On Tuesday night, Ron Kirk dropped by Friendship-West Baptist Church on Wheatland Road to address the Obama faithful, then drove to Gilley's, where he spoke yet again. But his visits at both stops were brief, as the former Dallas mayor wanted to get home before the West Coast polls closed -- before his buddy Barack was announced as the 44th president of the United States.
"I wanted to be with my wife, Matrice," he tells Unfair Park from his office at Vinson & Elkins, where he is a partner. "I needed to be some place I could cry like a baby and not have anybody laugh at me."
Kirk, who has known Obama since the Illinois Democrat first considered running for the Senate, has been part of Obama's campaign since the beginning. In December '07, Kirk went down to Austin to file the paperwork that got Obama on the ballot for the March 4 Texas primary. In February, Kirk, who received generous support from Bill and Hillary Clinton during his own 2002 Senatorial campaign, told CBS News that "the country is entering a little bit of Bush/Clinton fatigue." And in late October, Kirk traveled to North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio to campaign on Obama's behalf.
After the jump, Kirk discusses how he felt the day after his "good friend" was elected president -- and whether or not there will be a room for him at the White House.
"It's been magical," Kirk says when asked, late Wednesday afternoon, to describe the last 24 hours. Be warned: Kirk has much to say on the subject, and the next several paragraphs consist of his answer to the one simple question. "It's been wonderful. It may be the exhaustion kicking in, or maybe Barack's calm, subdued manner's having an impact on me, but I was much more subdued [on Election Night] than I thought I'd be. I became more and more convinced over the last several weeks we were going to win. When you live in such a red state like Texas, once you get out you could just tell.
"Being a surrogate in North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, I was feeling it, getting good vibes from too many good places. When I travel I learn to listen to others folks -- not just the political people, but when you're in a hotel, you talk to the people who work there, or talking to people in a restaurant and listening to people who don't look like you. My sense was, during the closing weeks, that Obama's offering calm in the face of the economic meltdown and bailout played in his favor. ... American became convinced an intellectually curious president is not a bad thing." He laughs.
"What the McCain camp began doing was a huge tactical error. The Republicans started demonizing his success. Barack's a kid who ought to be a role model -- someone who grows up without a father, who's of mixed heritage, who's worked hard, yet he's somehow too elite or too smart. The notion somebody was too smart to be president was amusing and dangerous. I told Matrice I've been blessed with the life I've led to meet every president since Ronald Reagan, but to have someone who's a contemporary as a friend, and a reasonably good friend, is more emotionally rewarding than you can imagine.
"And there's so many layers of sentiment -- you know, the first non-white male president and all that. It's just a whole clash of emotions for me, but all positive. And, for once, the good guys won. As someone who's devoted his life to public service, a part of me dies when someone says, 'Oh, all politicians are awful.' And, yes, they're foolish enough to put themselves out there for that collective, communal process of ripping them apart and finding faults and then concluding that no one's perfect. But this is a really good guy, a decent man. He is what you see -- a good guy at the right moment in time.
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"But he's going to need time; fixing what he's been left with will take a while, as he said. It's sobering. The last conversation I had with him, I told him that my mother likes watching The Price is Right, and you know how at the end, there's the showcase showdown? Well, imagine Bob Barker says, 'Heeeere's our showcase -- and, oh, you get a bankrupt economy and no Wall Street and a military that's dangerously stretched out.' What would you do? 'I'll pass.'" He laughs. "We've done a great thing, but objectively you'd have to say no president has inherited a bigger economic and security challenge than Obama's having to take on. And that may help him, because of the risk of people sitting back now and saying, 'Well, we've got the right guy, so we can go on to our lives.' I said this at Friendship-West: We did not elect a messiah or a magician. We've got some tough sledding ahead of us. But having said that, America wanted to rebound and feel the sense of oneness so we can tackle these extraordinary problems together."
Kirk pauses. Time, then, for the inevitable question about rumors that he will likely join Obama's administration in some capacity.
"I have no expectations," he says. "It was very important to me for him to know that, and I mean in December of '06, when I signed on with the campaign. It was important that he understood that. The one lesson I learned form my Senate race was the relationships I treasured the most were with the people who didn't want anything. So when they were giving you their counsel, you never worried about their intentions. ... I have tried to be the least high-maintenance member of his team.
"Having said that, I feel good knowing that he sees me as someone who has always believed in him. And as Colin Powell so artfully articulated, there is a part of us who believes in country first, and if the president said, 'I need you,' I'd have to take that very seriously. The only thing that comes close to being as much fun as working with Barack Obama is working at Vinson & Elkins, which pays better." He laughs. "Vinson & Elkins thinks more of me than the U.S. government. And being First Buddy ain't a bad gig." --Robert Wilonsky