The 17 Minutes That Launched a Political Star

(By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008

The Hawker jet lifted out of Springfield, Ill., under midnight darkness, and Barack Obama leaned back into a leather chair. In his lap rested a copy of the keynote address he would deliver in three days at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. He thumbed through its pages again, even though he already had committed most of the 2,300 words to memory.

As the plane leveled, Obama told his wife and advisers about his previous trip to a Democratic convention, in 2000. He had booked a last-minute flight from Chicago to Los Angeles, where an airport Hertz car-rental counter denied his credit card. Lacking political cachet, Obama had been unable to procure a floor pass into the convention. He watched speeches on a Jumbotron outside the arena before flying home, dejected, a few days before the finale.

"Let's hope this convention goes a whole lot better," Obama said on the Hawker.

The pressure of the trip weighed on everybody aboard the charter flight. During the four weeks Obama had spent obsessing about his speech, he often repeated a refrain to his staff members: We have to nail this. For 17 minutes on July 27, 2004, the little-known state legislator from Illinois would stand alone in front of a prime-time television audience, 15,000 media members and the Democratic Party elite.

The first impression Obama crafted that night still forms the basis of his presidential campaign. In the most visible moment of his life to date, Obama discovered a formula for success in the public eye that he has relied on ever since. He prepared meticulously, but disguised his delivery as effortless. He told the story of his unique background, but offered few original ideas.

Obama approached the lectern in Boston a virtual nobody, a representative for 600,000 constituents in Illinois' 13th District. He exited having set the course for an unprecedented political ascent, with the fortified self-confidence that he could deliver when it mattered most.

Obama's staff had worked exhaustively to secure the chance for such a life-defining moment, even though the young politician doubted his qualifications for a keynote spot. He had restructured his schedule to campaign with presidential nominee John F. Kerry, who selected the convention speakers. Jim Cauley, who managed Obama's 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, flew to Washington and lobbied Kerry's staff.

"The hesitation on him as a speaker was that he didn't even hold federal office yet, so how prominent could he be?" said Jack Corrigan, who ran the convention for Kerry's campaign. "He was unproven. But we became convinced that he also offered incredible promise."

As his flight landed in Boston about 2 a.m. on Sunday, Obama understood it was now his responsibility to deliver on that promise in his speech Tuesday night. His advisers arrived at the Hilton Boston Back Bay and dispersed to their rooms, but Obama stayed behind. He idled downstairs, too wound up for sleep, pacing the lobby.

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Obama began writing his speech on the same day that Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, called to offer him the keynote spot, advisers said. He crafted a first draft by hand on a yellow legal pad, working in his Springfield hotel room for a few hours each night while the legislature was in session. If an idea came to him during the day, he sometimes escaped to a restroom at the state Capitol, where he could write in peace.

He had always enjoyed writing, a skill he developed by keeping a journal in college, and he made it clear to his staff that he wanted to create this speech on his own. His senior aides had occasionally written speeches for him about the denser matters of policy or politics. But Obama wanted this address to touch more broadly on the state of the country and on his own background, topics he had mastered by writing "Dreams From My Father," his 1995 autobiography.

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