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In Which I Empty Out My Obama Notebook...

A little over four-and-a-half years ago, I traveled to Illinois to interview Barack Obama for a profile I was working on. It was not long after he’d captured over 50 percent of the vote in his U.S. Senate primary against a multicandidate field. A lot of people in Washington had begun to cluck over this promising black state senator.

About midway through the interview, I asked the following: “In making the decision to run for this seat, how closely did you look at the [Carol] Moseley Braun race, at previous examples of African-Americans running statewide?” It was my fourth or fifth question in a row on the issue of race. In retrospect, I’m embarrassed at how preoccupied I was with the subject. Here I was talking to the most compelling political character of my lifetime, and I could only see him as an abstraction. 

Finally, Obama set me straight:

Well, you know. Let me tell you this. I know that it’s going to be tempting writing this article, to write it as a “black” piece. I mean, I assume if I was a white guy who had won by 30 points, you wouldn’t be here. So I don’t want to begrudge that angle. But, you know, I looked at this race from the perspective of somebody who felt that I could deliver the strongest message for the Democrats in winning this seat back. And my--what I probably was more focused on was the fact that Illinois is a state that’s been trending strongly Democratic. Even when [former Illinois Senator Peter] Fitzgerald was in, my belief was that he was out of step with the politics of this state. And if I was in a position to--if I could  generate the resources to get on television, to speak directly to voters about what I believed the Democratic Party should represent, not only did I feel like people would feel good about having me as a spokesperson, I felt that the Democratic message would be victorious in November.

I began frantically paging through my notebook to see what else I had.

What’s remarkable, of course, is that Obama turned out to be right. In fact, if you replace “Illinois” with “United States,” “state” with “country,” and “Fitzgerald” with “Bush,” his comment stands as a pretty good explanation for what’s likely to happen today. Most voters didn’t see him as the “black guy” running for president. They saw him as an effective spokesman for what they believed at a time when the other side had been discredited.

Two other anecdotes while we await the returns: Last November, I attended an Obama rally at a community college in Ft. Dodge, Iowa. When it ended, an aide led me into a classroom at the back of an industrial workshop, where I was going to interview the candidate. After sitting there a minute or two, I asked the aide how much time I had. At which point Obama, whom I hadn't even noticed in the room (his back was to me and he was hunched over a table), spun around and flashed that big grin: "Your time's already up," he said. "You just get to come in here and shake my hand." All of us started laughing.

I guess the superficial read would be that it's just another example of his total self-absorption. In fact, it was the opposite--a kind of wry, meta-commentary on the absurdity of the process, on the messianism he inspired. That's what I always found so winning about Obama: He could be ironic, detached, and highly self-aware one minute; completely earnest and inspirational the next. (He'd stirred a crowd of several hundred Iowans to a frenzy less than half-an-hour earlier.) Hence the second story:

I went to the Obama celebration the night of the New Hampshire primary--that is, the night most of us, and certainly most Obama supporters, assumed he'd effectively lock up the nomination. What was striking was that, while it should have been an absolutely crushing defeat--here you thought you'd driven a stake through the most powerful Democratic dynasty of our generation, and they come roaring back to life, horror-flick style--Obama's aides and supporters didn't seem very fazed by it. Even after the news set in, the energy made it feel a lot more like a victory party than a wake.

On our way out, my former TNR colleague Ryan Lizza and I ran into one of Obama's top advance men. He turned to Ryan and said something like, "Hey, you're the expert. Is this bad for us?" Our jaws practically dropped. How could this guy not see that this was an unmitigated disaster for Obama--that Hillary would almost certainly win the nomination now. "Uh, yeah, it's going to be a real race," Ryan told him, massively understating how we felt. But, of course, the true-believers were a lot closer to the mark than we were. The faith people had in this guy was always something to behold.

--Noam Scheiber