7 page book Review on Barack Obama Promise land. Quote & Cite only the from the book
No outside sources, or plagiarism.
Outline of the book to help:
Book is attached to this assignment
ALSO BY BARACK OBAMA
Dreams from My Father
The Audacity of Hope
Copyright © 2020 by Barack Obama
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random
House LLC, New York.
and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
The letter from Nicole Brandon on this page has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hardback ISBN 9781524763169
Deluxe Edition ISBN 9780593239049
Ebook ISBN 9781524763183
Photograph credits appear on this page.
Book design by Elizabeth Rendfleisch, adapted for ebook
Cover design: Christopher Brand
Cover photograph: Pari Dukovic
To Michelle—my love and life’s partner
Malia and Sasha—whose dazzling light makes everything brighter
O, fly and never tire,
Fly and never tire,
Fly and never tire,
There’s a great camp-meeting in the Promised Land.
—FROM AN AFRICAN AMERICAN SPIRITUAL
Don’t discount our powers;
We have made a pass
At the infinite.
—ROBERT FROST, “KITTY HAWK”
PART ONE | THE BET
PART TWO | YES WE CAN
PART THREE | RENEGADE
PART FOUR | THE GOOD FIGHT
PART FIVE | THE WORLD AS IT IS
PART SIX | IN THE BARREL
PART SEVEN | ON THE HIGH WIRE
shortly after the end of my presidency—after
Michelle and I had boarded Air Force One for the last time and traveled west for
a long-deferred break. The mood on the plane was bittersweet. Both of us were
drained, physically and emotionally, not only by the labors of the previous eight
years but by the unexpected results of an election in which someone diametrically
opposed to everything we stood for had been chosen as my successor. Still,
having run our leg of the race to completion, we took satisfaction in knowing
that we’d done our very best—and that however much I’d fallen short as
president, whatever projects I’d hoped but failed to accomplish, the country was
in better shape now than it had been when I’d started. For a month, Michelle and
I slept late, ate leisurely dinners, went for long walks, swam in the ocean, took
stock, replenished our friendship, rediscovered our love, and planned for a less
eventful but hopefully no less satisfying second act. And by the time I was ready
to get back to work and sat down with a pen and yellow pad (I still like writing
things out in longhand, finding that a computer gives even my roughest drafts too
smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness), I had a clear
outline of the book in my head.
First and foremost, I hoped to give an honest rendering of my time in office
—not just a historical record of key events that happened on my watch and
important figures with whom I interacted but also an account of some of the
political, economic, and cultural crosscurrents that helped determine the
challenges my administration faced and the choices my team and I made in
response. Where possible, I wanted to offer readers a sense of what it’s like to be
the president of the United States; I wanted to pull the curtain back a bit and
remind people that, for all its power and pomp, the presidency is still just a job
and our federal government is a human enterprise like any other, and the men
and women who work in the White House experience the same daily mix of
satisfaction, disappointment, office friction, screw-ups, and small triumphs as the
BEGAN WRITING THIS BOOK
rest of their fellow citizens. Finally, I wanted to tell a more personal story that
might inspire young people considering a life of public service: how my career in
politics really started with a search for a place to fit in, a way to explain the
different strands of my mixed-up heritage, and how it was only by hitching my
wagon to something larger than myself that I was ultimately able to locate a
community and purpose for my life.
I figured I could do all that in maybe five hundred pages. I expected to be
done in a year.
It’s fair to say that the writing process didn’t go exactly as I’d planned. Despite
my best intentions, the book kept growing in length and scope—the reason why
I eventually decided to break it into two volumes. I’m painfully aware that a
more gifted writer could have found a way to tell the same story with greater
brevity (after all, my home office in the White House sat right next to the
Lincoln Bedroom, where a signed copy of the 272-word Gettysburg Address rests
beneath a glass case). But each time that I sat down to write—whether it was to
describe the early phases of my campaign, or my administration’s handling of the
financial crisis, or negotiations with the Russians on nuclear arms control, or the
forces that led to the Arab Spring—I found my mind resisting a simple linear
narrative. Often, I felt obliged to provide context for the decisions I and others
had made, and I didn’t want to relegate that background to footnotes or endnotes
(I hate footnotes and endnotes). I discovered that I couldn’t always explain my
motivations just by referencing reams of economic data or recalling an exhaustive
Oval Office briefing, for they’d been shaped by a conversation I’d had with a
stranger on the campaign trail, a visit to a military hospital, or a childhood lesson
I’d received years earlier from my mother. Repeatedly my memories would toss
up seemingly incidental details (trying to find a discreet location to grab an
evening smoke; my staff and I having a laugh while playing cards aboard Air
Force One) that captured, in a way the public record never could, my lived
experience during the eight years I spent in the White House.
Beyond the struggle to put words on a page, what I didn’t fully anticipate was
the way events would unfold during the three and a half years after that last flight
on Air Force One. As I sit here, the country remains in the grips of a global
pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis, with more than 178,000
Americans dead, businesses shuttered, and millions of people out of work. Across
the nation, people from all walks of life have poured into the streets to protest the
deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of the police. Perhaps
most troubling of all, our democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of crisis
—a crisis rooted in a fundamental contest between two opposing visions of what
America is and what it should be; a crisis that has left the body politic divided,
angry, and mistrustful, and has allowed for an ongoing breach of institutional
norms, procedural safeguards, and the adherence to basic facts that both
Republicans and Democrats once took for granted.
This contest is not new, of course. In many ways, it has defined the American
experience. It’s embedded in founding documents that could simultaneously
proclaim all men equal and yet count a slave as three-fifths of a man. It finds
expression in our earliest court opinions, as when the chief justice of the Supreme
Court bluntly explains to Native Americans that their tribe’s rights to convey
property aren’t enforceable since the court of the conqueror has no capacity to
recognize the just claims of the conquered. It’s a contest that’s been fought on the
fields of Gettysburg and Appomattox but also in the halls of Congress, on a
bridge in Selma, across the vineyards of California, and down the streets of New
York—a contest fought by soldiers but more often by union organizers,
suffragists, Pullman porters, student leaders, waves of immigrants, and LGBTQ
activists, armed with nothing more than picket signs, pamphlets, or a pair of
marching shoes. At the heart of this long-running battle is a simple question: Do
we care to match the reality of America to its ideals? If so, do we really believe
that our notions of self-government and individual freedom, equality of
opportunity and equality before the law, apply to everybody? Or are we instead
committed, in practice if not in statute, to reserving those things for a privileged
I recognize that there are those who believe that it’s time to discard the myth
—that an examination of America’s past and an even cursory glance at today’s
headlines show that this nation’s ideals have always been secondary to conquest
and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism, and that to pretend
otherwise is to be complicit in a game that was rigged from the start. And I
confess that there have been times during the course of writing this book, as I’ve
reflected on my presidency and all that’s happened since, when I’ve had to ask
myself whether I was too tempered in speaking the truth as I saw it, too cautious
in either word or deed, convinced as I was that by appealing to what Lincoln
called the better angels of our nature I stood a greater chance of leading us in the
direction of the America we’ve been promised.
I don’t know. What I can say for certain is that I’m not yet ready to abandon
the possibility of America—not just for the sake of future generations of
Americans but for all of humankind. For I’m convinced that the pandemic we’re
currently living through is both a manifestation of and a mere interruption in the
relentless march toward an interconnected world, one in which peoples and
cultures can’t help but collide. In that world—of global supply chains,
instantaneous capital transfers, social media, transnational terrorist networks,
climate change, mass migration, and ever-increasing complexity—we will learn to
live together, cooperate with one another, and recognize the dignity of others, or
we will perish. And so the world watches America—the only great power in
history made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race
and faith and cultural practice—to see if our experiment in democracy can work.
To see if we can do what no other nation has ever done. To see if we can
actually live up to the meaning of our creed.
The jury’s still out. By the time this first volume is published, a U.S. election
will have taken place, and while I believe the stakes could not be higher, I also
know that no single election will settle the matter. If I remain hopeful, it’s
because I’ve learned to place my faith in my fellow citizens, especially those of
the next generation, whose conviction in the equal worth of all people seems to
come as second nature, and who insist on making real those principles that their
parents and teachers told them were true but perhaps never fully believed
themselves. More than anyone, this book is for those young people—an
invitation to once again remake the world, and to bring about, through hard
work, determination, and a big dose of imagination, an America that finally aligns
with all that is best in us.
and halls and landmarks that make up the White House and its
grounds, it was the West Colonnade that I loved best.
For eight years that walkway would frame my day, a minute-long, open-air
commute from home to office and back again. It was where each morning I felt
the first slap of winter wind or pulse of summer heat; the place where I’d gather
my thoughts, ticking through the meetings that lay ahead, preparing arguments
for skeptical members of Congress or anxious constituents, girding myself for this
decision or that slow-rolling crisis.
In the earliest days of the White House, the executive offices and the First
Family’s residence fit under one roof, and the West Colonnade was little more
than a path to the horse stables. But when Teddy Roosevelt came into office, he
determined that a single building couldn’t accommodate a modern staff, six
boisterous children, and his sanity. He ordered construction of what would
become the West Wing and Oval Office, and over decades and successive
presidencies, the colonnade’s current configuration emerged: a bracket to the
Rose Garden north and west—the thick wall on the north side, mute and
unadorned save for high half-moon windows; the stately white columns on the
west side, like an honor guard assuring safe passage.
As a general rule, I’m a slow walker—a Hawaiian walk, Michelle likes to say,
sometimes with a hint of impatience. I walked differently, though, on the
colonnade, conscious of the history that had been made there and those who had
preceded me. My stride got longer, my steps a bit brisker, my footfall on stone
echoed by the Secret Service detail trailing me a few yards back. When I reached
the ramp at the end of the colonnade (a legacy of FDR and his wheelchair—I
picture him smiling, chin out, cigarette holder clenched tight in his teeth as he
strains to roll up the incline), I’d wave at the uniformed guard just inside the
glass-paned door. Sometimes the guard would be holding back a surprised flock
of visitors. If I had time, I would shake their hands and ask where they were
F ALL THE ROOMS
from. Usually, though, I just turned left, following the outer wall of the Cabinet
Room and slipping into the side door by the Oval Office, where I greeted my
personal staff, grabbed my schedule and a cup of hot tea, and started the business
of the day.
Several times a week, I would step out onto the colonnade to find the
groundskeepers, all employees of the National Park Service, working in the Rose
Garden. They were older men, mostly, dressed in green khaki uniforms,
sometimes matched with a floppy hat to block the sun, or a bulky coat against the
cold. If I wasn’t running late, I might stop to compliment them on the fresh
plantings or ask about the damage done by the previous night’s storm, and they’d
explain their work with quiet pride. They were men of few words; even with
one another they made their points with a gesture or a nod, each of them focused
on his individual task but all of them moving with synchronized grace. One of
the oldest was Ed Thomas, a tall, wiry Black man with sunken cheeks who had
worked at the White House for forty years. The first time I met him, he reached
into his back pocket for a cloth to wipe off the dirt before shaking my hand. His
hand, thick with veins and knots like the roots of a tree, engulfed mine. I asked
how much longer he intended to stay at the White House before taking his
“I don’t know, Mr. President,” he said. “I like to work. Getting a little hard
on the joints. But I reckon I might stay long as you’re here. Make sure the garden
Oh, how good that garden looked! The shady magnolias rising high at each
corner; the hedges, thick and rich green; the crab apple trees pruned just so. And
the flowers, cultivated in greenhouses a few miles away, providing a constant
explosion of color—reds and yellows and pinks and purples; in spring, the tulips
massed in bunches, their heads tilted toward the sun; in summer, lavender
heliotrope and geraniums and lilies; in fall, chrysanthemums and daisies and
wildflowers. And always a few roses, red mostly but sometimes yellow or white,
each one flush in its bloom.
Each time I walked down the colonnade or looked out the window of the
Oval Office, I saw the handiwork of the men and women who worked outside.
They reminded me of the small Norman Rockwell painting I kept on the wall,
next to the portrait of George Washington and above the bust of Dr. King: five
tiny figures of varying skin tones, workingmen in dungarees, hoisted up by ropes
into a crisp blue sky to polish the lamp of Lady Liberty. The men in the painting,
the groundskeepers in the garden—they were guardians, I thought, the quiet
priests of a good and solemn order. And I would tell myself that I needed to work
as hard and take as much care in my job as they did in theirs.
With time, my walks down the colonnade would accumulate with memories.
There were the big public events, of course—announcements made before a
phalanx of cameras, press conferences with foreign leaders. But there were also
the moments few others saw—Malia and Sasha racing each other to greet me on
a surprise afternoon visit, or our dogs, Bo and Sunny, bounding through the
snow, their paws sinking so deep that their chins were bearded white. Tossing
footballs on a bright fall day, or comforting an aide after a personal hardship.
Such images would often flash through my mind, interrupting whatever
calculations were occupying me. They reminded me of time passing, sometimes
filling me with longing—a desire to turn back the clock and begin again. This
wasn’t possible on my morning walk, for time’s arrow moved only forward then;
the day’s work beckoned; I needed to focus on only those things to come.
The night was different. On the evening walk back to the residence, my
briefcase stuffed with papers, I would try to slow myself down, sometimes even
stop. I’d breathe air laced with the scent of soil and grass and pollen, and listen to
the wind or the patter of rain. I sometimes stared at the light against the columns,
and the regal mass of the White House, its flag aloft on the roof, lit bright, or I’d
look toward the Washington Monument piercing the black sky in the distance,
occasionally catching sight of the moon and stars above it, or the twinkling of a
In moments like these, I would wonder at the strange path—and the idea—
that had brought me to this place.
from a political family. My maternal grandparents were
midwesterners from mostly Scots-Irish stock. They would have been considered
liberal, especially by the standards of the Depression-era Kansas towns they were
born in, and they were diligent about keeping up with the news. “It’s part of
being a well-informed citizen,” my grandmother, whom we all called Toot (short
for Tutu, or Grandma, in Hawaiian), would tell me, peering over the top of her
morning Honolulu Advertiser. But she and my grandfather had no firm ideological
or partisan leanings to speak of, beyond what they considered to be common
sense. They thought about work—my grandmother was vice president of escrow
at one of the local banks, my grandfather a life insurance salesman—and paying
the bills, and the small diversions that life had to offer.
And anyway, they lived on Oahu, where nothing seemed that urgent. After
years spent in places as disparate as Oklahoma, Texas, and Washington State,
they’d finally moved to Hawaii in 1960, a year after its statehood was established.
A big ocean now separated them from riots and protests and other such things.
The only political conversation I can recall my grandparents having while I was
growing up had to do with a beachside bar: Honolulu’s mayor had torn down
Gramps’s favorite watering hole in order to renovate the beachfront at the far end
Gramps never forgave him for it.
My mother, Ann Dunham, was different, full of strong opinions. My
grandparents’ only child, she rebelled against convention in high school—reading
beatnik poets and French existentialists, joyriding with a friend to San Francisco
for days without telling anyone. As a kid, I’d hear from her about civil rights
marches, and why the Vietnam War was a misguided disaster; about the women’s
movement (yes on equal pay, not as keen on not shaving her legs) and the War
on Poverty. When we moved to Indonesia to live with my stepfather, she made
sure to explain the sins of government corruption (“It’s just stealing, Barry”),
even if everyone appeared to be doing it. Later, during the summer I turned
twelve, when we went on a month-long family vacation traveling across the
United States, she insisted we watch the Watergate hearings every night,
providing her own running commentary (“What do you expect from a
She didn’t just focus on headlines either. Once, when she discovered I had
been part of a group that was teasing a kid at school, she sat me down in front of
her, lips pursed with disappointment.
“You know, Barry,” she said (that’s the nickname she and my grandparents
used for me when I was growing up, often shortened to “Bar,” pronounced
“Bear”), “there are people in the world who think only about themselves. They
don’t care what happens to other people so long as they get what they want.
They put other people down to make themselves feel important.
“Then there are people who do the opposite, who are able to imagine how
others must feel, and make sure that they don’t do things that hurt people.
“So,” she said, looking me squarely in the eye. “Which kind of person do
you want to be?”
I felt lousy. As she intended it to, her question stayed with me for a long
For my mother, the world was full of opportunities for moral instruction. But
I never knew her to get involved in a political campaign. Like my grandparents,
she was suspicious of platforms, doctrines, absolutes, preferring to express her
values on a smaller canvas. “The world is complicated, Bar. That’s why it’s
interesting.” Dismayed by the war in Southeast Asia, she’d end up spending most
of her life there, absorbing the language and culture, setting up micro-lending
programs for people in poverty long before micro-credit became trendy in
international development. Appalled by racism, she would marry outside her race
not once but twice, and go on to lavish what seemed like an inexhaustible love
on her two brown children. Incensed by societal constraints put upon women,
she’d divorce both men when they proved overbearing or disappointing, carving
out a career of her own choosing, raising her kids according to her own standards
of decency, and pretty much doing whatever she damn well pleased.
In my mother’s world, the personal really was political—although she
wouldn’t have had much use for the slogan.
None of this is to say that she lacked ambition for her son. Despite the
financial strain, she and my grandparents would send me to Punahou, Hawaii’s
top prep school. The thought of me not going to college was never entertained.
But no one in my family would ever have suggested I might hold public office
someday. If you’d asked my mother, she might have imagined that I’d end up
heading a philanthropic institution like the Ford Foundation. My grandparents
would have loved to see me become a judge, or a great courtroom lawyer like
“Might as well put that smart mouth of his to use,” Gramps would say.
Since I didn’t know my father, he didn’t have much input. I vaguely
understood that he had worked for the Kenyan government for a time, and when
I was ten, he traveled from Kenya to stay with us for a month in Honolulu. That
was the first and last I saw of him; after that, I heard from him only through the
occasional letter, written on thin blue airmail paper that was preprinted to fold
and address without an envelope. “Your mother tells me you think you may
want to study architecture,” one letter might read. “I think this is a very practical
profession, and one that can be practiced anywhere in the world.”
It was not much to go on.
As for the world beyond my family—well, what they would see for most of
my teenage years was not a budding leader but rather a lackadaisical student, a
passionate basketball player of limited talent, and an incessant, dedicated partyer.
No student government for me; no Eagle Scouts or interning at the local
congressman’s office. Through high school, my friends and I didn’t discuss much
beyond sports, girls, music, and plans for getting loaded.
Three of these guys—Bobby Titcomb, Greg Orme, and Mike Ramos—
remain some of my closest friends. To this day, we can laugh for hours over
stories of our misspent youth. In later years, they would throw themselves into
my campaigns with a loyalty for which I will always be grateful, becoming as
skilled at defending my record as anyone on MSNBC.
But there were also times during my presidency—after they had watched me
speak to a big crowd, say, or receive a series of crisp salutes from young Marines
during a base tour—when their faces would betray a certain bafflement, as if they
were trying to reconcile the graying man in a suit and tie with the ill-defined
man-child they’d once known.
That guy? they must have said to themselves. How the hell did that happen?
And if my friends had ever asked me directly, I’m not sure I’d have had a
that sometime in high school I started asking questions—about my
father’s absence and my mother’s choices; about how it was I’d come to live in a
place where few people looked like me. A lot of the questions centered on race:
Why did Blacks play professional basketball but not coach it? What did that girl
from school mean when she said she didn’t think of me as Black? Why were all
the Black men in action movies switchblade-wielding lunatics except for maybe
the one decent Black guy—the sidekick, of course—who always seemed to end
up getting killed?
But I wasn’t concerned only with race. It was class as well. Growing up in
Indonesia, I’d seen the yawning chasm between the lives of wealthy elites and
impoverished masses. I had a nascent awareness of the tribal tensions in my
father’s country—the hatred that could exist between those who on the surface
might look the same. I bore daily witness to the seemingly cramped lives of my
grandparents, the disappointments they filled with TV and liquor and sometimes
I DO KNOW
a new appliance or car. I noticed that my mother paid for her intellectual
freedom with chronic financial struggles and occasional personal chaos, and I
became attuned to the not-so-subtle hierarchies among my prep school
classmates, mostly having to do with how much money their parents had. And
then there was the unsettling fact that, despite whatever my mother might claim,
the bullies, cheats, and self-promoters seemed to be doing quite well, while those
she considered good and decent people seemed to get screwed an awful lot.
All of this pulled me in different directions. It was as if, because of the very
strangeness of my heritage and the worlds I straddled, I was from everywhere and
nowhere at once, a combination of ill-fitting parts, like a platypus or some
imaginary beast, confined to a fragile habitat, unsure of where I belonged. And I
sensed, without fully understanding why or how, that unless I could stitch my life
together and situate myself along some firm axis, I might end up in some basic
way living my life alone.
I didn’t talk to anyone about this, certainly not my friends or family. I didn’t
want to hurt their feelings or stand out more than I already did. But I did find
refuge in books. The reading habit was my mother’s doing, instilled early in my
childhood—her go-to move anytime I complained of boredom, or when she
couldn’t afford to send me to the international school in Indonesia, or when I had
to accompany her to the office because she didn’t have a babysitter.
Go read a book, she would say. Then come back and tell me something you learned.
There were a few years when I lived with my grandparents in Hawaii while
my mother continued her work in Indonesia and raised my younger sister, Maya.
Without my mother around to nag me, I didn’t learn as much, as my grades
readily attested. Then, around tenth grade, that changed. I still remember going
with my grandparents to a rummage sale at the Central Union Church, across the
street from our apartment, and finding myself in front of a bin of old hardcover
books. For some reason, I started pulling out titles that appealed to me, or
sounded vaguely familiar—books by Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes, Robert
Penn Warren and Dostoyevsky, D. H. Lawrence and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Gramps, who was eyeing a set of used golf clubs, gave me a confused look when
I walked up with my box of books.
“Planning to open a library?”
My grandmother shushed him, finding my sudden interest in literature
admirable. Ever practical, she did suggest I might want to focus on my class
assignments before digging into Crime and Punishment.
I ended up reading all those books, sometimes late, after I got home from
basketball practice and a six-pack with my friends, sometimes after bodysurfing
on a Saturday afternoon, sitting alone in Gramps’s rickety old Ford Granada with
a towel around my waist to avoid getting the upholstery wet. When I finished
with the first set of books, I went to other rummage sales, looking for more.
Much of what I read I only dimly understood; I took to circling unfamiliar words
to look up in the dictionary, although I was less scrupulous about decoding
pronunciations—deep into my twenties I would know the meaning of words I
couldn’t pronounce. There was no system to this, no rhyme or pattern. I was like
a young tinkerer in my parents’ garage, gathering up old cathode-ray tubes and
bolts and loose wires, not sure what I’d do with any of it, but convinced it would
prove handy once I figured out the nature of my calling.
books probably explains why I not only survived high school but
arrived at Occidental College in 1979 with a thin but passable knowledge of
political issues and a series of half-baked opinions that I’d toss out during latenight bull sessions in the dorm.
Looking back, it’s embarrassing to recognize the degree to which my
intellectual curiosity those first two years of college paralleled the interests of
various women I was attempting to get to know: Marx and Marcuse so I had
something to say to the long-legged socialist who lived in my dorm; Fanon and
Gwendolyn Brooks for the smooth-skinned sociology major who never gave me
a second look; Foucault and Woolf for the ethereal bisexual who wore mostly
black. As a strategy for picking up girls, my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly
worthless; I found myself in a series of affectionate but chaste friendships.
Still, these halting efforts served a purpose: Something approaching a
worldview took shape in my mind. I was helped along by a handful of professors
who tolerated my iffy study habits and my youthful pretensions. I was helped
even more by a handful of mostly older students—Black kids from the inner city,
white kids who had scratched their way into college from small towns, firstgeneration Latino kids, international students from Pakistan or India or countries
in Africa that teetered on the edge of chaos. They knew what mattered to them;
when they spoke in class, their views were rooted in actual communities, actual
struggles. Here’s what these budget cuts mean in my neighborhood. Let me tell you about
my school before you complain about affirmative action. The First Amendment is great, but
MY INTEREST IN
why does the U.S. government say nothing about the political prisoners in my country?
The two years I spent at Occidental represented the start of my political
awakening. But that didn’t mean I believed in politics. With few exceptions,
everything I observed about politicians seemed dubious: the blow-dried hair, the
wolfish grins, the bromides and self-peddling on TV while behind closed doors
they curried the favor of corporations and other monied interests. They were
actors in a rigged game, I decided, and I wanted no part of it.
What did capture my attention was something broader and less conventional
—not political campaigns but social movements, where ordinary people joined
together to make change. I became a student of the suffragists and early labor
organizers; of Gandhi and Lech Wałesa and the African National Congress. Most
of all I was inspired by the young leaders of the civil rights movement—not just
Dr. King but John Lewis and Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash. In
their heroic efforts—going door-to-door to register voters, sitting down at lunch
counters, and marching to freedom songs—I saw the possibility of practicing the
values my mother had taught me; how you could build power not by putting
others down but by lifting them up. This was true democracy at work—
democracy not as a gift from on high, or a division of spoils between interest
groups, but rather democracy that was earned, the work of everybody. The result
was not just a change in material conditions but a sense of dignity for people and
communities, a bond between those who had once seemed far apart.
This, I decided, was an ideal worth pursuing. I just needed focus. After my
sophomore year I transferred to Columbia University, figuring it would be a new
start. For three years in New York, holed up in a series of dilapidated apartments,
largely shorn of old friends and bad habits, I lived like a monk—reading, writing,
filling up journals, rarely bothering with college parties or even eating hot meals.
I got lost in my head, preoccupied with questions that seemed to layer themselves
one over the next. What made some movements succeed where others failed?
Was it a sign of success when portions of a cause were absorbed by conventional
politics, or was it a sign that the cause had been hijacked? When was compromise
acceptable and when was it selling out, and how did one know the difference?
Oh, how earnest I was then—how fierce and humorless! When I look back
on my journal entries from this time, I feel a great affection for the young man
that I was, aching to make a mark on the world, wanting to be a part of
something grand and idealistic, which evidence seemed to indicate did not exist.
This was America in the early 1980s, after all. The social movements of the
previous decade had lost their vibrancy. A new conservatism was taking hold.
Ronald Reagan was president; the economy was in recession; the Cold War was
in full swing.
If I were to travel back in time, I might urge the young man I was to set the
books aside for a minute, open the windows, and let in some fresh air (my
smoking habit was then in full bloom). I’d tell him to relax, go meet some
people, and enjoy the pleasures that life reserves for those in their twenties. The
few friends I had in New York tried to offer similar advice.
“You need to lighten up, Barack.”
“You need to get laid.”
“You’re so idealistic. It’s great, but I don’t know if what you’re saying is
I resisted these voices. I resisted precisely because I feared they were right.
Whatever I was incubating during those hours spent alone, whatever vision for a
better world I’d let flourish in the hothouse of my youthful mind, it could hardly
withstand even a simple conversational road test. In the gray light of a Manhattan
winter and against the overarching cynicism of the times, my ideas, spoken aloud
in class or over coffee with friends, came off as fanciful and far-fetched. And I
knew it. In fact, it’s one of the things that may have saved me from becoming a
full-blown crank before I reached the age of twenty-two; at some basic level I
understood the absurdity of my vision, how wide the gap was between my grand
ambitions and anything I was actually doing in my life. I was like a young Walter
Mitty; a Don Quixote with no Sancho Panza.
This, too, can be found in my journal entries from that time, a pretty accurate
chronicle of all my shortcomings. My preference for navel-gazing over action. A
certain reserve, even shyness, traceable perhaps to my Hawaiian and Indonesian
upbringing, but also the result of a deep self-consciousness. A sensitivity to
rejection or looking stupid. Maybe even a fundamental laziness.
I took it upon myself to purge such softness with a regimen of selfimprovement that I’ve never entirely shed. (Michelle and the girls point out that
to this day I can’t get into a pool or the ocean without feeling compelled to swim
laps. “Why don’t you just wade?” they’ll say with a snicker. “It’s fun. Here…
we’ll show you how.”) I made lists. I started working out, going for runs around
the Central Park Reservoir or along the East River and eating cans of tuna fish
and hard-boiled eggs for fuel. I stripped myself of excess belongings—who needs
more than five shirts?
What great contest was I preparing for? Whatever it was, I knew I wasn’t
ready. That uncertainty, that self-doubt, kept me from settling too quickly on
easy answers. I got into the habit of questioning my own assumptions, and this, I
think, ultimately came in handy, not only because it prevented me from
becoming insufferable, but because it inoculated me against the revolutionary
formulas embraced by a lot of people on the left at the dawn of the Reagan era.
Certainly that was true when it came to questions of race. I experienced my
fair share of racial slights and could see all too well the enduring legacy of slavery
and Jim Crow anytime I walked through Harlem or parts of the Bronx. But, by
dint of biography, I learned not to claim my own victimhood too readily and
resisted the notion held by some of the Black folks I knew that white people
were irredeemably racist.
The conviction that racism wasn’t inevitable may also explain my willingness
to defend the American idea: what the country was, and what it could become.
My mother and grandparents had never been noisy in their patriotism.
Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in class, waving small flags on the Fourth of
July—these were treated as pleasant rituals, not sacred duties (their attitudes
toward Easter and Christmas were pretty much the same). Even Gramps’s service
in World War II was downplayed; he told me more about eating K rations
—“Terrible!”—than he ever told me about the glory of marching in Patton’s
And yet the pride in being American, the notion that America was the
greatest country on earth—that was always a given. As a young man, I chafed
against books that dismissed the notion of American exceptionalism; got into
long, drawn-out arguments with friends who insisted the American hegemon was
the root of oppression worldwide. I had lived overseas; I knew too much. That
America fell perpetually short of its ideals, I readily conceded. The version of
American history taught in schools, with slavery glossed over and the slaughter of
Native Americans all but omitted—that, I did not defend. The blundering
exercise of military power, the rapaciousness of multinationals—yeah, yeah, I got
But the idea of America, the promise of America: this I clung to with a
stubbornness that surprised even me. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal”—that was my America. The America Tocqueville
wrote about, the countryside of Whitman and Thoreau, with no person my
inferior or my better; the America of pioneers heading west in search of a better
life or immigrants landing on Ellis Island, propelled by a yearning for freedom.
It was the America of Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers, making
dreams take flight, and Jackie Robinson stealing home. It was Chuck Berry and
Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday at the Village Vanguard and Johnny Cash at Folsom
State Prison—all those misfits who took the scraps that others overlooked or
discarded and made beauty no one had seen before.
It was the America of Lincoln at Gettysburg, and Jane Addams toiling in a
Chicago settlement home, and weary GIs at Normandy, and Dr. King on the
National Mall summoning courage in others and in himself.
It was the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, crafted by flawed but brilliant
thinkers who reasoned their way to a system at once sturdy and capable of
An America that could explain me.
“Dream on, Barack” is how those arguments with my college friends would
usually end, as some smug bastard dropped a newspaper in front of me, its
headlines trumpeting the U.S. invasion of Grenada or cuts in the school lunch
program or some other disheartening news. “Sorry, but that’s your America.”
state when I graduated in 1983: big ideas and nowhere to go.
There were no movements to join, no selfless leader to follow. The closest I
could find to what I had in mind was something called “community
organizing”—grassroots work that brought ordinary people together around
issues of local concern. After bouncing around in a couple of ill-fitting jobs in
New York, I heard about a position in Chicago, working with a group of
churches that were trying to stabilize communities racked by steel plant closures.
Nothing grand, but a place to start.
I’ve recorded elsewhere my organizing years in Chicago. Victories were small
and transitory in the mostly Black working-class neighborhoods where I spent my
time; my organization was a bit player in its attempts to address the changes that
were sweeping not just Chicago but cities across the country—the decline of
manufacturing, white flight, the rise of a discrete and disconnected underclass
even as a new knowledge class began to fuel gentrification in the urban core.
But if my own impact on Chicago was small, the city changed the arc of my
SUCH WAS MY
For starters, it got me out of my own head. I had to listen to, and not just
theorize about, what mattered to people. I had to ask strangers to join me and
one another on real-life projects—fixing up a park, or removing asbestos from a
housing project, or starting an after-school program. I experienced failure and
learned to buck up so I could rally those who’d put their trust in me. I suffered
rejections and insults often enough to stop fearing them.
In other words, I grew up—and got my sense of humor back.
I came to love the men and women I worked with: the single mom living on
a ravaged block who somehow got all four children through college; the Irish
priest who threw open the church doors every evening so that kids had an option
other than gangs; the laid-off steelworker who went back to school to become a
social worker. Their stories of hardship and their modest victories confirmed for
me again and again the basic decency of people. Through them, I saw the
transformation that took place when citizens held their leaders and institutions to
account, even on something as small as putting in a stop sign on a busy corner or
getting more police patrols. I noticed how people stood up a little straighter, saw
themselves differently, when they learned that their voices mattered.
Through them, I resolved the lingering questions of my racial identity. For it
turned out there was no single way to be Black; just trying to be a good man was
Through them, I discovered a community of faith—that it was okay to doubt,
to question, and still reach for something beyond the here and now.
And because I heard in church basements and on bungalow porches the very
same values—honesty, and hard work, and empathy—that had been drilled into
me by my mother and grandparents, I came to trust the common thread that
existed between people.
I can’t help but wonder sometimes what would have happened if I had stayed
with organizing, or at least some version of it. Like many local heroes I’ve met
over the years, I might have managed to build up an institution that could
reshape a neighborhood or a portion of the city. Anchored deep in a community,
I might have steered money and imagination to change not the world but just
that one place or that one set of kids, doing work that touched the lives of
neighbors and friends in some measurable and useful way.
But I didn’t stay. I left for Harvard Law School. And here’s where the story
gets murkier in my mind, with my motives open to interpretation.
I TOLD MYSELF THEN —and
like to tell myself still—that I left organizing because
I saw the work I was doing as too slow, too limited, not able to match the needs
of the people I hoped to serve. A local job-training center couldn’t make up for
thousands of steel jobs lost by a plant closing. An after-school program couldn’t
compensate for chronically underfunded schools, or kids raised by their
grandparents because both parents were doing time. On every issue, it seemed,
we kept bumping up against somebody—a politician, a bureaucrat, some distant
CEO—who had the power to make things better but didn’t. And when we did
get concessions from them, it was most often too little, too late. The power to
shape budgets and guide policy was what we needed, and that power lay
Moreover, I came to realize that just two years before I arrived, there had
been a movement for change in Chicago, one that was both social and political—
a deep swift current that I had failed to fully appreciate because it hadn’t
conformed to my theories. It was the movement to elect Harold Washington as
the city’s first Black mayor.
It seemed like it sprang out of nowhere, as grassroots a political campaign as
anything modern politics had ever seen. A small band of Black activists and
business leaders, tired of the chronic bias and inequities of America’s most
segregated big city, decided to register a record number of voters, and then
drafted a rotund congressman of prodigious talent but limited ambition to run for
an office that appeared well out of reach.
Nobody thought it had a chance; even Harold was skeptical. The campaign
operated hand to mouth, staffed largely by inexperienced volunteers. But then it
happened—some form of spontaneous combustion. People who had never
thought about politics, people who had never even voted, got swept up in the
cause. Seniors and schoolchildren started sporting the campaign’s blue buttons. A
collective unwillingness to keep putting up with a steady accumulation of
unfairness and slights—all the bogus traffic stops and secondhand textbooks; all
the times Black folks walked past a Park District field house on the North Side
and noticed how much nicer it was than the one in their neighborhood; all the
times they’d been passed over for promotions or denied bank loans—gathered
like a cyclone and toppled city hall.
By the time I arrived in Chicago, Harold was halfway through his first term.
The city council, once a rubber stamp for Old Man Daley, had divided into racial
camps, a controlling majority of white aldermen blocking every reform that
Harold proposed. He tried to wheedle and cut deals, but they wouldn’t budge. It
was riveting television, tribal and raw, but it limited what Harold could deliver
for those who’d elected him. It took a federal court redrawing a racially
gerrymandered aldermanic map for Harold to finally get the majority and break
the deadlock. And before he could realize many of the changes he’d promised, he
was dead of a heart attack. A scion of the old order, Rich Daley, ultimately
regained his father’s throne.
Far from the center of the action, I watched this drama unfold and tried to
absorb its lessons. I saw how the tremendous energy of the movement couldn’t
be sustained without structure, organization, and skills in governance. I saw how
a political campaign based on racial redress, no matter how reasonable, generated
fear and backlash and ultimately placed limits on progress. And in the rapid
collapse of Harold’s coalition after his death, I saw the danger of relying on a
single charismatic leader to bring about change.
And yet what a force he was for those five years. Despite the roadblocks,
Chicago changed on his watch. City services, from tree trimming to snow
removal to road repair, came to be spread more evenly across wards. New schools
were built in poor neighborhoods. City jobs were no longer subject solely to
patronage, and the business community at long last started paying attention to the
lack of diversity in their ranks.
Above all, Harold gave people hope. The way Black Chicagoans talked about
him in those years was reminiscent of how a certain generation of white
progressives talked about Bobby Kennedy—it wasn’t so much what he did as
how he made you feel. Like anything was possible. Like the world was yours to
For me, this planted a seed. It made me think for the first time that I wanted
to someday run for public office. (I wasn’t the only one thus inspired—it was
shortly after Harold’s election that Jesse Jackson would announce he was running
for president.) Wasn’t this where the energy of the civil rights movement had
migrated—into electoral politics? John Lewis, Andrew Young, Julian Bond—
hadn’t they run for office, deciding this was the arena where they could make the
most difference? I knew there were pitfalls—the compromises, the constant
money chase, the losing track of ideals, and the relentless pursuit of winning.
But maybe there was another way. Maybe you could generate the same
energy, the same sense of purpose, not just within the Black community but
across racial lines. Maybe with enough preparation, policy know-how, and
management skills, you could avoid some of Harold’s mistakes. Maybe the
principles of organizing could be marshaled not just to run a campaign but to
govern—to encourage participation and active citizenship among those who’d
been left out, and to teach them not just to trust their elected leaders, but to trust
one another, and themselves.
That’s what I told myself. But it wasn’t the whole story. I was also struggling
with narrower questions of my own ambitions. As much as I’d learned from
organizing, I didn’t have much to show for it in terms of concrete
accomplishments. Even my mother, the woman who’d always marched to a
different drummer, worried about me.
“I don’t know, Bar,” she told me one Christmas. “You can spend a lifetime
working outside institutions. But you might get more done trying to change
those institutions from the inside.
“Plus, take it from me,” she said with a rueful laugh. “Being broke is
And so it was that in the fall of 1988, I took my ambitions to a place where
ambition hardly stood out. Valedictorians, student body presidents, Latin scholars,
debate champions—the people I found at Harvard Law School were generally
impressive young men and women who, unlike me, had grown up with the
justifiable conviction that they were destined to lead lives of consequence. That I
ended up doing well there I attribute mostly to the fact that I was a few years
older than my classmates. Whereas many felt burdened by the workload, for me
days spent in the library—or, better yet, on the couch of my off-campus
apartment, a ball game on with the sound muted—felt like an absolute luxury
after three years of organizing community meetings and knocking on doors in the
There was also this: The study of law, it turned out, wasn’t so different from
what I’d done during my years of solitary musing on civic questions. What
principles should govern the relationship between the individual and society, and
how far did our obligations to others extend? How much should the government
regulate the market? How does social change happen, and how can rules ensure
that everybody has a voice?
I couldn’t get enough of this stuff. I loved the back-and-forth, especially with
the more conservative students, who despite our disagreements seemed to
appreciate the fact that I took their arguments seriously. In classroom discussions,
my hand kept shooting up, earning me some well-deserved eye rolls. I couldn’t
help it; it was as if, after years of locking myself away with a strange obsession—
like juggling, say, or sword swallowing—I now found myself in circus school.
Enthusiasm makes up for a host of deficiencies, I tell my daughters—and at
least that was true for me at Harvard. In my second year, I was elected the first
Black head of the Law Review, which generated a bit of national press. I signed a
contract to write a book. Job offers arrived from around the country, and it was
assumed that my path was now charted, just as it had been for my predecessors at
the Law Review: I’d clerk for a Supreme Court justice, work for a top law firm or
the Office of the United States Attorney, and when the time was right, I could, if
I wanted to, try my hand at politics.
It was heady stuff. The only person who questioned this smooth path of
ascent seemed to be me. It had come too quickly. The big salaries being dangled,
the attention—it felt like a trap.
Luckily I had time to consider my next move. And anyway, the most
important decision ahead would end up having nothing to do with law.
was already practicing law when we met. She
was twenty-five years old and an associate at Sidley & Austin, the Chicago-based
firm where I worked the summer after my first year of law school. She was tall,
beautiful, funny, outgoing, generous, and wickedly smart—and I was smitten
almost from the second I saw her. She’d been assigned by the firm to look out for
me, to make sure I knew where the office photocopier was and that I generally
felt welcome. That also meant we got to go out for lunches together, which
allowed us to sit and talk—at first about our jobs and eventually about everything
Over the course of the next couple of years, during school breaks and when
Michelle came to Harvard as part of the Sidley recruiting team, the two of us
went out to dinner and took long walks along the Charles River, talking about
movies and family and places in the world we wanted to see. When her father
unexpectedly died of complications arising from multiple sclerosis, I flew out to
be with her, and she comforted me when I learned that Gramps had advanced
In other words, we became friends as well as lovers, and as my law school
graduation approached, we gingerly circled around the prospect of a life together.
Once, I took her to an organizing workshop I was conducting, a favor for a
friend who ran a community center on the South Side. The participants were
mostly single moms, some on welfare, few with any marketable skills. I asked
them to describe their world as it was and as they would like it to be. It was a
simple exercise I’d done many times, a way for people to bridge the reality of
their communities and their lives with the things they could conceivably change.
Afterward, as we were walking to the car, Michelle laced her arm through mine
and said she’d been touched by my easy rapport with the women.
“You gave them hope.”
“They need more than hope,” I said. I tried to explain to her the conflict that
ICHELLE LAVAUGHN ROBINSON
I was feeling: between working for change within the system and pushing against
it; wanting to lead but wanting to empower people to make change for
themselves; wanting to be in politics but not of it.
Michelle looked at me. “The world as it is, and the world as it should be,”
she said softly.
“Something like that.”
Michelle was an original; I knew nobody quite like her. And although it
hadn’t happened yet, I was starting to think I might ask her to marry me. For
Michelle, marriage was a given—the organic next step in a relationship as serious
as ours. For me, someone who’d grown up with a mother whose marriages didn’t
last, the need to formalize a relationship had always felt less pressing. Not only
that, but in those early years of our courtship, our arguments could be fierce. As
cocksure as I could be, she never gave ground. Her brother, Craig, a basketball
star at Princeton who had worked in investment banking before getting into
coaching, used to joke that the family didn’t think Michelle (“Miche,” they
called her) would ever get married because she was too tough—no guy could
keep up with her. The weird thing was, I liked that about her; how she
constantly challenged me and kept me honest.
And what was Michelle thinking? I imagine her just before we met, very
much the young professional, tailored and crisp, focused on her career and doing
things the way they’re supposed to be done, with no time for nonsense. And then
this strange guy from Hawaii with a scruffy wardrobe and crazy dreams wanders
into her life. That was part of my appeal, she would tell me, how different I was
from the guys she’d grown up with, the men she had dated. Different even from
her own father, whom she adored: a man who had never finished community
college, who had been struck by MS in his early thirties, but who had never
complained and had gone to work every single day and made all of Michelle’s
dance recitals and Craig’s basketball games, and was always present for his family,
truly his pride and joy.
Life with me promised Michelle something else, those things that she saw she
had missed as a child. Adventure. Travel. A breaking of constraints. Just as her
roots in Chicago—her big, extended family, her common sense, her desire to be
a good mom above all else—promised an anchor that I’d been missing for much
of my youth. We didn’t just love each other and make each other laugh and share
the same basic values—there was symmetry there, the way we complemented
each other. We could have each other’s back, guard each other’s blind spots. We
could be a team.
Of course, that was another way of saying we were very different, in
experience and in temperament. For Michelle, the road to the good life was
narrow and full of hazards. Family was all you could count on, big risks weren’t
taken lightly, and outward success—a good job, a nice house—never made you
feel ambivalent because failure and want were all around you, just a layoff or a
shooting away. Michelle never worried about selling out, because growing up on
the South Side meant you were always, at some level, an outsider. In her mind,
the roadblocks to making it were plenty clear; you didn’t have to go looking for
them. The doubts arose from having to prove, no matter how well you did, that
you belonged in the room—prove it not just to those who doubted you but to
was coming to an end, I told Michelle of my plan. I wouldn’t
clerk. Instead, I’d move back to Chicago, try to keep my hand in community
work while also practicing law at a small firm that specialized in civil rights. If a
good opportunity presented itself, I said, I could even see myself running for
None of this came as a surprise to her. She trusted me, she said, to do what I
believed was right.
“But I need to tell you, Barack,” she said, “I think what you want to do is
really hard. I mean, I wish I had your optimism. Sometimes I do. But people can
be so selfish and just plain ignorant. I think a lot of people don’t want to be
bothered. And I think politics seems like it’s full of people willing to do anything
for power, who just think about themselves. Especially in Chicago. I’m not sure
you’ll ever change that.”
“I can try, can’t I?” I said with a smile. “What’s the point of having a fancy
law degree if you can’t take some risks? If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I’ll be
okay. We’ll be okay.”
She took my face in her hands. “Have you ever noticed that if there’s a hard
way and an easy way, you choose the hard way every time? Why do you think
We both laughed. But I could tell Michelle thought she was onto something.
It was an insight that would carry implications for us both.
AS LAW SCHOOL
of dating, Michelle and I were married at Trinity United
Church of Christ on October 3, 1992, with more than three hundred of our
friends, colleagues, and family members crammed happily into the pews. The
service was officiated by the church’s pastor, Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.,
whom I’d come to know and admire during my organizer days. We were joyful.
Our future together was officially beginning.
I had passed the bar and then delayed my law practice for a year to run
Project VOTE! in advance of the 1992 presidential race—one of the largest
voter-registration drives in Illinois history. After returning from our honeymoon
on the California coast, I taught at the University of Chicago Law School,
finished my book, and officially joined Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a small
civil rights firm that specialized in employment discrimination cases and did real
estate work for affordable housing groups. Michelle, meanwhile, had decided
she’d had enough of corporate law and made a move to the City of Chicago’s
Department of Planning and Development, working there for a year and a half
before agreeing to direct a nonprofit youth leadership program called Public
Both of us enjoyed our jobs and the people we worked with, and as time
went on, we got involved with various civic and philanthropic efforts. We took
in ball games and concerts and shared dinners with a widening circle of friends.
We were able to buy a modest but cozy condo in Hyde Park, right across from
Lake Michigan and Promontory Point, just a few doors down from where Craig
and his young family lived. Michelle’s mother, Marian, still lived in the family’s
South Shore house, less than fifteen minutes away, and we visited often, feasting
on her fried chicken and greens and red velvet cake and barbecue made by
Michelle’s Uncle Pete. Once we were stuffed, we’d sit around the kitchen and
listen to her uncles tell stories of growing up, the laughter louder as the evening
wore on, while cousins and nephews and nieces bounced on the sofa cushions
until they were sent out into the yard.
Driving home in the twilight, Michelle and I sometimes talked about having
kids of our own—what they might be like, or how many, and what about a dog?
—and imagined all the things we’d do together as a family.
A normal life. A productive, happy life. It should have been enough.
AFTER SEVERAL YEARS
the summer of 1995, a political opportunity arose suddenly, through
a strange chain of events. The sitting congressman from the Second District of
Illinois, Mel Reynolds, had been indicted on several charges, including allegedly
having sex with a sixteen-year-old campaign volunteer. If he was convicted, a
special election would be promptly held to replace him.
I didn’t live in the district, and I lacked the name recognition and base of
support to launch a congressional race. The state senator from our area, Alice
Palmer, however, was eligible to run for the seat and, not long before the
congressman was convicted in August, she threw her hat into the ring. Palmer, an
African American former educator with deep roots in the community, had a solid
if unremarkable record and was well liked by progressives and some of the oldtime Black activists who had helped Harold get elected; and although I didn’t
know her, we had mutual friends. Based on the work I’d done for Project
VOTE! I was asked to help her nascent campaign, and as the weeks went by,
several people encouraged me to think about filing to run for Alice’s soon-to-bevacant senate seat.
Before talking to Michelle, I made a list of pros and cons. A state senator
wasn’t a glamorous post—most people had no idea who their state legislators
were—and Springfield, the state capital, was notorious for old-style porkbarreling, logrolling, payola, and other political mischief. On the other hand, I
had to start somewhere and pay my dues. Also, the Illinois state legislature was in
session only a few weeks out of the year, which meant I could continue teaching
and working at the law firm.
Best of all, Alice Palmer agreed to endorse me. With Reynolds’s trial still
pending, it was difficult to know how the timing would work. Technically it
would be possible for Alice to run for Congress while keeping the option of
retaining her state seat if she lost the bigger race, but she insisted to me and others
that she was done with the senate, ready to move on. Along with an offer of
support from our local alderman, Toni Preckwinkle, who boasted the best
organization in the area, my chances looked better than good.
I went to Michelle and made my pitch. “Think of it as a test run,” I said.
“Dipping our toes in the water.”
BUT THEN IN
“So what do you think?”
She pecked me on the cheek. “I think this is something you want to do, so
you should do it. Just promise me I won’t have to spend time in Springfield.”
I had one last person to check in with before I pulled the trigger. Earlier in
the year, my mother had fallen sick and had been diagnosed with uterine cancer.
The prognosis wasn’t good. At least once a day, the thought of losing her
made my heart constrict. I’d flown to Hawaii right after she’d gotten the news
and had been relieved to find that she looked like herself and was in good spirits.
She confessed she was scared but wanted to be as aggressive as possible with her
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, “until you give me some grandchildren.”
She received the news of my possible state senate run with her usual
enthusiasm, insisting I tell her every detail. She acknowledged it would be a lot of
work, but my mother was never one to see hard work as anything but good.
“Make sure Michelle’s all right with it,” she said. “Not that I’m the marriage
expert. And don’t you dare use me as an excuse not to do it. I’ve got enough to
deal with without feeling like everybody’s putting their lives on hold. It’s morbid,
Seven months after her diagnosis, the situation would turn grim. In
September, Michelle and I flew to New York to join Maya and my mother for a
consultation with a specialist at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Midway through
chemo now, she was physically transformed. Her long dark hair was gone; her
eyes looked hollow. Worse, the specialist’s assessment was that her cancer was at
stage four and that treatment options were limited. Watching my mother suck on
ice cubes because her saliva glands had shut down, I did my best to put on a brave
face. I told her funny stories about my work and recounted the plot of a movie
I’d just seen. We laughed as Maya—nine years younger than me and then
studying at New York University—reminded me what a bossy big brother I’d
been. I held my mother’s hand, making sure she was comfortable before she
settled in to rest. Then I went back to the hotel room and cried.
It was on that trip to New York that I suggested my mother come stay with
us in Chicago; my grandmother was too old to care for her full-time. But my
mother, forever the architect of her own destiny, declined. “I’d rather be
someplace familiar and warm,” she said, looking out the window. I sat there
feeling helpless, thinking about the long path she had traveled in her life, how
unexpected each step along the way must have been, so full of happy accidents.
I’d never once heard her dwell on the disappointments. Instead she seemed to
find small pleasures everywhere.
“Life is strange, isn’t it?” she said softly.
advice, I threw myself into my maiden political
campaign. It makes me laugh to think back on what a bare-bones operation it
was—not much more sophisticated than a campaign for student council. There
were no pollsters, no researchers, no TV or radio buys. My announcement, on
September 19, 1995, was at the Ramada Inn in Hyde Park, with pretzels and
chips and a couple hundred supporters—probably a quarter of whom were related
to Michelle. Our campaign literature consisted of an eight-by-four-inch card
with what looked like a passport picture of me, a few lines of biography, and four
or five bullet points that I’d tapped out on my computer. I’d had it printed at
I did make a point of hiring two political veterans I’d met working on Project
VOTE! Carol Anne Harwell, my campaign manager, was tall and sassy, in her
early forties and on loan from a West Side ward office. Although she came off as
irrepressibly cheerful, she knew her way around Chicago’s bare-knuckle politics.
Ron Davis, a big grizzly bear of a man, was our field director and petition expert.
He had a gray-flecked Afro, scraggly facial hair, and thick wire-rimmed glasses,
his bulk hidden by the untucked black shirt he seemed to wear every single day.
Ron proved to be indispensable: Illinois had strict ballot access rules, designed
to make life hard on challengers who didn’t have party support. To get on the
ballot, a candidate needed more than seven hundred registered voters who lived
in the district to sign a petition that was circulated and attested to by someone
who also lived in the district. A “good” signature had to be legible, accurately
linked to a local address, and from a registered voter. I still remember the first
time a group of us gathered around our dining room table, Ron huffing and
puffing as he passed out clipboards with the petitions attached, along with voter
files and a sheet of instructions. I suggested that before we talked about petitions,
we should organize some meet-the-candidate forums, maybe draft some position
FOLLOWING MY MOTHER’S
papers. Carol and Ron looked at each other and laughed.
“Boss, let me tell you something,” Carol said. “You can save all that League
of Women Voters shit for after the election. Right now, the only thing that
matters is these petitions. The folks you’re running against, they’re gonna go
through these things with a fine-tooth comb to see if your signatures are legit. If
they’re not, you don’t get to play. And I guarantee you, no matter how careful
we are, about half of the signatures will end up being bad, which is why we got
to get at least twice as many as they say we do.”
“Four times as many,” Ron corrected, handing me a clipboard.
Duly chastened, I drove out to one of the neighborhoods Ron had selected
to gather signatures. It felt just like my early organizing days, going from house to
house, some people not home or unwilling to open the door; women in hair
curlers with kids scampering about, men doing yard work; occasionally young
men in T-shirts and do-rags, breath thick with alcohol as they scanned the block.
There were those who wanted to talk to me about problems at the local school
or the gun violence that was creeping into what had been a stable, working-class
neighborhood. But mostly folks would take the clipboard, sign it, and try as
quickly as possible to get back to what they’d been doing.
If knocking on doors was pretty standard fare for me, the experience was new
to Michelle, who gamely dedicated part of every weekend to helping out. And
while she’d often collect more signatures than I did—with her megawatt smile
and stories of growing up just a few blocks away—there were no smiles two
hours later when we’d get back into the car to drive home.
“All I know,” she said at one point, “is that I must really love you to spend
my Saturday morning doing this.”
Over the course of several months, we managed to collect four times the
number of required signatures. When I wasn’t at the firm or teaching, I visited
block clubs, church socials, and senior citizen homes, making my case to voters. I
wasn’t great. My stump speech was stiff, heavy on policy speak, short on
inspiration and humor. I also found it awkward to talk about myself. As an
organizer, I’d been trained to always stay in the background.
I did get better, though, more relaxed, and slowly the ranks of my supporters
grew. I rounded up endorsements from local officials, pastors, and a handful of
progressive organizations; I even got a few position papers drafted. And I’d like to
say that this is how my first campaign ended—the plucky young candidate and his
accomplished, beautiful, and forbearing wife, starting with a few friends in their
dining room, rallying the people around a new brand of politics.
But that’s not how it happened. In August 1995, our disgraced congressman
was finally convicted and sentenced to prison; a special election was called for late
November. With his seat empty and the timeline officially set, others besides
Alice Palmer jumped into the congressional race, among them Jesse Jackson, Jr.,
who had drawn national attention for the stirring introduction of his father at the
1988 Democratic National Convention. Michelle and I knew and liked Jesse Jr.
His sister Santita had been one of Michelle’s best friends in high school and the
maid of honor at our wedding. He was popular enough that his announcement
immediately changed the dynamics of the race, putting Alice at an enormous
And because the special congressional election was now going to take place a
few weeks before petitions for Alice’s senate seat had to be filed, my team started
“You better check again to make sure Alice isn’t going to mess with you if
she loses to Jesse Jr.,” Ron said.
I shook my head. “She promised me she wasn’t running. Gave me her word.
And she’s said it publicly. In the papers, even.”
“That’s fine, Barack. But can you just check again, please?”
I did, phoning Alice and once again getting her assurance that regardless of
what happened with her congressional run, she still intended to leave state
But when Jesse Jr. handily won the special election, with Alice coming in a
distant third, something shifted. Stories started surfacing in the local press about a
“Draft Alice Palmer” campaign. A few of her longtime supporters asked for a
meeting, and when I showed up they advised me to get out of the race. The
community couldn’t afford to give up Alice’s seniority, they said. I should be
patient; my turn would come. I stood my ground—I had volunteers and donors
who had already invested a lot in the campaign, after all; I had stuck with Alice
even when Jesse Jr. got in—but the room was unmoved. By the time I spoke to
Alice, it was clear where events were headed. The following week she held a
press conference in Springfield, announcing that she was filing her own lastminute petitions to get on the ballot and retain her seat.
“Told ya,” Carol said, taking a drag from her cigarette and blowing a thin
plume of smoke to the ceiling.
I felt disheartened and betrayed, but I figured all was not lost. We had built
up a good organization over the previous few months, and almost all the elected
officials who’d endorsed me said they’d stick with us. Ron and Carol were less
“Hate to tell you, boss,” Carol said, “but most folks still have no idea who
you are. Shit, they don’t know who she is either, but—no offense, now—‘Alice
Palmer’ is a hell of a lot better ballot name than ‘Barack Obama.’ ”
I saw her point but told them we were going to see things through, even as a
number of prominent Chicagoans were suddenly urging me to drop out of the
race. And then one afternoon Ron and Carol arrived at my house, breathless and
looking like they’d won the lottery.
“Alice’s petitions,” Ron said. “They’re terrible. Worst I’ve ever seen. All
those Negroes who were trying to bully you out of the race, they didn’t bother
actually doing the work. This could get her knocked off the ballot.”
I looked through the informal tallies Ron and our campaign volunteers had
done. It was true; the petitions Alice had submitted appeared to be filled with
invalid signatures: people whose addresses were outside the district, multiple
signatures with different names but the same handwriting. I scratched my head. “I
don’t know, guys…”
“You don’t know what?” Carol said.
“I don’t know if I want to win like this. I mean, yeah, I’m pissed about
what’s happened. But these ballot rules don’t make much sense. I’d rather just
Carol pulled back, her jaw tightening. “This woman gave you her word,
Barack!” she said. “We’ve all been busting our asses out here, based on that
promise. And now, when she tries to screw you, and can’t even do that right,
you’re going to let her get away with it? You don’t think they would knock you
off the ballot in a second if they could?” She shook her head. “Naw, Barack.
You’re a good guy…that’s why we believe in you. But if you let this go, you
might as well go back to being a professor and whatnot, ’cause politics is not for
you. You will get chewed up and won’t be doing anybody a damn bit of good.”
I looked at Ron, who said quietly, “She’s right.”
I leaned back in my chair and lit a cigarette. I felt suspended in time, trying to
decipher what I was feeling in my gut. How much did I want this? I reminded
myself about what I believed I could get done in office, how hard I was willing
to work if I got the chance.
“Okay,” I said finally.
“Okay!” Carol said, her smile returning. Ron gathered up his papers and put
them in his bag.
It would take a couple of months for the process to play out, but with my
decision that day, the race was effectively over. We filed our challenge with the
Chicago Board of Election Commissioners and when it became clear the board
was going to rule in our favor, Alice dropped out. While we were at it, we
knocked several other Democrats with bad petitions off the ballot as well.
Without a Democratic opponent and with only token Republican opposition, I
was on my way to the state senate.
Whatever vision I had for a more noble kind of politics, it would have to
I suppose there are useful lessons to draw from that first campaign. I learned
to respect the nuts and bolts of politics, the attention to detail required, the daily
grind that might prove the difference between winning and losing. It confirmed,
too, what I already knew about myself: that whatever preferences I had for fair
play, I didn’t like to lose.
But the lesson that stayed with me most had nothing to do with campaign
mechanics or hardball politics. It had to do with the phone call I received from
Maya in Hawaii one day in early November, well before I knew how my race
would turn out.
“She’s taken a bad turn, Bar,” Maya said.
“I think you need to come now.”
I already knew that my mother’s condition had been deteriorating; I’d spoken
to her just a few days before. Hearing a new level of pain and resignation in her
voice, I had booked a flight to Hawaii for the following week.
“Can she talk?” I asked Maya now.
“I don’t think so. She’s fading in and out.”
I hung up the phone and called the airline to reschedule my flight for first
thing in the morning. I called Carol to cancel some campaign events and run
through what needed to be done in my absence. A few hours later, Maya called
“I’m sorry, honey. Mom’s gone.” She had never regained consciousness, my
sister told me; Maya had sat at her hospital bedside, reading out loud from a book
of folktales as our mother slipped away.
We held a memorial service that week, in the Japanese garden behind the
East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. I remembered playing there as a
child, my mother sitting in the sun and watching me as I tumbled in the grass,
hopped over the rock steps, and caught tadpoles in the stream that ran down one
side. Afterward, Maya and I drove out to the lookout near Koko Head and
scattered her ashes into the sea, the waves crashing against the rocks. And I
thought about my mother and sister alone in that hospital room, and me not
there, so busy with my grand pursuits. I knew I could never get that moment
back. On top of my sorrow, I felt a great shame.
at the southern tip of Chicago, the quickest route to
Springfield is via I-55. During rush hour, heading out of downtown and through
the western suburbs, traffic slows to a crawl; but once you get past Joliet things
open up, a straight, smooth spread of asphalt cutting southwest through
Bloomington (home of State Farm insurance and Beer Nuts) and Lincoln (named
after the president, who helped incorporate the town when he was still just a
lawyer) and taking you past miles and miles of corn.
For almost eight years I made this drive, usually alone, usually in about three
and a half hours, trekking back and forth to Springfield for a few weeks in the fall
and through much of the winter and early spring, when the Illinois legislature did
the bulk of its work. I’d drive down Tuesday night after dinner and get back
home Thursday evening or Friday morning. Cell phone service dropped about an
hour outside of Chicago, and the only signals that registered on the dial after that
were talk radio and Christian music stations. To stay awake, I listened to
audiobooks, the longer the better—novels mostly (John le Carré and Toni
Morrison were favorites) but also histories, of the Civil War, the Victorian era,
the fall of the Roman Empire.
When asked, I’d tell skeptical friends how much I was learning in Springfield,
and, for the first few years at least, it was true. Of all fifty states, Illinois best
represented the demographics of the nation, home to a teeming metropolis,
sprawling suburbs, farm country, factory towns, and a downstate region
considered more southern than northern. On any given day, under the high
dome of the capitol, you’d see a cross section of America on full display, a Carl
Sandburg poem come to life. There were inner-city kids jostling one another on
a field trip, well-coiffed bankers working their flip phones, farmers in seed caps
looking to widen the locks that allowed industrial barges to take their crops to
market. You’d see Latina moms looking to fund a new day-care center and
middle-aged biker crews, complete with muttonchops and leather jackets, trying
to stop yet another legislative effort to make them wear helmets.
I kept my head down in those early months. Some of my colleagues were
suspicious of my odd name and Harvard pedigree, but I did my homework and
helped raise money for other senators’ campaigns. I got to know my fellow
legislators and their staffers not just in the senate chamber but also on the
basketball court and at golf outings and during the weekly bipartisan poker games
we organized—with a two-dollar, three-raise limit, the room thick with smoke,
trash talk, and the slow fizz of yet another beer can being opened.
It helped that I already knew the senate minority leader, a hefty Black man in
his sixties named Emil Jones. He’d come up through the ranks of one of the
traditional ward organizations under Daley Sr. and represented the district where
I’d once organized. That’s how we first met: I’d brought a group of parents to his
office, demanding a meeting to get a college prep program funded for area youth.
Rather than stiff-arm us, he invited us in.
“You may not know it,” he said, “but I been waiting for y’all to show up!”
He explained how he’d never had the chance to graduate from college himself;
he wanted to make sure more state money was steered to neglected Black
neighborhoods. “I’m gonna leave it up to you to figure out what we need,” he
told me with a slap on the back as my group left his office. “You leave the
politics to me.”
Sure enough, Emil got the program funded, and our friendship carried over
to the senate. He took an odd pride in me and became almost protective of my
reformist ways. Even when he badly needed a vote on a deal he was cooking up
(getting riverboat gambling licensed in Chicago was a particular obsession), he
would never squeeze me if I told him I couldn’t do it—though he wasn’t above
uttering a few choice curses as he charged off to try someone else.
“Barack’s different,” he once told a staffer. “He’s going places.”
For all my diligence and Emil’s goodwill, neither of us could change one stark
fact: We were in the minority party. Republicans in the Illinois senate had
adopted the same uncompromising approach that Newt Gingrich was using at the
time to neuter Democrats in Congress. The GOP exercised absolute control over
what bills got out of committee and which amendments were in order.
Springfield had a special designation for junior members in the minority like me
—“mushrooms,” because “you’re fed shit and kept in the dark.”
On occasion, I found myself able to shape significant legislation. I helped
make sure Illinois’s version of the national welfare reform bill signed by Bill
Clinton provided sufficient support for those transitioning to work. In the wake
of one of Springfield’s perennial scandals, Emil assigned me to represent the
caucus on a committee to update the ethics laws. Nobody else wanted the job,
figuring it was a lost cause, but thanks to a good rapport with my Republican
counterpart, Kirk Dillard, we passed a law that curbed some of the more
embarrassing practices—making it impossible, for example, to use campaign
dollars for personal items like a home addition or a fur coat. (There were senators
who didn’t talk to us for weeks after that.)
More typical was the time, toward the end of the first session, when I rose
from my seat to oppose a blatant tax giveaway to some favored industry when the
state was cutting services for the poor. I had lined up my facts and prepared with
the thoroughness of a courtroom lawyer; I pointed out why such unjustified tax
breaks violated the conservative market principles Republicans claimed to believe
in. When I sat down, the senate president, Pate Philip—a beefy, white-haired exMarine notorious for insulting women and people of color with remarkably
casual frequency—wandered up to my desk.
“That was a hell of a speech,” he said, chewing on an unlit cigar. “Made
some good points.”
“Might have even changed a lot of minds,” he said. “But you didn’t change
any votes.” With that, he signaled to the presiding officer and watched with
satisfaction as the green lights signifying “aye” lit up the board.
That was politics in Springfield: a series of transactions mostly hidden from
view, legislators weighing the competing pressures of various interests with the
dispassion of bazaar merchants, all the while keeping a careful eye on the handful
of ideological hot buttons—guns, abortion, taxes—that might generate heat from
It wasn’t that people didn’t know the difference between good and bad
policy. It just didn’t matter. What everyone in Springfield understood was that 90
percent of the time the voters back home weren’t paying attention. A
complicated but worthy compromise, bucking party orthodoxy to support an
innovative idea—that could cost you a key endorsement, a big financial backer, a
leadership post, or even an election.
Could you get voters to pay attention? I tried. Back in the district, I accepted
just about any invitation that came my way. I started writing a regular column for
the Hyde Park Herald, a neighborhood weekly with a readership of less than five
thousand. I hosted town halls, setting out refreshments and stacks of legislative
updates, and then usually sat there with my lonesome staffer, looking at my
watch, waiting for a crowd that never came.
I couldn’t blame folks for not showing up. They were busy, they had families,
and surely most of the debates in Springfield seemed remote. Meanwhile, on the
few high-profile issues that my constituents did care about, they probably agreed
with me already, since the lines of my district—like those of almost every district
in Illinois—had been drawn with surgical precision to ensure one-party
dominance. If I wanted more funding for schools in poor neighborhoods, if I
wanted more access to primary healthcare or retraining for laid-off workers, I
didn’t need to convince my constituents. The people I needed to engage and
persuade—they lived somewhere else.
By the end of my second session, I could feel the atmosphere of the capitol
weighing on me—the futility of being in the minority, the cynicism of so many
of my colleagues worn like a badge of honor. No doubt it showed. One day,
while I was standing in the rotunda after a bill I’d introduced went down in
flames, a well-meaning lobbyist came up and put his arm around me.
“You’ve got to stop beating your head against the wall, Barack,” he said.
“The key to surviving this place is understanding that it’s a business. Like selling
cars. Or the dry cleaner down the street. You start believing it’s more than that,
it’ll drive you crazy.”
argue that everything I’ve said about Springfield
describes exactly how pluralism is supposed to work; that the horse trading
between interest groups may not be inspiring, but it keeps democracy muddling
along. And maybe that argument would have gone down easier with me at the
time if it weren’t for the life I was missing at home.
The first two years in the legislature were fine—Michelle was busy with her
own work, and although she kept her promise not to come down to the state
capital except for my swearing in, we’d still have leisurely conversations on the
SOME POLITICAL SCIENTISTS
phone on nights I was away. Then one day in the fall of 1997, she called me at
the office, her voice trembling.
“You’re going to be a daddy.”
I was going to be a daddy. How full of joy the months that followed were! I
lived up to every cliché of the expectant father: attending Lamaze classes, trying
to figure out how to assemble a crib, reading the book What to Expect When
You’re Expecting with pen in hand to underline key passages. Around six a.m. on
the Fourth of July, Michelle poked me and said it was time to go to the hospital.
I fumbled around and gathered the bag I’d set by the door, and just seven hours
later was introduced to Malia Ann Obama, eight pounds and fifteen ounces of
Among her many talents, our new daughter had good timing; with no
session, no classes, and no big pending cases to work on, I could take the rest of
the summer off. A night owl by nature, I manned the late shift so Michelle could
sleep, resting Malia on my thighs to read to her as she looked up with big
questioning eyes, or dozing as she lay on my chest, a burp and good poop behind
us, so warm and serene. I thought about the generations of men who had missed
such moments, and I thought about my own father, whose absence had done
more to shape me than the brief time I’d spent with him, and I realized that there
was no place on earth I would rather be.
But the strains of young parenthood eventually took their toll. After a blissful
few months, Michelle went back to work, and I went back to juggling three jobs.
We were lucky to find a wonderful nanny who cared for Malia during the day,
but the addition of a full-time employee to our family enterprise squeezed the
Michelle bore the brunt of all this, shuttling between mothering and work,
unconvinced that she was doing either job well. At the end of each night, after
feeding and bath time and story time and cleaning up the apartment and trying to
keep track of whether she’d picked up the dry cleaning and making a note to
herself to schedule an appointment with the pediatrician, she would often fall into
an empty bed, knowing the whole cycle would start all over again in a few short
hours while her husband was off doing “important things.”
We began arguing more, usually late at night when the two of us were
thoroughly drained. “This isn’t what I signed up for, Barack,” Michelle said at
one point. “I feel like I’m doing it all by myself.”
I was hurt by that. If I wasn’t working, I was home—and if I was home and
forgot to clean up the kitchen after dinner, it was because I had to stay up late
grading exams or fine-tuning a brief. But even as I mounted my defense, I knew
I was falling short. Inside Michelle’s anger lay a more difficult truth. I was trying
to deliver a lot of things to a lot of different people. I was taking the hard way,
just as she’d predicted back when our burdens were lighter, our personal
responsibilities not so enmeshed. I thought now about the promise I’d made to
myself after Malia was born; that my kids would know me, that they’d grow up
knowing my love for them, feeling that I had always put them first.
Sitting in the dim light of our living room, Michelle no longer seemed angry,
just sad. “Is it worth it?” she asked.
I don’t recall what I said in response. I know I couldn’t admit to her that I
was no longer sure.
in retrospect, to understand why you did something stupid. I don’t
mean the small stuff—ruining your favorite tie because you tried to eat soup in
the car or throwing out your back because you got talked into playing tackle
football on Thanksgiving. I mean dumb choices in the wake of considerable
deliberation: those times when you identify a real problem in your life, analyze it,
and then with utter confidence come up with precisely the wrong answer.
That was me running for Congress. After numerous conversations, I had to
concede that Michelle was right to question whether the difference I was making
in Springfield justified the sacrifice. Rather than lightening my load, though, I
went in the opposite direction, deciding I needed to step on the gas and secure a
more influential office. Around this same time, veteran congressman Bobby
Rush, a former Black Panther, challenged Mayor Daley in the 1999 election and
got trounced, doing poorly even in his own district.
I thought Rush’s campaign had been uninspired, without a rationale other
than the vague promise to continue Harold Washington’s legacy. If this was how
he operated in Congress, I figured I could do better. After talking it over with a
few trusted advisors, I had my staff jerry-rig an in-house poll to see whether a
race against Rush would be viable. Our informal sampling gave us a shot. Using
the results, I was able to persuade several of my closest friends to help finance the
race. And then, despite warnings from more experienced political hands that
Rush was stronger than he looked, and despite Michelle’s incredulity that I
would somehow think she’d feel better with me being in Washington instead of
Springfield, I announced my candidacy for congressman from the First
Almost from the start, the race was a disaster. A few weeks in, the rumblings
from the Rush camp began: Obama’s an outsider; he’s backed by white folks; he’s a
Harvard elitist. And that name—is he even Black?
Having raised enough money to commission a proper poll, I discovered that
Bobby had 90 percent name recognition in the district and a 70 percent approval
rating, whereas only 11 percent of voters even knew who I was. Shortly
thereafter, Bobby’s adult son was tragically shot and killed, eliciting an outpouring
of sympathy. I effectively suspended my campaign for a month and watched
television coverage of the funeral taking place at my own church, with Reverend
Jeremiah Wright presiding. Already on thin ice at home, I took the family to
Hawaii for an abbreviated Christmas break, only to have the governor call a
special legislative session to vote on a gun control measure I supported. With
eighteen-month-old Malia sick and unable to fly, I missed the vote and was
roundly flayed by the Chicago press.
I lost by thirty points.
When talking to young people about politics, I sometimes offer this story as
an object lesson of what not to do. Usually I throw in a postscript, describing
how, a few months after my loss, a friend of mine, worried that I’d fallen into a
funk, insisted that I join him at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in
L.A. (“You need to get back on the horse,” he said.) But when I landed at LAX
and tried to rent a car, I was turned down because my American Express card was
over its limit. I managed to get myself to the Staples Center, but then learned that
the credential my friend had secured for me didn’t allow entry to the convention
floor, which left me to haplessly circle the perimeter and watch the festivities on
mounted TV screens. Finally, after an awkward episode later that evening in
which my friend couldn’t get me into a party he was attending, I took a cab back
to the hotel, slept on the couch in his suite, and flew back to Chicago just as Al
Gore was accepting the nomination.
It’s a funny story, especially in light of where I ultimately ended up. It speaks,
I tell my audience, to the unpredictable nature of politics, and the necessity for
What I don’t mention is my dark mood on that flight back. I was almost
forty, broke, coming off a humiliating defeat and with my marriage strained. I felt
for perhaps the first time in my life that I had taken a wrong turn; that whatever
reservoirs of energy and optimism I thought I had, whatever potential I’d always
banked on, had been used up on a fool’s errand. Worse, I recognized that in
running for Congress I’d been driven not by some selfless dream of changing the
world, but rather by the need to justify the choices I had already made, or to
satisfy my ego, or to quell my envy of those who had achieved what I had not.
In other words, I had become the very thing that, as a younger man, I had
warned myself against. I had become a politician—and not a very good one at
Bobby Rush, I allowed myself a few months to
mope and lick my wounds before deciding that I had to reframe my priorities and
get on with things. I told Michelle I needed to do better by her. We had a new
baby on the way, and even though I was still gone more than she would have
preferred, she at least noticed the effort I was making. I scheduled my meetings in
Springfield so that I’d be home for dinner more often. I tried to be more
punctual and more present. And on June 10, 2001, not quite three years after
Malia’s birth, we experienced the same blast of joy—the same utter amazement—
when Sasha arrived, as plump and lovely as her sister had been, with thick black
curls that were impossible to resist.
For the next two years, I led a quieter life, full of small satisfactions, content
with the balance I’d seemingly struck. I relished wriggling Malia into her first
ballet tights or grasping her hand as we walked to the park; watching baby Sasha
laugh and laugh as I nibbled her feet; listening to Michelle’s breath slow, her head
resting against my shoulder, as she drifted off to sleep in the middle of an old
movie. I rededicated myself to my work in the state senate and savored the time
spent with my students at the law school. I took a serious look at our finances and
put together a plan to pay down our debts. Inside the slower rhythms of my work
and the pleasures of fatherhood, I began to consider options for a life after politics
—perhaps teaching and writing full-time, or returning to law practice, or
applying for a job at a local charitable foundation, as my mother had once
imagined I’d do.
In other words, following my ill-fated run for Congress, I experienced a
certain letting go—if not of my desire to make a difference in the world, then at
least of the insistence that it had to be done on a larger stage. What might have
begun as a sense of resignation at whatever limits fate had imposed on my life
came to feel more like gratitude for the bounty it had already delivered.
Two things, however, kept me from making a clean break from politics. First,
FTER GETTING DRUBBED BY
Illinois Democrats had won the right to oversee the redrawing of state districting
maps to reflect new data from the 2000 census, thanks to a quirk in the state
constitution that called for a dispute between the Democrat-controlled house and
the Republican senate to be settled by drawing a name out of one of Abraham
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