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YES WE CAN
ON A BRIGHT FEBRUARY MORNING in 2007, I stood on a stage before the Old State Capitol in Springfield—the same spot where Abe Lincoln had delivered his “House Divided” speech while serving in the Illinois state legislature—and announced my candidacy for president. With temperatures in the low teens, we’d been worried that the cold might scare people off, but by the time I stepped up to the microphone, more than fifteen thousand people had gathered in the plaza and adjoining streets, all of them in a festive mood, bundled in parkas, scarves, ski caps, and earmuffs, many of them hoisting handmade or campaign-provided OBAMA signs, their collective breath hovering like patches of clouds.
My speech, carried live on cable TV, captured our campaign’s big themes—the need for fundamental change; the need to tackle long-term problems like healthcare and climate change; the need to move past the tired Washington partisan divide; the need for an engaged and active citizenry. Michelle and the girls joined me onstage to wave at the roaring crowd when I was finished, the massive American flags hanging across nearby buildings making for a spectacular backdrop.
From there, my team and I flew to Iowa, where in eleven months the nation’s first contest for the nomination would take place, and where we were counting on an early victory to catapult us past more seasoned opponents. At a series of town hall meetings, we were once again greeted by thousands of supporters and curiosity seekers. Backstage at an event in Cedar Rapids, I overheard a veteran Iowa political operative explain to one of the fifty or so national reporters who were following us that “this is not normal.” Looking at the footage from that day, it’s hard not to get swept up in the nostalgia that still holds sway over my former staff and supporters—the feeling that we were kick-starting a magical ride; that over the course of two years we would catch lightning in a bottle and tap into something essential and true about America. But while the crowds, the excitement, the media attention of that day, all foreshadowed my viability in the race, I have to remind myself that nothing felt easy or predestined at the time, that again and again it felt as if our campaign would go entirely off the rails, and that, at the outset, it seemed not just to me but to many who were paying attention that I wasn’t a particularly good candidate.
In many ways, my problems were a direct outgrowth of the buzz we’d generated, and the expectations that came with it. As Axe explained, most presidential campaigns by necessity start small—“Off-Broadway,” he called it; small crowds, small venues, covered by local networks and small papers, where the candidate and his or her team could test lines, smooth out kinks, commit a pratfall, or work through a bout of stage fright without attracting much notice. We didn’t have that luxury. From day one, it felt like the middle of Times Square, and under the glare of the spotlight my inexperience showed.
My staff’s biggest fear was that I’d make a “gaffe,” the expression used by the press to describe any maladroit phrase by the candidate that reveals ignorance, carelessness, fuzzy thinking, insensitivity, malice, boorishness, falsehood, or hypocrisy—or is simply deemed to veer sufficiently far from conventional wisdom to make said candidate vulnerable to attack. By this definition, most humans will commit five to ten gaffes a day, each of us counting on the forbearance and goodwill of our family, co-workers, and friends to fill in the blanks, catch our drift, and generally assume the best rather than the worst in us.
As a result, my initial instincts were to dismiss some of my team’s warnings. On our way to our final stop in Iowa on announcement day, for example, Axe glanced up from his briefing book.
“You know,” he said, “the town we’re going to, it’s pronounced ‘Waterloo.’ ”
“Right,” I said. “Waterloo.”
Axe shook his head. “No, it’s Water-loo. Not Water-loo.”
“Do that for me again.”
“Water-loo,” Axe said, his lips pursing just so.
“One more time.”
Axe frowned. “Okay, Barack…this is serious.”
It didn’t take long, though, to appreciate that the minute you announced your candidacy for president, the normal rules of speech no longer applied; that microphones were everywhere, and every word coming out of your mouth was recorded, amplified, scrutinized, and dissected. At the town hall in Ames, Iowa, on that first post-announcement tour, I was explaining my opposition to the war in Iraq when I got sloppy and said that the Bush administration’s poorly-thought-out decision had resulted in more than three thousand of our young troops’ lives being “wasted.” The second I uttered the word, I regretted it. I’d always been careful to distinguish between my views on the war and my appreciation for the sacrifices of our troops and their families. Only a few press outlets picked up my blunder, and a quick mea culpa tamped down any controversy. But it was a reminder that words carried a different weight than before, and as I imagined how my carelessness might impact a family still grieving over the loss of a loved one, my heart sank.
By nature I’m a deliberate speaker, which, by the standards of presidential candidates, helped keep my gaffe quotient relatively low. But my care with words raised another issue on the campaign trail: I was just plain wordy, and that was a problem. When asked a question, I tended to offer circuitous and ponderous answers, my mind instinctively breaking up every issue into a pile of components and subcomponents. If every argument had two sides, I usually came up with four. If there was an exception to some statement I just made, I wouldn’t just point it out; I’d provide footnotes. “You’re burying the lede!” Axe would practically shout after listening to me drone on and on and on. For a day or two I’d obediently focus on brevity, only to suddenly find myself unable to resist a ten-minute explanation of the nuances of trade policy or the pace of Arctic melting.
“What d’ya think?” I’d say, pleased with my thoroughness as I walked offstage.
“You got an A on the quiz,” Axe would reply. “No votes, though.”
These were issues I could fix with time. Of greater concern, as we rolled into the spring, was the fact that I was grumpy. One reason for that, I realize now, was the toll of a two-year Senate campaign, a year of town halls as a senator, and months of travel on behalf of other candidates. Once the adrenaline of the announcement wore off, the sheer magnitude of the grind now before me struck with full force.
And it was a grind. When not in Washington for Senate business, I soon found myself in Iowa or one of the other early states, putting in sixteen-hour days, six and a half days a week—sleeping in a Hampton Inn or a Holiday Inn or an AmericInn or a Super 8. I’d wake up after five or six hours and try to squeeze in a workout at whatever facility we could find (the old treadmill in the back of a tanning salon was memorable), before packing up my clothes and gulping down a haphazard breakfast; before hopping into a van and making fundraising calls on the way to the first town hall meeting of the day; before interviews with the local paper or news station, several meet-and-greets with local party leaders, a bathroom stop, and maybe a swing by a local eatery to shake hands; before hopping back in the van to dial for more dollars. I’d repeat this three or four times, with a cold sandwich or a salad wedged in there somewhere, before finally staggering into another motel around nine p.m., trying to catch Michelle and the girls by phone before they went to bed, before reading the next day’s briefing materials, the binder gradually slipping out of my hands as exhaustion knocked me out.
And that’s not even counting the flights to New York or L.A. or Chicago or Dallas for fundraisers. It was a life of not glamour but monotony, and the prospect of eighteen continuous months of it quickly wore down my spirit. I’d staked my claim in the presidential race, involved a big team of people, begged strangers for money, and propagated a vision I believed in. But I missed my wife. I missed my kids. I missed my bed, a consistent shower, sitting at a proper table for a proper meal. I missed not having to say the exact same thing the exact same way five or six or seven times a day.
Fortunately, along with Gibbs (who had the constitution, experience, and general orneriness to keep me focused while on the road), I had two other companions to help me push through my initial funk.
The first was Marvin Nicholson, a half Canadian with an easy charm and unflappable demeanor. In his mid-thirties and a towering six foot eight, Marvin had held a variety of jobs, from golf caddy to bartender at a strip club, before landing work as John Kerry’s body man four years earlier. It’s a strange role, the body man: a personal assistant and jack-of-all-trades responsible for making sure that the candidate has everything he or she needs to function, whether a favorite snack or a couple of Advil, an umbrella when it’s wet or a scarf when it’s cold, or the name of the county chairman who’s striding your way for a handshake. Marvin operated with such skill and finesse, he’d become something of a cult figure in political circles, which had led us to hire him as our trip director, working with Alyssa and the advance team to coordinate travel, make sure I had the appropriate materials, and keep me at least close to on schedule.
Then there was Reggie Love. Raised in North Carolina, the son of middle-class Black parents, six foot four and powerfully built, Reggie had starred in both basketball and football at Duke University before Pete Rouse hired him as an assistant in my Senate office. (An aside: People often express surprise at how tall I am, a bit over six foot one, something I attribute in part to years of being dwarfed by Reggie and Marvin in photographs.) Under Marvin’s tutelage, twenty-five-year-old Reggie took over as body man, and though he had a rough go of it at first—somehow managing to forget my briefcase in Miami and my suit jacket in New Hampshire during the same week—his serious work ethic and goofy good humor quickly made him a favorite of everyone on the campaign.
For the better part of two years, Gibbs, Marvin, and Reggie would be my caretakers, my anchors to normalcy, and a steady source of comic relief. We played cards and shot pool. We argued about sports and swapped music. (Reggie helped me update a hip-hop playlist that had stopped at Public Enemy.) Marvin and Reggie told me about their social lives on the road (complicated) and their adventures in various local stops after our work was done (tattoo parlors and hot tubs were sometimes featured). We teased Reggie about his youthful ignorance (once, when I mentioned Paul Newman, Reggie said, “That’s the salad dressing guy, right?”) and Gibbs about his appetites (at the Iowa State Fair, Gibbs would have trouble choosing between the deep-fried Twinkie and the deep-fried Snickers bar, until the woman behind the counter helpfully said, “Honey, why should you have to choose?”).
Anytime we could, we played basketball. Even the smallest town had a high school gym, and if there wasn’t time for a proper game, Reggie and I would still roll up our sleeves and get in a round of H-O-R-S-E while waiting for me to go onstage. Like any true athlete, he remained fiercely competitive. I sometimes woke up the day after a game of one-on-one barely able to walk, though I was too proud to let my discomfort show. Once we played a group of New Hampshire firefighters from whom I was trying to secure an endorsement. They were standard weekend warriors, a bit younger than me but in worse shape. After the first three times Reggie stole the ball down the floor and went in for thunderous dunks, I called a time-out.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“You understand that I’m trying to get their support, right?”
Reggie looked at me in disbelief. “You want us to lose to these stiffs?”
I thought for a second.
“Nah,” I said. “I wouldn’t go that far. Just keep it close enough that they’re not too pissed.”
Spending time with Reggie, Marvin, and Gibbs, I found respite from the pressures of the campaign, a small sphere where I wasn’t a candidate or a symbol or a generational voice or even a boss, but rather just one of the guys. Which, as I slogged through those early months, felt more valuable than any pep talk. Gibbs did try to go the pep-talk route with me at one point as we were boarding another airplane at the end of another interminable day, after a particularly flat appearance. He told me that I needed to smile more, to remember that this was a great adventure and that voters loved a happy warrior.
“Are you having any fun?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Anything we can do to make this more fun?”
Sitting in the seat in front of us, Reggie overheard the conversation and turned back to look at me with a wide grin. “If it’s any consolation,” he said, “I’m having the time of my life.”
It was—although I didn’t tell him that at the time.
ALL THE WHILE, I was learning a lot and quickly. I spent hours dutifully poring over the fat briefing books prepared by my staff, inhaling the latest studies on the value of early childhood education, new developments in battery technology that would make clean energy more accessible, and China’s manipulation of its currency to boost its exports.
Looking back, I realize I was doing what most of us tend to do when we’re uncertain or floundering: We reach for what feels familiar, what we think we’re good at. I knew policy; I knew how to consume and process information. It took a while to figure out that my problem wasn’t a lack of a ten-point plan. Rather, it was my general inability to boil issues down to their essence, to tell a story that helped explain an increasingly uncertain world to the American people and make them feel that I, as president, could help them navigate it.
My more seasoned opponents already understood this. I embarrassed myself early in their presence at a healthcare forum sponsored by the Service Employees International Union, held in Las Vegas on a Saturday evening late in March 2007. Plouffe had resisted my participation. In his view, such “cattle calls,” where the candidates appeared before this or that Democratic interest group, played to the strengths of insiders and took time away from direct voter contact. I disagreed. Healthcare was an issue I felt strongly about—not only because I’d heard many devastating personal stories while campaigning but because I’d never forget my mother in her waning days, fretting not just about her chances of survival but about whether her insurance would keep her solvent during treatment.
As it turned out, I should have listened to Plouffe. My head was crammed with too many facts and too few answers. Before a large audience of health workers, I stumbled, mumbled, hemmed and hawed onstage. Under pointed questioning, I had to confess that I didn’t yet have a definitive plan for delivering affordable healthcare. You could hear crickets in the auditorium. The Associated Press ran a story critiquing my showing at the forum—one that would promptly get picked up by outlets across the country—under the painful headline IS OBAMA ALL STYLE AND LITTLE SUBSTANCE?
My performance stood in sharp contrast to those of John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, the two leading contenders. Edwards, the handsome and polished former vice presidential candidate, had left the Senate in 2004 to be John Kerry’s running mate, then made a show of starting a poverty center but really never stopped campaigning full-time for president. Though I didn’t know him well, I’d never been particularly impressed with Edwards: Despite the fact that he had working-class roots, his newly minted populism sounded synthetic and poll-tested to me, the political equivalent of one of those boy bands dreamed up by a studio marketing department. But in Las Vegas I was chastened as I watched him lay out a crisp proposal for universal coverage, displaying all the gifts that had made him a successful trial lawyer back in North Carolina.
Hillary was even better. Like many people, I’d spent the 1990s observing the Clintons from afar. I’d admired Bill’s prodigious talent and intellectual firepower. If I wasn’t always comfortable with the specifics of his so-called triangulations—signing welfare reform legislation with inadequate protections for those who couldn’t find jobs, the tough-on-crime rhetoric that would contribute to an explosion in the federal prison population—I appreciated the skill with which he had steered progressive policy making and the Democratic Party back toward electability.
As for the former First Lady, I found her just as impressive, and more sympathetic. Maybe it was because in Hillary’s story I saw traces of what my mother and grandmother had gone through: all of them smart, ambitious women who had chafed under the constraints of their times, having to navigate male egos and social expectations. If Hillary had become guarded, perhaps overly scripted—who could blame her, given the attacks she’d been subjected to? In the Senate, my favorable opinion of her had been largely confirmed. In all our interactions, she came across as hardworking, personable, and always impeccably prepared. She also had a good, hearty laugh that tended to lighten the mood of everyone around her.
That I’d decided to run despite Hillary’s presence in the race had less to do with any assessment of her personal shortcomings and more to do with my feeling that she just couldn’t escape the rancor, grudges, and hardened assumptions arising out of the Clinton White House years. Fair or not, I didn’t see how she could close America’s political divide, or change how Washington did business, or provide the country with the fresh start it needed. Yet watching her speak passionately and knowledgeably about healthcare onstage that evening at the SEIU forum and hearing the crowd cheer enthusiastically after she was done, I wondered if I’d miscalculated.
That forum would hardly be the last time Hillary—or, for that matter, half the primary field—outperformed me, for it soon seemed as if we were gathered for a debate once every two or three weeks. I had never been particularly good in these formats myself: My long windups and preference for complicated answers worked against me, particularly onstage with seven savvy pros and a single timed minute to answer a question. During our first debate in April, the moderator called time at least twice before I was done speaking. Asked about how I’d handle multiple terrorist attacks, I discussed the need to coordinate federal help but neglected to mention the obvious imperative to go after the perpetrators. For the next several minutes, Hillary and the others took turns pointing out my oversight. Their tones were somber, but the gleam in their eyes said, Take that, rookie.
Afterward, Axe was gentle in his postgame critique.
“Your problem,” he said, “is you keep trying to answer the question.”
“Isn’t that the point?” I said.
“No, Barack,” Axe said, “that is not the point. The point is to get your message across. What are your values? What are your priorities? That’s what people care about. Look, half the time the moderator is just using the question to try to trip you up. Your job is to avoid the trap they’ve set. Take whatever question they give you, give ‘em a quick line to make it seem like you answered it…and then talk about what you want to talk about.” “That’s bullshit,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said.
I was frustrated with Axe and even more frustrated with myself. But I realized his insight was hard to deny after watching a replay of the debate. The most effective debate answers, it seemed, were designed not to illuminate but to evoke an emotion, or identify the enemy, or signal to a constituency that you, more than anyone else on that stage, were and would always be on their side. It was easy to dismiss the exercise as superficial. Then again, a president wasn’t a lawyer or an accountant or a pilot, hired to carry out some narrow, specialized task. Mobilizing public opinion, shaping working coalitions—that was the job. Whether I liked it or not, people were moved by emotion, not facts. To elicit the best rather than the worst of those emotions, to buttress those better angels of our nature with reason and sound policy, to perform while still speaking the truth—that was the bar I needed to clear.
AS I WAS working to curb my screw-ups, Plouffe was running a seamless operation from our Chicago headquarters. I didn’t see him often but was coming to realize that the two of us had much in common. We were both analytical and even-keeled, generally skeptical of convention and pretense. But whereas I could be absentminded, indifferent to small details, incapable of maintaining an orderly filing system, constantly misplacing memos, pens, and cell phones that had just been handed to me, Plouffe turned out to be a managerial genius.
From the start, he focused unapologetically and unswervingly on winning Iowa. Even when cable pundits and some of our supporters were calling us idiots for being so single-minded, he wouldn’t let anyone waver an inch from the strategy, certain it was our only path to victory. Plouffe imposed a martial discipline, giving everyone on our team—from Axe to our most junior organizer—a level of autonomy while also demanding accountability and a strict adherence to process. He capped salaries as a way of eliminating needless staff dissent. He pointedly directed resources away from bloated consulting contracts and media budgets in order to give our field organizers what they needed on the ground. Obsessive about data, he recruited a team of internet savants who designed a digital program that was light-years ahead of those not just of other campaigns but many private corporations as well.
Add it all up, and in six months, from a standing start, Plouffe built a campaign operation strong enough to go toe-to-toe with the Clinton machine. It was a fact he quietly relished. This was another thing I came to realize about Plouffe: Beneath the low-key persona and deep convictions, he just plain liked the combat. Politics was his sport, and in his chosen endeavor he was as competitive as Reggie was in basketball. Later, I’d ask Axe if he’d anticipated just how good a campaign architect his then junior partner would turn out to be. Axe shook his head.
“A fucking revelation,” he said.
In presidential politics, the best strategy means little if you don’t have the resources to execute it, and this was the second thing we had going for us: money. Given that the Clintons had been cultivating a national donor base for nearly three decades, our working assumption had been that Hillary would have a tremendous fundraising advantage over us. But the hunger for change in America was proving to be stronger than even we had anticipated.
Early on, our fundraising followed a traditional pattern: Big donors from big cities wrote and collected big checks. Penny Pritzker, a businesswoman and longtime friend from Chicago, served as our campaign’s national finance chair, bringing both organizational acumen and a vast network of relationships to the effort. Julianna Smoot, our tough-talking and experienced finance director, built an expert team and had a gift for alternately sweet-talking, shaming, and sometimes scaring me into engaging in the endless hustle for dollars. She had a great smile, but the eyes of a killer.
I grew accustomed to the drill, partly out of necessity, but also because as time went on, our donors came to understand and even appreciate my terms. This was about building a better country, I’d tell them, not about egos or prestige. I would listen to their take on an issue, especially if they had some expertise, but I wouldn’t shade my positions to satisfy them. If I had a spare minute, the thank-you notes I wrote and the birthday calls I made would be directed not to them but to our volunteers and young staff out in the field.
And if I won, they could count on me raising their taxes.
This attitude lost us a few donors but helped develop a culture among supporters that wasn’t about perks or status. And anyway, with each successive month, the makeup of our donor base was shifting. Small donations—in ten- or twenty- or hundred-dollar increments—started pouring in, most coming through the internet, from college students who pledged their Starbucks budget for the duration of the campaign, or grandmas who’d taken up a sewing circle collection. All told during primary season, we would raise millions from small donors, allowing us to compete in every state for every vote. More than the money itself, the spirit behind the giving, the sense of ownership that the accompanying letters and email messages conveyed, infused the campaign with grassroots energy. This is not all up to you, these donations told us. We are here, on the ground, millions of us scattered across the country—and we believe. We are all in.
More than a strong operations strategy and effective grassroots fundraising, a third element kept both the campaign and our spirits afloat that first year: the work of our Iowa team and their indefatigable leader, Paul Tewes.
PAUL GREW UP in Mountain Lake, a farm town tucked into the southwest corner of Minnesota, a place where everyone knew and looked out for one another, where kids biked everywhere and nobody locked their doors, and where every student played every sport because in order to field a full team, none of the coaches could afford to cut anybody.
Mountain Lake was also a conservative place, which made the Tewes family stand out a little. Paul’s mom instilled in him early an allegiance to the Democratic Party that was second only to the family’s allegiance to the Lutheran faith. When he was six years old, he patiently explained to a classmate that he shouldn’t support the Republicans “ ’cause your family ain’t rich.” Four years later, he cried bitterly when Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. Paul’s father was proud enough of his son’s passion for politics that he shared the episode with a friend, the town’s high school civics teacher, who in turn—perhaps hoping that a ten-year-old’s interest in public affairs might inspire sullen teenagers—relayed it to his class. For the next several days, older kids teased Paul mercilessly, scrunching up their faces like crybabies whenever they spotted him in the halls.
Paul was undeterred. In high school, he organized a dance to raise money for Democratic candidates. In college, he interned for the local state representative, and—in a feat that gave him particular pride—somehow managed to deliver one of Mountain Lake’s two precincts to his favored candidate, Jesse Jackson, in the 1988 presidential primary.
By the time I met him in 2007, Paul had worked on just about every type of campaign imaginable: from mayoral races to congressional races. He’d served as Al Gore’s Iowa state caucus director and as the director of field operations across the country for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He was thirty-eight by then but looked older, stocky and slightly balding, with a pale blond mustache and pale skin to match. There was nothing fancy about Paul Tewes; his demeanor could be gruff, and his clothes never seemed to match, especially in the winter, when, like a true Minnesotan, he’d sport all manner of flannel shirts, down jackets, and ski caps. He was the kind of guy more comfortable talking to farmers in a cornfield or drinking in a corner saloon than mingling with high-paid political consultants. But sitting with him, you quickly realized he knew his stuff. More than that: Beneath the tactical insights, detailed district voting histories, and political anecdotes, you might hear—if you listened carefully enough—the heart of the ten-year-old boy who cared enough, who believed enough, to cry over an election.
Anyone who’s ever run for president will likely tell you that there’s nothing simple about winning Iowa. It’s one of a number of U.S. states that hold a caucus to determine which candidates their delegates will support. As opposed to a traditional primary election in which citizens cast votes privately and largely at their convenience, a caucus is more of a throwback to town hall–style democracy, when voters showed up at an appointed hour, usually at a school gym or a library in their precinct, and debated the merits of each candidate in a neighborly manner for as long as it took to come up with a winner. Such participatory democracy had much to commend it, but it was time-consuming—a caucus could last three hours or more—and required participants to be well informed, willing to vote publicly, and committed enough to make an evening of it. Unsurprisingly caucuses tended to attract a small and static cross section of the Iowa electorate, made up of older voters, party functionaries, longtime partisans—those who hewed, in general, to the tried-and-true. This meant that Democratic caucus-goers were more likely to support a known quantity like Hillary Clinton than someone like me.
From the start, Tewes impressed upon Plouffe, and Plouffe in turn impressed upon me, that if we wanted to win Iowa, we needed to run a different kind of campaign. We’d have to work harder and longer, face-to-face, to win over traditional caucus-goers. More important, we’d have to convince a whole lot of likely Obama supporters—young people, people of color, independents—to overcome the various hurdles and hang-ups and participate in the caucus for the very first time. To do it, Tewes insisted on opening offices right away, covering all ninety-nine Iowa counties; and for each office we’d hire a young staffer who, with little pay or day-to-day supervision, would be responsible for engineering their own local political movement.
It was a big investment and an early gamble, but we gave Tewes the green light. He went to work, with an outstanding team of deputies who helped develop his plan: Mitch Stewart, Marygrace Galston, Anne Filipic, and Emily Parcell, all of them smart, disciplined, with experience on multiple campaigns—and under thirty-two years old.
I spent the most time with Emily, who was an Iowa native and had worked for former governor Tom Vilsack. Tewes figured she’d be especially helpful to me as I navigated local politics. She was twenty-six, one of the youngest in the group, with dark hair and sensible clothes, and diminutive enough to pass for a high school senior. I quickly discovered she knew just about every Democrat in the state and had no qualms about giving me very specific instructions at every stop, covering whom I should talk to and which issues the local community most cared about. This information was delivered in a deadpan monotone, along with a look that suggested a low tolerance for foolishness—a quality Emily may have inherited from her mom, who’d worked at the Motorola plant for three decades and still managed to put herself through college.
During the long hours we spent traveling between events in a rented campaign van, I made it my mission to coax a smile out of Emily—jokes, wisecracks, puns, stray observations about the size of Reggie’s head. But my charm and wit invariably crashed on the rocks of her steady, unblinking gaze, and I settled on trying to do exactly what she told me to do.
Mitch, Marygrace, and Anne would later describe the particulars of their work—which included collectively screening all the unorthodox ideas Tewes routinely pitched at meetings.
“He’d have ten a day,” Mitch would explain. “Nine were ridiculous, one would be genius.” Mitch was a gangly South Dakotan who’d worked in Iowa politics before but had never encountered someone as passionately eclectic as Tewes. “If he brought up the same idea to me three times,” he’d recall, “I figured there might be something there.” Enlisting Norma Lyon, Iowa’s “Butter Cow Lady,” who at the state fair each year sculpted a life-sized cow out of salted butter, to make a prerecorded call announcing her support for us, which we then blasted across the state—genius. (She later created a twenty-three-pound “butter bust” of my head—also likely a Tewes idea.) Insisting that we put up billboards along the highway, with rhyming phrases unfolding in sequence like the old 1960s Burma-Shave ads (TIME FOR CHANGE…LET’S SHIFT GEARS…VOTE 4 THE GUY…WITH BIG EARS…OBAMA 08)—not so genius.
Promising to shave his eyebrows if the staff reached the unreachable goal of collecting one hundred thousand supporter cards—not genius, until very late in the campaign, when the team actually hit the mark, at which point it became genius. (“Mitch shaved his too,” Marygrace would explain. “We have pictures. It was horrible.”) Tewes would set the tone for our Iowa operation—grassroots, no hierarchies, irreverent, and slightly manic. No one—including senior staff, donors, or dignitaries—was exempt from doing some door knocking. In the early weeks, he hung signs on every wall in every office with a motto he’d authored: RESPECT, EMPOWER, INCLUDE. If we were serious about a new kind of politics, he explained, then it started right there on the ground, with every organizer committed to listening to people, respecting what they had to say, and treating everybody—including our opponents and their supporters—the way we wanted to be treated. Lastly he stressed the importance of encouraging voters to get involved instead of just selling them a candidate like a box of laundry detergent.
Anyone who breached these values got scolded and sometimes pulled from the field. When, during our team’s weekly conference call, a new organizer made a joke about why he’d joined the campaign, saying something about “hating pantsuits” (a reference to Hillary’s favorite campaign attire), Tewes admonished him in a lengthy rant for all the other organizers to hear. “It’s not what we stand for,” he said, “not even in private.” The team took this to heart, particularly because Tewes practiced what he preached. Despite the occasional intemperate outburst, he never failed to show people how much they mattered. When Marygrace’s uncle died, Tewes declared National Marygrace Day, and had everyone in the office wear pink. He also had me record a message announcing that for that one day, he would have to do everything Marygrace said. (Of course, Marygrace had to put up with three hundred days of Tewes and Mitch chewing tobacco in the office, so the ledger never fully balanced.) This kind of camaraderie permeated the Iowa operation. Not just at headquarters but, more important, among the close to two hundred field organizers we’d deployed across the state. All told, I would spend eighty-seven days in Iowa that year. I would sample each town’s culinary specialty, shoot hoops with schoolkids on any court we could find, and experience every possible weather event, from funnel clouds to sideways sleet. Through it all, those young men and women, working endless hours for subsistence wages, were my able guides. Most were barely out of college. Many were on their first campaigns and far away from home. Some had grown up in Iowa or the rural Midwest, familiar with the attitudes and way of life of midsized towns like Sioux City or Altoona. But that wasn’t typical. Assemble our organizers in a room and you’d find Italians from Philly, Jews from Chicago, Blacks from New York, and Asians from California; children of poor immigrants and children of the rich suburbs; engineering majors, former Peace Corps volunteers, military veterans, and high school dropouts. On the surface, at least, there seemed no way to connect their wildly varied experiences to the meat-and-potatoes folks whose votes we desperately needed.
And yet they did connect. Arriving in town with a duffel bag or a small suitcase, living in the spare bedroom or basement of some early local supporter, they would spend months getting to know a place—visiting the local barbershop, setting up card tables in front of the grocery store, speaking at the Rotary Club. They helped coach Little League, assisted local charities, and called their moms for a banana pudding recipe so they wouldn’t show up to the potluck empty-handed. They learned to listen to their local volunteers—most of whom were much older, with their own jobs, families, and concerns—and got good at recruiting new ones too. They worked each day to exhaustion and fought off bouts of loneliness and fear. Month by month, they won people’s trust. They were no longer strangers.
What a tonic these young kids in Iowa were! They filled me with optimism and gratitude and a sense of coming full circle. In them, I saw myself at twenty-five, arriving in Chicago, confused and idealistic. I remembered the precious bonds I’d made with families on the South Side, the mistakes and small victories, the community I found—similar to what our field organizers were now forging for themselves. Their experiences pointed me back to why I’d gone into government in the first place, toward the taproot idea that maybe politics could be less about power and positioning and more about community and connection.
Our volunteers across Iowa might believe in me, I thought to myself. But they were working as hard as they were mainly because of those young organizers. Just as those kids may have signed up to work for the campaign because of something I’d said or done, but now they belonged to the volunteers. What drove them, what sustained them, independent of their candidate or any particular issue, were the friendships and relationships, the mutual loyalty and progress born of joint effort. That and their cantankerous boss back in Des Moines, the one who was promising to shave his eyebrows if they succeeded.
BY JUNE, OUR campaign had turned a corner. Thanks to skyrocketing internet donations, our financial performance continued to far outstrip our projections, allowing us to go up early on Iowa TV. With school out for the summer, Michelle and the girls were able to join me more often on the road. Rumbling across Iowa in an RV, the sound of their chatter in the background as I made calls; seeing Reggie and Marvin taking on Malia and Sasha in marathon games of UNO; feeling the gentle weight of one daughter or another sleeping against me on an afternoon leg; and always the obligatory ice cream stops—all of it filled me with a joy that carried over into my public appearances.
The nature of those appearances changed as well. As the initial novelty of my candidacy wore off, I found myself speaking to more manageable crowds, a few hundred rather than thousands, which gave me the chance once again to meet people one-on-one and listen to their stories. Military spouses described the day-to-day struggles of running a household and fighting off the terror of possibly hearing bad news from the front. Farmers explained the pressures that led them to surrender their independence to big agribusiness concerns. Laid-off workers talked me through the myriad ways that existing job-training programs had failed them. Small-business owners detailed the sacrifices they’d made to pay for their employees’ health insurance, until just one employee fell sick and everyone’s premiums became unaffordable, including their own.
Informed by these stories, my stump speech became less abstract, less a matter of the head and more a matter of the heart. People heard their own lives reflected in these stories, learning that they were not alone in their hardship, and with that knowledge, more and more of them signed up to volunteer on my behalf. Campaigning on this more retail, human scale also offered the opportunity for chance encounters that made the campaign come alive.
That’s what happened when I visited Greenwood, South Carolina, one day in June. Though most of my time was spent in Iowa, I was also paying regular visits to other states like New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, whose primaries and caucuses would follow in quick succession. The trip to Greenwood was the result of a rash promise I’d made to an influential legislator who’d offered to endorse me, but only if I visited her hometown. As it turned out, my visit was poorly timed, coming during an especially rough week, amid bad poll numbers, bad stories in the papers, bad moods, and bad sleep. It didn’t help that Greenwood was more than an hour from the nearest major airport, we were driving through torrential rains, and when I finally arrived at the municipal building where the event was supposed to be held, I found only twenty people or so gathered inside—all of them as damp as I was from the storm.
A wasted day, I thought to myself, mentally ticking off all the other work I could have been doing. I was going through the motions, shaking hands, asking people what they did for a living, quietly trying to calculate how fast I could get out of there, when suddenly I heard a piercing voice shout out.
My staff and I were startled, thinking maybe it was a heckler, but without missing a beat, the rest of the room responded in unison.
“Ready to go!”
Again, the same voice shouted, “Fired up!” And once again the group responded, “Ready to go!”
Unsure of what was happening, I turned to look behind me, my eyes landing on the source of the commotion: a middle-aged Black woman, dressed like she had just come from church, with a colorful dress, a big hat, and an ear-to-ear grin that included a shiny gold tooth.
Her name was Edith Childs. In addition to serving on the Greenwood County Council and in the local NAACP chapter while also being a professional private eye, it turned out she was well known for this particular call-and-response. She started it at Greenwood’s football games, Fourth of July parades, community meetings, or whenever the spirit happened to move her.
For the next few minutes, Edith led the room in hollering “Fired up! Ready to go!” back and forth, again and again. I was confused at first, but figured it would be impolite of me not to join in. And pretty soon, I started to feel kinda fired up! I started to feel like I was ready to go! I noticed everybody at the meeting suddenly was smiling too, and after the chanting was done we settled down and talked for the next hour about the community and the country and what we could do to make it better. Even after I left Greenwood, for the rest of the day, every so often, I’d point to someone on my staff and ask, “You fired up?” Eventually it became a campaign rallying cry. And that, I suppose, was the part of politics that would always give me the most pleasure: the part that couldn’t be diagrammed, that defied planning or analytics. The way in which, when it works, a campaign—and by extension a democracy—proved to be a chorus rather than a solo act.
ANOTHER LESSON I learned from voters: They weren’t interested in hearing me parrot conventional wisdom. During the first few months of campaigning, I’d worried at least subconsciously about what Washington opinion makers thought. In the interest of being deemed sufficiently “serious” or “presidential,” I’d become stiff and self-conscious, undermining the very rationale that had led me to run in the first place. But by the summer, we went back to first principles and actively looked for opportunities to challenge the Washington playbook and tell hard truths. Before a teachers’ union gathering, I argued not only for higher salaries and more flexibility in the classroom but also for greater accountability—that last bit eliciting a deafening silence and then a smattering of boos in the hall. At the Detroit Economic Club, I told auto executives that as president I would push hard for higher fuel economy standards, a position ardently opposed by the Big Three automakers. When a group called Iowans for Sensible Priorities, sponsored by Ben and Jerry of ice cream fame, gathered ten thousand signatures from people committing to caucus for a candidate who promised to cut the Pentagon’s defense budget, I had to call either Ben or Jerry—I don’t remember which—to say that although I agreed with the objective and very much wanted their support, I couldn’t as president be hamstrung by any pledge I’d made when it came to our national security. (The group eventually opted to endorse John Edwards.) I was starting to look different from my Democratic rivals in more ways than the obvious one. During a debate in late July, I was shown images of Fidel Castro, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and a couple of other despots and asked if I’d be prepared to meet with any of them during my first year in office. Without hesitation, I said yes—I’d meet with any world leader if I thought it could advance U.S. interests.
Well, you would have thought I had said the world was flat. When the debate was over, Clinton, Edwards, and a bunch of the other candidates pounced, accusing me of being naïve, insisting that a meeting with the American president was a privilege to be earned. The press corps in large part seemed to agree. Perhaps even a few months earlier I might have gotten wobbly, second-guessing my choice of words and issuing a clarifying statement afterward.
But I had my legs beneath me now and was convinced I was right, particularly on the more general principle that America shouldn’t be afraid to engage its adversaries or push for diplomatic solutions to conflict. As far as I was concerned, it was this disregard for diplomacy that had led Hillary and the rest—not to mention the mainstream press—to follow George W. Bush into war.
Another foreign policy argument arose just a few days later, when during a speech I mentioned that if I had Osama bin Laden in my sights within Pakistani territory, and the Pakistani government was unwilling or unable to capture or kill him, I would take the shot. This shouldn’t have been particularly surprising to anyone; back in 2003, I had premised my opposition to the Iraq War partly on my belief that it would distract us from destroying al-Qaeda.
But such blunt talk ran counter to the Bush administration’s public position; the U.S. government maintained the dual fiction that Pakistan was a reliable partner in the war against terrorism and that we never encroached on Pakistani territory in the pursuit of terrorists. My statement threw Washington into a bipartisan tizzy, with Joe Biden, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican presidential candidate John McCain both expressing the view that I was not ready to be president.
In my mind, these episodes indicated the degree to which the Washington foreign policy establishment got things backward—taking military action without first testing diplomatic options, observing diplomatic niceties in the interest of maintaining the status quo precisely when action was called for. It also indicated the degree to which decision makers in Washington consistently failed to level with the American people. I would never fully convince the national pundits that I was right on these arguments, but a funny trend began to show up in the polls after each of these dustups—Democratic primary voters agreed with me.
Having such substantive arguments felt liberating, a reminder of why I was running. They helped me regain my voice as a candidate. That confidence showed a few debates later, at an early-morning affair at Drake University in Iowa. The moderator, George Stephanopoulos of ABC, quickly gave Joe Biden the chance to explain why exactly I was not ready to be president. By the time I got an opportunity to respond, five minutes later, I’d had to listen to practically every other candidate onstage knock me around.
“Well, you know, to prepare for this debate, I rode in the bumper cars at the state fair,” I said, using a line Axe had come up with, referencing my well-publicized excursion with Malia and Sasha to the state fair earlier that week. The audience laughed, and for the next hour I happily jousted with my opponents, suggesting that any Democratic voter who was trying to figure out who represented a real change from the failed policies of George Bush need look no further than the respective positions of those of us onstage. For the first time since the debates had begun, I enjoyed myself, and the consensus among the pundits that morning was that I had won.
It was a gratifying result, if for no other reason than not having to endure any dour looks from the team.
“You killed it!” Axe said, clapping me on the back.
“I guess we’ll be pushing to have all the debates at eight in the morning!” Plouffe joked.
“That’s not funny,” I said. (I was not, and am not, a morning person.)
We piled into the car and started driving to our next stop. Along the route, our supporters, several rows deep, could be heard shouting long after they had disappeared from sight.
“Ready to go!”
PART OF THE reason I’d received so much attention from the moderators during the Drake University debate was the release of an ABC poll showing me leading in Iowa for the first time, albeit by just 1 percent, over both Clinton and Edwards. The race was close, clearly (later polls would put me right back in third place), but there was no denying that our Iowa organization was having an impact, especially among younger voters. You could feel it in the crowds—in their size, their energy, and, most important, the number of supporter cards and volunteer sign-ups we were collecting at every stop. With less than six months to go before the caucus, our strength was only building.
Unfortunately none of our progress showed up in national polling. Our focus on Iowa and to a lesser extent New Hampshire meant we’d made minimal TV buys and appearances elsewhere, and by September we remained around twenty points behind Hillary. Plouffe did his best to educate the press as to why national polls were meaningless at this early stage, but to no avail. Increasingly I found myself fielding anxious phone calls from supporters around the country, many offering policy advice, advertising suggestions, complaints that we’d neglected this or that interest group, and general questions about our competence.
Two things finally flipped the narrative, the first one not of our making. At a late-October debate in Philadelphia, Hillary—whose performances until then had been nearly flawless—got tangled up, unwilling to provide a straight answer on the issue of whether undocumented workers should be allowed driver’s licenses. Undoubtedly she’d been coached to hedge her response, since it was an issue that divided the Democratic base. Her efforts to straddle the fence only fed the already prevalent impression that she was a garden-variety Washington politician—sharpening the contrast we’d been hoping to make.
And then there was what happened at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on November 10, which was of our making. Traditionally the JJ Dinner signaled the final sprint to caucus day and offered a kind of barometric reading of where the race stood, with each candidate delivering a ten-minute speech without notes before an arena of eight thousand potential caucus-goers as well as the national media. As such, it was a key test of both our message’s appeal and our organizational prowess going into the final few weeks.
We put everything we had into a successful showing, lining up buses to bring in supporters from all ninety-nine counties across the state and dwarfing turnout from the other campaigns. John Legend gave a short predinner concert on our behalf for more than a thousand people, and when it was done, Michelle and I led the entire procession down the street to the arena where the dinner was being held, a pumped-up local high school drum and drill corps called the Isiserettes performing beside us, their happy racket giving us the air of a conquering army.
The speech itself won the day for us. To that point in my political career, I had always insisted on writing the bulk of any important speech myself, but campaigning nonstop as I was, there was no way I’d have time to write the JJ Dinner remarks on my own. I had to trust Favs, with guidance from Axe and Plouffe, to produce a draft that effectively summarized my case for the nomination.
And Favs delivered. In that critical moment of our campaign, with only modest input from me, this guy just a few years out of college had produced a great speech, one that did more than show the distinction between me and my rivals, between Democrats and Republicans. It outlined the challenges we faced as a nation, from war to climate change to the affordability of healthcare, and the need for new and clear leadership, noting that the party had historically been strongest with leaders who led “not by polls, but by principle…not by calculation, but by conviction.” It was true to the moment, true to my aspirations for getting into politics, and true, I hoped, to the aspirations of the country.
I memorized the speech over several late nights after we were done campaigning. And by the time I finished delivering it—as luck would have it, the last candidate to speak—I was as certain of its effect as I’d been after my address to the Democratic National Convention three and a half years earlier.
Looking back, the night of the JJ Dinner was when I became convinced we would win Iowa—and by extension the nomination. Not necessarily because I was the most polished candidate, but because we had the right message for the time and had attracted young people with prodigious talent to throw themselves behind the cause. Tewes shared my assessment, telling Mitch, “I think we won Iowa tonight.” (Mitch, who had organized the entire evening and was generally a basket of nerves—he suffered from insomnia, shingles, and hair loss through much of the campaign—ran to the bathroom to throw up for at least the second time that day.) Emily was similarly bullish, although you couldn’t tell. After I was finished, an ecstatic Valerie ran into Emily and asked what she thought.
“It was great,” Emily said.
“You don’t look very excited.”
“This is my excited face.”
THE CLINTON CAMPAIGN apparently felt the shifting tide. Up to that point, Hillary and her team had largely avoided engaging our campaign directly, content to stay above the fray and nurse their sizable lead in national polls. But over the next several weeks, they changed tack, deciding to go after us hard. It was mostly standard-issue stuff, raising questions about my lack of experience and ability to take on Republicans in Washington. Unfortunately for them, though, the two lines of attack that attracted the most attention backfired badly.
The first grew out of a standard line in my stump speech, in which I said I was running for president not because it was owed to me or because I’d wanted to be president all my life, but because the times called for something new. Well, the Clinton camp issued a memo citing a press clip in which one of my teachers in Indonesia claimed that I had written an essay in kindergarten about wanting to be president—proof, it seemed, that my professed idealism was merely a disguise for a ruthless ambition.
When I heard about this, I laughed. As I told Michelle, the idea that anyone outside my family remembered anything I said or did almost forty years earlier was a bit far-fetched. Not to mention the difficulty of squaring my apparent youthful plan for world domination with middling high school grades and drug consumption, an obscure stint as a community organizer, and associations with all kinds of politically inconvenient characters.
Of course, over the next decade we’d discover that absurdity, incoherence, or a lack of factual support didn’t prevent various crackpot theories about me—peddled by political opponents, conservative news outlets, critical biographers, and the like—from gaining real traction. But in December 2007, at least, the Clinton team’s opposition research into what I called “my kindergarten files” was viewed as a sign of panic and widely panned.
Less amusing was an interview in which Billy Shaheen, the co-chair of Clinton’s campaign in New Hampshire, suggested to a reporter that my self-disclosed prior drug use would prove fatal in a matchup against the Republican nominee. I didn’t consider the general question of my youthful indiscretions out of bounds, but Shaheen went a bit further, implying that perhaps I had dealt drugs as well. The interview set off a furor, and Shaheen quickly resigned from his post.
All this happened just ahead of our final debate in Iowa. That morning, both Hillary and I were in Washington for a Senate vote. When my team and I got to the airport for the flight to Des Moines, Hillary’s chartered plane turned out to be parked right next to ours. Before takeoff, Huma Abedin, Hillary’s aide, found Reggie and let him know that the senator was hoping to speak to me. I met Hillary on the tarmac, Reggie and Huma hovering a few paces away.
Hillary apologized for Shaheen. I thanked her and then suggested we both do a better job of reining in our surrogates. At this, Hillary got agitated, her voice sharpening as she claimed that my team was routinely engaging in unfair attacks, distortions, and underhanded tactics. My efforts at lowering the temperature were unsuccessful, and the conversation ended abruptly, with her still visibly angry as she boarded her plane.
On the flight to Des Moines, I tried to appreciate the frustrations Hillary must have been feeling. A woman of enormous intelligence, she had toiled, sacrificed, endured public attacks and humiliations, all in service of her husband’s career—while also raising a wonderful daughter. Out of the White House, she had carved a new political identity, positioning herself with skill and tenacity to become the prohibitive favorite to win the presidency. As a candidate, she was performing almost flawlessly, checking every box, winning most debates, raising scads of money. And now, to find herself suddenly in a close contest with a man fourteen years younger, who hadn’t had to pay the same dues, who didn’t carry the same battle scars, and who seemed to be getting every break and every benefit of the doubt? Honestly, who wouldn’t be aggravated?
Moreover, Hillary wasn’t entirely wrong about my team’s willingness to give as good as it got. Compared to other modern presidential campaigns, we really were different, consistently emphasizing a positive message, highlighting what I stood for rather than what I was against. I policed our tone from top to bottom. More than once, I killed TV spots I felt were unfair or too harsh. Still, we sometimes fell short of our high-minded rhetoric. In fact, the angriest I ever got during the campaign involved a leaked memo drafted by our research team back in June, criticizing Hillary’s tacit support of outsourcing jobs to India and with the snarky title “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab).” My team insisted the memo was never meant for public consumption, but I didn’t care—its shoddy argument and nativist tone had me ripshit for days.
In the end, I don’t think it was any specific action on our part that caused the dustup with Hillary on the tarmac. Rather, it was the general fact of my challenge, the intensifying heat of our rivalry. There were six other candidates still in the race, but the polls were beginning to clarify where we were headed, with Hillary and me battling each other until the end. It was a dynamic we’d live with, day and night, weekends and holidays, for many months to come, our teams flanking us like miniature armies, each staffer fully indoctrinated into the fight. It was part of the brutal nature of modern politics, I was discovering, the difficulty of competing in a game where there were no clearly defined rules, a game in which your opponents are not merely trying to put a ball through a basket or push it across your goal line, but are instead trying to convince the broad public—at least implicitly, more often explicitly—that in matters of judgment, intelligence, values, and character, they are more worthy than you.
You may tell yourself it’s not personal, but that’s not how it feels. Not to you and certainly not to your family, your staff, or your supporters, who count up every slight and every insult, real or perceived. The longer the campaign goes on, the tighter the contest, the higher the stakes, the easier it is to justify hardball tactics. Until those basic human responses that normally govern our daily lives—honesty, empathy, courtesy, patience, goodwill—feel like weakness when extended to the other side.
I can’t say all this was on my mind by the time I walked into the debate the evening after the tarmac incident. Mostly I read Hillary’s irritation as a sign that we were pulling ahead, that the momentum was truly ours. During the debate, the moderator asked why, if I was so insistent on the need for change in America’s approach to foreign policy, did I have so many former Clinton administration officials advising me. “I want to hear that,” Hillary said into the microphone.
I paused, letting the chuckles die down.
“Well, Hillary, I’m looking forward to you advising me as well.”
It was a good night for the team.
WITH A MONTH left before the caucuses, a Des Moines Register poll now showed me with a three-point lead over Hillary. The sprint was full-on, with candidates from both parties dashing around the state in the final weeks, trying to win over any uncommitted voter, to find and motivate hidden pockets of people who might not otherwise turn out on the appointed night. The Clinton campaign had started handing out free snow shovels to supporters in case the weather got bad, and in a move that would later be criticized as outlandishly expensive, Hillary embarked on a blitzkrieg tour, visiting sixteen Iowa counties in a chartered helicopter (which her campaign dubbed “the Hill-O-Copter”). John Edwards, meanwhile, was attempting to cover similar terrain in a bus.
We had a few high-profile moments of our own, including a series of rallies with Oprah Winfrey, who’d become a friend and supporter, and was as wise, funny, and gracious on the trail as she was in person, attracting nearly thirty thousand people between two rallies in Iowa, another eighty-five hundred in New Hampshire, and almost thirty thousand in South Carolina. These gatherings were electric, pulling in the kind of new voters we most needed. (Many on my staff, it must be said, were starstruck around Oprah, with the predictable exception of Emily; the only famous person she ever expressed an interest in meeting was Tim Russert.) In the end, though, it wasn’t the polls, or the size of the rallies, or the celebrities who flew in that I remember most. Instead, it was how, in those last days, the whole campaign took on the feeling of family. Michelle’s openness and candor had proven to be an asset; she was a natural on the stump. The Iowa team came to call her “the Closer,” because of how many people signed up once they’d heard her speak. Our siblings and closest friends all came to Iowa, Craig from Chicago and Maya from Hawaii and Auma from Kenya; the Nesbitts, the Whitakers, Valerie, and all their kids, not to mention Michelle’s passel of aunts, uncles, and cousins. My childhood friends from Hawaii, buddies from my organizing days, law school classmates, former state senate colleagues, and many of our donors came, arriving in groups like big traveling reunions, often without me even knowing they were there. Nobody asked for any special attention; instead, they just reported to field offices where the kid in charge would hand them a map and a list of supporters to contact so they could then celebrate the week between Christmas and New Year’s with a clipboard in hand, knocking on doors in the face-numbing cold.
It was more than just blood relatives or people we’d known for years. The people of Iowa whom I’d spent so much time with felt like family too. There were local party leaders like attorney general Tom Miller and treasurer Mike Fitzgerald, who had taken a flier on me when few would give me a shot. There were volunteers like Gary Lamb, a progressive farmer from Tama County who helped us with rural outreach; Leo Peck, who at eighty-two had knocked on more doors than just about anybody; Marie Ortiz, an African American nurse married to a Hispanic man in a mostly white town, who came into the office to make calls three or four times a week, sometimes cooking dinner for our organizer there because she thought he was too skinny.
And then, of course, there were the field organizers. As busy as they were, we decided to have them invite their parents to the JJ Dinner, and the next day we hosted a reception for them, just so that Michelle and I could say thank you to each of them, and to their parents for having produced such amazing sons and daughters.
To this day, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for those kids.
On the big night, Plouffe and Valerie decided to join me, Reggie, and Marvin on a surprise visit to a high school in Ankeny, a suburb of Des Moines, where several precincts would be holding their caucuses. It was January 3, just after six p.m., less than an hour before the caucuses were scheduled to begin, and yet the place was already packed. People streamed toward the main building from every direction, a noisy festival of humanity. No age, race, class, or body type appeared unrepresented. There was even one ancient-looking character dressed as Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, complete with a long white cloak, a pluming white beard, and a sturdy wooden staff on top of which he’d somehow managed to mount a small video monitor, looping a clip of my JJ Dinner speech.
We had no press with us then, and I took my time wandering through the crowd, shaking hands and thanking those who planned to support me, asking those who were caucusing for another candidate to please at least make me their second choice. A few had last-minute questions about my stance on ethanol or what I intended to do about human trafficking. Over and over again, people rushed up to tell me that they’d never caucused before—some had never even bothered to vote—and that our campaign had inspired them to get involved for the very first time.
“I didn’t know I counted before,” one woman said.
On the ride back to Des Moines, we were mostly quiet, processing the miracle of what we had just witnessed. I looked out the window at the passing strip malls and houses and streetlights, all fuzzy behind the frosty glass, and felt a kind of peace. We were hours, still, from knowing what would happen. The results, when they came in, showed us winning Iowa decisively, carrying just about every demographic group, our victory propelled by unprecedented turnout, including tens of thousands of people who’d participated for the first time. I knew none of this yet, but pulling away from Ankeny about fifteen minutes before the caucuses began, I knew we had accomplished, if even for just a moment, something real and noble.
Right there, in that high school in the middle of the country on a cold winter night, I had witnessed the community I had so long sought, the America I imagined, made manifest. I thought of my mom then, and how happy she would have been to see it, and how proud she would have been, and I missed her terribly, and Plouffe and Valerie pretended not to notice as I wiped away my tears.
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