Barack Obama and Me

It was the year 2000 and I was a young hungry reporter in Chicago covering a young hungry state legislator

Obama spent several weeks facing no opponent as the Illinois Republican Party exhausted a laundry list of replacement candidates that included former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka. The GOP ended up recruiting two-time failed presidential hopeful Alan Keyes from Maryland to fill the slot.

Keyes's strategy to use bombastic rhetoric to attract headlines turned off most voters. Most memorably, he said Jesus would not vote for Obama and that homosexuals, including Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, participated in "selfish ­hedonism."

In the end, Obama won more than 70 percent of the vote in the most lopsided Senate election in Illinois history and became the fifth African-American to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.

During his seven-year tenure in the Illinois Legislature, Obama wrote an occasional column for the Lakefront Outlook community newspaper where I worked. In 2004, during his U.S. Senate bid, I profiled Obama for the Illinois Times.
During his seven-year tenure in the Illinois Legislature, Obama wrote an occasional column for the Lakefront Outlook community newspaper where I worked. In 2004, during his U.S. Senate bid, I profiled Obama for the Illinois Times.
Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. was Obama's kingmaker.
Nick Steinkamp
Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. was Obama's kingmaker.

Three years later, in February 2007, Obama announced his bid for the White House in front of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln had made his famous House Divided speech.
_____________________

I moved to Springfield in early 2004 to work for the Illinois Times, where I covered Obama's U.S. Senate bid.

My first assignment was to profile Obama, who was largely unknown in central Illinois.

In fact, at that time just four years ago, Obama was still largely unknown even in his own community.

I followed Obama one wintry morning as he visited several black churches on Chicago's South Side urging people to vote for him in the upcoming primary. Congregants greeted him with lukewarm applause.

I noted in my article that one lady sitting in a pew beside me was noticeably impressed with the young man, and asked to borrow my pen. She wrote on her church pamphlet, "Obama, March 16," then underlined the date.

Over the years, most of my interviews with Obama were conducted by phone. So it felt good when he immediately recognized me and shouted my name from the end of a long, empty hallway inside the church after his speech.

After all, I admired the guy — and still do.

We shook hands and walked outside together. I asked some questions and snapped some pictures before a dark-blue Chevrolet Suburban with tinted windows whisked him off to another congregation less than a mile away. I followed behind in my beat-up Oldsmobile.

My story ran on the cover of the Illinois Times. The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought it was fluff. Obama's own public-relations flack could have produced something comparable.

At the time, the Illinois media had fallen head-over-heels in love with Obama and his squeaky-clean image. "As pedigrees go, there is not a finer one among the Democratic candidates," the Chicago Tribune gushed in its endorsement.

All this predated TV pundit Chris Matthews's more recent comment that Obama's speeches send chills up his legs.

"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.

Today I no longer have Obama's cell phone number. I submitted two formal requests to interview Obama for this story through his Web site, but have not heard back. I also e-mailed interview requests to three of his top staffers, but none responded.

Maybe he'll call the day after this story runs. I'll get to the office early just in case. And this time I'll have my recorder ready.

todd.spivak@houstonpress.com

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