The lavish dinner at the Capital Hilton Hotel in downtown Washington on the evening of Saturday, March 11, 2006, was about the last place you would expect to find him. But there was Barack Obama, age 44, the junior senator from Illinois for only the last 14 months, in formal white-tie with tails and very much at ease in the crowd of 600. His trademark smile, broad and infectious, dominated his face as I met him for the first time.
We were at the annual Gridiron Club dinner—a rite of passage for national political figures such as Obama. The crowd included President George W. Bush and most of the major politicians in Washington. It was one of Senator Obama’s maiden voyages into the unsavory belly of the Washington beast. Bush was to speak for the Republicans, and Obama had been selected to speak for the Democrats.
Founded in 1885, the Gridiron—named because its motto was to “singe but not burn”—had the reputation of being an old-school event of in-jokes, skits and music that seemed more fitted to a bygone era.
“You’re from Wheaton, Illinois,” Obama said to me, referring, unprompted, to the small town where I was raised in the late 1940s and ’50s. Wheaton, 25 miles west of Chicago, is home to Wheaton College, best known for its alumnus evangelist Billy Graham, whose influence permeated the town.
“I’ll bet you didn’t carry Wheaton,” I said confidently, referring to his Senate race 16 months earlier. A bastion of Midwestern conservatism and country-club Republicans, Wheaton was the most Republican town in the country in the 1950s, or at least regarded itself that way.
“I carried DuPage County by 60 percent!” Obama responded, beaming that incandescent smile. Wheaton is the county seat of DuPage.
I said that seemed utterly impossible. That couldn’t be the Wheaton or DuPage I had known.
Obama continued to smile me down. The certainty on his face was deep, giving me pause. Suddenly, I remembered that Obama’s opponent for the Senate seat had been Alan Keyes, the conservative black Republican gadfly. Keyes had substituted at the last minute for the first Republican nominee, who withdrew from the race when divorce and child custody records revealed that he had taken his wife to sex clubs in New York, New Orleans and Paris.
“Well, everyone who runs for office should have Alan Keyes as their opponent,” I said, trying to hold my ground.
Obama smiled some more—almost mirthful, yet unrevealing. The conversation turned to Illinois politics, and Obama ticked off the areas where he had strong support—Chicago, the labor unions—and weak support, downstate and the farm areas. He defined the categories skillfully, expanding on the state’s interest groups and voting blocs. He made it clear he knew where he had work to do.
He sounded like a graceful old-fashioned pol. Though he had carried DuPage by 60 percent, he had won 70 percent of the statewide vote.
His wife, Michelle, stood by his side in a stunning gown. But the focus and the questions from people crowded around were all directed at the dazzling new star.
• • •
When he appeared at the podium several hours later, Obama stood perfectly erect, projecting radiant confidence.
“This is a true story,” he said.1 “A friend sent me a clip about a new study by a psychologist at the University of Scotland who says sex before a public speaking engagement actually enhances your oratorical power. I showed this clip to Michelle, before we arrived here tonight. She looked it over, handed it back and said, ‘Do the best you can!’ ”
The laughter ignited instantly.
“This appearance is really the capstone of an incredible 18 months,” he said, citing the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, cover of Newsweek, a best-selling autobiography, Dreams from My Father, a Grammy award for reading the audiobook. “Really what else is there to do? Well, I guess . . . I could pass a law or something.”
The self-deprecation played well.
Referring to Senator John McCain’s positive treatment by the press up to that point, Obama said, “Some of my colleagues call John a prima donna. Me? I call him a role model. Think of it as affirmative action. Why should the white guys be the only ones who are overhyped?”
The self-awareness played smooth.
Noting the speculation that the 2008 presidential campaign could come down to McCain, a maverick Republican, versus Senator Hillary Clinton, he said, “People don’t realize how much John and Hillary have in common. They’re both very smart. Both very hardworking. And they’re both hated by the Republicans!”
This played bipartisan.
Obama turned toward President Bush, who was on the stage nearby. “The president was so excited about Tom Friedman’s book The World Is Flat. As soon as he saw the title, he said, ‘You see, I was right!’ ”
The joke played confident.
“I want to thank you for all the generous advance coverage you’ve given me in anticipation of a successful career. When I actually do something, we’ll let you know.”
The audience clapped and hooted in delight.
After dinner the buzz was like a chain reaction. Not only could this young Obama tell a joke on himself, with the required self-effacement, but he had remarkable communications skills. An editor at The Washington Post once said that journalists only write two stories: Oh, the horror of it all, and Oh, the wonder of it all. Obama was the wonder of it all that night and he basked in the attention he had captured. Rarely have I seen anyone manage the moment so well. He had frankly and forthrightly trumpeted his lack of accomplishment, and the roomful of egos ate it up. But if he had done nothing much so far, why was he there? Why the buzz? The approbation? What exactly was being measured?
It was the dramatic impact he was having on his audience. The triumph was the effect.
Twenty-five years earlier in 1981, I had attended a Gridiron dinner where the speaker for the Democrats was Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the bookish intellectual who had served in prominent posts in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Moynihan, then 53, made some good jokes, but his theme was serious: what it means to be a Democrat. The soul of the party was to fight for equality and the little guy, he said. The party cared for the underdogs in America, the voiceless, powerless and those who got stepped on. It was a defining speech, and the buzz afterward was that Moynihan was going to be president. He wasn’t, of course. That was then, this was now.
Obama had not once mentioned the party or high purpose. His speech, instead, was about Obama, his inexperience, and, in the full paradox of the moment, what he had not done.
Two and a half years later, he was president-elect of the United States.