The Magazine

Barack Obama's Lost Years

The senator's tenure as a state legislator reveals him to be an old-fashioned, big government, race-conscious liberal.

Aug 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 45 • By STANLEY KURTZ
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Barack Obama's neighborhood newspaper, the Hyde Park Herald, has a longstanding tradition of opening its pages to elected officials-from Chicago aldermen to state legislators to U.S. senators. Obama himself, as a state senator, wrote more than 40 columns for the Herald, under the title "Springfield Report," between 1996 and 2004. Read in isolation, Obama's columns from the state capital tell us little. Placed in the context of political and policy battles then raging in Illinois, however, the young legislator's dispatches powerfully illuminate his political beliefs. Even more revealing are hundreds of articles chronicling Obama's early political and legislative activities in the pages not only of the Hyde Park Herald, but also of another South Side fixture, the Chicago Defender.

Obama moved to Chicago in order to place himself in what he understood to be the de facto "capital" of black America. For well over 100 years, the Chicago Defender has been the voice of that capital, and therefore a paper of national significance for African Americans. Early on in his political career, Obama complained of being slighted by major media, like the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. Yet extensive and continuous coverage in both the Chicago Defender and the Hyde Park Herald presents a remarkable resource for understanding who Obama is. Reportage in these two papers is particularly significant because Obama's early political career-the time between his first campaign for the Illinois State Senate in 1995 and his race for U.S. Senate in 2004-can fairly be called the "lost years," the period Obama seems least eager to talk about, in contrast to his formative years in Hawaii, California, and New York or his days as a community organizer, both of which are recounted in his memoir, Dreams from My Father. The pages of the Hyde Park Herald and the Chicago Defender thus offer entrée into Obama's heretofore hidden world.

What they portray is a Barack Obama sharply at variance with the image of the post-racial, post-ideological, bipartisan, culture-war-shunning politician familiar from current media coverage and purveyed by the Obama campaign. As details of Obama's early political career emerge into the light, his associations with such radical figures as Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Father Michael Pfleger, Reverend James Meeks, Bill Ayers, and Bernardine Dohrn look less like peculiar instances of personal misjudgment and more like intentional political partnerships. At his core, in other words, the politician chronicled here is profoundly race-conscious, exceedingly liberal, free-spending even in the face of looming state budget deficits, and partisan. Elected president, this man would presumably shift the country sharply to the left on all the key issues of the day-culture-war issues included. It's no wonder Obama has passed over his Springfield years in relative silence.

THE CENTRALITY OF RACE

Any rounded treatment of Obama's early political career has got to give prominence to the issue of race. Obama has recently made efforts to preemptively blunt discussion of the race issue, warning that his critics will highlight the fact that he is African American. Yet the question of race plays so large a role in Obama's own thought and action that it is all but impossible to discuss his political trajectory without acknowledging the extent to which it engrosses him. Obama settled in Chicago with the declared intention of "organizing black folks." His first book is subtitled "A Story of Race and Inheritance," and his second book contains an important chapter on race. On his return to Chicago in 1991, Obama practiced civil rights law and for many years taught a seminar on racism and law at the University of Chicago. When he entered the Illinois senate, it was to represent the heavily (although not exclusively) minority 13th district on the South Side of Chicago. Indeed, race functions for Obama as a kind of master-category, pervading and organizing a wide array of issues that many Americans may not think of as racial at all. Understanding Obama's thinking on race, for example, is a prerequisite to grasping his views on spending and taxation. Thus, we have no alternative but to puzzle out the place of race in Obama's broader political outlook as well as in his legislative career.