consonants lingered. He clenched his fist as his voice resonated throughout the cavernous hall. He spoke with a certain staccato and a rhythm reserved for audiences like this.
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," Obama said, quoting from a speech that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. frequently delivered. "He's right, but you know what? It doesn't bend on its own. It bends because we help it bend that way. It feels like the arc is not moving and yet if you step back far enough, it's bending toward justice."
Five days earlier, speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, he made no mention of King or his legacy. He talked of Franklin Roosevelt and Social Security.
In an interview at his office in Washington, Obama acknowledged the differences.
"I know if I'm in an all-black audience that there's going to be a certain rhythm coming back at me from the audience. They're not just going to be sitting there," Obama said. "That creates a different rhythm in your speaking."
No matter which rhythm, though, the venues are almost certain to be filled.
Last summer Obama spent a few days on Martha's Vineyard, an exclusive island off Cape Cod. The local newspaper, the Vineyard Gazette, advertised his appearance. At least 1,000 people showed up at a church that seats 800.
"I have never seen white people fighting over tickets to see a black person in my life," said Tanya Hart, a black radio personality in Los Angeles, beaming as she recounted what she witnessed on vacation. "He is charismatic, but he is more than that. I think he actually believes in what he's saying."
The title of a recent summer evening's program was "Living Legends," and the two guests--Obama and Dorothy Height--had taken their seats in a small ballroom at a Washington hotel.
To the audience of young black leaders, the senator, at age 43, and the longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women, at age 93, served as living bookends of the civil rights movement.
"To see you moving as you are, doing as you're doing and being the person that you are gives us all hope, and there is no need to be discouraged," Height said, beaming a gentle smile as she turned to face Obama. "When people ask if the civil rights movement is over, I just say it's not over so long as we have you."
Returning a smile of his own, he said: "I was not a child of the civil rights movement, I was a beneficiary of the civil rights movement."
Indeed, Obama carries neither the advantages nor the baggage of being born into a family with a well-known name. When he tried unsuccessfully to unseat Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) in 2000, many voters in the majority-black district questioned his credentials.
"There were elements within the African-American community who might have suggested, `Well he's from Hyde Park or he went to Harvard or he was born in Hawaii so he might not be black enough,'" Obama said in an interview, adding: "I had to make a name for myself, but having made that name, people take me at face value and don't hoist onto me a set of expectations or understandings based on something my parents did."
As Obama emerges as a leading voice, the influence of traditionally powerful black organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League is waning. And the civil rights giants of the 20th Century gradually are giving way to a new generation.
"The days when we have one or two leaders are past," Obama said. "I think we have to focus on having a collective leadership that is pointing us in the right direction."
His approach often is far from gentle. He bluntly tells parents to turn off their TV sets and open a book for their children to read. He tells people to take pride in their urban neighborhood by picking up litter from the streets. In an almost scolding tone, he tells kids it's not good enough simply to finish high school.
"We have to raise our standards and we have to work harder and we have to overcome a threat of anti-intellectualism that exists in the United States," Obama said. "I may be able to say that in ways that get an open reception in the African-American community, in ways that a non-African-American might not be able to say."
In a stunningly brief time, Obama has joined the pantheon of African-American heroes. As the senator was introduced at a Black History Month celebration in Georgia, Dr. Henry Cook Sr., a dentist who organized the event, said Obama should be "measured by the stature of Jesus."
While Obama gets wide berth among his admirers, such divine declarations are the reason some supporters worry whether too heavy a burden has been placed on his shoulders.
"I don't want us to put it all on his back," said Ruby Steele, a nurse from Belleville, Ill., who came to see Obama speak at a Downstate town meeting. "Just be a good and decent man and do a good job. That's enough to ask of him.
"He was a long time coming, but I don't want us to look at him as our savior," she added. "We have to save ourselves."
But lofty expectations followed Obama to Washington. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the civil rights movement, offered this assessment before Obama had even arrived in the Senate: "The whole climate will change when this young man walks through the door."
Now, nearly six months after Obama was sworn into office, he laughs at the prediction, saying, "I don't think my colleagues woke up and said, `Oh, there's this black guy there, we better change our behavior.'"
While there is little evidence that Obama has altered the climate of the Senate, his presence offers a voice that has been missing since Carol Moseley Braun lost her bid for re-election in 1998 and left Washington after serving one term.
Rather, he has seamlessly become part of the exclusive club.
While Obama has been selective about the ways he discusses race, Democratic leaders in the Senate have been eager to capitalize on the rarity of having a black member in their ranks. Several times they have called on Obama to speak out.
In January, Bush suggested that Social Security reform should be particularly appealing to African-Americans because they do not live as long and might want to invest part of their Social Security taxes in private accounts. It took Obama six weeks to denounce the comment, and even then it was at the urging of Democratic leaders.
On issues ranging from the confirmation of judicial appointees to the Senate apologizing for refusing to pass anti-lynching laws despite the urging of seven presidents, Obama has joined the chorus but has purposely refrained from being a leading voice. He doesn't want to be seen as the black conscience of the Senate.
"The fact that I am--deservedly or not--a celebrity plays more of a role in the Senate leadership being interested in me participating in these events than the fact that I'm African-American," Obama said. "I receive a lot of attention. That is one form of currency in politics, and I think that people have been interested in seeing how that celebrity can help bring focus to the issues they were trying to highlight."
Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), an advocate for civil rights during his four terms in office, said senators would not typecast Obama because of his race and that he will be known for much more than merely being a rare black senator.
"His contribution is not about a racial one," Dodd said. "He's a far more complicated individual, and I say that in a complimentary way."
One afternoon, as members of the Congressional Black Caucus left the White House after meeting with the president, a dozen or so reporters waited outside the West Wing.
The officials, all Democrats, had been at odds with Bush since the bitterly contested 2000 election. So the fact that the two sides had come together was a development caucus leaders were eager to discuss.
Those, however, were not the only questions.
"Where's Obama? Where's Obama?" asked April Ryan, the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks. "Where's Obama?"
Slowly, a hand rose. There he was, in the back, far from the microphones and the cameras. As the only senator in the caucus, Obama often keeps his distance, which aides say is out of both deference and preference.
Some members and their advisers quietly complain that Obama has taken far less interest in the Congressional Black Caucus than they had hoped. He has done little to raise the group's visibility. And several of his moderate votes in the Senate--on judicial nominations among other topics--have been the subject of concern.
"If we have any differences with each other, we're going to talk about them and we're going to work them out," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). "What we're not going to do is drag them out through the newspaper. He'd have to do a lot of wrong for us to be upset."
Still, Obama's office is sensitive to any suggestion of rifts.
One week after a front-page headline in The Hill, a newspaper in the capital, declared a minor discord between the senator and the Black Caucus, Obama took a very public, and rare, stance on a racial matter. His action, aides say, was unrelated to any reports of discord or suggestions that he has been too quiet on racial issues.
The night before a confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama's staff learned that a high-level nominee to the State Department allegedly had made derogatory comments in 1987 about the work ethic of blacks.
After a debate among some top advisers, Obama took a stand. He relentlessly questioned Henrietta Holsman Fore, currently the director of the U.S. Mint. Unsatisfied by her answers, Obama has held up her confirmation.
He suggested that Fore appear before the Congressional Black Caucus to answer questions--a curious move considering it is the role of the Senate, not the House, to oversee confirmations. No groups or other senators have joined the protest.
When asked whether this was the type of thing that he wanted to spend his political capital doing, Obama quickly replied: "No, no, but it is not something you can ignore."
"I'm not somebody who uses race to score political points--quite the opposite," he added in an interview, walking away from the hearing room on a recent morning. "I would hope that it wouldn't just be something that I would do because I'm black, I would hope that any senator in my position would do the same thing."
With that, he arrived in his office, where a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hangs on the wall. It was time to tend to the other business of the Senate.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times