The Other Man of the Hour
By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2004; Page C01
BOSTON -- Barack Obama needs a nap. His flight arrived from Springfield, Ill., at 4 a.m. and he was awake at 6 to do "Meet the Press," then "Face the Nation," then CNN's "Late Edition." This is an impressive regimen for anyone, especially a little-known senator from Illinois. That would be a state senator from Illinois.
Obama has not been elected to the United States Senate. He is merely a candidate -- a dynamic, stirring and potentially historic candidate who would be the only African American in the U.S. Senate and just the third since Reconstruction. But still a candidate nonetheless.
"I'm not someone who takes hype so seriously," he says, which doesn't stop hypesters from taking Obama seriously. Or people from asking him -- with some regularity and straight faces -- when he will run for president.
It didn't stop the Kerry campaign from asking him to give tonight's keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. And it isn't stopping delegates, senators, members of Congress, governors and mayors from mobbing him this week. This is the inevitable result of what Obama calls "being the flavor of the month, or the flavor of the week, or whatever."
With his smooth face and sheepish grin, Obama looks younger than his 42 years. He is trying to leave a brunch hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus aboard a docked cruise ship in Boston Harbor, but it's difficult for Obama to duck out of anywhere these days.
"Okay, folks, I'm gonna try to go get a nap," Obama keeps telling people to punctuate his 30-second conversations. He says the TV makeup is hiding big bags under his eyes. He has just a few more photos and good-to-see-yous to go before he can steal an hour in his room at the Back Bay Hilton.
Like any deft politician, Obama can nod his head and knit his eyebrows and look interested in almost anything. He has a gift for gliding from conversation to conversation, room to room, but he will sometimes sigh too audibly and tighten his face in a manner that betrays slight impatience, the look of a man too eagerly en route to a nap.
On his way out, Obama repairs to a deck of the ship to endure another interview. He keeps getting found and interrupted. A man grabs his hand.
"Hi, if you have a minute? I'm Parris Glendening, the former governor of Maryland." Glendening introduces Obama to his son, Raymond. "I gotta tell you, I've heard some really great things about you," he says.
"Yeah, and a few of them are true," Obama replies, adding that hopefully the next time he's in Maryland he will be house-hunting. He pats Glendening softly on the shoulder.
"Senator, it was a pleasure meeting you," says another well-wisher, Peter Franchot, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. People greet Obama with great warmth, even a hint of awe. But the approaches can also seem vaguely patronizing, as if Obama is beloved as much for the symbolism of his candidacy as for his own merits.
Obama says the sudden downpour of fame is all quite strange. "There's this weird confluence of events that's making all this possible," Obama says. "But my experience in these kinds of things is that what comes up must come down."
Indeed, Obama is experienced in the narrative of the celebrated racial trailblazer. He was the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review, a position that exposed him to the procession of interviews, the imposition of great symbolic value and the overall burden of an outsize fuss.
"After about two weeks, all the stories were written and everybody left me alone, and then I went back to editing law review articles," Obama says. "And I hope the same thing happens here. Which is, after an initial burst of attention . . . hopefully I can start focusing on getting some work done."
Still, the hype he has drawn as a Senate candidate has been a sustained phenomenon. It began in March, when Obama won a surprising 53 percent of the Democratic primary vote in a seven-candidate field, easily beating Dan Hynes, the state's comptroller, and Blair Hull, a former securities trader who had been leading in the polls and who spent $29 million on his campaign.
A fervent liberal, Obama opposes the Iraq war and, during his seven years in the Illinois legislature, he championed reforms in the state's death-penalty laws that require police to videotape all interrogations and confessions in cases involving capital crimes. The legislation was not popular among suburban voters, but his warm and eloquent manner and conciliatory message has endeared him to diverse audiences. He won several of the suburban communities around Chicago in the Democratic primary, as well as 18 out of 19 predominantly white and Latino wards on the north side of the city.
The "weird confluence of events" propelling Obama includes the demise of his GOP opponent's campaign. Former Goldman Sachs partner Jack Ryan quit the race last month after newly unsealed divorce records revealed charges by his ex-wife that Ryan tried to persuade her to have public sex in adult clubs. The implosion of Ryan, who denied the charges, brought even more attention to his already celebrated opponent. So did former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka's brief flirtation with running against Obama.
The biggest component of the Obama phenomenon is his self-described "exotic" background. He was born in Hawaii, the product of a short marriage between a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas. His mother then married an Indonesian man and the family moved from Hawaii to Indonesia when Obama was in elementary school. Obama graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law and spent several years working as a community organizer and civil rights lawyer in Harlem and then Chicago. He was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1997, representing part of Chicago's South Side, and he was elected to a third term in 2002.
Obama knows that much of his status stems from the U.S. Senate's sad racial history. "It's not like there are three or four African Americans in the U.S. Senate," he says. "There's none. So it's understandable that a lot of people would be interested in the racial aspects of it than they might otherwise be. But I've always been clear that I'm rooted in the African American community but not limited to it."
Obama misses the quiet walks to the grocery store that anonymity affords. "There's an air of unreality about this," he says of the looks and greetings and crowds he is drawing in his daily travels. He worries about how the madness of public life will affect his daughters, ages 3 and 6, who are home in Chicago with grandparents.
He is now off the ship and walking down a long dock. He stops for a picture, a handshake, a quick encounter with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who declares that "this party certainly knows how to pick a keynote speaker."
"You ever seen this man speak?" Adela Cepeda, a supporter from Chicago, asks a reporter. "You ever see him? He defines the best of the Democrats, better than anyone we have today."
"Except for John Kerry," Obama says.
"Remember John Kerry," he repeats. "And John Edwards, too."
Obama has done all of his scheduled TV interviews for the day and all that's left on the schedule is a reception hosted by the Illinois delegation and another one later by Gov. Rod Blagojevich. And, he boasts, "I can stagger through receptions with the best of them."
He runs his finger down his cheek to reveal a smudge of TV makeup. He is concerned that he looks like Michael Jackson. He looks toward his wife, Michelle, who is walking with him.
"Does anybody have any of that stuff that takes makeup off?" Obama asks. The question goes unanswered, and the most celebrated state senator in America mentions again that he needs a nap.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company