The climax of Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” occurs in rural Kenya when the author sits between the graves of his father and his grandfather and weeps. Obama, then in his late twenties, hardly knew his father and never met his grandfather, but in the course of writing the book he had learned their stories in devastating detail. Both were proud, ambitious men who travelled far from the Luo-speaking villages where they grew up—indeed, Obama’s grandmother still has her son’s Harvard diploma hanging in her house nearby. Their respective struggles in the world ended painfully, in bitter loneliness. Beside their graves, Obama, a middle-class American, both mourns and, for the first time, understands his African forebears.
People in Illinois seem largely unaware of Obama’s long, annealing trip into their midst, although they often remark on his unusual calm. Now forty-two and a state senator, Obama emerged, in March, from a raucous primary as the Democratic nominee for the United States Senate. In a seven-person field, he received a remarkable fifty-three per cent of the vote—he even won the “collar” counties around Chicago, communities that supposedly would never support a black candidate. And everyone recalls that, as the votes were being tallied at his headquarters on Election Night, he seemed to be the least agitated person in the place.
Obama’s Republican opponent in November will be Jack Ryan, a wealthy political neophyte. The seat they are competing for is now held by a Republican, Peter Fitzgerald, who is retiring. An Obama victory thus would move the Senate Democrats, at present outnumbered fifty-one to forty-eight, one seat closer to a majority. It also would make Obama only the third African-American to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction.
On a raw, rainy late-April day in Springfield, the state capital, Obama, who represents a district on Chicago’s South Side, ducked out of the statehouse for a meeting with labor leaders from southern Illinois at an A.F.L.-C.I.O. building down the street. “This is a kiss-and-make-up session,” he told me as we entered a ground-floor conference room—the state A.F.L.-C.I.O. had supported one of his opponents in the Democratic primary. Twenty-five white males, in windbreakers and golf shirts, sat around the room. They represented the building trades—the painters’ union, the carpenters.
Obama, lanky and dapper in a dark suit, his shoulders almost strangely relaxed, seemed to know most of the men there. He broke the ice with a joke at the expense of Ed Smith, a huge, tough-looking delegate from Cairo. Obama had met Smith’s mother on a recent downstate swing and had discovered that “she’s the one who really calls the shots there.” Smith laughed, and the other delegates said they wanted her phone number. Then Obama gave a short, blunt, pro-labor speech. The men eyed him carefully. Heads began nodding slowly, jaws set, as he drove his points home: “two hundred thousand jobs lost in Illinois under Bush; overtime rights under threat for eight million workers nationally; the right to organize being eroded.” Then he said, “I need your help,” and took questions.
The questions were terse, specific, well informed. They dealt with federal highway funding, non-union companies coming in from out of state on big contracts, the implications of the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. Obama listened closely, and his answers were fluent and dauntingly knowledgeable, but he kept his language colloquial. “It’s not enough just to vote right,” he said. “You gotta advocate. You gotta reframe the debate, use informal power. A lot of these bills coming up now are lose-lose for Democrats.”
“That’s right,” somebody said.
“I have a reputation as this abstract guy talking about civil rights,” Obama went on. “But anybody who knows my state legislative district knows I fight for our share of resources. And I will fight for Illinois highway dollars.”
He mostly told the union men what they wanted to hear. Then he said, “There’s nobody in this room who doesn’t believe in free trade,” which provoked a small recoil. These men were ardent protectionists. A little later, he said, with conviction, “I want India and China to succeed”—a sentiment not much heard in the outsourcing-battered heartland. He went on, however, to criticize Washington and Wall Street for not looking after American workers.
Later, I asked him if he wasn’t waving a red flag in front of labor by talking about free trade. “Look, those guys are all wearing Nike shoes and buying Pioneer stereos,” he said. “They don’t want the borders closed. They just don’t want their communities destroyed.”
Back at the statehouse, Obama, who is chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, rushed from meeting to floor vote to committee room. Everybody seemed to want a word with him. Terry Link, the senate majority whip, complained about Obama’s successes in a long-running poker game. “I’m putting his kids through college,” Link said. Kirk Dillard, a leading Republican senator from the Chicago suburbs, looked chagrined when I asked him about Obama. “I knew from the day he walked into this chamber that he was destined for great things,” he said. “In Republican circles, we’ve always feared that Barack would become a rock star of American politics.” Still, Dillard was gracious. “Obama is an extraordinary man,” he said. “His intellect, his charisma. He’s to the left of me on gun control, abortion. But he can really work with Republicans.” Dillard and Obama have co-sponsored many bills. Though Dillard was unwilling to concede the general election to Obama, he described Illinois as “a major player in recognizing African-Americans. We are proudly the state that produced Abraham Lincoln.”
Obama was actually born in Hawaii. His father, also named Barack Obama, was a foreign student there. His mother, Ann, was white, and only eighteen when she married his father. She and her parents, originally from Kansas, had moved to Honolulu. When her husband left for Harvard, she and their toddler stayed behind—there was no money in his scholarship for them to go East—and the father ultimately returned alone to Kenya, where he worked as a government economist. Barack’s mother’s second marriage, to an Indonesian oil manager, occasioned a move to Jakarta, when Barack was six. He lived there for four years, and in his book he writes about his time in Indonesia as simultaneously lush and a harrowing exposure to tropical poverty—more harrowing, perhaps, for his mother than for the little boy who barely remembered any other life. Then Barack returned to Hawaii, where he was brought up largely by his grandparents. The family lived in a small apartment—Barack’s grandfather was a furniture salesman and, later, an unsuccessful insurance agent; his grandmother worked in a bank—but Barack managed to get into Punahou School, Hawaii’s top prep academy. His mother always said that he got his brains from his father, and he was raised on tales of his father’s brilliance. The great man wrote to them regularly, but, though he travelled around the world on official business for Kenya, he visited only once, when Barack was ten.
He was a black child, by American lights, but his mother and his grandparents—the only family he knew—were “white folks,” and his confusion was acute. In “Dreams from My Father,” Obama describes how, as a teen-ager, he tried marijuana and cocaine. (“I guess you’d have to say I wasn’t a politician when I wrote the book,” he told me. “I wanted to show how and why some kids, maybe especially young black men, flirt with danger and self-destruction.”) He went to Columbia University, and liked New York, but he found the city’s racial tension inescapable. It “flowed freely,” he wrote in his memoir—“not just out on the streets but in the stalls of Columbia’s bathrooms as well, where, no matter how many times the administration tried to paint them over, the walls remained scratched with blunt correspondence between niggers and kikes. It was as if all middle ground had collapsed.”
Fired with political idealism, he decided to become a community organizer. He wrote to organizations all over the United States, and finally got one reply, from Chicago. He moved there, going to work for a tiny, church-based group that was trying to help residents of poor South Side neighborhoods cope with a wave of plant closings. It was a humbling, exhausting, and only rarely edifying job; Obama stuck with it for three years. “Chicago” is the longest section of his memoir, and in many ways the bleakest, for it tunnels deep into the bedrock of inner-city despair and inadequate politics and black selfdestruction. It is also an unsentimental celebration of the city, which has a rich lode of brash, bluesy charm, of course, but also was a place for a serious, talented, too cosmopolitan young African-American to sink some roots. There is a lovely scene describing a black barbershop in Hyde Park that Obama wandered into soon after arriving in the city. He still gets his hair cut there, twenty years later.
Obama left organizing to attend Harvard Law School, and in 1990 he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. Abner Mikva, a five-term congressman from Illinois who was at that time Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit, tried to recruit Obama as a clerk, a position considered a stepping stone to clerking on the Supreme Court, but Obama turned him down. “He could have gone to the most opulent of law firms,” David Axelrod, a longtime friend who is now Obama’s media adviser, said. “After Harvard, Obama could have done anything he wanted.” What he wanted was to practice civil-rights law in Chicago, and he did, representing victims of housing and employment discrimination and working on voting-rights legislation for a small public-interest firm. He also began teaching at the University of Chicago Law School, although he declined to pursue a tenure-track post, hoping to save time for politics. And when he got the chance to run for the state senate in his district, which included both Hyde Park—the home of the university—and some of the poorest ghettos on the South Side, he jumped at it.
"People are whupped,” Obama told me. “I’m whupped. My wife is whupped. Unless it’s your job to be curious, who really has the time to sit and ask questions and explore issues?”
He didn’t look whupped. Still loose and alert after a long day, Obama was sipping iced tea in a busy, Caribbean-themed restaurant in a small shopping center in Hyde Park. But he had already spent sixteen months running for the Senate—and seven years as a state senator—and he could ruefully sympathize with the political apathy of the average beleaguered citizen. Tonight, he had turned his cell phone off and dismissed his aides; he just wanted to get home for the bedtimes of his daughters, who are two and five. His wife, Michelle, is also a lawyer, and their daily lives are the familiar three-ring American family circus—even without the steroidal additive of Barack’s political career. Yet Barack had been reluctant to take even a semester off from teaching while campaigning, partly because he needs the income. To survive this campaign financially, the Obamas will take out a second mortgage on their apartment.
“Teaching keeps you sharp,” Obama said. “The great thing about teaching constitutional law”—his subject—“is that all the tough questions land in your lap: abortion, gay rights, affirmative action. And you need to be able to argue both sides. I have to be able to argue the other side as well as Scalia does. I think that’s good for one’s politics.”
Every few minutes, our conversation was interrupted by passersby congratulating Obama on his primary victory. The people who stopped to shake his hand were black and white, old and young, professors and car mechanics. Some Obama obviously knew. Others seemed to be strangers. He was affable with everyone, smiling warmly, but in exchanges that lasted more than a few seconds it was possible to see him slipping subtly into the idiom of his interlocutor—the blushing, polysyllabic grad student, the hefty black church-pillar lady, the hip-hop autoshop guy. Black activists sometimes say that African-American kids need to become “bi-dialectic”—to speak both black English and standard English—to succeed. Obama, the biracial kid from Hawaii, speaks a full range of American vernaculars.
After each interruption, he would resume. Americans aren’t simply too tired to think about politics, he said; they’re being deliberately turned off. “If you make political discourse sufficiently negative, more people will become cynical and stop paying attention. That leaves more space for special interests to pursue their agendas, and that’s how we end up with drug companies making drug policy, energy companies making energy policy, and multinationals making trade policy.”
To an outsider with only the broadest idea of Chicago politics, Obama’s victory in the Democratic primary actually looked like a victory over cynicism. He had not slimed his opponents. Nor was he the candidate of the fabled local machine—that was Dan Hynes, the state’s comptroller, who comes from a powerful Illinois political family. Precinct captains and party organizations and old-line labor unions (most of the Teamsters, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.) had supported Hynes. The machine, however, is an outdated conceit. “A few creaky parts still work,” David Axelrod told me. “They can still elect a few water commissioners or sub-circuit-level judges. But no precinct captain can tell people how to vote for President or the Senate.”
Obama had to overtake not only Hynes but also a former securities trader named Blair Hull, who spent twenty-nine million dollars on his campaign and, as a result, led in the polls until the closing weeks. Hull’s popularity vanished after lurid details of his divorce surfaced, including accusations that he had struck his ex-wife. Obama, meanwhile, attracted legions of fervent volunteers. “People call it drinking the juice,” Dan Shoman, the political director of Obama’s campaign, said. “People start drinking the Obama juice. You can’t find enough for them to do.”
Obama’s core support in the primary came from African-Americans, most of them in Chicago, and from “lakefront liberals”—residents of the city’s swankier boroughs, most of them white professionals. Among the latter, many had been drawn initially by Obama’s early opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Apparently, few who heard a speech that he gave at an antiwar rally in downtown Chicago in the fall of 2002—months before he announced for the Senate—forgot it. “It was the best antiwar speech I have ever heard, bar none,” a lifelong Democratic activist, now in her late sixties, told me.
I asked Obama about that speech.
“I noticed that a lot of people at that rally were wearing buttons saying, ‘War Is Not an Option,’ ” he said. “And I thought, I don’t agree with that. Sometimes war is an option. The Civil War was worth fighting. World War Two. So I got up and said that, among other things.” What he said, among other things, was “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” Invading and occupying Iraq, he said, would be “a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”
Abner Mikva told me, “Barack is the most unique political talent I’ve run into in more than fifty years. I haven’t been this excited about a candidate since Adlai Stevenson first got me into politics.” As an illustration of Obama’s gifts, Mikva said, “I’ve seen him speak on Israel in front of a Jewish audience—a very, very tough crowd. And he was incredibly thoughtful, saying, basically, ‘There are a lot of people in that area, with lots of different interests and points of view, and they all have to be taken into consideration, and we can’t just rally around Sharon,’ and so on. And the crowd was just wowed. I’ve fluffed that question so many times myself—and I’m Jewish. Kerry fluffed it on ‘Meet the Press’ the other day. But Barack managed to make those people who disagreed with him feel comfortable with the disagreement.”
This is a regular theme with Obama: supporters who disagree with him. The two big Chicago daily papers both endorsed him enthusiastically in the primary, even though they disagreed with him on major issues—his opposition to the war in Iraq and, in the case of the Tribune, his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
This seems to be a pattern in Illinois. Paul Simon was the most respected political figure in the state for decades. He was a liberal Democrat who came from a conservative downstate region where his name remains political gold. The universal explanation for Simon’s near-universal popularity is “integrity,” and this spring I heard the word a lot from people discussing Obama. It refers to consistency and incorruptibility, but also to a refusal to resort to smear politics. The cultural and political distance between Chicago’s South Side and southern Illinois is vast—Cairo is closer to Little Rock than it is to Chicago, “and not just geographically,” as Obama likes to say. Voters in such disparate places will never agree on affirmative action, gun control, or many other issues that Obama has taken clear positions on. And yet, in a state with a population that is only fifteen per cent African-American, he needs to campaign hard downstate, far from his base, making his pitch on economic issues and personal appeal.
Obama’s ease in front of predominantly white crowds—or, for that matter, all-white crowds—is a source of wonderment in Illinois. I’ve seen it, and it looks so effortless that it doesn’t seem remarkable. The sight of big white corn farmers proudly wearing big blue “obama” buttons and lining up to shake his hand is, I must say, slightly more striking.
In a packed community center near Decatur, in central Illinois, Obama was addressing a crowd of a couple of hundred. Ryan Marucco, the president of the Young Democrats of Macon County, told me,“I just never heard anybody speak like him before.” Marucco, apple-cheeked and short-haired, wore a necktie with an American Eagle on it. “It’s like he’s talking to you, and not to a crowd.”
Obama began by saying, as he often does, that people were always getting his name wrong, calling him “Alabama” or “Yo Mama.” The crowd roared with laughter. In Swahili, he said, Barack means “blessing.” Then he took the question of racial difference head on, declaring, “We have shared values, values that aren’t black or white or Hispanic—values that are American, and Democratic.”
He went on, “People are always asking me, ‘Why, with these fancy degrees and a professorship, would you want to go into something dirty and nasty like politics?’ And my answer is ‘We’ve got too much cynicism in this country, and we’re all in this together, and government expresses that.’ ”
Two big factories in Decatur had closed in recent years, and thousands of jobs were lost. Obama told the crowd, “We have an Administration that believes that the government’s role is to protect the powerful from the powerless.” The little community center rang with angry acclamation. This situation could be changed, Obama said. “Take a leap of faith with me.”
Later, rolling through the flatlands of central Illinois in a leased S.U.V., Obama offered an explanation of his ability to connect with white rural and small-town voters. “I know those people,” he said. “Those are my grandparents. The food they serve is the food my grandparents served when I was growing up. Their manners, their sensibility, their sense of right and wrong—it’s all totally familiar to me.”
In an essay in The New Republic, Noam Scheiber argues that, apart from charisma, what makes Obama such a strong candidate outside the black community is precisely his exotic (and unthreatening) background—everything that serves to differentiate him from what white voters might see as stereotypically African-American.
In his brief career, Obama has probably faced more political strife from within the black community than from without. Chicago’s South Side has been a black-majority congressional district for many generations, and in 1992, when Obama returned from law school, he led a registration drive that put a hundred and fifty thousand new voters on the rolls, helping Bill Clinton carry Illinois. But when Obama started running for office he was a newcomer, not deeply connected. He wasn’t “black enough,” with his light skin and fancy education and big law-school job at the University of Chicago. He hadn’t paid his dues.
These reservations came to the fore in 2000, when Obama made an ill-advised run for Congress. The incumbent, Bobby Rush, was a former Black Panther who had been in office four terms. Obama thought he was a lacklustre representative. Still, Rush beat him soundly in the primary. On Election Day, Obama recalls, people going to the polls told him he seemed like a nice fellow, with some good ideas. “But Bobby ain’t done nothing wrong,” they said.
More recently, Emil Jones, Jr., the president of the state senate and a senior figure in Illinois black politics, has heard other members of the black caucus in Springfield complain that he has been favoring Obama, giving him credit for their legislative work in order to build up his protégé’s résumé. Jones scoffed at the complaints when we talked. (“Crabs in a barrel.”) Obama, he said, was an extremely unusual politician, able to work with all sorts of people, even white conservatives. It made him the obvious leader on important bipartisan legislation. Jones didn’t deny having a role in helping Obama succeed: “You can have a dynamic running back, but if he can’t get out of the backfield he can’t show what he can do.”
Jones then did a strange thing. He is an older man, very dark-skinned, gruff, and given to referring to politics as “this business.” But he got up, walked around from behind his desk, held out his arms, and peered into the middle distance, grinning unself-consciously. We were in a gray-walled office on the sixteenth floor of a building in downtown Chicago. Jones sighed happily. “One day, I want to retire, and sit back and watch him on the national scene.”
In Springfield, Obama led a campaign for death-penalty reforms that resulted in unprecedented legislation, requiring the police to videotape all interrogations in cases involving capital crimes. Jan Schakowsky, a liberal Democratic congresswoman who represents Evanston and parts of north Chicago, told me that she thought the reforms were terrific but that, statewide, such things would never be popular, and that Obama was doing himself no favors politically by championing them. Similarly, Obama recently co-sponsored landmark legislation to curb racial profiling—not a popular issue outside minority communities, and not, therefore, a smart move for a man running for the U.S. Senate.
Obama seems to be a true legislation nerd. When he talks about the maneuvering it took to line up the state’s prosecutors behind the videotape bill, and to keep the police associations neutral, his eyes narrow in pleasure. “You can’t always come up with the optimal solution, but you can usually come up with a better solution,” he said over lunch one afternoon. “A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence.” He nodded. Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” was playing in the background. “Or a good piece of music,” he said. “Everybody can recognize it. They say, ‘Huh. It works. It makes sense.’ That doesn’t happen too often, of course, but it happens.”
Obama married into a black working-class South Side family, and he clearly feels at home there. “We tease,” his wife, Michelle, said. “He had this mixed-up, international childhood, while I was Chicago all the way. Big family. My grandmother lived five blocks away. Ozzie and Harriet, Barack says. Really, though, we’re both Midwesterners. Underneath it all, he’s very Kansas, because of his grandparents and his mom. Our families get along great.”
I asked Michelle about her childhood. “I was just a typical South Side little black girl,” she said. “Not a whole lot of money. Going to the circus once a year was a big deal. Getting pizza on Friday was a treat. Summers were long and fun.” Michelle’s father was a city worker, her grandfather a handyman. “They were bright, articulate, well-read men,” she says. “If they’d been white, they would have been the heads of banks.”
Michelle, who is tall and elegant and frank, learned something about who became heads of banks after she finished public high school with top marks and followed her brother, Craig, to Princeton. “I enjoyed it there,” she said. “I liked the safety and quiet. It helped having an older brother who was a basketball star.” (Craig Robinson is the fourth-leading scorer in Princeton history.) “Of course, it was different, being black, but I found a black support base for myself. It was also different not being filthy rich.” She laughed. “At the end of the year, these limos would come to get kids, and me and my brother would be carrying our cardboard boxes down to the train station. But it helped my confidence, being able to succeed there. I actually knew lots of kids in high school who could have competed there, academically. You just had to get in. So much of getting ahead in this world is access, networking.”
Michelle went on to Harvard Law School, then returned to Chicago, where she went to work at a downtown firm. In her first year, she was assigned to be an adviser to a summer associate from Harvard—Obama. He turned out to have little interest in corporate law but plenty of interest in Michelle. They both moved into the public sector. Michelle now works at the University of Chicago Hospital, as executive director of community affairs. We met in her office, on a radiant spring morning. Like her husband, Michelle claimed to be totally frazzled, yet she looked remarkably fit, cheerful, relaxed. “I’ve got a job, and I’m the primary caregiver for two very bright little girls,” she said. “It’s crazy. It’s not realistic.”
I asked Michelle about being a political wife.
“It’s hard,” she said. She smiled slyly. “And that’s why Barack is such a grateful man.”
Jan Schakowsky told me about a recent visit she had made to the White House with a congressional delegation. On her way out, she said, President Bush noticed her “obama” button. “He jumped back, almost literally,” she said. “And I knew what he was thinking. So I reassured him it was Obama, with a ‘b.’ And I explained who he was. The President said, ‘Well, I don’t know him.’ So I just said, ‘You will.’ ”
Illinois has been getting steadily more Democratic in recent years. Bill Clinton won Illinois twice, the second time by a bigger margin, and in 2000 Al Gore won it, fifty-five per cent to forty-three. The state Republican Party is in disarray. Its most recent governor, George Ryan, left office in disgrace in 2002; he is now under indictment on more than twenty counts of official corruption. Things look so bad for Republicans in Illinois that it’s widely said that the Bush-Cheney campaign will not contest the state.
But the U.S. Senate, where no Republican seat can be surrendered without a fight, is another matter. And to national strategists Jack Ryan should look like a candidate who can beat Obama. Although most of the money Ryan spent in winning the Republican primary was his own, he is not the usual vanity candidate. (“Six-foot-four and Hollywood handsome,” the columnist George Will has written, noting that Ryan “keeps in moral and physical trim by going to Mass and the gym each morning.”) Ryan went to Harvard Law School, too—and Harvard Business School—and is indeed, at forty-four, good-looking. He was born in Wilmette, a wealthy suburb north of Chicago, and still lives there. He was once married to Jeri Ryan, a television actress now on “Boston Public.” Ryan made his fortune as a partner at Goldman, Sachs, but he left the firm in 2000 to teach for three years at an all-black, inner-city Catholic boys’ high school in Chicago. During each of those years, Ryan points out, every graduate of the school was accepted in college.
When we met, he talked almost exclusively about the urgent need to expand economic opportunity for the poor. And he laughed sharply when I said that “civil-rights, social-justice issues,” as he called them, were not usually considered big vote-getters among Republicans. “Republicans haven’t been trying to reach the bottom twenty per cent,” he said, meaning the poor. “But Democrats have started taking them for granted.” Ryan thinks that the best way to help the poor is to give them school vouchers and easier access to business capital. He fiercely opposes gun control, abortion, and same-sex marriage, supports the war in Iraq, and favors the abolition of the capital-gains tax—indeed, his hostility to taxes is so strong that he was endorsed by Jack Kemp and has become a favorite candidate of the Club for Growth, the Washington-based anti-tax lobby, which recently spent two million dollars in the Pennsylvania Republican primary in an unsuccessful effort to defeat Senator Arlen Specter.
Other potential large contributors have reportedly been given pause, however, by unresolved questions about his divorce, in 1999, from Jeri Ryan. When Jack Ryan sued to have some of the divorce records sealed, her lawyer initially contended that the maneuver was an effort to suppress information that might damage his future political career. Ryan says that he was only concerned about the possible effect on their nine-year-old son. For a time, the issue threatened to derail his primary campaign. Obama has said that the subject has no place in the Senate race.
After winning the nomination, Ryan gave a press conference in the statehouse pressroom in Springfield, where reporters traditionally test candidates on their knowledge of state government. It wasn’t an auspicious début. Ryan declared that the number of state employees in Illinois had risen to nearly eight hundred and fifty thousand—the actual number is about sixty thousand—and accused Obama of having voted for a number of new fees and taxes that he had actually voted against.
Ryan’s political instinct was nonetheless sound. As a four-term legislator, Obama has a long voting record that can be hung around his neck. He has, for example, fought the insurance industry hard and successfully over health care for poor children—and might be blamed for helping push up local rates.
Ryan told me that he will also be watching closely for contradictions between Obama’s statements in the primary campaign and what he is saying now to the general electorate. “Voters, in my view, have a high antenna for inconsistency,” Ryan said. He had already heard about shifts, for instance, in Obama’s position on the Bush tax cuts. Back when Obama was speaking to Democrats alone, he had called for across-the-board repeals—now he was talking about repealing only the tax cuts of the wealthiest five per cent. (The Ryan campaign was unable to document this alleged discrepancy.)
The left in Illinois, as it happens, is monitoring Obama for similar trimming toward the political center. When his speech at the antiwar rally in 2002 was quietly removed from his campaign Web site, activists found that to be an ominous sign. It is traditional, of course, for politicians to tack to the center after winning a primary, hoping to attract swing voters. Earlier this month, when major newspapers (including the Times) and leading Democrats (including Illinois’s other senator, Dick Durbin) began calling for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a result of the Abu Ghraib prison-torture revelations, Obama criticized the Administration’s Iraq policy, but added, “I have no doubt about Donald Rumsfeld’s sincerity.” Deciding Rumsfeld’s fate, he said, should be left to President Bush.
Two weeks ago, after a poll showed Obama leading statewide by sixteen points, Jack Ryan hired a new media consultant, Scott Howell—a development that, as the Chicago Sun-Times noted dryly, “could change the tone” of the Senate race. Howell, a Texan, is best known for having worked on the 2002 Senate campaign of Saxby Chambliss, in Georgia. Chambliss, in an upset, defeated Senator Max Cleland, a popular veteran who lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War. Chambliss’s people produced an extraordinary TV commercial that questioned Cleland’s commitment to national defense by combining images of him, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein. Ryan’s campaign manager said that Howell was hired “because he wins.”
Another Ryan campaign worker started making news last week. Justin Warfel, a young man with a shaved head, suddenly attached himself to Obama, and, armed with a video camera and a tape recorder, began following him everywhere around Springfield. His mission, according to the Ryan campaign, was to “make sure Obama has a consistent message,” and a campaign spokesperson called it “standard practice in national politics.” Warfel’s methods, however, were unusually aggressive. He followed Obama’s every movement, even private conversations, holding his camera, according to the Associated Press, “less than two feet from Obama’s face, barking questions.” Tom Massey, who has been the pressroom manager in the Springfield statehouse for twenty-five years, said, “I’ve never seen anything like it before. This is a new low in Illinois politics.” The Republican leader of the state senate, Frank Watson, was also critical, telling the A.P., “I don’t care if you’re in public life or who you are, you deserve your space.”
Obama told local reporters, “Everybody knows politics is a contact sport,” and he told me that he felt sorry for Warfel, but it was obvious that he was angry that even his phone conversations with his wife and daughters were being monitored. “Scorched-earth politics,” he said. “Precisely the kind of politics I want to change.” When I called Ryan’s press secretary, Kelli Phiel, she was unapologetic: “I guarantee you that if Mr. Obama were to ask Justin to step back a foot or two, Justin would do so.”