Monday 17th October 2005
10 people - Andrew Stephen on America's fastest-rising political star
There is no Washington animal quite so self-regarding as the newly elected US senator. Every two years, a new set rolls into town, and they always seem much the same: identikit middle-aged men of unwavering pomposity, each convinced that he is finally taking his rightful place in the world's most exclusive club. They blend in surprisingly quickly, too, whatever their party: even in 2005, the club remains overwhelmingly male (86 per cent) as well as white (98 per cent).
Just occasionally, though, that complacency is shattered. This year, a man who describes himself as "a skinny guy from the South Side with a funny name" took the oath of office and defied all the stereotypes: he was not only absurdly young (43) but was also articulate (a Harvard law degree) and of mixed race (black Kenyan father, white American mother with some Cherokee blood). Until four months earlier, he had not even used a teleprompter.
But from the moment in January when he raised his right hand to swear allegiance on the Senate Bible - his background is Muslim but he is Christian - Senator Barack Obama has been the hottest ticket in town: a political rock star for the Democrats who is courted by the media, swooned over by Georgetown hostesses and widely predicted to be heading for high office, perhaps even the highest office of all. His reaction? "Andy Warhol said we all get our 15 minutes of fame. I've already had an hour and a half. I mean, I'm so overexposed, I'm making Paris Hilton look like a recluse."
Washington has a habit of hailing new political celebrities, chewing them over and then spitting them out - but Obama has come to DC prepared to shoulder the burdens of high expectations. Indeed, the only problem may be that he seems a little too primed for political superstardom. He is a telegenic man who lights up parties and for whom the word "charisma" might have been invented; he has an attractive wife, also black and a successful lawyer, and two young daughters; politically, he has always said the right things at the right time; he has even published the obligatory autobiography, in which he confesses to youthful indiscretions with drugs (thus getting that issue behind him); he has a new $1.9m book deal, with $200,000 going to a children's charity, in the works.
Part of his CV is that he had a complex and even troubled upbringing. He was born in Honolulu where his parents were both students, but his parents divorced when he was two and his father - a member of the Luo ethnic group - eventually returned to Kenya. Obama saw him only once again before he was killed in a car accident in 1982. Meanwhile, his mother remarried and took the young Barack (who was by then calling himself Barry) to live in Indonesia; they returned to Hawaii when he was ten. His life continued its peripatetic pattern: he was educated at Occidental College in California, Columbia in New York and Harvard in Massachusetts, before finally putting down roots in Chicago. He joined the Trinity United Church of Christ and became involved in grass-roots Democrat causes while lecturing in law and working for a civil rights law firm.
Obama was elected to the Illinois state senate in 1996 and - his one failure in politics - ran unsuccessfully for a Democratic congressional nomination in 2000. Adopted as candidate for the Senate in the 2004 elections, he had a stroke of luck: his strong Republican opponent was forced to drop out because of a divorce scandal, and was replaced by Alan Keyes, also black but a fully paid-up member of the loony Republican right. Obama swept into the Senate by a landslide.
He had first come into the national spotlight the previous summer when he was the keynote speaker at the Democratic convention in New York at which John Kerry was adopted as presidential candidate. Obama seized his opportunity for prime-time exposure with soaring oratory that offered something to everyone: "We worship an awesome God in the blue [Democratic] states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red [Republican] states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq."
This year he has already made Time's 100 most influential people list and has introduced his first legislation (to do with student grants). He is the only black person in the Senate and the fifth in history (the other non-white senator is Hispanic). There have been grumbles that he is too black for some white voters and too white for some black voters, but he is working to appeal to both. He is also co-operating closely with Senator Hillary Clinton. Might that be a clue to the identity of her running mate when she runs for the presidency in 2008?
Saturday, October 15, 2005
New Statesman: Barack Obama - America's Fastest-Rising Political Star
- ► 2006 (17)