By 1990, Artur Davis had worked his way up from a childhood of poverty in Alabama to the top of his graduating class at Harvard College, and he was a hard man to impress. On day one at Harvard Law, he stopped by a classroom to hear a speech by a senior who was the new president of the Law Review. Davis wasn't expecting much from the guy with a funny name. But he was surprised and riveted. "I still remember almost every word," Davis told me last week. "He said we faced three challenges. First: competence, which was expected. Second: excellence, which only some seek. Third: mastery, which very few ever tried for. It was a level of proficiency and skill so high it allowed you to do something better than anyone else. He urged us to seek that." It wasn't just what the man said, Davis recalls, but how he said it. "He had a casual way of conveying authority—a combination of command and comfort." The men became friends. Seventeen years passed until, a year ago, Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama became the first congressman outside Illinois to endorse the presidential candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama. Two weeks ago Obama won the Alabama primary with Davis as state campaign chair.
Harvard has been the establishment's petri dish of power for centuries, so there is nothing remarkable about this story of lofty goals except for this: the two men in the Ivy halls were black. Obama's rise is both the result and a symbol of a coming of age of a new leadership contingent. Reared in a post-segregated society, embraced by top credentialing institutions, they have amassed power and wealth through law, politics, foundations and the upper ranks of corporations, investment banks and hedge funds. Now, as every ethnic wave eventually does, they feel they have arrived. "There is a network," says Willie Brown, a former mayor of San Francisco. "They have been waiting for this moment. They want to invest in leadership. But they have high standards. You have to win them over." (Last week Obama was wooing Rep. John Lewis, a superdelegate who has been one of Hillary Clinton's most prominent black supporters.)
Obama was no slam-dunk. Initially, he was a stranger to much of this network. But he picked the right place from which to make his move—Chicago's South Side. His fiancée, Michelle Robinson, was not from a fancy family there. Still, after she and her brother, Craig, had graduated from Princeton (and she Harvard Law), Michelle and her new husband joined an up-and-coming crowd. It had its own Groton—the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools—and a new route to national power: a city hall run by the city's first black mayor, the late Harold Washington, and then by a new, adaptable generation of Daleys. When Obama launched a voter-registration drive in the early 1990s, the chief funder was John Rogers, a graduate of the Lab School who had played basketball at Princeton with Craig. Rogers runs Ariel Capital, a mutual-fund firm with $16 billion in assets under management. He was a pioneering presidential fund-raiser in an effort that's outdone the Clintons. To get it started, he and others tapped the "network" in Atlanta, New York, L.A. and D.C. "I'm still thinking of new people to call," he says.
As the circle gets wider, more people want to tap into it. Obama's success at bridging ethnic divides inspires African-Americans to reach higher, says Davis. "Until our generation, it was assumed the highest we could aspire to was to be a member of the House," he says. "Now that ceiling has been lifted." Davis himself is planning to run for governor of Alabama in 2010, and he hopes that a president named Obama will campaign for him. That would be a masterstroke.