Saturday, January 24, 2009

How Obama worked his way up from the back of the book


Last you heard from me, I was talking about how I buried in the back pages the first exclusive interview I snagged with Barack Obama during the Democratic primary. A lot changed between then and my second (and, I suspect, last) opportunity to speak one-on-one with this special man.

For one thing, he raised a hell of a lot of money. I edit The St. Louis American under the direction of our publisher, Donald M. Suggs, who has been observing and, in his own way, playing power politics since long before I was born. He knows why people follow the so-called "money primary," the fundraising race - because money follows momentum as much as it creates it.

We always wanted to endorse Obama for many reasons, but his emergence as a fundraising powerhouse added viability to his list of virtues and more as less guaranteed our endorsement and partisanship.

Then Bill Clinton began to act like a fool on the campaign trail and squander all of the considerable love he previously had in the bank with Black America - and which Hillary Clinton had been confidently drawing upon as a base that was hers to lose and Obama's to win.

The way Terry McAuliffe and other Clinton campaign surrogates (including, appallingly, a number of black women) attempted to backpedal from Bill's divisive comments while still keeping the race card offensively in play against Obama only made it worse. It occasioned an enormous shift at the African-American grassroots, away from Clinton and toward the guy who had been my candidate all along and The St. Louis American's guaranteed candidate for quite some time.

We officially endorsed Obama in the Missouri primary - though without demonizing Clinton, whose campaign tactics smacked of the bad old days but whose policy stands still made her a great candidate for the White House.

Almost immediately after the worst of Bubba's goofs in South Carolina - and not coincidentally - Obama won the Missouri primary. This came as something of a delight and a shock. Polls show Obama won with 80 percent of the votes cast by black men and 72 percent of the votes cast by black women. This looked good for the most widely distributed and influential black newspaper in the state (ours) and for the black congressman from St. Louis (Wm. Lacy Clay) who endorsed Obama from the beginning and directed his campaign to pay attention to our paper.

Then something happened that no one could have predicted and that I still don't entirely understand, for it has some of the qualities of magic or providence that defy rational accounting. This is the photograph of Obama that went around the world, starting from our tiny newsroom.

On the 4th of July weekend, Obama honored a previous commitment to come St. Louis to speak at an African Methodist Episcopal conference. As our young reporter Jessica Bassett said in the news piece that accompanied the now-famous photo, "Before addressing the convention, the Illinois senator met privately with church bishops who prayed for his safety, health and good guidance during his historical race to the White House."

Our staff shooter Wiley Price was quietly given the hometown, brotherly hookup and invited into the private room where this prayer took place. As the national press corps were left stranded outside the closed door, Wiley held his camera in the air over the heads of the bishops laying hands on Obama and he snapped some shots.

One of them - the one above - would keep circulating the world on email chains - initially, with the subject line "Photo of Obama you won't see on Fox news!!!" - up until the day Obama was elected, and my blogpost explaining the origins of the photo continues to get numerous hits every single day from every corner of the globe.

The Obama campaign - we were in daily contact, by this time - assured me that this photo was critical in softening any remaining resistance to Obama in the black community, based upon dubious fears that he wasn't sufficiently "black," American or Christian to be embraced as a native son. The bishops had embraced him - and, now, everybody embraced him.

All of this prepared the ground for my second (and, sadly, probably final) exclusive interview with the man of the new century. It helps to explain why, when he made one and only one local call right before he went onstage in downtown St. Louis in front of an audience of more than 100,000 people, that call went to our newspaper (to me).

But this is so dang long already I'll have to come back to that next time.

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