Mapping Barack Obama's Political Rise Barack Obama will tonight make the most important speech of his political career. He will also make history as the first African American to formally accept the nomination for president from a major party. NPR's Tony Cox takes a look back at Barack Obama's political life.
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Mapping Barack Obama's Political Rise

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Mapping Barack Obama's Political Rise

Mapping Barack Obama's Political Rise

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TONY COX, host:

Tonight in Denver, Colorado, Senator Barack Obama will make the most important speech of his political career. He will also make history as the first African-American to formally accept the nomination for president from a major party. All this comes 45 years to the day after another history-making speech was delivered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

(Soundbite of cheering)

COX: So how did Barack Obama realize Martin Luther King's dream? And how did he rise so far so fast?

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I chose to run for president at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together.

COX: To better understand how we arrived at this political landmark, we look back to the beginning of Obama's political life. It began to take shape when he was elected as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990. Charles Ogletree is a professor at Harvard Law and was Obama's mentor on campus.

Professor CHARLES OGLETREE (Harvard Law): Barack Obama was actually always someone who would listen. And he didn't always agree with what I had to say, and I didn't always agree with what he had to say. But the important thing was that, as a young man who came to Harvard Law School, whose father was not in his life, who only knew him in a passing way, it was important for him to see other mentors and role models. And I was very happy as an African-American faculty member, as a father, as a parent, to spend time with him talking about some of his wishes and some of his dreams.

COX: Following Harvard, Obama returned to Chicago and his community organizing roots, where Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page says Obama began to cultivate his political connections.

Mr. CLARENCE PAGE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): After he came back to Chicago after Harvard Law School, he put those contacts to good use. And really worked his way up through - first, Chicago Independent political circles and then he worked his way into the inner circle of the old organization, what we always called the machine back in those days when it really operated like a machine.

COX: It was that machine that gave Obama his first crack at elected office. In 1996, Illinois state Senator Alice Palmer urged Obama to run for her seat, because she was leaving it to run for Congress. But before election day arrived, the newcomer found himself in the uncomfortable position of challenging Palmer as well. Here again is Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune.

Mr. PAGE: As it happened, she was defeated by Jesse Jackson, Jr., who won that Congressional seat. She turned around and asked Barack to step aside so she could run for her old seat again. Barack did not. In Chicago's traditional political etiquette, a lot of folks called it a dirty ploy.

COX: It would not be Obama's last clash with the Chicago machine. In 2000, as a state senator, he sought the Congressional seat of long-time incumbent and former Black Party Panther member Bobby Rush. Obama was trounced. Congressman Rush.

Representative BOBBY RUSH (Democrat, Illinois): First of all, he was running against me. I was the incumbent, had been elected I think for three or four times prior to him running against me.

COX: Rush says Obama was viewed as someone who had not paid his dues.

Representative RUSH: You know, his ambition kind of collided with my history and my involvement, my participation, not only in the civil rights movement, but my tenure here in the Congress. And I think that that's what collided, and he lost as a result of that.

COX: Over the next four years, Obama would work hard to repair his image and to ensure that that disconnect would not cost him another election. Melissa Harris Lacewell is a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton. Prior to that, she taught at the University of Chicago when Obama was a member of the faculty. She also attended Trinity United Church of Christ with the Obamas.

Dr. MELISSA HARRIS LACEWELL (Politics and African-American Studies, Princeton University): What Barack had managed to do over those four years, from 2000 to 2004, was he'd learned to be in different places, speaking to folks with lots of different kinds of interests, and he also learned that his personal narrative could connect with folks that were surprised that they connected with Barack Obama.

COX: Obama's political fortunes rapidly changed, and in 2004, he was able to successfully challenge for the United States Senate seat vacated by Republican Peter Fitzgerald. Obama defeated Republican Alan Keyes in a landslide. It was during that race that Obama first came to national prominence and delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. It secured his status as a rising star within the party.

(Soundbite of 2004 Democratic National Convention)

Senator OBAMA: There is not a black America and a white America, a Latino America, an Asian America. There's the United States of America.

COX: Again, Melissa Harris Lacewell.

Dr. HARRIS LACEWELL: So what I suspect is that for many Americans, both across lines of race but also class and also ideology, they look at Barack Obama and see all kinds of different things.

COX: Obama's broad appeal has been both a blessing and a curse, in part because he is a groundbreaking politician. He's biracial, with a white American mother and a black African father, was raised by a single parent and received an Ivy League education. Harris Lacewell says it is a mixture that Americans react to differently.

Dr. HARRIS LACEWELL: Clearly for some African-Americans, Barack Obama represents the culmination of the civil rights movement, the opportunity finally to reach the highest levels of government. For some white Americans, this is also the culmination of the civil rights movement, the idea of being in a multi-racial coalition behind a black leader. But for other whites, it is incidental that Barack Obama is black. Or they might even argue that Barack Obama is not particularly black.

COX: Despite overwhelming support from African-Americans, there remains a vocal constituency, both black and white, who are more concerned about this political inexperience than they are impressed by his promise of change. Count among them Ron Christie, a political consultant who was a special assistant to President George W. Bush.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush): One of the things that concerns me the most about Senator Obama becoming the next president of the United States is that at this juncture, I'm not quite sure who he is. He has been a member of the United States Senate for less than three years. He hasn't amassed a very formidable record. He discusses working in a bipartisan manner and hopes to bring change to Washington, but yet he's been one of the more partisan and one of the more divisive figures in the United States Senate. So regardless of his ideology, regardless of his background, we just don't know who he is.

COX: Like he once did in Chicago, Barack Obama has focused his presidential bid on refining and more clearly defining his image. One of the first tests was the controversy over the incendiary racial comments by Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama responded twice. First with a national address on the racial complexities in America, and then, following a second outburst by Wright, Obama called a news conference the next day to more clearly distance himself from racial politics.

Senator OBAMA: These comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate, and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church. They certainly don't portray accurately my values and beliefs.

COX: The campaign trail and presidential politics is full of land mines. And while some see Obama as transcending race, there have been other serious obstacles from his past. One of the more damaging is his one-time relationship with convicted Chicago real estate developer Tony Rezko. Rezko and Obama were involved in a land deal that lead to the purchase of Obama's Hyde Park home. Here again is Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune.

Mr. PAGE: I bet Obama himself would say that his biggest mistake was getting involved with Tony Rezko, in a property deal especially. He can't explain it away as far as a matter of judgment is concerned.

COX: Obama secured the Democratic nomination for president in one of the closest races in party history. Following his official nomination by party acclamation yesterday, the Democrats gather tonight to hear Obama formally accept that mantle. And as if there weren't already enough drama surrounding his historic campaign, Obama's current standing in the polls indicate the race against Republican John McCain in November could be just as close. John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan institute and a columnist for the New York Sun.

Mr. JOHN MCWHORTER (Columnist, New York Sun): There is one thing that will make or break Obama's chances, and racism is not the one. He needs to come up with a red-meat way of explaining what he's about. I think he needs to get down to some savory sloganeering along the lines of change you can believe in and the audacity of hope. He needs to whittle it down to about three things that he stresses again and again and again. And so he needs to realize that sitting and being reflective is not something that's going to get somebody elected.

COX: Candidate Obama will have his first opportunity to do that in his acceptance speech tonight.

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