Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen

Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President
By Edward McClelland
Hardcover.  288 pp.
October 2010.  Bloomsbury Press.

We all know Barack Obama’s story pretty well, and I know it very well.  In fact, I spent the better part of almost two years telling his story every day when I played a large role in his campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination in California.  Even Obama’s biggest detractors have to admit that his rise to the political pinnacle was meteoric.  Obama went from community organizing in Chicago to the Illinois State Senate to the United States Senate and then to the Presidency. 

In any time frame, it is a steep climb from the Illinois Statehouse to the White House, but Obama has been such a prominent figure over the past few years that it’s astonishing when you realize that he was a longshot candidate for the Senate just six years ago!  Even though I told Obama’s story frequently when I worked on his Presidential campaign, I never fully understood how quickly Barack Obama covered so much distance until I read Edward McClleland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President (Bloomsbury Press, October 2010).

Young Mr. Obama covers Obama’s Lincolnesque rise in Illinois from an out-of-place community organizer to a reluctant law professor to an anxious public servant to an ambitious politician aiming for a national identity.  One constant throughout Obama’s early career is his restlessness.  For Obama, it wasn’t power that he thirsted for, but an ambition to be in a position where he could make things happen.  Whenever he took a new job, he found the limits of his position and immediately targeted a new place where he could make more of a difference.  It’s almost frightening, in a way, to realize that maybe Obama’s problem is that instead of rising to another level, as President he finally has to find a way to actually act with the powers that he possesses.  

Edward McClelland is a veteran political journalist in Chicago and his background on the political scene in the Windy City, as well as the unique political climate in the State of Illinois is fascinating.  Chicago is unlike most cities and there is a specific brand of politics that is played in Chicago that you won’t find anywhere else in the United States — or in the 21st Century.  Knowing Obama as we do now — as this force for change and transparency and the politics of hope — it’s interesting to see him attempting to fit in or at least tolerate the brutal Chicago politics that is often so unforgiving. 

In Young Mr. Obama, we see the change in Obama’s experience and abilities, and there is a definite toughening of his character and personality.  The most riveting chapter of Young Mr. Obama features a shoving match between an irritated Obama and a fellow black State Senator who constantly belittled Obama in the Statehouse.  It’s kind of a relief to see that Obama — Mr. Cool — has the ability to lose his cool.  It’s also a testament to his toughness — that Senator never messed with him again.  Another underrated aspect of Obama’s personality is his determination.  We know he is ambitious, but in McClelland’s book, we see a fiercely determined politician who is not above being ruthless when necessary, much like another Illinois politician who became President.

Obama was never a force in Illinois politics, but he was always a rising star.  Edward McClelland covered him from the time he entered the Illinois State Senate until his election to the Presidency, and through McClelland’s reporting, we learn a lot about our 44th President.  Barack Obama was not a Chicagoan by birth or by nature, but he learned the city’s ways and he made the city his own.  Chicago is not a place that claims people just because they’ve reached a certain level.  Chicago claims Obama because he is one of them.  He wasn’t always one of them, but as McClelland shows us in Young Mr. Obama, Obama fought his way through some tough battles and earned his spot.

McClelland knows Obama well and he teaches us a lot about the President and where Obama came from.  I could have read a whole book just on Chicago politics or Illinois politics by a journalist with the insight that McClelland has, so learning about President Obama’s rise in that atmosphere made this a great read.

Young Mr. Obama is available now at your local independent bookstore, from Bloomsbury Press, at Amazon or other online retailers.  Edward McClelland has written for a host of publications and his personal website contains articles and links.

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