David Maraniss, an associate editor of The Post, is the author of “First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton” and the forthcoming “Barack Obama: The Story.” This column is the first in a series on the 2012 presidential candidates’ political lives.
On Sept. 5, 2001, at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., the political career of state Sen. Barack Obama received a huge lift. If not for that odd moment, he might not be where he is now, in the Oval Office, heading into a difficult reelection campaign in which his prospects nonetheless appear slightly more favorable week by week. What happened that day in the land of Lincoln was a matter of luck and chance. His future was pulled out of Old Abe’s stovepipe hat.
As with any successful politician, luck is often evident in the Obama biography, and we are seeing it again this year. He began his presidency with so many seemingly intractable problems that the most trenchant assessment of his dilemma came from the satirical Onion headline “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.” Yet now, how lucky for him that the Republican candidates maul one another in their frenzy to replace him. How fortuitous that they keep veering further right, giving the president the opportunity to seize the middle and possibly win back the persuadable voters who will decide this election.
All in keeping with a lucky streak that propelled him from obscurity into national prominence eight short years ago. That is when John Kerry, the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer, asked him to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 national convention and when his most formidable opponents for the U.S. Senate were knocked out of the race, one after another, by troublesome reports involving their treatment of former wives. Luck is the residue of design, the baseball wise man Branch Rickey once said, and there is no doubt that Obama had a political design that made it possible for him to take advantage of the breaks that went his way that year, just as he did four years later when he outmaneuvered Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain on his way to the White House. And just as he did when it came to the least appreciated of his many lucky moments — that September day in Springfield.
Here was Obama in the fall of 2001: He was 40 years old. Only a year earlier, he had been crushed in his attempt to snatch a Chicago-based U.S. House seat away from the Democratic incumbent, Bobby Rush. He was back in Springfield, frustrated, in his fifth year as a state senator trying to make his way in a chamber ruled by Republicans, unable to establish a legislative record that might lift him up and out of that downstate trap.
In the wake of the 2000 Census, the Illinois legislature established a commission to redraw the state’s 118 House and 59 Senate districts. With the House controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Republicans, the Legislative Redistricting Commission was divided, four from each party, and incapable of breaking a political deadlock as both sides realized that in politics, maps are destiny. The state Constitution provided an unorthodox solution: Have the secretary of state draw a name for a ninth commission member. Tie broken, problem resolved. The essential prop, a replica of Abraham Lincoln’s iconic stovepipe hat, would lend gravitas to an otherwise bizarre situation.
On the fateful day, Secretary of State Jesse White was flown to Springfield from his home in Chicago and driven by state trooper to the Old State Capitol, where he entered a chamber buzzing with legislators and lobbyists who fully appreciated the meaning of the moment. White brought interesting credentials to his leading role. As a student at Alabama State in the 1950s, he had boycotted Montgomery buses with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. Before rising through the ranks of the Chicago political machine, he had also jumped from planes as an army airborne paratrooper, played minor league baseball in the Cubs chain, taught school and founded the famed Jesse White Tumbling Team. Now it came down to the talent of his left hand.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” White told me during an interview in his Springfield office, as the latest iteration of his tumbling team huddled nearby. Robert Kjellander, a longtime Republican official, held the hat, he recalled. Slips of paper bearing the names of two retired state Supreme Court justices were placed inside — Republican Ben Miller and Democrat (and former Chicago mayor) Michael Bilandic.
“I had my head turned to the side and I reached into the hat, and I put my hand on the first ballot, and I dropped it. And I reached and I grabbed the one that was farthest from me, on the other end of the hat. And I pulled it out, and I read and I was deliberate because I wanted a little suspense. I realized my party was in the balance. I kind of acted like I was disgusted. Ohhhh. And people were holding their breath. And then I said, ‘The name that appears on this ballot is that of . . . Justice Michael Bilandic.’ And the place went up for grabs.’ ”
Bilandic voted for a redistricting map that helped the Democrats take back the Senate with a substantial majority in the 2002 elections. Barack Obama became a committee chairman and, as a favorite of the new majority leader, Emil Jones, was chosen to drive the agenda on key criminal justice and health-care issues. Finally, he was able to craft a record that would make it easier for him to rise beyond Springfield. As a committee chairman, he could travel and hold hearings in downstate areas that had never heard of him. His reshaped 13th Senate District extended north from Chicago’s South Side to predominantly white lakefront neighborhoods where he would meet more wealthy donors, providing fuel for his greater ambitions.
Within two years, the former minority-party backbencher was running for the U.S. Senate. And by February 2007, Obama was back at the site of Jesse White’s magic trick, standing outside the Old State Capitol, evoking Lincoln — if not his stovepipe hat — and declaring himself a candidate for president of the United States.