Chicago Tribune from the early days of the senator's Washington career.
David Mendell covered Barack Obama for the
David Mendell covered Barack Obama for the Chicago Tribune from the early days of the senator's Washington career.
Chapter One: The Ascent
"I'm LeBron, baby."
For those who know Barack Obama well, this might sound close to impossible, but the swagger in his step appeared even cockier than usual on the afternoon of July 27, 2004.
As summertime bathed downtown Boston in warm sunshine, Obama led a gaggle of reporters, aides and a couple of friends—a group occasionally two dozen deep—around a maze of chain-link security fences guarding the large-scale FleetCenter indoor arena. A former high school basketball player who, at forty-two, still relished a pickup game, the rail-thin Obama was carrying his upper body as if he were heading to the free throw line for the game-winning shot, a shot he believed was destined to sink. His shoulders were pitched backward. His head was held erect. His blue-suited torso swayed in a side-by-side motion with every pace forward. His enormous confidence appeared at an all-time peak. And for good reason: hours later, the Illinois state lawmaker and law school lecturer would take his first steps onto the national stage to deliver his now famous 2004 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention.
Indeed, Obama's time in the bright sunshine had arrived. And though this moment had come upon him rather quickly, un-expectedly and somewhat weirdly, with only weeks of notice, his opportunity to prove to the world that he could play in this most elite league was at hand. Finally.
Having covered Obama for the Chicago Tribune since the early days of his U.S. Senate candidacy more than nine months before, I had already established a rapport with the state senator, and I was mostly trying to stay out of the way and watch the day unfold, watch the story of Barack Obama unfurl. Still, as a skeptical newspaper reporter, I was not completely convinced that, by day's end, all would come out well. I was still trying to gauge if this strut was something of an act, whether his winning free throw would clang on the rim and bounce away or whether he was on the verge of hitting nothing but net and making a national name for himself.
After Obama and I slipped through a security checkpoint and he momentarily broke free from the entourage, I sidled up to him and told him that he seemed to be impressing many people of influence in this rarefied atmosphere.
Obama, his gaze fixed directly ahead, never broke his stride.
"I'm LeBron, baby," he replied, referring to LeBron James, the phenomenally talented teenager who at the time was shooting the lights out in the National Basketball Association. "I can play on this level. I got some game."
I wasn't so sure. I fell back amid the marching gaggle of the Obama entourage and chatted with one of his closest friends, Marty Nesbitt, who had flown in from Chicago to accompany Obama during the convention week. I asked Nesbitt how he thought his friend would perform that night, given all the media attention and political pressure. "He sat down with Ted Koppel earlier this week and he hit the cover off the ball, didn't he?" Nesbitt asked. "Barack reminds me of a player on my high school basketball team back in Ohio. He could elevate his game to almost any situation. And when we needed a shot, he always hit it. Always."
That evening, Obama introduced himself to America. He delivered a keynote address of historic proportions, so inspiring that even some conservative commentators would concede they were moved by it. His rich baritone voice resolute and clear, he hearkened back to his beloved mother's philosophy of a common humanity, a philosophy that had been ingrained in him throughout his childhood. He declared that America is a land of good-hearted people, a nation of citizens who have more unifying traits than dividing traits, a country of individuals bound by the common purpose of freedom and opportunity for all. "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America—there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America—there's the United States of America. . . . We are one people. . . ."
Across the arena, many Democrats from various states, various walks of life, various races, had tears in their eyes. And as the woman seated next to me in an upper level of the FleetCenter joyously shrieked—"Oh my god! Oh my god! This is history! This is history!"—I looked around at the energized and emotional crowd and heard myself speak aloud to no one in particular.
"Yes, indeed. Tonight, Barack, you are LeBron, baby."
Throughout 2004, the political and cultural mood in Obama's home state of Illinois—and much of the country—was sharply polarized. A bevy of Democratic presidential aspirants had vied to challenge President George W. Bush, who had led the country into war in Afghanistan, and then Iraq, in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington. Chagrined from being in the minority in both chambers of the Congress, Democrats desperately craved a strong candidate who could defeat Bush in the November election. Among those Democrats, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts had won the party's nomination, but despairing Democrats were having difficulty warming up to him. They hungered for something more than Kerry could offer—a political savior, an inspirational figure who could lead them out of one of the darkest periods in their party's history. Kerry surely seemed electable, but his reserved nature and plodding public style made him far from a savior who could stir the souls of the masses.
At this point the nation was evenly divided on the Iraq war, but the Democrats were not. In the eyes of many moderate Democrats who had initially supported the war, the nationalistic fever that had washed over America in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist strike was beginning to wear off. For most left-leaning party members, the war had been nothing short of a colossal mistake from the . . .