Another look at "Destiny's Child"
Last year Rolling Stone magazine published an article about Barack Obama called "Destiny's Child" by Ben Wallace-Wells. The story deserves a second look, because at the time Obama was a virtual unknown to most of the public.
The piece begins with Obama's arrival in Washington D.C., then shifts to his meteoric rise in the Democratic party:
Obama's ascent from rookie senator to presidential contender is one of the more startling and sudden acts in recent political history. Those around him aren't quite sure what has happened, and neither, for that matter, is the senator himself. Obama says he experienced the change as a call from the crowds that always stalk him, a summoning to a new role. First there was Hurricane Katrina, when the talk shows called him, assuming he had something to say. Then there were the throngs that lined the roads on his trip to Africa last summer, and the same excitement from domestic audiences on his book tour last fall. "I realized I didn't feel comfortable standing on the sidelines when so much was at stake," he tells me. "It was hard to maintain the notion that I was a backbencher." The early, wonkish humility was gone, replaced by a man who began to speak of himself in sprawling, historic terms. "Just being the president is not a good way of thinking about it," Obama says now. "You want to be a great president."
Most politicians come to national prominence at the head of a movement: Bill Clinton had neoliberalism, George W. Bush had compassionate conservatism, Reagan had supply-side economics. Even Obama's rivals have political calling cards: John Edwards has devoted himself to a poverty-fighting populism, Hillary Clinton is defined by a hawkish centrism. These identities give them infrastructures, ideologies, natural bases of support. Obama is trying to pull a less-conventional trick: to turn his own person into a movement. "I'm not surprised you're having trouble categorizing him," one of his aides says. "I don't think he's wedded to any ideological frame." With Obama, there is only the man himself — his youth, his ease, his race, his claim on the new century. His candidacy is essentially a plea for voters to put their trust in his innate capacity for clarity and judgment. There is no Obama-ism, only Obama.
"People don't come to Obama for what he's done in the Senate," says Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "They come because of what they hope he could be." What Obama stands for, if anything, is not yet clear. Everywhere he goes he is greeted by thrilled crowds, trailed constantly by a reporter from The Chicago Tribune who is writing a book about the senator with a preliminary title so immodest that it embarrassed even Obama's staff: The Savior. The danger here is that the public has committed the cardinal sin of political love, forcing Obama onto the national stage before knowing him well enough to gauge whether he's ready for it. The candidate they see before them is their own creation — or, rather, it is the scrambling of a skinny, serious, self-reflective man trying to mold his public's conflicted yearnings into something greater. "Barack has become a kind of human Rorschach test," says Cassandra Butts, a friend of the senator's from law school and now a leader at the Center for American Progress. "People see in him what they want to see."
So far the article seems on the money. The entire Obama campaign has been more a policy-free cult of personality than anything else. But the part about feeling called to run is disturbingly reminiscent of George W. Bush.
Then the article introduces us to Reverend Jeremiah Wright:
The Trinity United Church of Christ, the church that Barack Obama attends in Chicago, is at once vast and unprepossessing, a big structure a couple of blocks from the projects, in the long open sore of a ghetto on the city's far South Side. The church is a leftover vision from the Sixties of what a black nationalist future might look like. There's the testifying fervor of the black church, the Afrocentric Bible readings, even the odd dashiki. And there is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a sprawling, profane bear of a preacher, a kind of black ministerial institution, with his own radio shows and guest preaching gigs across the country. Wright takes the pulpit here one Sunday and solemnly, sonorously declares that he will recite ten essential facts about the United States. "Fact number one: We've got more black men in prison than there are in college," he intones. "Fact number two: Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run!" There is thumping applause; Wright has a cadence and power that make Obama sound like John Kerry. Now the reverend begins to preach. "We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns and the training of professional KILLERS. . . . We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God. . . . We conducted radiation experiments on our own people. . . . We care nothing about human life if the ends justify the means!" The crowd whoops and amens as Wright builds to his climax: "And. And. And! GAWD! Has GOT! To be SICK! OF THIS SHIT!"
This is as openly radical a background as any significant American political figure has ever emerged from, as much Malcolm X as Martin Luther King Jr. Wright is not an incidental figure in Obama's life, or his politics. The senator "affirmed" his Christian faith in this church; he uses Wright as a "sounding board" to "make sure I'm not losing myself in the hype and hoopla." Both the title of Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope, and the theme for his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 come from Wright's sermons. "If you want to understand where Barack gets his feeling and rhetoric from," says the Rev. Jim Wallis, a leader of the religious left, "just look at Jeremiah Wright."
Obama wasn't born into Wright's world. His parents were atheists, an African bureaucrat and a white grad student, Jerry Falwell's nightmare vision of secular liberals come to life. Obama could have picked any church — the spare, spiritual places in Hyde Park, the awesome pomp and procession of the cathedrals downtown. He could have picked a mosque, for that matter, or even a synagogue. Obama chose Trinity United. He picked Jeremiah Wright. Obama writes in his autobiography that on the day he chose this church, he felt the spirit of black memory and history moving through Wright, and "felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams."
Obama has now spent two years in the Senate and written two books about himself, both remarkably frank: There is a desire to own his story, to be both his own Boswell and his own investigative reporter. When you read his autobiography, the surprising thing — for such a measured politician — is the depth of radical feeling that seeps through, the amount of Jeremiah Wright that's packed in there."
It should be noted that this article was written long before Rev. Wright became controversial, and it clearly shows Obama's close relationship with Rev. Wright and the influence the minister had on Obama. I'm not suggesting this was a bad thing, but it clearly contradicts the current story put out by Obama that distances the candidate from his former pastor.
The article moves on to Obama's Senate campaign:
But in 2003, when Obama began to run for the U.S. Senate, his legislative track record wasn't enough to get him elected. He was one of seven Democrats in the field, third or fourth on name recognition and even farther behind in funds. He barely stood a chance.
Then, running preliminary polls, his advisers noticed something remarkable: Women responded more intensely and warmly to Obama than did men. In a seven-candidate field, you don't need to win every vote. His advisers, assuming they would pick up a healthy chunk of black votes, honed in on a different target: Every focus group they ran was composed exclusively of women, nearly all of them white.
There is an amazingly candid moment in Obama's autobiography when he writes of his childhood discomfort at the way his mother would sexualize African-American men. "More than once," he recalls, "my mother would point out: 'Harry Belafonte is the best-looking man on the planet.' " What the focus groups his advisers conducted revealed was that Obama's political career now depends, in some measure, upon a tamer version of this same feeling, on the complicated dynamics of how white women respond to a charismatic black man. "I remember when we realized something magical was happening," says Obama's pollster on the campaign, an earnest Iowan named Paul Harstad. "We were doing a focus group in suburban Chicago, and this woman, seventy years old, looks seventy-five, hears Obama's life story, and she clasps her hand to her chest and says, 'Be still, my heart.' Be still, my heart — I've been doing this for a quarter century and I've never seen that." The most remarkable thing, for Harstad, was that the woman hadn't even seen the videos he had brought along of Obama speaking, had no idea what the young politician looked like. "All we'd done," he says, "is tell them the Story."
From that moment on, the Story became Obama's calling card, his political rationale and his basic sale. Every American politician has this wrangle he has to pull off, reshaping his life story to fit into Abe Lincoln's log cabin. Some pols (John Edwards, Bill Clinton) have an easier time of it than others (George Bush, Al Gore). Obama's material is simply the best of all. What he has to offer, at the most fundamental level, is not ideology or even inspiration — it is the Story, the feeling that he embodies, in his own, uniquely American history, a longed-for break from the past. "With Obama, it's all about his difference," says Joe Trippi, the Democratic consultant who masterminded Howard Dean's candidacy. "We see in him this hope that the country might be different, too."
Three points here to take note of. The first is that the article fails to mention that Obama's main opponents in the primary and general election ended up withdrawing, leaving him virtually unchallenged. The second point is that Obama's alleged electoral attraction to women has essentially vanished as this campaign has progressed. Lastly, the article notes without a hint of irony that Obama's legislative record in Illinois wasn't enough to get him elected to the Senate, but that same record is now touted as sufficient for the White House.
The article introduces us to another notable name in the campaign, as well as a popular theme:
But Obama had something that most first-time senators lack: the clout of celebrity. You could almost see the wheels turning in the minds of Washington's best and brightest: Go to work for Obama, they were thinking, and you might end up running the world. "You spend your life preparing for Bobby Kennedy to walk in the door," says one D.C. pollster, "and then one day he walks in your door."
One of the biggest names to work with Obama is Samantha Power, the scholar and journalist who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. "In 2004, I came out of election night just completely depressed," Power says. "We thought Kerry would win and we'd all get a chance to change the world. But then it was like, 'Nah, same old thing.' " Obama gave her a place to channel her energy. She advised him on the genocide in Darfur, an issue that most politicians at the time were studiously avoiding. "He's a sponge," Power says. "He pushes so hard on policy ideas that fifteen minutes after you've started talking, he's sent you back to the drawing board. He doesn't get weighted down by the limits of American power, but he sees you have to grasp those limits in order to transcend them."
Poor Samantha, she was thrown under the bus for speaking her mind. But perhaps she can transcend her situation if Obama wins in November.
The remainder of the article is basically describes the beginning of the Obama cult:
With Obama, there are crowds — always the crowds. In December, in what marked the true beginning of his presidential campaign, he traveled to Manchester, New Hampshire, to test the political waters. The crowd begins with the retirees: Three hours before Obama is due to arrive, hobbling eighty-year-olds show up and badger the staff like teeny-boppers, trying to figure out which entrance the senator will use so they can catch a glimpse of him up close. The creaky old political operatives on hand debate whether this crowd was larger than the one they had seen when John F. Kennedy came to town. One woman compares Obama to Jesus.
Vague policies and lots of personality. Seems about right to me.
The story finishes with a trip to the Kibera district of Nairobi, Kenya, where Obama encounters adoring crowds:
The residents in Kibera know little about Obama besides his race, the fact that his father is from this country and what the Kenyan papers have told them: that he represents a younger and more empathetic vision of America. It's enough. Here, at last, is what it would mean to have a black president of the United States, one with a feel for what it means to suffer the rough edge of American power. In Kibera, something raw and basic about global politics began to stir, to make itself heard. These people, among the poorest in the world, are hoping for something more. And in the shouting crowds and the ecstasy of the moment, it has begun to seem, for the first time, as if Obama wants it all, too.
Apparently the Obamaphenomena isn't uniquely American.