Hollowness We Can Believe In
By Pejman Yousefzadeh Posted in 2008 | Barack Obama | Obamafiles | The Politics Of Hype — Comments (26) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
I'll be the first to tell anyone that Barack Obama is a highly intelligent, highly talented individual who is a very good campaigner. He also appears to be a nice guy--as politicians go--who is comfortable in his own skin. It's hard to dislike someone like that.
None of that, however, should serve as any kind of camouflage for the fact that he has one of the thinnest and least substantive records of any Presidential candidate in a long time. And yes, George W. Bush brought a bigger resume to the White House.
Your Honor, I call David Ignatius to the stand:
What I hear from politicians who have worked with Obama, both in Illinois state politics and here in Washington, gives me pause. They describe someone with an extraordinary ability to work across racial lines but not someone who has earned any profiles in courage for standing up to special interests or divisive party activists. Indeed, the trait people remember best about Obama, in addition to his intellect, is his ambition.
Obama worked on some bipartisan issues, such as a state version of the earned-income tax credit, after he was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996. But he also gained a reputation for skipping tough votes. The most famous example was a key gun control vote that he missed in December 1999 because he was vacationing in Hawaii. The Chicago Tribune blasted him and several other vote-skippers as "gutless." One Chicago pol says that "the myth developed that when there was a tough vote, he was gone."
Obama's brash self-confidence led him into his only big political blunder. Prodded by the Daley machine, he challenged Bobby Rush, an incumbent Democratic congressman and former Black Panther, in 2000. Rush pounded Obama by more than 2 to 1 in the primary. "He was blinded by his ambition," Rush told the New York Times last year.
Obama has been running for president almost since he arrived in the U.S. Senate in 2005, so his Senate colleagues say it's hard to evaluate his record. But what stands out in his brief Senate career is his liberal voting record, not a history of fighting across party lines to get legislation passed. He wasn't part of the 2005 Gang of 14 bipartisan coalition that sought to break the logjam on judicial nominations, but neither were Clinton or other prominent Democrats. He did support the bipartisan effort to get an immigration bill last year, winning a plaudit from McCain. But he didn't work closely with the White House, as did Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Ignatius, of course, is no tool of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. And all he is discussing are the facts that are and should be available to anyone with any interest whatsoever in looking at Obama's record, both as an Illinois state legislator and as a U.S. Senator.
Obama likes to glide past this inconvenient truth by claiming that his critics simply want him to stay in Washington so that they can "boil the hope out of him." It's a nice line but it really shouldn't cover up matters. The fact is that Obama's record of accomplishment is inversely proportional to the intensity of his political ambitions.
Your Honor, I call Todd Spivak to the stand.
More underneath the fold . . .
It's not quite eight in the morning and Barack Obama is on the phone screaming at me. He liked the story I wrote about him a couple weeks ago, but not this garbage.
Months earlier, a reporter friend told me she overheard Obama call me an [NAUGHTY WORD!] at a political fund-raiser. Now here he is blasting me from hundreds of miles away for a story that just went online but hasn't yet hit local newsstands.
It's the first time I ever heard him yell, and I'm trembling as I set down the phone. I sit frozen at my desk for several minutes, stunned.
This isn't exactly "Change We Can Believe In," now is it? I mean, I hear that Lyndon Johnson was quite a screamer and Richard Nixon had a long memory for political enemies too, nyet?
It was 2000 and I was a young, hungry reporter at the Hyde Park Herald and Lakefront Outlook community newspapers earning $19,000 a year covering politics and crime.
I talked with Obama on a regular basis -- a couple times a month, at least. I'd ask him about his campaign-finance reports, legislation he was sponsoring and various local issues. He wrote an occasional column published in our papers. It ran with a headshot that made him look about 14 years old.
Spinning through my old Rolodex, I see that I had two cell phone numbers for Obama. Both have since been disconnected.
I also had cell phone numbers for Jesse Jackson, his son Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., and David Axelrod, who now serves as Obama's senior presidential campaign adviser.
Axelrod, too, had begun his journalism career at the Hyde Park Herald before joining the Chicago Tribune as a political reporter then starting a political consulting firm. Another Hyde Park Herald alum was Seymour Hersh, the legendary investigative reporter who uncovered the My Lai massacre for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal for The New Yorker.
My view of Obama then wasn't all that different from the image he projects now. He was smart, confident, charismatic and liberal. One thing I can say is, I never heard him launch into the preacher-man voice he now employs during speeches. He sounded vanilla, and activists in his mostly black district often chided him for it.
Okay, at this point, I need to ask readers to Stop, Collaborate and Listen. Let me remind those who don't know that I live in the Chicagoland area and have lived in the Chicagoland area for 17 out of the last 25 years. And I have spent years in Hyde Park; as a middle school and high school student here and as a College and graduate school student at a certain university in Hyde Park as well. I know Hyde Park and I know that the people who work for the Hyde Park Herald are not--not--VRWC types. Quite the contrary; they are Obama types. They are good and big government liberals who are very passionate and idealistic. Most of them went for Howard Dean the last time around. Now they are going for one of their own; Barack Obama lives in Hyde Park and was a Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. People like Todd Spivak should be naturally predisposed to writing something exceedingly kind and nice about Barack Obama, even though Spivak doesn't appear to be living in Hyde Park anymore.
Chris Matthews, the MSNBC political pundit, recently grilled Texas State Senator Kirk Watson for supporting Obama despite knowing nothing about the candidate's legislative record.
"Can you name any -- can you name anything he's accomplished?" Matthews pressed.
"No," Watson, whose district includes Austin, finally admitted. "I'm not gonna be able to do that."
"Well, that's a problem, isn't it?" Matthews said.
Hillary Clinton recalled the incident with a chuckle during last Thursday's debate at the University of Texas.
When asked about his legislative record, Obama rattles off several bills he sponsored as an Illinois lawmaker.
He expanded children's health insurance; made the state Earned Income Tax Credit refundable for low-income families; required public bodies to tape closed-door meetings to make government more transparent; and required police to videotape interrogations of homicide suspects.
And the list goes on.
It's a lengthy record filled with core liberal issues. But what's interesting, and almost never discussed, is that he built his entire legislative record in Illinois in a single year.
Republicans controlled the Illinois General Assembly for six years of Obama's seven-year tenure. Each session, Obama backed legislation that went nowhere; bill after bill died in committee. During those six years, Obama, too, would have had difficulty naming any legislative achievements.
Then, in 2002, dissatisfaction with President Bush and Republicans on the national and local levels led to a Democratic sweep of nearly every lever of Illinois state government. For the first time in 26 years, Illinois Democrats controlled the governor's office as well as both legislative chambers.
The white, race-baiting, hard-right Republican Illinois Senate Majority Leader James "Pate" Philip was replaced by Emil Jones Jr., a gravel-voiced, dark-skinned African-American known for chain-smoking cigarettes on the Senate floor.
Jones had served in the Illinois Legislature for three decades. He represented a district on the Chicago South Side not far from Obama's. He became Obama's kingmaker.
Several months before Obama announced his U.S. Senate bid, Jones called his old friend Cliff Kelley, a former Chicago alderman who now hosts the city's most popular black call-in radio program.
I called Kelley last week and he recollected the private conversation as follows:
"He said, 'Cliff, I'm gonna make me a U.S. Senator.'"
"Oh, you are? Who might that be?"
When you have friends in high places, those friends can help turn your career around. One moment, you are a political non-entity. The next moment . . .
Jones appointed Obama sponsor of virtually every high-profile piece of legislation, angering many rank-and-file state legislators who had more seniority than Obama and had spent years championing the bills.
"I took all the beatings and insults and endured all the racist comments over the years from nasty Republican committee chairmen," State Senator Rickey Hendon, the original sponsor of landmark racial profiling and videotaped confession legislation yanked away by Jones and given to Obama, complained to me at the time. "Barack didn't have to endure any of it, yet, in the end, he got all the credit.
"I don't consider it bill jacking," Hendon told me. "But no one wants to carry the ball 99 yards all the way to the one-yard line, and then give it to the halfback who gets all the credit and the stats in the record book."
During his seventh and final year in the state Senate, Obama's stats soared. He sponsored a whopping 26 bills passed into law -- including many he now cites in his presidential campaign when attacked as inexperienced.
It was a stunning achievement that started him on the path of national politics -- and he couldn't have done it without Jones.
If Emil Jones were running for President, I suppose that my objections to a thin resume would be lessened considerably.
But he's not, is he?
I'm ignoring Spivak. Back to him:
Before Obama ran for U.S. Senate in 2004, he was virtually unknown even in his own state. Polls showed fewer than 20 percent of Illinois voters had ever heard of Barack Obama.
Jones further helped raise Obama's profile by having him craft legislation addressing the day-to-day tragedies that dominated local news headlines.
For instance. Obama sponsored a bill banning the use of the diet supplement ephedra, which killed a Northwestern University football player, and another one preventing the use of pepper spray or pyrotechnics in nightclubs in the wake of the deaths of 21 people during a stampede at a Chicago nightclub. Both stories had received national attention and extensive local coverage.
I spoke to Jones earlier this week and he confirmed his conversation with Kelley, adding that he gave Obama the legislation because he believed in Obama's ability to negotiate with Democrats and Republicans on divisive issues.
Does anyone else get the feeling that Barack Obama is Johnny Fontane to Emil Jones's Vito Corleone? Of course, the Don never made out as well as Jones has for his fatherly concern for Obama:
So how has Obama repaid Jones?
Last June, to prove his commitment to government transparency, Obama released a comprehensive list of his earmark requests for fiscal year 2008. It comprised more than $300 million in pet projects for Illinois, including tens of millions for Jones's Senate district.
Shortly after Jones became Senate president, I remember asking his view on pork-barrel spending.
I'll never forget what he said:
"Some call it pork; I call it steak."
Now, I know what the Obamaniacs are going to say. They are going to say that Barack Obama is not your typical politician and that if he really wanted to do well as opposed to doing good, he would have taken a six-figure salary job out of law school instead of being a poorly paid community organizer. To some extent, they may have a point, but let's all try to remember that Barack Obama always saw community organizing as a stepping stone to bigger and better things and just because one calls oneself an activist, it does not mean that one is actually engaged in activism:
On the stump, Obama has frequently invoked his experiences as a community organizer on the Chicago South Side in the early 1990s, when he passed on six-figure salary offers at corporate law firms after graduating from Harvard Law School to direct a massive voter-registration drive.
But, as a state senator, Obama evaded leadership on a host of critical community issues, from historic preservation to the rapid demolition of nearby public-housing projects, according to many South Siders.
Harold Lucas, a veteran South Side community organizer who remembers when Obama was "just a big-eared kid fresh out of school," says he didn't finally decide to support Obama's presidential bid until he was actually inside the voting booth on Super Tuesday.
"I'm not happy about the quality of life in my community," says Lucas, who now heads a black-heritage tourism business in Chicago. "As a local elected official, he had a primary role in that."
In addition to Hyde Park, Obama also represented segments of several South Side neighborhoods home to the nation's richest African-American cultural history outside of Harlem.
Before World War II, the adjacent Bronzeville community was known as the "Black Metropolis," attracting African-American migrants seeking racial equality and economic opportunity from states to the south such as Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
Storied jazz clubs such as Gerri's Palm Tavern regularly hosted Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker and many others. In the postwar era, blues legends Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King all regularly gigged in cramped juke joints such as the Checkerboard Lounge.
When the City of Chicago seized the 70-year-old Gerri's Palm Tavern by eminent domain in 2001, sparking citywide protests, Obama was silent. And he offered no public comments when the 30-year owner of the Checkerboard Lounge was forced to relocate a couple years later.
Even in Hyde Park, Obama declined to take a position on a years-long battle waged by hundreds of local community activists fighting against the city's plan to replace the historic limestone seawall along Lake Michigan -- a popular spot to sunbathe and swim -- with concrete steps.
Obama's been AWOL when it has come to a whole host of major activism issues. But when it comes to his own ambition--well, there, he is engaged:
Though it didn't make national news, Obama inflamed many residents in his old state Senate district last March when he endorsed controversial Chicago alderman Dorothy Tillman in a runoff election.
Flamboyant and unpredictable, Tillman is perhaps best known for once pulling a pistol from her purse and brandishing it around at a city council meeting. The ward she represented for 22 years, which included historic Bronzeville, comprised the city's largest concentration of vacant lots.
Just three months before Obama made his endorsement, the Lakefront Outlook community newspaper ran a three-part investigative series exposing flagrant cronyism and possible tax-law violations that centered on Tillman and her biggest pet project, a taxpayer-funded cultural center built across the street from her ward office that had been hemorrhaging money since its inception.
The series won a national George Polk Award, among the most coveted prizes in journalism. Not bad for a 12-page rag with a circulation of 12,000 and no Web site. I had already left the Outlook and had nothing to do with the project.
In the end, Tillman lost the election despite Obama's endorsement, which critics said countered his calls for clean government. Obama told the Chicago Tribune that he had backed Tillman because she was an early supporter of his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign.
Many speculate Obama only bothered to weigh in on a paltry city council election during his presidential campaign as a gesture to Chicago's powerful Mayor Richard M. Daley, a Tillman supporter. Even so, Obama should have remained neutral, says Timuel Black, a historian and City Colleges of Chicago professor emeritus who lived in Obama's state Senate district.
"That was not a wise decision," Black says. "It was poor judgment on his part. He was operating like a politician trying to win the next step up."
This may all sound like small-bore stuff to people outside of Chicago. But you have to judge the effectiveness of Obama's activism by judging what he has done in Chicago. And supporting an alderman with a penchant for big, floppy hats, demagoguery on the issue of race and pistol-brandishing in the City Council--not to mention other things--is not "Change We Can Believe In."
Now, read the following. If you do things like replacing the name "Barack Obama" with "James Baker," or "Ted Olson," you might think that you were reading a bitter account of the Florida Recount Controversy:
Obama has spent his entire political career trying to win the next step up. Every three years, he has aspired to a more powerful political position.
He was just 35 when in 1996 he won his first bid for political office. Even many of his staunchest supporters, such as Black, still resent the strong-arm tactics Obama employed to win his seat in the Illinois Legislature.
Obama hired fellow Harvard Law alum and election law expert Thomas Johnson to challenge the nominating petitions of four other candidates, including the popular incumbent, Alice Palmer, a liberal activist who had held the seat for several years, according to an April 2007 Chicago Tribune report.
Obama found enough flaws in the petition sheets -- to appear on the ballot, candidates needed 757 signatures from registered voters living within the district -- to knock off all the other Democratic contenders. He won the seat unopposed.
"A close examination of Obama's first campaign clouds the image he has cultivated throughout his political career," wrote Tribune political reporters David Jackson and Ray Long. "The man now running for president on a message of giving a voice to the voiceless first entered public office not by leveling the playing field, but by clearing it."
All of this brings us back to Barack Obama's screaming:
"He's been given a pass," says Harold Lucas, the community organizer in Chicago. "His career has been such a meteoric rise that he has not had the time to set a record."
A week after my profile of Obama was published, I called some of my contacts in the Illinois Legislature. I ran through a list of black Chicago lawmakers who had worked with Obama, and was surprised to learn that many resented him and had supported other candidates in the U.S. Senate election.
"Anybody but Obama," the late state Representative Lovana Jones told me at the time.
State Representative Monique Davis, who attended the same church as Obama and co-sponsored several bills with him, also did not support his candidacy. She complained of feeling overshadowed by Obama.
"I was snubbed," Davis told me. "I felt he was shutting me out of history."
In a follow-up report published a couple weeks later, I wrote about these disgruntled black legislators and the central role Senate President Emil Jones played in Obama's revived political life.
The morning after the story was posted online, I arrived early at my new offices. I hadn't taken my coat off when the phone rang. It was Obama.
The article began, "It can be painful to hear Ivy League-bred Barack Obama talk jive."
Obama told me he doesn't speak jive, that he doesn't say the words "homeboy" or "peeps."
It seemed so silly; I thought for sure he was joking. He wasn't.
He said the black legislators I cited in the story were off-base, and that they couldn't have gotten the bills passed without him.
I started to speak, and he shouted me down.
He said he liked the other story I wrote.
I asked if there was anything factually inaccurate about the latest story.
He repeated that his former colleagues couldn't have passed the bills without him.
He asked why I wrote this story, then cut me off when I started to answer.
He said he should have been given a chance to respond.
I told him I had requested an interview through his communications director.
He said I should have called his cell phone.
I reminded him that he had asked me months ago to stop calling his cell phone due to his busier schedule.
He said again that I should have called his cell phone.
After reading all of the above, one can't help but wonder what might have happened if Spivak actually did what Obama wanted and called his cell phone. At best, he would have gotten another pretty speech. But at the end of the day, no amount of pretty speeches fill the holes in a record and a resume that looks like Swiss cheese.