The 17 Minutes That Launched a Political Star

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.

* * *

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.

Kerry's campaign staff had encouraged Obama to highlight his "fresh voice" in the speech. So, as he wrote a first draft, Obama used his life story to cast himself as the ultimate Washington outsider -- the son of a goat herder and the grandson of a domestic servant, he wrote, "a skinny kid with a funny name."

Said Cauley: "He wanted everything to be in his own words. He guarded it. He made it clear from the beginning that this speech was going to be his baby."

Obama had already won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, and he did not yet know which Republican would challenge him in the general election. Left with unexpected free time, he buried himself in preparation for the speech. He watched videos and read transcripts of convention keynotes over the past 30 years. Between legislative sessions, he tested his material on other lawmakers, engaging them in big-picture conversations about democracy.

"Barack would talk about all these deep things without really letting you know why he wanted to talk about it," said Terry Link, an Illinois state senator who is a close friend of Obama's. "Then, when I saw the speech, it was like, 'Oh, he was trying this out on me, and this out on me.' He was constantly practicing all of it."

Obama finished a first draft that took 25 minutes to deliver, and convention officials asked him to cut it in half. While he lobbied for more time -- "You can't do a keynote in 12 minutes," Cauley said -- Obama and his staff worked to truncate sentences and eliminate superfluous words. They trimmed the speech to 17 minutes, which convention officials decided they could accommodate.

Back in Chicago, Obama shifted his focus to presentation. The convention venue forced a unique oratory challenge, advisers warned. Obama would have to address two crowds at once, each demanding a different affect: the frenzied fans in the arena who wanted a politician to fuel their excitement, and the millions watching from home, oblivious to the chaos in Boston, who wanted to be thoughtfully engaged.

Obama, like all convention speakers, would also use a teleprompter, a first for him. His advisers leased a machine and set up a practice lectern in consultant David Axelrod's Chicago office. Before Obama left for Boston, he practiced the speech more than 15 times.

On his first day in Boston, Obama rehearsed in the underbelly of the Fleet Center with a speech coach. He sounded slightly tense and struggled occasionally with the teleprompter, those watching said. The next day, Obama thought he improved only marginally during a second rehearsal, usually the final practice for a keynote speaker.

In the 40 hours before his Tuesday night speech, Obama granted more than 15 interviews, including several broadcast live on television. To Obama and his advisers, it seemed that many of the questions hinted at the same issue: Who, exactly, are you? And why, exactly, are you delivering a keynote speech?

In an attempt to amplify Obama's introduction to the national audience, his staff launched an all-out publicity blitz. Two college students drove a truck from Chicago carrying 5,000 Obama campaign signs, and they distributed them at the Fleet Center. Internet technicians added an extra server to Obama's Web site, anticipating a surge in traffic. Cauley planned an after-party at a Boston nightclub, handing out fliers to "pretty much anybody we could find, because I swear we were absolutely terrified that nobody was going to come," he said.

The day before his speech, Obama sought out Kevin Lampe, an old friend working at the convention, and asked for two final favors. He wanted his wife, Michelle, to accompany him backstage, even though regular rules excluded family from entering that area. And he wanted a third rehearsal, even if that meant adjusting his schedule.

"I think he understood how big this could be," Lampe said.

As Lampe listened from the back of the room for a third time, he once again thought Obama sounded a beat or two off. The politician would deliver the biggest speech of his life in about 30 hours, and he had run out of time to practice. Lampe walked out of the room with Axelrod.

"I don't know," Axelrod said. "He's still only 75 percent of the way there."

* * *

Obama stood alone two minutes before his speech, separated from the crowd by a thick blue curtain. A whirlwind of morning interviews had weakened his voice, and a last-minute wardrobe decision had forced him to borrow an adviser's blue tie. He steadied himself one final time while Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois introduced him. Then Obama stepped onstage.

The politician who four years earlier had been unable to obtain a floor pass to a Democratic convention walked out to see 5,000 people crammed onto the floor and waving blue signs imprinted with his name. Obama responded to their cheers by lifting his right hand in a triumphant wave. He shook Durbin's hand, then hugged him. Durbin walked to the side of the stage and stood next to Michelle. He looked back over his shoulder, as if hesitant to leave Obama out there alone.

"You've got to try to picture this, the atmosphere, the pressure that comes with standing by yourself in front of all those people," Durbin said. "One minute you're backstage, and then someone pushes you out there, and suddenly you're smack dab in the center of the spotlight, in front of all these people and TV cameras. The crowd is going completely berserk with anticipation. I think it's probably the hardest assignment you can have."

The teleprompter missed the first few words of Obama's speech, and he stalled slightly. He had written an address that lacked an early applause line -- a tactic some convention organizers originally questioned -- and the slow start worried his friends. Terry Link, the state senator, was watching with several Obama supporters in a Fleet Center skybox and thought his colleague looked stiff, almost robotic. "I'd seen him speak so many times," Link said, "and he just wasn't in his usual rhythm."

Two minutes into the speech, Obama mentioned Kansas, and that state's delegation roared in the upper deck. Surprised by the response, Obama pointed up at the group and smiled -- his first unrehearsed gesture. The crowd chuckled. Obama's shoulders relaxed. "He became," Link said, "the Obama we all knew."

Over the next 15 minutes, Obama crafted a first impression that still stands at the foundation of his presidential campaign.

His speech contained no revolutionary ideas, analysts said. Most of the concepts could have been plucked from any standard stump speech: that every child deserves a shot at a good life; that each American is connected -- and responsible -- for every other; that government needs to be honest with its people, especially before going to war. One conservative pundit, analyzing Obama's speech later that night, would sum it up as "pure puff."

But Obama's message resonated in Boston because of the connection he fostered with the audience, analysts said. At the core of his speech, he established an us-vs.-them scenario in which everyone listening had a rooting interest. Which force would shape the country's future, Obama asked: The divisiveness of modern, partisan politics and stereotyping? Or the optimism of the American people?

Obama possessed the vision, he said, of "not a black America and a white America and a Latino America and an Asian America -- there is a United States of America." By the time he sped to his climax -- "Out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come" -- the crowd stood, transfixed.

"I was feeling like a proud older brother, and I had tears coming out of my eyes when he finished," Link said. "Wanting to be a tough guy, I was wiping tears on the corner of my suit coat and trying to clean up. Then I turn around and see there's not a dry eye in the whole place. He got to everybody. I firmly believe if they put his name on the nomination that night ahead of Kerry, Barack would have won."

Said Cauley: "Maybe it was almost like magic, because it was one of those things that happened exactly right."

Said Durbin: "That speech was his launch. It changed everything for him."

Obama walked to the edge of the stage, hugged Michelle, shook some hands, and disappeared behind the curtain, relieved and exhausted. A convention official guided him out through one of the arena's back doors, and he rode with his advisers to the downtown club for his after-party.

Only when they pulled up did the extent of Obama's 17-minute transformation sink in for the politician and those close to him. Hundreds of people jammed the club. Dozens more waited in a line that curled across the street. A fire marshal worked to control the crowd. Celebrities called Obama's staff asking how they could get in.

"Well, I guess people came," Obama said.

In the weeks that followed, Obama would lose the final, treasured vestiges of his private life. His staff would arrange a meeting to discuss security and crowd control. His solo runs along the shores of Lake Michigan would be deemed too risky. Interview and speaking requests would impede on his free time -- his writing time, his basketball-playing time. Advisers would take away the Jeep he loved to drive alone on the highways between Chicago and the statehouse in Springfield, insisting instead that he use a professional driver.

Now, outside the nightclub in Boston, Obama's staff brainstormed a hastier solution. Michelle stayed back, overwhelmed by the crowd. Cauley and Chief of Staff Darryl Thompson, big men and high-level political strategists, told Obama to stick close behind them and to move quickly.

Before exiting the car, the two advisers turned one last time to face the state senator from Illinois' 13th District, making sure he understood their instructions. Then Cauley and Thompson linked arms and bulldozed into the building, clearing a path for a future presidential nominee.

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