فصل 7دوره: سرزمین موعود / درس 8
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WITH SOUTH CAROLINA BEHIND US, things once again seemed to start breaking our way. In a New York Times op-ed on January 27, Caroline Kennedy announced her support for me, generously suggesting that our campaign had made her understand, for the first time, the inspiration young Americans had once drawn from her father. Her uncle, Ted Kennedy, followed suit the next day, joining me for an appearance before several thousand students at American University. Teddy was absolutely electric, summoning all the old Camelot magic, batting down the argument of inexperience once used against his brother and now directed toward me. Axe would call it a symbolic passing of the torch, and I could see what it meant to him. It was as if, in our campaign, Teddy recognized a familiar chord, and was reaching back to a time before his brothers’ assassinations, Vietnam, white backlash, riots, Watergate, plant closings, Altamont, and AIDS, back to when liberalism brimmed with optimism and a can-do spirit—the same spirit that had shaped my mother’s sensibilities as a young woman, and that she had funneled into me.
The Kennedy endorsement added poetry to our campaign and helped set us up for Super Tuesday, on February 5, when more than half the nation’s delegates would be determined in a single day. We’d always known that Super Tuesday would present an enormous challenge; even with our wins in Iowa and South Carolina, Hillary remained far better known, and the face-to-face retail campaigning we’d done in the early states was simply not possible in bigger, more densely populated places like California and New York.
What we did have, though, was a grassroots infantry that expanded by the day. With the help of our veteran delegate expert, Jeff Berman, and our tenacious field director, Jon Carson, Plouffe developed a strategy that we would execute with the same single-minded focus that we’d applied to Iowa. Rather than trying to win the big primary states and spend heavily on TV ads there just to mitigate our losses, we instead focused my time and our field efforts on the caucus states—many of them small, rural, and overwhelmingly white—where the enthusiasm of our supporters could produce relatively large turnouts and lopsided victories, which would translate to big delegate hauls.
Idaho was a case in point. It hadn’t made sense for us to send paid staff to such a tiny, solidly Republican state, but a determined band of volunteers called Idahoans for Obama had organized themselves. They’d spent the past year using social media tools like MySpace and Meetup to build a community, getting to know my positions on issues, creating personal fundraising pages, planning events, and strategically canvassing the state. When, a few days before Super Tuesday, Plouffe told me that I was scheduled to campaign in Boise instead of putting in an extra day in California—where we were rapidly making up ground—I confess that I had my doubts. But a Boise State arena filled with fourteen thousand cheering Idahoans quickly cured me of any skepticism. We ended up winning Idaho by such a large margin that we gained more delegates there than Hillary got from winning New Jersey, a state with more than five times the population.
This became the pattern. Thirteen of the twenty-two Super Tuesday contests went our way; and while Hillary won New York and California by a few percentage points each, overall we netted thirteen more delegates than she did. It was a remarkable achievement, a testament to the skill and resourcefulness of Plouffe, our field staff, and most of all our volunteers. And given the questions that both pundits and the Clinton campaign continued to raise about my potential appeal in a general election, I took extra satisfaction in having run the table across the so-called red part of the country.
What struck me as well was the growing role that technology played in our victories. The extraordinary youth of my team allowed us to embrace and refine the digital networks that Howard Dean’s campaign had set in motion four years earlier. Our status as upstarts forced us to trust, again and again, the energy and creativity of our internet-savvy volunteers. Millions of small donors were helping to fuel our operation, emailed links helped to spread our campaign messaging in ways that Big Media couldn’t, and new communities were forming among people who’d previously been isolated from one another. Coming out of Super Tuesday, I was inspired, imagining that I was glimpsing the future, a resurgence of bottom-up participation that could make our democracy work again.
What I couldn’t fully appreciate yet was just how malleable this technology would prove to be; how quickly it would be absorbed by commercial interests and wielded by entrenched powers; how readily it could be used not to unify people but to distract or divide them; and how one day many of the same tools that had put me in the White House would be deployed in opposition to everything I stood for.
Such insights would come later. After Super Tuesday, we went on an absolute tear, winning eleven straight primaries and caucuses over the course of two weeks, by an average margin of 36 percent. It was a heady stretch, almost surreal, although the staff and I did our best not to get too far ahead of ourselves—“Remember New Hampshire!” was a common refrain—understanding that the battle would remain pitched, aware that there were still plenty of people out there who wanted to see us fail.
IN THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK, the sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois describes the “double consciousness” of Black Americans at the dawn of the twentieth century. Despite having been born and raised on American soil, shaped by this nation’s institutions and infused with its creed, despite the fact that their toiling hands and beating hearts contributed so much to the country’s economy and culture—despite all this, Du Bois writes, Black Americans remain the perpetual “Other,” always on the outside looking in, ever feeling their “two-ness,” defined not by what they are but by what they can never be.
As a young man, I had learned a lot from Du Bois’s writing. But whether because of my unique parentage and upbringing or because of the times in which I had come of age, this notion of “double consciousness” was not something I felt personally. I had wrestled with the meaning of my mixed-race status and the fact of racial discrimination. Yet at no point had I ever questioned—or had others question—my fundamental “American-ness.” Of course, I had never run for president before.
Even before I formally announced, Gibbs and our communications team had beaten back various rumors that bubbled up on conservative talk radio or fly-by-night websites before migrating to the Drudge Report and Fox News. There were reports that I had been schooled in an Indonesian madrassa, which gained enough traction that a CNN correspondent actually traveled to my old elementary school in Jakarta, where he found a bunch of kids wearing Western-style uniforms and listening to New Kids on the Block on their iPods. There were claims that I wasn’t an American citizen (helpfully illustrated by a picture of me wearing an African outfit at my Kenyan half brother’s wedding). As the campaign progressed, more lurid falsehoods were circulated. These had nothing to do with my nationality but everything to do with a “foreignness” of a more familiar, homegrown, dark-hued variety: that I had dealt drugs, that I had worked as a gay prostitute, that I had Marxist ties and had fathered multiple children out of wedlock.
It was hard to take any of this stuff seriously, and initially at least, not many people did—in 2008, the internet was still too slow, too spotty, and too removed from mainstream news operations to directly penetrate the minds of voters. But there were indirect, more genteel ways to question my affinities.
Following the terror attacks of 9/11, for example, I had taken to wearing an American flag lapel pin, feeling that it was one small way to express national solidarity in the face of enormous tragedy. Then, as the debate about Bush’s war on terrorism and the Iraq invasion wore on—as I watched John Kerry get swift-boated and heard those who opposed the Iraq War have their patriotism questioned by the likes of Karl Rove, as I saw my colleagues wearing flag pins in the Senate blithely vote for budget cuts to funding for veterans’ programs—I quietly set my own pin aside. It was less an act of protest and more a reminder to myself that the substance of patriotism mattered far more than the symbol. Nobody seemed to notice, especially since most of my fellow senators—including former navy POW John McCain—regularly sported flag-pin-less lapels.
So when back in October a local reporter in Iowa had asked me why I wasn’t wearing a flag pin, I told the truth, saying that I didn’t think the presence or absence of a token you could buy in a dime store measured one’s love of country. Soon enough, conservative talking heads were hammering on the purported meaning of my bare lapel. Obama hates the flag, Obama disrespects our troops. Months later, they were still making an issue of it, which began to piss me off. Just why was it, I wanted to ask, that only my pin habits, and not those of any previous presidential candidates, had suddenly attracted so much attention? Not surprisingly, Gibbs discouraged me from any public venting.
“Why give them the satisfaction?” he counseled. “You’re winning.”
Fair enough. I was less easily persuaded, though, when I saw the same sort of innuendo directed toward my wife.
Since Iowa, Michelle had continued to light up the campaign trail. With the girls in school, we limited her appearances to tight races and her travel mostly to weekends, but wherever she went, she was funny and engaging, insightful and blunt. She talked about raising kids and trying to balance the demands of work and family. She described the values she’d been raised with—her father never missing a day of work despite his MS, her mother’s deep attention to her education, the family never having had much money but always having plenty of love. It was Norman Rockwell, Leave It to Beaver stuff. My in-laws fully embodied the tastes and aspirations we tend to claim as uniquely American, and I didn’t know anyone more mainstream than Michelle, whose favorite meal was a burger and fries, who liked to watch reruns of The Andy Griffith Show, and who relished any chance to pass a Saturday afternoon shopping at the mall.
And yet, at least according to some commentators, Michelle was…different, not First Lady material. She seemed “angry,” they said. One Fox News segment described her as “Obama’s Baby Mama.” It wasn’t just conservative media either. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote a column suggesting that when Michelle painted a teasing portrait of me in her speeches as a hapless dad who let bread go stale in the kitchen and left dirty laundry lying around (reliably getting an appreciative laugh from her audience), she wasn’t humanizing me but rather “emasculating” me, hurting my chances at being elected.
This sort of commentary was infrequent, and some on our staff considered it on par with the usual nastiness of campaigns. But that’s not how Michelle experienced it. She understood that alongside the straitjacket that political wives were supposed to stay in (the adoring and compliant helpmeet, charming but not too opinionated; the same straitjacket that Hillary had once rejected, a choice she continued to pay dearly for), there was an extra set of stereotypes applied to Black women, familiar tropes that Black girls steadily absorbed like toxins from the day they first saw a blond Barbie doll or poured Aunt Jemima syrup on their pancakes. That they didn’t meet the prescribed standards of femininity, that their butts were too big and their hair too nappy, that they were too loud or hot-tempered or cutting toward their men—that they were not just “emasculating” but masculine.
Michelle had managed this psychic burden all her life, largely by being meticulous about her appearance, maintaining control of herself and her environment, and preparing assiduously for everything, even as she refused to be cowed into becoming someone she wasn’t. That she had emerged whole, with so much grace and dignity, just as so many Black women had succeeded in the face of so many negative messages, was amazing.
Of course, it was the nature of presidential campaigns that control would occasionally slip. For Michelle, it happened right before the Wisconsin primary, when, during the course of a speech in which she described being awed by how many people were energized by our campaign, she said, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country…because I think people are hungry for change.” It was a textbook gaffe—a few ad-libbed words that could then be diced, clipped, and weaponized by the conservative media—a garbled version of what she’d said many times before in her speeches about being proud of the direction our country was headed in, the promising surge in political participation. My team and I largely deserved the blame; we’d put Michelle on the road without the speechwriting, prep sessions, and briefers that I had at all times, the infrastructure that kept me organized and on point. It was like sending a civilian into live fire without a flak jacket.
No matter. Reporters pounced, speculating as to how much Michelle’s comments might hurt the campaign, and how much it revealed about the Obamas’ true feelings. I understood this to be part of a larger and uglier agenda out there, a slowly accruing, deliberately negative portrait of us built from stereotypes, stoked by fear, and meant to feed a general nervousness about the idea of a Black person making the country’s most important decisions with his Black family in the White House. But I was less concerned about what all this meant for the campaign than I was pained by seeing how much it hurt Michelle; how it caused my strong, intelligent, and beautiful wife to doubt herself. Following the misstep in Wisconsin, she reminded me that she’d never had a desire to be in the spotlight and said that if her presence on the campaign trail hurt more than it helped, she would just as soon stay home. I assured her that the campaign would provide her better support, insisting that she was a far more compelling figure to voters than I would ever be. But nothing I said seemed to make her feel better.
THROUGHOUT ALL THESE emotional ups and downs, our campaign continued to grow. By the time we entered Super Tuesday, the scale of our organization had mushroomed, a modest start-up transformed into a more secure and better-funded operation. The hotel rooms we stayed in were a bit roomier, our travel smoother. After starting out flying commercial, we’d later gone through our share of misadventures on cut-rate charter flights. One pilot landed us in the wrong city not once but twice. Another tried to jump-start the plane’s battery with an extension cord plugged into a standard socket in the airport lounge. (I was grateful when the experiment failed, though it meant we then waited two hours for a battery to be trucked in from a neighboring town on a flatbed.) With a bigger budget, we were now able to lease our own plane, complete with a flight attendant, meals, and seats that actually reclined.
But new growth brought with it rules, protocols, process, and hierarchy. Our staff had grown to more than a thousand people nationwide, and while those on our senior team did their best to maintain the campaign’s scrappy, informal culture, gone were the days when I could claim to know the majority of the people who worked for me. In the absence of such familiarity, fewer and fewer of the people I met in the course of a day addressed me as “Barack.” I was “sir” now, or “Senator.” When I entered the room, staff would often get up out of their seats to move elsewhere, assuming that I didn’t want to be disturbed. If I insisted they stick around, they would smile shyly and speak only in a low murmur.
It made me feel old, and increasingly lonely.
In an odd way, so did the crowds at our rallies. They had swelled to fifteen, twenty, or even thirty thousand strong at a stop, people wearing the red, white, and blue Obama campaign logo on shirts and hats and overalls, waiting for hours to get into whatever arena we’d found. Our team developed something of a pregame ritual. Reggie, Marvin, Gibbs, and I would jump out of the car at a service entrance or loading dock, then follow our advance team through corridors and back ways. Usually I’d meet with local organizers; take pictures with a hundred or so key volunteers and supporters, full of hugs, kisses, and small requests; and sign books, magazines, baseballs, birth announcements, military commissions, and just about anything else. Then there’d be an interview with a reporter or two; a quick lunch in a holding room that had been prestocked with bottled iced tea, trail mix, protein bars, and any other item that I had ever mentioned wanting, no matter how incidentally, in quantities adequate for a survivalist’s bomb shelter; followed by a bathroom break, with either Marvin or Reggie handing me a gel to put on my forehead and nose so my skin wouldn’t shine on television, though one of our videographers insisted it was a carcinogen.
I’d hear the buzz of the crowd growing louder as I walked under the stands or bleachers to the staging area. There’d be a cue to the sound engineer for the announcement (“the Voice of God,” I learned it was called), I’d listen quietly backstage as a local person introduced me, and then would come the words “the next president of the United States,” a deafening roar, the sound of U2’s “City of Blinding Lights,” and, after a quick fist bump or a “Go get ‘em, boss,” a walk through the curtain and onto the stage.
I did this two or three times a day, traveling from city to city, state to state. And though the novelty wore off quickly, the sheer energy of those rallies never stopped filling me with wonder. “Like a rock concert” is how reporters described it, and in terms of noise at least, that was accurate. But that wasn’t how it felt while I was onstage. I wasn’t offering the crowd a solo performance so much as trying to be a reflector, reminding Americans—through the stories they’d told me—of all that they truly cherished, and the formidable power that, joined together, they possessed.
Once my speech was over and I walked off the stage to shake hands along the rope line, I often found people screaming, pushing, and grabbing. Some would cry or touch my face, and despite my best efforts to discourage it, young parents would pass howling babies across rows of strangers for me to hold. The excitement was fun and at times deeply touching, but it was also a little unnerving. At some basic level people were no longer seeing me, I realized, with all my quirks and shortcomings. Instead, they had taken possession of my likeness and made it a vessel for a million different dreams. I knew a time would come when I would disappoint them, falling short of the image that my campaign and I had helped to construct.
I realized, too, that if supporters could mold bits and pieces of me into an outsized symbol of hope, then the vague fears of detractors could just as readily congeal into hate. And it was in response to this disturbing truth that I’d seen my life change the most.
I had been assigned Secret Service protection in May 2007, just a few months after my campaign began—given the code name “Renegade” and a round-the-clock security detail. This wasn’t the norm. Unless you were a sitting vice president (or, in the case of Hillary, a former First Lady), candidates typically weren’t assigned coverage until they’d all but secured the nomination. The reason my case was handled differently, the reason Harry Reid and Bennie Thompson, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, had publicly insisted the Service move early, was straightforward: The number of threats directed my way exceeded anything the Secret Service had ever seen before.
The head of my personal detail, Jeff Gilbert, was an impressive guy. African American, bespectacled, with an open, friendly manner, he could have passed for an executive at a Fortune 100 company. In our first meeting, he emphasized his desire to make the transition as seamless as possible, understanding that as a candidate, I had to freely interact with the public.
Jeff proved true to his word: At no point did the Service ever prevent us from pulling off an event, and the agents did what they could to downplay their presence (using bales of hay rather than metal bike racks, for example, to create a barrier in front of an outdoor stage). The shift leaders, most in their forties, were professional and courteous, with dry senses of humor. Often, we’d sit in the back of the plane or on a bus ride and rib one another about our respective sports teams or talk about our kids. Jeff’s son was a star offensive lineman at Florida, and we all began monitoring his prospects in the NFL draft. Meanwhile, Reggie and Marvin hit it off with the younger agents, going to the same watering holes after campaign business was done.
Still, to suddenly have armed men and women hovering around me wherever I went, posted outside every room I occupied, was a shock to my system. My view of the outside world started to shift, obscured by the veil of security. I no longer walked through the front entrance of a building when a back stairwell was available. If I worked out in a hotel gym, agents first covered the windows with cloth to prevent a potential shooter from getting a sight line. Bulletproof barriers were placed inside any room I slept in, including our bedroom at home in Chicago. And I no longer had the option of driving myself anywhere, not even around the block.
As we moved closer to the nomination, my world shrank even further. More agents were added. My movements became more restricted. Spontaneity vanished entirely from my life. It was no longer possible, or at least not easy, for me to walk through a grocery store or have a casual chat with a stranger on the sidewalk.
“It’s like a circus cage,” I complained to Marvin one day, “and I’m the dancing bear.”
There were times when I went stir-crazy, so fed up with the highly scheduled regimen of town halls, interviews, photo ops, and fundraising that I would up and take off, suddenly desperate to search for a good taco or to follow the sounds of some nearby outdoor concert, sending the agents scrambling to catch up, whispering “Renegade on the move” into their wrist mics.
“The bear is loose!” Reggie and Marvin would shout a little gleefully during such episodes.
But by the winter of 2008, these impromptu outings occurred less and less often. I knew that unpredictability made my detail’s job harder and increased the risk to the agents. And anyway, the tacos didn’t taste as good as I’d imagined when I was surrounded by a circle of anxious agents, not to mention the crowds and reporters that quickly assembled the moment I was recognized. When I had downtime, I found myself spending it more often in my room—reading, playing cards, quietly watching a ball game on TV.
To the relief of his keepers, the bear became accustomed to captivity.
BY THE END of February, we had built what looked like an insurmountable lead over Hillary in pledged delegates. It was around this time that Plouffe, always cautious in his assessments, called from Chicago to tell me what at some level I already knew.
“I think it’s safe to say that if we play our cards right these next few weeks, you will be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.”
After we hung up, I sat alone, trying to take the measure of my emotions. There was pride, I suppose, the jolt of satisfaction a mountain climber must feel looking back at the jagged ground that’s been covered below. Mostly, though, I felt a certain stillness, without elation or relief, sobered by the thought that the responsibilities of governance were no longer a distant possibility. Axe, Plouffe, and I found ourselves wrangling more frequently about our campaign platform, with me insisting that all our proposals withstand scrutiny—less because of the need to defend them during the election season (experience had cured me of the notion that anyone else paid close attention to my plans for tax reform or environmental regulation) than because I might have to actually implement them.
Such projections into the future might have occupied even more of my time had it not been for the fact that, despite the math showing I was going to be the nominee, Hillary simply would not give up.
Anyone else would have. She was running out of money. Her campaign was in turmoil, with staff recriminations spilling out into the press. The only remaining chance Hillary had to win the nomination depended on convincing superdelegates—the several hundred Democratic elected officials and party insiders who were given a vote at the convention and could cast it any way they wanted—to choose her when the party convened in August. It was a slender reed to hang on: While Hillary had started with a big early lead in superdelegates (who tended to announce which way they would vote long before the convention), more and more had committed to us as the primary season dragged on.
And yet she soldiered on, embracing her underdog status. Her voice took on a greater urgency, especially when discussing working-class concerns, offering her willingness to campaign to the bitter end as proof that she’d fight just as hard for American families. With upcoming primaries in Texas and Ohio (states populated by older white and Hispanic voters who tended to lean her way), to be followed seven weeks later by Pennsylvania (a state where she also enjoyed a healthy lead), Hillary assured anyone who’d listen that she planned to take our contest all the way to the convention floor.
“She’s like a fucking vampire,” Plouffe groused. “You can’t kill her off.”
Her tenacity was admirable, but my sympathies extended only so far. Senator John McCain would soon wrap up the Republican nomination, and another two or three months of bitter Democratic primary contests would give him a big head start on laying the groundwork for November’s general election. It also meant that after almost eighteen months of nonstop campaigning, nobody on my team would get a meaningful break, which was unfortunate because all of us were running on fumes.
That probably explains how we came to make the one big tactical error of our campaign.
Rather than set realistic expectations and effectively concede Ohio so that we could focus on Texas, we decided to go for the knockout punch and try to win both. We spent massively in each state. For a week, I shuttled back and forth, from Dallas to Cleveland to Houston to Toledo, my voice raw, my eyes bloodshot—hardly looking like a herald of hope.
Our efforts had a modest effect on the polls, but they lent credence to the Clinton campaign’s claim that a victory for her in Texas and Ohio could fundamentally reset the race. Meanwhile, the political press, seeing these primaries as perhaps my final test before securing the nomination and eager to sustain a drama that had proven to be a cable news ratings bonanza, gave more prominent coverage to Hillary’s attacks on me, including an ad she ran contending that I wasn’t ready to handle the “three a.m. phone call” involving a crisis. When all was said and done, we lost Ohio (decisively) and Texas (just barely).
On the flight from San Antonio back to Chicago after the primary, my team’s mood was grim. Michelle barely said a word. When Plouffe attempted to lighten things by announcing that we’d won Vermont, it barely elicited a shrug. When someone else offered up the theory that we had all died and entered purgatory, where we were destined to debate Hillary for all eternity, no one laughed. It felt too close to the truth.
Hillary’s victories didn’t change the delegate count in a meaningful way, but they put enough wind in her campaign’s sails to guarantee at least two more months of bitter primaries. The results also gave her camp fresh ammunition for an argument that seemed to be gaining traction with reporters—that I couldn’t connect with white working-class voters, that Latinos were lukewarm at best about me, and that in an election of this importance, these weaknesses could make me a very risky Democratic nominee.
Just one week later, I found myself wondering if they were right.
IT HAD BEEN more than a year since I’d given much thought to my pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. But on March 13, we woke up to discover that ABC News had compiled a series of short clips culled from several years of his sermons, skillfully packaged to fit a two-minute segment on Good Morning America. There was Reverend Wright calling America “USA of KKK.” There was Reverend Wright saying, “Not God bless America. God damn America.” There was Reverend Wright, in living color, explaining how the tragedy of 9/11 might in part be explained by our record of military interventions and wanton violence overseas, a matter of “America’s chickens…coming home to roost.” The video offered no context or history; in fact, it could not have portrayed Black radicalism more vividly, or provided a more surgical tool to offend Middle America. It was like a Roger Ailes fever dream.
Within hours of its initial broadcast, the video was running everywhere. Inside my campaign, it felt as if a torpedo had blown through our hull. I issued a statement, forcefully denouncing the sentiments expressed in the video, while also emphasizing all the good work that Reverend Wright and Trinity did in Chicago. The next day, I appeared at an already scheduled meeting with the editorial boards of two newspapers and then did a round of network TV interviews, each time offering a condemnation of the views expressed in the video clips. But no sound bite could offset the harm. The image of Reverend Wright kept rolling across TV screens, the cable chatter continued nonstop, and even Plouffe admitted we might not survive this.
Later, Axe and Plouffe would fault themselves for not having had our researchers obtain the videos a year earlier, after the Rolling Stone article hit, which would have given us more time to do damage control. But I knew the blame lay squarely on my shoulders. I may not have been in church for any of the sermons in question or heard Reverend Wright use such explosive language. But I knew all too well the occasional spasms of anger within the Black community—my community—that Reverend Wright was channeling. I did know how differently Black and white folks still viewed issues of race in America, regardless of how much else they had in common. For me to believe that I could bridge those worlds had been pure hubris, the same hubris that had led me to assume that I could dip in and out of a complex institution like Trinity, headed by a complex man like Reverend Wright, and select, as if off a menu, only those things that I liked. Maybe I could do that as a private citizen, but not as a public figure running for president.
Anyway, it was too late now. And while there are moments in politics, as in life, when avoidance, if not retreat, is the better part of valor, there are other times when the only option is to steel yourself and go for broke.
“I need to make a speech,” I told Plouffe. “On race. The only way to deal with this is to go big and put Reverend Wright in some kind of context. And I need to do it in the next few days.”
The team was skeptical. We’d booked the next three days solid with events, without any real time to spend on what could end up being the most consequential speech of the campaign. But we had no choice. On a Saturday night, after a day of stumping in Indiana, I went home to Chicago and spent an hour on the phone with Favs, dictating the argument I’d formed in my mind. I wanted to describe how Reverend Wright and Trinity were representative of America’s racial legacy, how institutions and individuals who embodied the values of faith and work, family and community, education and upward mobility, might still harbor bitterness toward—and feel betrayed by—a country they loved.
But I had to do more than that. I had to explain the other side, why white Americans might resist, or even resent, claims of injustice from Blacks—unhappy with any presumption that all whites were racist, or that their own fears and day-to-day struggles were less valid.
Unless we could recognize one another’s reality, I’d argue, we would never solve the problems America faced. And to hint at what such a recognition might mean, I would include a story that I had told in my first book but had never spoken about in a political speech—the pain and confusion I had experienced as a teenager, when Toot expressed her fear of a panhandler at a bus stop—not only because he had been aggressive but because he was Black. It hadn’t made me love her any less, for my grandmother was a part of me, just as, in a more indirect way, Reverend Wright was a part of me.
Just as they were both a part of the American family.
As I wrapped up the call with Favs, I remembered the one time Toot and Reverend Wright had met. It had been at my wedding, where Reverend Wright hugged my mother and grandmother and told them what a wonderful job they’d done raising me, how proud they should be. Toot had smiled in a way I rarely saw her smile, whispering to my mother how the pastor seemed quite charming—although she got a bit uncomfortable later, when during the ceremony Reverend Wright described the conjugal obligations of the newlyweds in terms far more vivid than anything Toot had ever heard in the Methodist church of her childhood.
Favs wrote the first draft, and for the next two nights, I stayed up late, editing and rewriting, finishing finally at three a.m. on the day I was to deliver it. In the holding room at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, Marty, Valerie, and Eric Whitaker, as well as Axe, Plouffe, and Gibbs, joined me and Michelle to wish me luck.
“How you feel?” Marty asked.
“Good,” I said, and it was true. “I figure if it works, we get through this. If it doesn’t, we probably lose. But either way, I’ll be saying what I believe.”
It worked. The networks carried the speech live, and within twenty-four hours, more than one million people had watched it on the internet—a record at the time. Reviews from pundits and editorial writers around the country were strong, and the effect on those in the hall—including Marty, who was photographed with a fat tear running down his cheek—indicated I had touched a chord.
But the most important review came that evening, when I placed a call to my grandmother in Hawaii.
“That was a very nice speech, Bar,” she told me. “I know it wasn’t easy.”
“You know I’m proud of you, don’t you?”
“I know,” I said. And it was only after I hung up that I allowed myself to cry.
THE SPEECH STANCHED the bleeding, but the Reverend Wright situation had taken a toll, particularly in Pennsylvania, where Democratic voters skewed older and more conservative. What kept us from an outright free fall was the hard work of our volunteers, an influx of money from small donors that helped us run ads for four weeks, and the willingness of some key state officials to vouch for me with their white working-class base. Chief among them was Bob Casey, the affable Irish Catholic son of the state’s former governor and one of my colleagues in the U.S. Senate. There wasn’t much upside for him—Hillary had broad support and was likely to win the state—and he hadn’t announced his endorsement when the Reverend Wright video hit the news. And yet, when I called Bob before my speech and offered to free him from his commitment to endorse me in light of the changed circumstances, he insisted on going forward.
“The Wright stuff’s not great,” he said in a bit of world-class understatement. “But I still feel like you’re the right guy.”
Bob then backed up his endorsement with decency and courage, campaigning by my side for more than a week, up and down Pennsylvania. Slowly, our poll numbers began ticking back up. Although we knew a victory was not in the cards, we figured a three- or four-point loss remained within reach.
And then, on cue, I made my biggest mistake of the campaign.
We’d flown to San Francisco for a big-dollar fundraiser, the kind of event that I generally dreaded, taking place in a fancy house and involving a long photo line, shiitake mushroom hors d’oeuvres, and wealthy donors, most of them terrific and generous one-on-one but collectively fitting every stereotype of the latte-drinking, Prius-driving West Coast liberal. We were running late into the evening when, during the obligatory question-and-answer session, someone asked me to explain why I thought so many working-class voters in Pennsylvania continued to vote against their interests and elect Republicans.
I’d been asked a form of this question a thousand times. Normally I had no problem describing the mix of economic anxiety, frustration with a seemingly unresponsive federal government, and legitimate differences on social issues like abortion that pushed voters into the Republican column. But whether because I was mentally and physically worn-out, or because I was just impatient, that’s not how my answer came across.
“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania,” I said, “and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not.” So far so good. Except I then added, “So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” I can provide the exact quote here, because in the audience that night was a freelance writer who was recording me. To her mind, my answer risked reinforcing negative stereotypes some Californians already had about working-class white voters and was therefore worth blogging about on Huffington Post. (It’s a decision I respect, by the way, though I wish she had talked to me about it before writing the story. This is what separates even the most liberal writers from their conservative counterparts—the willingness to flay politicians on their own side.) Even today, I want to take that sentence back and make a few simple edits. “So it’s not surprising then that they get frustrated,” I would say in my revised version, “and they look to the traditions and way of life that have been constants in their lives, whether it’s their faith, or hunting, or blue-collar work, or more traditional notions of family and community. And when Republicans tell them we Democrats despise these things—or when we give these folks reason to believe that we do—then the best policies in the world don’t matter to them.” That’s what I believed. It’s why I’d gotten votes from rural white voters in downstate Illinois and Iowa—because they sensed, even when we didn’t agree on an issue like abortion or immigration, that I fundamentally respected and cared about them. In many ways they were more familiar to me than the people I spoke to that night in San Francisco.
And so I still brood about this string of poorly chosen words. Not because it subjected us to a whole new round of bludgeoning at the hands of the press and the Clinton campaign—although that was no fun—but because the words ended up having such a long afterlife. The phrases “bitter” and “cling to guns or religion” were easily remembered, like a hook in a pop song, and would be cited deep into my presidency as evidence that I failed to understand or reach out to working-class white people, even when the positions I took and policies I championed consistently indicated the contrary.
Maybe I’m overstating the consequences of that night. Maybe things were bound to play out as they did, and what nags at me is the simple fact that I screwed up and don’t like being misunderstood. And maybe I’m bothered by the care and delicacy with which one must state the obvious: that it’s possible to understand and sympathize with the frustrations of white voters without denying the ease with which, throughout American history, politicians have redirected white frustration about their economic or social circumstances toward Black and brown people.
One thing’s for certain. The fallout from my gaffe that night provided my San Francisco questioner a better answer than any verbal response I might have given.
WE LIMPED THROUGH the remainder of the Pennsylvania campaign. There was the final debate in Philadelphia, a brutal affair consisting almost entirely of questions about flag pins, Wright, and “bitter.” Campaigning across the state, an invigorated Hillary touted her newfound appreciation for gun rights—Annie Oakley, I called her. We lost by nine points.
As had been true of the Ohio and Texas primaries, the results had little impact on our delegate lead. But there was no denying we’d taken a serious hit. Political insiders speculated that if the results of the next two big contests (Indiana, where Hillary had a solid lead, and North Carolina, where we were heavily favored) showed any further erosion in our support, superdelegates might start running scared, giving Hillary a realistic chance of wresting away the nomination.
Such talk grew appreciably louder several days later, when Jeremiah Wright decided to make a round of public appearances.
I had spoken to him only once after the video came out, to let him know how strongly I objected to what he’d said, but also to say that I wanted to shield him and the church from any further fallout. I don’t remember the details, just that the call was painful and brief, his questions full of hurt. Had any of these so-called reporters bothered to listen to the full sermons? he asked me. How could they selectively edit a lifetime of work down to two minutes? Listening to this proud man defend himself, I could only imagine his bewilderment. He’d been a sought-after speaker at America’s leading universities and seminaries, a pillar of his community, a luminary within not just Black churches but many white ones as well. And then, in what felt like an instant, he’d become a national object of fear and derision.
I felt genuine remorse, knowing this was all because of his association with me. He was collateral damage in a struggle he’d played no part in choosing. And yet I had no meaningful way to salve his wounds, and when I made the practical—if transparently self-interested—suggestion that he lie low for a time and let things blow over, I knew he felt it as just one more affront.
When it was announced that Reverend Wright would be giving an interview on Bill Moyers’s show and then a keynote address at a Detroit NAACP dinner and then an appearance before the National Press Club in Washington, all just ahead of the Indiana and North Carolina primaries in early May, I fully expected the worst. As it turned out, the first two appearances were notable mainly for their restraint, with the reverend coming across as more theologian and preacher than provocateur.
Then, at the National Press Club, the dam broke. Strafed by questions from the political press and flustered by their unwillingness to consider his answers, Reverend Wright unleashed a rant for the ages, gesticulating as if he were at a tent revival, eyes glistening with righteous fury. He pronounced America racist at its core. He suggested that the U.S. government was behind the AIDS epidemic. He praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The attacks on him were all racially motivated, and my denunciation of his earlier statements he dismissed as just “what politicians do” in order to get elected.
Or, as Marty would later put it, “he went full ghetto on their ass.”
I missed the live broadcast, but watching the replay, I knew what I had to do. The following afternoon, I found myself sitting on a bench in a high school locker room in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with Gibbs, staring at walls painted industrial green, the stale smell of football uniforms wafting about, waiting to deliver the press statement in which I would permanently sever my relationship with someone who had played a small but significant part in making me the man that I was; someone whose words had once served as a tagline for the speech that put me on the national stage; someone who, for all his now inexcusable blind spots, had never shown me anything but kindness and support.
“You okay?” Gibbs asked me.
“I know this can’t be easy.”
I nodded, touched by Gibbs’s concern. It wasn’t the norm for the two of us to acknowledge the pressure we were under; Gibbs was a warrior first, a prankster second, and on the road we usually opted for easy banter and profanity-laced humor. But perhaps because he’d grown up in Alabama, he understood better than most the complications of race, religion, and family, and how good and bad, love and hate, might be hopelessly tangled in the same heart.
“You know, I’m not sure Hillary’s wrong,” I told him.
“About me being damaged goods. I think about it sometimes, how this isn’t supposed to be about my own ambition. It’s supposed to be about making the country better,” I said. “If the American people can’t get past this Wright thing, and I stagger my way into the nomination, only to lose the general, what good have I done?” Gibbs put a hand on my shoulder. “You’re not going to lose,” he said. “People are looking for something real, and they’ve seen it in you. Let’s just get this shit behind us once and for all, so we can get back to reminding them why you should be president.” My brief statement, in which I unequivocally denounced and separated myself from Reverend Wright, served its purpose. If it didn’t fully allay voter concerns, it at least convinced reporters I had nothing further to say on the matter. Back on the campaign trail, we refocused our attention on healthcare, jobs, the war in Iraq, unsure of exactly how things would all play out.
Then we got some help from an unexpected quarter.
Throughout the spring of 2008, gas prices had been skyrocketing, mostly the result of various supply disruptions. Nothing got voters in a bad mood like high gas prices, and eager to get out ahead of the issue, John McCain had proposed a temporary suspension of the federal gas tax. Hillary immediately endorsed the idea, and the team asked me what I wanted to do.
I told them I was against it. While it had some superficial appeal, I knew it would drain an already depleted federal highway fund, leading to fewer infrastructure projects and jobs. Based on my experience as an Illinois state senator, where I’d once voted for a similar proposal, I was sure that consumers wouldn’t see much benefit. In fact, gas station owners were just as likely to keep prices high and boost their own profits as they were to pass the three-cents-a-gallon savings on to motorists.
Somewhat to my surprise, Plouffe and Axe agreed. In fact, Axe suggested that we highlight my opposition as more proof that I was willing to be straight with voters. The next day, I stood outside a gas station and made my argument before a gaggle of reporters, contrasting what I considered a serious, long-term energy policy with the typical Washington solution that both McCain and Hillary were proposing. It was a bit of political posturing, I said, designed to give the impression of action without actually solving the problem. Then, when both Hillary and McCain tried to paint me as out of touch and unconcerned with what a few hundred dollars might mean to America’s working families, we doubled down, shooting a TV ad on the issue and running it nonstop throughout Indiana and North Carolina.
It was one of our prouder moments, taking a tough position without the benefit of polls and in the face of pundits who thought we were crazy. We began seeing signs in the polling data that voters were buying our argument, though none of us at this point—not even Plouffe—fully trusted data anymore. Like a patient awaiting the results of a biopsy, the campaign lived with the possibility of a bad outcome.
The night before the primaries, we held an evening rally in Indianapolis featuring a performance by Stevie Wonder. After my stump speech, Valerie, Marty, Eric, and I parked ourselves in a small room, enjoying the music, some beer, and a cold chicken dinner.
We were in a reflective mood, reminiscing about the joys of Iowa, the heartbreak of New Hampshire, volunteers we’d met and new friends we’d made. Eventually someone brought up Reverend Wright’s appearance at the National Press Club, and Marty and Eric began taking turns acting out some of the more excruciating lines. Whether it was a sign of exhaustion, or anxious anticipation of the next day’s voting, or maybe just us recognizing the absurdity of our circumstances—four longtime friends, African Americans from the South Side of Chicago, eating chicken and listening to Stevie Wonder while waiting to see if one of us would become the Democratic nominee for president of the United States—we all started to laugh and couldn’t stop, the kind of deep, tear-inducing, falling-out-of-your-chair laughter that’s a kissing cousin to despair.
Then Axe walked in, wearing his most forlorn look.
“What’s the matter?” I said, still laughing and trying to catch my breath.
Axe shook his head. “I just got our overnight numbers…had us down twelve in Indiana. I just don’t think we’re going to make it.”
For a moment, everyone grew quiet. Then I said, “Axe, I love you, but you’re a downer. Either grab a drink and sit down with us or get the fuck out of here.”
Axe shrugged and left the room, taking his worries with him. I looked around at my friends and raised my beer in a toast.
“To the audacity of hope,” I said. Clinking our bottles, we started to laugh as hard as before.
TWENTY-FOUR HOURS LATER, in a Raleigh hotel room, Gibbs read me the election results. We’d won North Carolina by fourteen points. More surprisingly, we had pulled out an effective tie in Indiana, losing by just a few thousand votes. There would be six more contests before the official end of the Democratic primary season, and a few weeks would pass before Hillary’s belated but gracious concession speech and endorsement, but the results that night told us that the race was basically over.
I would be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.
In my speech that night, I began the pivot to the general election, knowing there wasn’t a minute to waste, telling our audience that I was confident that Democrats would unite to prevent John McCain from continuing the legacy of George W. Bush. I spent some time talking to Axe about potential running mates and then phoned Toot to tell her the news. (“It really is something, Bar,” she said.) Well past midnight, I called Plouffe back at our Chicago headquarters, and the two of us went over what we needed to do to get ready for the convention, less than three months away.
Lying in bed later, unable to sleep, I took a silent inventory. I thought about Michelle, who had put up with my absences, held down the home front, and overridden her reticence about politics to become effective and fearless on the stump. I thought about my daughters, as lively and cuddly and engaging as ever, even when I didn’t see them for a week. I thought about the skill and focus of Axe and Plouffe and the rest of my senior team, how they never gave any indication of doing what they did for money or power, and how in the face of unrelenting pressure they’d proven loyal not just to me and to one another but to the idea of making America better. I thought about friends like Valerie, Marty, and Eric, who’d shared my joys and eased my burdens along every step, asking nothing in return. And I thought about the young organizers and volunteers who’d braved bad weather, skeptical voters, and their candidate’s missteps without wavering.
I had asked something hard of the American people—to place their faith in a young and untested newcomer; not just a Black man, but someone whose very name evoked a life story that seemed unfamiliar. Repeatedly I’d given them cause not to support me. There’d been uneven debate performances, unconventional positions, clumsy gaffes, and a pastor who’d cursed the United States of America. And I’d faced an opponent who’d proven both her readiness and her mettle.
Despite all that, they’d given me a chance. Through the noise and chatter of the political circus, they’d heard my call for something different. Even if I hadn’t always been at my best, they’d divined what was best in me: the voice insisting that for all our differences, we remained bound as one people, and that, together, men and women of goodwill could find a way to a better future.
I promised myself I would not let them down.
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