Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

Chicago: Obama's Political Training Ground

You could see history turn in Grant Park on Tuesday night. The place that, just a couple of generations ago, was a battleground between old party bosses and young protestors, this week amounted to a point of pilgrimage: a place where, however you voted, you could see America fulfill its promise.

But as a Chicagoan, I also have a somewhat less starry view of President-elect Obama. Of course he is eloquent and inspirational. But it doesn't diminish those qualities to say that I also see him as a clear-eyed, cool-tempered and occasionally cunning Chicago politician.

Hilary Clinton won many more primaries, but Barack Obama grasped that more actual delegates could be won in state caucuses and deployed ground troops to out-gain the Clinton machine. Chicago politicians know not to rely just on commercials and Internet shout-outs to churn out votes.

When Obama realized how many millions he could he raise, from Americans eager to contribute to history, he used his eloquence to rationalize why he would reject the public campaign financing that he had pledged to take. He wasn't going to be the city-slicker who brings a cap pistol to a gun fight.

When he concluded that his liberal positions on gun control and the death penalty might be politically chancy, he rephrased them to fit opinion polls. A Chicago pol doesn't want to lose like some Massachusetts liberal.

When an old family friend like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright became political trouble, he cut off a man he once said that he could no more disown than his own grandmother.

Supporters and opponents can debate if Obama was being disingenuous or merely flexible.

But when a Chicago politician sits across from Vladimir Putin, you don't figure that he's likely to be carried away with airy academic idealism.

It is hard to imagine President Obama calling for a vote in Congress that he cannot win, the way President Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did for the financial rescue package. Chicago politicians, including Obama's designated chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, know when to call votes and when to duck them.

When famous newspapers — I'm thinking specifically of the New York Times — blared on Wednesday morning that Obama had become the first African-American president, I squirmed a bit. There is no such title in the Constitution. Obama has been elected president of the United States.

And while the election of an African-American is surely historic, the tip of history has been poking through for years: borne, whatever their differences, by the likes of John Lewis and Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Harold Washington, Clarence Thomas and Jesse Jackson, Jackie Robinson, Richard Parsons and Oprah Winfrey. African-Americans have become familiar in positions of influence and power.

In the end, millions saw in Barack Obama a man who might lift them out of the pigeonholes that politicians and pollsters so often use to define and divide Americans by color, faith, ethnicity or class.

And with a steely politician's mind, Obama put who he is and what he symbolizes to use. He arouses inspiration. But he relies on the sweat and elbow grease he learned in Chicago's wards.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small