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OUR EIGHT-POINT MARGIN OF VICTORY in Iowa made news across the country. The media used words like “stunning” and “seismic” to describe it, noting that the results were especially devastating for Hillary, who finished third. Both Chris Dodd and Joe Biden promptly dropped out of the race. Elected officials who’d stayed cautiously on the sidelines were now calling, ready to endorse. Pundits declared me the new Democratic front-runner, suggesting that the high level of voter engagement in Iowa signaled a broader appetite for change in America.
Having spent the previous year as David, I was suddenly cast as Goliath—and as happy as I was about our victory, the new role felt awkward. For a year, my team and I had avoided getting too high or too low, ignoring both the initial hype surrounding my candidacy and the subsequent reports of its imminent demise. With only five days between Iowa and the New Hampshire primary, it took everything we had to tamp down expectations. Axe considered the gushing stories and TV images of me before adoring crowds (“Obama the icon,” he complained) especially unhelpful in a state like New Hampshire, where the electorate—many of them independents who liked to decide at the last minute between voting in the Democratic or Republican primary—had a reputation for being contrarian.
Still, it was hard not to feel like we were in the driver’s seat. Our organizers in New Hampshire were just as tenacious and our volunteers just as spirited as those in Iowa; our rallies drew enthusiastic crowds, with lines to get in that would wind through parking lots and stretch around the block. Then, in the span of forty-eight hours, the contest took a couple of unexpected turns.
The first happened during the lone debate before the primary when, midway through, the moderator asked Hillary how she felt when people said she was not “likable.”
Now, this was the type of question that drove me nuts on several levels. It was trivial. It was unanswerable—what’s a person supposed to say to something like that? And it was indicative of a double standard that Hillary specifically and women politicians in general had to put up with, in which they were expected to be “nice” in ways that were never deemed relevant to their male counterparts.
Despite the fact that Hillary was handling the question just fine (“Well, that hurts my feelings,” she said, laughing, “but I’ll try to go on”), I decided to interject.
“You’re likable enough, Hillary,” I said, deadpan.
I assumed the audience understood my intentions—to make an overture to my opponent while indicating scorn for the question. But whether because of bad delivery, clumsy phrasing, or spin by the Clinton communications team, a story line emerged—that I had been patronizing toward Hillary, dismissive, even, yet another boorish male putting down his female rival.
In other words, the opposite of what I had meant.
Nobody on our team got too exercised about my remark, understanding that any attempt to clarify it would only fuel the fire. But no sooner had the story begun to die down than the media exploded yet again, this time over how Hillary was being perceived following a meeting she’d had with a group of undecided voters in New Hampshire, most of them women. Fielding an empathetic question about how she was managing the stresses of the race, Hillary had momentarily choked up, describing how personally and passionately invested she was—how she didn’t want to see the country move backward and how she’d devoted her life to public service “against some pretty difficult odds.” It was a rare and genuine show of emotion on Hillary’s part, one that ran counter to her steely, controlled image, enough so that it made headlines and sent the cable news pundits into orbit. Some interpreted the moment as compelling and authentic, a new point of human connection between Hillary and the public. Others deemed it either a manufactured bit of emotion or a sign of weakness that threatened to damage her candidacy. Running beneath it all, of course, was the fact that Hillary quite possibly could become the nation’s first female president and—just as mine did with race—her candidacy surfaced all sorts of stereotypes about gender and how we expected our leaders to look and behave.
The frenzy around whether Hillary was trending up or down continued right into primary day in New Hampshire. My team took comfort in the fact that we had a big cushion: Polls showed us with a ten-point lead. So when the midday rally we’d scheduled at a local college drew a sparse crowd, my speech interrupted by a fainting student and what seemed like an interminable response time by the medics, I didn’t take it as a bad omen.
It wasn’t until that evening, after the polls had closed, that I knew we had a problem. As Michelle and I were in our hotel room getting ready for what we expected to be a victory celebration, I heard a knock and opened the door to find Plouffe, Axe, and Gibbs standing sheepishly in the hall, looking like teenagers who had just crashed their dad’s car into a tree.
“We’re going to lose,” Plouffe said.
They began offering various theories on what had gone wrong. It was possible that independents who supported us over Hillary had decided to vote en masse in the Republican primary to help John McCain, figuring that we had our race well in hand. Undecided women may have swung sharply in Hillary’s direction during the campaign’s final days. Or maybe it was the fact that when the Clinton team attacked us on TV and in campaign mailings, we hadn’t done enough to highlight their negative tactics, allowing the punches to land.
The theories all sounded plausible. But for the moment, the whys didn’t matter.
“Looks like winning this thing’s going to take a while,” I said with a rueful smile. “Right now, let’s figure out how to cauterize the wound.”
No hangdog looks, I told them; our body language had to communicate to everyone—the press, donors, and most of all our supporters—that setbacks were par for the course. I reached out to our distraught New Hampshire team to tell them how proud I was of their efforts. Then there was the matter of what to say to the seventeen hundred or so people who had gathered in a Nashua school gym in anticipation of victory. Fortunately I had already worked with Favs earlier in the week to tone down any triumphalist tones in the speech, asking him instead to emphasize the hard work that lay ahead. I now got him on the phone to instruct that—other than a tip of the hat to Hillary—we barely change the text.
The speech I gave to our supporters that evening would end up being one of the most important of our campaign, not just as a rallying cry for the disheartened, but as a useful reminder of what we believed. “We know the battle ahead will be long,” I said, “but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.” I said that we lived in a country whose history was all but built on hope, by people—pioneers, abolitionists, suffragists, immigrants, civil rights workers—who’d been undeterred by seemingly impossible odds.
“When we’ve been told we’re not ready,” I said, “or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes we can.” The crowd began to chant the phrase like a drumbeat, and for perhaps the first time since Axe had suggested it as a slogan for my Senate campaign, I fully believed the power of those three words.
THE NEWS COVERAGE following our loss in New Hampshire was predictably tough, the overall message being that order had been restored and Hillary was back on top. But a funny thing happened inside our campaign. Devastated as they were by the loss, our staff grew more unified and also more determined. Instead of a drop-off in volunteers, our offices reported a surge of walk-ins across the country. Our online contributions—particularly from new small-dollar donors—spiked. John Kerry, who’d previously been noncommittal, came out with an enthusiastic endorsement for me. This was followed by announcements of support from Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, all hailing from states that leaned Republican and helping to send a message that despite the setback, we were strong and moving forward, our hopes intact.
All this was gratifying, and it confirmed my instinct that losing New Hampshire wasn’t the disaster commentators thought it might be. If Iowa had shown me to be a real contender, and not simply a novelty act, the rush to anoint me had been artificial and premature. In that sense, the good people of New Hampshire had done me a favor by slowing down the process. Running for president is supposed to be hard, I told a group of supporters the next day, because being president is hard. Delivering change is hard. We were going to have to earn this thing, and that meant getting back to work.
And that’s what we did. Nevada’s caucus came on January 19, just a week and a half after New Hampshire, and we weren’t surprised when we lost the raw vote to Hillary; polls there had shown us to be well behind her throughout the year. But in presidential primaries, what matters is not so much the number of individual votes you get but rather how many pledged convention delegates you win, with delegates apportioned based on a series of arcane rules unique to each state. Thanks to our organization’s strength in rural Nevada, where we’d campaigned hard (Elko, a town that looked like a western movie set, complete with tumbleweeds and a saloon, was one of my all-time favorite stops), our more even distribution of votes across the state resulted in us winning thirteen delegates to Hillary’s twelve. Improbably enough, we were able to emerge from Nevada claiming a draw and entered the next phase of the campaign—the South Carolina primary and the behemoth, twenty-two-state Super Tuesday—with at least a fighting chance.
My senior team would later say it was my optimism that carried them through the loss in New Hampshire. I don’t know if that’s actually the case, since my staff and supporters operated with admirable resilience and consistency throughout the campaign, independent of anything I did. At most, I had simply returned the favor, given all that others had done to drag me across the Iowa finish line. What is probably true is that New Hampshire showed my team and supporters a quality I had learned about myself, something that proved useful not just during the course of the campaign but for the eight years that followed: I often felt steadiest when things were going to hell. Iowa may have convinced me and my team that I could end up being president. But it was the New Hampshire loss that made us confident I’d be up to the job.
I’ve often been asked about this personality trait—my ability to maintain composure in the middle of crisis. Sometimes I’ll say that it’s just a matter of temperament, or a consequence of being raised in Hawaii, since it’s hard to get stressed when it’s eighty degrees and sunny and you’re five minutes from the beach. If I’m talking to a group of young people, I’ll describe how over time I’ve trained myself to take the long view, about how important it is to stay focused on your goals rather than getting hung up on the daily ups and downs.
There’s truth in all of this. But there’s another factor at play. In tough spots, I tend to channel my grandmother.
She was eighty-five years old then, the last survivor of the trio who raised me. Her health was declining; cancer had spread through a body already ravaged by osteoporosis and a lifetime of bad habits. But her mind was still sharp, and because she was no longer able to fly and I’d missed our annual Christmas trip to Hawaii due to the demands of the campaign, I had taken to calling her every few weeks just to check in.
I placed such a call after New Hampshire. As usual, the conversation didn’t last long; Toot considered long-distance calls an extravagance. She shared news from the Islands, and I told her about her great-granddaughters and their latest mischief. My sister Maya, who lived in Hawaii, reported that Toot watched every twist and turn of the campaign on cable TV, but she never brought it up with me. In the wake of my loss, she had just one piece of advice.
“You need to eat something, Bar. You look too skinny.”
This was characteristic of Madelyn Payne Dunham, born in Peru, Kansas, in 1922. She was a child of the Depression, the daughter of a schoolteacher and a bookkeeper at a small oil refinery, themselves the children of farmers and homesteaders. These were sensible people who worked hard, went to church, paid their bills, and remained suspicious of bombast, public displays of emotion, or foolishness of any sort.
In her youth, my grandmother had pushed against these small-town constraints, most notably by marrying my grandfather Stanley Armour Dunham, who was prone to all the questionable qualities mentioned above. Together they’d had their fair share of adventures, during the war and after, but by the time I was born, all that remained of Toot’s rebellious streak was her smoking, drinking, and taste for lurid thrillers. At the Bank of Hawaii, Toot had managed to rise from an entry-level clerical position to become one of its first female vice presidents, and by all accounts she’d been excellent at her job. For twenty-five years, there would be no fuss, no mistakes, and no complaints, even when she saw younger men that she’d trained promoted ahead of her.
After Toot retired, I sometimes ran into people back in Hawaii who told stories of how she’d helped them—a man insisting he’d have lost his company without her intervention, or a woman recalling how Toot waived an arcane bank policy requiring an estranged husband’s signature to secure a loan for the real estate agency she was starting. If you asked Toot about any of these things, though, she’d maintain that she’d started working at the bank not because of any particular passion for finance or wish to help others, but because our family needed the money, and that’s what had been available to her.
“Sometimes,” she told me, “you just do what needs to be done.”
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I understood just how far my grandmother’s life had strayed from the path she’d once imagined; how much of herself she had sacrificed, first for her husband, then for her daughter, then for her grandchildren. It struck me as quietly tragic, how cramped her world seemed.
And yet even then it wasn’t lost on me that it was because of Toot’s willingness to carry the load in front of her—waking before sunup every day to stuff herself into a business suit and heels and take the bus to her downtown office, working all day on escrow documents before coming home too tired to do much else—that she and Gramps were able to retire comfortably, travel, and maintain their independence. The stability she provided allowed my mother to pursue a career she enjoyed, despite its sporadic pay and overseas postings, and was why Maya and I had been able to go to a private school and fancy colleges.
Toot showed me how to balance a checkbook and resist buying stuff I didn’t need. She was the reason why, even in my most revolutionary moments as a young man, I could admire a well-run business and read the financial pages, and why I felt compelled to disregard overly broad claims about the need to tear things up and remake society from whole cloth. She taught me the value of working hard and doing your best even when the work was unpleasant, and about fulfilling your responsibilities even when doing so was inconvenient. She taught me to marry passion with reason, to not get overly excited when life was going well, and to not get too down when it went badly.
All this was instilled in me by an elderly, plainspoken white lady from Kansas. It was her perspective that often came to mind when I was campaigning, and her worldview that I sensed in many of the voters I encountered, whether in rural Iowa or in a Black neighborhood in Chicago, that same quiet pride in sacrifices made for children and grandchildren, the same lack of pretension, the same modesty of expectations.
And because Toot possessed both the remarkable strengths and stubborn limitations of her upbringing—because she loved me fiercely and would literally do anything to help me, and yet never fully shed the cautious conservatism that had made her quietly agonize the first time my mother brought my father, a Black man, home for dinner—she also taught me the tangled, multifaceted truth of race relations in our country.
“THERE IS NOT a Black America and a white America and a Latino America and an Asian America. There’s the United States of America.”
It was probably the line most remembered from my 2004 convention speech. I’d intended it more as a statement of aspiration than a description of reality, but it was an aspiration I believed in and a reality I strove for. The idea that our common humanity mattered more than our differences was stitched into my DNA. It also described what I felt was a practical view of politics: In a democracy, you needed a majority to make big change, and in America that meant building coalitions across racial and ethnic lines.
Certainly that had been true for me in Iowa, where African Americans constituted less than 3 percent of the population. Day to day, our campaign didn’t consider this an obstacle, just a fact of life. Our organizers encountered pockets of racial animosity, at times voiced openly even by potential supporters (“Yeah, I’m thinking about voting for the nigger” was heard more than once). Every so often, though, the hostility went beyond a rude remark or a slammed door. One of our most beloved supporters had woken up the day before Christmas to find her yard strewn with torn-up OBAMA signs, her house vandalized and spray-painted with racial epithets. Obtuseness, rather than meanness, was more common, with our volunteers fielding the kinds of remarks that are familiar to any Black person who’s spent time in a largely white setting, a variation on the theme of “I don’t think of him as being Black, really….I mean, he’s so intelligent.” For the most part, though, I found white voters across Iowa to be much like those I had courted just a few years earlier in downstate Illinois—friendly, thoughtful, and open to my candidacy, concerned less about my skin color or even my Muslim-sounding name than they were about my youth and lack of experience, my plans to create jobs or end the war in Iraq.
As far as my political advisors were concerned, our job was to keep it that way. It wasn’t that we ducked racial issues. Our website made my position clear on hot-button topics like immigration reform and civil rights. If asked in a town hall, I wouldn’t hesitate to explain the realities of racial profiling or job discrimination to a rural, all-white audience. Inside the campaign, Plouffe and Axe listened to the concerns of Black and Latino team members, whether someone wanted to tweak a television ad (“Can we include at least one Black face other than Barack’s?” Valerie gently asked at one point) or was reminding us to work harder to recruit more senior staff of color. (On this score, at least, the world of experienced, high-level political operatives wasn’t so different from that of other professions, in that young people of color consistently had less access to mentors and networks—and couldn’t afford to accept the unpaid internships that might put them on the fast track to run national campaigns. This was one thing I was determined to help change.) But Plouffe, Axe, and Gibbs made no apologies for de-emphasizing any topic that might be labeled a racial grievance, or split the electorate along racial lines, or do anything that would box me in as “the Black candidate.” To them, the immediate formula for racial progress was simple—we needed to win. And this meant gaining support not just from liberal white college kids but also from voters for whom the image of me in the White House involved a big psychological leap.
“Trust me,” Gibbs would wisecrack, “whatever else they know about you, people have noticed that you don’t look like the first forty-two presidents.”
Meanwhile, I’d felt no shortage of love from African Americans since my election to the U.S. Senate. Local NAACP chapters got in touch, wanting to give me awards. My photo regularly showed up in the pages of Ebony and Jet. Every Black woman of a certain age told me I reminded her of her son. And the love for Michelle was at a whole other level. With her professional credentials, sister-friend demeanor, and no-nonsense devotion to motherhood, she seemed to distill what so many Black families worked toward and hoped for their children.
Despite all this, Black attitudes toward my candidacy were complicated—driven in no small part by fear. Nothing in Black people’s experience told them that it might be possible for one of their own to win a major party nomination, much less the presidency of the United States. In the minds of many, what Michelle and I had accomplished was already something of a miracle. To aspire beyond that seemed foolish, a flight too close to the sun.
“I’m telling you, man,” Marty Nesbitt said to me shortly after I announced my candidacy, “my mother worries about you the same way she used to worry about me.” A successful entrepreneur, a former high school football star with the good looks of a young Jackie Robinson, married to a brilliant doctor and with five wonderful kids, Marty seemed the embodiment of the American Dream. He’d been raised by a single mom who worked as a nurse in Columbus, Ohio; it was only as a result of a special program designed to get more young people of color into prep schools and on to college that Marty had climbed the ladder out of his neighborhood, a place where most Black men could hope for little more than a lifetime on the assembly line. But when after college he decided to leave a stable job at General Motors for a riskier venture into real estate investments, his mother had fretted, afraid he might lose everything by reaching too far.
“She thought I was crazy to give up that kind of security,” Marty told me. “So imagine how my mom and her friends are feeling about you right now. Not just running for president, but actually believing you can be president!” This mindset wasn’t restricted to the working class. Valerie’s mother—whose family had epitomized the Black professional elite of the forties and fifties—was the wife of a doctor and one of the guiding lights in the early childhood education movement. But she expressed the same skepticism toward my campaign at the start.
“She wants to protect you,” Valerie said.
“From what?” I asked.
“From disappointment,” she said, leaving unspoken her mother’s more specific fear that I might get myself killed.
We heard it again and again, especially during the first months of the campaign—a protective pessimism, a sense in the Black community that Hillary was a safer choice. With national figures like Jesse Jackson, Jr. (and a more grudging Jesse Sr.), behind us, we were able to get a good number of early endorsements from African American leaders, especially from younger ones. But many more chose to wait and see how I fared, and other Black politicians, businesspeople, and pastors—whether out of genuine loyalty toward the Clintons or an eagerness to back the prohibitive favorite—came out for Hillary before I’d even had a chance to make my case.
“The country’s not ready yet,” one congressman told me, “and the Clintons have a long memory.”
Meanwhile, there were activists and intellectuals who supported me but viewed my campaign in purely symbolic terms, akin to earlier races mounted by Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton, a useful if transitory platform from which to raise a prophetic voice against racial injustice. Unconvinced that victory was possible, they expected me to take the most uncompromising positions on everything from affirmative action to reparations and were continually on alert for any hints that I might be spending too much time and energy courting middle-of-the-road, less progressive white folks.
“Don’t be one of those so-called leaders who take the Black vote for granted,” a supporter told me. I was sensitive to the criticism, for it wasn’t entirely wrong. A lot of Democratic politicians did take Black voters for granted—at least since 1968, when Richard Nixon had determined that a politics of white racial resentment was the surest path to Republican victory, and thereby left Black voters with nowhere else to go. It was not only white Democrats who made this calculation. There wasn’t a Black elected official who relied on white votes to stay in office who wasn’t aware of what Axe, Plouffe, and Gibbs were at least implicitly warning against—that too much focus on civil rights, police misconduct, or other issues considered specific to Black people risked triggering suspicion, if not a backlash, from the broader electorate. You might decide to speak up anyway, as a matter of conscience, but you understood there’d be a price—that Blacks could practice the standard special-interest politics of farmers, gun enthusiasts, or other ethnic groups only at their own peril.
Of course, that was part of the reason I was running, wasn’t it—to help us break free of such constraints? To reimagine what was possible? I wanted to be neither a supplicant, always on the periphery of power and seeking favor from liberal benefactors, nor a permanent protester, full of righteous anger as we waited for white America to expiate its guilt. Both paths were well trodden; both, at some fundamental level, were born of despair.
No, the point was to win. I wanted to prove to Blacks, to whites—to Americans of all colors—that we could transcend the old logic, that we could rally a working majority around a progressive agenda, that we could place issues like inequality or lack of educational opportunity at the very center of the national debate and then actually deliver the goods.
I knew that in order to accomplish that, I needed to use language that spoke to all Americans and propose policies that touched everyone—a topflight education for every child, quality healthcare for every American. I needed to embrace white people as allies rather than impediments to change, and to couch the African American struggle in terms of a broader struggle for a fair, just, and generous society.
I understood the risks. I heard the muted criticisms that came my way from not just rivals but friends. How an emphasis on universal programs often meant benefits were less directly targeted to those most in need. How appealing to common interests discounted the continuing effects of discrimination and allowed whites to avoid taking the full measure of the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and their own racial attitudes. How this left Black people with a psychic burden, expected as they were to constantly swallow legitimate anger and frustration in the name of some far-off ideal.
It was a lot to ask of Black folks, requiring a mixture of optimism and strategic patience. As I tried to lead voters and my own campaign through this uncharted territory, I was constantly reminded that this wasn’t an abstract exercise. I was bound to specific communities of flesh and blood, filled with men and women who had their own imperatives and their own personal histories—including a pastor who seemed to embody all the contradictory impulses I was attempting to corral.
I FIRST MET Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., during my organizing days. His church, Trinity United Church of Christ, was one of the largest in Chicago. The son of a Baptist minister and a school administrator from Philadelphia, he had grown up steeped in Black church tradition while also attending the most prestigious—and largely white—schools in the city. Rather than go straight into the ministry, he left college to join the Marines and then the U.S. Navy, training as a cardiopulmonary technician and serving as part of the medical team caring for Lyndon Johnson after his 1966 surgery. In 1967, he enrolled at Howard University and, like many Blacks during those turbulent years, soaked up the forceful rhetoric of Black Power, an interest in all things African, and leftist critiques of the American social order. By the time he graduated from seminary, he’d also absorbed the Black liberation theology of James Cone—a view of Christianity that asserted the centrality of the Black experience, not because of any inherent racial superiority but because, Cone claimed, God sees the world through the eyes of those most oppressed.
That Reverend Wright came to pastor in an overwhelmingly white denomination gives some indication of his practical side; not only did the United Church of Christ value serious scholarship—something he emphasized every Sunday—but it had the money and infrastructure to help him build his congregation. What was once a staid church with fewer than one hundred members grew to six thousand during his tenure, a rollicking, bustling place containing the multitudes that make up Black Chicago: bankers and former gang members, kente robes and Brooks Brothers suits, a choir that could rock classic gospel and the “Hallelujah Chorus” in a single service. His sermons were full of pop references, slang, humor, and genuine religious insight that not only prompted cheers and shouts from his members but burnished his reputation as one of the best preachers in the country.
There were times when I found Reverend Wright’s sermons a little over the top. In the middle of a scholarly explication of the Book of Matthew or Luke, he might insert a scathing critique of America’s drug war, American militarism, capitalist greed, or the intractability of American racism, rants that were usually grounded in fact but bereft of context. Often, they sounded dated, as if he were channeling a college teach-in from 1968 rather than leading a prosperous congregation that included police commanders, celebrities, wealthy businesspeople, and the Chicago school superintendent. And every so often, what he said was just wrong, edging close to the conspiracy theories one heard on late-night public-access stations or in the barbershop down the street. It was as if this erudite, middle-aged, light-skinned Black man were straining for street cred, trying to “keep it real.” Or maybe he just recognized—both within his congregation and within himself—the periodic need to let loose, to release pent-up anger from a lifetime of struggle in the face of chronic racism, reason and logic be damned.
All this I knew. And yet for me, especially when I was a young man still sorting out my beliefs and my place inside Chicago’s Black community, the good in Reverend Wright more than outweighed his flaws, just as my admiration for the congregation and its ministries outweighed my broader skepticism toward organized religion. Michelle and I eventually joined Trinity as members, though we proved to be spotty churchgoers. Like me, Michelle hadn’t been raised in a particularly religious household, and what started as once-a-month attendance became less frequent over time. When we did go, though, it was meaningful, and as my political career took off, I made a point of inviting Reverend Wright to do an invocation or a benediction at key events.
This had been the plan for the day I announced my candidacy. Reverend Wright was to lead the assembled crowd in a prayer before I appeared onstage. On my way down to Springfield a day ahead of the event, though, I had received an urgent call from Axe, asking if I’d seen a Rolling Stone article that had just been published about my candidacy. Evidently the reporter had sat in on a recent service at Trinity, absorbing a fiery sermon from Reverend Wright and quoting it in his story.
“He’s quoted saying…hold on, let me read this: ‘We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God.’ ”
“I think it’s fair to say that if he gives the invocation tomorrow, he’ll be the lead story…at least on Fox News.”
The article itself offered a generally fair view of Jeremiah Wright and Trinity’s ministry, and I wasn’t surprised that my pastor would point out the gap between America’s professed Christian ideals and its brutal racial history. Still, the language he’d used was more incendiary than anything I’d heard before, and although a part of me was frustrated with the constant need to soften for white folks’ benefit the blunt truths about race in this country, as a matter of practical politics I knew Axe was right.
That afternoon, I called Reverend Wright and asked if he’d be willing to skip the public invocation and instead offer Michelle and me a private prayer before my speech. I could tell he was hurt, but ultimately—and to my team’s great relief—he went along with the new plan.
For me the episode churned up all the doubts I still had about running for the highest office in the land. It was one thing to have integrated my own life—to learn over time how to move seamlessly between Black and white circles, to serve as translator and bridge among family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, making connections across an ever-expanding orbit, until I felt I could finally know the world of my grandparents and the world of a Reverend Wright as a single, unified whole. But to explain those connections to millions of strangers? To imagine that a presidential campaign, with all its noise and distortions and simplifications, could somehow cut through hurt and fear and suspicion that had been four hundred years in the making? The reality of American race relations was too complicated to reduce to a sound bite. Hell, I myself was too complicated, the contours of my life too messy and unfamiliar to the average American, for me to honestly expect I could pull this thing off.
MAYBE IF THE Rolling Stone article had come out earlier, foreshadowing problems to come, I would have decided not to run. It’s hard to say. I do know that—in a bit of irony, or perhaps providence—it was another pastor and close friend of Reverend Wright’s, Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., who helped me push through my doubts.
Otis Moss was a veteran of the civil rights movement, a close friend and associate of Dr. King’s, the pastor of one of the largest churches in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former advisor to President Jimmy Carter. I didn’t know him well, but after the article was published he called me one evening to offer support. He had gotten wind of the difficulties with Jeremiah, he said, and heard those voices within the Black community arguing that I wasn’t ready, or I was too radical, or too mainstream, or not quite Black enough. He expected the path would only get harder but urged me not to get discouraged.
“Every generation is limited by what it knows,” Dr. Moss told me. “Those of us who were part of the movement, giants like Martin, lieutenants and foot soldiers like me…we are the Moses generation. We marched, we sat in, we went to jail, sometimes in defiance of our elders, but we were in fact building on what they had done. We got us out of Egypt, you could say. But we could only travel so far.
“You, Barack, are part of the Joshua generation. You and others like you are responsible for the next leg of the journey. Folks like me can offer the wisdom of our experience. Perhaps you can learn from some of our mistakes. But ultimately it will be up to you, with God’s help, to build on what we’ve done, and lead our people and this country out of the wilderness.” It’s hard to overstate how these words fortified me, coming as they did almost a year before our Iowa victory; what it meant to have someone so intimately linked to the source of my earliest inspiration say that what I was trying to do was worth it, that it wasn’t just an exercise in vanity or ambition but rather a part of an unbroken chain of progress. More practically, it was thanks to the willingness of Dr. Moss and other former colleagues of Dr. King’s—like Reverend C. T. Vivian of Atlanta and Reverend Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—to lay their proverbial hands on me, vouching for me as an extension of their historic work, that more Black leaders didn’t swing early into Hillary’s camp.
Nowhere was this more evident than in March 2007, when I attended the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, that Congressman John Lewis hosted each year. I’d long wanted to make the pilgrimage to the site of Bloody Sunday, which in 1965 became a crucible of the battle for civil rights, when Americans fully realized what was at stake. But my visit promised to be complicated. The Clintons would be there, I was told; and before participants gathered to cross the bridge, Hillary and I were scheduled to speak simultaneously at dueling church services.
Not only that, but our host, John Lewis, had indicated that he was inclined to endorse Hillary. John had become a good friend—he’d taken great pride in my election to the Senate, rightly seeing it as part of his legacy—and I knew he was tortured by the decision. As I listened to him explain his reasoning over the phone, how long he had known the Clintons, how Bill’s administration had supported many of his legislative priorities, I chose not to press him too hard. I could imagine the pressure this kind and gentle man was under, and I also recognized that, at a time when I was asking white voters to judge me on the merits, a raw appeal to racial solidarity would feel like hypocrisy.
The Selma commemoration could have turned into an uncomfortable political spectacle, but when I arrived, I immediately felt at ease. Perhaps it was being in a place that had played such a large role in my imagination and the trajectory of my life. Perhaps it was the response of ordinary people who’d gathered to mark the occasion, shaking my hand or giving me a hug, some sporting Hillary buttons but saying they were glad I was there. But mostly it was the fact that a group of respected elders had my back. When I entered the historic Brown Chapel AME Church for the service, I learned that Reverend Lowery had asked to say a few words before I was introduced. He was well into his eighties by then but had lost none of his wit and charisma.
“Let me tell you,” he began, “some crazy things are happening out there. People say certain things ain’t happening, but who can tell? Who can tell?”
“Preach now, Reverend,” someone shouted from the audience.
“You know, recently I went to the doctor and he said my cholesterol was a little high. But then he explained to me that there’s two kinds of cholesterol. There’s the bad cholesterol, and then there’s the good cholesterol. Having good cholesterol—that’s all right. And that got me thinking how there’s a lot of things like that. I mean, when we started the movement, a lot of folks thought we were crazy. Ain’t that right, C.T.?” Reverend Lowery nodded in the direction of Reverend Vivian, who was sitting onstage. “That there’s another crazy Negro…and he’ll tell you that everybody in the movement was a little crazy…” The crowd laughed heartily.
“But like cholesterol,” he continued, “there’s good crazy and bad crazy, see? Harriet Tubman with the Underground Railroad, she was as crazy as she could be! And Paul, when he preached to Agrippa, Agrippa said, ‘Paul, you crazy’…but it was a good crazy.” The crowd began to clap and cheer as Reverend Lowery brought it home.
“And I say to you today that we need more folks in this country who are a good crazy….You can’t tell what will happen when you get folks with some good crazy…going to the polls to vote!”
The churchgoers rose to their feet, and the pastors sitting next to me onstage chortled and clapped me on the back; and by the time I got up to speak, taking the words Dr. Moss had offered me as a point of departure—about the legacy of the Moses generation and how it had made my life possible, about the responsibility of the Joshua generation to take the next steps required for justice in this nation and around the world, not just for Black people but for all those who had been dispossessed—the church was in full revival mode.
Outside, after the service was done, I saw another colleague of Dr. King’s, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a legendary and fearless freedom fighter who had survived the Klan bombing his house and a white mob beating him with clubs, chains, and brass knuckles, and stabbing his wife as they attempted to enroll their two daughters in a previously all-white Birmingham school. He had recently been treated for a brain tumor, leaving him frail, but he motioned me over to his wheelchair to talk, and as the marchers gathered, I offered to push him across the bridge.
“I’d like that just fine,” Reverend Shuttlesworth said.
And so we went, the morning sky a glorious blue, crossing the bridge over a muddy brown river, voices rising sporadically in song and prayer. With each step, I imagined how these now elderly men and women must have felt forty-some years earlier, their young hearts beating furiously as they faced down a phalanx of armed men on horseback. I was reminded of just how slight my burdens were in comparison. The fact that they were still engaged in the fight and, despite setbacks and sorrow, hadn’t succumbed to bitterness showed me that I had no cause to be tired. I felt renewed in my conviction that I was where I was supposed to be and doing what needed to be done, that Reverend Lowery might be right in saying there was some kind of “good crazy” in the air.
TEN MONTHS LATER, as the campaign shifted to South Carolina during the second and third weeks of January, I knew that our faith would again be tested. We badly needed a win. On paper, the state looked good for us: African Americans made up a large percentage of Democratic primary voters, and we had a great mix of veteran politicians and young activists, both white and Black, in our corner. But polls showed our support among white voters lagging, and we didn’t know whether African American voters would turn out in the numbers we needed. Our hope was to move toward Super Tuesday with a win that didn’t break down strictly along racial lines. But if the Iowa effort had displayed the possibilities of a more idealistic kind of politics, the campaign in South Carolina ended up being decidedly different. It became a brawl, an exercise in old-style politics, set against a landscape heavy with memories of a bitter, bloody racial history.
Some of this was the result of the tight race, rising anxieties, and what seemed to be a sense within the Clinton camp that a negative campaign worked to their advantage. Their attacks, on the air and through surrogates, had taken on a sharper tone. With voters from around the country increasingly paying attention, all of us were aware of the stakes. Our one debate that week turned into an absolute slugfest between me and Hillary, with John Edwards (whose campaign was on its last legs and who would soon drop out) rendered a spectator as Hillary and I went after each other like gladiators in the ring.
Afterward, Hillary left the state to campaign elsewhere, but the intensity hardly let up, the campaigning on their side now left to a feisty, energized, and omnipresent William Jefferson Clinton.
I sympathized with the position Bill was in: Not only was his wife under constant scrutiny and attack, but my promise to change Washington and transcend partisan gridlock must have felt like a challenge to his own legacy. No doubt I’d reinforced that perception when, in a Nevada interview, I said that while I admired Bill Clinton, I didn’t think he’d transformed politics the way Ronald Reagan had in the 1980s, when he’d managed to reframe the American people’s relationship to government on behalf of conservative principles. After all the obstructionism and sheer venom that Clinton had had to contend with throughout his presidency, I could hardly fault him for wanting to knock a cocky young newcomer down a peg or two.
Clinton clearly relished being back in the arena. A larger-than-life figure, he traveled across the state offering astute observations and emanating folksy charm. His attacks on me were for the most part well within bounds, the same points I’d have made if I’d been in his shoes—that I lacked experience and that if I did manage to win the presidency, Republicans in Congress would have me for lunch.
Beyond that, though, lay the politics of race, something that Clinton had navigated deftly in the past but proved trickier against a credible Black candidate. When he’d suggested ahead of the New Hampshire primary that some of my positions on the Iraq War were a “fairy tale,” there were Black folks who heard it as a suggestion that the notion of me as president was a fairy tale, which led Congressman Jim Clyburn, the majority whip—South Carolina’s most powerful Black official and someone who until then had maintained a careful neutrality—to publicly rebuke him. When Clinton told white audiences that Hillary “gets you” in ways that her opponents did not, Gibbs—himself a son of the South—heard echoes of Republican strategist Lee Atwater and dog-whistle politics and had no qualms about deploying some of our supporters to say so.
Looking back, I don’t know that any of this was fair; Bill Clinton certainly didn’t think so. But it was hard in South Carolina to distinguish what was true from what was felt. All across the state, I was met with great warmth and hospitality from Blacks and whites alike. In cities like Charleston, I experienced the much-touted New South—cosmopolitan, diverse, and bustling with commerce. Moreover, as someone who had made Chicago his home, I hardly needed reminding that racial division wasn’t unique to the South.
Still, as I traveled through South Carolina making my case for the presidency, racial attitudes seemed less coded, blunter—sometimes not hidden at all. How was I to interpret the well-dressed white woman in a diner I visited, grimly unwilling to shake my hand? How was I to understand the motives of those hoisting signs outside one of our campaign events, sporting the Confederate flag and NRA slogans, yelling about states’ rights and telling me to go home?
It wasn’t just shouted words or Confederate statues that evoked the legacy of slavery and segregation. At the suggestion of Congressman Clyburn, I visited J. V. Martin Junior High School, a largely Black public school in the rural town of Dillon in the northeastern section of the state. Part of the building had been constructed in 1896, just thirty years after the Civil War, and if repairs had been made over the decades, you couldn’t tell. Crumbling walls. Busted plumbing. Cracked windows. Dank, unlit halls. A coal furnace in the basement still used to heat the building. Leaving the school, I alternated between feeling downcast and freshly motivated: What message had generations of boys and girls received as they arrived at this school each day except for the certainty that, to those in power, they did not matter; that whatever was meant by the American Dream, it wasn’t meant for them?
Moments like this helped me see the wearying effects of long-term disenfranchisement, the jaded filter through which many Black South Carolinians absorbed our campaign. I began to understand the true nature of my adversary. I wasn’t running against Hillary Clinton or John Edwards or even the Republicans. I was running against the implacable weight of the past; the inertia, fatalism, and fear it produced.
Black ministers and power brokers who were accustomed to getting payments to turn out voters complained about our emphasis on recruiting grassroots volunteers instead. For them, politics was less about principles and more a simple business proposition, the way things had always been done. While campaigning, Michelle—whose great-great-grandfather had been born into slavery on a South Carolina rice plantation—would hear well-meaning Black women suggesting that losing an election might be better than losing a husband, the implication being that if I was elected, I was sure to be shot.
Hope and change were a luxury, folks seemed to be telling us, exotic imports that would wilt in the heat.
ON JANUARY 25, the eve of the primary, NBC released a poll that showed my support among white South Carolinians had fallen to a paltry 10 percent. The news set the pundits spinning. It was to be expected, they intoned; even high African American turnout couldn’t make up for deep-seated white resistance to any Black candidate, much less one named Barack Hussein Obama.
Axelrod, always in catastrophe mode, relayed this to me while scrolling through his BlackBerry. He added, unhelpfully, that if we lost South Carolina, our campaign would likely be over. Even more unhelpfully, he went on to say that even if we eked out a win, the paucity of white support would lead both the press and the Clintons to discount the victory and reasonably question my viability in a general election.
Our entire team was on pins and needles on primary day, aware of all that was on the line. But when evening finally arrived and the returns started rolling in, the results exceeded our most optimistic projections. We beat Hillary by a two-to-one margin, with nearly 80 percent of a massive Black turnout and 24 percent of the white vote. We even won by ten points among white voters under forty. Given the gauntlet we’d run and the hits we’d taken since Iowa, we were jubilant.
As I walked onstage in an auditorium in Columbia to give our victory speech, I could feel the pulse of stomping feet and clapping hands. Several thousand people had packed themselves into the venue, though under the glare of television lights, I could see only the first few rows—college students mostly, white and Black in equal measure, some with their arms interlocked or draped over one another’s shoulders, their faces beaming with joy and purpose.
“Race doesn’t matter!” people were chanting. “Race doesn’t matter! Race doesn’t matter!”
I spotted some of our young organizers and volunteers mixed in with the crowd. Once again, they’d come through, despite the naysayers. They deserved a victory lap, I thought to myself, a moment of pure elation. Which is why, even as I quieted the crowd and dove into my speech, I didn’t have the heart to correct those well-meaning chanters—to remind them that in the year 2008, with the Confederate flag and all it stood for still hanging in front of a state capitol just a few blocks away, race still mattered plenty, as much as they might want to believe otherwise.
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