Friday, August 29, 2008

First Chicagoan runs for president

Perhaps it is appropriate that the first Chicago resident to get a nomination to run for U.S. president is really a transplanted Hawaiian.

For if Barack Obama, who on Thursday formally accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for president in the 2008 elections, were really a kid of the South Side streets, there’s a good chance that his political ambitions would have ended at wanting to be a part of the scene at City Hall.

IT IS NOT an accident that political people in this city don’t get all bent out of shape about running for office in other places. Our officials tend to think that our local government is broad enough a canvas for one to “paint” their political visions on.

Part of what makes Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, unique in relation to Chicago politics is that he took an early interest in the operations of state government and has been content to have a career there (representing the city’s interests), rather than looking for a way to come “back home” politically.

In certain cases, Chicago political people can rise to positions where they appear to be influencing the so-called big shots in Washington.

How many people seriously believe John Kennedy only became president in the 1960 elections because of the aid of Mayor Richard J. Daley? And how many local political observers of the past only thought former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., significant because he kept his position as a Democratic committeeman, in addition to his role as House ways and means chairman?

THAT IS WHY it is hard for me to keep a straight face whenever I hear Republican campaign rhetoric that claims Obama is just another corrupt Chicago politico.

To listen to the GOPers, Obama is the 21st Century equivalent of “The Machine,” the dreaded Democratic political organization that already has its tentacles wrapped around the Statehouse in Springfield, Ill., and now is trying to grasp at the White House.

If Obama were truly a part of “The Machine,” there’s a good chance he never would have gotten elected to the General Assembly. It definitely wouldn’t have happened in 1996.

That was the year he managed to take advantage of flawed political petitions filed in a hurry by longtime state Sen. Alice Palmer, D-Chicago (who tried unsuccessfully to run for Congress). When Obama got the Chicago political loyalist kicked off the ballot, he had a clear path to a legislative seat.

A GOOD MACHINE politico would have stepped aside for Palmer, and waited his turn. In Obama’s case, it is likely that his Ivy League background would have made local politicos suspicious, and would have continually caused them to push Obama aside until he finally gave up and decided to go into some business venture and make money.

Instead, Obama forced his way into the Machine, but then made his accommodations with it. If he hadn’t, his political career would have ended after one term in Springfield, as Democrats would have pounced on him like vultures and defeated him for re-election.

Obama showed a willingness to work with the Senate’s Democratic leader, Emil Jones, who then touted him, guiding him through the rough spots that could have provided an idealistic official with a political record that would have given Republicans ammunition to use against him (as though his liberal ideals didn’t do enough of that, in their eyes).

But I’d argue that is a sign he can work with people who are unlike himself. Shouldn’t such an ability be a positive in a political person.

IF OBAMA WERE a true Chicago politico, he’d have only left the Illinois Senate if some post that had him working at City Hall opened up. If he had remained in Springfield, he might be in line to be the new leader of Democrats in the Illinois Senate (as Jones is retiring after this year, following 36 years as a Chicago “Machine” loyalist).

Instead, he took the route of “up and out” and went to Washington, where he could let his true idealistic nature loose a bit. Although even there, he has been willing to make accommodations to work with the political establishment. (Would a true “liberal” have been willing to vote for a wall along the U.S./Mexico border under any circumstances?)

It is the fact that Chicago is merely a part of the Obama character that allowed him to think of himself as a potential president. In reality, he is just as much the first Hawaiian presidential nominee as the first Chicagoan to have that spot.

It’s true. The Illinoisans who ran for president largely were people who did not have direct ties to Chicago.

FORMER ILLINOIS GOV. (and later U.S. ambassador to the United Nations) Adlai Stevenson was the closest – he made his accommodations to “the Machine” when it really was all-powerful, and he was used by the political people such as Jake Arvey as a way of trying to put a sympathetic face on Chicago politics. But Stevenson was a Libertyville resident with ties to Bloomington.

There also was the 1980 presidential election, where Ronald Reagan defeated Rep. John Anderson, R-Ill., the Rockford-area man who ran an independent presidential bid that captured the imaginations of a few voters.

If anything, Illinois has been more a place that produces presidents, who then develop their characters elsewhere. The aforementioned Reagan was a Dixon native who abandoned Illinois after finishing up his education at Eureka College.

He’s an Illinoisan who converted himself into a Californian, just the opposite of Honolulu native Obama who has spent his adult life in Chicago.

PEOPLE ALSO LIKE to mention Ulysses S. Grant as an Illinois president, even though he was really an Ohio native who lived for a bit in Galena (but is now buried in a tomb in Manhattan).

That leaves us with Lincoln, the Kentucky-born and Hoosier-raised man who lived his adult life in Illinois until leaving for Washington to be president.

Is that ultimately the fate of Obama, to leave us Chicagoans and move to a “bigger world” like Lincoln did? Of course, that presumes he will win on Nov. 4 – which is not a sure bet; Republican opponent John McCain will offer a feisty fight.

In fact, I must admit the sight of a Chicago political person (quite possibly the only public official I ever covered personally who has the ambition and skills necessary to stage a serious presidential campaign) leaves me uncertain what to think.

BECAUSE I CAN’T help but think that if Obama really has become a Chicagoan at heart (his wife is native South Side, as are his daughters), then he will be back.

Having a former president/presidential hopeful in our political midst is something new to us. To the Chicago political mindset, the closest we can come to such a niche is that filled by Jane Byrne – even though being a former Chicago mayor falls so short on the significance scale to what Obama is attempting to do.

Basically, this is going to be an unusual election cycle for Chicagoans. Our political ways are going to be put on the national scene. The whole world will literally be watching the way we do things here in the Second City.

It will be curious to see how we match up to their expectations. And if we fall short, it will be interesting to see how quickly we let the world know we’re not all that concerned about what they think of the Chicago Way.


EDITOR’S NOTES: One-time House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski is usually the political ideal ( for Chicago types who decide to get involved in Washington politics, according to one Illinois political academic.

It has been nearly 11 2/3 years since I first encountered Barack Obama. So how did I first react to meeting ( a future presidential nominee?

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