He looks like a manatee, God help him. A sluggish sea cow grazing away at the scummy surface of our urban backwaters. No fast, feline graces here. Just a clumsy siren call for social conscience. And a steady paddling toward his vision of justice. A gentle spirit shining through sad eyes. Puffed jowls sagging ever so slightly. A prominent nose that leads his bearded chin forward when he frets, which is often. Bristly eyebrows that readily knit. Spun wool hair worn longer than the fashion.

An unlikely folk hero. A large, fuddy-duddy man you'd bet was born with something old about him. Who moves slowly, stiffly, on his pigeon toes. Whose words are spoken softly, haltingly, except during speeches, when he tends to bumble his way over and through the message, as if rushing to finish so as to step out of the spotlight. Straining his larynx by raising his voice with little assistance from that friend of the public speaker, the diaphragm.

More of a leader by example, survivor of the trenches. Once a Black Panther, now a black parliamentarian.

It's a juxtaposition that tires Bobby Lee Rush, 46, new Democratic congressman from the 1st District of Illinois, on Chicago's South Side. He'd much rather direct attention to the entirety of what he calls his "continuum," his "consistency." Or his present. And if one simply must examine his past, he prefers going back all the way, to the beginning.

"I'm a product of all of my experiences," says Rush, pointing out that before he was a Panther, he was a Boy Scout.

Even so for the low-key politician, it's Rush's radical history that has helped draw a high profile that many of his freshman colleagues would die for.

"In a class of 124 new faces, there are 10 or so who stand out," says Democratic pundit Vic Kamber, whose O'Leary/Kamber Report put Rush right up there with Hillary Rodham Clinton on a short list of whom to watch.

"This is a guy who's a comer," says Kamber. "The very fact that he made the transformation from a Black Panther to a very popular city politician in Chicago, the fact that he beats an incumbent sitting member of Congress in the primary, then is elected by freshman class members as a whip for the House ... ."

Of the three deputy whips selected to represent the Democratic leadership in the freshman class, Rush got the most votes. While he says he can't work a crowd like a stereotypical Baptist preacher politician, Chicago City Council machinations taught him how to minister to any legislative body.

Rush was the first freshman to say he wanted a whip job, says Majority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.). "He knew where the levers were and went to them quickly. ... I don't know what people's preconceptions are about the Panthers, but I would expect his demeanor to throw them off because he's so committed and serious about working within this institution."

Yet it's exactly that commitment that galls a small but vocal and politically active group of Rush's Chicago constituents, who claim he has transformed himself from a Panther into a pussycat.

Nearly a generation has passed since the Black Panther Party was founded, engendering a "great respect" among at least 25 percent of African Americans, including 43 percent of black people under 21, according to a then-secret federal poll. The generation that now claims the White House for its own includes those who demonstrated back then as "Honkies for Huey" (as in Panthers founder Huey Newton).

In many ways, the Panthers became the vanguard for The Movement, walking point for those whose pent-up rage over traditional injustices demanded radical reform. And although there is revisionist debate today among former Panthers as to whether they truly espoused revolution -- and if so, how violently -- they definitely were paramilitary in structure and spirit.

"Brothers with guns, brothers who weren't afraid," says Malik Edwards, artist and former head of the D.C. Black Panthers, when asked what initially attracted him to the party.

"They took their opposition to the system, to racism and oppression, to the max," says Ron Walters, chairman of Howard University's political science department.

Today the Panthers themselves are making something of a comeback, with the publication of biographies by two former leaders, talk of movie deals and the Panther ballad "Sweet Thing" covered by hip-hop soul queen Mary J. Blige and back on the charts. Yet it is Rush's elevation that somehow seems most emblematic of the era. Most American in its ending. Most dramatic in its tenacity. Most unlikely in its making.

Ripping into his critics, Rush puts his life in context: "Some of the folks who are questioning my motivations ... all of a sudden now they're so militant, they're so angry, they're so concerned, they're so outraged because of the fact that I have not only advocated some black power in the '60s, but now I'm exercising black power today."

A Fallen Friend

"I guess I was in the Panthers for six years, during which time I probably lived a lifetime," Rush says.

It's true, at least, that Rush's life was forever framed by an incident that occurred early on in his Panther tour -- the loss of a life that he says could have changed America.

It's out on video now, "The Murder of Fred Hampton," sold in a dank, drafty, nearly empty storefront on Chicago's South Side that's headquarters to the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement. That's a shoestring political action group headed by Akua Njeri, a woman who called herself Deborah Johnson in 1969. She was very big with child one December morning of that year, when in the chill, pre-dawn hours, 14 Chicago police officers burst into the apartment where she slept with her baby's father, Fred Hampton, 21-year-old charismatic chairman of the Panthers' Chicago chapter.

"When he looked up, he didn't say a word," Njeri said of Hampton, the target of 42 shots fired by a .45-caliber Thompson submachine gun and a .30-caliber M-1 carbine. "He never got up out of the bed."

Police fire also killed Mark Clark and wounded four other Panthers, which FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country." Hoover had directed his agents to "prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability. ... Prevent the rise of a black 'messiah' who would unify and electrify."

Cook County State's Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan, who directed the raid, held press conferences declaring victory over the party, which he claimed initiated the firefight. The Panthers retaliated by opening up their 4 1/2-room apartment on West Monroe Street for the public to see that all the bullet holes were caused by incoming fire, with the exception of one round fired by Clark.

A federal grand jury returned no indictments, and the deaths were ruled "justifiable homicides." However, a protracted civil suit ended in arbitration in 1983, with the survivors of the raid and families of the deceased receiving an award of $1.85 million, and a judge ruling that the government had conspired to deny the Panthers their civil rights.

The night of the raid, Bobby Rush left the apartment after a staff meeting and went home to his family. Today he is clearly weary of reliving the past, but he nearly always comes alive with questions about Hampton, as he did during a recent radio interview.

"There's not a day that I don't reflect on Fred and what he was about and his commitment and his, you know, the fact that he gave his life, you know, for his people," said Rush. "He was a remarkable person who had the potential to be one of the greatest leaders this nation's produced. ... Fred Hampton was politically assassinated by the law enforcement agencies of this nation, and I can't ever forget that. And I can't ever forgive them for that assassination."

Desolate District

"Chicago is the city from which the most incisive and radical Negro thought has come," said author Richard Wright in 1945, a year before Bobby Rush was born in Georgia and five years before his family migrated to Chicago. "There is an open and raw beauty about that city that seems either to kill or endow one with the spirit of life."

People don't talk about it much anymore, but back in the days when Harlem was king, there also was a glittering court in Chicago. It was called the Black Metropolis by academics; Bronzeville by those on the block. It was a new community in a new city that sprang up on a prairie site settled by an educated, French-speaking black man, Jean Baptist Point du Sable.

Chicago boomed, burned and was rebuilt during the 1800s -- all the while attracting a steady stream of African American migrants. And most of them proceeded to settle in a narrow lick of land south of downtown, 7 1/2 miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide that served as the city's "black belt."

Illinois' 1st Congressional District now is one of the nation's blackest and most Democratic. Among a long tradition of accomplished black politicians, it spawned Harold Washington, who became Chicago's first black mayor. And it has promoted Bobby Rush, whose foremost desire is to restore some of the district's luster. For its glory days are long gone.

Today it is known for having one of the highest concentrations of public housing, including some of the infamous Robert Taylor Homes, which stack poor people on top of one another high into the sky. Once-grand boulevards are lined with the crumbling shells of houses abandoned by the middle classes as they fled neighborhoods that Rush says have been victimized by "institutional racism" in the form of "massive disinvestment."

There is something of a historic district, including an area called the Gap, where young professionals are beginning to reclaim red-, gray- and brownstones. Here stand four steepled, blond-brick beauties, town houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. But the blocks are like a prizefighter's smile, with empty lots where the wrecking ball scored knockouts. Everywhere are Depression-era scenes of broken-looking men warming their hands over bonfires built in barrels. And neighborhoods where all the intersections boast liquor stores and currency exchanges -- joints that charge exorbitant fees to cash government checks. Rush cites those businesses as part of the reason he got on the House Banking Committee, saying they need more regulation.

He keeps track of these things that keep the South Side's politics local by returning to his old alderman's office in the sullied Lake Meadows Shopping Center each Saturday morning to meet with his hard-core supporters in a combination pep rally and gripe session.

He 'Stole the Show'

If more than 600 people gathered in Washington for any reason, it's hard to believe it wouldn't be news. But there are no TV cameras here in an auditorium at Chicago State University, where lots of mostly black people, regular working people, have come on a cold Wednesday night, when Oprah is interviewing Michael Jackson and President Clinton is on TV with his town meeting, to tell the Regional Transit Authority how angry they are that train service may be cut on the South Side.

There are great guffaws when a consultant says, "Our intent is to look at ways we can make your trip cheaper and more convenient ... ."

People line up patiently behind microphones, waiting to speak their piece. "We are not stupid," one woman says, simply. "What are you talking about cutting on the North Side?" asks a young man. "Nothing!"

As the crowd gets its jollies skewering the power structure, however, there is a palpable sense of sorrow and resignation in the room. For these people know their threats are hollow and their actual recourses are few.

Until Rush speaks up.

He tells them he just found out about the transit authority's secret study a few weeks before, but that he had already warned Mayor Richard M. Daley not to okay any such plans. He's got Congress involved and he says he'll use all his leverage to see that "there will not be a quarter, a penny, a Louis, a federal dollar spent ... without ample, well-planned, widespread, deep-down community input."

When the wild applause finally subsides, the man next in line at one of the mikes says: "Bobby, you done stole the show."

Love and Politics

Carolyn Rush was a housewife back in 1975, watching TV one day when Rush came on screen, surrounded by soda bottles, to announce his candidacy for alderman of Chicago's 2nd Ward.

"He said he was going to finance his campaign by redeeming all these pop bottles," she remembers. "Maybe I felt a little sorry for him. ... The next day I called his office and talked to his mother. ... She told me to come on down."

So began a political partnership that fostered a firm friendship that, four years later, flowered into a romance that resulted in a marriage that was a second for both. But politics has always been primary in their relationship.

From that campaign evolved a core of people "hellbent on defeating the regular Democratic machine," she says, referring to the proteges of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who developed a virtual stranglehold on the city during his 21 years in office. Finally in 1983, when Washington won the mayor's race, Rush grabbed the coattails and his first electoral victory, becoming alderman of the 2nd Ward. But while he was one of several newcomers to the City Council who claimed independence from the past, he charted the sort of traditional path to power that would have brought a grunt of approval from Boss Daley: He was elected Democratic ward committeeman -- making him a "ward boss" -- then went on to cut a deal to become a deputy chairman of the state party.

The state post brought criticism from all sides, with some blacks calling it "collusion with the enemy" and some whites equally unhappy with a former Panther in their midst.

As an alderman, Rush headed the environment committee and won praise for pushing through tough toxic waste legislation. He leaned on the city to remove asbestos from public housing units and secured funds to restore buildings that were monuments to his ward's entrepreneurial history.

Yet even Rush's admirers admit that he worked no miracles. "I don't think the ward is any worse," says a county commissioner, Joe Gardner, who considers Rush "one of the shrewdest, savviest politicians around."

Nasty Campaign

Even Rush's enemies concede that he beat Charlie Hayes fair and square in the Democratic primary. Hayes, an old-time union leader who took over Harold Washington's congressional seat, had a lot of sympathy among conservative blacks as the community elder. However, he was largely viewed as ineffective, and Rush plain out-organized him.

Their race turned nasty when, as often happens, someone reached back into Rush's past. After the congressional check-kiting scandal broke, and Rush made much of the fact that Hayes was among the worst transgressors, Hayes retaliated by going public with charges that during a 10-year period, Rush skipped numerous alimony and support payments to his first wife and their three children. Rush called a press conference, where he denied the spirit, if not the letter, of the allegations -- which continue to plague him.

"He did what he could," his son Jeffrey, 26, said in a recent interview of his father's financial support of him, a brother, Flynn, 23, and a sister, Kacy, 13.

Rush himself is barely audible when, after a long pause, he seeks to set this issue straight. Aides are parading noisily by the door to his newly opened suburban Evergreen Park office, trying to get his attention on a dozen pressing matters, but he seems to be in a different place, and certainly a different time.

"Me being in the Panther Party created absolute havoc in my marriage," he says softly. "That was a hell of a sacrifice ... too much drama, too much trauma" for his first wife, who was not a party member.

You can hear the hurt in his voice now as it rises.

"But even with that, I was still a responsible father operating in the interest of his children, all during that time, all right? ... in terms of enduring love and pride and all these other kinds of things. When they were in school, I'm the one who was going to the principal, to PTA meetings. I'm the one who went to pick up their grades. I'm the one."

He admits he fell behind on payments, but says he let the court garnish his wages once he got a job. "Let me be very clear," he says. "For years after I left the Panther Party in '74, people would not hire me. ... I was a leading, high-profile member of the Black Panther Party, all right? And could not work."

Mainstream organizations such as the Urban League turned him down, he says, as did the state government. After completing his bachelor's degree with honors at Roosevelt University in 1974, Rush applied to a local law school that, he says, told him he was "more than qualified, but too controversial."

Finally he started reading pop psychology and motivational texts and learned to sell insurance. He went on to build up a respectable small business as a financial planner.

But also, he says, the introspection helped him mourn the death of the Panthers, the crash of the dream.

"That's why I was not drinking, or on drugs -- all of that," he says of the pitfalls that tripped so many other former Panthers. "I was able to have a positive reaction to the pain. ... {The Panthers} were very important to me, but I'm not planning to become captive of the '60s."

A few hours later, he's reminiscing back even further, while taping a black history lesson for a Chicago cable TV show.

"I have evolved from a young lad who walked barefoot through the South," Rush says. Born outside Albany, Ga., to Jimmy Lee Rush, a cab driver, and Cora Lee Rush, he moved north to Chicago at age 4 with his mother and four siblings after his parents separated. Cora Lee Rush ran a beauty parlor and taught her son practical political lessons, working her ward for the Republicans merely to spite the Democratic machine.

Rush, who had been a good student in grade school, dropped out at 17, and was adrift for a while before joining the Army, in which he served nearly five years. Chafing under the orders of a commander he says was racist, Rush joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee while in the service, and took demotions for wearing a black power button on his uniform and refusing to shave his mustache.

"I think I'm basically a man of my time," he says, "and a man of the different times."

Unforsaken Past

Hungry young people with activist ambitions and ripened old Panthers reveling in their nostalgia are crowded into Dupont Circle's Vertigo bookstore, where David Hilliard, former chief of staff for the party, is reading from his autobiography. Inevitably, someone asks whether he thinks Rush "still identifies with The Movement."

Hilliard, a wry, elegant, compact man who spun off into a 20-year cycle of drug and alcohol abuse after being purged from the party, strokes his chin and says:

"We can't make Bobby Rush our own little poster boy for the Panthers. You know, he's got to be legitimate. But I tell you what I did, 'cause I'm suspicious like you, 'cause I knew Rush had to change some. So when I came here for the {Capitol Hill} swearing-in ceremony, I couldn't wait to go through this little booklet they put out. They have somewhat of a little bio in there. I went straight to the R's, and Bobby Rush, and down on Line 3, know what it said? 'former Black Panther.' ... I said, 'Bobby Rush, you a bad {expletive}, you know why? 'Cause you dance with the woman you brought to the party... .

"So I give Bobby Rush a chance. ... Don't expect the man to go up there and talk about overthrowing no government and {expletive} like that. Treat him with respect. He can help you, and he's willing to."

The Rumor

Lu Palmer is greatly wizened now. His hair and skin have gone gray. His unshaven, sunken face pulled down by deep lines trailing his eyes, nose and mouth. Still, the radio talk-show host/community organizer is seen as a one-man protectorate by many of Chicago's embittered and dispossessed. While talking to a reporter about Bobby Rush, he gets a flurry of calls -- someone informing him that Sally Jessy Raphael has two white homosexuals on her show who want to adopt a black baby; someone else who thinks she's not getting the best rate on a CD, and wants him to call the bank president.

On the wall of his dilapidated office is a plaque from Calvary Baptist Church, honoring him for "leadership in the election of the first black mayor of Chicago." The street sign on the corner reads "Lu Palmer Place." That's thanks to Rush's aldermanic attentions.

Palmer says he and Rush used to be close. When Rush was in prison on a weapons charge, Palmer wrote a story for the Chicago Daily News that ended some abuse Rush was catching. Rush returned the favor when Palmer quit the Daily News and asked for some Panthers to help him carry out his files.

The two are close no more. The reasons are personal, political and intertwined. Rush handily has won political offices for which Palmer has run and lost. Rush also is haunted by recurrent assertions that he purchased his success with acts of disloyalty to his people, and Palmer does his part to perpetuate those charges.

"Bobby had a good record as a councilman," Palmer says in the deliberate way he has of pondering each word before releasing it. "But I consider the Democratic Party as an enemy ... and if you're a revolutionary, you can't become a part of the enemy. ... Bobby lost the confidence of those of us who consider ourselves independent nationalists because we were convinced that he's too cozy. And you can't ever pin down, necessarily, what that means. ... I mean, the man is a question mark."

Conrad Worrill, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University's Center for Inner City Studies, who managed Palmer's unsuccessful congressional race, nearly misses a plane while railing against Rush during a returned phone call to a reporter, saying: "The way Bobby Rush went about becoming congressman -- cutting deals with the regular Democratic Party organization that we had been fighting against for 25 years -- was a slap in the face ... ."

Well, okay, that's Chicago politics, you figure.

Your flesh doesn't start to crawl until Palmer leans in toward you confidentially, his thin body racked by a debilitating cough, and says, "I'm sure you've heard the stories that many people consider him as having cooperated with the FBI in the killing of Fred Hampton... .

"Oh, my goodness, you haven't heard that? Oh, it's kind of like a, how do you express it, it's a running rumor. ... And I have no evidence, I'm just saying what's on the street. People thought it was strange that Bobby was not in the apartment that night. Just thought it strange. Bobby really was minister of defense. That was his title, and so many people, without any evidence -- I just want to make that perfectly clear -- believe that Bobby in some way assisted in the cops ..."

The thought is so terrible, it sort of fades away, even from the lips of Rush's opponents.

The gossip doesn't surprise Rush; he's heard it before, though never firsthand. He's in his office, right after meeting with lobbyists from the League of Women Voters, when asked to respond. He sighs deeply between pauses. His voice is even, steady and low.

"If anybody ever brought that to me personally, I'd kick their ass," he says. "That would be my only response."

But over the next few days he continues to return to the issue. "To a certain extent, it's the same type of approach, same method they used to set Malcolm up," he says one day. "That's where my Panther instincts come into play. So they better be careful, because I don't take it lightly ... and I will not just allow this to roll off my back."

On another day he is prompted to talk about how much the building antagonism against him among the so-called nationalists hurts his feelings.

"It bothers me, yeah, because I'm a person who lived all my life fighting for black people," he says. "I'm sensitive to it. But, you know, it doesn't cripple me. You know, Chicago's a rough place, politically. You've got a vocal minority of people out there who burn up the radio airwaves trying to, you know, snatch your heart out."

Still later, from the distance of his plush-enough Capitol Hill office, Rush says of Palmer's polemics: "To stoop to that level is beyond the realm of saneness. It's an insane statement by an obviously insane individual whose insanity was driven by a sense of failure in his own life, and a sense of rejection and a sense of jealousy... ."

The Call-In Show

It's "Just Talk" with Naurice Roberts, 1450 on the AM dial. The congressman is live on the line, giving his Washington report. He's real smooth this morning, in the groove as he faces the open phones. The people seem to want to talk about Clinton lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military, a change Rush supports.

Sylvia calls in to ask: "How can you compare a race with a sexual deviancy? I mean, you all are constantly trying to ram this thing down people's throats with this discrimination thing."

"Well, I agree with that," Rush concedes. "Indeed it's not a race issue. ... {But} every time I get an opportunity to stand up against discrimination, I don't care exactly where it's coming from, I'm going to stand up for it."

It's Melvin who sets him off, who hits the nerve.

"I just want to say I find it appalling that Bobby, you know, now that he's reached congressman, and he came so far from being a Black Panther Party leader, that he's changed his issue so much."

"What do you mean he's changed his issue?" Roberts asks.

"I mean it's like he's going along to get along with the system so much now," says Melvin.

"What do you mean? What has he done?" the host asks.

"Okay, like this issue alone of gays and uh, uh, the military ..."

"People don't understand," Rush breaks in, the pleading plain in his voice, the patience nearly gone. "This is not an issue that I've just come about. If you look back at some of the Black Panther Party newspapers, even back in the '60s, the Black Panther Party was a group of people, an organization that came out for gays' constitutional rights, and we took some very progressive issues, even back in the '60s. And people who try to -- they don't actually understand what the party was about. ... I haven't changed."

Closing the Sale

He's on the Hill, where he has plunged into selling the president's economic package, among other things.

"I like it," he says with a sputter of deep eruptions that is his laugh (Uh-huh-huh-huh). He's not talking about the program, which he also likes, but the process of selling, which he describes like an eager Allstate trainee. "I mean I really like counting votes. ... I view whipping and lobbying just like selling. As a matter of fact, when I ask somebody are you going to vote for this particular package, for me, that's the close, like closing a sale, you know? Will you provide for your family by buying this insurance policy? That's the clincher.

"See? This is like a little sales book, okay? See all these names? And see all the yeses? That means I've closed," he says with a chuckle. "And really and truly, I used to have a book similar to this with clients' names and addresses. So it's, you know, the system is not that different."

But parts of the system he keeps at a distance. One day when Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Boss's son, comes to town to visit with the Illinois delegation, a cluster of the city's always-aggressive reporters crowds in as the pols emerge from a formal luncheon in the Capitol. New Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun moves right up behind Daley and next to Sen. Paul Simon and Rep. Henry Hyde to grin for the cameras. Then new Rep. Mel Reynolds slides into the shot. But Rush hangs back, out of the picture though nearby, nodding at the reporters as they stampede past.

Later, in his Longworth Building office, he says, "I don't want to send mixed messages to any of the viewership that I'm, uh, uh, that I'm an unremitting Daley ally. ... We don't march in unison on most issues."

The Panther Legacy

It's the most genuine and heartfelt and unstilted he has sounded in a dozen recent public settings. But what he speaks is a tangle of thoughts, through which logic weaves certainly but haphazardly, as in life.

Rush has been asked to address a gathering of African Americans who work as congressional staffers. And he knows why, without being told. It's his Panther legacy again, which is heroic at times, monstrous at others, inescapable always.

But here, with this small group of political progeny, there is a trust related to risking personal integrity for greater good. Between the speaker and his severely tailored audience is a common knowledge of what it's like constantly hopscotching through different worlds.

Flattery comes first, with Rush acknowledging the struggle entailed in these mostly young folks making it from districts like his, "the bowels of the urban experience," to the center of government. Then he backs into the subject at hand with sarcasm, an attitude Rush says comes easily to former Panthers.

"I know some of you are interested in my so-called development," he says, "my abrupt change, my reawakening, my journey to the mainstream ... ."

But it's all the same, I haven't changed, there's nothing new, he tells them.

He talks about the power of "the rage that's in the heart and soul of most African Americans." And it sounds startling coming from this man who usually is careful to be cosmopolitan in his causes, multiracial in his motivations, modulated in his tone.

This is the truth, he makes clear. This is the constant that both infuriates and inspires, that creates defiance and destroys lives, that builds resistance and strips souls.

"We were all conditioned by the same monster, the same enemy," he says. "And that is the institution of racism. ... So my development from Panther to congressman is on the same kind of continuum."

For Bobby Rush, nothing has changed. And everything has.