فصل 2دوره: سرزمین موعود / درس 3
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MICHELLE LAVAUGHN ROBINSON was already practicing law when we met. She was twenty-five years old and an associate at Sidley & Austin, the Chicago-based firm where I worked the summer after my first year of law school. She was tall, beautiful, funny, outgoing, generous, and wickedly smart—and I was smitten almost from the second I saw her. She’d been assigned by the firm to look out for me, to make sure I knew where the office photocopier was and that I generally felt welcome. That also meant we got to go out for lunches together, which allowed us to sit and talk—at first about our jobs and eventually about everything else.
Over the course of the next couple of years, during school breaks and when Michelle came to Harvard as part of the Sidley recruiting team, the two of us went out to dinner and took long walks along the Charles River, talking about movies and family and places in the world we wanted to see. When her father unexpectedly died of complications arising from multiple sclerosis, I flew out to be with her, and she comforted me when I learned that Gramps had advanced prostate cancer.
In other words, we became friends as well as lovers, and as my law school graduation approached, we gingerly circled around the prospect of a life together. Once, I took her to an organizing workshop I was conducting, a favor for a friend who ran a community center on the South Side. The participants were mostly single moms, some on welfare, few with any marketable skills. I asked them to describe their world as it was and as they would like it to be. It was a simple exercise I’d done many times, a way for people to bridge the reality of their communities and their lives with the things they could conceivably change. Afterward, as we were walking to the car, Michelle laced her arm through mine and said she’d been touched by my easy rapport with the women.
“You gave them hope.”
“They need more than hope,” I said. I tried to explain to her the conflict that I was feeling: between working for change within the system and pushing against it; wanting to lead but wanting to empower people to make change for themselves; wanting to be in politics but not of it.
Michelle looked at me. “The world as it is, and the world as it should be,” she said softly.
“Something like that.”
Michelle was an original; I knew nobody quite like her. And although it hadn’t happened yet, I was starting to think I might ask her to marry me. For Michelle, marriage was a given—the organic next step in a relationship as serious as ours. For me, someone who’d grown up with a mother whose marriages didn’t last, the need to formalize a relationship had always felt less pressing. Not only that, but in those early years of our courtship, our arguments could be fierce. As cocksure as I could be, she never gave ground. Her brother, Craig, a basketball star at Princeton who had worked in investment banking before getting into coaching, used to joke that the family didn’t think Michelle (“Miche,” they called her) would ever get married because she was too tough—no guy could keep up with her. The weird thing was, I liked that about her; how she constantly challenged me and kept me honest.
And what was Michelle thinking? I imagine her just before we met, very much the young professional, tailored and crisp, focused on her career and doing things the way they’re supposed to be done, with no time for nonsense. And then this strange guy from Hawaii with a scruffy wardrobe and crazy dreams wanders into her life. That was part of my appeal, she would tell me, how different I was from the guys she’d grown up with, the men she had dated. Different even from her own father, whom she adored: a man who had never finished community college, who had been struck by MS in his early thirties, but who had never complained and had gone to work every single day and made all of Michelle’s dance recitals and Craig’s basketball games, and was always present for his family, truly his pride and joy.
Life with me promised Michelle something else, those things that she saw she had missed as a child. Adventure. Travel. A breaking of constraints. Just as her roots in Chicago—her big, extended family, her common sense, her desire to be a good mom above all else—promised an anchor that I’d been missing for much of my youth. We didn’t just love each other and make each other laugh and share the same basic values—there was symmetry there, the way we complemented each other. We could have each other’s back, guard each other’s blind spots. We could be a team.
Of course, that was another way of saying we were very different, in experience and in temperament. For Michelle, the road to the good life was narrow and full of hazards. Family was all you could count on, big risks weren’t taken lightly, and outward success—a good job, a nice house—never made you feel ambivalent because failure and want were all around you, just a layoff or a shooting away. Michelle never worried about selling out, because growing up on the South Side meant you were always, at some level, an outsider. In her mind, the roadblocks to making it were plenty clear; you didn’t have to go looking for them. The doubts arose from having to prove, no matter how well you did, that you belonged in the room—prove it not just to those who doubted you but to yourself.
AS LAW SCHOOL was coming to an end, I told Michelle of my plan. I wouldn’t clerk. Instead, I’d move back to Chicago, try to keep my hand in community work while also practicing law at a small firm that specialized in civil rights. If a good opportunity presented itself, I said, I could even see myself running for office.
None of this came as a surprise to her. She trusted me, she said, to do what I believed was right.
“But I need to tell you, Barack,” she said, “I think what you want to do is really hard. I mean, I wish I had your optimism. Sometimes I do. But people can be so selfish and just plain ignorant. I think a lot of people don’t want to be bothered. And I think politics seems like it’s full of people willing to do anything for power, who just think about themselves. Especially in Chicago. I’m not sure you’ll ever change that.” “I can try, can’t I?” I said with a smile. “What’s the point of having a fancy law degree if you can’t take some risks? If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I’ll be okay. We’ll be okay.” She took my face in her hands. “Have you ever noticed that if there’s a hard way and an easy way, you choose the hard way every time? Why do you think that is?” We both laughed. But I could tell Michelle thought she was onto something. It was an insight that would carry implications for us both.
AFTER SEVERAL YEARS of dating, Michelle and I were married at Trinity United Church of Christ on October 3, 1992, with more than three hundred of our friends, colleagues, and family members crammed happily into the pews. The service was officiated by the church’s pastor, Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., whom I’d come to know and admire during my organizer days. We were joyful. Our future together was officially beginning.
I had passed the bar and then delayed my law practice for a year to run Project VOTE! in advance of the 1992 presidential race—one of the largest voter-registration drives in Illinois history. After returning from our honeymoon on the California coast, I taught at the University of Chicago Law School, finished my book, and officially joined Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a small civil rights firm that specialized in employment discrimination cases and did real estate work for affordable housing groups. Michelle, meanwhile, had decided she’d had enough of corporate law and made a move to the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development, working there for a year and a half before agreeing to direct a nonprofit youth leadership program called Public Allies.
Both of us enjoyed our jobs and the people we worked with, and as time went on, we got involved with various civic and philanthropic efforts. We took in ball games and concerts and shared dinners with a widening circle of friends. We were able to buy a modest but cozy condo in Hyde Park, right across from Lake Michigan and Promontory Point, just a few doors down from where Craig and his young family lived. Michelle’s mother, Marian, still lived in the family’s South Shore house, less than fifteen minutes away, and we visited often, feasting on her fried chicken and greens and red velvet cake and barbecue made by Michelle’s Uncle Pete. Once we were stuffed, we’d sit around the kitchen and listen to her uncles tell stories of growing up, the laughter louder as the evening wore on, while cousins and nephews and nieces bounced on the sofa cushions until they were sent out into the yard.
Driving home in the twilight, Michelle and I sometimes talked about having kids of our own—what they might be like, or how many, and what about a dog?—and imagined all the things we’d do together as a family.
A normal life. A productive, happy life. It should have been enough.
BUT THEN IN the summer of 1995, a political opportunity arose suddenly, through a strange chain of events. The sitting congressman from the Second District of Illinois, Mel Reynolds, had been indicted on several charges, including allegedly having sex with a sixteen-year-old campaign volunteer. If he was convicted, a special election would be promptly held to replace him.
I didn’t live in the district, and I lacked the name recognition and base of support to launch a congressional race. The state senator from our area, Alice Palmer, however, was eligible to run for the seat and, not long before the congressman was convicted in August, she threw her hat into the ring. Palmer, an African American former educator with deep roots in the community, had a solid if unremarkable record and was well liked by progressives and some of the old-time Black activists who had helped Harold get elected; and although I didn’t know her, we had mutual friends. Based on the work I’d done for Project VOTE! I was asked to help her nascent campaign, and as the weeks went by, several people encouraged me to think about filing to run for Alice’s soon-to-be-vacant senate seat.
Before talking to Michelle, I made a list of pros and cons. A state senator wasn’t a glamorous post—most people had no idea who their state legislators were—and Springfield, the state capital, was notorious for old-style pork-barreling, logrolling, payola, and other political mischief. On the other hand, I had to start somewhere and pay my dues. Also, the Illinois state legislature was in session only a few weeks out of the year, which meant I could continue teaching and working at the law firm.
Best of all, Alice Palmer agreed to endorse me. With Reynolds’s trial still pending, it was difficult to know how the timing would work. Technically it would be possible for Alice to run for Congress while keeping the option of retaining her state seat if she lost the bigger race, but she insisted to me and others that she was done with the senate, ready to move on. Along with an offer of support from our local alderman, Toni Preckwinkle, who boasted the best organization in the area, my chances looked better than good.
I went to Michelle and made my pitch. “Think of it as a test run,” I said.
“Dipping our toes in the water.”
“So what do you think?”
She pecked me on the cheek. “I think this is something you want to do, so you should do it. Just promise me I won’t have to spend time in Springfield.”
I had one last person to check in with before I pulled the trigger. Earlier in the year, my mother had fallen sick and had been diagnosed with uterine cancer.
The prognosis wasn’t good. At least once a day, the thought of losing her made my heart constrict. I’d flown to Hawaii right after she’d gotten the news and had been relieved to find that she looked like herself and was in good spirits. She confessed she was scared but wanted to be as aggressive as possible with her treatment.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, “until you give me some grandchildren.”
She received the news of my possible state senate run with her usual enthusiasm, insisting I tell her every detail. She acknowledged it would be a lot of work, but my mother was never one to see hard work as anything but good.
“Make sure Michelle’s all right with it,” she said. “Not that I’m the marriage expert. And don’t you dare use me as an excuse not to do it. I’ve got enough to deal with without feeling like everybody’s putting their lives on hold. It’s morbid, understand?” “Got it.”
Seven months after her diagnosis, the situation would turn grim. In September, Michelle and I flew to New York to join Maya and my mother for a consultation with a specialist at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Midway through chemo now, she was physically transformed. Her long dark hair was gone; her eyes looked hollow. Worse, the specialist’s assessment was that her cancer was at stage four and that treatment options were limited. Watching my mother suck on ice cubes because her saliva glands had shut down, I did my best to put on a brave face. I told her funny stories about my work and recounted the plot of a movie I’d just seen. We laughed as Maya—nine years younger than me and then studying at New York University—reminded me what a bossy big brother I’d been. I held my mother’s hand, making sure she was comfortable before she settled in to rest. Then I went back to the hotel room and cried.
It was on that trip to New York that I suggested my mother come stay with us in Chicago; my grandmother was too old to care for her full-time. But my mother, forever the architect of her own destiny, declined. “I’d rather be someplace familiar and warm,” she said, looking out the window. I sat there feeling helpless, thinking about the long path she had traveled in her life, how unexpected each step along the way must have been, so full of happy accidents. I’d never once heard her dwell on the disappointments. Instead she seemed to find small pleasures everywhere.
“Life is strange, isn’t it?” she said softly.
FOLLOWING MY MOTHER’S advice, I threw myself into my maiden political campaign. It makes me laugh to think back on what a bare-bones operation it was—not much more sophisticated than a campaign for student council. There were no pollsters, no researchers, no TV or radio buys. My announcement, on September 19, 1995, was at the Ramada Inn in Hyde Park, with pretzels and chips and a couple hundred supporters—probably a quarter of whom were related to Michelle. Our campaign literature consisted of an eight-by-four-inch card with what looked like a passport picture of me, a few lines of biography, and four or five bullet points that I’d tapped out on my computer. I’d had it printed at Kinko’s.
I did make a point of hiring two political veterans I’d met working on Project VOTE! Carol Anne Harwell, my campaign manager, was tall and sassy, in her early forties and on loan from a West Side ward office. Although she came off as irrepressibly cheerful, she knew her way around Chicago’s bare-knuckle politics. Ron Davis, a big grizzly bear of a man, was our field director and petition expert. He had a gray-flecked Afro, scraggly facial hair, and thick wire-rimmed glasses, his bulk hidden by the untucked black shirt he seemed to wear every single day.
Ron proved to be indispensable: Illinois had strict ballot access rules, designed to make life hard on challengers who didn’t have party support. To get on the ballot, a candidate needed more than seven hundred registered voters who lived in the district to sign a petition that was circulated and attested to by someone who also lived in the district. A “good” signature had to be legible, accurately linked to a local address, and from a registered voter. I still remember the first time a group of us gathered around our dining room table, Ron huffing and puffing as he passed out clipboards with the petitions attached, along with voter files and a sheet of instructions. I suggested that before we talked about petitions, we should organize some meet-the-candidate forums, maybe draft some position papers. Carol and Ron looked at each other and laughed.
“Boss, let me tell you something,” Carol said. “You can save all that League of Women Voters shit for after the election. Right now, the only thing that matters is these petitions. The folks you’re running against, they’re gonna go through these things with a fine-tooth comb to see if your signatures are legit. If they’re not, you don’t get to play. And I guarantee you, no matter how careful we are, about half of the signatures will end up being bad, which is why we got to get at least twice as many as they say we do.” “Four times as many,” Ron corrected, handing me a clipboard.
Duly chastened, I drove out to one of the neighborhoods Ron had selected to gather signatures. It felt just like my early organizing days, going from house to house, some people not home or unwilling to open the door; women in hair curlers with kids scampering about, men doing yard work; occasionally young men in T-shirts and do-rags, breath thick with alcohol as they scanned the block. There were those who wanted to talk to me about problems at the local school or the gun violence that was creeping into what had been a stable, working-class neighborhood. But mostly folks would take the clipboard, sign it, and try as quickly as possible to get back to what they’d been doing.
If knocking on doors was pretty standard fare for me, the experience was new to Michelle, who gamely dedicated part of every weekend to helping out. And while she’d often collect more signatures than I did—with her megawatt smile and stories of growing up just a few blocks away—there were no smiles two hours later when we’d get back into the car to drive home.
“All I know,” she said at one point, “is that I must really love you to spend my Saturday morning doing this.”
Over the course of several months, we managed to collect four times the number of required signatures. When I wasn’t at the firm or teaching, I visited block clubs, church socials, and senior citizen homes, making my case to voters. I wasn’t great. My stump speech was stiff, heavy on policy speak, short on inspiration and humor. I also found it awkward to talk about myself. As an organizer, I’d been trained to always stay in the background.
I did get better, though, more relaxed, and slowly the ranks of my supporters grew. I rounded up endorsements from local officials, pastors, and a handful of progressive organizations; I even got a few position papers drafted. And I’d like to say that this is how my first campaign ended—the plucky young candidate and his accomplished, beautiful, and forbearing wife, starting with a few friends in their dining room, rallying the people around a new brand of politics.
But that’s not how it happened. In August 1995, our disgraced congressman was finally convicted and sentenced to prison; a special election was called for late November. With his seat empty and the timeline officially set, others besides Alice Palmer jumped into the congressional race, among them Jesse Jackson, Jr., who had drawn national attention for the stirring introduction of his father at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Michelle and I knew and liked Jesse Jr. His sister Santita had been one of Michelle’s best friends in high school and the maid of honor at our wedding. He was popular enough that his announcement immediately changed the dynamics of the race, putting Alice at an enormous disadvantage.
And because the special congressional election was now going to take place a few weeks before petitions for Alice’s senate seat had to be filed, my team started to worry.
“You better check again to make sure Alice isn’t going to mess with you if she loses to Jesse Jr.,” Ron said.
I shook my head. “She promised me she wasn’t running. Gave me her word. And she’s said it publicly. In the papers, even.”
“That’s fine, Barack. But can you just check again, please?”
I did, phoning Alice and once again getting her assurance that regardless of what happened with her congressional run, she still intended to leave state politics.
But when Jesse Jr. handily won the special election, with Alice coming in a distant third, something shifted. Stories started surfacing in the local press about a “Draft Alice Palmer” campaign. A few of her longtime supporters asked for a meeting, and when I showed up they advised me to get out of the race. The community couldn’t afford to give up Alice’s seniority, they said. I should be patient; my turn would come. I stood my ground—I had volunteers and donors who had already invested a lot in the campaign, after all; I had stuck with Alice even when Jesse Jr. got in—but the room was unmoved. By the time I spoke to Alice, it was clear where events were headed. The following week she held a press conference in Springfield, announcing that she was filing her own last-minute petitions to get on the ballot and retain her seat.
“Told ya,” Carol said, taking a drag from her cigarette and blowing a thin plume of smoke to the ceiling.
I felt disheartened and betrayed, but I figured all was not lost. We had built up a good organization over the previous few months, and almost all the elected officials who’d endorsed me said they’d stick with us. Ron and Carol were less sanguine.
“Hate to tell you, boss,” Carol said, “but most folks still have no idea who you are. Shit, they don’t know who she is either, but—no offense, now—’Alice Palmer’ is a hell of a lot better ballot name than ‘Barack Obama.’ ” I saw her point but told them we were going to see things through, even as a number of prominent Chicagoans were suddenly urging me to drop out of the race. And then one afternoon Ron and Carol arrived at my house, breathless and looking like they’d won the lottery.
“Alice’s petitions,” Ron said. “They’re terrible. Worst I’ve ever seen. All those Negroes who were trying to bully you out of the race, they didn’t bother actually doing the work. This could get her knocked off the ballot.” I looked through the informal tallies Ron and our campaign volunteers had done. It was true; the petitions Alice had submitted appeared to be filled with invalid signatures: people whose addresses were outside the district, multiple signatures with different names but the same handwriting. I scratched my head. “I don’t know, guys…” “You don’t know what?” Carol said.
“I don’t know if I want to win like this. I mean, yeah, I’m pissed about what’s happened. But these ballot rules don’t make much sense. I’d rather just beat her.” Carol pulled back, her jaw tightening. “This woman gave you her word, Barack!” she said. “We’ve all been busting our asses out here, based on that promise. And now, when she tries to screw you, and can’t even do that right, you’re going to let her get away with it? You don’t think they would knock you off the ballot in a second if they could?” She shook her head. “Naw, Barack. You’re a good guy…that’s why we believe in you. But if you let this go, you might as well go back to being a professor and whatnot, ‘cause politics is not for you. You will get chewed up and won’t be doing anybody a damn bit of good.” I looked at Ron, who said quietly, “She’s right.”
I leaned back in my chair and lit a cigarette. I felt suspended in time, trying to decipher what I was feeling in my gut. How much did I want this? I reminded myself about what I believed I could get done in office, how hard I was willing to work if I got the chance.
“Okay,” I said finally.
“Okay!” Carol said, her smile returning. Ron gathered up his papers and put them in his bag.
It would take a couple of months for the process to play out, but with my decision that day, the race was effectively over. We filed our challenge with the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners and when it became clear the board was going to rule in our favor, Alice dropped out. While we were at it, we knocked several other Democrats with bad petitions off the ballot as well. Without a Democratic opponent and with only token Republican opposition, I was on my way to the state senate.
Whatever vision I had for a more noble kind of politics, it would have to wait.
I suppose there are useful lessons to draw from that first campaign. I learned to respect the nuts and bolts of politics, the attention to detail required, the daily grind that might prove the difference between winning and losing. It confirmed, too, what I already knew about myself: that whatever preferences I had for fair play, I didn’t like to lose.
But the lesson that stayed with me most had nothing to do with campaign mechanics or hardball politics. It had to do with the phone call I received from Maya in Hawaii one day in early November, well before I knew how my race would turn out.
“She’s taken a bad turn, Bar,” Maya said.
“I think you need to come now.”
I already knew that my mother’s condition had been deteriorating; I’d spoken to her just a few days before. Hearing a new level of pain and resignation in her voice, I had booked a flight to Hawaii for the following week.
“Can she talk?” I asked Maya now.
“I don’t think so. She’s fading in and out.”
I hung up the phone and called the airline to reschedule my flight for first thing in the morning. I called Carol to cancel some campaign events and run through what needed to be done in my absence. A few hours later, Maya called back.
“I’m sorry, honey. Mom’s gone.” She had never regained consciousness, my sister told me; Maya had sat at her hospital bedside, reading out loud from a book of folktales as our mother slipped away.
We held a memorial service that week, in the Japanese garden behind the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. I remembered playing there as a child, my mother sitting in the sun and watching me as I tumbled in the grass, hopped over the rock steps, and caught tadpoles in the stream that ran down one side. Afterward, Maya and I drove out to the lookout near Koko Head and scattered her ashes into the sea, the waves crashing against the rocks. And I thought about my mother and sister alone in that hospital room, and me not there, so busy with my grand pursuits. I knew I could never get that moment back. On top of my sorrow, I felt a great shame.
UNLESS YOU LIVE at the southern tip of Chicago, the quickest route to Springfield is via I-55. During rush hour, heading out of downtown and through the western suburbs, traffic slows to a crawl; but once you get past Joliet things open up, a straight, smooth spread of asphalt cutting southwest through Bloomington (home of State Farm insurance and Beer Nuts) and Lincoln (named after the president, who helped incorporate the town when he was still just a lawyer) and taking you past miles and miles of corn.
For almost eight years I made this drive, usually alone, usually in about three and a half hours, trekking back and forth to Springfield for a few weeks in the fall and through much of the winter and early spring, when the Illinois legislature did the bulk of its work. I’d drive down Tuesday night after dinner and get back home Thursday evening or Friday morning. Cell phone service dropped about an hour outside of Chicago, and the only signals that registered on the dial after that were talk radio and Christian music stations. To stay awake, I listened to audiobooks, the longer the better—novels mostly (John le Carré and Toni Morrison were favorites) but also histories, of the Civil War, the Victorian era, the fall of the Roman Empire.
When asked, I’d tell skeptical friends how much I was learning in Springfield, and, for the first few years at least, it was true. Of all fifty states, Illinois best represented the demographics of the nation, home to a teeming metropolis, sprawling suburbs, farm country, factory towns, and a downstate region considered more southern than northern. On any given day, under the high dome of the capitol, you’d see a cross section of America on full display, a Carl Sandburg poem come to life. There were inner-city kids jostling one another on a field trip, well-coiffed bankers working their flip phones, farmers in seed caps looking to widen the locks that allowed industrial barges to take their crops to market. You’d see Latina moms looking to fund a new day-care center and middle-aged biker crews, complete with muttonchops and leather jackets, trying to stop yet another legislative effort to make them wear helmets.
I kept my head down in those early months. Some of my colleagues were suspicious of my odd name and Harvard pedigree, but I did my homework and helped raise money for other senators’ campaigns. I got to know my fellow legislators and their staffers not just in the senate chamber but also on the basketball court and at golf outings and during the weekly bipartisan poker games we organized—with a two-dollar, three-raise limit, the room thick with smoke, trash talk, and the slow fizz of yet another beer can being opened.
It helped that I already knew the senate minority leader, a hefty Black man in his sixties named Emil Jones. He’d come up through the ranks of one of the traditional ward organizations under Daley Sr. and represented the district where I’d once organized. That’s how we first met: I’d brought a group of parents to his office, demanding a meeting to get a college prep program funded for area youth. Rather than stiff-arm us, he invited us in.
“You may not know it,” he said, “but I been waiting for y’all to show up!” He explained how he’d never had the chance to graduate from college himself; he wanted to make sure more state money was steered to neglected Black neighborhoods. “I’m gonna leave it up to you to figure out what we need,” he told me with a slap on the back as my group left his office. “You leave the politics to me.” Sure enough, Emil got the program funded, and our friendship carried over to the senate. He took an odd pride in me and became almost protective of my reformist ways. Even when he badly needed a vote on a deal he was cooking up (getting riverboat gambling licensed in Chicago was a particular obsession), he would never squeeze me if I told him I couldn’t do it—though he wasn’t above uttering a few choice curses as he charged off to try someone else.
“Barack’s different,” he once told a staffer. “He’s going places.”
For all my diligence and Emil’s goodwill, neither of us could change one stark fact: We were in the minority party. Republicans in the Illinois senate had adopted the same uncompromising approach that Newt Gingrich was using at the time to neuter Democrats in Congress. The GOP exercised absolute control over what bills got out of committee and which amendments were in order. Springfield had a special designation for junior members in the minority like me—“mushrooms,” because “you’re fed shit and kept in the dark.” On occasion, I found myself able to shape significant legislation. I helped make sure Illinois’s version of the national welfare reform bill signed by Bill Clinton provided sufficient support for those transitioning to work. In the wake of one of Springfield’s perennial scandals, Emil assigned me to represent the caucus on a committee to update the ethics laws. Nobody else wanted the job, figuring it was a lost cause, but thanks to a good rapport with my Republican counterpart, Kirk Dillard, we passed a law that curbed some of the more embarrassing practices—making it impossible, for example, to use campaign dollars for personal items like a home addition or a fur coat. (There were senators who didn’t talk to us for weeks after that.) More typical was the time, toward the end of the first session, when I rose from my seat to oppose a blatant tax giveaway to some favored industry when the state was cutting services for the poor. I had lined up my facts and prepared with the thoroughness of a courtroom lawyer; I pointed out why such unjustified tax breaks violated the conservative market principles Republicans claimed to believe in. When I sat down, the senate president, Pate Philip—a beefy, white-haired ex-Marine notorious for insulting women and people of color with remarkably casual frequency—wandered up to my desk.
“That was a hell of a speech,” he said, chewing on an unlit cigar. “Made some good points.”
“Might have even changed a lot of minds,” he said. “But you didn’t change any votes.” With that, he signaled to the presiding officer and watched with satisfaction as the green lights signifying “aye” lit up the board.
That was politics in Springfield: a series of transactions mostly hidden from view, legislators weighing the competing pressures of various interests with the dispassion of bazaar merchants, all the while keeping a careful eye on the handful of ideological hot buttons—guns, abortion, taxes—that might generate heat from their base.
It wasn’t that people didn’t know the difference between good and bad policy. It just didn’t matter. What everyone in Springfield understood was that 90 percent of the time the voters back home weren’t paying attention. A complicated but worthy compromise, bucking party orthodoxy to support an innovative idea—that could cost you a key endorsement, a big financial backer, a leadership post, or even an election.
Could you get voters to pay attention? I tried. Back in the district, I accepted just about any invitation that came my way. I started writing a regular column for the Hyde Park Herald, a neighborhood weekly with a readership of less than five thousand. I hosted town halls, setting out refreshments and stacks of legislative updates, and then usually sat there with my lonesome staffer, looking at my watch, waiting for a crowd that never came.
I couldn’t blame folks for not showing up. They were busy, they had families, and surely most of the debates in Springfield seemed remote. Meanwhile, on the few high-profile issues that my constituents did care about, they probably agreed with me already, since the lines of my district—like those of almost every district in Illinois—had been drawn with surgical precision to ensure one-party dominance. If I wanted more funding for schools in poor neighborhoods, if I wanted more access to primary healthcare or retraining for laid-off workers, I didn’t need to convince my constituents. The people I needed to engage and persuade—they lived somewhere else.
By the end of my second session, I could feel the atmosphere of the capitol weighing on me—the futility of being in the minority, the cynicism of so many of my colleagues worn like a badge of honor. No doubt it showed. One day, while I was standing in the rotunda after a bill I’d introduced went down in flames, a well-meaning lobbyist came up and put his arm around me.
“You’ve got to stop beating your head against the wall, Barack,” he said. “The key to surviving this place is understanding that it’s a business. Like selling cars. Or the dry cleaner down the street. You start believing it’s more than that, it’ll drive you crazy.” —
SOME POLITICAL SCIENTISTS argue that everything I’ve said about Springfield describes exactly how pluralism is supposed to work; that the horse trading between interest groups may not be inspiring, but it keeps democracy muddling along. And maybe that argument would have gone down easier with me at the time if it weren’t for the life I was missing at home.
The first two years in the legislature were fine—Michelle was busy with her own work, and although she kept her promise not to come down to the state capital except for my swearing in, we’d still have leisurely conversations on the phone on nights I was away. Then one day in the fall of 1997, she called me at the office, her voice trembling.
“You’re going to be a daddy.”
I was going to be a daddy. How full of joy the months that followed were! I lived up to every cliché of the expectant father: attending Lamaze classes, trying to figure out how to assemble a crib, reading the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting with pen in hand to underline key passages. Around six a.m. on the Fourth of July, Michelle poked me and said it was time to go to the hospital. I fumbled around and gathered the bag I’d set by the door, and just seven hours later was introduced to Malia Ann Obama, eight pounds and fifteen ounces of perfection.
Among her many talents, our new daughter had good timing; with no session, no classes, and no big pending cases to work on, I could take the rest of the summer off. A night owl by nature, I manned the late shift so Michelle could sleep, resting Malia on my thighs to read to her as she looked up with big questioning eyes, or dozing as she lay on my chest, a burp and good poop behind us, so warm and serene. I thought about the generations of men who had missed such moments, and I thought about my own father, whose absence had done more to shape me than the brief time I’d spent with him, and I realized that there was no place on earth I would rather be.
But the strains of young parenthood eventually took their toll. After a blissful few months, Michelle went back to work, and I went back to juggling three jobs. We were lucky to find a wonderful nanny who cared for Malia during the day, but the addition of a full-time employee to our family enterprise squeezed the budget hard.
Michelle bore the brunt of all this, shuttling between mothering and work, unconvinced that she was doing either job well. At the end of each night, after feeding and bath time and story time and cleaning up the apartment and trying to keep track of whether she’d picked up the dry cleaning and making a note to herself to schedule an appointment with the pediatrician, she would often fall into an empty bed, knowing the whole cycle would start all over again in a few short hours while her husband was off doing “important things.” We began arguing more, usually late at night when the two of us were thoroughly drained. “This isn’t what I signed up for, Barack,” Michelle said at one point. “I feel like I’m doing it all by myself.” I was hurt by that. If I wasn’t working, I was home—and if I was home and forgot to clean up the kitchen after dinner, it was because I had to stay up late grading exams or fine-tuning a brief. But even as I mounted my defense, I knew I was falling short. Inside Michelle’s anger lay a more difficult truth. I was trying to deliver a lot of things to a lot of different people. I was taking the hard way, just as she’d predicted back when our burdens were lighter, our personal responsibilities not so enmeshed. I thought now about the promise I’d made to myself after Malia was born; that my kids would know me, that they’d grow up knowing my love for them, feeling that I had always put them first.
Sitting in the dim light of our living room, Michelle no longer seemed angry, just sad. “Is it worth it?” she asked.
I don’t recall what I said in response. I know I couldn’t admit to her that I was no longer sure.
IT’S HARD, in retrospect, to understand why you did something stupid. I don’t mean the small stuff—ruining your favorite tie because you tried to eat soup in the car or throwing out your back because you got talked into playing tackle football on Thanksgiving. I mean dumb choices in the wake of considerable deliberation: those times when you identify a real problem in your life, analyze it, and then with utter confidence come up with precisely the wrong answer.
That was me running for Congress. After numerous conversations, I had to concede that Michelle was right to question whether the difference I was making in Springfield justified the sacrifice. Rather than lightening my load, though, I went in the opposite direction, deciding I needed to step on the gas and secure a more influential office. Around this same time, veteran congressman Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, challenged Mayor Daley in the 1999 election and got trounced, doing poorly even in his own district.
I thought Rush’s campaign had been uninspired, without a rationale other than the vague promise to continue Harold Washington’s legacy. If this was how he operated in Congress, I figured I could do better. After talking it over with a few trusted advisors, I had my staff jerry-rig an in-house poll to see whether a race against Rush would be viable. Our informal sampling gave us a shot. Using the results, I was able to persuade several of my closest friends to help finance the race. And then, despite warnings from more experienced political hands that Rush was stronger than he looked, and despite Michelle’s incredulity that I would somehow think she’d feel better with me being in Washington instead of Springfield, I announced my candidacy for congressman from the First Congressional District.
Almost from the start, the race was a disaster. A few weeks in, the rumblings from the Rush camp began: Obama’s an outsider; he’s backed by white folks; he’s a Harvard elitist. And that name—is he even Black?
Having raised enough money to commission a proper poll, I discovered that Bobby had 90 percent name recognition in the district and a 70 percent approval rating, whereas only 11 percent of voters even knew who I was. Shortly thereafter, Bobby’s adult son was tragically shot and killed, eliciting an outpouring of sympathy. I effectively suspended my campaign for a month and watched television coverage of the funeral taking place at my own church, with Reverend Jeremiah Wright presiding. Already on thin ice at home, I took the family to Hawaii for an abbreviated Christmas break, only to have the governor call a special legislative session to vote on a gun control measure I supported. With eighteen-month-old Malia sick and unable to fly, I missed the vote and was roundly flayed by the Chicago press.
I lost by thirty points.
When talking to young people about politics, I sometimes offer this story as an object lesson of what not to do. Usually I throw in a postscript, describing how, a few months after my loss, a friend of mine, worried that I’d fallen into a funk, insisted that I join him at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in L.A. (“You need to get back on the horse,” he said.) But when I landed at LAX and tried to rent a car, I was turned down because my American Express card was over its limit. I managed to get myself to the Staples Center, but then learned that the credential my friend had secured for me didn’t allow entry to the convention floor, which left me to haplessly circle the perimeter and watch the festivities on mounted TV screens. Finally, after an awkward episode later that evening in which my friend couldn’t get me into a party he was attending, I took a cab back to the hotel, slept on the couch in his suite, and flew back to Chicago just as Al Gore was accepting the nomination.
It’s a funny story, especially in light of where I ultimately ended up. It speaks, I tell my audience, to the unpredictable nature of politics, and the necessity for resilience.
What I don’t mention is my dark mood on that flight back. I was almost forty, broke, coming off a humiliating defeat and with my marriage strained. I felt for perhaps the first time in my life that I had taken a wrong turn; that whatever reservoirs of energy and optimism I thought I had, whatever potential I’d always banked on, had been used up on a fool’s errand. Worse, I recognized that in running for Congress I’d been driven not by some selfless dream of changing the world, but rather by the need to justify the choices I had already made, or to satisfy my ego, or to quell my envy of those who had achieved what I had not.
In other words, I had become the very thing that, as a younger man, I had warned myself against. I had become a politician—and not a very good one at that.
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