The Black Kennedy: But does anyone know the real Barack Obama?
By PETER HITCHENS
Last updated at 20:46 02 February 2008
Having fallen - twice - for the Southern-fried charm of Bill Clinton and - twice - for the corny, fake patriotism of George W. Bush, the people of the great republic are now overpowered by the beauty and sweetness of Barack Obama, a glimmering TV star with the power to make them feel at ease with themselves, and about whom they know only what he wants them to know.
I make no predictions about the huge political contest that will take place across much of the United States on Tuesday, with 22 states voting in a national dress rehearsal for the real thing in November. Nobody really knows what will happen.
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But I think Mr Obama will still be in the fight, with a more than reasonable chance of winning the Democratic nomination and then the presidency.
Not only has he been endorsed by the black talk-show megastar Oprah Winfrey, famous for leaping on to the biggest bandwagon of the day, he has just collected the priceless blessing of the Kennedys, which is worth millions of votes.
The Last Brother, Teddy, has stirred his lardy bulk on Obama's behalf. And, for those who still find Teddy a bit repellent, the same endorsement has come from JFK's daughter Caroline.
This was not just a great bonus for Obama. It was a cruel loss to his sole rival, Hillary Clinton, for her husband once had the Kennedy seal of approval and this action strips it from him and from her.
Bill, once proclaimed by the modish black author Toni Morrison as "the first black president", has now had the medal ripped from his chest by the person who pinned it on. Ms Morrison is backing Obama.
It seems awfully possible that, having acted patiently as the world's first militant feminist doormat for two decades, Hillary will not now get the reward she thought would be hers at last. Bill, who keeps making crassly offensive remarks about Obama, has been told to shut up.
It's true the Republicans might win, but they hate and mistrust each other so much after the Bush disaster that it seems remote.
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So who really is this Obama who can reduce knees and brains to jelly, whose books are read with reverence by normally pungent critics, and who, we are told, is the new JFK? I travelled to his home city, Chicago, to see if I could find out.
I recalled how we had all been fooled in the early Clinton years by the twaddle about the "Man from Hope" - a legend in which Bill had grown up among poor, denim-clad folks in a small country town.
Years later, when someone bothered to check, it turned out Bill had barely been in Hope at all but had instead been raised in great comfort in Hot Springs, Al Capone's favourite holiday resort and still full of good-time girls, big Chevrolets and sleaze.
With Obama the problem is a little different, though Capone still comes into it.
He has written his own sunlit, often rather purple account of his life, with just enough revelation to persuade us that we know all we need to know.
The book, Dreams From My Father, is a much-praised bestseller (though I suspect many of those who praised it didn't stick it out to the end).
It contains a confession of drug-taking, carefully limited - marijuana and cocaine but no heroin. It is sometimes moving but often exasperating.
Obama has black skin and was deserted by his father at the age of two. His mother seems to have been a little vague about life.
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But his devoted grandparents, especially his hard-working grandmother, saw to it that young Barry, as he was then known, got a private education. This lifted him way above the miseries of most black Americans.
Under the circumstances, there may be a little too much in the memoirs about how tough it was to be black.
Crucially, the story stops just where things get interesting - when Obama first entered politics in Chicago, that mythical city of gangsterism, corruption and oneparty-state politics. He did this as an Illinois State Senator, representing a largely black and liberal section of Capone's hometown.
Now, Obama has the devil's luck, which among other things means he has a boyish smile that disarms suspicion or hostility at 50 paces.
But he is no child, and no innocent. Despite a childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, Obama knows Chicago well - and from underneath, too.
He threw over a good corporate job in New York to toil in the dismal South Side as a "community organiser", getting up campaigns about asbestos in council flats but also getting to know this place's grimy, snaggled web of power - churches, property developers, professional politicians, fixers and money men.
He also revealed that he was the sort of person who goes into a revolving door behind you and then comes out of it in front of you. And, of course, he is a lawyer who knows the rules all too well.
As one veteran of Chicago politics who very much did not want to be named said to me: "Thank God for Louisiana - their politics are even dirtier than ours."
He clearly remembered Obama's first steps on his political career. This involved merciless cunning.
Somehow, all of Obama's challengers made a mess of their nomination papers. They were all disqualified. Only Obama's papers, miraculously, were perfect. So he won the Democratic nomination, which in this part of the world means he won the seat.
The insider recalled: "I thought he was a very talented young man. He was smart, he was willing, he was principled and he worked hard.
"He went to Springfield [the Illinois state capital] and did not become part of the more tawdry aspects of the culture down there - alcohol and women.
But Obama quickly got another reputation. "He was always in the bathroom for the really tough votes. It was not courageous."
The source explained this simply. Barack Obama knew even then that he could one day live in the White House.
"I think he understood long ago that the future was limitless for him. He made decisions in his very early political life that would enable him to be a candidate who would have very broad appeal."
These not-very-helpful remarks come from a black member of Obama's own party. What about his opponents?
One who remembers him well is Illinois State Senator Bill Brady, a white conservative Republican. The two arrived in Springfield together. In the evenings, they would gather for a friendly card game.
"There was a group of us who used to play poker," said Brady. "He was a conservative player. I said to him, 'If you were half as conservative with the taxpayers' dollars as you are at the poker table, the people of Illinois would be a lot better off.'
"We were mostly playing for beers and giggles but he took it as seriously as anybody. I recall him never getting too far down."
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Brady also recalled a tendency to have it both ways and to dodge difficult votes that might hurt him later in life: "I saw great ambition in him, no question. He had an agenda."
As for his voting performance, Brady agreed Obama liked sitting on the fence. He is recalled for taking full advantage of an Illinois rule that lets you vote "present" if you don't want to commit yourself.
Brady recalled: "I learned very quickly that the 'present' vote, where the button you press is very appropriately coloured yellow, is the chicken's way out."
But that did not mean Obama lacked convictions. On the contrary, when it suited him he would vote as far Left as he could. "No one was further Left. He would do things that were unrealistic to prove he was Left.
"He was not far Left for political benefit but because he was a true believer.
"But these would be on broad-brush issues - unlike, say, detailed abortion laws - where it was unlikely to be held against him. I have never heard anyone say so little about detailed policies . . . He has moderated his tones, but I don't think he has moderated his beliefs," said Brady.
Both these politicians also mentioned Obama's money problems. These were big.
Money for TV campaigns is the original sin of US politics. No one can get anywhere without it.
And, as recounted in a refreshingly ungushing biography by David Mendell, Obama was seriously short of cash. When he went to the Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles in 2000 he couldn't hire a car to get around because his credit card was maxed out.
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About that time, his amazing luck seemed to fail him and an attempt to run for the US House of Representatives collapsed, largely for lack of funds.
It was, it turned out, a good thing. Four years later he was free to run for the US Senate, a far better route to the prize he seeks.
When that came around, good fortune swept him to Capitol Hill so sweetly that he hardly had to open his mouth or spend any of the millions of dollars he had finally managed to raise.
It was almost like the film The Omen. Anybody who got in his way just melted away or met a nasty end.
But this time nobody could possibly blame him, though the mysterious figure of his feared spin-doctor David Axelrod lurks in the background here, and some suspect his hand in at least some of Obama's luck.
The first slice of good fortune was that the seat was empty - the incumbent suddenly retired, citing "family issues".
The former Democratic holder of the seat, prominent black politician Carol Moseley Braun, could have had it for the asking - and Obama would not have dared challenge her - but she ruled herself out.
That still left a couple of major Democratic challengers. But Obama unexpectedly won union support and wiped out one of them.
The second, Blair Hull, was a tougher proposition until details of his divorce papers were unsealed, revealing his wife's accusations of abuse, which virtually destroyed him.
Obama won the Democratic nomination.
To win election to the Senate, Obama would have had a major battle against Republican Jack Ryan. But then Ryan's divorce papers were also unsealed, revealing that his wife Jeri - an actress famous for her tight costumes in Star Trek: Voyager - had accused him of pressuring her to have sex in public in kinky clubs.
Ryan denied it, but that was the end of him.
The Republicans pretty much gave up the struggle at this stage, picking a candidate who had no connections with Illinois. Obama couldn't lose.
By this time, he had learned how to raise money, persuading Hyatt hotel magnate Penny Pritzker he was worth backing, a boost that immediately brought in many more wealthy liberals flapping their chequebooks at the charming young man.
But he had also got mixed up with the Syrian-American property magnate and alleged "slumlord" Tony Rezko, who, as I write, languishes a few hundred yards from me in a Chicago jail, having had his bail revoked on serious fraud charges.
The Rezkos had known Obama since 1990 and even held a fundraising party for him at their mansion in the wealthy suburb of Wilmette.
Obama bought a new home, a big Edwardian-era detached house in fashionable Kenwood, soon after he won his Senate seat in 2004.
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The former owner apparently wasn't willing to sell the house without a large chunk of land next to it, which Obama seemingly couldn't afford. The house cost $1.65 million and the land $625,000.
Rezko's wife Rita bought the vacant land. Six months later, she sold Obama a slice of it for $104,500 so that he could extend his garden.
By that time, Tony Rezko was already under federal investigation. Worse, letters have since come to light in which Obama lobbied city officials on Rezko's behalf.
The Clintons don't dare make too much of this Obama skeleton because people will remind them of their own odd dealings with property companies and commodity traders.
But one Chicago Democratic professional told me: "I cannot believe Obama got so beholden to that man just to buy a big house."
Obama now says he agrees, describing the transaction as "boneheaded". But it cannot now be undone.
It suggests very bad judgment, as do strong, persistent suggestions that Obama also accepted quite small contributions from extreme Left-wing veterans of the terrorist Weather Underground now living in Chicago.
His list of contributions shows one for $200 from a certain William Ayers. Can this possibly be the same William Ayers, now a Chicago professor, who used to plant bombs in the Seventies and has said: "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough"? His partner, Bernardine Dohrn, once "declared war" on the US government.
It wouldn't be surprising. Those (like me) who know the Left-wing codes notice things about Obama that suggest he is far more radical than he would like us to know.
His famous speech against the Iraq War was timely and brave, but few recall that it contained a dumb Marxoid conspiracy theory passage claiming the war was "an attempt to distract us" from domestic problems.
His memoirs give friendly mentions to figures such as Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X, heroes of the wild Left in the Sixties.
His mother and father met on a Russian-language course at a time when the Russian language was inextricably mixed up with communism.
And his spin-doctor David Axelrod, a fabled master of the black arts, is a New York Left-winger and child of the Left-wing movement.
Then there is the Trinity United Church of Christ, the large and prosperous tabernacle where Obama, raised partly as a Muslim, embraced Christianity.
This is no ordinary church and it is not an ordinary black church either.
Religion in America is still divided by an apartheid more rigid than anything that ever existed in South Africa. But it is a voluntary apartheid, at least in one direction, and on several visits to black American churches I have always found a moving, kind welcome - as I did at Trinity, which lies in Chicago's deep south, at the end of a train line where white passengers are a rarity.
Trinity says it is "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian". And so it is. A male choir in smart suits sings and sways and on the night I visited, a charismatic preacher, Pastor Otis Moss III, expounded from Exodus with wit and power.
My neighbours in the upholstered pews were younger and less formally dressed than some black congregations, and spent much of the time embracing me, helping me find my place and gripping me by the hand. This is not a haunt of anti-white racialism.
But it is pretty radical.
The parish magazine is full of fierce denunciations of the American government's failure to fight AIDS. A large chunk of the sermon was devoted to urging black Americans not to allow themselves to be relegated to second-class citizenship.
The retiring Senior Pastor, Jeremiah Wright (who brought Obama to Christianity), is famous for preaching in African robes. He is also noted for his Church's "disavowal of the pursuit of middle-classness" which sets it apart from many black churches.
Those who achieved success in the American mainstream, Trinity urged, should avoid the "psychological entrapment of black middle-classness that hypnotises the successful brother or sister into believing that they are better than the rest and teaches them to think in terms of we or they instead of us!"
Obama has been sneered at by black radicals such as the former Black Panther Bobby Rush for not being "black enough".
They whisper that he talks and walks like a white man. By embracing the "unashamedly black" Trinity church and by making much of his Kenyan roots, he fights off this attack and keeps connections in the black part of town.
But his home is far from Trinity, in Chicago's equivalent of Islington, an agreeable quarter of older houses near the university, one of the rare places where the dream of racial integration comes true.
In Starbucks, white businesswomen sit near black customers, an unusual sight in America.
Nearby a mural celebrates the successes of black Americans. No doubt Obama's face will soon join those of Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali.
At the Hyde Park Hair salon, Zariff (who insists he has just one name) enjoys growing celebrity as the man who cuts Obama's hair.
He realised his client was famous only when he started appearing on TV: "I knew from talking to him that he was a bright guy but we never discussed politics. He was always interested in me and what I was doing rather than the other way round."
Zariff reveals that Obama really needs to have his hair cut every week to maintain that stylish look - and that he still makes his own appointments.
Like everyone I meet in the area, Zariff is immensely proud to have this global star just walking around the neighbourhood.
When Obama comes into the shop, people goggle through the windows as if it were an aquarium.
You can see here the raw stardom, plus what is obviously a genuine niceness and a graceful writing and speaking style, that has carried this man so far.
You can also see how good it would make America, black and white, feel about itself if it chose a black man to sit in the White House, so wiping away at least some of the long shame, resentment and fear that slavery - and what followed - have caused here.
But symbolic victories don't make much difference in the real world. America is not electing a national father figure or good neighbour, but the mighty chief executive of a world power.
When Obama first became famous, the perceptive Peggy Noonan (once Ronald Reagan's speechwriter) issued a warning.
She described America's last decade as "the long freakout", during which parties chose presidential candidates because they could win, on appearance rather than reality.
The result was repeated pain. Clinton appalled half the country, George W. Bush enraged the other half.
Obama's "sudden rise and wild popularity", she said, "seem more symptom than solution".
And as one veteran of Chicago black politics said to me wistfully: "He is a smart, talented and handsome person, but I am not sure which of those matters most to the American people."
That is not what he really meant. He knew perfectly well that it was the camera's power to make Obama shimmer and glow that makes him so important.
And yet a better person might look terrible and sound worse.
How long can the great democracies survive in the face of television's ability to make some of us look like gods when we are not?
Those who now laud him will probably be flinging abuse at him within two years of his election, and heaven knows how he will be able to continue to be the good family man he is, or walk round to the Hyde Park Hair salon for a trim and a chat with Zariff.
By becoming President he will instantly cease to be what everyone wants him to be.
But by then, of course, it will be too late.
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