David Maraniss, an associate editor of The Post, is the author of “Barack Obama: The Story” and “First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton.”
This column is part of an occasional series on the 2012 presidential candidates’ political lives.
Barack Obama had other things on his mind and would rather not have been stuck in Springfield during those July days in 2004, but political realities left him little choice. The Illinois legislature was in session, and four years earlier the Chicago newspapers and his political opponents had scolded him for escaping to Hawaii and missing several days of a special session dealing with guns and urban crime. Lesson learned: He was now basically under orders to remain visible in the Senate chamber.
As the proceedings droned on, Obama kept a steady vigil at his back-row desk, four seats to the left of the center aisle, half-listening as he scrawled themes and phrases he might use in the most important speech of his career — the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Every now and then, he would stroll over to the rear alcove, snatch a handful of almonds from the bowl on the desk of Barbara Mason, the woman in charge of Senate telephones, and take a call from an aide to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who had plucked Obama from relative obscurity to deliver the convention’s first high-profile, prime-time speech. One afternoon, as the convention approached, a Senate colleague, Jeff Schoenberg, walked into the men’s room behind the back row and found Obama editing copy on a stool over near the mirrors, pen in his left hand, cellphone in his right, working out wording with his political adviser, David Axelrod.
The history of Barack Obama and Democratic conventions is short and uneven. He had attended his first one as a public official only four years earlier — an ignominious start. Already depressed after losing a Chicago congressional primary that year, he took a cheap Southwest Airlines flight to the 2000 convention in Los Angeles, where he discovered first that his credit card was bouncing and then that virtually no one knew him or cared that he was there. He fled back to Chicago long before Al Gore smooched Tipper and accepted the nomination.
It is a sharp reminder of how suddenly Obama rose that only eight years later he was accepting the nomination himself. But what lasts from that 2008 speech? His presidential campaign took flight with soaring rhetoric, yet he was unable to lift a single memorable phrase with him into the history books that night. Perhaps the only two things that remain etched in the public consciousness are that the first African American nominee gave his acceptance speech on a propitious date, the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech, and that he was framed by some fake Greek columns inside the Denver Broncos’ football stadium.
But the 2004 speech Obama sketched out in the penalty box of the Illinois Senate chamber is the one that lasts, a presentation that made him an overnight sensation and set him on the path to the White House. Obama connected by finding the universal in the particular, presenting his own improbable rise — considering his name, his genealogical history and the color of his skin — as a symbol of American inclusivity and a common purpose that transcended red states and blue states, white and black, liberal and conservative.