Chicago Tribune: Portrait of a pragmatist
By Bob Secter and John McCormick
Barack Obama packed his few belongings into his newly purchased but creaky old Honda and headed west from New York into a political and social battle zone.
When the raw 23-year-old community organizer hit Chicago in early 1985, the racially charged fighting between Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, and white ethnic aldermen led by Ed Vrdolyak had earned the city a bitter nickname: Beirut on the Lake.
Obama learned just how bitter on his first trip to a Hyde Park barber, who recalled how Washington's victory two years earlier had sent African-Americans into the streets "like the day Joe Louis knocked out [Max] Schmeling," Obama writes in his memoir, "Dreams from My Father."
But Obama, the youthful outsider, brought a decidedly practical view of the Washington-Vrdolyak bouts to the Far South Side community he was organizing.
"They're not enemies, he used to tell us. They're both working for their constituents, and they have to do this," recalled Loretta Herron, a founding member of Obama's Developing Communities Project. "Whoever can help you reach your goal, that's who you work with. ... There are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies."
That mantra of professional organizers has come to define Obama's public life. Even his choice of church in Chicago involved a political calculation of sorts. Now his penchant for pragmatism could prove one of his greatest political strengths, or liabilities, on the presidential campaign trail.
Much has been made of Obama's ability to bridge feuding conservatives and liberals in Illinois, and before that at the Harvard Law Review, where in 1990 he became its first black leader. As a presidential candidate, he bills himself as a uniter who can usher in a post-partisan era where Washington fights less and gets more done.
The path to his party's nomination, though, runs through Democratic primary voters still chafing from years of conservative Republican rule. And what Obama highlights as an eagerness to plow common ground with political opposites, some voters may view as a sign that he lacks firm principles or an ability to stake and hold his ground.
Obama firmly rejected that notion. "There are a set of principles that I care about. And there are people I'm fighting for in this campaign," he said in a recent interview. If any Republican, or Democrat for that matter, opposes those principles, Obama vowed to "go after them with everything that I've got."
The art of working with one's enemies comes straight out of Community Organizing 101, the on-the-job course in human relations and activism Obama took in the mid-1980s alongside low-income residents in the Roseland community and the Altgeld Gardens public housing development.
"It was in these neighborhoods that I received the best education I ever had," Obama said in the February speech that launched his White House run.
The work was rewarding -- pushing for asbestos removal at Altgeld, pressing for a local job training office, even agitating to fill potholes and erect stop signs.
Still, work on the ground floor of politics also was limited. The young Obama yearned to do something on a bigger stage, he confided to Gerald Kellman, the organizer who had brought him to Chicago.
Two years into Obama's time in the city, the men attended a conference at Harvard University. Strolling the same ivy-covered campus his father had left their family to attend more than two decades earlier, Obama reflected on a lesson from his father's life.
The elder Obama had returned to his native Kenya bursting with intellect and ambition, only to devolve into an embittered bureaucrat because he couldn't find a way to reconcile his ideals with political realities, Kellman remembers Obama telling him.
Obama was determined not to follow in those footsteps. "He talked about what happens to you if you're not practical in finding ways to do things effectively," Kellman said.
Maybe he should go to law school at Harvard and prepare for a life in politics, Kellman recalled Obama saying. Not long after, that is precisely what Obama did.
As he said his goodbyes in Chicago, he told some acquaintances that a law degree would allow him to return to the city and press for change more effectively, maybe working to revitalize unions. Obama remembers thinking he might come back to lead a non-profit group to develop affordable housing.
But to another organizer colleague, Obama confided a far more ambitious goalâ"someday following Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago.
Obama arrived in Chicago a blank slate. He knew little about the city's then delicate power structure, its social fabric or its ethos of "we don't want nobody nobody sent." He grew up mostly in Hawaii, far removed from urban America's African-American communities and culture.
The experience in Chicago "taught me a lot about listening to people as opposed to coming in with a predetermined agenda," Obama recalled.
He also got a crash course in realpolitik. "Barack had to learn real estate and insurance and mortgage banking and all the scams of the world," said Kellman. "He had to learn Chicago ward politics and the relationship between graft and public life."
Community organizing has long intrigued young social activists with its goal of guiding the poor and disenfranchised to exercise power. Hillary Clinton, now a rival of Obama for the Democratic nomination, wrote her undergraduate thesis at Wellesley College on the life and ideas of Saul Alinsky, the godfather of professional organizing.
Chicago was Alinsky's lab. He began his work in the Back of the Yards neighborhood during the Depression, convincing hostile groups of white ethnics to band together to pressure meat packers and slumlords for better working and living conditions. He later took the same tactics to Chicago's black neighborhoods and other cities as well.
Thanks to Alinsky, would-be organizers considered Chicago something of a Mecca. Not Obama. After his graduation from Columbia University in 1983, Obama worked briefly for a New York financial consultant and then a consumer organization.
Restless, he read the classifieds, the same way others might look for a job as a fry cook or find a puppy to buy. On a trip to the Midtown branch of the New York public library, Obama was scouring what he described as a "newsletter for do-gooder jobs" when he spotted a help-wanted ad from Kellman's Calumet Community Religious Conference.
Based on the South Side and south suburbs, CCRC needed an African-American organizer for the dozen black churches that comprised its city branch, preferably to work cheap in helping residents develop the tactics to influence politicians. In short, he was expected to turn the cloutless into players.
The rookie organizer was half the age of those he was hired to inspire. Behind his back, many called him "Baby Face Obama." It became a term of endearment.
Obama's poise quickly grabbed their attention and respect, said many who worked with him back then. "The guy was just totally comfortable with who he was and where he was," said John Owens, who Obama eventually hired as an assistant.
The man who brought Obama to Chicago was a frumpy, soft-spoken New Yorker. In CCRC, Gerald Kellman hoped to organize churches to fight fallout from the rapid decline of the steel industry, the main economic engine for the South Side and south suburbs.
But Kellman and his organizer buddy Mike Kruglik were both white and Jewish, and some black members in those congregations couldn't warm up to them. So Kellman shifted Kruglik to the suburbs and found Obama to replace him.
It might not have happened at all. Kellman was looking for an African-American, but the resume he received in the mail was from a Hawaiian native with a name hard to place. "What is this guy, Obama, is that Japanese?" Kellman asked his Japanese-American wife. "Actually, it could be," was her answer.
Kellman had plans to visit family in New York anyway, so he called Obama and set up an interview. They met at a coffee shop on the Upper West Side, and Kellman quickly began testing Obama with pointed questions. Why would someone with Obama's potential want to go into a field as gritty and unglamorous as organizing? If he was so interested in social change, why not do something more practical like attach himself to a rising African-American political star like Harold Washington?
"He said he wanted to make fundamental change, he wanted to make it from the grassroots and he wanted to learn," Kellman recalled.
Impressed by Obama's answers and eagerness, Kellman hired him on the spot for $10,000-a-year. He threw in an extra $2,000 so Obama could buy that beater of a Honda and get moved.
A month later, he was at a South Side church being introduced to leaders of CCRC's Chicago branch, which would soon be spun off into DCP.
Off the bat, Obama acknowledged his inexperience, recalled Dan Lee, a deacon at the now defunct St. Catherine of Genoa Roman Catholic Church who became DCP's president.
"I know you all think I'm a young whippersnapper," Obama conceded. "Let me set your fears to rest. We're going to learn together."
And there was a lot to learn. On long walks through Montrose Park, Kellman filled in the basics. To the Alinsky school of organizing, power was a cherished concept. There were two sources of power in the world, organized money and organized people.
Organizers weren't supposed to set the agenda for their group. Their fundamental role was to probe and prod to find out what made individual members tickâ"unlock their self-interest in the jargon of the profession.
Obama was expected to conduct 20 to 30 in-depth interviews a week with community members. Organizers called the process "learning who's who in the zoo." In laymen's terms, he was networking.
Rev. Alvin Love, pastor of Lilydale First Baptist Church at 113th and Union Streets, was used to having strangers knock on the door and ask for handouts. When Love opened it one day in 1985, he assumed that's what the lanky young man was up to. "Who is this skinny guy and what does he want," Love thought.
Obama was looking for Love's thoughts, though, not his money. "He asked what I wanted to see get done and what was important in this neighborhood," said Love.
Obama's interest impressed the 28-year-old minister, who had been looking for ways to connect his aging congregation with a surrounding neighborhood that was getting younger and rougher. He joined DCP and now serves as its president.
On a crisp spring afternoon not long after he arrived, Obama made another important contact. DCP members from St. Catherines had decided to stage an old-fashioned street corner meeting to lure people out of their homes and get them talking about neighborhood improvements.
They started outside the church and then headed a few blocks north to the corner of 114th and Lowe. By chance, that's where state Sen. Emil Jones lived and he came out to see what the fuss was about. It was the start of a long relationship between Obama and Jones, who helped mentor Obama's political rise.
Middle aged women like Herron formed the core of Obama's group. He had grown up apart from his mother for much of his youth. At DCP, he was surrounded by surrogate mothers. He coached them in the skills they would need to effectively confront bureaucrats and politicians. They complained he ate like a bird and needed to lighten up. Herron appointed herself fashion adviser, coaching him on what matched and what didn't.
"You shouldn't be so somber and uptight and serious all the time," Herron once told him. "Yeah, but I'm doing serious work," he replied.
Obama worked out of a cramped office at Holy Rosary Church at 113th St. and Calumet Avenue. He shared it with Kellman and Kruglik, who acted as sounding boards for the young organizer.
Obama's hallmark at DCP was meticulous planning. Before encounters with public officials, Obama would have members rehearse possible scenarios over and over to minimize surprises. DCP board meetings dragged on for hours. There was a meeting before the meeting to map out what was to be discussed. Then there was the meeting. Then there was the meeting after the meeting to critique how it all went.
His penchant for calculation played a role in Obama's decision about where to worship. DCP had its base in churches, and some members grumbled about why he didn't have a church home of his own.
Obama, whose mother treated organized religion with the distance of the anthropologist she was, eventually found Trinity United Church of Christ, a congregation with an activist minister and message he was drawn to.
But Obama admits part of Trinity's appeal was that it wasn't affiliated with DCP. "If I joined one of the churches I was already organizing, that might have caused some tensions," he said. "And part of it was there was an explicitly political aspect to the mission and message of Trinity at that time that I found appealing."
Wherever he went, Obama was constantly scribbling and doodling. The margins of his notepads were filled with detailed sketches of the people he met, Owens said. Sometimes he drew them laughing, sometimes smiling, sometimes with pointy heads.
As part of his training, Obama was expected to take copious notes about his interactions and file frequent reports to more seasoned organizers. But he had another motive for jotting everything down.
"I want to be a writer," Obama told a friend one day. "These are for a book I plan to write."
At night, Obama would hole up in his Hyde Park apartment and write short stories, basing his characters on people and situations he encountered in Roseland. None of that fiction was ever published. The memoir, after its reissue in 2004, became a best-seller.
He lived sparingly. Obama's mother teased him about having just two of everythingâ"two plates, two towels. The main indulgences were his books and his cat, Max.
Owens was fascinated by Obama's eclectic library. Volumes on black power were stuffed next to books on Karl Marx, the writings of conservative economist Milton Friedman, and a biography of Robert Moses, a ruthless developer who relied on organizer-like motivating tactics to build public works projects in New York.
Obama wasn't a monk. He played pickup basketball with a fervor. He gradually developed a social circle in Hyde Park. There were girlfriends, including one he lived with for a time. But DCP remained the main focus of his life.
The group's territory sprawled from 95th street to the Chicago Housing Authority's Altgeld Gardens on the city's far southern edge. Altgeld was surrounded by waste dumps and industrial brownfields. In 1986, it also was the center of a dramatic protest over CHA foot-dragging on cleaning up asbestos in the living units.
In his memoir, Obama wrote extensively about how a member of DCP discovered the asbestos problem and then the group mobilized for action to pressure the CHA to fix it. But Hazel Johnson, a longtime Altgeld resident, recently accused Obama of stealing credit for the work of the environmental group she runs.
"He wants to make himself look good," said Johnson, who claimed Obama assisted her group on other problems with the CHA but not the asbestos issue.
Johnson's allegations were disputed by several members of DCP, who said Obama was in the thick of the asbestos protests and they were right alongside. The only error in the book, Kellman said, was that it was Obama, himself, who discovered the problem and not a DCP member.
The more Obama worked as an organizer, the more he became convinced that the most serious problems he confronted couldn't be solved on the local level. "People were still poor, kids were out on the corner selling drugs, schools weren't working," he explained.
Ironically, his frustration was amplified by Washington's popularity in the black community. Washington was more attentive to the needs of the South Side than his white predecessors had been, but city services were still lacking. Rallying people to fight City Hall is immensely difficult when the mayor is their hero.
Then Washington died in late 1987. The fight to replace him discouraged many in the African-American community.
Obama's resignation months later came as a surprise to DCP members, though they weren't shocked, either. "We always knew he was not ours to keep," said Herron.
There were loose ends to tie up. The break-up with his girlfriend was hard. He flew to Kenya to visit his the homeland of his father, who had died years earlier. The tiny Honda that had carried him from New York was on its last legs and would never make it to Boston.
It was a classified ad that brought Obama to Chicago in the first place and it was another classified that helped him leave. A Glenview police officer was selling a used Datsun 210 hatchback for $500. It was bright yellow, marred by lots of rust spots and had a hole in the floor. But it ran.
And that's how Obama set off for Harvard and a road that eventually would lead to his run for the White Houseâ"in a car he thought looked like an over-ripe banana, the wind rushing through the floorboard.