Barack's Big Night

by Dayo Olopade | August 25, 2008

More than any politician in recent history, Barack Obama’s national career began with a speech--his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. On the eve of the convention that caps the journey begun that night, it’s remarkable how little is understood about how he obtained his historic break--and who really deserves credit for it.

In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote, “The process by which I was selected as the keynote speaker remains something of a mystery to me.” Today, the process remains shrouded in competing versions of events. A slew of top Kerry aides (understandably) take credit for putting Obama on the campaign’s radar. “I knew about him in the Illinois senate primary. I knew about what he had done on the war before the war,” says Kerry’s top strategist, Bob Shrum, who learned about Obama from his friend Laurence Tribe, the Harvard professor for whom Obama had served as a research assistant during his years in law school. Jack Corrigan, who managed Kerry’s convention operations and closely follows Illinois politics, told me that he had contemplated hiring Obama to work on voter outreach months before the convention. “I thought, ‘This guy’s going to lose in a month,’” Corrigan recalled, referring to the grim odds Obama faced in February 2004. “We should go after him.”

And that may all be true. But the chain of events that launched Obama into the keynote began in April 2004, when Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill was in the early stages of planning a convention that the Kerry team hoped would rejuvenate his sagging campaign. They were eagerly looking for “something that would be high impact and would be written about a lot and reported on,” as Cahill puts it. And as she was helping compile a shortlist of possible keynoters, she recalled a photo spread about Obama she saw in Time magazine earlier that year, leading her to consult friends from Harvard who had taught him, members of the Illinois delegation to the convention, and others who knew him--including Tribe. “Throughout the 1990s, I was saying the most impressive all-around student I had was Barack,” Tribe now reflects. “What I wasn’t sure of was how charismatic a speaker he would be.”

Kerry aides had the same doubts. At the time, Obama had never used a teleprompter, and they were unsure how the colloquial style he had honed on the streets of Chicago would play before a national audience. “Obama was kind of winging it--that was how he was doing things back then,” says Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, who covered Obama’s senate race and who later authored the book Obama: From Promise to Power. “There was certainly a risk for the DNC and Kerry, because Obama had never given a speech of that magnitude before.”

Obama came up again in a discussion Corrigan was having with a friend, Lisa Hay, who worked on the Harvard Law Review with Obama. “I was arguing with her about trying to give money to Kerry. She said she had to save her money for her friend Barack.” She told Corrigan that when he spoke at a law school banquet, all of the waiters stopped serving to listen to what he had to say. “That was a pretty ringing endorsement,” says Corrigan--enough to suggest that Obama could hold his own at the convention.

But there were also concerns about Obama’s short résumé. Though he had won his senate primary in March and was expected to coast to a win that November, Obama was the rare keynoter to bear the honor without holding higher office. And there was no shortage of “names you know well” on Cahill’s roster, she says, which reportedly included more proven party leaders like Governors Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Janet Napolitano of Arizona, and Tom Vilsack of Iowa.

But according to Shrum, the campaign was not interested in bolstering someone else’s career--they needed someone who would score points for them. “Kerry said he didn’t care about [about Obama’s future prospects]--for him the future was now,” he says. The senior brass knew Obama was a politically smart pick, fitting into the campaign’s efforts to attract black voters. Throughout the summer, Kerry polled lower than typical Democrats among blacks, who supported Bush by 18 percent (double his 2000 number). The Kerry campaign announced Obama’s selection the same day they rolled out a record-breaking ad buy for black radio stations, television channels, and newspapers. “[Obama] sends a great message to young, upwardly mobile African Americans that this party is inclusive, that this party is not afraid of new thoughts and is not afraid of young blacks," House Majority Whip James Clyburn said at the time.

The Obama campaign actively lobbied for the slot as well. According to his Senate campaign manager, Jim Cauley, the team had prepared an eight-minute audition video containing Obama’s primary victory speech (complete with a crowd chanting, “Yes we can”), as well as campaign ads and still photos over a song from When We Were Kings, the Mohammed Ali biopic. Cauley believes that it was Robert Gibbs, a former Kerry staffer who joined Obama’s senate campaigln in April 2004 and is now communications director for his presidential campaign, who provided a direct link between the two teams. “Robert knew all of the personalities fairly well,” Cauley told me, saying that the video was intended to send the message that “he’s a good speaker, he can do this.” (Gibbs did not respond to a request for comments.) 

The rapport between Obama and Kerry--which had been seeded even before Cahill composed her list of contenders--helped clinched the deal. According to Mendell, Kerry’s respect for the newcomer was solidified during a joint campaign swing in Chicago in the spring of 2004. Mendell, who attended the event, recalls Obama stealing the show from the presumptive nominee. “It’s Kerry kind of looking at him and picking up tricks from the rookie,” Mendell told me. “That was the event where he really impressed Kerry.” 


Once Obama was given the slot in early July, he wrote the speech in two or three days, sent the draft in, and received minimal edits. The heavy editing process for 2000 keynoter Harold Ford’s speech, in contrast, was characterized by CBS News as “frustrating.” Even for Kerry’s speech, says Kenneth Baer, a former speechwriter for Al Gore’s presidential campaign who worked on the Kerry speechwriting team that year, “they polled it and tested it 70 different ways.” One of the few changes to Obama’s speech was his line about “pledging allegiance to the red, white, and blue”--which Mendell reports as having been lifted from Obama’s speech to go into Kerry’s address. (Kerry aides deny that account.) When Kerry staffers cut out a line from Obama’s speech about “a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read,” Obama’s staffers replaced it--knowing that it was one of his most popular lines on the stump. “If I take credit for any one thing, it’s for not messing it up,” says Vicky Rideout, who staffed Kerry’s speechwriting team in Boston and is managing the operations for this year’s Democratic convention.

As Obama honed his address, most observers were more preoccupied with the defection of Ronald Reagan, Jr., whose speech at the Democratic convention just weeks after his late father’s funeral, they thought, would be the convention’s main event. Obama’s turn seemed more of an afterthought. In fact, Cauley was irked at the timing they were given--a night when network television stations were not covering the convention. Corrigan confirms that Obama’s people “absolutely” lobbied for a better slot. “We all look like geniuses [now],” Cauley said, according to Mendell. “But back then, we were totally pissed.”

Despite the positive reception, some faulted Obama for not going after George W. Bush more: Lynn Sweet in the Chicago Sun-Times contrasted the sunny speech with that of then-Senator Zell Miller, who gave the keynote for the Republican convention a month later, and tore into Kerry 17 separate times in his address. Still, Rideout says, the Kerry campaign was more than satisfied with their messaging. “Anybody who wants to compare Zell Miller’s speech to Obama’s speech in 2004: Go ahead. I can’t even mention them in the same breath.”

In light of Obama’s trajectory from keynote speaker to party nominee, all eyes will be on Mark Warner as he delivers the speech this year. While Obama played well against Kerry’s reputation as a staid Washington insider, his own pick appears to double down on the campaign’s message of freshness and change. (Perhaps Sweet’s criticism stung: Obama advisors told Fox News last week that Kerry’s convention was “too passive” and that they hope to use the event to “cast a harsh light on [John] McCain’s record.”) As Obama demonstrated, the stakes are high. “There is a moment when the political class of both parties stops and watches. It has a huge amount of impact,” says Cahill. “That’s why everybody wants to be the keynote speaker.”

Dayo Olopade is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.  

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