SCOTT SIMON, host:
You know, the name Barack Obama and the word president have been spoken in the same sentence for years, long before the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention many feel launched his national political career. His rhetorical and political skills have been apparent since he served in the Illinois legislature, as a Chicago community organizer, and before that as editor of the Harvard Law Review. Those skills attracted financial backers even before Senator Obama came to the Senate. Harper's magazine Washington editor Ken Silverstein has written about that network of financial support, and he joins us in our studios. Mr. Silverstein, thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. KEN SILVERSTEIN (Harper's Magazine): Thank you.
SIMON: And as Senator Obama indicates he won't rely on public financing to run for president, what are some of the sources of support that have been with him from the first?
Mr. SILVERSTEIN: Well, he's got the same sort of base of funders that you see with most members of the Senate. The money comes in from the big economic sectors, the finance industry, real estate, banks. He...
SIMON: JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs?
Mr. SILVERSTEIN: Skadden, Arps; the big lobby shops, big law firms. Initially I was sort of surprised because, you know, at how much money he was able to raise very quickly. I took it to one of these resident Washington experts and ran it by her and said, you know, without identifying who it was. She said, yeah, this is standard. It doesn't look like the campaign finance profile of a guy who's challenging the status quo. I mean there are certain members of Congress where you see their money's coming in from nonprofit groups or not the sort of big money boys. But most of Obama's money is coming in from those traditional sectors. And it just - it's not - I'm not suggesting there's anything nefarious about it, but it doesn't suggest somebody who's going to challenge some of the big interests that traditionally back candidates.
SIMON: Let me ask you about a specific Illinois corporation, Exelon Corporation, which is the nation's leading nuclear power plant operator. They are his fourth largest patron, if you please.
Mr. SILVERSTEIN: They were at the time I wrote the story; they have traditionally been a big backer of his, which I found a little bit surprising. You know, as I said in the article, I'm not trying to suggest that there's this straight money-in/votes-out on the part of Obama. He's not, like most members of Congress, he's not purely a captive of his funders. But I don't think that anybody who's raised as much money as he has, which now is over $21 million dollars - a pretty astonishing sum of money in such a short political career - I don't think he can be indifferent to his funders. In the case of Exelon, he's cast, you know, at least one vote that attracted my attention, given how much money he's received from them; he voted against an amendment that would have killed a lot of loan guarantees that went to nuclear plant operators.
Mr. SILVERSTEIN: And you know, did it - was it because of the contributions? Maybe, maybe not. I just don't think he can be entirely indifferent.
SIMON: It is an Illinois corporation, so arguably he has an interest in their financial success.
Mr. SILVERSTEIN: Yeah. No question about it. No question about it. Also I would just add to that, that Exelon - he's been pretty open-minded about the whole question of nuclear energy. And the industry was very worried about that, because he's got a reputation as a liberal, and you know. And he gave a speech in committee in the Senate in which he said, you know, we shouldn't take nuclear power off the table. It's something we need to think about. And this attracted quite a bit of praise from the trade press, the nuclear industry trade press, where I saw a couple of editorials saying, well, you know, he promised he would be open-minded and so far he's been good to his word. And that's the thing that I think donors want. It's not that they expect you're going to vote their way every time. They want you to be open-minded. They want access. They want to argue their point.
SIMON: They want their phone calls returned.
Mr. SILVERSTEIN: That's right.
SIMON: This network of financial support which has been with him really ever since before he came to the Senate, is there going to be more scrutiny now that he runs for president?
Mr. SILVERSTEIN: Oh, no question about it. I mean, he really hasn't gotten much scrutiny on the money end to date. I found - one of the things I found very interesting was that even before he came to the convention, nine months before, there was a big fundraising network established here in Washington for him, which most people really haven't been aware of.
SIMON: They've had their eye on him since the first.
MR. SILVERSTEIN: That's right.
SIMON: Thanks very much. Harper's magazine Washington editor Ken Silverstein.
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