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The Senator's Humble Beginning

Rising Star Barack Obama Is Resolutely Down to Earth

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page C01

There's nothing exotic or complicated about how phenoms are made in Washington, and, more to the point, how they are broken.

"Andy Warhol said we all get our 15 minutes of fame," says Barack Obama. "I've already had an hour and a half. I mean, I'm so overexposed, I'm making Paris Hilton look like a recluse."

Sen. Barack Obama
Sen. Barack Obama
Sen. Barack Obama at work on Capitol Hill. "This is not a glamorous existence. I didn't expect it to be," he says, an attitude that draws approval from his colleagues. (Melina Mara - The Washington Post)

The new senator from Illinois is dazzling another venue, in this case the Gridiron Club. It is early December and Obama won't start his new job for a few weeks. But he comes well steeped in the basic physics of hype.

"I figure there's nowhere to go from here but down," Obama says. "So tonight, I announce my retirement from the United States Senate."

People laugh, swarm for pictures afterward. It is, in other words, the same-old Obama fuss -- a "same-old" for Obama that began for him well before he was elected.

One of the keys to being well liked in Washington is to appear humble, which is why Washington is so full of people who are so unhumble when it comes to touting how humble they are. All of this comes naturally to Obama.

His signature quality is the ease with which he inhabits his charisma. Nothing about him conveys "trying too hard," as one might sense with a John Kerry, who often appears to be burning 500 calories for every hand he shakes. When he works a room, there is no clench to Obama's perma-smile or detectable strain to his small talk. He projects effortlessly, whether being earnest, wonkish or sheepish, and as with so many "likable pols," he applies self-deprecation as a favorite balm against any prima donna conceit.

"I am genuinely somebody who doesn't get caught up in the hype," he says, adding that his wife, Michelle, loves to tease him about his big ears, and that he loves her for that.

"I think me puncturing my own balloon is something that's not only calculated to endear me to others," he says. "But it helps remind me of who I am and where I've come from."

Obama is an exotic figure of many facets -- in lineage (father from Kenya, mother from Kansas), history (the only black person in the Senate today, third since Reconstruction) and scarcity (few species are as rare today as Democratic phenoms).

It's hard enough being a new senator: so many rules to learn, rooms to find, staffers to hire. But Obama's arrival packs the added bother of ridiculous expectations -- in addition to the absurdity of signing autographs for the security guard wanding him at the airport, or being asked during a press conference about his "place in history." (This question came the day before Obama was sworn in.) "I don't think I have a place in history yet," Obama replied. "I got elected to the U.S. Senate. I haven't done anything yet." Which of course is a quaint way of looking at things, harking back to more proportionate times and sensibilities. In the context of "Mr. Obama Comes to Washington," the protagonist's peril is as plain as his face on magazine covers.

Examples abound of people of both parties acting too boldly too quickly. Sen. Rick Santorum is one such commonly cited Republican, as is the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone. In his first term, when Santorum suggested that Senate veteran Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) be removed from a committee chairmanship, Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) famously quipped, "Santorum -- is that Latin for [anus]?" Both Santorum and Wellstone would later acknowledge their early battering ram tendencies. They learned to work more seamlessly within the Senate. Over time, they became respected and even liked by many colleagues of both parties (including Santorum by Kerrey).

It comes down to the same strategy: You don't want to come in too hard, too loud. "Do your homework, show up at committee meetings, keep a low profile," advises Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader until recently, whose former chief of staff -- Pete Rouse -- works in the same capacity for Obama. "You want to make everyone aware that you're a workhorse." As opposed to a "show horse," the likes of whom are inevitably pegged and resented within the chamber.

Obama's first six weeks in Washington have been a study in Show Horse Prevention. In being Sen. Scutwork, downplaying his suddenly best-selling book and his designation as "hottest" senator in an online survey. In passing up an offer to sit in first class on a flight from Chicago to Washington, in case the media notice (which they did). In saying no to Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners in Kansas, Virginia, Indiana, Michigan and South Carolina.

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