Shortly after Barack Obama claimed victory in the fight for the Democratic nomination, I joined him aboard his chartered 757 campaign plane as a member of the press corps. He was flying from Chicago to Appleton, Wisconsin, for a town-hall meeting, one of a series he was doing in Midwestern the primaries — and of course, to get some warm-up practice for any town-hall debates he has with John McCain.
The first thing I notice about the plane is how low-key it is, all coach seating from back (the press) to front (the candidate). There is no separate compartment for this potential president; he holds down the second row for himself and his newspapers. There are no more than 10 staffers on the plane and a dozen or more rows are empty, separating the senator from the Secret Service contingent and two dozen members of the traveling press corps. It’s not a big day or a big event: The primaries are done, and none of the media big names are along.
So far in this campaign, despite their evident admiration, Obama held the press at a respectful distance. The limit for our interview is going to be 50 minutes, which I think says a lot about him and his campaign. Most every other presidential candidate I’ve met and interviewed has tended to be gregarious, talkative almost to a fault, eager to please and eager to impress. Obama, by contrast, is quiet, collected and effortlessly precise.
His calmness is reflected in the smooth and controlled campaign he is overseeing. In conversation, his thoughtfulness is punctuated by an easy wit, much as his clockwork campaign is a stage for his eloquence and charismatic gifts as a leader.
I am often asked, “What’s he like?” If you really want to know, read Dreams From My Father. It’s all in there, and it’s a wonderful piece of writing in its own right.
When we are done, his parting words are delivered with a dazzling smile: “OK, brother — take care.”
You were endorsed by Bob Dylan a few days ago. What’s that mean to you?
I’ve got to say, having both Dylan and Bruce Springsteen say kind words about you is pretty remarkable. Those guys are icons.
Do you have any favorite Dylan songs?
I’ve got probably 30 Dylan songs on my iPod. I think I have the entire Blood on the Tracks album on there. Actually, one of my favorites during the political season is “Maggie’s Farm.” It speaks to me as I listen to some of the political rhetoric.
When did you begin to think you could or should be president? At what stage in your life did that idea first dawn on you?
I would distinguish between thinking that, in the abstract, I could make some better decisions being president than the current occupant, and believing that, in a very concrete way, being president was something I would pursue. I would say that it wasn’t until I won my Senate primary and then went to the Democratic convention in 2004 that I had a sense that the message I was delivering might resonate with a broad cross section of the American people.
So it was that response at the Democratic convention that year?
It wasn’t just at the convention. We had gotten a pretty powerful response while I was running in the primary in Illinois. After I won, there was a real sense that people were eager to move beyond some of the old arguments.
When did you say, “I’m black, my name is this . . . what the fuck, I could do this.”
I was never lacking in . . . Self-confidence? In confidence that my particular background would not be a barrier to me running.
Was there a moment during this primary process when you felt like you really hit your stride as a candidate?
In the last month in Iowa, you could feel things coming together. You could feel the message, the movement on the ground, all of it was starting to click. And one of the central premises of this campaign has always been that if we could get the voters excited about participating, we’d have a good chance. You could see that happening in December in Iowa.
That gave you the juice and the confidence?
What part of the campaign have you enjoyed the most?
I love the town-hall meetings, where I’m just interacting with voters, and they’re asking me questions and making comments. There’s an exchange there that’s real. I hear their stories . . . that actually is what then informs my speeches and the message that I’m delivering.
What have you learned in the campaign about America that you might not have known before?
I’m not sure if this is a new lesson, but it reinforced my belief that we’re not as divided as our politics would indicate. You meet with the average person — I don’t care whether they’re Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal — they don’t think in labels. They’re not particularly ideological. Everybody is sort of a mix of what you might consider some liberal ideas, what you might consider some conservative ideas. But there is a set of common values that every-body buys into: Everybody thinks you should have to work hard for what you get, everybody believes that things like equal opportunity should be real, not just a slogan.