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Obama And The Chicago Establishment

Barack Obama has been portrayed as an outsider candidate — an idealist not mired in the political game. But Ryan Lizza says that a look at Obama's political history in Chicago might offer a different view of the candidate. Lizza is the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, and has been tracking the Obama campaign.



TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza on Barack Obama's Chicago
roots and influences

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Barack Obama's early career in politics is the subject of an article in the
new edition of The New Yorker. The story, titled "Making It: How Chicago
Shaped Obama," was written by my guest, Ryan Lizza, the magazine's Washington
correspondent. Obama spent three years in the late '80s working as a
community organizer in Chicago before going to Harvard Law School. Lizza says
that by 1991, when Obama graduated Harvard Law, he was talking about running
for office. His first race was in 1995, when he successfully ran for the
Illinois State Senate. At the time he was a 34-year-old lawyer and university
professor. Alice Palmer, who represented Obama's neighborhood, Hyde Park, in
the state senate, had decided to run for the US Congress to replace Mel
Reynolds. Reynolds had resigned after being convicted of sexual assault.
Lizza says that replacing Palmer was the perfect opportunity for Barack Obama
to make his first run for office.

Mr. RYAN LIZZA: Some of the congressional seats, you know, like
congressional seats anywhere, but even more so in Chicago, once you win them,
you keep them for a long, long time. So when Mel Reynolds was forced to
resign after the sex scandal, it started off a real flurry of activity among
all the sort of aspiring politicians on the south side of Chicago. So this
woman, Alice Palmer, decides to jump into that congressional race, and her
opponents ended up being Jesse Jackson Jr., who eventually won the seat, and
her other opponent was a guy named Emil Jones, who's now the president of the
state senate of Illinois.

So Obama, realizing that Palmer was going to run for Congress, decided that he
would make a play for her state senate seat. And what he did is he, in a very
systematic way, he sort of went to all the influential Democratic leaders on
the south side and lined up their support, and no one's support was more
important than Alice Palmer, and he convinced her to endorse him for that
state senate seat, and, really, that endorsement was tantamount to sort of
winning the seat. I mean, he never really had a serious opponent.

GROSS: But the strangest thing happened. She realized she was going to lose
the primary for the congressional seat that she wanted, so she wanted to go
back to the state legislature, and what did she tell Barack Obama?

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah, it's a really great story, because everything's going
swimmingly for Obama in his first race, right? I mean, he's lined up
everyone. Everyone loves this guy. He has this announcement speech, and
Alice Palmer is there and tells everyone, you know, `This is the guy for us.
I'm going off to run for Congress, but I've found this great replacement for
you all,' and, you know, everyone was sort of holding hands and agreeing on
this. So Alice Palmer, who turns out not to be the greatest politician in the
world, polling in the single digits in her congressional campaign and she just
gets crushed. She ends up with only 10 percent of the vote. So she had
promised Obama that she would not seek to run for her state senate seat if she
lost the congressional race. She had promised him it was his, and she changed
her mind. And some of her most important supporters tried to push Barack
Obama out of that state senate race and give the seat back to Alice Palmer.

So Obama was faced with a incredibly tough decision here. He's got most of
the important black leaders on the south side of Chicago--not most, but
many--lining up behind Alice Palmer. He's in some ways a new guy in town, not
from Chicago, has this weird name. People don't know that much about him, and
so he's faced with a really, really difficult decision.

GROSS: And what was his decision?

Mr. LIZZA: And so his decision was to stay in the race. Palmer announces
that she's getting back in, that she's been drafted back. And Obama says,
`You know what? All right. Fine, I'm staying back in, too. She made a
commitment to me,' and what happens is there's an old tradition in Chicago
politics to check the petitions of your opponent. Getting on the ballot in
Chicago is not easy. It's a bit of a Kabuki process where you have to get
lots of signatures, everyone's got to be a registered voter. You have to have
all your Is dotted and Ts crossed, and the rules are sort of cumbersome
because the old, you know, machine wanted to keep people off the ballot.
Well, Obama's supporters in Hyde Park were sort of experts at these ballot
battles, because they've been fighting Daley machine for years and years, and
they got used to having their own petitions challenged. So he sends some of
his people down to city hall, the board of elections, to look at Alice
Palmer's signatures and it turns out they're filled with irregularities, and,
long story short, he ends up knocking not just Alice Palmer off the ballot but
all of his minor opponents as well, and he wins his first race with no

GROSS: So what happened to his relationship with the African-American leaders
in Chicago who were backing Palmer and had wanted Obama to drop out? Did they
come together, or did they remain alienated from each other?

Mr. LIZZA: A lot of them remained alienated from Obama. He arrived in
Springfield, the state capital, with a sort of reputation, you know, a
two-sided coin here. Part of the reputation was, wow, this guy's tough. He
didn't buckle under when all of the senior black leadership of his community
was telling him to get out of the race. On the other hand, there's a lot of
sympathy for Alice Palmer. She has deep, long-rooted ties to the black
leadership in Chicago. She's a longtime activist, and a lot of the
legislators from Chicago really liked her, and so this cocky upstart named
Obama ended her political career, you know, and he's in his early 30s and they
surely thought he would have had another chance if he had backed down. So it
gave him a reputation. It gave him--he arrived in Springfield, you know, as a
bit of a troublemaker. And it was one of several episodes in his early career
where he clashed with the generation in front of him, the older generation of
black leaders.

There was one other example of this in the early '90s. In 1992 he was running
a voter registration drive called Project Vote, and he was in charge and he
clashed with some of the other local politicians who had been around a little
bit longer because he wanted to sort of do things his way. So you have these
two examples from the early to mid-'90s of him sort of being independent and
also sort of not buckling to the pressure of the established leadership.

GROSS: So how much do you think that the split that you were describing
between Obama and some of the older African-American leaders in Chicago or in
the state of Illinois, how much of that do you think was generational?

Mr. LIZZA: It's partly generational, and it was partly a sort of insider vs.
outsider thing, or the locals vs. the guy who just got to town. You know,
Chicago is famous for not being a place that is hospitable to carpetbaggers,
you know. There's a famous story that Abner Mikva tells, the old Chicago
congressman: When he first arrived from Wisconsin in Chicago and he wanted to
work on a Senate campaign, he went to the local ward organization and he said,
`I want to volunteer.' And as Abner tells the story, the boss pulled the cigar
out of his mouth and said, `Well, who sent you?' and he said, you know, he
said, `Well, nobody sent me.' And the boss said, `Well, we don't want nobody
that nobody sent.' That phrase has often been used to describe the culture of
Chicago politics. They don't want nobody nobody sent, and nobody had sent

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza, and he's Washington
correspondent for The New Yorker. His piece in the current edition is called
"Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama."

Well, you had mentioned Project Vote, which was a voter registration drive
that Obama headed early in his political career--this was in 1992--and it
introduced him to a lot of the political leadership in Chicago. How
successful was the registration drive, and how did--what kind of like credit
or what kind of problems did that create for Obama?

Mr. LIZZA: You know, one of the things that crops up in Obama's career is he
has been incredibly lucky with respect to timing. You know, he sort of has
been at the right place at the right time at every turn. And 1992 was an
important year in politics in Illinois. Carol Moseley Braun, African-American
Democrat, won a US Senate seat that year, so she had really excited the black
community in Chicago. And Bill Clinton was making a big play for Illinois,
which a Democrat had not won since 1964, when Johnson won it. So Illinois was
a swing state, and Chicago was sort of the center of all the action. So
Project Vote was really important that year, and voter registration was really
important that year. And as a consequence, Obama's Project Vote was very
well-funded, and it was vital. I mean, and some people--you know, it's hard
to know where the votes come from, but some people credit, you know, the 100
to 150,000 people that Project Vote registered, some people credit that for
helping elect Carol Moseley Braun and helping Bill Clinton win Illinois.

So he was really--there are clips from the time in the local newspapers,
really praising Obama. You know, he sort of had a golden touch at this point
in his career. You know, he'd just come off being the president, first
African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, and his first major job,
Project Vote in Chicago, turned into a big success. So, even that early on,
he was becoming well-known and well connected. You know, he wasn't--you know,
in elite Chicago society, people knew who he was.

GROSS: Which was hard to do as an outsider, coming into Chicago.

Mr. LIZZA: Which was hard to do as an outsider. You know, as he pointed out
to me--and he takes a lot of pride in this--you know, he once said, `I got to
Chicago and I didn't know anyone' and, you know, something like, `I did pretty
well for myself,' being a guy that didn't know anyone when he got there.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about how he built his base in Chicago.

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: Part of it was through community organizing. How helpful was those
three years in the '80s when he was a community organizer? How helpful was
that to his political career?

Mr. LIZZA: That was helpful, and the way I look at it is if you look at the
span of his career, in his early career he was--there was sort of layer upon
layer that he was building. And remember, Chicago is a very factionalized
place. A lot of tribes. And if you're a member of one tribe, you know,
you're not really supposed to talk to the other tribe, or so it seems
sometimes. And, you know, you have to say that it was never really his
approach. So when he was a community organizer, the networks, you
know--another way to look at this is just the various networks that he tapped
into--so that as a community organizer, what he was doing was going around to
churches and trying to get these churches that all sort of were independent
and even competitive with each other, trying to get them to work together on
some of the local problems, mostly job losses from some steel plants that had
closed down in the area. And those relationships with those pastors he kept
with him for the rest of his life, and as we know, one of them was Jeremiah
Wright, one of the first pastors he met.

GROSS: You say that Barack Obama's wife, Michelle, helped introduce him to
important people.

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah!

GROSS: One of her best friends is, or was, Jesse Jackson's daughter?

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah, this is interesting. One of the things that you learn when
you spend--you know, and I spent a lot of time in Chicago trying to untangle
all this--and one of the things you learn is, in some ways it's a very small
town. Everyone's connected to everyone else, and Michelle is in some--you
know, I came to realize is sort of, you know, a secret weapon for Obama.
Think about the connections that she brought him. For one, she was working at
a very prestigious law firm, so she was--he sort of had access to some of the
legal elite in the city. She also worked briefly in the mayor's office, so
Barack Obama in the early '90s knew Mayor Daley because his wife worked for
him. And she was good friends with Jesse Jackson's daughter Santita. In
fact, Santita's now the godmother to the Obamas' first daughter. So you have
the Jacksons and the Daleys. You already have a connection through Michelle,
those are the two big families in Chicago.

And she also--her brother, believe it or not, just a random coincidence,
played basketball with a couple of people, one named Marty Nesbitt, who became
Obama's best friend, and he's a successful black entrepreneur in Chicago, and
he sort of led Obama to some of the black entrepreneurial networks in the city
that became important to him as he needed more money for his races. So I
think of what he was doing early on as a lot of bridge building and a lot of
penetrating various networks.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza. He's the
Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, and in this week's New Yorker he
has a story about Barack Obama called "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama."
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH


GROSS: My guest is Ryan Lizza, the Washington correspondent for The New
Yorker, and we're talking about his story in the current edition of The New
Yorker. It's called "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama."

Have you learned anything new about how Obama first got connected with
Reverend Wright and Trinity Church?

Mr. LIZZA: Well, I will say this. One thing that I never believed until I
started working on this story, I never really believed that it was a purely
political decision. And one of his aldermen, this woman, Toni Preckwinkle,
one of his oldest supporters, I was very surprised at how very frank she was
about suggesting that, you know, look, Trinity is a big, important church on
the south side. It's a place where you have a lot of parishioners and a lot
of important people, and it's not a bad place to be if you're an aspiring
politician. And so, you know, what sort of mix of genuine interest in the
sort of social gospel that Trinity teached because it does--it did and it does
still do that--and how much of it was a sort of, you know, `Hey, well, I'm
thinking about running for office; it wouldn't be a bad place to be.' You
know, I don't know. But I do think--or at least I'm open to believing, as
some of his supporters say--that there were some politics involved there.

Now, obviously, it sounds crazy now, to think that this was a wise political
decision, because Reverend Wright has really harmed his campaign in some ways,
but at the time, when he was, you know, not that well known and thinking about
running for office, it was a perfectly ordinary place to be. And let me just
add one thing--I think this is important--Reverend Wright was known as--look,
he had advanced degrees. He could sit down and talk to Obama on a level that,
frankly, some of the other preachers on the south side couldn't. He was
progressive. He was progressive on gay rights, and not all of the churches on
the south side of Chicago are culturally liberal, especially on gay and
lesbian issues. So I think that also appealed to Obama as well.

GROSS: Well, in Barack Obama's memoir, "Dreams from my Father," he says what
brought him to Trinity Church wasn't religion because he wasn't religious
then. It was his organizing, his community organizing.

Mr. LIZZA: Absolutely.

GROSS: And he wanted Reverent Wright and his church members to sign up to be
part of the movement that Obama was organizing. So Obama says he got there
for political social reasons...

Mr. LIZZA: That's absolutely right.

GROSS: ...and for social change reasons, but ended up becoming a serious

Mr. LIZZA: That's right. So if you go back to the '80s, the reason he met
Wright to begin with was because he was organizing churches on the south side
and he wanted to work with Wright on the sort of public policy issues he was
working on. Obama learned very fast during his meetings with various pastors
that it was a bit of a problem that he was not a practicing Christian, so in
his book he talks about--I think it's a Reverend Smalls who says to him, `You
know, you might have a little bit more success if we saw you showing up in the
pews on Sunday,' and, you know, he was a little embarrassed because the
pastors kept asking him about what church he belonged to. So those sort of
questions that were being put to him by the pastors he was trying to organize
started him on the road to sort of thinking about his religion in a more
serious way. And eventually, it was in Wright's church where he became a
committed Christian.

GROSS: After Obama headed a voter registration drive in Chicago, he went to a
new law firm...

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: A law firm that was new for him, and this was a law firm that
specialized in civil rights-related litigation and represented a lot of
anti-Daley machine people. They had a connection to the developer Tony Rezko,
who was recently convicted of fraud and bribery. What was the connection
between the law firm and Rezko?

Mr. LIZZA: Just to take a small step back, Chicago was at the forefront of a
housing development policy of using tax credits to lure private investors into
areas that they probably wouldn't touch otherwise and develop public housing.
So in the early '90s, Rezko was one of the chief beneficiaries of this policy,
or at least he was one of the developers in Chicago that was using it more
than anyone else. Jud Miner's firm represented the nonprofits that partnered
with developers on these deals. So he didn't technically represent Rezko, but
he represented the nonprofits in a few cases that partnered with Rezko. And,
you know, at this point in time, Rezko's not--he's a wealthy developer, but
he's not known as the Rezko we know of today. So Obama would have been
familiar with all this because he was working at the firm and he worked--it's
been reported now that he worked on some of these specific deals, and he was
also, you know, according to interviews at the time, he also thought this was
a good public policy, you know, good sort of public-private partnership that
was good for the city.

And a corollary here is that these developers that were sort of swooping into
these neighborhoods and taking advantage of these new policies, they began to
become a political force on the south side of Chicago and started donating a
lot of money to the local politicians. So if you read sort of early accounts
of what's going on in Obama's neighborhood in his local paper, the Hyde Park
Herald, Rezko's name comes up over and over again in stories about campaign
finance. So he was a natural person for Obama to go to when he got into
politics to start raising money for him, so that relationship started very
early on.

GROSS: How helpful financially was Rezko to Obama's early campaigns?

Mr. LIZZA: Well, in his first campaign, Rezko was a supporter of Alice
Palmer before Obama. So Rezko was a major player on the south side. He's
sprinkling money all around to the local politicians, and Obama would be
familiar with him from his legal work at the law firm, and, even a stranger
coincidence, Rezko actually tried to recruit Obama out of law school to work
for him in his development work. So they knew each other. And in that first
campaign, which ended up not being much of a campaign anyway, Rezko raised
about 10 percent of the funds for that campaign. And that was the start of a
very close relationship between a fundraiser and politician that, you know,
has come back to haunt Obama more recently.

GROSS: Ryan Lizza will be back in the second half of the show. His article
"Making It: How Chicago Shaped Barack Obama" is in the current edition of The
New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about Barack
Obama's early political career and how he was shaped by Chicago. That's the
subject of an article in the current edition of The New Yorker by my guest
Ryan Lizza, who covers Washington for the magazine.

When we left off, we were talking about Obama's relationship with the real
estate developer Tony Rezko, who was recently convicted of bribery and fraud.
Rezko had been a major fundraiser in Chicago politics and had raised about 10
percent of Obama's funding in his first campaign, his successful 1995 run for
the state senate. Lizza says Obama and Rezko also became friends.

Obama and Rezko bought adjoining pieces of land, and then later, when Obama
wanted to expand his backyard, he bought some of Rezko's land from Rezko.

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: And nothing illegal happened there, though Obama said that he used bad
judgment in having this kind of relationship with Rezko at a time when Rezko
was already being investigated.

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: Are there any ways in which Obama has been implicated in doing
something unethical with Rezko?

Mr. LIZZA: No. I think the worst that you can accuse him of is very poor
judgment in continuing a relationship with someone where a lot of politicians
not half as smart as Barack Obama had already decided that there's something
wrong with this guy. It was, you know--by the time of that deal with Obama's
house, it was well known that Rezko was under a cloud. One of Obama's
earliest supporters, an alderman on the south side--and she's still an
alderman--Toni Preckwinkle--and Rezko was actually a major donor of hers--and
she told me that she stopped working with him because she didn't like the way
that some of the housing deals that he was involved with were operating. And
she sort of, you know, smelled trouble early on and stopped taking money from
him, and Obama continued to take money from him. So I think the worst that
you can accuse him of is bad judgment.

You know, there--and I point this out in the piece--he was sympathetic to this
housing policy, right, so--and on the merits, you know, I think a lot of
people agree--there are some dissenters--but a lot of people agree that the
tax credits was a good plan and Obama did involve himself when he went down to
Springfield in some housing issues that definitely did benefit Rezko and other
developers, and like any situation like that, there's no evidence of a quid
pro quo, but, you know, there was certainly a--you know, you can say that he
was an advocate of policies that benefited these developers who were also
raising money for him.

GROSS: Barack Obama ran for the US Congress in 2000, challenging former Black
Panther Bobby Rush, who had represented the south side since 1992. Obama lost
by a wide margin. What went wrong?

Mr. LIZZA: Everything. This is the turning point in his political career,
because he has a devastating loss, and it's really from the ashes of that loss
that he sort of figures out, you know, his future. You know, part of it was
just bad luck and, you know, he got off to a late start. His wife did not
want him to run in that race. He finally got her to sign on, but her heart
was never in it, and so he got a late start because he was sort of dithering
about whether to run or not.

The big event--there are a couple of big events. One of--the first big one
was that Bobby Rush's son was shot and killed. And that really changed the
dynamics of the race. In fact, it's been reported that Jesse Jackson Sr.
called Barack Obama after the shooting and said, `You know, you have to
realize the dynamics of this thing are totally different now.' And they were.
There was a great outpouring of sympathy for Bobby Rush. It made it very hard
for Obama to sort of attack him and, you know, he had this message of
generational change, and it just--it sort of--that message didn't resonate
much anymore after Rush's son was killed.

The second big event, there was a very important vote on gun legislation. Of
course, in the wake of the Bobby Rush slaying, the press was even more
interested in issues about gun control. On the day of the vote, Obama at that
point was writing a column for his local newspaper, the Hyde Park Herald,
reporting on his legislation in Springfield. On the day of this gun control
vote, he had a column in the Hyde Park Herald talking about what a critical
vote it was. Now, clearly the column was written in advance because Obama was
actually not in Springfield; he was in Hawaii visiting his grandmother. He
missed the vote. The legislation died by just a few votes. And he was widely
criticized for being in Hawaii and missing this extremely important vote, you
know, and he tried to explain that his daughter was very sick, he didn't want
to fly back with a sick daughter, and he tried to explain that he only visits
his grandmother once a year, but mostly the press reported it as, you know,
Obama on vacation in some tropical location and missing this important vote in
the wake of, you know, this terrible Bobby Rush tragedy. It was all downhill
from there, and he never really had a chance, and he ended up losing by 31

GROSS: So, after Obama lost to Bobby Rush in 2000, did he reevaluate his
strengths and weaknesses as a politician?

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah, he really, really did. I think there were a couple of
major lessons from the Bobby Rush race, according to the people that know him
best. A lot of racial issues cropped up in that campaign, and a lot of the
stuff that we were talking about earlier in the interview about the tensions
with some of the black leadership--as one of Obama's friends told me, you
know, the Rush campaign was his comeuppance. There were some very, very nasty
things said about Obama during that campaign, that he was not black enough,
that he was--there was a lot of anti-Semitism, that he was controlled by Jews,
by whites downtown. A lot of his supporters were attacked as traitors. It
was an ugly campaign.

And he--I think one of the things he realized, and one of the things that Emil
Jones, the state senate president, told me is that Obama learned that his
natural coalition is probably broader than just being an inner city black
politician. That's the way Emil Jones put it. And I think he started to
realize what his natural base was, and he started to think that, you know, he
certainly wasn't going to be mayor of Chicago, because Daley seemed very
secure in his position as mayor. Rush was impossible to beat. He'd learned
that lesson; he wasn't going to try that again. So I think he started to
think more about, you know, countywide, statewide. He started to think of his
potential beyond just an African-American base in Chicago.

GROSS: My guest is Ryan Lizza, a Washington correspondent for The New Yorker.
His article "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Barack Obama" is in the current
edition. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest Ryan Lizza is the author of an article in the current edition
of The New Yorker about Barack Obama's early political career and how he was
shaped by Chicago. When we left off, we were talking about Obama's
unsuccessful run for the US Congress in 2000.

Well, you know, one of the big changes that happened in 2000, in addition to
him losing the election, is that the Democrats in Illinois won the right to
re-district the state, and you say, you know, every Democratic legislator
started working on what his ideal map would be if he could re-draw his
district. And Obama's district was re-drawn, and that was a key part of his
political life. How was the district re-drawn and how much input did Obama
have in that?

Mr. LIZZA: The re-districting process in Illinois--it sounds sort of boring,
but you can't overstate how important it was to Obama's political career. So
in 2001 he sits down, like all legislators do, in a place that the Democrats
in Springfield call the inner sanctum. And the inner sanctum is this room in
an old 1950s office building. You walk up to a door with a fingerprint reader
and a keypad, and then you enter a little waiting room, and there's another
door with another keypad and fingerprint reader, and then inside that room,
that's what the inner sanctum is. There's a series of computers with a very
sophisticated mapping technology, and Obama sat down with a young Democratic
staffer named John Corrigan and they began the process of re-drawing the map,
re-drawing the district that Barack Obama represented.

So his old district, which had been drawn by Republicans--you got to remember,
Chicago is sort of a, you know, think of Chicago hugging in a north-south way
the lake. And at the south end of that is Hyde Park, and Obama's old district
started there in Hyde Park and then it jutted like a finger west into a sort
of area of poor African-American bungalow homes. So it was Hyde Park and then
this other area. What happened, his district radically changed. Instead of
being east-west, it now started in Hyde Park but then it shot north towards
the downtown of Chicago. By the end of the process, he had all of the sort of
fanciest neighborhoods in Chicago--the Gold Coast, almost the entire
lakefront, the famous Loop, the sort of central business district of Chicago,
he had half of that.

So he now represented--so his district changed in the following ways. It was
still majority African-American district. It still included some very poor
areas of Chicago, some of the poorest on the south side, but it also became
much wealthier, much less blue collar, more white collar. It became more
Jewish, and he had one of the highest concentrations of Republicans in the
state of Illinois--or, excuse me, in Chicago. So this was a radical, radical
change. You know, so now the people that--if he's thinking about running for
statewide office, the people he's going to be needing to raise money from, the
sort of elite of Chicago, they're now not just donors, but they are his
constituents. These are the people that live and work in his district. So it
was a very important change. That's the first reason it was important.

Same reason it was important as the overall Illinois re-districting. What it
accomplished for the Democrats is it allowed them to win back the state
senate. So for the first time in Obama's political career, he is in
Springfield as a state legislator and he's in the majority; he's no longer in
the minority. And like a lot of state capitals, when you're in the majority,
you control everything.

GROSS: And you write that the Democratic leadership in the state legislature
in Illinois let Obama introduce bills which had gotten nowhere under the
Republican-controlled Senate but could now be passed under the
Democrat-controlled Senate. So suddenly he had a portfolio of bills that....

Mr. LIZZA: Exactly.

GROSS: ...he was introducing that he could take some credit for that could
really boost his political resume. What kind of relationship did he have with
the political leadership that they would give him that kind of privilege,
considering he was a relative newcomer?

Mr. LIZZA: The most important relationship was the one he forged with Emil
Jones, now the president of the state senate after the gerrymandering
accomplished its goal of the Democrats taking over the state senate. And
after that happened, Obama came to Emil Jones and he said--as Emil Jones likes
to tell the story, he's told it many times--Obama came to him and said, `You
know, you're now the leader of the senate. You've got a lot of power.' And
Emil Jones says, `Well, what kind of power do I have?' Obama says, `You have
the power to make a US senator.' That conversation forged an alliance between
Emil Jones and Obama, and Emil Jones basically gave Obama the space to pass
all the legislation that he wanted, and that he would use in his Senate
campaign the following year.

One of the other things Emil did is he had a young staffer--made sure there
was a young staffer on the floor that would watch Obama's floor vote. So
Obama basically, you know, he became almost Emil Jones's project, and that was
a very important relationship in setting up Obama's US Senate campaign.
Because without it, quite frankly, Obama's legislative record wasn't all that
strong until the Democrats took over and until Emil Jones sort of pushed him
ahead of the line--ahead of some of his colleagues in advancing some of this
key legislation.

GROSS: So is there literally--I mean, is there really like a line that, you

Mr. LIZZA: Well...

GROSS: I mean...

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you--do you need like the most powerful guy's permission to
introduce important bills? Is there a pecking order for who gets to do it?

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah, there was a lot of friction still left over from Obama's
earliest days clashing with some of these folks from Chicago. You know, as
Emil Jones told me, when Obama got to the Springfield, he didn't hang out with
his fellow legislators from Chicago. He hung out with the downstate guys, and
there was still some leftover friction from the Alice Palmer affair and from
Obama's just sort of overall--you know, I think some of his critics in the
state legislature would have said "cockiness" and "aloofness." You hear a lot
of stuff like--you know, `he really liked to remind you, you know, he went to
Harvard.' So there was some friction between Obama and some of his--and
especially his black colleagues from Chicago, and that carried over after the
Democrats took over the Senate in 2002. And when Emil Jones basically said,
you know, `I'm going to make Obama the lead on some of this important
legislation, you know, I don't care, state legislator X, if you've been
working on it for 10 years, Obama's now my point man.' So that caused a little
bit of friction, and Emil Jones from time to time would have to step in and,
you know, knock some heads and make sure that the people weren't picking on
Obama too much because of this.

GROSS: You write that perhaps the greatest misconception about Obama is that
he's some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. You say...

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: ...every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness
to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or
replace them. And it's hard to tear down institutions.

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And it's easier to--I mean, I think that's true, and it's probably
easier to use them...

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: what ways that you can. But I'm wondering, when you say that,
from your research, whether you think he's used those existing institutions to
accomplish things that he thought as representing the greater good or just for

Mr. LIZZA: I think this is one of the most important questions about him.
And, you know, there are certainly important achievements that Barack Obama
has under his belt. But, at the same time, he's a very ambitious guy and he
has been, just about every three to four years, running for a new office since
1995, so a lot of his energy has been spent taking another step up the ladder.
And I think one of the things I found from some of his critics--and some of
them are his earliest supporters who, you know, feel a little left behind--and
that's one of the things that they'll point out, is that perhaps he wasn't
around long in each of his positions to truly make his mark because he was
already climbing the next rung of that ladder.

And, you know, I think that's an important dynamic to watch, because if he
wins this race, there's no higher hill to climb. But if you think about the
history, he ran for the state senate in '95, didn't enter the senate until
January of '97. By 1999 he was running for Congress. He loses that race in
the spring of 2000. And by 2002 he's already plotting his Senate campaign.
He wins that in 2004, and by the end of--by the middle, at least--middle to
the end of 2006, he's plotting his presidential campaign. So I think it's one
of the big question marks about him.

GROSS: My guest is Ryan Lizza, a Washington correspondent for The New Yorker.
His article "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Barack Obama" is in the current
edition of The New Yorker. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza and he's Washington
correspondent for The New Yorker. His piece in the current edition is called
"Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama."

Having so thoroughly researched Obama's Chicago political career, what are
some of the things that you're finding most interesting about his presidential
campaign now?

Mr. LIZZA: Well, you know, I find it less surprising how successful he's
been, and I think what I didn't know until I worked on this piece was how at
home he is in the world of politics, how at home he is in really the
nitty-gritty details of politics--polling and fundraising and strategy. I
mean, he was actually a strategic adviser in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign
in Illinois. He really understands it at a granular level, and I think that
going into this campaign, most of us that were covering the campaign didn't
really get that. And I think one of the reasons is because he was running
against Hillary Clinton, and she had that sort of reputation so, in contrast,
he was never going to be seen as the sort of calculating, ambitious politician
because that was the slot held by Hillary.

And I don't mean this all in a negative sense. I think--I say in the piece
that, you know, this realization that this guy is in some ways a very pure
political animal and very good at the game of politics, to a lot of his
supporters, I think it'll be, you know, they might be disappointed to realize
that. But a lot of folks I talk to, especially a lot of liberals, are very
relieved, you know, that they have a sort of cutthroat Democrat as the nominee
of their party.

And, you know, the other thing, I think it's a kind of victory that we're even
having a conversation like this about Obama because one of the greatest skills
of the politician is for people to wonder, you know, whether you're all that

GROSS: As you write in your piece, "His supporters are realizing superheroes
don't become president; politicians do."

Mr. LIZZA: That's right. And, you know, I think we all should have probably
have been a little bit more clear-eyed about what a good politician he is.
And, you know, at various times, he's sort of said this. You know, the whole
rap on him early on was that he was naive, and as Maureen Dowd famously put
it, you know, "O-Bambi." And every once in a while I noticed in interviews, in
one interview I did with him last year, you know, he would kind of chuckle at
that and say, you know, `I came out of Chicago politics, you know. I know
this game.'

GROSS: Some of Obama's supporters fear he's changing positions and moving
more to the center, or becoming more conservative, and this is because of his
support of the FISA bill; changing his mind on accepting public financing in
the general election; endorsing faith-based programs, although he'd want to
rewrite the rules that Bush...

Mr. LIZZA: Yes.

GROSS: ...created for them. How do you see those changes as fitting into his
larger political profile?

Mr. LIZZA: What's happening now with his base is very similar to what
happened in Chicago, when he went from becoming a south side Chicago state
legislator to becoming a statewide candidate for Senate. And several of the
people I interviewed that were his earliest supporters were very critical of
him, and there's some bruised feelings because they believe that after he won
that primary, that he sort of, you know, he sort of ignored them, and you hear
stories about him, you know, not showing up at local ward meetings or that
kind of thing. Now some of this is probably just a little sour grapes, you
know. But some of it, I think, is Obama being a little--not being careful
enough in bringing his constituency along with him. But the growing pains
that we're watching on the national level, they were mirrored on the state
level when he became a US Senate candidate.

And, you know, a lot of what you hear, in Chicago, in his Hyde Park
neighborhood, is that he became too close to the Daleys, because in Hyde Park,
in Obama's base, the Daleys are still, you know, there's a sort of--as David
Axelrod said, there's a sort of "Wizard of Oz" quality about the Daleys and
they're sort of blamed for everything bad that happens; the folks on the south
side blame the Daleys for everything bad that happens, it's one of the
political dynamics there. So there's a little bit of that and you know,
there's a little bit of folks not quite understanding why he needed to
accommodate himself to some of these major Illinois political figures who, to
Obama's base, are sort of unsavory characters.

GROSS: So it's a question about whether you want to see compromises as giving
in or example of the kind of political savvy that you need in order to get
anything done.

Mr. LIZZA: Absolutely. And, you know, you do have to admit that he's never
promised to be an ideologue, and he is running on a message of consensus, and,
you know, if you're not an ideologue and you're talking about a consensus,
then by definition you're talking about compromise. Now, I think one of the
problems with the recent moves is that they just seem very political. They
seem almost, you know, you know, you don't recognize the great politician in
some of these moves. They just seem so ham-handed and so abrupt. But, you
know, I'm sure in thinking this through, his campaign believes that most of
the folks who are criticizing him right now will get over it, and they have
nowhere else to go anyway.

GROSS: Well, one last question. Your story about how Chicago shaped Barack
Obama's politics is in the current edition of The New Yorker, and the cover of
that current edition has a very provocative cover cartoon. So I want you to
describe the illustration that's on the cover of this edition of The New

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah, let me describe it and then I'll explain it. So the
picture is the Obamas in the Oval Office. They're standing in front of a fire
and in the fire the American flag is burning. Over the fireplace is a picture
of Osama bin Laden. Obama himself is dressed in some sort of vaguely Middle
Eastern garb. His wife, Michelle, is in fatigues and combat boots with
bullets strapped across her chest and some kind of rifle slung over her back
and she's kind of got a--you know, she looks like a black militant, I guess.
And the two of them...

GROSS: Big afro.

Mr. LIZZA: Big afro. Yes. Big afro. And the two of them are doing their
famous fist bump. Obviously--I hope this is obvious--it's a parody of the
caricature on the right that has developed about Obama, and it's a satire
about the absurdity of the fringe view of Michelle and Barack Obama, and it's
our way of pointing out how completely absurd this caricature is.

GROSS: Do you think that some people will look at the cover and think, `I
knew it! I knew Obama was a Muslim and I knew that she was radical!'

Mr. LIZZA: You know, there's always a danger--you know, look, obviously
there's always a danger of, you know, when you talk about ridiculous
caricatures that you, you know, you reinforce them, I suppose. But I think
most rational people will find this a very humorous satire of the absurd smear
campaign that has developed out there on the fringes of the Internet.

GROSS: Ryan Lizza, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. LIZZA: Thank you so much, Terry. It was my pleasure.

GROSS: Ryan Lizza is Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. His
article about how Chicago shaped Barack Obama is in the current edition.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, 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 Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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