"that Man's Going To Be President One Day"

by | January 20, 2009

At the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, I went to a reporters' breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor with Barack Obama. I'd called dibs on one of TNR's invites to the breakfast before Obama's much ballyhooed keynote address--I don't remember there being much competition at the time--but the breakfast was held the morning after the speech, and suddenly I had a hot ticket.

The other TNR writer there was Ryan Lizza, who'd recently done a freelance piece on Obama for The Atlantic. Although it was an extremely positive article, it had caused Obama a bit of a headache a couple days earlier when, on "Meet the Press," Tim Russert confronted him with the assessment he'd given Ryan of the man he'd come to Boston to tout: "Sometimes Kerry just doesn't have that oomph." So when Obama sidled up to Ryan, me, and a couple of other reporters who were chatting after the breakfast, I assumed he might try to revise and extend that quote about Kerry.

But Obama had another objective. In Ryan's piece, he'd reported that when Obama made some fundraising calls, he noticed that Obama had doodled a portrait of himself on a newspaper, suggesting that Obama was maybe "a little too enchanted with all the attention and acclaim." It was pretty much the only negative line in the piece, but it was one that clearly stuck in Obama's craw, because, after making a little small talk, he protested to Ryan that the doodle wasn't of him. He grabbed some paper and a pen and reproduced the doodle in question--a long face with big ears--and then held it up for all of us to inspect. "Does that look like me?" he asked. We all said it did. He feigned outrage. "You see a picture of a guy with a long chin and big ears and automatically assume it's me?" he responded. We all laughed. 

In another politician's hands, the moment could have been disastrous. This reporter writes 1500 glowing words about you, and you want to bellyache about the 10 that weren't 100 percent positive?! What kind of thin-skinned jerk are you? But with Obama's deft touch, he'd turned it into something else. Not only had he made it clear that if we ever saw that doodle again, we weren't to report that it was a doodle of him; in the process, he'd actually managed to charm us. It was a tiny moment, but a telling one, as it suggested that in addition to being a master of the big stage (something he'd proven with his speech the night before), he was a master of the small stage, as well-which is something that, in the daily, grubby interplay between the press and politicians, can be just as important to a pol's prospects for success.

His point made, Obama soon moved on to work the rest of the room. As he walked away, we were all sort of in awe. One of the other reporters--I'm pretty sure the honor goes to Chris Caldwell--said, "That man's going to be president one day." And now he is.

--Jason Zengerle

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