III. In the days after his wife's back- from-the-brink victory in New Hampshire, Bill Clinton was full of righteous indignation. The former president had amassed an 81-page list of all the unfair and nasty things the Obama campaign had said, or was alleged to have said, about Hillary Clinton. The press was still in love with Obama, or so it seemed to Clinton, who complained to pretty much anyone who would listen. If the press wouldn't go after Obama, then Hillary's campaign would have to do the job, the ex-president urged. On Sunday, Jan. 13, Clinton got worked up in a phone conversation with Donna Brazile, a direct, strong-willed African-American woman who had been Al Gore's campaign manager and advised the Clintons from time to time. "If Barack Obama is nominated, it will be the worst denigration of public service," he told her, ranting on for much of an hour. Brazile kept asking him, "Why are you so angry?" (Article continued below...)
The former president was restless and petulant; that was obvious. Exactly why was a psychologist's guessing game. He seemed anxious that his wife was blowing the chance to get the Clintons back in the White House. At some deeper level, the armchair shrinks speculated, he was jealous of her. Or, in some strange way, he may have been envious of Obama. Clinton was proud of the fact that some blacks called him "America's first black president," because of his comfort and empathy with African-Americans. Obama was upstaging him by threatening to truly become America's first black president. More vexingly, Obama, in remarks to some reporters in Nevada, had praised Ronald Reagan as a true change agent and seemingly dismissed Bill Clinton as an incidental politician. It was always hard for Clinton to be anything but the most amazing person in the room, the "smartest boy in the class," as author David Maraniss had once described him. Clinton wanted to be a major player in his wife's campaign, and he used an office sometimes inhabited by Mark Penn or Mandy Grunwald at Clinton headquarters in Arlington, Va., just outside Washington. But the staff, including the campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, found his presence, complete with Secret Service, to be uncomfortable, sometimes intimidating. They were happier when he was on the road—that is, as long as he stayed on message, which was never for very long.
Bill Clinton was enormously effective at the Nevada caucuses on Jan. 19, working the casinos in his larger-than-life way, charming the off-duty waitresses and croupiers. Hillary's narrow victory in Nevada had sustained her post-New Hampshire comeback momentum. The former president wanted to go to South Carolina for the next Democratic test, the Jan. 26 primary. He was sure his touch with African-American voters would blunt Obama's natural advantage (almost half the Democratic voters in South Carolina are black). The campaign staff was not so sure, and scheduled him for only the briefest of visits. But Hillary sided with her husband when the staff briefed her on their minimalist approach to South Carolina. "This is crazy," she said. "Bill needs to go to South Carolina."
He was a disaster. He turned purple yelling at reporters for asking annoying questions. He pointedly compared Obama to Jesse Jackson, who had won the South Carolina caucuses in 1984 and 1988 by appealing directly to black votes. The liberal establishment was appalled—the president seemed to be clumsily playing the race card by trying to marginalize Obama as the "black candidate." Blacks were also put off. Hillary Clinton lost the African-American vote in South Carolina by 86 to 14. At Clinton headquarters, a meeting was hastily convened and a simple message went out: you cannot dis Obama in any way that suggests race. A campaign emissary secretly approached Jesse Jackson. Would he write a letter saying, in effect, no big deal? Jackson replied that he wasn't offended by Clinton's remarks—but declined to say so in a public letter. The Clintons could see their black base, so carefully and genuinely built up over the years, beginning to crumble. The old civil-rights generation was in an awkward place. New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, told Harold Ickes, "You don't understand what it's like. We get called 'house Negro' and 'handkerchief head' by our constituents because we're supporting Hillary." Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the movement (he had been beaten repeatedly while demonstrating in the South in the '60s) and a conscience of the Democratic Party, switched his support from Clinton to Obama.
Sen. Edward Kennedy had a difficult phone conversation with Bill Clinton about his divisive campaigning. "Well, they started it," Clinton told Kennedy. "I don't think that's true," said Kennedy. On Jan. 28, Senator Kennedy and, perhaps more significant, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy, held a press conference in Washington to endorse Obama. Clinton campaign aides were distraught and partly blamed Hillary. Despite urging from the staff, she had failed to call Caroline to enlist her support. For all her brassiness and grit onstage, Hillary was privately reluctant to call donors and supporters. She didn't really like arm-twisting one-on-one. She was no LBJ, thought Harold Ickes.
Caroline Kennedy had never endorsed a candidate who was not a member of the Kennedy clan. But she wrote a New York Times op-ed casting Obama in the mold of John F. Kennedy. Solis Doyle saw the ad, and thought, "Oh, my God, we're done."
For the record, the Obama campaign did not worry that race would swing the election. "I think we may lose some votes, but we also may gain some votes because of it," said David Axelrod. "I don't think it will determine the outcome." But when asked about race, Obama campaign officials often seemed touchy and guarded, as if race was a subject best not discussed. In fact, they had reason to worry that racial prejudice could become a factor, albeit in subtle ways and blended with other biases. A good part of Obama's appeal was that he was post-racial (although Obama himself shied away from this somewhat utopian notion). For some voters, however, race mattered.
Polling on race is notoriously difficult; voters rarely admit to prejudice. Polls suggested that somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of voters thought that race would be an important factor in the election. Some of these were black voters who were likely to vote for Obama, and some were white. Few whites were flat-out racists, and most of those would vote Republican anyway. But some older and working-class voters, particularly in Appalachia, the mountainous spine that runs from upper New York state to the Deep South, harbored lingering apprehensions and resentments toward African-Americans. Their motives were often mixed and hard to read. In critical swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, these voters potentially held the balance of power; they had once been solid New Deal Democrats but had broken away to vote for Reagan in the 1980s, and now their allegiance was up for grabs. The Obama staffers did not believe that Clinton (or the Republicans in the fall) would make a naked appeal on racial lines. On the other hand, they well understood that clever political operatives could play on fears of Obama as "the Other," an exotic blend of dark skin and alien background. They could point out, in thinly veiled ways, that Obama did not share their cultural values—they could paint him as a Harvard elitist, a professor type who looked down on gun owners and wanted to turn America into a mongrel nation. Obama's middle name (Hussein) and Muslim ancestry on his father's side were a problem. Polls consistently showed that more than 10 percent of voters thought Obama was Muslim, no matter how often he made clear that he was Christian.
Axelrod thought that Bill Clinton's remark about Jesse Jackson was a gratuitous way of injecting race into the campaign. "Pretty darn intentional," he told a reporter in late January. Axelrod nurtured a healthy paranoia, and he didn't entirely trust the Clintons not to play on the politics of fear. He thought of the Clinton campaign as Jaws, he told the reporter. The water might seem calm now, but …
Obama continued to appear to float above it all. In late November, he had met with a group of successful black women in public life that called itself the "Colored Girls Club." The lunch had been arranged by Donna Brazile, who counseled Obama as well as Clinton. Obama told the group that as far as he was concerned, race would not become a topic; he made clear that he would not play identity politics. In South Carolina, the Obama campaign refused to indulge in the time-honored, if slightly disreputable, practice of dispensing "walking-around money" to activists and preachers in the black community. The Clintons, by contrast, continued to hand out the usual favors and cash. Obama not only won the black vote overwhelmingly, he also won the state of South Carolina by 30 points. The press went back to calling him the favorite to win the nomination. As he watched Bill Clinton's favorability rating drop 17 points in a single week around the South Carolina primary, Obama didn't say anything, Axelrod observed. The candidate just shook his head—and smiled.
It may have been a Cheshire-cat grin, but Obama was not a gloater. There was no high-fiving or obvious schadenfreude. As Axelrod saw him, Obama didn't enjoy a good hate. That would be a waste of time and emotion, and Obama was, if nothing else, highly disciplined.
Obama carefully conserved his energy. He was not a man of appetites, like Bill Clinton, who would grab whatever goodie passed by on the tray. Obama was abstemious. Indeed, to the reporters following him, he appeared very nearly anorexic. Most candidates gain the Campaign 10 (or 15). Hillary was struggling with her waistline, as she gamely knocked back shots and beers in working-class bars and gobbled the obligatory sausage sandwiches thrust at her in greasy spoons along the Trail of the White Working-Class Voter. Obama, by contrast, lost weight. He regularly ate the same dinner of salmon, rice and broccoli. At Schoop's Hamburgers, a diner in Portage, Ind., he munched a single french fry and ordered four hamburgers—to go. At the Copper Dome Restaurant, a pancake house in St. Paul, Minn., he ordered pancakes—to go. (An AP reporter wondered: who gets pancakes for the road?) A waiter reeled off a long list of richly topped flapjacks, but Obama went for the plain buttermilk, saying, "I'm kind of traditionalist." Reporters joked that if he ate a single bite of burger or pancake once the doors of his dark-tinted SUV closed, they'd eat their BlackBerrys. Frustrated by reporters fishing for trivial "gaffes," Obama did not like coming back to the plane to talk to the press. As he trudged back from time to time to deal with the reporters' incessant questions, he looked like a suburban dad, slump-shouldered after a long day at the office, taking out the trash.
His one true recreation and release was basketball. In early February, a reporter joined Obama's standard game, whose regulars included some good players, including Michelle Obama's brother, Craig Robinson, a former Princeton player who coaches basketball at Oregon State University, and Reggie Love, Obama's "body man," his all-purpose valet, who stands 6 feet 4 and had played at Duke. Obama was wearing long sweatpants; alone among the players he did not remove them to reveal the skinny legs beneath. Obama is not a natural under the hoop. He doesn't glide. His motion is herky-jerky, from the dangerously high bounce of his dribble to the way he pumps his knees when he runs, chest out, like an Army recruit running in formation. But he could show surprising quickness, snapping a crossover dribble in front of an inattentive defender and driving past him for a layup—a savvy departure from the unhurried, deliberate pace at which he usually plays.
Obama has always been fiercely competitive and not above stacking his team with the best players. This led to at least one loud argument on the court with his friend Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois state treasurer, in the tense days before the Iowa caucuses. Obama had loaded his team with Love and some other hot shots, and Giannoulias's team was losing badly. "So I got mad and started yelling at him—'I want to win too!' " recalled Giannoulias. "And it got under his skin." Obama responded, with rare heat, "I don't care who I play with. I'll play with anybody! You want to switch teams? We can switch teams if you want!" Giannoulias declined, out of pique more than anything, he recalled. "And then he just gave me this smile," Giannoulias said, mimicking Obama's signature smile, teeth flashing, eyes crinkled, chin slightly tucked in, a surprising gleam of warmth, guaranteed to disarm.
Obama's slightly ethereal presence on the campaign trail was balanced by his down-to-earth wife, who had her own travel schedule and was beginning to appear on women's shows like "The View." The idea was to show her as an appealing mom and regular gal—and also, as the situation required, a classy woman. She was all of that, and yet to some voters she was a not a reassuring figure.
Michelle Obama is not ascetic like her husband. She has long been familiar with Chicago's chicest clothing stores, and she'll "eat a cheeseburger in a heartbeat," said Cheryl Rucker-Whitaker, her close friend from Chicago (Rucker-Whitaker's husband, Eric, is a friend of Obama's from Harvard days and often plays basketball with him). Michelle's favorite drink, said Rucker-Whitaker, is champagne. "She likes clothes, she's always loved clothes, she loves purses, she loves getting a manicure, getting her hair done. She really is a girly girl." Tall and beautiful, she caused flutters (and raised a few eyebrows) when she appeared onstage at a victory celebration dressed in a soignée, early-'60s style reminiscent of Jacqueline Kennedy. She was a Princeton and Harvard Law grad, formidable and elegant but at the same time playful. While her husband was a dreamer and serious, she was the practical one and a bit of a jokester and teaser. There was no doubting their physical attraction. Reporters liked to snicker at how much looser the candidate seemed after spending the occasional night at home or on the road with his wife.
She was also more deeply rooted in black America than Obama, whose mother had been white and who had grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia. Though no one on the Obama staff talked about it much, there was no doubt that Michelle's self-conscious blackness was unsettling to that narrow but important slice of swing voters, the so-called Reagan Democrats, older working-class voters in the Rust Belt swing states of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Michelle was from the South Side of Chicago; the white political machine of Chicago had intentionally segregated Chicago, cutting off the South Side with a highway, and racial politics were played hard in the place Michelle grew up. At Princeton in the early 1980s, Michelle felt like an outsider at an elitist college that began taking blacks only after World War II. Her senior thesis for the sociology department examined whether African-American graduates of Princeton identified with "white society" as they enjoyed upward mobility. Beneath its academic formalism, her writing has a rueful quality—she clearly (and accurately) expected to be drawn into the white world upon graduation, but wrote that, even so, she expected to "remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant." In fact, she became a lawyer at a fancy Chicago law firm (where she met her future husband, who was interning for the summer from Harvard) and later a high-level hospital administrator. But she never forgot her roots. When some African-Americans began grumbling that her husband was not "black enough," Michelle was the one who directly confronted the issue, bluntly telling a South Side of Chicago crowd, "Stop that nonsense."
For the most part, Michelle Obama was a poised and confident campaigner. But in late February, when her husband was on a roll, winning caucus after caucus, she slipped up. She told a Milwaukee audience, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." The Republicans quickly jumped on the intimation that she had not been proud of her country before then. The next day, Cindy McCain told a rally, "I'm proud of my country. I don't know about you—if you heard those words earlier—I'm very proud of my country." Right-wing talk radio began to portray Michelle as a latter-day Angela Davis, a fire-breathing '60s-type black radical, but the mainstream press steered clear of any race baiting. So did the Clinton campaign. In March, Mark Penn suggested that the campaign target Obama's "lack of American roots," and drape Hillary in the flag as much as possible. The idea seemed to be to subtly emphasize Obama's "otherness." To the Clintons' credit, they chose not to go down this route, at least not in any overt way.
Sometimes it seemed as though Hillary Clinton's campaign staffers were more interested in destroying each other than Obama. Patti Solis Doyle was finally fired on Feb. 10, and a messy scene greeted her replacement, Maggie Williams.
Staffers were trying to work, sort of, and ignore the sounds coming from the office of communications director Howard Wolfson. "He's going to ruin this f–––ing campaign!" shouted Phil Singer, Wolfson's deputy. No one was quite sure who "he" was, but most assumed it was Penn, the chief strategist who was in more or less constant conflict with Hillary's other top advisers. Wolfson said something indistinct in response, and Singer cut loose, "F––– you, Howard," and stormed out of his office. Policy director Neera Tanden had the misfortune of standing in his path. "F––– you, too!" screamed Singer. "F––– you," Tanden started. "And the whole f–––ing cabal," Singer, now standing on a chair, shouted loudly enough to be heard by the entire war room. "I'm done." Within a week or two Singer was back, still steaming and swearing. "If the house is on fire, would you rather have a psychotic fireman or no fireman at all?" Wolfson explained to Williams. A former top aide to Bill Clinton, Williams was regarded as a grown-up, but she wasn't eager to play hall monitor. She had been living quietly with her husband on Long Island, away from the Clinton melodrama, and she didn't appear to have her heart in the battle when a reporter later met with her in the spring of 2008. At the time, commentators were beginning to accuse Hillary of running as the White Candidate. An African-American woman, Williams seemed almost despondent worrying about the effect on young staffers, black and white, of being accused of racism.
Even though the campaign raised more than $100 million before Iowa, money was chronically short. "The cupboard is bare," Harold Ickes announced after New Hampshire at a stunned staff meeting. No one seemed quite sure where it had all gone, though there were a lot of bitter jokes about Hillary's penchant for G4 business jets and Mark Penn's hefty bills for polling and direct mail. Fundraising was getting tougher that winter. A top aide told a NEWSWEEK reporter, "Our donors were so disillusioned, particularly with Bill Clinton. The whole Clinton mishegoss—people said, if she can't control him in the campaign, how could she control him in the White House? We took a pounding." The campaign aides suggested that the Clintons loan $5 million from their personal fortune before the Super Tuesday primaries on Feb. 5. "Let's do it," Bill Clinton said immediately, but Solis Doyle could hear hesitation in Hillary's voice. She came around, and when word got out that she was tapping her own money, contributions poured in—many from women.
Shortly after Williams took over, she called a major meeting for senior staff. Penn was given the floor, and he began to walk through all the iterations of Hillary slogans: "Solutions for America," "Ready for Change, Ready to Lead," "Big Challenges, Real Solutions: Time to Pick a President …" Penn marched down the long list.
But then he seemed to get a little lost. "Um, uh, 'Working for Change, Working for You' …" There was silence, then sniggers, as Penn tried to remember all the bumper stickers, which, run together, sounded absurd and indistinguishable. "Ehhh … 'The Hillary I Know' …" Penn trailed off, and the meeting moved on.
But it was Penn who finally came up with an ad that worked, on the eve of the Ohio and Texas primaries in early March, when the Clinton campaign was in true do-or-die mode. It began with the sound of a phone ringing in the hours before dawn. Accompanied by portentous music, the ad played to the insecurities of the so-called security moms, who had been shaken by 9/11 and had voted heavily for George W. Bush in 2004. Penn called the "Red Phone 3 a.m." ad a "game changer." Mandy Grunwald, the campaign's ad maker, had opposed it. When someone in the room at a senior staff meeting said, "Great ad!" Grunwald, who was talking by speakerphone, snapped, "This is Mark's ad, not my ad."
Morale was at a low ebb in the Clinton campaign by early March. Incredibly, the campaign had been caught by surprise by Obama's tortoise-and-hare strategy. While Hillary won some big states on Super Tuesday, including New York, California, New Jersey and—take that, Ted Kennedy!—Massachusetts, Obama had been racking up delegates in smaller states, particularly caucus states, where he was organized and Clinton was not. Given the way delegates were apportioned, Obama had amassed a nearly insurmountable lead by the time of the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4. At one meeting around the time of Super Tuesday, Ickes tried—for the umpteenth time, it seemed—to explain the mechanics of proportional representation. When President Clinton said, "Oh, hell, we didn't have this stuff in 1992," Ickes nearly "fell off his chair," as he later put it, because the system had been essentially the same back then. Ickes grumbled to reporters that Penn didn't even know that California wasn't winner-take-all; Penn denied it.
But Hillary did win Ohio and she did win Texas, though narrowly, and once more she had stepped back from the brink. For Obama, there was some disturbing news in the breakdown of the voting results. He had crossed over the demographic divide in industrial Wisconsin in February, winning older and blue-collar voters, white as well as black. But in Ohio the gap stubbornly returned: Hillary was the darling of older, white working-class voters. The Obama camp was beginning to suspect that the Clinton campaign, while assiduously avoiding any race baiting by the candidate or her senior staff or advisers, was perfectly content to let others do the dirty work, operating through surrogates and the bottom-feeding press. A picture of Obama in Somali garb was leaked to the Drudge Report. Clinton surrogate Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio (who was African-American) said that Obama shouldn't be ashamed to be seen in his "native clothes." In Youngstown, Ohio, the president of the International Machinists Union endorsed Clinton; its president, Tom Buffenbarger, took a swipe at Obama at a Hillary rally, shouting, "I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing trust-fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! He won't stand a chance against the Republican attack machine!" Reporters noticed that in the bathroom there were copies of an infamous "Obama is a Muslim" e-mail printed out and strewn about.
Obama was not one to cast blame, at least not too obviously or too loudly. After his campaign spent $20 million to win Texas and still lost, he ran through a list of mistakes with his staff, not laying any blame on anyone in particular. He stood up to leave, and as he walked out of the conference room of campaign headquarters on Michigan Avenue, he turned around and said, "I'm not yelling at you guys." He took another few steps and turned around again and said, "Of course, after blowing through $20 million in a couple of weeks, I could yell at you. But …" He paused. "I'm not yelling at you." He laughed and walked out the door.
Obama had to strain to stay cool when the Reverend Wright fiasco hit in mid-March. Later that spring, after the hubbub had abated and Obama sat down to give his version of events, he was puzzled, chagrined and a little defensive. His advisers saw Jeremiah Wright as a true threat to Obama's candidacy. For Obama, the fiery and vain reverend was a continuing source of vexation and personal pain.
Obama told a NEWSWEEK reporter that he had known from the beginning that Wright could be trouble. Shortly before Obama announced for the presidency in February 2007, Wright had made some "pretty incendiary" remarks to Rolling Stone magazine, Obama recalled. Still, he had not wanted to sever his ties to Wright. Obama had long regarded the preacher as a kind of "uncle." In his memoirs, he had credited Wright with "bringing me to Jesus"—as well as showing him the power of the black church as a community organizer. Wright had married Obama and baptized his daughters. Obama told the NEWSWEEK reporter that, though he had been Wright's parishioner at Trinity United Church of Christ for almost two decades, he was often away campaigning, which meant attending other churches, or doing something else with his young family on Sunday mornings. He had, he said, missed many of Wright's sermons.
But back in early February 2007, as he read Wright's heated rhetoric about racial injustice in America, printed in the Rolling Stone story titled "The Radical Roots of Barack Obama," Obama had thought to himself, "This doesn't sound real good." In a few days, Wright was scheduled to give the invocation at Obama's announcement ceremony at the state capitol in Springfield, Ill. Partly because he wanted to protect Wright's church from getting entangled in politics, Obama called Wright and told him, "You know what, you probably shouldn't introduce me. There's going to be about 500 press credentials there; you don't want a whole bunch of mikes suddenly stuck in your face without any preparation or expectation." Wright, as would later become excruciatingly clear, loved microphones, the more the better, but this time he got the message. He would stay offstage. "I know that disappointed him," Obama recalled, "and I think he might have felt some anger about that."
Wright did not stay quiet for long. He soon gave his version of what happened between him and Obama to a reporter from The New York Times. He told the Times that one of Obama's advisers had "talked him into disinviting me," and that Obama had told him, "You can get pretty rough in the sermons, so what we've decided is that it's best for you not to be out in public." Obama was miffed when he saw Wright's comments, but decided not to break with him then and there. "He was retiring; I had a strong commitment to the church community … My instinct was to let him stay out of the limelight and not make a bigger deal out of it," Obama recalled to the reporter. However, Obama said that he had told his staff: "Let's pull every single sermon that Wright made, because it could be an issue, and it could be attributed to me, and let's at least know what we're dealing with." He added: "That never got done."
The normally careful Obama team dropped the ball. Axelrod told the NEWSWEEK reporter, "I had been asking" for a "readout of all his sermons," but "I didn't get it." (He blamed himself for not following up.) Instead, the campaign watched with growing dismay on the evening of Thursday, March 13, 2008—less than two weeks after the Texas and Ohio primaries—as ABC News aired video clips of the Reverend Wright, delivering a sermon on the Sunday after September 11 declaring that "America's chickens are coming home to roost" for its own acts of "terrorism" and fulminating, "God damn America … that's in the Bible! For killing innocent people! God damn America!"
As it happened, Obama was in the middle of another potential mess, dealing with questions about his relationship with Tony Rezko, a Chicago fixer convicted of extorting bribes from lawmakers. In 2006, Obama had bought a small piece of property next to his Chicago home from Rezko—nothing illegal; the Obamas had paid a fair price—but as Obama acknowledged, any personal financial dealing with an influence peddler like Rezko looked bad, especially for a would-be political reformer. That Thursday night in March, as the Reverend Wright story was exploding on cable TV—an endless loop of video clips of Wright ranting—Obama was scheduled to go to the Chicago Tribune offices the next day and spend "as long as necessary" answering questions about Rezko. During his nearly three-hour grilling at the Tribune building on March 14, Obama patiently answered questions, in a thorough if lawyerly way, until there were no more.
Obama was worn out, or should have been. But that same night, he announced to David Axelrod, "I want to do a speech on race." Axelrod's own instinct was to get as far away from the Reverend Wright as possible. Other top staffers were also wary of making any broad statements about race. Obama's top staffers avoided the topic of race, not only publicly, but in their internal deliberations. Only one of the top staffers, Valerie Jarrett, was black. She would occasionally push the campaign to be more race-conscious, insisting that Obama's ads in Iowa include some photos of blacks as well as whites. But other top staffers saw Obama's racial ambiguity as an asset. If black voters wanted to claim him as the black candidate, fine. If voters wanted to see him as biracial or post-racial, that was fine, too. David Plouffe thought that race was mostly a distraction—his eye was always on the numbers, on racking up the delegates. He did not want Obama in any way to be defined by racial politics.
Obama himself had an intuitive sense of when to emphasize his blackness, and when not to. When he was speaking to crowds of black voters, he would use a deeper voice and seem more casual and instinctive; with whites, his voice would become flatter and more nasal, his attitude more deliberate. He had a way of telling his black supporters to just shrug off racial innuendo. He used a phrase borrowed from Malcolm X to warn black voters to ignore Internet rumors (like the one that he had taken an oath of office by swearing on a Qur'an). "They're trying to bamboozle you," Obama said at one event in South Carolina in January. "It's the same old okie-doke. Y'all know about okie-doke, right? ... They try to bamboozle you. Hoodwink ya. Try to hoodwink ya." He seemed to catch himself: "All right, I'm having too much fun here," he said, and changed the topic. Obama knew when to distance himself from black nationalists. Over Valerie Jarrett's objections (she was afraid he would alienate black voters), he had denounced the Rev. Louis Farrakhan during a debate in the fall.
Wright's rants needed to be answered. But how? There was no great internal debate within Obama's staff, in part because no one really knew what to do. But Obama did. Although, back in November, he had breezily told Donna Brazile and her "Colored Girls" group that he would not bring up race, in fact his own search for his racial identity was central to his being, and he knew that sooner or later he might have to broach the subject with voters. For several months, he had been thinking about giving a broader speech on the subject of race, and now the moment had arrived. Obama had his own sense of timing and purpose. He knew that Wright's remarks could stir racial fears that could become a cancer on the campaign unless some steps were taken to cut it out, and that he was the only one skillful enough to attempt the operation.
Obama spent much of the next three nights working on the speech, which he essentially wrote himself. Delivered at an appropriate setting—a museum devoted to the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia—his half-hour address was a tour de force, the sort of speech that only Barack Obama could give. He had taken some saccharine but sincere advice from his mother—to judge not, to always look for the good in people—and internalized a true sense of tolerance. He had the ability to empathize with both sides— to summon the fear and resentment felt by blacks for years of oppression, but also to talk about how whites (including his grandmother) could fear young black men on the street, and how whites might resent racial preferences for blacks in jobs and schools. He ended with a moving scene, a story of reconciliation between an older black man and a young white woman.
When he walked backstage at the Constitution museum, he found everyone in tears—his wife, his friends and his hardened campaign aides. Only Obama seemed cool and detached. The speech was "solid," he said, as his entourage, tough guys like Axelrod and former deputy attorney general Eric Holder, choked up. The candidate had seemed unflappable the whole weekend, his late nights notwithstanding. He was, from time to time, given to moments of mild amusement. While the Obamas and their aides were dining the night before, Marty Nesbitt, Obama's close friend and basketball buddy, called Obama on his cell phone and said, "Man, look, this is like a blessing in disguise." Obama held the phone away and said to the table, dryly, "Nesbitt says this is a blessing in disguise." On the other end, Nesbitt could hear the laughter. "Really," Nesbitt spluttered, "this is really a blessing in disguise." Obama replied, "Yeah, well …" and Nesbitt could hear more raucous laughter.
But it was a blessing in disguise. Wright gave Obama a chance to deal directly with issues that had been the source of whispering or underhanded attacks in the lower precincts of politics, to take the high road on a matter of pressing national importance but on a subject that can be difficult to honestly discuss. He had shown calm good judgment.
Nonetheless, a close reading of the speech suggests more than a hint of personal grandiosity. Obama was giving the voters a choice: they could stay "stuck" in a "racial stalemate." Or they could get beyond it—by, well, voting for him. "We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day, and talk about them from now until the election … We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will flock to John McCain … We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And then nothing will change." But if you vote for me—now—this time, Obama strongly implied, blacks and whites could come together and deal with the greater challenges facing the country, of health care and education, want and war. At times like this, Obama seemed to project that he was "the One" that Oprah had rhapsodized about. In the speech, he was careful to be modest ("I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy—particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own"). But the implicit message was: I Am the One, Choose Me—or this historic moment may pass, never to be recovered.
The Clinton campaign was careful not to exploit the Wright imbroglio, or at least careful not to get caught at it. At Clinton headquarters, Harold Ickes took a call from Greg Sargent, a reporter from Talking Points Memo, one of the new generation of bloggers shaking up the old media. Sargent wanted to know, does Wright ever come up in conversations with superdelegates? The superdelegates, party leaders and top congressional Democrats, were Clinton's last hope as Obama rolled toward a majority of elected delegates. They could, theoretically at least, save her candidacy, though they would have to buck the popular vote to do so. Ickes talked to superdelegates every day, trying to hang on to their support. He told TPM that, yes, the superdelegates were concerned about Wright. He soon received a call from Maggie Williams, the campaign boss. Harold, she said, we don't need to be talking about the Reverend Wright.
Hillary Clinton believed that Obama's problems with white working-class voters made him unelectable, and she could be blunt about it when she got on the phone with superdelegates who threatened to switch to Obama. "Bill, he can't win!" she shouted on the phone to Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico. The Clintons were particularly anxious to cultivate the support of Richardson, who was popular with Hispanics. Bill Clinton had watched the Super Bowl with Richardson; cameras recorded the scene—two slightly overweight middle-aged men catching a ball game but not looking all that comfortable in each other's company. In the end, Richardson endorsed Obama. James Carville, the Clintons' favorite hit man, compared Richardson to Judas.
The Clintons' dream of restoration was dying. Yet, curiously, in many ways Hillary Clinton found her voice in the spring of 2008. At rallies, recalled Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who was brought in in a last-ditch attempt to bring peace and order to the campaign, people would come up to the senator and say, "Don't give up." At a debate in Austin, Texas, she gave a very moving closing statement about the people who had it much tougher than she did. Hoarse and bleary-eyed, she bounced around the country (this time in a charter plane with staff and press—no more private business jets), performing with a combination of gumption and grace.
But she undercut her diminishing chances in April by inexplicably boasting that she had come under sniper fire at an airport in the Balkans during her husband's presidency. She was trying to show that she was a battle-hardened global peacemaker, but since there were videotapes of her being greeted by happy schoolchildren on the tarmac, the press had a field day mocking her. Obama made his own gaffe—telling some rich San Francisco fundraisers that the working-class people in Pennsylvania clung to guns and God out of "bitterness." There was some truth to Obama's off-hand remark (the definition of a "gaffe," columnist Michael Kinsley wrote, is a politician telling the truth). But to many proud and faithful gun-owning members of the working class, Obama was just plain wrong and certainly condescending. The "bitterness" remark risked long-term damage. It opened him to the charge that he was an effete academic snob, out of touch with working-class people.
The campaign drifted into a kind of grinding stasis, with Clinton unable to overcome Obama's lead but Obama unable to finally clinch the nomination. The low point for Obama came at the end of April, when the Reverend Wright popped up again. First in a sympathetic interview with Bill Moyers on PBS, then in a thumping speech to the NAACP and finally in an over-the-top performance at the National Press Club, Wright did his best to draw the spotlight back on him and on his wide set of grievances. Egged on by a claque of cheering black ministers at the press club, Wright delivered what Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times described as "a rich, stem-winding brew of black history, Scripture, hallelujahs and hermeneutics." Waiting to go live for the event, MSNBC called David Axelrod for comment on Wright. "He is doing his own thing," said Axelrod, wearily. "There's nothing we can do about it."
In Chicago, Eric Whitaker, Obama's close friend, watched the rebroadcast with alarm. "I called him [Obama] that night and told him that he really needed to watch the video of it," Whitaker said. "He told me, 'I don't know if I can. I think it's going to be too painful to watch'."
A week later, with close contests in Indiana and North Carolina looming, Whitaker and two others of Obama's close friends, Marty Nesbitt and Valerie Jarrett, went to support the candidate as he attended a Stevie Wonder concert and worked a factory late shift in North Carolina. It was a "low period," Jarrett recalled, as the four of them stood in the drizzle and the mud waiting for the factory workers. Obama was "hurt" and "struggling," she recalled. Nesbitt found him anxious and fretful, shaken "off his usual steady state." Obama liked to control his own story, and now he was being "subjected to someone else's craziness," Whitaker recalled. The three friends tried to lighten Obama's mood, joking around about nothing in particular. "We had him laughing for a minute," said Nesbitt. "But it was laughter to keep from crying," said Whitaker. Then Axelrod arrived to announce, "The polls in Indiana look really, really bad," and everyone shouted, "Come o-o-o-o-on," recalled Jarrett.
But the next night Obama won big in North Carolina even as he was losing narrowly in Indiana. On NBC, Tim Russert, regarded as an oracle by his peers and most of the political world, pronounced, "We now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be, and no one is going to dispute it." It was finally over—except that it wasn't, quite—not until Hillary Clinton surrendered.
She was determined to campaign to the last, hoping against hope that the superdelegates would come around to her argument that Obama was unelectable. This was not an argument that he wanted to get caught up in. From the headquarters of the "No-Drama Obama" campaign the word went out: do not engage, do not inflame, do not say or do anything that might suggest Clinton did not have the right to finish the campaign. On one conference call, someone said, "We've just got to keep biting our lips, biting our lips." Adman Jim Margolis piped up, "OK, but my lip is starting to hurt."
Obama shook off his disappointment about Wright and kept on campaigning, though it was obvious that he was not happy burning time and money that could have been spent turning to John McCain. On May 20, the night of the primaries in Oregon (a satisfying win in a liberal state) and Kentucky (another discouraging blowout in Appalachia; he had lost West Virginia the week before by 41 points), he stood off-stage at the Des Moines Historical Society Museum in Iowa. He had wanted to go back to the state of his first great triumph to give a speech unofficially kicking off the fall campaign, even though Clinton officially was still in the race. "That's an interesting belt buckle," he said to Michelle, mischievously. She feigned offense and said, "I am interesting, next to you. Surprise, surprise, a blue suit, a white shirt and a tie." Obama grinned and bent down until he was almost at eye level with her waist. He jabbed a playful finger toward her belt buckle, and let loose his inner nerd. "The lithium crystals! Beam me up, Scotty!" Obama squeaked, laughing at his own lame joke as Michelle rolled her eyes.
On June 3, the last day of the longest-ever primary season, Obama finally secured enough delegates to become the presumptive nominee. It was midnight before the Obama plane was wheels-up out of Minnesota, a state he needed to keep blue in November. The candidate had just given a rousing speech. If ever there was a time to party, this was it. "OK, pretty big night," Jim Margolis said to Obama. "You just locked up the nomination—how about a beer?" Obama started to say yes, then stopped. "We won't hit the ground until 3 in the morning, and I've got AIPAC first thing—I better not," he said. "OK, I'll have two," said Margolis. Obama was anxious about AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Elderly Jewish voters in Florida—a key swing state in November—were telling reporters that they were leery of Obama, that some of them were not ready to vote for an African-American. The real campaign had begun.