December 24, 2006


What is it about Obama?: Maybe it's his message of inclusion, his smarts or his million-dollar smile. Whatever it is, people seem smitten. (Terry McDermott, December 24, 2006, LA Times)

Chicago politics tends toward polarization. Depolarization is Obama's stock in trade.

Just a generation ago, Harold Washington was campaigning to become the first black mayor of Chicago, and he and Democratic presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale attended Sunday Mass at St. Pascal's, a predominantly white Roman Catholic parish in Northwest Chicago. They were spit on, cursed and lucky to leave unharmed.

In the 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, Obama carried every precinct but one in St. Pascal's Portage Park neighborhood. Talk to people who live there now and you could easily get the impression that Obama grew up one block over.


"Barack is wildly less threatening than Harold Washington," said Judson Miner, who hired Obama into his small Chicago civil rights law firm in 1991. "Even the North Shore ladies love him."

Go west to DuPage County, one of the most Republican in the nation, and you'll find a GOP county chairman, state Sen. Kirk W. Dillard, who relishes the opportunity to accompany Obama whenever he comes to town. "My constituency is enamored of him," Dillard said. That Obama registered approval ratings in DuPage above 60% in this fall's campaign season is an obvious reason to get next to him — but Dillard has been on the Obama bandwagon for years.

He, along with many others, was skeptical when Obama arrived in Springfield, the state capital. There was suspicion that Obama, with his fancy degrees and a job teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago, was an elitist. It turned out he was a more or less regular guy who played pickup basketball and poker.

Obama developed a reputation as a very conservative poker player. He threw in many more hands than he played, said another state Senate colleague, Larry Walsh, a farmer from Will County. "I told him once, 'If you were a little more liberal in your poker-playing and a little more conservative in your politics, we'd get along a lot better.' "

Obama was somebody you could sit and have a beer with, Walsh said — even if Obama, who frequently quit buying but not smoking cigarettes, perpetually bummed them.

As a freshman, a member of a Democratic minority in a General Assembly not much interested in policing itself, Obama carried to passage the state's first significant ethics legislation in a generation. He later worked to overhaul the state's death penalty and healthcare laws. He developed a reputation as someone anybody could work with.

"I brag that before anybody knew who he was, I knew he had the gifts that have made him into the rock star he is — charm, intellect, hard worker, ability to relate," Dillard said. "I saw it all within the first couple of months when he came to the Legislature."

In "The Audacity of Hope," Obama tells of being on the state Senate floor, sitting with a white colleague, when an African American senator, whom Obama refers to as John Doe, gave a lengthy, passionate speech in which he said voting against the program he advocated would be racist. The white colleague, a liberal, turned to Obama and said, "You know what the problem is with John? Whenever I hear him, he makes me feel more white."

Obama sees this as an illustration of the exhaustion of white guilt.

The most comforting thing about Senator Obama is that he's never done anything and is identified with not a single idea other than his own ambition. Tough to run a presidential campaign on your similarity to Chancey Gardener though.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 24, 2006 8:00 AM
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