Washington Post Magazine on Barack Obama

The Washington Post Magazine has a lenghty article on Barack Obama. I’ll present one section which deals with Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. I previously posted the text of the speech here.

In early summer of 2004, organizers of the Democratic presidential convention were faced with some challenges, chief among them the fact that no Bush-bashing would be allowed among convention speakers. The Kerry campaign didn’t want to alienate swing voters by speaking ill of Republicans. So the convention needed speakers who could present an upbeat message and still sound compelling.

There were some givens. Bill Clinton would be the prime time speaker Monday night; the third and fourth nights would feature John Edwards and John Kerry, respectively. On Tuesday they wanted a keynote speaker in the tradition of the great keynoters of the past: Barbara Jordan, Mario Cuomo, Ann Richards, “people who inspired hope,” as Donna Brazile puts it, “and not only inspired hope, but laid a framework for the party.”

There were a number of criteria as planners began proposing candidates. Youth was desirable, and freshness, and diversity. “We were trying to think creatively of the next generation of leaders,” says one campaign official. They came up with a list of Democratic governors that included Mark Warner of Virginia, Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Tom Vilsack of Iowa: solid choices, but a list that, as the official put it, “didn’t get us where we wanted to go.” Jennifer Granholm, the photogenic new governor of Michigan, was also on the list. And Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, who had read some of the coverage following Obama’s primary victory, proposed Obama.

It was an appealing idea. Obama was known to be a speaker who could get a crowd going. He was a Midwesterner from a major industrial state, providing a demographic complement to Southerner Edwards and Northerner Kerry. But these things were also true of Granholm.

Weeks before the decision was made, David Axelrod heard “scuttlebutt” that Obama was being considered. Axelrod told Obama, who says he found it a bit hard to believe. “I have to say, I was skeptical,” Obama says. “Traditionally — obviously — that slot is not given to a state senator.” Obama did not lobby directly, but Axelrod did, saying, “My case was that he was a transcendent figure who could deliver a unifying message and had just won a spectacular victory.”

According to an official involved, the decision came down to the fact that Obama, unlike Granholm, was still trying to win an election. Just a few weeks before the convention, it would emerge that Obama’s opponent, Jack Ryan, had tried to talk his wife at the time into performing public acts at a sex club. Ryan would eventually withdraw, and there was talk that some marquee Republican, possibly former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, would enter the race. The balance in the Senate was 51-48 in favor of Republicans. “We needed his Senate seat,” says the official. So Obama it was.

Kerry gave Obama’s selection an enthusiastic thumbs up. “I was impressed by him,” Kerry says. “I had met him and . . . campaigned with him in Illinois, and thought on a personal level he would be able to convey the kind of message I wanted to convey out of my convention: a message of inclusiveness and change, a new view about how we can make our politics more relevant to people and, in a sense, just put a little bit of different language in front of folks.”

In The Audacity of Hope, Obama portrays it as a total surprise when Cahill called to invite him to deliver the keynote. “The process by which I was selected as the keynote speaker remains something of a mystery to me,” he writes, saying that after he received the call in his car, he marveled to his driver, “I guess this is pretty big.”

This seems disingenuous. “There is no doubt that that call was expected,” says Michael Duga, chief of staff to former senator Max Cleland, who also was involved in the planning. Axelrod doesn’t dispute this: “We heard shortly before he got the call that he was likely to get it.” So, he acknowledges, “we did get a little bit of a heads-up.”

Obama knew what he wanted do with the speech, says his communications director, Robert Gibbs. He wanted to tell his life story as an American narrative. He wanted to offer himself as an embodiment of what’s possible. And he wanted to write the speech himself, which he did, stuck in Springfield during votes, sending drafts by e-mail. But Gibbs also did research. Listening to past keynote speeches, he realized that there were two basic models. One was the 1988 Ann Richards punch-line model — you deliver a one-liner, and there is wild applause, and you deliver a one-liner, and there is wild applause — and the other was the 1984 Mario Cuomo model, a visionary declaration that the audience doesn’t punctuate with clapping, because it’s rapt. That’s the model Obama went for.

On the night of the speech, Gibbs and Axelrod stayed in the greenroom with Obama and his wife beforehand, then went down to watch on the convention floor, with thousands of delegates, reporters and spectators. Another 9 million people saw the speech on the cable channels covering the convention.

Obama began by talking about his mother and father, the diversity of his heritage, how “in no other country on Earth, is my story even possible.” He spoke about issues — better government, health coverage, better care for veterans — then delivered his famous call for unity and compassion: “We are all connected as one people. If there is a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child,” he said, dismissing the idea of “red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats . . . We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

On the floor, Gibbs recalls, he and Axelrod sensed the rapture of the crowd and looked at each other “like two kids at Christmas.”

“Sometimes you know it’s a home run at the crack of the bat,” says Axelrod. “As soon as he swung, you knew that the ball was going to go over the fence.”

The full impact of the speech became clear to Obama’s staff days later, when they embarked on a whistle-stop RV tour of downstate Illinois. Obama, Shomon says, was furious when he saw the schedule. He was exhausted and wanted to spend time with his family. But at the first town on the first day, there were 500 people instead of the 100 that had been expected. The same thing happened again, and again; then one day they drove into a state park to see 1,000 people crowded into an open-air amphitheater. “Everyone knew exactly what everyone else was thinking,” say Gibbs. “Wow.”

This continued. “You’d hear [Democratic] party people talking: Not only was it the biggest crowd we ever saw, it’s new people, not just the usual suspects — we don’t even know who these people are,” says political analyst Charlie Cook.

The speech vaulted Obama into mega-celebrity. “It’s like walking around with Michael Jordan now,” says his brother-in-law Craig Robinson. As for money: “It wasn’t a matter of fundraising anymore,” says one of his consultants, Joe McLean. “It was just a matter of collecting money.

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  1. 1
    beachmom says:

    FYI, there are some inaccuraces in that WaPo Mag article. It was easy enough for Media Matters to prove the mischaracterization:


    Short version: Obama wasn’t being disingenuous. WaPo just made that up.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:


    In an article of this length, I pretty much expect a number of errors. This error is certainly worth correcting, but I considered the criticism so trivial I didn’t pay much attention to it.

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