What is it about Obama?

Times Staff Writer

Chicago politics, viewed from afar, often seems a monolithic thing. The words most closely associated with it -- "the machine" -- imply an implacable, unbreakable force. On the ground, nearly the opposite is true.

Far from being a monolith, the machine has many parts.

Anyone seeking to navigate and survive it, much less prosper, must master a set of equations that includes fine gradations of locale and clan. There are, for starters, the South Side and the Near North Side, the Loop, the South Loop, the West Loop, West Town, Irving Park, Portage Park, Hyde Park, this Catholic parish or that, the Poles, the Czechs, the Jacksons, the Bridgeport Irish (who are not to be confused with the Lace Curtain Irish, or with anyone else, for that matter).

You'll encounter a hundred fiefdoms without ever leaving Cook County, beyond which lie still more divisions -- the collar counties around the city, and, of course, downstate, which seems to include everything that isn't Chicago, from the northwest suburbs to the sundown towns (as in, if you were black, you'd better be out of town before the sun set) of Little Egypt, which are closer in almost every way to Alabama than Chicago.

It is a place, in other words, of great divisions and, maybe because of that, uncommonly well-suited to have initiated U.S. Sen. Barack Obama into politics.

Obama-mania has exploded across the country this fall, propelled by a wave of adulation that greeted the publication of his second book, "The Audacity of Hope," and by shrewd manipulation of the opportunity that attention afforded. He has popped up everywhere from the cover of Men's Vogue to "Monday Night Football." He has been urged to run for president by everybody from Oprah Winfrey to a shockingly large number of ideologically opposed political commentators.

For the moment, Obama has demurred. A decision, he says, is forthcoming in the new year. Hardly anybody who knows him doubts that he wants to run. But he has two young children, and whether he enters the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination will largely be a family matter, friends say.

Outsider in a big city

Obama arrived in Chicago in 1991, unbidden, with a fresh Harvard Law degree, big ambitions and virtually no reason to think they would ever be fulfilled. In a place of fervid group loyalties, he was a nearly complete outsider, having spent just three of his prior 30 years in the city, a member of no group but his own.

Five years later, he was elected to the state Senate, where he served until winning election to the U.S. Senate in 2004. What he had instead of a loyal base was a million-dollar smile, an optimistic message of inclusion, and a willingness to work with anyone willing to put a shoulder to the wheel of his choosing, no matter their ideological stance.

Chicago politics tends toward polarization. Depolarization is Obama's stock in trade.

Just a generation ago, Harold Washington was campaigning to become the first black mayor of Chicago, and he and Democratic presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale attended Sunday Mass at St. Pascal's, a predominantly white Roman Catholic parish in Northwest Chicago. They were spit on, cursed and lucky to leave unharmed.

In the 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, Obama carried every precinct but one in St. Pascal's Portage Park neighborhood. Talk to people who live there now and you could easily get the impression that Obama grew up one block over.


"Barack is wildly less threatening than Harold Washington," said Judson Miner, who hired Obama into his small Chicago civil rights law firm in 1991. "Even the North Shore ladies love him."

Go west to DuPage County, one of the most Republican in the nation, and you'll find a GOP county chairman, state Sen. Kirk W. Dillard, who relishes the opportunity to accompany Obama whenever he comes to town. "My constituency is enamored of him," Dillard said. That Obama registered approval ratings in DuPage above 60% in this fall's campaign season is an obvious reason to get next to him -- but Dillard has been on the Obama bandwagon for years.

He, along with many others, was skeptical when Obama arrived in Springfield, the state capital. There was suspicion that Obama, with his fancy degrees and a job teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago, was an elitist. It turned out he was a more or less regular guy who played pickup basketball and poker.

Obama developed a reputation as a very conservative poker player. He threw in many more hands than he played, said another state Senate colleague, Larry Walsh, a farmer from Will County. "I told him once, 'If you were a little more liberal in your poker-playing and a little more conservative in your politics, we'd get along a lot better.' "

Obama was somebody you could sit and have a beer with, Walsh said -- even if Obama, who frequently quit buying but not smoking cigarettes, perpetually bummed them.

As a freshman, a member of a Democratic minority in a General Assembly not much interested in policing itself, Obama carried to passage the state's first significant ethics legislation in a generation. He later worked to overhaul the state's death penalty and healthcare laws. He developed a reputation as someone anybody could work with.

"I brag that before anybody knew who he was, I knew he had the gifts that have made him into the rock star he is -- charm, intellect, hard worker, ability to relate," Dillard said. "I saw it all within the first couple of months when he came to the Legislature."

In "The Audacity of Hope," Obama tells of being on the state Senate floor, sitting with a white colleague, when an African American senator, whom Obama refers to as John Doe, gave a lengthy, passionate speech in which he said voting against the program he advocated would be racist. The white colleague, a liberal, turned to Obama and said, "You know what the problem is with John? Whenever I hear him, he makes me feel more white."

Obama sees this as an illustration of the exhaustion of white guilt.

He has nearly the opposite effect on people; he removes race from the equation. Some critics would say he works too hard at this. Yet there is no one in contemporary American politics who has gone to greater lengths to define and embrace his racial identity. He wrote an entire book -- his first, a memoir titled "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance" -- about that act of definition.

"My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn't, couldn't end there. At least that's what I would choose to believe," he wrote.

A real head-turner

Obama is one of very few politicians who cause a rustle just entering a room. Heads turn, cameras flash, and whooping and hollering commence often before he reaches the stage. Other politicians might need two warmup speeches and a battle of the bands to generate that much noise and excitement.

It's the same almost everywhere he goes. Crowds are bigger and noisier than for whoever was the last unlucky pol to roll through. It is worth noting, however, that this is relative. Obama is very exciting -- for a politician. He drew perhaps 500 people to a Manhattan Barnes & Noble for one of the first events of his fall book tour. That's a lot of people, but the week before, the author of the Lemony Snicket children's books drew twice that many in the same room.

In many ways, Obama is both politician and celebrity. People offer up their children for hugs and scramble after him for autographs. Once the bright light of Obama has beamed down upon them, they are smitten.

Bettylu Saltzman, a Chicago philanthropist, activist and veteran of dozens of political campaigns, recounts meeting Obama for the first time in 1992, well before he was a candidate for anything.

"I was working for the Clinton campaign, putting constituencies together. He was working on a voter registration drive. He came into our campaign office. He was 30 years old," she said. They talked for a while. Nothing exceptional happened. The next day, Saltzman recalls, she told a friend that she had just met the man who was going to be the first black president of the United States.

This is not a unique reaction. Emil Jones Jr., president of the Illinois Senate and one of Obama's mentors, tells the story of attending a downstate political dinner, a fish fry, where he, his driver and Obama were the only black faces in a crowd of 3,000.

"Sitting across the table from me was a little old lady, said she was 86 years old," Jones said. "After Barack spoke, she nudged me on the shoulder and said, 'This young man is going to be president of the United States someday. I just hope I live long enough to vote for him.' "

Obama was unknown outside Illinois until he was chosen to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Watching that speech from the convention floor, Jones was astounded to discover tears rolling down his face. He was embarrassed, he said, until he turned and saw another member of the delegation crying too. "It's the most amazing thing I've ever seen in 40 years in politics," Jones said.

People who have known Obama for a while, like Jones, Walsh and Dillard, tend to describe him in ways eerily similar to how he is described by people who know him hardly at all.

"The biggest difference between then and now is he's been well-publicized," said state Sen. Terry Link. "A lot more people know him, but he's the same guy. I've spent a lot of quiet nights with him. This is not an act by any means. When we were in the state Senate together, you would get guys, real right-wingers, they would consider Barack a guy they wanted to work with."

What is most striking about the surge of interest in Obama is the degree to which it is fueled by people's estimation of him as an individual, not as a politician. His appeal is almost entirely personal. Abner Mikva, a former federal judge and Illinois congressman who taught with Obama at the University of Chicago, said Obama was probably the smartest man he had ever met. Yet people seldom see him as being anything other than the next-door neighbor they would love to have: "He's Everyman. People look at him and see what they want to see. Not that he cuts and trims. They fit him into what they want."

This is probably not an accident. Obama's political skills are in some ways reflected in his personal history. Born in Hawaii in 1961, half Kenyan, half Kansan, and raised in such polyglot places as Honolulu and Jakarta, he has spent much of his life as an outsider figuring out a way to fit in.

As a consequence, friends say, there is no place Obama doesn't feel at ease, no room he's uncomfortable entering.

This shows up in subtle ways. Giving speeches, he's more prone to a casual conversational mode -- he sometimes greets crowds by saying "Thanks, guys" -- than to high-flying rhetoric, although that's there if he needs it. He speaks words one measured syllable at a time, with the emphasis -- like a young David Brinkley -- on the ends of phrases. He often speaks in the first-person plural: We ask, we see, we wonder. We take challenges seriously. He invites audiences in. He communicates comfort, so much so that he often draws applause even when describing what he sees as the nation's dire circumstances.

Early this month, at the invitation of Rick Warren, Obama spoke to a hall full of conservative Christian evangelical activists gathered at Saddleback Church in Orange County. Warren, author of the bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life," is among the most successful and popular preachers in the world. Saddleback is his city on a hill, a sprawling campus set above the smooth, clean boulevards of the most suburban of places. His is the kind of congregation where Warren's joke about the authoritarian rule of suburban homeowners associations brings a knowing laugh.

It is definitely not the sort of place you would expect a liberal big-city Democrat to feel at home.

Warren has an aphoristic style of preaching. Remarking on opposing political inclinations, he said: "People ask, 'Pastor Rick, are you right-wing or left-wing?' I'm for the whole bird. One-winged birds fly in circles."

To keep the bird flying straight, Warren had also invited one of Obama's Senate colleagues, Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas. Brownback is one of the most conservative members of the Senate, and a favorite of the folks who fill Warren's church.

This day, the right wing of the bird flew first. Brownback has a boyish, plain-country countenance. He knew the crowd and the place and was winning in his talk.

Brownback teased Obama about straying beyond his natural habitat. He recalled that he and Obama had spoken together previously in front of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. Just the mention of the NAACP drew a nervous chuckle from the crowd. Brownback might as well have said he had parachuted in behind enemy lines. He said he had been given a polite reception, then had yielded the stage to Obama, who received a raucous welcome, as if Elvis had come on stage.

Brownback then turned toward Obama and told him today would be different. "Welcome to my house," he said; the crowd roared.

When Obama followed Brownback to the Saddleback lectern, he thanked him, but added that he had to correct one thing the Kansan had said: Obama said he felt very much at home in Pastor Rick's church.

"Sam," he said, "this is my house too. This is God's house."

That simply and quickly, Obama was again completely at home in a room full of strangers, and they with him.



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