Obama and Me

It was the year 2000, and I was a young, hungry reporter in Chicago with a young, hungry state legislator on my speed dial

It's not quite eight in the morning, and Barack Obama is on the phone screaming at me. He liked the story I wrote about him a couple weeks ago, but not this garbage.

Months earlier, a reporter friend told me she overheard Obama call me an asshole at a political fund-raiser. Now here he is blasting me from hundreds of miles away for a story that just went online but hasn't yet hit local newsstands.

It's the first time I've ever heard him yell, and I'm trembling as I set down the phone. I sit frozen at my desk for several minutes, stunned.

Emil Jones Jr., president of the Illinois Senate, steered sponsorship of important legislation to Obama.
Nick Steinkamp
Emil Jones Jr., president of the Illinois Senate, steered sponsorship of important legislation to Obama.
Brain Harkin

This is before Obama Girl, before the Secret Service detail, before he becomes a best-selling author. His book, Dreams From My Father, has been out of print for years.

I often see Obama smoking cigarettes on brisk Chicago mornings in front of his condominium high-rise along Lake Michigan, or getting his hair buzzed at the corner barbershop on 53rd and Harper in his Hyde Park neighborhood.

This is before he becomes a U.S. senator, before Oprah starts stumping for him, before he positions himself to become the country's first black president.

He is just a rank-and-file state senator in Illinois, and I work for a string of small, scrappy newspapers there.

———

The other day, while stuck in traffic on Houston's Southwest Freeway, I was flipping through right-wing rants on AM radio. Dennis Praeger was railing against Michelle Obama for her clumsy comment on being proud of her country for the first time.

Praeger went on to call her husband a blank slate. There's no record to look at, he complained, unless you lived in Barack Obama's old state Senate district.

Well, I lived and worked in that district for three years—nearly half Obama's tenure in the Illinois Legislature. D-13, the district was called, and it spanned a large swath of Chicago's poor, black, crime-ridden South Side.

It was 2000, and I was a young reporter at the Hyde Park Herald and Lakefront Outlook community newspapers earning $19,000 a year covering politics and crime.

I talked with Obama on a regular basis—a couple times a month, at least. I'd ask him about his campaign finance reports, legislation he was sponsoring and various local issues. He wrote an occasional column published in our papers. It ran with a headshot that made him look about 14 years old.

Spinning through my old Rolodex, I see that I had two cell phone numbers for Obama. Both have since been disconnected.

I also had cell phone numbers for Jesse Jackson; his son, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.; and David Axelrod, who now serves as Obama's senior presidential campaign advisor.

Axelrod, too, had begun his journalism career at the Hyde Park Herald before joining the Chicago Tribune as a political reporter, then starting a political consulting firm. Another Hyde Park Herald alum was Seymour Hersh, the legendary investigative reporter who uncovered the My Lai massacre for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal for The New Yorker.

My view of Obama then wasn't all that different from the image he projects now. He was smart, confident, charismatic and liberal. One thing I can say is, I never heard him launch into the preacher-man voice he now employs during speeches. He sounded vanilla, and activists in his mostly black district often chided him for it.

I was 25 and had no problem interviewing big-wig politicians, but I always had to steel my nerves when calling Obama. His intelligence was intimidating, and my hands inevitably shook and sweated.

It was serendipity that I ever came to know Obama at all. Looking back, I think of it as a Forrest Gump moment: History was unfolding, and I was at the center of it, clueless. It's a huge bummer to me that I never taped our interviews.

I moved to Chicago from the East Coast after a bad breakup. I had just one year of newspaper experience, working the courts beat for a small Vermont daily.

I picked Chicago because I had friends there. Plus, it was one of the few American cities left with two competing dailies, upping my chances of landing a gig.

I arrived determined to work for one of the big papers. I once spent an entire day dressed up in my only suit and tie—the one I wore to my brother's wedding, where I ripped a hole in the knee while dancing with my niece—and stood, résumé in hand, outside the newsroom at the dumpy old Chicago Sun-Times building.

Columnist Neil Steinberg was gracious enough to accept my folder and even gave me his home number to call later that night. Unimpressed by my clips, Steinberg said most new recruits graduated from top journalism schools such as Northwestern or Columbia—or their mommies or daddies worked at the paper or knew somebody who did.

His advice: To work in Chicago, you have to leave Chicago. Go prove yourself someplace else, kid.

I had a friend at one of the local journalism schools who let me tag along for a school-sponsored tour of the Chicago Tribune building. After the tour, page-two columnist John Kass told us about how he got picked up by the Tribune while in his early 20s after breaking a big story at a little South Side paper.

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