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Remnick: In Obama's Only Loss, A Political Lesson
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Remnick: In Obama's Only Loss, A Political Lesson

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Remnick: In Obama's Only Loss, A Political Lesson
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The story of Barack Obama is sometimes described as that of a post-racial candidate who rose to the top suddenly. We're about to hear about one political experience, though, that does not fit that story.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's a chapter in David Remnick's new biography, "The Bridge," a chapter devoted to a moment that forced Mr. Obama to wrestle with the question of race. From the first time he ran for office - for the Illinois State Assembly in 1996 -Barack Obama was dogged by questions about his racial identity and authenticity, from African-Americans.

Mr. DAVID REMNICK (Author, "The Bridge"): They saw Obama as a newcomer. They saw Obama as a kind of do-gooder from Harvard - and quite frankly, somebody who was biracial, someone who was not them. He was not one of them.

MONTAGNE: Those same criticisms plagued Barack Obama four years later, when he tried for national office and fought an uphill race against a black congressman named Bobby Rush. As David Remnick writes: Bobby Rush had deep roots in Chicago's African-American community, roots that went all the way back to the Black Power movement.

Mr. REMNICK: Everybody around Barack Obama thought this was a mistake. His wife, Michelle, his advisers, his friends all thought that running for Congress in 2000 against Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther,a big favorite on the South Side - not the greatest congressman in the world, but a big favorite nevertheless - was a gigantic mistake. And it proved to be Barack Obama's political education insofar as he had his head handed to him. That was his education.

MONTAGNE: Why? Bobby Rush - as you say, he was popular, and he had these credentials that dated back to him being part of the Black Panther Party.

Mr. REMNICK: He was a leader of the Black Panthers in Chicago. He was the original authentic and Obama, an outsider - although he had been an organizer for a few years, but relatively an outsider to Chicago in political terms -challenges him.

And in most congressional districts, in order to challenge an incumbent, you have to have a reason to essentially fire the incumbent - whether it's scandal or neglect or some reason that he should be thrown out of office. Obama had a small circle of followers from Hyde Park, some supporters from his state Senate district, but he was never able to convince the district that they should fire Bobby.

MONTAGNE: His difficulties were, in some sense, massive with the older African-American voters. Some of them called him carpetbagger. Bobby Rush, even years later talking to you for the book, mocked Barack Obama's walk.

Mr. REMNICK: I was in Bobby Rush's congressional office while doing research for this book, and I've got to say, I've never met anybody who felt better about the election of Barack Obama for president. Because on the one hand, the first African-American president is a source of enormous pride, despite Rush's complicated background with Obama.

On the other hand, Bobby Rush knew that he was the only person in the universe who had defeated and really kicked the behind of Barack Obama by more than two-to-one. So, that gave him a source of pleasure. And at one point in our interview, Rush slowly ambled out of his chair and kind of did a very sinuous walk across his office and said, you know, Barack Obama, you see him walk now like this, he didn't walk like that back then. Which I thought was a pretty suspect way to challenge - yet again, years later - Obama's racial bona fides, his authenticity.

It was an ugly race; Obama was deeply hurt by it. A community that he thought that he was part of, that he had aspired to, had rejected him and rejected him soundly. And it was quite possible that his political career was over.

MONTAGNE: In a way, you could call this race a miscalculation. Why do you think he made this choice at all?

Mr. REMNICK: Because his options were so limited. He was stuck in Springfield, Illinois. He discovered that being a state senator was dull, that his ability to make any impact was extraordinarily limited. To be a state senator in Illinois is not exactly what he dreamed of at Harvard Law School. This was not going to be the end of his ambition. And he was limited.

What could he run for? To run for Senate right out of the state Senate was not going to be available to him. He had to take a leap of faith, and he had to risk failure. And he failed. And in any great career, failure is always an instructive moment. That was his. That was his crucible. And he failed spectacularly.

MONTAGNE: Man, two-to-one. Bobby Rush, twice the votes to what Barack Obama...

Mr. REMNICK: He never had a chance. From the minute he entered the race, almost instantly Bobby Rush's son was killed, Bobby Rush's father died. Sympathy rushed toward him - no pun intended. And the district is predominantly black, and Obama was able to win mainly in areas that were either heavily white or majority white.

MONTAGNE: At the end of this experience, in the words of Barack Obama's campaign manager, if it hadn't been for that race, there would be no Barack Obama. That is what got him to do what he had to do.

Mr. REMNICK: Precisely. He started to travel around Illinois; he started to learn the state. There are parts of southern Illinois that had the Klan there. There were parts of southern Illinois that are much closer to the politics of the South than they are, certainly, to the politics of Chicago.

And he starts discovering himself as a politician, that he has appeal much broader than somebody like Bobby Rush could ever have. And he learns a great deal in those travels, and then he decides to run for Senate - in a very, very crowded field - in 2004.

MONTAGNE: And though it wasn't quite a straight shot from there to the caucuses in Iowa, it did give him a vision of what was possible.

Mr. REMNICK: You know, you can argue that the first time that Barack Obama was ever in a truly competitive political race was in the Iowa caucuses. That his state Senate elections were either unopposed or a cakewalk. The Senate race in 2004, a divorce-slash-sex scandal opened the way for the Democratic nomination, and then a divorce scandal opened the way to winning the whole thing. And he ended up running against a joke of an opponent named Alan Keyes.

MONTAGNE: So even the Bobby Rush defeat passed quickly because, as you write, he was embarrassed, maybe mildly humiliated, didn't like that very much.

Mr. REMNICK: It's funny. Obama, after losing that race, had a job interview for a foundation, and this foundation would have set him up rather nicely. He would have gotten a huge salary, and he would have had all kinds of money to give away to good works. And he went into the interview and his hands were shaking, and he came out of it and basically, the guy who was interviewing him said, of course you can have this job, but you don't want this job.

And Obama had to admit, no, of course, he didn't either. He had the addiction. He had the desire to be a politician. Even though he had been very suspicious of big-time politics when he was an organizer, he left organizing convinced, in fact, that he had to go into politics because that's where the real stuff happens.

MONTAGNE: David Remnick's new book, out today, is "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama." Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. REMNICK: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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