A Bright Hope in Illinois

By Harold Meyerson
Friday, March 12, 2004; 5:51 PM

You'd think his name alone would keep him from winning: Barack Obama. Put an "Obama for Senate" bumper sticker on your car and the dyslexic or myopic might just try to punch you out.

Yet, three days ago, in its last preelection poll before Tuesday's primary for the open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, the Chicago Tribune reported that Obama, a 42-year-old state senator, had opened a wide lead over the six other candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to succeed the departing Peter Fitzgerald. Obama was pulling down 33 percent support, while state Comptroller Daniel Hynes (an organization man) was second with 19 percent, and investment banker Blair Hull (who's spent at least $29 million of his own money on the race but whose campaign has been hurt by accounts of his very messy divorce) was in third with 16 percent.

Organization men are a staple of Illinois politics, of course, and investment bankers seem poised to take over the Senate in our plutocratic age. Obama, by contrast, is a candidate who all but defies categorization -- and who would certainly mark a radical departure for the stodgy Senate. If elected (and Illinois is a Democratic state becoming steadily more so), he would become the Senate's sole black member and just the third African American senator since Reconstruction, following Massachusetts Republican Edward Brooke and fellow Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley Braun, who only narrowly lost her seat to Republican Fitzgerald in 1998 despite a string of scandals.

But that scarcely begins to describe the distinctiveness of Obama. His father was Kenyan, his mother a white girl from Kansas. The two met and married at the University of Hawaii in 1960 (when miscegenation was still a felony in more than half the states). His father disappeared from his life when Obama was 2; his mother raised him in Hawaii and Indonesia. Obama went to college at Columbia, then moved to Chicago for five years of community organizing in a fusion of civil rights crusading and Saul Alinsky house-to-house plodding. He then went to Harvard Law School, where he became the first black president of the Law Review; returned to Chicago to run a program that registered 100,000 voters in the '92 elections, entered a civil rights law firm and became a senior lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago. (If elected, Obama would be the second liberal Hyde Park academic to represent Illinois in the Senate; New Deal economist Paul Douglas was the first.)

Seven years ago Obama was elected to the state Senate from a district in Chicago's South Side. In Springfield, he developed a reputation as an impassioned progressive who was able to get support on both sides of the aisle. One of his bills created a state earned-income tax credit that has brought more than $100 million to Illinois's working-poor families. Another, conceived in the wake of revelations about innocent men the state had wrongly executed, mandated the videotaping of police interrogations of suspects in capital crimes. There followed "tortuous negotiations with state's attorneys and death-penalty abolitionists," Obama recalls, but in the end the bill passed unanimously.

In October 2002, Obama made an eloquent case against the impending war in Iraq at a rally in downtown Chicago. Declaring repeatedly that "I don't oppose all wars," he distinguished what he termed "a dumb war, a rash war" from a string of just and necessary wars in which the United States had engaged. He is surely the progressives' darling in the field, drawing enthusiastic support from white Lake Shore liberals as well as the African American community. But he's also won the endorsements of virtually all the state's major papers, many of which -- such as Chicago's Tribune and Sun-Times -- note their disagreement with him on the war but hail him as a brilliant public servant nonetheless. Should Obama win, says Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston, who backs his candidacy, he'd "march right onto the national stage and the international stage."

While practicing law in the early 1990s, Obama wrote "Dreams From My Father," a memoir and meditation of genuine literary merit that depicts his understandable quest for his identity -- a quest that immersed him in the world of Chicago's poor and that took him to a Kenyan village in search of a father he never knew. It's a story of worlds colliding, fusing and redividing, of a life devoted to re-creating in a grittier world the idealism and sense of community of the early civil rights movement, which provided the backdrop for his parents' marriage.

If by "American" we mean that which is most distinctive about us and our ideals, if we mean it to refer to our status as a nation of immigrants that could yet become the world's first great polyglot, miscegenistic meritocracy, then Barack Obama, if elected, would not only become the sole African American in the Senate: He would also be the most distinctly American of its members.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company