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AFTER GETTING DRUBBED BY Bobby Rush, I allowed myself a few months to mope and lick my wounds before deciding that I had to reframe my priorities and get on with things. I told Michelle I needed to do better by her. We had a new baby on the way, and even though I was still gone more than she would have preferred, she at least noticed the effort I was making. I scheduled my meetings in Springfield so that I’d be home for dinner more often. I tried to be more punctual and more present. And on June 10, 2001, not quite three years after Malia’s birth, we experienced the same blast of joy—the same utter amazement—when Sasha arrived, as plump and lovely as her sister had been, with thick black curls that were impossible to resist.
For the next two years, I led a quieter life, full of small satisfactions, content with the balance I’d seemingly struck. I relished wriggling Malia into her first ballet tights or grasping her hand as we walked to the park; watching baby Sasha laugh and laugh as I nibbled her feet; listening to Michelle’s breath slow, her head resting against my shoulder, as she drifted off to sleep in the middle of an old movie. I rededicated myself to my work in the state senate and savored the time spent with my students at the law school. I took a serious look at our finances and put together a plan to pay down our debts. Inside the slower rhythms of my work and the pleasures of fatherhood, I began to consider options for a life after politics—perhaps teaching and writing full-time, or returning to law practice, or applying for a job at a local charitable foundation, as my mother had once imagined I’d do.
In other words, following my ill-fated run for Congress, I experienced a certain letting go—if not of my desire to make a difference in the world, then at least of the insistence that it had to be done on a larger stage. What might have begun as a sense of resignation at whatever limits fate had imposed on my life came to feel more like gratitude for the bounty it had already delivered.
Two things, however, kept me from making a clean break from politics. First, Illinois Democrats had won the right to oversee the redrawing of state districting maps to reflect new data from the 2000 census, thanks to a quirk in the state constitution that called for a dispute between the Democrat-controlled house and the Republican senate to be settled by drawing a name out of one of Abraham Lincoln’s old stovepipe hats. With this power, Democrats could reverse the Republican gerrymandering of the previous decade and vastly better the odds that senate Democrats would be in the majority after the 2002 election. I knew that with one more term, I’d finally get a chance to pass some bills, deliver something meaningful for the people I represented—and perhaps end my political career on a higher note than it was currently on.
The second factor was an instinct rather than an event. Since being elected, I’d tried to spend a few days each summer visiting various colleagues in their home districts across Illinois. Usually I’d go with my chief senate aide, Dan Shomon—a former UPI reporter with thick glasses, boundless energy, and a foghorn voice. We’d throw our golf clubs, a map, and a couple of sets of clothes in the back of my Jeep and head south or west, winding our way to Rock Island or Pinckneyville, Alton or Carbondale.
Dan was my key political advisor, a good friend, and an ideal road trip companion: easy to talk to, perfectly fine with silence, and he shared my habit of smoking in the car. He also had an encyclopedic knowledge of state politics. The first time we made the trip, I could tell he was a little nervous about how folks downstate might react to a Black lawyer from Chicago with an Arab-sounding name.
“No fancy shirts,” he instructed before we left.
“I don’t have fancy shirts,” I said.
“Good. Just polos and khakis.”
Despite Dan’s worries that I’d be out of place, what struck me most during our travels was how familiar everything felt—whether we were at a county fair or a union hall or on the porch on someone’s farm. In the way people described their families or their jobs. In their modesty and their hospitality. In their enthusiasm for high school basketball. In the food they served, the fried chicken and baked beans and Jell-O molds. In them, I heard echoes of my grandparents, my mother, Michelle’s mom and dad. Same values. Same hopes and dreams.
These excursions became more sporadic once my kids were born. But the simple, recurring insight they offered stayed with me. As long as the residents of my Chicago district and districts downstate remained strangers to one another, I realized, our politics would never truly change. It would always be too easy for politicians to feed the stereotypes that pitted Black against white, immigrant against native-born, rural interests against those of cities.
If, on the other hand, a campaign could somehow challenge America’s reigning political assumptions about how divided we were, well then just maybe it would be possible to build a new covenant between its citizens. The insiders would no longer be able to play one group against another. Legislators might be freed from defining their constituents’ interests—and their own—so narrowly. The media might take notice and examine issues based not on which side won or lost but on whether our common goals were met.
Ultimately wasn’t this what I was after—a politics that bridged America’s racial, ethnic, and religious divides, as well as the many strands of my own life? Maybe I was being unrealistic; maybe such divisions were too deeply entrenched. But no matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was too early to give up on my deepest convictions. Much as I’d tried to tell myself I was done, or nearly done, with political life, I knew in my heart that I wasn’t ready to let go.
As I gave the future more thought, one thing became clear: The kind of bridge-building politics I imagined wasn’t suited to a congressional race. The problem was structural, a matter of how district lines were drawn: In an overwhelmingly Black district like the one I lived in, in a community that had long been battered by discrimination and neglect, the test for politicians would more often than not be defined in racial terms, just as it was in many white, rural districts that felt left behind. How well will you stand up to those who are not like us, voters asked, those who have taken advantage of us, who look down on us?
You could make a difference from such a narrow political base; with some seniority, you could secure better services for your constituents, bring a big project or two back to your home district, and, by working with allies, try to influence the national debate. But that wouldn’t be enough to lift the political constraints that made it so difficult to deliver healthcare for those who most needed it, or better schools for poor kids, or jobs where there were none; the same constraints that Bobby Rush labored under every day.
To really shake things up, I realized, I needed to speak to and for the widest possible audience. And the best way to do that was to run for a statewide office—like, for example, the U.S. Senate.
WHEN I THINK back now on the brashness—the sheer chutzpah—of me wanting to launch a U.S. Senate race, fresh as I was off a resounding defeat, it’s hard not to admit the possibility that I was just desperate for another shot, like an alcoholic rationalizing one last drink. Except that’s not how it felt. Instead, as I rolled the idea around in my head, I experienced a great clarity—not so much that I would win, but that I could win, and that if I did win, I could have a big impact. I could see it, feel it, like a running back who spots an opening at the line of scrimmage and knows that if he can get to that hole fast enough and break through, there will be nothing but open field between him and the end zone. Along with this clarity came a parallel realization: If I didn’t pull it off, it would be time to leave politics—and so long as I had given it my best effort, I could do so without regret.
Quietly, over the course of 2002, I began to test the proposition. Looking at the Illinois political landscape, I saw that the notion of a little-known Black state legislator going to the U.S. Senate wasn’t totally far-fetched. Several African Americans had won statewide office before, including former U.S. senator Carol Moseley Braun, a talented but erratic politician whose victory had electrified the country before she was dinged up by a series of self-inflicted wounds involving financial ethics. Meanwhile, the Republican who’d beaten her, Peter Fitzgerald, was a wealthy banker whose sharply conservative views had made him relatively unpopular across our increasingly Democratic state.
I began by talking to a trio of my state senate poker buddies—Democrats Terry Link, Denny Jacobs, and Larry Walsh—to see whether they thought I could compete in the white working-class and rural enclaves they represented. From what they’d seen during my visits, they thought I could, and all agreed to support me if I ran. So did a number of white progressive elected officials along Chicago’s lakefront and a handful of independent Latino legislators as well. I asked Jesse Jr. if he had any interest in running, and he said no, adding that he was prepared to lend me his support. Congressman Danny Davis, the genial third Black congressman in the Illinois delegation, signed on too. (I could hardly fault Bobby Rush for being less enthusiastic.) Most important was Emil Jones, now poised to be state senate president and hence one of the three most powerful politicians in Illinois. At a meeting in his office, I pointed out that not a single current U.S. senator was African American, and that the policies that we’d fought for together in Springfield really could use a champion in Washington. I added that if he were to help get one of his own elected to the U.S. Senate, it would surely gall some of the old-guard white Republicans in Springfield who he felt had always sold him short, which was a rationale I think he particularly liked.
With David Axelrod, I took a different tack. A media consultant who’d previously been a journalist and whose clients included Harold Washington, former U.S. senator Paul Simon, and Mayor Richard M. Daley, Axe had developed a national reputation for being smart, tough, and a skilled ad maker. I admired his work and knew that having him on board would lend my nascent campaign credibility not just around the state but with national donors and pundits.
I knew, too, that he’d be a tough sell. “It’s a reach,” he said on the day we met for lunch at a River North bistro. Axe had been one of many who’d warned me against taking on Bobby Rush. Between hearty bites of his sandwich, he told me I couldn’t afford a second loss. And he doubted a candidate whose name rhymed with “Osama” could get downstate votes. Plus, he’d already been approached by at least two other likely Senate candidates—state comptroller Dan Hynes and multimillionaire hedge fund manager Blair Hull—both of whom seemed in much stronger positions to win, so taking me on as a client was likely to cost his firm a hefty sum.
“Wait till Rich Daley retires and then run for mayor,” he concluded, wiping mustard off his mustache. “It’s the better bet.”
He was right, of course. But I wasn’t playing the conventional odds. And in Axe I sensed—beneath all the poll data and strategy memos and talking points that were the tools of his trade—someone who saw himself as more than just a hired gun; someone who might be a kindred spirit. Rather than argue campaign mechanics, I tried to appeal to his heart.
“Do you ever think about how JFK and Bobby Kennedy seemed to tap into what’s best in people?” I asked. “Or wonder how it must have felt to help LBJ pass the Voting Rights Act, or FDR pass Social Security, knowing you’d made millions of people’s lives better? Politics doesn’t have to be what people think it is. It can be something more.” Axe’s imposing eyebrows went up as he scanned my face. It must have been clear that I wasn’t just trying to convince him; I was convincing myself. A few weeks later, he called to say that after talking it over with his business partners and his wife, Susan, he’d decided to take me on as a client. Before I could thank him, he added a proviso.
“Your idealism is stirring, Barack…but unless you raise five million bucks to get it on TV so people can hear it, you don’t stand a chance.”
With this, I finally felt ready to test the waters with Michelle. She was now working as the executive director for community affairs at the University of Chicago hospital system, a job that gave her more flexibility but still required her to juggle high-level professional responsibilities with coordinating the girls’ playdates and school pickups. So I was a little surprised when instead of responding with a “Hell no, Barack!” she suggested we talk it through with some of our closest friends, including Marty Nesbitt, a successful businessman whose wife, Dr. Anita Blanchard, had delivered both our girls, and Valerie Jarrett, a brilliant and well-connected attorney who’d been Michelle’s boss at the city’s planning department and become like an older sister to us. What I didn’t know at the time was that Michelle had already gotten to Marty and Valerie and assigned them the job of talking me out of my foolishness.
We gathered at Valerie’s Hyde Park apartment, and over a long brunch, I explained my thought process, mapping out the scenarios that would get us to the Democratic nomination and answering questions about how this race would be different from the last. With Michelle, I didn’t sugarcoat the amount of time I’d be away. But this was it, I promised, up or out; if I lost this one, we were done with politics for good.
By the time I finished, Valerie and Marty had been persuaded, no doubt to Michelle’s chagrin. It wasn’t a question of strategy for her, aside from the fact that the thought of another campaign appealed to her about as much as a root canal. She was most concerned with the effect on our family finances, which still hadn’t fully recovered from the last one. She reminded me that we had student loans, a mortgage, and credit card debt to think about. We hadn’t started saving for our daughters’ college educations yet, and on top of that, a Senate run would require me to stop practicing law in order to avoid conflicts of interest, which would further diminish our income.
“If you lose, we’ll be deeper in the hole,” she said. “And what happens if you win? How are we supposed to maintain two households, in Washington and Chicago, when we can barely keep up with one?” I’d anticipated this. “If I win, hon,” I said, “it will draw national attention. I’ll be the only African American in the Senate. With a higher profile, I can write another book, and it’ll sell a lot of copies, and that will cover the added expenses.” Michelle let out a sharp laugh. I’d made some money on my first book, but nothing close to what it would take to pay for the expenses I was now talking about incurring. As my wife saw it—as most people would see it, I imagine—an unwritten book was hardly a financial plan.
“In other words,” she said, “you’ve got some magic beans in your pocket. That’s what you’re telling me. You have some magic beans, and you’re going to plant them, and overnight a huge beanstalk is going to grow high into the sky, and you’ll climb up the beanstalk, kill the giant who lives in the clouds, and then bring home a goose that lays golden eggs. Is that it?” “Something like that,” I said.
Michelle shook her head and looked out the window. We both knew what I was asking for. Another disruption. Another gamble. Another step in the direction of something I wanted and she truly didn’t.
“This is it, Barack,” Michelle said. “One last time. But don’t expect me to do any campaigning. In fact, you shouldn’t even count on my vote.”
AS A KID, I had sometimes watched as my salesman grandfather tried to sell life insurance policies over the phone, his face registering misery as he made cold calls in the evening from our tenth-floor apartment in a Honolulu high-rise. During the early months of 2003, I found myself thinking of him often as I sat at my desk in the sparsely furnished headquarters of my newly launched Senate campaign, beneath a poster of Muhammad Ali posed triumphantly over a defeated Sonny Liston, trying to pep-talk myself into making another fundraising call.
Aside from Dan Shomon and a Kentuckian named Jim Cauley we’d recruited as campaign manager, our staff consisted mostly of kids in their twenties, only half of whom were paid—and two of whom were still undergraduates. I felt especially sorry for my lone full-time fundraiser, who had to push me to pick up the phone and solicit donations.
Was I getting better at being a politician? I couldn’t say. In the first scheduled candidates’ forum in February 2003, I was stiff and ineffectual, unable to get my brain to operate in the tidy phrases such formats required. But my loss to Bobby Rush had given me a clear blueprint for upping my game: I needed to interact more effectively with the media, learning to get my ideas across in pithy sound bites. I needed to build a campaign that was less about policy papers and more about connecting one-on-one with voters. And I needed to raise money—lots of it. We’d conducted multiple polls, which seemed to confirm that I could win, but only if I managed to improve my visibility with costly TV ads.
And yet, as snakebit as my congressional race had been, this one felt charmed. In April, Peter Fitzgerald decided not to run for reelection. Carol Moseley Braun, who would probably have locked up the Democratic nomination for her old seat, had inexplicably chosen to run for president instead, leaving the contest wide open. In a primary race against six other Democrats, I went about lining up endorsements from unions and popular members of our congressional delegation, helping to shore up my downstate and liberal bases. Aided by Emil and a Democratic majority in the state senate, I spearheaded the passage of a slew of bills, from a law requiring the videotaping of interrogations in capital cases to an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, reinforcing my credentials as an effective legislator.
The national political landscape tilted in my favor as well. In October 2002, before even announcing my candidacy, I’d been invited to speak against the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq, addressing an antiwar rally held in downtown Chicago. For a soon-to-be Senate candidate, the politics were muddy. Both Axe and Dan thought that taking a clear, unequivocal stand against the war would help in a Democratic primary. Others cautioned that, given the post-9/11 mood of the country (at the time, national polls showed as many as 67 percent of Americans in favor of taking military action against Iraq), the likelihood of at least short-term military success, and my already challenging name and lineage, opposition to the war could cripple my candidacy by election time.
“America likes to kick ass,” one friend warned.
I mulled over the question for a day or so and decided this was my first test: Would I run the kind of campaign that I’d promised myself? I typed out a short speech, five or six minutes long, and—satisfied that it reflected my honest beliefs—went to bed without sending it to the team for review. On the day of the rally, more than a thousand people had gathered at Federal Plaza, with Jesse Jackson as the headliner. It was cold, the wind gusting. There was a smattering of applause muffled by mittens and gloves as my name was called and I stepped up to the microphone.
“Let me begin by saying that although this has been billed as an antiwar rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances.”
The crowd grew quiet, uncertain of where I was going. I described the blood spilled to preserve the Union and usher in a new birth of freedom; the pride I had in my grandfather volunteering to fight in the wake of Pearl Harbor; my support for our military actions in Afghanistan and my own willingness to take up arms to prevent another 9/11. “I don’t oppose all wars,” I said. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war.” I went on to argue that Saddam Hussein posed no imminent threat to the United States or its neighbors, and that “even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” I ended with the suggestion that if President Bush was looking for a fight, he should finish the job against al-Qaeda, stop supporting repressive regimes, and wean America off Middle Eastern oil.
I took my seat. The crowd cheered. Leaving the plaza, I assumed my remarks would be little more than a footnote. News reports barely mentioned my presence at the rally.
ONLY A FEW months after a U.S.-led military coalition began bombing Baghdad, Democrats started turning against the Iraq War. As casualties and chaos mounted, the press began asking questions that should have been posed from the outset. A groundswell of grassroots activism lifted a little-known Vermont governor, Howard Dean, to challenge 2004 presidential candidates like John Kerry who had voted in support of the war. The short speech I’d given at the antiwar rally suddenly looked prescient and began to circulate on the internet. My young staff had to explain to me what the hell “blogs” and “MySpace” had to do with the flood of new volunteers and grassroots donations we were suddenly getting.
As a candidate, I was having fun. In Chicago, I spent Saturdays plunging into ethnic neighborhoods—Mexican, Italian, Indian, Polish, Greek—eating and dancing, marching in parades, kissing babies and hugging grandmas. Sundays would find me in Black churches, some of them modest storefronts wedged between nail salons and fast-food joints, others expansive megachurches with parking lots the size of football fields. I hopscotched through the suburbs, from the leafy, mansion-filled North Shore to towns just south and west of the city, where poverty and abandoned buildings made some of them indistinguishable from Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods. Every couple of weeks, I’d head downstate—sometimes driving myself but more often traveling with Jeremiah Posedel or Anita Decker, the two talented staffers running my operations there.
Talking to voters in the early days of the campaign, I tended to address the issues I was running on—ending tax breaks for companies that were moving jobs overseas, or promoting renewable energy, or making it easier for kids to afford college. I explained why I had opposed the war in Iraq, acknowledging the remarkable service of our soldiers but questioning why we had started a new war when we hadn’t finished the one in Afghanistan while Osama bin Laden was still at large.
Over time, though, I focused more on listening. And the more I listened, the more people opened up. They’d tell me about how it felt to be laid off after a lifetime of work, or what it was like to have your home foreclosed upon or to have to sell the family farm. They’d tell me about not being able to afford health insurance, and how sometimes they broke the pills their doctors prescribed in half, hoping to make their medicine last longer. They spoke of young people moving away because there were no good jobs in their town, or others having to drop out of college just short of graduation because they couldn’t cover the tuition.
My stump speech became less a series of positions and more a chronicle of these disparate voices, a chorus of Americans from every corner of the state.
“Here’s the thing,” I would say. “Most people, wherever they’re from, whatever they look like, are looking for the same thing. They’re not trying to get filthy rich. They don’t expect someone else to do what they can do for themselves.
“But they do expect that if they’re willing to work, they should be able to find a job that supports a family. They expect that they shouldn’t go bankrupt just because they get sick. They expect that their kids should be able to get a good education, one that prepares them for this new economy, and they should be able to afford college if they’ve put in the effort. They want to be safe, from criminals or terrorists. And they figure that after a lifetime of work, they should be able to retire with dignity and respect.
“That’s about it. It’s not a lot. And although they don’t expect government to solve all their problems, they do know, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities government could help.” The room would be quiet, and I’d take a few questions. When a meeting was over, people lined up to shake my hand, pick up some campaign literature, or talk to Jeremiah, Anita, or a local campaign volunteer about how they could get involved. And I’d drive on to the next town, knowing that the story I was telling was true; convinced that this campaign was no longer about me and that I had become a mere conduit through which people might recognize the value of their own stories, their own worth, and share them with one another.
WHETHER IN SPORTS or politics, it’s hard to understand the precise nature of momentum. But by the beginning of 2004 we had it. Axe had us shoot two television ads: The first had me speaking directly to the camera, ending with the tagline “Yes we can.” (I thought this was corny, but Axe immediately appealed to a higher power, showing it to Michelle, who deemed it “not corny at all.”) The second featured Sheila Simon, daughter of the state’s beloved former senator Paul Simon, who had died following heart surgery days before he’d planned to publicly endorse me.
We released the ads just four weeks before the primaries. In short order, my support almost doubled. When the state’s five largest newspapers endorsed me, Axe recut the ads to highlight it, explaining that Black candidates tended to benefit more than white candidates from the validation. Around this time, the bottom fell out of my closest rival’s campaign after news outlets published details from previously sealed court documents in which his ex-wife alleged domestic abuse. On March 16, 2004, the day of the Democratic primary, we ended up winning almost 53 percent of the vote in our seven-person field—not only more than all the other Democratic candidates combined, but more than all the Republican votes that had been cast statewide in their primary.
I remember only two moments from that night: the delighted squeals from our daughters (with maybe a little fear mixed in for two-year-old Sasha) when the confetti guns went off at the victory party; and an ebullient Axelrod telling me that I’d won all but one of the majority white wards in Chicago, which had once served as the epicenter of racial resistance to Harold Washington. (“Harold’s smiling down on us tonight,” he said.) I remember the next morning as well, when after almost no sleep I went down to Central Station to shake hands with commuters as they headed for work. A gentle snow had begun to fall, the flakes thick as flower petals, and as people recognized me and shook my hand, they all seemed to wear the same smile—as if we had done something surprising together.
“BEING SHOT FROM a cannon” was how Axe would describe the next few months, and that’s exactly how it felt. Our campaign became national news overnight, with networks calling for interviews and elected officials from around the country phoning with congratulations. It wasn’t just that we had won, or even the unexpectedly large margin of our victory; what interested observers was the way we’d won, with votes from all demographics, including from southern and rural white counties. Pundits speculated on what my campaign said about the state of American race relations—and because of my early opposition to the Iraq War, what it might say about where the Democratic Party was headed.
My campaign didn’t have the luxury of celebration; we just scrambled to keep up. We brought on additional, more experienced staff, including communications director Robert Gibbs, a tough, quick-witted Alabaman who had worked on the Kerry campaign. While polls showed me with a nearly twenty-point lead over my Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, his résumé made me cautious about taking anything for granted—he was a Goldman Sachs banker who had quit to teach at a parochial school serving disadvantaged kids and whose matinee-idol looks sanded the edges off his very conventional Republican platform.
Fortunately for us, none of this translated on the campaign trail. Ryan was flogged by the press when, in an attempt to tag me as a big-spending, tax-hiking liberal, he used a series of charts showing numbers that turned out to be wildly and obviously wrong. He was later pilloried for having dispatched a young staffer who aggressively tailed me with a handheld camcorder, following me into lavatories and hovering even while I tried to talk to Michelle and the girls, hoping to catch me in a gaffe. The final blow came when the press got hold of sealed records from Ryan’s divorce, in which his ex-wife alleged that he had pressured her to visit sex clubs and tried to coerce her into having sex in front of strangers. Within a week, Ryan withdrew from the race.
With just five months to go until the general election, I suddenly had no opponent.
“All I know,” Gibbs announced, “is after this thing is all over, we’re going to Vegas.”
Still, I maintained a grueling schedule, often finishing the day’s business in Springfield and then driving to nearby towns for campaign events. On the way back from one such event, I got a call from someone on John Kerry’s staff, inviting me to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention being held in Boston in late July. That I felt neither giddy nor nervous said something about the sheer improbability of the year I’d just had. Axelrod offered to pull together the team to begin the process of drafting a speech, but I waved him off.
“Let me take a crack at it,” I told him. “I know what I want to say.”
For the next several days, I wrote my speech, mostly in the evenings, sprawled on my bed at the Renaissance Hotel in Springfield, a ball game buzzing in the background, filling a yellow legal pad with my thoughts. The words came swiftly, a summation of the politics I’d been searching for since those early years in college and the inner struggles that had prompted the journey to where I was now. My head felt full of voices: of my mother, my grandparents, my father; of the people I had organized with and folks on the campaign trail. I thought about all those I’d encountered who had plenty of reason to turn bitter and cynical but had refused to go that way, who kept reaching for something higher, who kept reaching for one another. At some point, I remembered a phrase I’d heard once during a sermon by my pastor, Jeremiah Wright, one that captured this spirit.
The audacity of hope.
Axe and Gibbs would later swap stories about the twists and turns leading up to the night I spoke at the convention. How we had to negotiate the time I would be allotted (originally eight minutes, bargained up to seventeen). The painful cuts to my original draft by Axe and his able partner John Kupper, all of which made it better. A delayed flight to Boston as my legislative session in Springfield dragged into the night. Practicing for the first time on a teleprompter, with my coach, Michael Sheehan, explaining that the microphones worked fine, so “you don’t have to yell.” My anger when a young Kerry staffer informed us that I had to cut one of my favorite lines because the nominee intended to poach it for his own speech. (“You’re a state senator,” Axe helpfully reminded me, “and they’ve given you a national stage….I don’t think it’s too much to ask.”) Michelle backstage, beautiful in white, squeezing my hand, gazing lovingly into my eyes, and telling me “Just don’t screw it up, buddy!” The two of us cracking up, being silly, when our love was always best, and then the introduction by the senior senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, “Let me tell you about this Barack Obama…” I’ve only watched the tape of my 2004 convention speech once all the way through. I did so alone, well after the election was over, trying to understand what happened in the hall that night. With stage makeup, I look impossibly young, and I can see a touch of nerves at the beginning, places where I’m too fast or too slow, my gestures slightly awkward, betraying my inexperience.
But there comes a point in the speech where I find my cadence. The crowd quiets rather than roars. It’s the kind of moment I’d come to recognize in subsequent years, on certain magic nights. There’s a physical feeling, a current of emotion that passes back and forth between you and the crowd, as if your lives and theirs are suddenly spliced together, like a movie reel, projecting backward and forward in time, and your voice creeps right up to the edge of cracking, because for an instant, you feel them deeply; you can see them whole. You’ve tapped into some collective spirit, a thing we all know and wish for—a sense of connection that overrides our differences and replaces them with a giant swell of possibility—and like all things that matter most, you know the moment is fleeting and that soon the spell will be broken.
BEFORE THAT NIGHT, I thought I understood the power of the media. I’d seen how Axelrod’s ads had catapulted me into a lead in the primary, how strangers would suddenly honk and wave from their cars, or how children would rush up to me on the street and say with great seriousness, “I saw you on TV.” But this was exposure of a different magnitude—an unfiltered, live transmission to millions of people, with clips cycled to millions more via cable news shows and across the internet. Leaving the stage, I knew the speech had gone well, and I wasn’t all that surprised by the crush of people greeting us at various convention events the following day. As satisfying as the attention I got in Boston was, though, I assumed it was circumstantial. I figured these were political junkies, people who followed this stuff minute by minute.
Immediately after the convention, though, Michelle and I and the girls loaded up our stuff and set out for a weeklong RV trip in downstate Illinois designed to show voters I remained focused on Illinois and hadn’t gotten too big for my britches. We were a few minutes from our first stop, rolling down the highway, when Jeremiah, my downstate director, got a call from the advance staff.
“Okay…okay…I’ll talk to the driver.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked, already a little worn-out by sleep deprivation and the hectic schedule.
“We were expecting maybe a hundred people at the park,” Jeremiah said, “but right now they’re counting at least five hundred. They asked us to slow down so they have time to deal with the overflow.” Twenty minutes later, we pulled up to see what looked like the entire town crammed into the park. There were parents with kids on their shoulders, seniors on lawn chairs waving small flags, men in plaid shirts and seed caps, many of them surely just curious, there to see what the fuss was about, but others standing patiently in quiet anticipation. Malia peered out the window, ignoring Sasha’s efforts to shove her out of the way.
“What are all the people doing in the park?” Malia asked.
“They’re here to see Daddy,” Michelle said.
I turned to Gibbs, who shrugged and just said, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
At every stop after that, we were met by crowds four or five times larger than any we’d seen before. And no matter how much we told ourselves that interest would fade and the balloon deflate, no matter how much we tried to guard against complacency, the election itself became almost an afterthought. By August, the Republicans—unable to find a local candidate willing to run (although former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka publicly flirted with the idea)—bafflingly recruited conservative firebrand Alan Keyes. (“See,” Gibbs said with a grin, “they’ve got their own Black guy!”) Aside from the fact that Keyes was a Maryland resident, his harsh moralizing about abortion and homosexuality didn’t sit well with Illinoisans.
“Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama!” Keyes would proclaim, deliberately mispronouncing my name every time.
I beat him by more than forty points—the biggest margin for a Senate race in the state’s history.
Our mood on election night was subdued, not only because our race had become a foregone conclusion but because of the national results. Kerry had lost to Bush; Republicans had retained control of the House and the Senate; even the Democratic Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, had lost in an upset. Karl Rove, George Bush’s political mastermind, was crowing about his dream of installing a permanent Republican majority.
Meanwhile, Michelle and I were exhausted. My staff calculated that over the previous eighteen months, I had taken exactly seven days off. We used the six weeks before my swearing in as a U.S. senator to tend to mundane household details that had been largely neglected. I flew to Washington to meet with my soon-to-be colleagues, interview potential staff, and look for the cheapest apartment I could find. Michelle had decided that she and the kids would stay in Chicago, where she had a support circle of family and friends, not to mention a job she really loved. Though the thought of living apart three days a week for much of the year made my heart sink, I couldn’t argue with her logic.
Otherwise, we didn’t dwell much on what had happened. We spent Christmas in Hawaii with Maya and Toot. We sang carols, built sandcastles, and watched the girls unwrap gifts. I tossed a flower lei into the ocean at the spot where my sister and I had scattered my mother’s ashes and left one at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, where my grandfather was interred. After New Year’s, the whole family flew to Washington. The night before my swearing in, Michelle was in the bedroom of our hotel suite getting ready for a welcome dinner for new members of the Senate when I got a call from my book editor. The convention speech had lifted my reissued book, which had been out of print for years, to the top of the bestseller list. She was calling to congratulate me on its success and the fact that we had a deal for a new book, this time with an eye-popping advance.
I thanked her and hung up just as Michelle came out of the bedroom in a shimmery formal dress.
“You look so pretty, Mommy,” Sasha said. Michelle did a twirl for the girls.
“Okay, you guys behave yourselves,” I said, kissing them before saying goodbye to Michelle’s mother, who was babysitting that night. We were headed down the hall toward the elevator when suddenly Michelle stopped.
“Forget something?” I asked.
She looked at me and shook her head, incredulous. “I can’t believe you actually pulled this whole thing off. The campaign. The book. All of it.”
I nodded and kissed her forehead. “Magic beans, baby. Magic beans.”
TYPICALLY THE BIGGEST challenge for a freshman senator in Washington is getting people to pay attention to anything you do. I ended up having the opposite problem. Relative to my actual status as an incoming senator, the hype that surrounded me had grown comical. Reporters routinely pressed me on my plans, most often asking if I intended to run for president. When on the day I was sworn in a reporter asked, “What do you consider your place in history?” I laughed, explaining that I had just arrived in Washington, was ranked ninety-ninth in seniority, had yet to cast a vote, and didn’t know where the restrooms were in the Capitol.
I wasn’t being coy. Running for the Senate had felt like a reach as it was. I was glad to be there, and eager to get started on the work. To counteract any inflated expectations, my team and I looked to the example set by Hillary Clinton, who’d entered the Senate four years earlier to a lot of fanfare and had gone on to develop a reputation for diligence, substance, and attention to her constituents. To be a workhorse, not a show horse—that was my goal.
No one was temperamentally more suited to implement such a strategy than my new chief of staff, Pete Rouse. Almost sixty years old, graying, and built like a panda bear, Pete had worked on Capitol Hill for nearly thirty years. His experience, most recently as chief of staff to Tom Daschle, and his wide-ranging relationships around town led people to fondly refer to him as the 101st senator. Contrary to the stereotype of Washington political operatives, Pete was allergic to the spotlight, and—beneath a droll, gruff exterior—he was almost shy, which helped explain his long-term bachelorhood and doting affection for his cats.
It had required considerable effort to convince Pete to take on the job of setting up my rookie office. He was less concerned, he said, with the big step down in status than he was with the possibility that it wouldn’t leave him enough time to help find jobs for all the junior staffers who, in the aftermath of Daschle’s defeat, were now unemployed.
It was this unfailing decency and rectitude, as much as his knowledge, that made Pete a godsend. And it was on the basis of his reputation that I was able to recruit a topflight staff to fill out the ranks in my office. Along with Robert Gibbs as communications director, we enlisted veteran Hill staffer Chris Lu as legislative director; Mark Lippert, a sharp young naval reservist, as a foreign policy staffer; and Alyssa Mastromonaco, a top lieutenant on the Kerry presidential campaign whose baby face belied an unmatched talent for troubleshooting and organizing events, as director of scheduling. Finally we added a thoughtful, good-looking twenty-three-year-old named Jon Favreau. Favs, as he came to be known, had also worked on the Kerry campaign and was both Gibbs’s and Pete’s number one choice as our speechwriter.
“Haven’t I met him before?” I asked Gibbs after the interview.
“Yep…he’s the kid who showed up and told you that Kerry was stealing one of your lines at the convention.”
I hired him anyway.
Under Pete’s supervision, the team set up offices in Washington, Chicago, and several downstate locations. To emphasize our focus on voters back home, Alyssa put together an ambitious schedule of town hall meetings in Illinois—thirty-nine in the first year. We instituted a strict policy of avoiding national press and the Sunday morning shows, instead devoting our attention to Illinois papers and TV affiliates. Most important, Pete worked out an elaborate system for handling mail and constituent requests, spending hours with young staffers and interns who worked in the correspondence office, obsessively editing their responses and making sure they were familiar with all the federal agencies that dealt with lost Social Security checks, discontinued veterans’ benefits, or loans from the Small Business Administration.
“People may not like your votes,” Pete said, “but they’ll never accuse you of not answering your mail!”
With the office in good hands, I could dedicate most of my time to studying the issues and getting to know my fellow senators. My task was made easier by the generosity of Illinois’s senior senator, Dick Durbin, a friend and disciple of Paul Simon’s, and one of the most gifted debaters in the Senate. In a culture of big egos, where senators generally didn’t take kindly to a junior partner soaking up more press than them, Dick was unfailingly helpful. He introduced me around the Senate chambers, insisted that his staff share credit with us on various Illinois projects, and maintained his patience and good humor when—at the Thursday morning constituent breakfasts we jointly hosted—visitors spent much of the time asking me for pictures and autographs.
The same could be said for Harry Reid, the new Democratic leader. Harry’s path to the Senate had been at least as unlikely as mine. Born dirt-poor in the small town of Searchlight, Nevada, to a miner and a laundress, he spent his early years in a shack without indoor plumbing or a telephone. Somehow, he had scratched and clawed his way into college and then George Washington University Law School, working as a uniformed United States Capitol Police officer between classes to help pay his way, and he was the first to tell you that he had never lost that chip on his shoulder.
“You know, Barack, I boxed when I was a kid,” he said in his whispery voice the first time we met. “And gosh, I wasn’t a great athlete. I wasn’t big and strong. But I had two things going for me. I could take a punch. And I didn’t give up.” That sense of overcoming long odds probably explained why, despite our differences in age and experience, Harry and I hit it off. He wasn’t one to show much emotion and in fact had a disconcerting habit of forgoing the normal niceties in any conversation, especially on the phone. You might find yourself in mid-sentence only to discover he’d already hung up. But much as Emil Jones had done in the state legislature, Harry went out of his way to look out for me when it came to committee assignments and kept me apprised of Senate business, regardless of my lowly rank.
In fact, such collegiality seemed to be the norm. The old bulls of the Senate—Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, John Warner and Robert Byrd, Dan Inouye and Ted Stevens—all maintained friendships across the aisle, operating with an easy intimacy that I found typical of the Greatest Generation. The younger senators socialized less and brought with them the sharper ideological edge that had come to characterize the House of Representatives after the Gingrich era. But even with the most conservative members, I often found common ground: Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn, for example, a devout Christian and an unyielding skeptic of government spending, would become a sincere and thoughtful friend, our staffs working together on measures to increase transparency and reduce waste in government contracting.
In many ways, my first year in the Senate felt a bit like a reprise of my early years in the Illinois legislature, though the stakes were higher, the spotlight brighter, and the lobbyists more skilled at wrapping their clients’ interests in the garb of grand principles. Unlike the state legislature, where many members were content to keep their heads down, often not knowing what the hell was going on, my new colleagues were well briefed and not shy with their opinions, which caused committee meetings to drag on interminably and made me far more sympathetic to those who’d suffered through my own verbosity in law school and Springfield.
In the minority, my fellow Democrats and I had little say on which bills emerged from committee and got a vote on the Senate floor. We watched as Republicans put forward budgets that underfunded education or watered down environmental safeguards, feeling helpless beyond the declamations we made before a largely empty chamber and the unblinking eye of C-SPAN. Repeatedly we agonized over votes that were not designed to advance a policy so much as to undermine the Democrats and provide fodder for upcoming campaigns. Just as I had in Illinois, I tried to do what I could to influence policy at the margins, pushing modest, nonpartisan measures—funding to safeguard against a pandemic outbreak, say, or the restoration of benefits to a class of Illinois veterans.
As frustrating as certain aspects of the Senate could be, I didn’t really mind its slower pace. As one of its youngest members and with a 70 percent approval rating back in Illinois, I knew I could afford to be patient. At some point, I thought I’d consider running for governor or, yes, even president, steered by the belief that an executive position would give me a better chance to set an agenda. But for now, forty-three years old and just starting out on the national scene, I figured I had all the time in the world.
My mood was further buoyed by improvements on the home front. Barring bad weather, the commute from D.C. to Chicago took no longer than the trip to and from Springfield. And once I was home, I wasn’t as busy or distracted as I’d been during the campaign or while juggling three jobs, leaving me more time to shuttle Sasha to dance class on Saturdays or read a chapter of Harry Potter to Malia before I tucked her into bed.
Our improved finances also relieved a whole lot of stress. We bought a new house, a big, handsome Georgian across from a synagogue in Kenwood. For a modest price, a young family friend and aspiring chef named Sam Kass agreed to do grocery shopping and cook healthy meals that could stretch through the week. Mike Signator—a retired Commonwealth Edison manager who had served as a volunteer during the campaign—chose to stay on as my part-time driver, practically becoming a member of our family.
Most important, with the financial backstop we now could provide, my mother-in-law, Marian, agreed to reduce her hours at work and help look after the girls. Wise, funny, still young enough to chase after a four- and seven-year-old, she made everyone’s life easier. She also happened to love her son-in-law and would rise to my defense whenever I was late, messy, or otherwise not up to scratch.
The additional help gave me and Michelle that extra bit of time together we’d been missing for too long. We laughed more, reminded once again that we were each other’s best friend. Beyond that, though, what surprised us both was how little we felt changed by our new circumstances. We continued to be homebodies, shying away from glitzy parties and career-advancing soirees, because we didn’t want to give up evenings with the girls, because we felt silly getting gussied up too often, and because Michelle, a perennial early riser, got sleepy after ten o’clock. Instead, we spent weekends as we always had, me playing basketball or taking Malia and Sasha to a nearby pool, Michelle running errands at Target and organizing playdates for the girls. We had dinners or afternoon barbecues with family and our tight circle of friends—especially Valerie, Marty, Anita, and Eric and Cheryl Whitaker (a pair of doctors whose children were the same ages as ours), along with Kaye and Wellington Wilson, affectionately known as “Mama Kaye” and “Papa Wellington,” an older couple (he was a retired community college administrator; she was a program officer at a local foundation and a magnificent cook) whom I’d known from my organizing days and who considered themselves my surrogate parents in Chicago.
That’s not to say that Michelle and I didn’t have to make adjustments. People now recognized us in crowds, and as supportive as they generally were, we found the sudden loss of anonymity disconcerting. One evening, shortly after the election, Michelle and I went to see the biopic Ray, starring Jamie Foxx, and were surprised when our fellow patrons burst into applause as we walked into the movie theater. Sometimes when we went out to dinner, we noticed that people at adjoining tables either wanted to strike up long conversations or got very quiet, in a not-so-subtle effort to hear what we were saying.
The girls noticed as well. One day during my first summer as a senator, I decided to take Malia and Sasha to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Mike Signator warned me that the crowds on a beautiful Sunday afternoon might be a little overwhelming, but I insisted we make the trip, confident that sunglasses and a baseball cap would shield me from any attention. And for the first half hour or so, everything went according to plan. We visited the lions prowling behind the glass in the big-cat house and made funny faces at the great apes, all without a disturbance. Then, as we stopped to look at the visitors’ guide for directions to the sea lions, we heard a man shout.
“Obama! Hey, look…it’s Obama! Hey, Obama, can I take a picture with you?”
The next thing I knew, we were surrounded by families, people reaching for a handshake or an autograph, parents arranging their kids next to me for a photo. I signaled to Mike to take the girls to see the sea lions without me. For the next fifteen minutes, I gave myself over to my constituents, appreciative of their encouraging words, reminding myself that this was part of what I’d signed up for, but feeling my heart sink a little at the thought of my daughters wondering what happened to their daddy.
I finally rejoined my kids, and Mike suggested we leave the zoo and find a quiet place to get ice cream instead. As we drove, Mike stayed mercifully quiet—the girls, not so much.
“I think you need an alias,” Malia declared from the backseat.
“What’s an alias?” Sasha asked.
“It’s a fake name you use when you don’t want people to know who you are,” Malia explained. “Like ‘Johnny McJohn John.’ ”
Sasha giggled. “Yeah, Daddy…you should be Johnny McJohn John!”
“And you need to disguise your voice,” Malia added. “People recognize it. You have to talk with a higher voice. And faster.”
“Daddy talks so slow,” Sasha said.
“Come on, Daddy,” Malia said. “Try it.” She shifted into the highest-pitched, fastest voice she could muster, saying, “Hi! I’m Johnny McJohn John!”
Unable to contain himself, Mike burst out laughing. Later, when we got home, Malia proudly explained her scheme to Michelle, who patted her on the head.
“That’s a great idea, honey,” she said, “but the only way for Daddy to disguise himself is if he has an operation to pin back his ears.”
ONE FEATURE OF the Senate that excited me was the ability it gave me to influence foreign policy, something that the state legislature didn’t afford. Since college, I’d been particularly interested in nuclear issues, and so even before my swearing in, I’d written to Dick Lugar, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, whose signature issue was nuclear nonproliferation, to let him know that I hoped to work with him.
Dick’s response was enthusiastic. A Republican from Indiana and a twenty-eight-year veteran of the Senate, he was reliably conservative on domestic issues like taxes and abortion, but on foreign policy he reflected the prudent, internationalist impulses that had long guided mainstream Republicans like George H. W. Bush. In 1991, shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Dick had teamed up with Democrat Sam Nunn to design and pass legislation that allowed America to aid Russia and former Soviet states in securing and deactivating weapons of mass destruction. Nunn-Lugar, as it came to be known, proved a bold and durable achievement—more than 7,500 nuclear warheads would be deactivated over the next two decades—and its implementation helped facilitate relationships between U.S. and Russian national security officials that were critical in managing a dangerous transition.
Now, in 2005, intelligence reports indicated that extremist groups like al-Qaeda were scouring poorly guarded outposts throughout the former Soviet bloc, searching for remaining nuclear, chemical, and biological materials. Dick and I began discussing how to build on the existing Nunn-Lugar framework to further protect against such threats. Which is how in August that year I found myself with Dick on a military jet, headed for a weeklong visit to Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan. Though the need to monitor Nunn-Lugar’s progress had made such visits routine for Dick, this was my first official foreign trip, and over the years I had heard stories about congressional junkets—the less than strenuous schedules, the lavish dinners and shopping sprees. If that was supposed to be the deal, though, Dick had not gotten the memo. Despite being in his seventies, he maintained a relentless pace. After a day full of meetings with Russian officials in Moscow, we flew a couple of hours southeast to Saratov and then drove another hour to visit a secret nuclear storage site where American funding had helped upgrade the security surrounding Russian missiles. (We were also treated to a meal of borscht and a type of fish gelatin, which Dick gamely ate while I spread it around my plate like a six-year-old.) Visiting the city of Perm near the Ural Mountains, we wandered through a graveyard of SS-24 and SS-25 missile casings, the last remnants of tactical nuclear warheads once aimed at Europe. In Donetsk, in the eastern part of Ukraine, we toured an installation where warehouses of conventional weapons—ammunition, high-grade explosives, surface-to-air missiles, and even tiny bombs hidden in children’s toys—had been collected from around the country and were now slated for destruction. In Kiev, we were taken by our hosts to a dilapidated, unguarded three-story complex in the center of town, where Nunn-Lugar was funding the installation of new storage systems for Cold War–era biological research samples, including anthrax and bubonic plague. It was sobering, all of it, proof of people’s capacity to harness ingenuity in the service of madness. But for me, after so many years spent focused on domestic issues, the trip was also invigorating—a reminder of just how big the world was and of the profound human consequences of decisions made in Washington.
Watching Dick operate would leave a lasting impression. His gnomish face always fixed in a placid smile, he was tireless in answering my questions. I was struck by the care, precision, and mastery of facts he demonstrated anytime he spoke in meetings with foreign officials. I observed his willingness to endure not only travel delays but also endless stories and noontime vodka shots, knowing that common courtesy spoke across cultures and ultimately could make a difference in advancing American interests. For me, it was a useful lesson in diplomacy, an example of the real impact a senator could have.
Then a storm hit, and everything changed.
OVER THE COURSE of the week I’d spent traveling with Dick, a tropical weather system that had formed over the Bahamas crossed Florida and deposited itself in the Gulf of Mexico, picking up energy over the warmer waters and aiming itself ominously at the southern shores of the United States. By the time our Senate delegation landed in London to meet with Prime Minister Tony Blair, a ferocious and full-blown catastrophe was under way. Making landfall with 125 mph winds, Hurricane Katrina had leveled entire communities along the Gulf Coast, overwhelmed levees, and left much of New Orleans underwater.
I stayed up half the night watching the news coverage, stunned by the murky, primordial nightmare washing across the television screen. There were floating corpses, elderly patients trapped in hospitals, gunfire and looting, refugees huddled and losing hope. To see such suffering was bad enough; to see the slow government response, the vulnerability of so many poor and working-class people, made me ashamed.
A few days later, I joined George H. W. and Barbara Bush, along with Bill and Hillary Clinton, in a visit to Houston, where thousands of people displaced by the hurricane had been bused to emergency shelters set up inside the sprawling Astrodome convention complex. Together with the Red Cross and FEMA, the city had been working around the clock to provide basic necessities, but it struck me as I moved from cot to cot that many of the people there, most of whom were Black, had been abandoned long before the hurricane—scratching out a living on the periphery without savings or insurance. I listened to their stories about lost homes and loved ones missing in the flood, about their inability to evacuate because they had no car or couldn’t move an ailing parent, people no different from those I’d worked to organize in Chicago, no different from some of Michelle’s aunts or cousins. I was reminded that no matter how my circumstances may have changed, theirs had not. The politics of the country had not. Forgotten people and forgotten voices remained everywhere, neglected by a government that often appeared blind or indifferent to their needs.
I felt their hardship as a rebuke, and as the only African American in the Senate, I decided it was time to end my moratorium on national media appearances. I hit the network news shows, arguing that while I didn’t believe racism was the reason for the botched response to the Katrina disaster, it did speak to how little the ruling party, and America as a whole, had invested in tackling the isolation, intergenerational poverty, and lack of opportunities that persisted in large swaths of the country.
Back in Washington, I worked with my colleagues drafting plans to help rebuild the Gulf region as part of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. But life in the Senate felt different. How many years in that chamber would it take to actually make a difference in the lives of the people I’d met in Houston? How many committee hearings, failed amendments, and budget provisions negotiated with a recalcitrant chairman would be required to offset the misguided actions of a single FEMA director, Environmental Protection Agency functionary, or Department of Labor appointee?
Such feelings of impatience were compounded when, a few months later, I joined a small congressional delegation on a visit to Iraq. Nearly three years after the U.S.-led invasion, the administration could no longer deny the disaster the war had become. In disbanding the Iraqi military and allowing the Shiite majority to aggressively remove large numbers of Sunni Muslims from government positions, U.S. officials had created a situation that was chaotic and increasingly perilous—a bloody sectarian conflict marked by escalating suicide assaults, roadside explosions, and car bombs detonating on crowded market streets.
Our group visited U.S. military bases in Baghdad, Fallujah, and Kirkuk, and from the Black Hawk helicopters that carried us the entire country looked exhausted, the cities pockmarked by mortar fire, the roads eerily quiet, the landscape coated with dust. At each stop, we met commanders and troops who were smart and courageous, driven by the conviction that with the right amount of military support, technical training, and elbow grease, Iraq could someday turn the corner. But my conversations with journalists and with a handful of high-ranking Iraqi officials told a different story. Wicked spirits had been unleashed, they said, with the killings and reprisals between Sunnis and Shiites making the prospect of reconciliation distant, if not unattainable. The only thing holding the country together appeared to be the thousands of young soldiers and Marines we’d deployed, many of them barely out of high school. More than two thousand of them had been killed already, and many thousands more injured. It seemed clear that the longer the war dragged on, the more our troops would become targets of an enemy they often could not see and did not understand.
Flying back to the United States, I couldn’t shake the thought of those kids paying the price for the arrogance of men like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who’d rushed us into war based on faulty information and refused, still, to fully consider the consequences. The fact that more than half of my Democratic colleagues had approved this fiasco filled me with an altogether different kind of worry. I questioned what might happen to me the longer I stayed in Washington, the more embedded and comfortable I became. I saw now how it could happen—how the incrementalism and decorum, the endless positioning for the next election, and the groupthink of cable news panels all conspired to chip away at your best instincts and wear down your independence, until whatever you once believed was utterly lost.
If I’d been on the edge of feeling content, thinking I was in the right job, doing the right thing at an acceptable pace, Katrina and my Iraq visit put a stop to all that. Change needed to come faster—and I was going to have to decide what role I would play in bringing it about.
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