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Two Longtime Chicago Journalists on the Rise of Sen. Barack Obama

StoryFebruary 06, 2007
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Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet and Salim Muwakkil, senior editor of In These Times, discuss how Obama rose from a community organizer in Illinois to a state legislator to a senator to a presidential candidate. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Of the 10 candidates now in the Democratic presidential field, none have attracted more recent controversy than Senator Barack Obama. But that controversy has been unique—and perhaps unprecedented—for one reason: Almost without exception, Obama didn’t do anything to start it.

Just days after he entered the presidential race, Fox News picked up a false story that Obama attended an Islamic madrassa school as a child in Indonesia. CNN was earlier forced to apologize after displaying an image that listed Osama bin Laden’s first name as “Obama.” Pundits have spoken at length over whether Obama’s middle name, Hussein, will be a political liability. And last week, Senator Joseph Biden attracted widespread criticism after calling Obama, quote, “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

Obama has also gotten some welcome attention. He’s been profiled in lengthy articles in several major publications—The New York Times, The Washington Post, cover articles in both Time and Newsweek. But amidst all the controversy and attention, very little has been said about Obama’s stance on the issues.

Today, we try to undo the spin with two guests. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet has been closely following Obama’s political career. She joins us from Washington, D.C., where she’s the Chicago Sun-Times's bureau chief. Salim Muwakkil is on the phone with us from Chicago. He's senior editor at In These Times, a weekly op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune_. His latest piece is called “Barack’s Black Dilemma” and it’s online at InTheseTimes.comdilemma/.

Lynn Sweet, you’ve been following Senator Barack Obama for a long time. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of his history in politics and in the Legislature, as well?

LYNN SWEET: Started, his first elected office, state Senate. After a few years there, he went to run for a House race that he lost to Congressman Bobby Rush; went back to the state Senate; a short time after that, started the 2004 Senate race; had a big multiple-person primary; won it in sort of fluke circumstances that played to his advantage. The general campaign, once again, had some fluke circumstances, where the nominated candidate was replaced by Alan Keyes, much to his advantage. And so, Barack Obama arrived in Washington, being sworn in in January ’05.

Now, stop me when you want me to stop. I could go into his first year in the Senate briefly.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, go ahead.

LYNN SWEET: He has made — let me do international, then we’ll go to domestic. His first year is marked — the first two years, in terms of the international, he’s made three big trips: a multi-nation trip to Africa that I went with him on in August and September; he visited briefly Israel and Iraq before that; and then he made a swing to Russia and other former Soviet republics. He’s a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he has a portfolio, therefore, to do this kind of travel, one of his big interests, which actually segues in a very interesting way with his multinational, multicultural background.

On the domestic front, he is a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. And just as he came to office was the same time that the Sun-Times ran a big series about how veterans across the nation were shortchanged on their benefits. And that was a good intersecion for a story that gave him a very big sense of purpose and direction to grab onto and work on veterans’ benefits, that immediately vaulted him to dealing with Senator Durbin on these mega-issues dealing with benefits and the micro part of the issue, which is how they related to Illinois veterans.

He’s also, then, at the end of his first year, in January of ’06, he was given the ethics spokesman portfolio by the Senate Democrats, and he took that on. Meantime, he also had tried to make some inroads dealing with hydrogen cars and energy and some other related matters. He also, in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina, he made a big move for a chief financial officer to be named to try and somehow deal with the hemorrhaging costs that were associated with cleanup of Katrina that never went directly or even indirectly to some of the people. So this is a very, very short thumbnail of some of the issues and matters that Senator Obama has been involved in.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynn Sweet, his first vote when he became a U.S. senator?

LYNN SWEET: His first vote was — because you probably have it in front of you — I believe it was, he did not vote with — was it on the Ohio resolution?


LYNN SWEET: Yes. OK. That was interesting, because if you were making a guess by — if the past on that one was prologue, you would have thought he would have voted to — taken the same position that many people in the House did. I believe it was only Barbara Boxer and himself that took that. I think that was a cue that he was going to start out pragmatic, slow, and not perhaps be a doctrinaire progressive, where he might be predictive, where he might be easy to predict how he would go. He asked at the time for a little time, a little space. He didn’t want to be boxed in, needed to work his way around the Senate, he said, and didn’t want to — and now, I’m not quoting him, but my analysis at the time was he didn’t want to marginalize him by going out on a limb on issues that had no chance of passing anyway.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what the Ohio resolution was that he wasn’t supporting.

LYNN SWEET: That was a matter taken up after the controversial vote in Ohio in 2004. And, you know, I just can’t — I don’t have it in front of me, so I don’t want to mislead. It wasn’t asking for a recount. It was somehow addressing some of the grievances that stemmed from the election. And, forgive me, I don’t have the wording in front of me, so I don’t want to even make anymore statements about it, because I don’t know — I cannot remember the intricacies of it. But it was controversial, as was his early vote to confirm Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Some people thought that because he was so strongly against the war, therefore he would vote against anyone and anything having to do with it, but the Obama that a lot of people did not really know well at the time is that he had his own views on separation of powers, basically giving the president his due and using a very gentle touch in the advice and consent part of what a senator does, certainly early on.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynn Sweet, I wanted to also bring in Salim Muwakkil, senior editor at In These Times and a weekly op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Your latest piece is called “Barack’s Black Dilemma.” What is that?

SALIM MUWAKKIL: Well, it’s a dilemma, really, that faces any black candidate who aspires to a position beyond the confines of the traditional black community. He has to appeal to a larger electorate, while not alienating his core. And Barack has had to face that, you know, his entire political career, essentially. And it’s intensified now, because he is aspiring for a higher office. And so, that’s basically it. He’s being called to task for — well, you know, he falls into this mold that arouses suspicion automatically in much of the black community. He’s clean, as Joseph Biden said. What Joe Biden meant by that, of course, is that he is not tainted by the kinds of traditional civil rights grievances that many other candidates are tainted with, and so he appeals to a wider audience automatically because of that. But at the same time, that makes him suspect to many African Americans, because they have learned to be suspicious through a very hard-earned history, to be suspicious of the slave masters’ favorite blacks. And Barack comes across sometimes as that. And so, he arouses those kinds of cultural suspicions.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go for a minute to Senator Biden’s comments. This is what he said in an interview that was recorded by The New York Observer.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: He’s the first sort of mainstream African American, who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, that was Senator Joseph Biden, and that came out on the day that Senator Biden announced his own presidential intentions, calling Barack Obama “the first mainstream African American, who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” Biden later, in a conference call, tried to explain his remarks.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: My mother has an expression, “clean as a whistle, sharp as a tack.” That’s the context. He is crisp and clear.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush also raised some eyebrows when he echoed part of Senator Biden’s remarks. Speaking to Fox News, President Bush called Obama “attractive and articulate.” Salim Muwakkil, your response?

SALIM MUWAKKIL: Well, you know, African Americans are not expected to be able to speak the king’s English articulately. And when they do, that makes them exceptional. That’s really an old story, and most African Americans are aware of where that’s coming from. The reason why it raised so many hackles is because Biden seemed to be dismissing people like Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson and Shirley Chisholm. And I think that’s why, when Barack Obama made his response to Senator Biden, he made sure to include the fact that Sharpton and Jesse were, indeed, quite articulate.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynn Sweet mentioned Barack Obama’s loss to Bobby Rush when he first ran for Congress. What was the significance of that, and why do you think he lost, Salim Muwakkil?

SALIM MUWAKKIL: Pardon me? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the question.

AMY GOODMAN: The question of one of the first losses of Barack Obama was to Bobby Rush, and the significance of that race.

SALIM MUWAKKIL: Well, I think that Bobby Rush successfully employed that suspicion that I talked earlier about. At the time, Barack was a state senator, and he had kind of raised some hackles at the time, because he challenged a very popular state senator at the time, Alice Palmer, who was progressive, and Barack seemed to come from nowhere to challenge her. And so, there were some suspicions within the black community about Barack Obama at the time, and Bobby Rush successfully employed those suspicions to help him maintain his office in the First District.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynn Sweet, one of your most recent pieces: seeking to solidify African American backing for Barack Obama’s presidential bid, Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. told black Democrats meeting in Washington last week, they don’t owe anyone, alluding to, but not mentioning by name, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

LYNN SWEET: This is interesting, because the — Emil Jones, who is like a — considers Barack Obama his son, his political son, very, very close to him. So at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting last week, he goes to the Black Caucus meeting, and he says, you know, “Support our son. You don’t owe anybody anything.” So, this is interesting because it is a race-based appeal, and word of this got out in the politico. And I did a follow-up interview with Emil Jones yesterday, and I think he says he said what he said because it was a matter where he thought that the black community, political community especially within the top tiers of the Democratic Party, needed to unite around Barack Obama.

So here’s what’s interesting here. CNN then picked up the story and did an interview yesterday with Reverend Al Sharpton. Now, Sharpton met with Obama a few weeks ago, as he did with Hillary Clinton and some of the other candidates on the Democratic side. He intends to meet with all of them. And he was a little noncommittal. He said he basically wanted to know what the urban agenda was for all the candidates. So, put that aside.

We’re back to yesterday. CNN is discussing this with Al Sharpton in his interview, and he thinks that this is a little bit of dangerous ground to go into for State Senator Jones, because, then he raises the question, Barack Obama supported Mayor Daley. He’s up for re-election in Chicago in a few weeks. And after all, Mayor Daley is running against two African-American candidates, and Barack Obama didn’t support them, so how could you, he raises the question, expect unity within the community? And also, even saying the community is run — just as many other ethnic, religious, racial communities in America, there is not one monolithic group. However, when you talk about the Democratic National Committee, you’re talking about a fairly small group of the elite activists. So this is interesting, because Sharpton was running out of time to turn the table, and he was the moderating voice on this one, saying maybe you don’t want to play that card at this time, because Obama might not be able to pass the test that Emil Jones is putting down for him.

AMY GOODMAN: Salim Muwakkil, the significance of Senator Obama announcing his presidential bid in Springfield, Illinois?

SALIM MUWAKKIL: [inaudible] allude to the great emancipator and make the point that he doesn’t really need that much experience to be considered a credible candidate, as Lincoln was not that experienced. I think that’s basically where he’s coming from with that.

AMY GOODMAN: And where do you think this campaign is headed, Salim, as a longtime political analyst and observer?

SALIM MUWAKKIL: I think that — I’m quite perplexed, quite frankly, by Barack’s rise. The wind has been at his back. As Lynn Sweet pointed out, he ascended through the really freak implosion of two major candidates, Blair Hall and Jim Ryan, who both had spousal problems. And so, he’s been rising ever since in an amazing kind of phenomenon. And I just — I’m just watching it and a bit amazed by it. And I think that he is even a bit amazed by it. I don’t think Barack had any intention to run for president, but the draft, this kind of popular draft is really extraordinary, and he might just be kind of an unlikely candidate, to be so odd that he manages something historic. His middle name is Hussein, after all. I mean, that alone is an incredible happenstance. He’s a senator with a middle name Hussein. So the sky is the limit, really.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Lynn Sweet, as you follow Barack Obama, interesting piece in The Nation, Christopher Hayes talking about David Axelrod, the 51-year-old reporter turned media consultant, key media strategist for both Deval Patrick, the new governor of Massachusetts, and Senator Obama.

LYNN SWEET: And Rahm Emanuel and Mayor Daley and a string of other mayors and political figures. There is a core group of people around David who will also be active in the campaign who were at — you know, who will build the infrastructure of the Obama campaign. The campaign manager for Barack Obama, for example, is one of David’s partners, so you can say that David is not only one of his closest advisers, but his firm is going to be centrally involved in the campaign, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynn Sweet and Salim Muwakkil, I want to thank you both for being with us. Lynn Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. Salim Muwakkil is senior editor at In These Times and a weekly op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune. We thank you both for being with us.

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