“What Makes Obama Run?” from The Chicago Reader, December 1995

While doing research for my piece FLASHBACK: Democratic Messages–Does Obama Cut It? (With an Aside about Obama’s Organizing & Connection to One of the ‘04 Candidates) , I ran across an article from December 8, 1995 which appeared in the Chicago Reader entitled What Makes Obama Run? .  It gives a real-time view of what Barack Obama was doing at the time he began getting involved in politics.  You can see how he worked locally and how he thought the energy of the black churches should be put to use.  Look for mentions of ACORN, the Woods Foundation, and the Daley administration. The story involving his first run for office and his mentor Alice Palmer has been santitized.  The whole piece has a “glow” surrounding it…

In this piece, you’ll see many of the ideas that Obama formulated more than a decade ago and which you hear today.  And you’ll also get an idea of what Obama projected to other people:

Obama’s work on the south side has won him the friendship and respect of many activists. One of them, Johnnie Owens, left the citywide advocacy group Friends of the Parks to join Obama at the Developing Communities Project. He later replaced Obama as its executive director.

“What I liked about Barack immediately is that he brought a certain level of sophistication and intelligence to community work,” Owens says. “He had a reasonable, focused approach that I hadn’t seen much of. A lot of organizers you meet these days are these self-anointed leaders with this strange, way-out approach and unrealistic, eccentric way of pursuing things from the very beginning. Not Barack. He’s not about calling attention to himself. He’s concerned with the work. It’s as if it’s his mission in life, his calling, to work for social justice.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I’m one of the most cynical people you want to see, always looking for somebody’s angle or personal interest,” Owens added. “I’ve lived in Chicago all my life. I’ve known some of the most ruthless and biggest bullshitters out there, but I see nothing but integrity in this guy.”

Jean Rudd, executive director of the Woods Fund, is another person on guard against self-appointed, self-promoting community leaders. She admires not only Obama’s intelligence but his honesty. “He is one of the most articulate people I have ever met, but he doesn’t use his gift with language to promote himself. He uses it to clarify the difficult job before him and before all of us. He’s not a promoter; from the very beginning, he always makes it clear what his difficulties are. His honesty is refreshing.”

In 1995, Obama professed a discomfort with the game of politics:

Obama said he’s not at all comfortable with the political game of getting and staying elected, of raising money in backroom deals and manipulating an electable image.

“I am also finding people equivocating on their support. I’m talking about progressive politicians who are on the same page with me on the issues but who warn me I may be too independent.”

And then there’s this:

What makes Obama different from other progressive politicians is that he doesn’t just want to create and support progressive programs; he wants to mobilize the people to create their own. He wants to stand politics on its head, empowering citizens by bringing together the churches and businesses and banks, scornful grandmothers and angry young. Mostly he’s running to fill a political and moral vacuum. He says he’s tired of seeing the moral fervor of black folks whipped up–at the speaker’s rostrum and from the pulpit–and then allowed to dissipate because there’s no agenda, no concrete program for change.

While no political opposition to Obama has arisen yet, many have expressed doubts about the practicality of his ambitions. Obama himself says he’s not certain that his experimental plunge into electoral politics can produce the kind of community empowerment and economic change he’s after.

Then, there are his concerns about the lack of substance in politics:

I am surprised at how many elected officials–even the good ones–spend so much time talking about the mechanics of politics and not matters of substance. They have this poker chip mentality, this overriding interest in retaining their seats or in moving their careers forward, and the business and game of politics, the political horse race, is all they talk about. Even those who are on the same page as me on the issues never seem to want to talk about them. Politics is regarded as little more than a career.”

Obama doesn’t need another career. As a civil rights lawyer, teacher, philanthropist, and author, he already has no trouble working 12-hour days. He says he is drawn to politics, despite its superficialities, as a means to advance his real passion and calling: community organization.

So, what can we conclude from this decade old piece?  Obama may still be committed to his earlier vision, but it seems like he has become what he held in disdain back in 1995…a pol with dubious contacts, who is now ginning up an almost religious fervor who thinks he can fill a “moral vacuum.”  And are you spotting any of that “integrity” lately in his campaign?

I guess what I see is “change” alright, but not the kind Obama is now hawking for the country…it’s the change in him that is becoming more and more obvious.

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4 Responses

  1. what’s interesting, too is that either the guy who replaced obama as the exec direct. and another exec dir. are the ones praising him. what did the people who were to be helped have to say???

    great tagline: “the change in him”

  2. Somehow, my instinct is: this is about who again?
    You see, I heard Ryan Lizza’s interview on NPR. And cautious as he was to not antagonize The One, the emerging picture was of a cutthroat whose only goal was to move to the next step.
    So rather than think “change” I am thinking “whitewash”

  3. I didn’t hear the interview on NPR, I think I’ll go back to listen today. I did read the article in the New Yorker, and it relfected more the “cut throat” than the community social worker attitude.
    IIRC, the Precious was rather disenchanted with the negligible results of his efforts (and looked for somewhere else to be a standout.)

    (commenting from work)

  4. Holy cow – I have NO idea abt whom they are talking here! If this was Obama in 1995, he has done a complete 180. He is now exactly the kind of person/politician the commenters decried. Wow.

    Great post!

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