CHICAGO - A soon-to-be-released biography about Sen. Barack Obama portrays the Democratic presidential candidate as a far more calculating politician than his most ardent supporters might imagine.
One such calculation was his much-heralded 2002 speech in Chicago about the impending Iraq war, according to “Obama: From Promise to Power,” a nearly 400-page book by Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell to be released in August.
Obama gave the speech not just because of a desire to speak out about the coming war, Mendell asserts, but also to curry favor with a potential political patron, Bettylu Saltzman, a stalwart among Chicago’s liberal elite, and to also try to win over political adviser David Axelrod, who was close to Saltzman.
“Obama, still an unannounced candidate for the U.S. Senate, did not immediately agree (to speak at the rally),” according to an advance copy of the book obtained by the Tribune. “But he told Saltzman that he would think it over.”
After consulting with a political aide, the future candidate, who was indeed personally opposed to the invasion, agreed to make the speech.
“Obama was trying to draw Axelrod onto his Senate campaign team,” the book says. “It would not be wise to disappoint Saltzman if he wanted her to continue lobbying Axelrod on his behalf. So Obama agreed to speak.”
Axelrod, now Obama’s top adviser, denied that the Illinois Democrat made the speech to win over political friends and mentors. “That’s not true,” said Axelrod, who added that he was advising Obama “in an informal way” at the time.
“There was no discussion whether he was for the war or against the war,” Axelrod said. “There may have been a discussion on whether or not to take the point on this ... there were obvious political ramifications and he decided to do it.”
The book also suggests Obama and his advisers initially were incensed that top Democrats had relegated him to a speaking slot at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston that was not carried live over the three major TV networks. The keynote address ultimately was what helped propel him to the national stage.
“As it has all turned out, we all look like geniuses,” Obama’s Senate campaign manager Jim Cauley says in the book. “But back then, we were totally pissed.”
Advisers said they recall a disagreement about how long the speech would run, but not over a time slot. “I just remember euphoria,” Axelrod said.
The book opens with a scene from Boston on the afternoon before Obama’s big speech.
“The swagger in his step appeared even cockier than usual on the afternoon of July 27, 2004,” the book says. Once past a security checkpoint, Obama told Mendell that he felt like LeBron James, the pro basketball star.
“I’m LeBron, baby,” Obama is quoted as saying. “I can play on this level. I got some game.”
The book also suggests Obama’s aides long sought to hide his smoking, a habit he says he quit before entering the presidential race.
During one 2004 Senate campaign trip in Downstate Illinois, Mendell recounts how he explained to an aide that it was fairly obvious the candidate was a smoker because his SUV “smelled like a smoky bar on a Friday night.”
“So long as Barack knows I didn’t fink on him,” Tommy Vietor, now Obama’s Iowa press secretary, is quoted as saying.
The book highlights the deep concerns about security on the part of the candidate’s wife, Michelle Obama, who continually worried about her husband’s safety as he evolved into the highest-profile black politician in the country. She told Mendell her family needed financial security in case her husband should be killed.
“Michelle indicated that she had thought deeply about the prospect of losing her husband, presumably to an assassin,” the book says.
“I don’t worry about it every day, but it’s there,” she told Mendell in December 2006, the book recounts. “I need to be in a position for my kids where, if they lose their father, they don’t lose everything.”