RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
At nearly every campaign rally, Barack Obama cites a speech he gave in 2002 in Chicago. In it, he came out strongly against the Bush administration on Iraq. That was nearly six months before the war began and before the Senate gave President Bush authority to go to war.
Yesterday, we heard how Senator Hillary Clinton is still explaining her vote to give the president that authority. Today, NPR's Don Gonyea examines what Obama claims as his key moment on the war.
DON GONYEA: Let's go back to the 2nd day of October in 2002. Here's what was on NPR's newscast that morning.
MONTAGNE: Former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow turned himself in.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Martha Stewart's troubles with Wall Street are mounting.
MONTAGNE: Northwest Airlines announced more job cutbacks today.
GONYEA: That same afternoon, President Bush was in the Rose Garden at the White House.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Saddam must disarm. Period. If, however, he chooses to do otherwise, if he persists in his defiance, the use of force may become unavoidable.
GONYEA: And at the exact moment the president was speaking in Washington, a modest crowd was gathering in downtown Chicago for what would be the city's first organized rally to protest the coming war.
The scene was Federal Plaza, with its giant orange Calder sculpture looming over the proceedings. The roster of speakers included a future presidential front-runner, who was then a little-known state senator.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I don't oppose war in all circumstances. And when I look out over this crowd today, I know there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I do oppose is a dumb war.
GONYEA: It is that speech, five-and-a-half years ago, that allows Barack Obama to say something Hillary Clinton cannot say: that he never supported this war. And it is a speech that Obama promotes in steady and relentless fashion on the campaign trail as he seeks the Democratic nomination for president.
Here he is from earlier this month.
(Soundbite of audio)
Sen. OBAMA: On the most important national security question since the Cold War, I'm the only candidate who opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning.
GONYEA: Of course, Senator Clinton dismisses Obama's early opposition to the war and the Chicago speech.
(Soundbite of audio)
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I have a lifetime of experience that I will bring to the White House. I know Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience that he will bring to the White House. And Senator Obama has a speech he gave in 2002.
GONYEA: Obama counters that the speech demonstrates his sound judgment. Further, he says it shows the kind of political courage a president needs. He says it was risky to give such a speech barely a year after the 9/11 attacks and while President Bush was still riding high in the polls.
Sen. OBAMA: My objections to the war in Iraq were not simply a speech. I was in the midst of a U.S. Senate campaign. It was a high-stakes campaign. I was one of the most vocal opponents of the war. And I was very specific…
GONYEA: Though technically Obama was not in the midst of a U.S. Senate campaign in October of '02. He wouldn't officially declare until January.
Interestingly, even in this YouTube, camera-phone age, finding a recording of this speech is all but impossible. That small portion you heard at the start of this story, 13 seconds in length, is all NPR could find. The Obama campaign has gone so far as to re-create portions of the speech for a TV ad, with the candidate re-reading the text, complete with audience sound effects.
Sen. OBAMA: I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames in the Middle East.
GONYEA: In the speech, Obama said the U.S. should focus on Afghanistan and on capturing Osama bin Laden. He spoke of, quote, "Weekend warriors with an ideological agenda in the Bush administration." He called Saddam Hussein a butcher, but stressed that the Iraqi dictator posed no imminent or direct threat to the U.S. On that day, Obama also predicted a U.S. occupation of Iraq of undetermined cost, length and consequences.
Marilyn Katz was one of the event's organizers.
Ms. MARILYN KATZ (Chicago Rally Organizer): The profound nature of his remarks, the taking of a crowd through a thought process by which he had come to the conclusion of why he would be against the war was transformative.
GONYEA: But Juan Andrade, president of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute in Chicago, was less impressed. Andrade said he's seen Obama give great speeches, most notably to the 2004 Democratic Convention, but the '02 anti-war speech wasn't one of them.
Mr. JUAN ANDRADE (President, United States Hispanic Leadership Institute): There was nothing magic about it. There was nothing out of that speech that would have given anybody any sense that he was going places. We were just glad that he was one of those who was willing to step up at a time when very few people seemed to be willing to do that.
GONYEA: So, just how much attention did this speech attract? Journalist Bill Glauber covered the rally for the Chicago Tribune. He met us last week at the site of the event.
Mr. BILL GLAUBER (Reporter, Chicago Tribune): I'm the guy who didn't quote Barack Obama at his famous anti-war speech. He was not the main guy on the dais.
GONYEA: And let's be clear - not only did you not quote him, you didn't mention him.
Mr. GLAUBER: Didn't mention him at all. Met him, didn't mention him.
GONYEA: Glauber explains that Obama was a relatively unknown state senator. His story that day focused more on who was in the crowd and on the biggest named speaker at the rally, the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
As for the risk Obama says giving that speech was, David Mendell, who has written a new biography of Obama, says that's debatable.
Mr. DAVID MENDELL (Author, "Obama: From Promise to Power"): I still don't think it was an inordinate risk here in Illinois, where you have a very blue-stated crowd here in Illinois. So I might - yeah, you might take issue with just how risky it was.
GONYEA: In Obama's subsequent successful run for the Senate, he benefited from word-of-mouth about the speech spread by the educated, liberal, mostly white crowd that was there. And the love affair that such votes have with him may have indeed begun that day in 2002 in Federal Plaza in Chicago.
Don Gonyea, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: To hear an extended interview with the Illinois journalist who attended Obama's 2002 anti-war speech, go to npr.org/elections.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.