Je rêve que mes quatre petits enfants vivront un jour dans un pays où on ne les jugera pas à la couleur de leur peau mais à la nature de leur caractère. Martin Luther King
Si Obama était blanc, il ne serait pas dans cette position. Et s’il était une femme, il ne serait pas dans cette position. Il a beaucoup de chance d’être ce qu’il est. Et le pays est pris par le concept. Geraldine Ferraro (ex-colistière du candidat démocrate de 1984 Walter Mondale et proche d’Hillary Clinton, Daily Breeze, 07.03.08)
En 1984, si je m’étais appelée Gerard Ferraro au lieu de Geraldine Ferraro, je n’aurais jamais été choisie comme candidate à la vice-présidence. Cela n’a rien à voir avec mes qualifications. Geraldine Ferraro
Ma propre ville de Chicago a compté parmi les villes à la politique locale la plus corrompue de l’histoire américaine, du népotisme institutionnalisé aux élections douteuses. Barack Obama (Nairobi, Kenya, août 2006)
As his second marriage to Sexton collapsed in 1998, Sexton filed an order of protection against him, public records show. Hull won’t talk about the divorce in detail, saying only that it was « contentious » and that he and Sexton are friends. The Chicago Tribune (15.02.04)
Though Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant, lagged in polls as late as mid-February, he surged to the front of the pack in recent weeks after he began airing television commercials and the black community rallied behind him. He also was the beneficiary of the most inglorious campaign implosion in Illinois political history, when multimillionaire Blair Hull plummeted from front-runner status amid revelations that an ex-wife had alleged in divorce papers that he had physically and verbally abused her. After spending more than $29 million of his own money, Hull, a former securities trader, finished third, garnering about 10 percent of the vote. (…) Obama ascended to front-runner status in early March as Hull’s candidacy went up in flames amid the divorce revelations, as well as Hull’s acknowledgment that he had used cocaine in the 1980s and had been evaluated for alcohol abuse. The Chicago Tribune (17.03.04)
Axelrod is known for operating in this gray area, part idealist, part hired muscle. It is difficult to discuss Axelrod in certain circles in Chicago without the matter of the Blair Hull divorce papers coming up. As the 2004 Senate primary neared, it was clear that it was a contest between two people: the millionaire liberal, Hull, who was leading in the polls, and Obama, who had built an impressive grass-roots campaign. About a month before the vote, The Chicago Tribune revealed, near the bottom of a long profile of Hull, that during a divorce proceeding, Hull’s second wife filed for an order of protection. In the following few days, the matter erupted into a full-fledged scandal that ended up destroying the Hull campaign and handing Obama an easy primary victory. The Tribune reporter who wrote the original piece later acknowledged in print that the Obama camp had »worked aggressively behind the scenes » to push the story. But there are those in Chicago who believe that Axelrod had an even more significant role — that he leaked the initial story. They note that before signing on with Obama, Axelrod interviewed with Hull. They also point out that Obama’s TV ad campaign started at almost the same time. The NYT (01.04.07)
After an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2000, Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama faced serious financial pressure: numerous debts, limited cash and a law practice he had neglected for a year. Help arrived in early 2001 from a significant new legal client — a longtime political supporter. Chicago entrepreneur Robert Blackwell Jr. paid Obama an $8,000-a-month retainer to give legal advice to his growing technology firm, Electronic Knowledge Interchange. It allowed Obama to supplement his $58,000 part-time state Senate salary for over a year with regular payments from Blackwell’s firm that eventually totaled $112,000. A few months after receiving his final payment from EKI, Obama sent a request on state Senate letterhead urging Illinois officials to provide a $50,000 tourism promotion grant to another Blackwell company, Killerspin. Killerspin specializes in table tennis, running tournaments nationwide and selling its own line of equipment and apparel and DVD recordings of the competitions. With support from Obama, other state officials and an Obama aide who went to work part time for Killerspin, the company eventually obtained $320,000 in state grants between 2002 and 2004 to subsidize its tournaments. Obama’s staff said the senator advocated only for the first year’s grant — which ended up being $20,000, not $50,000. The day after Obama wrote his letter urging the awarding of the state funds, Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign received a $1,000 donation from Blackwell. (…) Business relationships between lawmakers and people with government interests are not illegal or uncommon in Illinois or other states with a part-time Legislature, where lawmakers supplement their state salaries with income from the private sector. But Obama portrays himself as a lawmaker dedicated to transparency and sensitive to even the appearance of a conflict of interest. (…) In his book « The Audacity of Hope, » Obama tells how his finances had deteriorated to such a point that his credit card was initially rejected when he tried to rent a car at the 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. He said he had originally planned to dedicate that summer « to catching up on work at the law practice that I’d left unattended during the campaign (a neglect that had left me more or less broke). » Six months later Blackwell hired Obama to serve as general counsel for his tech company, EKI, which had been launched a few years earlier. The monthly retainer paid by EKI was sent to the law firm that Obama was affiliated with at the time, currently known as Miner, Barnhill & Galland, where he worked part time when he wasn’t tending to legislative duties. The business arrived at an especially fortuitous time because, as the law firm’s senior partner, Judson Miner, put it, « it was a very dry period here, » meaning that the ebb and flow of cases left little work for Obama and cash was tight. The entire EKI retainer went to Obama, who was considered « of counsel » to the firm, according to details provided to The Times by the Obama campaign and confirmed by Miner. Blackwell said he had no knowledge of Obama’s finances and hired Obama solely based on his abilities. « His personal financial situation was not and is not my concern, » Blackwell said. « I hired Barack because he is a brilliant person and a lawyer with great insight and judgment. » Obama’s tax returns show that he made no money from his law practice in 2000, the year of his unsuccessful run for a congressional seat. But that changed in 2001, when Obama reported $98,158 income for providing legal services. Of that, $80,000 was from Blackwell’s company. In 2002, the state senator reported $34,491 from legal services and speeches. Of that, $32,000 came from the EKI legal assignment, which ended in April 2002 by mutual agreement, as Obama ceased the practice of law and looked ahead to the possibility of running for the U.S. Senate. (…) Illinois ethics disclosure forms are designed to reveal possible financial conflicts by lawmakers. On disclosure forms for 2001 and 2002, Obama did not specify that EKI provided him with the bulk of the private-sector compensation he received. As was his custom, he attached a multi-page list of all the law firm’s clients, which included EKI among hundreds. Illinois law does not require more specific disclosure. Stanley Brand, a Washington lawyer who counsels members of Congress and others on ethics rules, said he would have advised a lawmaker in Obama’s circumstances to separately disclose such a singularly important client and not simply include it on a list of hundreds of firm clients, even if the law does not explicitly require it. « I would say you should disclose that to protect and insulate yourself against the charge that you are concealing it, » Brand said. LA Times
One lesson, however, has not fully sunk in and awaits final elucidation in the 2012 election: that of the Chicago style of Barack Obama’s politicking. In 2008 few of the true believers accepted that, in his first political race, in 1996, Barack Obama sued successfully to remove his opponents from the ballot. Or that in his race for the US Senate eight years later, sealed divorced records for both his primary- and general-election opponents were mysteriously leaked by unnamed Chicagoans, leading to the implosions of both candidates’ campaigns. Or that Obama was the first presidential candidate in the history of public campaign financing to reject it, or that he was also the largest recipient of cash from Wall Street in general, and from BP and Goldman Sachs in particular. Or that Obama was the first presidential candidate in recent memory not to disclose either undergraduate records or even partial medical. Or that remarks like “typical white person,” the clingers speech, and the spread-the-wealth quip would soon prove to be characteristic rather than anomalous. Few American presidents have dashed so many popular, deeply embedded illusions as has Barack Obama. And for that, we owe him a strange sort of thanks. Victor Davis Hanson
C’est un système pourri, une toile d’araignée qui organise sa survie en nommant ses amis à des postes clés de l’administration en échange de leur soutien politique et financier. Anthony Peraica
Selon le professeur Dick Simpson, chef du département de science politique de l’université d’Illinois, «c’est à la fin du XIXe siècle et au début du XXe que le système prend racine». L’arrivée de larges populations immigrées peinant à faire leur chemin à Chicago pousse les politiciens à «mobiliser le vote des communautés en échange d’avantages substantiels». Dans les années 1930, le Parti démocrate assoit peu à peu sa domination grâce à cette politique «raciale». Le système va se solidifier sous le règne de Richard J. Daley, grande figure qui régnera sur la ville pendant 21 ans. Aujourd’hui, c’est son fils Richard M. Daley qui est aux affaires depuis 18 ans et qui «perpétue le pouvoir du Parti démocrate à Chicago, en accordant emplois d’État, faveurs et contrats, en échange de soutiens politiques et financiers», raconte John McCormick. «Si on vous donne un permis de construction, vous êtes censés “payer en retour”», explique-t-il. «Cela s’appelle payer pour jouer», résume John Kass, un autre éditorialiste. Les initiés affirment que Rod Blagojevich ne serait jamais devenu gouverneur s’il n’avait croisé le chemin de sa future femme, Patricia Mell, fille de Dick Mell, un conseiller municipal très influent, considéré comme un rouage essentiel de la machine. (…) Dans ce contexte local plus que trouble, Peraica affirme que la montée au firmament d’Obama n’a pu se faire «par miracle».«Il a été aidé par la machine qui l’a adoubé, il est cerné par cette machine qui produit de la corruption et le risque existe qu’elle monte de Chicago vers Washington», va-t-il même jusqu’à prédire. Le conseiller régional républicain cite notamment le nom d’Emil Jones, l’un des piliers du Parti démocrate de l’Illinois, qui a apporté son soutien à Obama lors de son élection au Sénat en 2004. Il évoque aussi les connexions du président élu avec Anthony Rezko, cet homme d’affaires véreux, proche de Blagojevich et condamné pour corruption, qui fut aussi le principal responsable de la levée de fonds privés pour le compte d’Obama pendant sa course au siège de sénateur et qui l’aida à acheter sa maison à Chicago. «La presse a protégé Barack Obama comme un petit bébé. Elle n’a pas sorti les histoires liées à ses liens avec Rezko», s’indigne Peraica, qui cite toutefois un article du Los Angeles Times faisant état d’une affaire de financement d’un tournoi international de ping-pong qui aurait éclaboussé le président élu. (…) Pour la plupart des commentateurs, Barack Obama a su naviguer à travers la politique locale «sans se compromettre. Le Figaro
La condamnation de M. Blagojevich met une fois de plus la lumière sur la scène politique corrompue de l’Etat dont la plus grande ville est Chicago. Cinq des neuf gouverneurs précédents de l’Illinois ont été accusés ou arrêtés pour fraude ou corruption. Le prédécesseur de M. Blagojevich, le républicain George Ryan, purge actuellement une peine de six ans et demi de prison pour fraude et racket. M. Blagojevich, qui devra se présenter à la prison le 16 février et verser des amendes de près de 22 000 dollars, détient le triste record de la peine la plus lourde jamais infligée à un ex-gouverneur de l’Illinois. Ses avocats ont imploré le juge de ne pas chercher à faire un exemple avec leur client, notant que ce dernier n’avait pas amassé d’enrichissement personnel et avait seulement tenté d’obtenir des fonds de campagne ainsi que des postes bien rémunérés. En plein scandale, M. Blagojevich était passé outre aux appels à la démission venus de son propre parti et avait nommé procédé à la nomination d’un sénateur avant d’être destitué. Mais le scandale a porté un coup à la réputation des démocrates dans l’Illinois et c’est un républicain qui a été élu l’an dernier pour occuper l’ancien siège de M. Obama. AFP (08.12.11)
Les réponses européennes du président Obama ne sont pas la bonne solution aux défis de l’Amérique. Mitt Romney
La tornade financière qui secoue l’Union européenne (UE) n’a pas encore franchi l’Atlantique, mais déjà, son souffle agite la campagne pour l’élection présidentielle américaine de 2012. Elle offre aux adversaires du président sortant une occasion rêvée de marteler une idée qui leur est chère : Barack Obama, partisan de l’intervention de l’Etat, promoteur de l’assurance-maladie universelle est un adepte du modèle social européen, autrement dit, dépensier et fauteur de dette. Or ce modèle incarné par l’UE serait en faillite. Donc, prétendent-ils, le président Obama est un danger pour l’Amérique. Le Monde (16.11.11)
Invalidations systématiques, dès son premier casse électoral de Chicago de 1996 pour les sénatoriales d’état, des candidatures de ses rivaux sur les plus subtils points de procédure (la qualité des signatures) jusqu’à se retrouver seul en lice …
Déballages forcés, quatre ans plus tard aux élections sénatoriales fédérales de 2004, des problèmes de couple (un cas apparemment de violence domestique) ou frasques supposées (des soirées dans des club échangistes) de ses adversaires, que ce soit son propre collègue Blair Hull aux primaires ou le Républicain Jack Ryan à la générale de manière à se retrouver sans opposition devant les électeurs …
Tentative de rebelote, lors des primaires de 2008, contre sa rivale démocrate malheureuse Hillary Clinton …
A l’heure où en s’enfonçant chaque jour un peu plus dans la crise l’Europe semble prendre un malin plaisir à démontrer l’ineptie du « modèle européen » dans lequel continue à s’obstiner, à moins d’un an d’une élection présidentielle rien moins qu’assurée, l’actuelle administration américaine …
Et où, trois ans après une élection où mis à part la couleur si tendance de sa peau il s’était fait élire pour son refus de la guerre et des mesures antiterroristes de son prédécesseur, le prix Nobel de la paix le plus rapide de l’histoire n’a toujours pas fermé Guantanamo tandis que le Predator en chef a multiplié par dix les exécutions extrajudiciaires de ses ennemis …
Petite piqûre de rappel avec la lourde condamnation (14 ans de prison quand même pour un état dont cinq des neuf gouverneurs précédents ont eu droit aux honneurs de la justice pour fraude ou corruption) de l’ancien gouverneur de l’Illinois pour avoir tenté de monnayer le choix qui lui revenait de droit de nommer un nouveau sénateur jusqu’à l’élection sénatoriale suivante suite au départ du sénateur Obama devenu président …
Et petit retour (s’il y a une chose sur laquelle on peut toujours compter, c’est bien la formidable capacité de nos médias pour noyer les informations dérangeantes dans le flot des actualités du moment) …
Sur la tristement fameuse machine politique de Chicago dont est issu, comme il l’avait une fois reconnu lui-même avec l’audace toute relative, deux ans avant son élection, que permettent les déplacement à l’étranger, l’auteur du casse du siècle et actuel locataire de la Maison Blanche …
Sen. Barack Obama used the rule book to win first race for Illinois state Senate
Democrat challenged opponents’ petitions and forced them off the ballot
Opponent says Obama’s move « wasn’t honorable »
Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston
(CNN) — When the Democratic National Committee meets Saturday on the thorny issue of seating the Florida and Michigan delegations at its August convention, party officials will have to fashion a solution that satisfies supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton and presidential nominee front-runner Sen. Barack Obama.
It may take a Solomon-like decision to appease both candidates.
Clinton has argued that the primary results of two of the nation’s largest states should count because, otherwise, millions of voters are being disenfranchised. Obama has said he is willing to work out some compromise.
But he is insistent that the primary results are invalid because the two states failed to follow party rules and that the rules are the rules.
The DNC has not seated the Florida and Michigan delegates because the two states violated party edicts in holding their primaries early.
Although neither candidate campaigned in the two states, Clinton won about 50 percent of the Florida vote, compared with 33 percent for Obama. She won 55 percent of the vote in Michigan, where Obama’s name was not on the ballot.
In his first race for office, seeking a state Senate seat on Chicago’s gritty South Side in 1996, Obama effectively used election rules to eliminate his Democratic competition.
As a community organizer, he had helped register thousands of voters. But when it came time to run for office, he employed Chicago rules to invalidate the voting petition signatures of three of his challengers.
The move denied each of them, including incumbent Alice Palmer, a longtime Chicago activist, a place on the ballot. It cleared the way for Obama to run unopposed on the Democratic ticket in a heavily Democrat district.
« That was Chicago politics, » said John Kass, a veteran Chicago Tribune columnist. « Knock out your opposition, challenge their petitions, destroy your enemy, right? It is how Barack Obama destroyed his enemies back in 1996 that conflicts with his message today. He may have gotten his start registering thousands of voters. But in that first race, he made sure voters had just one choice. » Watch how Obama shut out challengers in his first race »
Obama’s challenge was perfectly legal, said Jay Stewart of the Chicago’s Better Government Association. Although records of the challenges are no longer on file for review with the election board, Stewart said Obama is not the only politician to resort to petition challenges to eliminate the competition.
« He came from Chicago politics, » Stewart said. « Politics ain’t beanbag, as they say in Chicago. You play with your elbows up, and you’re pretty tough and ruthless when you have to be. Sen. Obama felt that’s what was necessary at the time, that’s what he did. Does it fit in with the rhetoric now? Perhaps not. »
The Obama campaign called this report « a hit job. » It insisted that CNN talk to a state representative who supports Obama, because, according to an Obama spokesman, she would be objective. But when we called her, she said she can’t recall details of petition challenges, who engineered them for the Obama campaign or why all the candidates were challenged.
But Will Burns does. Now running himself for a seat in the Illinois legislature, Burns was a young Obama volunteer during the presidential candidate’s first race.
Burns was one of the contingents of volunteers and lawyers who had the tedious task of going over each and every petition submitted by the other candidates, including those of Alice Palmer.
« The rules are there for a reason, » Burns said.
He said that challenging petitions is a smart way to avoid having to run a full-blown expensive race.
« One of the first things you do whenever you’re in the middle of a primary race, especially in primaries in Chicago, because if you don’t have signatures to get on the ballot, you save yourself a lot of time and effort from having to raise money and have a full-blown campaign effort against an incumbent, » Burns said.
Burns said he believed that Obama did not enjoy using the tactic to knock off Palmer.
« It was not something he particularly relished, » Burns said. « It was not something that I thought he was happy about doing. » Watch Burns describe how Obama used the rules to his advantage »
But Obama did it anyway, clearing the field of any real competition.
Obama’s staff would not comment on what the senator thinks about that petition challenge now. Instead, they referred CNN to this 2007 comment made by Obama to the Chicago Tribune.
« To my mind, we were just abiding by the rules that had been set up, » the senator is quoted as saying in the Tribune. « My conclusion was that if you couldn’t run a successful petition drive, then that raised questions in terms of how effective a representative you were going to be. »
But in that same newspaper story, Obama praised Palmer.
« I thought she was a good public servant, » he said.
Palmer, who has campaigned for Clinton, told CNN that she did not want to be part of this story.
Obama supporters claim that Palmer has only herself to blame because she indicated she would not run for the 1996 state Senate and instead aimed for Congress. After losing in that bid, she returned to running for the state Senate seat, a move Obama supporters claim amounted to reneging on a promise not to run.
But Palmer supporters, who did not want to be identified, said that she never anointed Obama as her successor and that the retelling of the story by Obama supporters is designed to distract from the fact he muscled his way into office.
One other opponent who Obama eliminated by challenging his petitions, Gha-is Askia, said he has no hard feelings today about the challenge and supports Obama’s presidential aspirations.
But back at the time he was running for state Senate, Askia said, he was dismayed Obama would use such tactics.
« It wasn’t honorable, » he said. « I wouldn’t have done it. »
He said the Obama team challenged every single one of his petitions on « technicalities. »
If names were printed instead of signed in cursive writing, they were declared invalid. If signatures were good but the person gathering the signatures wasn’t properly registered, those petitions also were thrown out.
Askia came up 69 signatures short of the required number to be on the ballot.
Kass, the Chicago Tribune columnist, said the national media are naive when it comes to Chicago politics, which is a serious business.
He said they have bought into a narrative that Obama is strictly a reformer. The truth, Kass says, is that he is a bare-knuckled politician. And using the rules to win his first office is part of who Obama is.
« It’s not the tactics of ‘let’s all people come together and put your best ideas forward and the best ideas win,’ » Kass said. « That’s the spin; that’s in the Kool-Aid. You can have some. Any flavor. But the real deal was, get rid of Alice Palmer.
« There are those who think that registering people to vote and getting them involved in politics and then using this tactic in terms of denying Alice Palmer the right to compete, that these things are inconsistent. And guess what? They are. They are inconsistent. But that’s the politics he plays. »
And this weekend, DNC delegates will have to decide what kind of rules it will invoke in helping choose its next candidate.
State GOP scrambles to find replacement to face Obama
Republican Senate nominee cites fixation on divorce files
Liam Ford and Rudolph Bush, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporters Christi Parsons, Ray Long, John Chase, David Mendell and Rick Pearson contributed to this report
June 26, 2004
Beleaguered Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Jack Ryan ended his campaign Friday, leaving his party scrambling to find a replacement with enough money and magnetism to mount a serious challenge against Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
Ryan had been under attack by a wide range of party leaders for a lack of candor following the release this week of previously sealed records from his divorce from TV actress Jeri Ryan, giving rise to what one prominent Republican called « buyer’s remorse. »
Jack Ryan had fought the release, insisting he was trying only to protect his son and not to hide embarrassing information. But the files showed Jeri Ryan had accused her ex-husband of taking her to sex clubs and trying to pressure her into having sex in front of others.
Ryan met with staff Friday morning to inform them of his decision to quit the race. Later, he issued a statement explaining he was stepping down because a fixation on the divorce charges meant that a « debate between competing visions and philosophies » could not take place in the Senate race.
« What would take place, rather, is a brutal, scorched-earth campaign–the kind of campaign that has turned off so many voters, the kind of politics I refuse to play, » Ryan said.
Republican pressure on Ryan to step aside began Monday with the release of the files, including one document in which Ryan vigorously denied the allegations of his ex-wife.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Schnider released the information as the result of motions filed by the Chicago Tribune and WLS-Ch. 7.
Calls for Ryan’s withdrawal intensified throughout the week as party officials–saying Ryan misled them about the extent of his ex-wife’s allegations–warned of the damage he could do to an already struggling party’s chances in November.
On Thursday, U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Plano and state GOP chairwoman Judy Baar Topinka called U.S. Sen. George Allen, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. They asked him to pull the plug on Ryan’s campaign, according to a GOP source who spoke frequently with top Ryan campaign staffers.
Ryan held out until Friday, as U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, whom Ryan was seeking to replace, and some other GOP senators urged him to fight on. Even before the release of the court files, Ryan had trailed Obama by a wide margin in public opinion polls, and his decision to quit came after his campaign commissioned yet another poll to gauge public response to the growing divorce file controversy, the Republican source said.
The results arrived Friday morning and convinced Ryan that he had been too damaged by the revelations to recover, the source said.
On Friday, Topinka said Ryan’s « decision was a personal one. » She denied that the state Republican Party pressured Ryan to drop out, saying state leaders recently backed off to ensure Ryan felt it was his decision alone.
« He had a lot of great ideas, but they probably would have been overshadowed by this controversy, » Topinka said. « We appreciate what he did for the greater good of the party. »
Meanwhile, Obama, a Democratic state senator, praised the work Ryan has « done as a teacher and as a civic leader throughout the state. »
« What happened to him over the last three days was unfortunate, » Obama said. « It’s not something I certainly would wish on anybody. And having said that, from this point forward, I think we will be continuing to talk about the issues. »
Republicans will move quickly to replace Ryan, Topinka promised. The party’s 19 central committee members should « reach out » to constituents and try to have a replacement candidate within three weeks, she said.
But with its top ranks decimated by scandal and widespread electoral losses in 2002 that handed almost total control of state government to Democrats, the party may have difficulty finding a high-profile candidate with as deep pockets as had Ryan, whose personal fortune is estimated at up to $95 million.
Two former governors mentioned as possible candidates, James R. Thompson and Jim Edgar, have both indicated they will not run, said Topinka, who also ruled out her own candidacy. A leading contender who has not said no is Ron Gidwitz, 59, a wealthy businessman and the former chairman of the state Board of Education, according to several Republican sources.
On Friday, U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo also was making an open pitch for state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger (R-Elgin), one of several candidates who lost to Ryan in the primary.
« Steve entered the primary against three millionaires, and two more weeks [of campaigning] and he would have won it, » Manzullo said.
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus said Ryan’s departure has led to « a sense of relief and a little bit of excitement, » at moving past the scandal.
State Sen. Kirk Dillard, chairman of the DuPage County Republican Party, said calls to his party headquarters were almost unanimously against Ryan staying in the race.
« It wasn’t really over the substance of what he did or did not do with his wife, » Dillard said. « It was, they thought that he deliberately withheld information before the March primary and we had a lot of buyer’s remorse. »
Ryan’s demise came after years of groundwork carefully laid by the Wilmette native, who several years ago began attending Republican party Lincoln Day dinners throughout the state to gauge reaction to his entering the political arena.
Ryan entered the race more than a year ago, weeks after Fitzgerald said he would not seek re-election. A former investment banker who took a job as a teacher at Hales Franciscan High School on the South Side, Ryan had also been courted by the national GOP as a possible opponent for U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin in 2002. Ryan opted not to make that run.
The divorce file issue first surfaced for Ryan during the March primary campaign as an outgrowth of a flap that sank the once front-running campaign in the Democratic Senate primary of millionaire Blair Hull. Under pressure, Hull released sealed divorce files which showed one of his ex-wives had accused him of abusive behavior.
Unlike Hull, Ryan refused to release his files, assuring state party officials that there was nothing embarrassing in them and to do so would only hurt his 9-year-old son.
As he exited the race Friday, Ryan singled out the Tribune for criticism because it went to court to force release of the custody files.
« The media has gotten out of control, » Ryan complained. « The fact that the Chicago Tribune sues for access to sealed custody documents and then takes unto itself the right to publish details of a custody dispute over the objections of two parents who agree that the re-airing of their arguments will hurt their ability to co-parent their child and will hurt their child is truly outrageous. »
Conservative backers, including Fitzgerald, were dismayed by Ryan’s announcement. Fitzgerald lashed out at the state Republican leadership for abandoning Ryan. « The piranhas were circling, » he said. « It was not the Democrats; it was the Illinois party brass. »
But the state’s Republican national committeeman, Robert Kjellander, said Ryan’s departure frees the party to try to focus on election issues–and Obama’s record.
« Yes, it’s certainly a setback, » Kjellander said. « But it’s not one that’s fatal and both the Senate campaign committee and the president’s campaign see Illinois as an opportunity and we’re going to move ahead. »
Laure Mandeville, envoyée spéciale à Chicago
Rod Blagojevich, aujourd’hui accusé de corruption, prête serment lors de sa prise de fonction en tant que gouverneur de l’Illinois en août 2007. Pour la plupart des commentateurs, Barack Obama a su naviguer à travers la politique locale «sans se compromettre».
Le scandale de corruption qui frappe le gouverneur de l’Illinois Rod Blagojevich révèle le système de connivence et de passe-droits niché au cœur du fief politique d’Obama.
Des manches de chemise retroussées. Une courte barbe grise. Des lunettes qui laissent entrevoir des yeux scrutateurs et malicieux. Voici donc John McCormick, le fameux journaliste dont le gouverneur de l’Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, voulait la tête. Celui qu’il rêvait de faire limoger du comité éditorial du Chicago Tribune. En échange de la mise à l’écart de plusieurs éditorialistes critiques, «Blago» se proposait de donner son feu vert à l’octroi d’une aide financière de 100 millions de dollars au propriétaire du journal, Sam Zell, pour que ce dernier puisse procéder à la vente du terrain de base-ball de Wrigley, et éponger ses dettes. «Je constate surtout que cela n’a pas marché !, précise John, en riant. Je me sens plutôt honoré d’être mis en balance avec 100 millions de dollars. Et surtout reconnaissant à mon employeur, si les allégations portées par le procureur Patrick Fitzgerald sont réelles.»
Dans les étages supérieurs d’une tour néogothique inspirée de Notre-Dame de Paris, qui abrite depuis plus de cent cinquante ans le vénérable journal, «l’enc… de journaliste», dont les éditoriaux irritaient le gouverneur, est en plein travail. Depuis que le scandale a rattrapé Rod Blagojevich, accusé par le procureur des États-Unis Patrick Fitzgerald d’avoir tissé une véritable toile de corruption autour de son poste, le journal est mobilisé vingt-quatre heures sur vingt-quatre. «J’ai sept pages débats à boucler», explique McCormick, chef adjoint du comité éditorial. Il dit avoir reçu un coup de fil d’un ancien professeur de journalisme. «Elle m’a dit :“100 millions ? Je n’aurais pas misé deux dollars sur toi !”», raconte-t-il en riant.
«Je veux faire de l’argent»
Le scandale qui a éclaté mardi dernier a provoqué un véritable séisme aux États-Unis, chassant de la une des journaux les questions liées à la transition Bush-Obama. Il est vrai qu’outre l’affaire des journalistes, dont John McCormick est devenu le héros involontaire, de graves accusations ont été portées par le procureur Fitzgerald sur la manière dont Blagojevich entendait négocier son pouvoir exclusif de désignation du successeur d’Obama au Sénat. Les écoutes téléphoniques menées par le FBI, et consignées dans un rapport de 76 pages dont Le Figaro a obtenu copie, révèlent son obsession d’arracher un poste lucratif pour lui ou son épouse. «Je veux faire de l’argent», lâche-t-il carrément au téléphone. «C’est du p… d’or», insiste-t-il. Le caractère vulgaire et brutal de ses conversations a choqué l’opinion américaine. Dans le bus qui promène les touristes à travers les hauts lieux mafieux de l’époque de la prohibition, un retraité confie sa stupeur devant tant de grossièreté, car «nous aimons à penser que nous sommes dirigés par des gens de haute tenue». «C’est surtout un imbécile, note le guide de l’excursion. Comment a-t-il pu parler de son désir de vendre un siège de sénateur alors qu’il faisait l’objet d’une enquête fédérale ? Al Capone était plus intelligent !»
Mais est-ce vraiment de la stupidité ? Ou ce mode de fonctionnement paraissait-il si naturel à Blagojevich qu’il en est venu à perdre le sens de la réalité ? Ce qui frappe dans le rapport du FBI, c’est qu’il accuse le gouverneur d’avoir usé de telles pratiques dès son arrivée aux affaires, en 2002, alors qu’il s’était fait élire sur une plate-forme de chevalier anticorruption. L’accusation révèle que le gouverneur aurait systématiquement monnayé sa position d’influence, levant des fonds privés pour l’organisation «Les amis de Blagojevich» en échange d’octrois de contrats ou de privilèges. Les multiples témoignages d’hommes véreux, condamnés depuis à la prison ferme, ajoutent au tableau une crédibilité dérangeante. Même si Blagojevich reste présumé innocent, les charges réunies dessinent les contours d’un monde incroyablement obscur et corrompu. «C’est la machine politique de Chicago», résument les journalistes locaux. Dans son édition de dimanche, le Chicago Tribune attaque carrément : «Il y a une raison pour laquelle l’Illinois a une longue histoire de scandale, dénonce le quotidien à la une. La machine politique carbure à l’argent.»
«Cela s’appelle payer pour jouer»
Selon le professeur Dick Simpson, chef du département de science politique de l’université d’Illinois, «c’est à la fin du XIXe siècle et au début du XXe que le système prend racine». L’arrivée de larges populations immigrées peinant à faire leur chemin à Chicago pousse les politiciens à «mobiliser le vote des communautés en échange d’avantages substantiels». Dans les années 1930, le Parti démocrate assoit peu à peu sa domination grâce à cette politique «raciale». Le système va se solidifier sous le règne de Richard J. Daley, grande figure qui régnera sur la ville pendant 21 ans. Aujourd’hui, c’est son fils Richard M. Daley qui est aux affaires depuis 18 ans et qui «perpétue le pouvoir du Parti démocrate à Chicago, en accordant emplois d’État, faveurs et contrats, en échange de soutiens politiques et financiers», raconte John McCormick. «Si on vous donne un permis de construction, vous êtes censés “payer en retour”», explique-t-il. «Cela s’appelle payer pour jouer», résume John Kass, un autre éditorialiste. Les initiés affirment que Rod Blagojevich ne serait jamais devenu gouverneur s’il n’avait croisé le chemin de sa future femme, Patricia Mell, fille de Dick Mell, un conseiller municipal très influent, considéré comme un rouage essentiel de la machine.
Anthony Peraica, un immigrant croate, débarqué aux États-Unis à l’âge de 13 ans, qui a fait de brillantes études de droit avant de se lancer en politique, affirme être bien placé pour raconter le système. Originaire du district de Bridgeport, le cœur de la machine Daley, ce conseiller régional républicain du comté de Chicago dit avoir été lui-même happé par le Parti démocrate avant de le quitter «écœuré» par les passe-droits qu’il y avait découverts. «C’est un système pourri, une toile d’araignée qui organise sa survie en nommant ses amis à des postes clés de l’administration en échange de leur soutien politique et financier», accuse-t-il. Anthony Peraica, qui a raté de peu la présidence du conseil régional du comté, affirme que seule l’intervention d’un syndicat ayant mis des millions de dollars dans la bataille médiatique pour le discréditer l’a empêché de gagner. «Les donateurs privés que je sollicite ont peur de me financer car ils craignent pour leurs avantages», poursuit-il. «Il n’y pas de système bipartisan ici, c’est une autocratie», dit le républicain, qui affirme que des inconnus ont plusieurs fois forcé ses bureaux d’avocat, dans la partie sud de Chicago, «sans doute pour m’intimider». «La seule chose qui pourrait changer le système, c’est un financement public des campagnes à l’européenne, et des temps d’accès aux médias réglementés.»
Dans ce contexte local plus que trouble, Peraica affirme que la montée au firmament d’Obama n’a pu se faire «par miracle».«Il a été aidé par la machine qui l’a adoubé, il est cerné par cette machine qui produit de la corruption et le risque existe qu’elle monte de Chicago vers Washington», va-t-il même jusqu’à prédire. Le conseiller régional républicain cite notamment le nom d’Emil Jones, l’un des piliers du Parti démocrate de l’Illinois, qui a apporté son soutien à Obama lors de son élection au Sénat en 2004. Il évoque aussi les connexions du président élu avec Anthony Rezko, cet homme d’affaires véreux, proche de Blagojevich et condamné pour corruption, qui fut aussi le principal responsable de la levée de fonds privés pour le compte d’Obama pendant sa course au siège de sénateur et qui l’aida à acheter sa maison à Chicago. «La presse a protégé Barack Obama comme un petit bébé. Elle n’a pas sorti les histoires liées à ses liens avec Rezko», s’indigne Peraica, qui cite toutefois un article du Los Angeles Times faisant état d’une affaire de financement d’un tournoi international de ping-pong qui aurait éclaboussé le président élu.
Rahm Emanuel dans la ligne de mire
La plupart des commentateurs, dont John McCormick, ne souscrivent pas à cette analyse. Pour eux, le président élu a su naviguer à travers la politique locale «sans se compromettre». Il s’est dissocié de Rezko avant sa dernière campagne. Il est aussi celui qui a fait passer une législation éthique qui devrait mieux contrôler les donations privées à partir du 1er janvier 2009 dans l’Illinois.
L’équipe du président élu «n’en est pas moins très embarrassée par le scandale», affirme le politologue Ola Adeyoje, spécialiste de la politique locale à Chicago. Les écoutes téléphoniques révèlent en effet un gouverneur persuadé d’être en contact et en négociation quasi directe avec Barack Obama pour la désignation d’un successeur au Sénat. Sentant venir la polémique, le nouveau chef de l’État a donc promis de passer au crible les discussions que son entourage aurait pu avoir avec Blagojevich. À ce titre, le directeur de cabinet d’Obama, Rahm Emanuel, est dans la ligne de mire des républicains car il apparaît qu’il a été en contact avec le gouverneur sur ce thème, selon le Chicago Tribune. Lundi, les deux chambres du Parlement de l’Illinois se sont rassemblées pour décider d’une éventuelle procédure de destitution du gouverneur, qui ne se presse pas de démissionner. La plupart des leaders démocrates jugent impensable qu’il puisse rester à son poste et décider de la nomination d’un nouveau sénateur. Mais une procédure de destitution d’un gouverneur, phénomène rarissime dans l’histoire des États-Unis où cela ne s’est produit qu’en Californie et au Dakota du Nord, risque de durer des mois… empoisonnant le climat politique, de Chicago à Washington.
April 1, 2007
When Barack Obama decided in January that he would run for president in 2008 and quietly began calling up his staff members and close supporters to tell them so, the choice had many effects, but one of the most immediate and parochial was that it sent Obama’s chief political and media adviser, a Chicago consultant named David Axelrod, into his editing studio. For four years Axelrod has had camera crews tracking virtually everything Obama has done in public — chatting up World War II vets in southern Illinois, visiting his father’s ancestral village in western Kenya — and there were days when the camera crews have outnumbered the civilians.
In the second week of January, Axelrod went down to his editing studio, a raw, whitewashed loft space, and began to sort through all of this tape to put together a five-minute Internet video for the initial announcement of Obama’s campaign, which would come the following Tuesday, Jan. 16. Political observers tend to dismiss bio pieces as fluff. But for Axelrod they supply a coordinating presence, a basic story to wrap the campaign around. There is precision in the fluff. Axelrod says he believes that Obama is something different: a »trailblazing » figure who »represents the future. » And indeed, so far Obama’s campaign has been steeped in his biography. This is, after all, a 45-year-old man who has written not one but two memoirs. Most of the raw videotape Axelrod has is the banal, worn imagery of politics — Obama speaking from a podium, with the familiar, angled hand gestures, or seated and listening intently, elbows on knees — and somehow from this he had hoped to wring transcendence. There was a clip he found from the early stages of the 2004 Senate campaign of Obama, microphone in hand, introducing himself to a small group of voters at a coffeehouse on Chicago’s North Side; when the candidate told them about his work in the early 1990s as a community organizer, there was a spontaneous, sustained applause. »I remember that! » Axelrod told me a few days later as we watched the finished product in his office the morning it was released to the public. »You know, we hadn’t thought that was an important part of his bio, but people really responded to the fact that Barack gave up corporate job offers to work in the community. »
Axelrod has the political operative’s BlackBerried, wearied demeanor, at once somewhat more and somewhat less than fully awake. His conversations are staccato, 90-second affairs, affirmations and advice. The day the video was released, he had six TV news crews lined up to interview him for segments they were putting together on Obama’s announcement. The Fox cameraman started hooking up his wires. He told Axelrod he had just walked past the subway station, and a worker, seeing the TV cameras, asked whom the crew was going to interview: »And I say David Axelrod, and she just screams, ‘Obama’s running!’ That’s all I had to say! »
»Yeah? » Axelrod replied, BlackBerrying, happy. He turned the video back on. Axelrod says he loves man-on-the-street interviews, and while digging through the tape the week before, he found one he did with a young Hispanic guy. »He gives you a — a sense of hope, » the young man says, squinting past the camera, swaying slightly. »Uh, at a time when, you know, things in this country are not going so well. » It’s a good message for Obama, and a good messenger, but what Axelrod likes are the stutters, the verbal hiccups: »That kind of authenticity is how you cut through. »
Axelrod says viewers are more likely to be arrested by shots that look rough, like »a hybrid, part political commercial, part news. » He found a grainy, C-Span-style shot of Obama talking about homelessness on the floor of the State Senate, which Axelrod now uses to establish Obama’s prior political experience. The consultant picked out a lingering, distant shot of Obama walking down a sunny southern Illinois road with his long arm around an older, short white farmer. He says this was intended to convey his candidate’s case with conversation, his cross-cultural capability. The completed announcement video would begin and end with Obama’s keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, and it would include two full minutes on his early life — his father’s background, his mother’s, his grandfather’s, the times he moved when he was a little boy. When you finish watching the video, you don’t have a particularly good sense of Obama as a politician (you might be able to say that he’s for change), but there is an intimacy — you have been drowned in his life, and you feel as if you know him.
There are a variety of problems of political communication that the industry’s operatives spend their time obsessing over. One, which obsessed James Carville, is persuasion: How do you persuade people who believe one thing to believe another? A second, the big one for Joe Trippi, is commitment: What motivates your party’s loyalists to go to the polls in larger numbers? But Axelrod has become animated by a more basic challenge of political communication, the problem of breaking through, of sounding different and new. Axelrod says that the way to cut through all the noise is to see campaigns as an author might, to understand that you need not just ideas but also a credible and authentic character, a distinct politics rooted in personality. ( »David breaks them down, » Peter Giangreco, a Chicago direct-mail consultant who often works with Axelrod, told me. »Who is your mother? Who is your father? Why are you doing this? ») This, Axelrod says, is what Karl Rove understood about George W. Bush. »One of the reasons Bush has succeeded in two elections, » Axelrod says, »is that in his own rough-hewn way he has conveyed a sense of this is who I am, warts and all. » For Obama, because of Senator Hillary Clinton’s far-greater experience and establishment backing, this is a particularly essential project. »If we run a conventional campaign and look like a conventional candidacy, we lose, » Axelrod says.
When the first major profile of Axelrod appeared in Chicago magazine in 1987, three years after he left a high-profile job as the lead political reporter for The Chicago Tribune to work as a political operative, the article ( »Hatchet Man: The Rise of David Axelrod ») began by comparing him to an »exotic rodent. » Two decades later, there remains the matter of the comb-over and the damp mustache, but his looks seem less important now. In the last four years, Axelrod has helped steer campaigns for fully four of the Democrats now running for president — Obama, Clinton, John Edwards and Chris Dodd — and one who dropped out (Tom Vilsack); framed the messages for the new young governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick; and served as the chief political adviser for Representative Rahm Emanuel when the congressman helped orchestrate the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives last fall.
Axelrod, who is 52, is lumbering, sardonic and self-deprecating, and he still has the old Chicago street-fighter belief that you can see what matters about politics most clearly when you’re slumming in the wards. His bookshelves are filled with Abe Lincoln biographies, but what he says he admires about Lincoln isn’t just his philosophy but his political effectiveness, the Great Emancipator’s secret shiv. Professional opinions of Axelrod in this pitted, rivalrous field vary, but Axelrod, working from Chicago, has become perhaps the consultant with the tightest grip on his party’s future. »So many consultants are fighting the last war, but David is fighting the next one, and that makes him very, very dangerous, » the Republican consultant Mike Murphy told me.
After the consecutive presidential losses of Al Gore and John Kerry, patrician candidates who ran ill-fitting »people versus the powerful » campaigns designed for them by the consultant Bob Shrum, many Democrats began to suspect that part of what was wrong with the party was its formulaic consultants. The party has suffered, Axelrod says, from a »Wizard of Oz syndrome among Washington political consultants who tend to come to candidates and say: I have the stone tablets! You do what I say, and you will get elected. And they fit their candidates into their rubric. »
Axelrod’s is a less grand, postideological approach, and his campaigns are rooted less in issues than in the particulars of his candidate’s life. For him, running campaigns hitched to personality rather than ideology is a way of reclaiming fleeting authenticity. It is also, more and more, the way of the Democratic Party. Its 2006 Congressional campaign strategy — run by Axelrod’s close friend Emanuel, with the Chicago consultant acting as principal sounding board — did not depend on any great idea of where the party ought to go, like the last political cataclysm, Newt Gingrich’s 1994 House »revolution. » As they have reclaimed power, the Democrats have done so not by moving appreciably to the left or the right; rather, they have done so by allowing their candidates to move in both directions at once. »What David is basically doing — and this is somewhat new for Democrats — isn’t trying to figure out how to sell policies, » says the Democratic media consultant Saul Shorr. »It’s a matter of personality. How do we sell leadership? »
It seems bizarre to consider now, but there was a time, just about three years ago, when Barack Obama was a pretty obscure black candidate for statewide office, and his political fortunes seemed to obey the regular, racialized rules of urban politics. The campaign needed to find a way for him to add white progressives from the Chicago suburbs and lakefront to his expected base among black voters. »When you’re breaking barriers and asking voters to do something they haven’t done before — vote for an African-American for governor or senator — it’s very helpful to have third-party authentication, newspaper endorsements or institutional support, to encourage them to go there, » Axelrod told me. His first choice to vouch for Obama was his old client Paul Simon, the bow-tied, progressive, retired U.S. senator and a beloved figure in their target demographics. But just as Axelrod was trying to fix dates, Simon was taken to the hospital for heart surgery; he died the next day. Paul Harstad, the campaign’s pollster, told me that Axelrod was adamant that Simon had been the perfect proxy. So he sought out the closest substitute he could find and cut a commercial featuring the senator’s daughter, Sheila, a member of the Carbondale, Ill., City Council. Sheila Simon made an ad for Axelrod linking Obama’s legacy and her father’s, saying they were »cut from the same cloth. » When the cash-strapped campaign put the ads on the air and then followed up with another ad linking Obama to Harold Washington, the late, beloved, liberal mayor of Chicago, »that was it, » according to Mark Blumenthal, who was running tracking polls for the opposing Senate campaign of Blair Hull. »The ads did something rare in politics, which was make Obama seem like a historic candidate, » Blumenthal told me. »They helped move his numbers from 30, 35 percent up to 53 percent, and it became a landslide. You could just about see this whole Obama wave beginning. »
Axelrod has known Obama longer than any of his other close political advisers and, other campaign officials say, is now Obama’s chief strategist and someone he »trusts implicitly. » Axelrod has been intimately involved with the staffing of the campaign (David Plouffe, who was a partner in Axelrod’s consulting firm, is now Obama’s campaign manager), with its strategy and pacing and with the scrubbing of its message and language. Because of the vastness of the operation, Axelrod has had to hire other media consultants to help him develop commercials; his own role, he says, will be as »keeper of the message. » One senior campaign adviser told me: »Barack is a no-drama kind of guy. He’s not looking for a person or a group of people that bring their own set of dramas to the operation. What [Obama] gets from David is no nonsense. »
Axelrod met Obama when the senator was 30 years old and coordinating a voter-registration drive in Chicago and Betty Lou Saltzman, a doyenne of progressive politics in Chicago, suggested that the two get to know each other. In the 15 years since, Axelrod has worked through Obama’s life story again and again, scouring it for usable political material, and he believes that some basic themes come through: that he is »not wedded to any ideological frame or dogma, » that he is »an outsider rather than someone who’s spent years in the dens of Georgetown, » that he is an »agent for change » and has the optimism and dynamism of a fresh, young face. Axelrod knows that each of these characteristics has its flip side — optimism can be read as naïveté, independence as ideological unmooredness, unjadedness for a lack of experience and bipartisanship as an instinct to avoid necessary combat.
In his office back in Chicago, Axelrod’s walls aren’t covered with bookcases but with political images, candidates Axelrod has worked for on winning election nights, their hands thrust up, their grins wide, the newspaper headlines behind them. There are the black mayors of Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago. There is a charming, signed shot of Obama underneath a print of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston. Signed thanks from Harold Washington. It is a museum of a particular kind of history — not just the evolution of the modern political left but also the ascendance of a particular kind of charismatic, reformer African-American candidate — and you get the sense that this is how the consultant sees himself, as a curator of this history. Electing Obama president would be »something you could really be proud of for the rest of your life, » Axelrod told me in early January. »It would really change politics in a very positive way. » When he talks about his own ideas, Axelrod has a habit of substituting anecdotes not from his own life but from Obama’s, or Deval Patrick’s, as if his is a compounded, and cultivated, existence.
With Obama’s candidacy, Axelrod is placing a gaudy bet: that the symbolic significance of race has now begun to flip. An underlying message of the campaign is that African-American candidates can symbolically represent the future. I asked him if he thought that Obama’s race would be a detriment. »I don’t think of it as a detriment, » Axelrod said. »I know that there are people who wouldn’t vote for a black candidate, but I don’t know if they would vote for a Democratic candidate anyway. But I think that in a sense Barack is the personification of his own message for this country, that we get past the things that divide us and focus on the things that unite us. He is his own vision. »
Every veteran political operative has his batch of lessons learned. From his experience running the antic, aggressive Emanuel’s campaign for Congress, he realized that the way to deal with your client’s perceived flaws is to embrace them and not run from them. When he ran Tom Vilsack’s campaign for governor of Iowa, he learned that the smoothest way to beat back a staunch social conservative message is to attack not the content but »the over-the-top negativism » that often accompanies it. From some advisory work he did for Bill Clinton during the 1996 campaign, when he wrote the memo that introduced the phrase »Bridge to the 21st century » into the political vernacular, Axelrod learned that for a Democrat the future always trumps the past. He says he also learned from Clinton that a pol’s biggest task is »to narrow the distance between the people and government. » From a distance, he watched Karl Rove help George Bush win two terms as president by »understanding that every election is a reaction to the last president » and then in 2004 by »figuring out how to make Bush’s stubbornness into a political virtue. » During the 2004 convention, he stood with Senator Chris Dodd, who told Axelrod that Democrats »were making a mistake by turning the whole thing into a giant V.F.W. convention and not mentioning the failure of the Bush administration on a wide variety of issues. » The lesson he took was that the party shouldn’t get too wrapped up in the issue of the moment. Most of all, from campaign after campaign, and particularly in 2004 from the Dean and Edwards campaigns, Axelrod took the lesson that the problem with failed candidacies isn’t usually that the message wasn’t shrewd but that »unless a message authentically reflects the messenger, it’s likely to fail. »
Axelrod says that his model for the Obama campaign came last year when Deval Patrick ran for governor of Massachusetts. There are many ways in which Patrick’s run and Obama’s are similar: the optimism, the constant presence of the candidate’s biography, the combination of a crusading message of reform with the candidate’s natural pragmatism, the insistence that normal political categories did not apply, even the same, unofficial slogan, shouted from the crowds — »Yes. We. Can! » But most essential is the way in which both of these campaigns came to use the symbolism that accompanies their candidates’ race, not by apologizing for it or ignoring it but by embracing the constant attention paid to the historic nature of the candidacy itself. The Democratic media consultant David Eichenbaum, whose candidate, Chris Gabrieli, lost to Patrick and Axelrod in Massachusetts, told me: »What they were able to do in the Patrick campaign was similar to what they’ve been able to do with Obama. The campaign managed to energize the grass roots, but there was a sense of idealism and hope and being able to break that historic barrier that was very unifying and reached out beyond liberals or the base. It became a movement that took on a life of its own. »
At the beginning of January, on a sunny day in the middle of the Northeast’s strange extended warm spell, Axelrod traveled to Boston for Patrick’s inaugural. Recounting it for me afterward, he said, »I really thought a lot about this Obama thing, and I thought, You know, these are really the moments you work for, and I thought, how amazing would it be to be not at the Massachusetts Statehouse but at the U.S. Capitol for that. »
We were in Chicago in January, and it was absurdly unpleasant outside, the sun hanging high above the wind and the chill like a taunt. Axelrod was on a man-in-the-street shoot, a campaign commercial for Axelrod’s old friend and client Richard M. Daley, and the first scheduled interviewee, a retired Irish firefighter, had been mocking Axelrod’s crew for dressing wrong. »You need the layers in this cold, » he announced. »You need this wickywack stuff. » ( »Gee, » Axelrod deadpanned, »I wonder if I’ll be able to draw him out. ») This is Axelrod’s Chicago, the old ward Democrats, and he started bantering with the guy. The firefighter asked Axelrod about Obama: »Everybody’s raving about him, this new black guy, but he doesn’t have any experience. Not everyone’s in love with him, you know. » And the guy grinned, confrontationally, and it just kind of hung there, like race sometimes does in Chicago, somewhere between tolerance and menace.
This has been Axelrod’s career, an eternal return to Chicago and to the politics of race. Axelrod and his sister, Joan, grew up in Manhattan, the children of two Jewish liberals — a mother who worked as a journalist at PM, a left-wing newspaper of the 1940’s, and later ran focus groups for an advertising firm, and a psychologist father. He went to college at the University of Chicago. He found the city familiar-feeling and married a business student named Susan Landau, whom he met while playing co-ed basketball. He has been there ever since.
Axelrod wasn’t the most attentive student; he took so many incompletes in college that he ended up having to finish a quarter of his credits in his last semester. When he was 19, a junior, his father, divorced and living in a Manhattan studio, killed himself, and Axelrod was notified as next of kin. The consultant still has tacked to his wall a fierce self-portrait his father drew in his 20s. Axelrod threw himself into journalism, working after classes at a tiny paper in Hyde Park and covering, among other things, Chicago’s roaring, pitted racial politics; he knew who all the aldermen in the city were by the time he graduated. The Chicago Tribune took him on right out of school, sent him to the night desk for a couple of years of hardening and then turned him loose on City Hall. It was 1979, Axelrod was 23 and the whole politics of the city were caught up in the race thing. Axelrod was inclined toward the reformers, even after his great hope, a white mayor named Jane Byrne, turned out to be a hack and a dud. »I should have known, » he says. In 1984, Axelrod decided to get into politics himself. He signed on with Simon’s senatorial campaign as communications director, became campaign manager and, after Simon won, opened his own shop.
Axelrod can be a fussy bag of liberal tensions and conflicts. He says he hates the idea that he might become the kind of media-hogging consultant who overshadows his client, but he appears on television in Chicago so frequently that construction workers and subway conductors recognize him on the street. He drives, charmingly and humbly, a Pontiac Vibe, but he also has a vast weekend house in Michigan that makes the reporters who talk to him jealous. This basic tension goes beyond personal style; it runs through his career, and it’s the tension of the modern Democratic establishment, caught between its reform origins and the compromises necessary to win power. And it’s the conflict of the Daley circle, a bunch of reformers who brought about a restoration of the machine with its attached pathologies.
»David Axelrod’s mostly been visible in Chicago in the last decade as Daley’s public relations strategist and the guy who goes on television to defend Daley from charges of corruption, » Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who is now chairman of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me. Axelrod sees it a little differently. He says that Daley’s election was necessary as a »moment of racial healing » and that he is »proud of the mayor’s progressive record. »
Axelrod is known for operating in this gray area, part idealist, part hired muscle. It is difficult to discuss Axelrod in certain circles in Chicago without the matter of the Blair Hull divorce papers coming up. As the 2004 Senate primary neared, it was clear that it was a contest between two people: the millionaire liberal, Hull, who was leading in the polls, and Obama, who had built an impressive grass-roots campaign. About a month before the vote, The Chicago Tribune revealed, near the bottom of a long profile of Hull, that during a divorce proceeding, Hull’s second wife filed for an order of protection. In the following few days, the matter erupted into a full-fledged scandal that ended up destroying the Hull campaign and handing Obama an easy primary victory. The Tribune reporter who wrote the original piece later acknowledged in print that the Obama camp had »worked aggressively behind the scenes » to push the story. But there are those in Chicago who believe that Axelrod had an even more significant role — that he leaked the initial story. They note that before signing on with Obama, Axelrod interviewed with Hull. They also point out that Obama’s TV ad campaign started at almost the same time. Axelrod swears up and down that »we had nothing to do with it » and that the campaign’s television ad schedule was long planned. »An aura grows up around you, and people assume everything emanates from you, » he told me.
Today, as Axelrod basks in his profession’s highest glory — shaping a historical presidential campaign — he is experiencing one of its nastiest turns: in a tiny and ideologically promiscuous world, you often need to go to war with your friends. (If Obama hadn’t run, Axelrod says, he would have sat out this presidential race, and he says he told all of his other former clients that early on; he hasn’t had much interaction with them since.) There is Dodd, and there is Edwards, but perhaps most poignantly, there is Hillary Clinton. It’s a matter of epilepsy. David and Susan Axelrod have three children in their late teens and early 20s. Their eldest, Lauren, has developmental disabilities associated with chronic epileptic seizures and now lives in a group home in Chicago. But for years her illness required enough of her parents’ time that it kept Susan Axelrod out of the work force and kept David from moving to Little Rock during the 1992 presidential campaign. Susan and two other mothers of children with epilepsy started a foundation, Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE), which Susan runs, to promote research and raise funds for a cure. Because of David’s political work, they have had political celebrities do fund-raisers: Bill Clinton, Tim Russert, Obama. But few have done as much for the foundation as Hillary Clinton.
It was January 1999, President Clinton’s impeachment trial was just beginning in the Senate and Hillary Clinton was scheduled to speak at the foundation’s fund-raiser in Chicago. Despite all the fuss back in Washington, Clinton kept the appointment. She spent hours that day in the epilepsy ward at Rush Presbyterian hospital, visiting children hooked up to machines by electrodes so that doctors might diagram their seizure activity and decide which portion of the brain to remove. At the hospital, a local reporter pressed her about the trial in Washington, asked her about that woman. At the organization’s reception at the Drake Hotel that evening, Clinton stood backstage looking over her remarks, figuring out where to insert anecdotes about the kids. »She couldn’t stop talking about what she had seen, » Susan Axelrod recalled. Later, at Hillary Clinton’s behest, the National Institutes of Health convened a conference on finding a cure for epilepsy. Susan Axelrod told me it was »one of the most important things anyone has done for epilepsy. » And this is how politics works: David Axelrod is now dedicated to derailing this woman’s career.
»Life can be tragic, » Axelrod told me by phone from Chicago the day before Obama officially announced his candidacy, »but it is important to focus on the moments when it is rapturous. » Political consultancy is often understood, from a distance, as a science of cynicism, but from up close it can look instead like a ruthless form of love.
On the second Saturday in February, David and Susan Axelrod drove down to the old Statehouse in Springfield, Ill., to watch Obama officially announce his candidacy for president, giving a speech he had sent to Axelrod for edits at 4 in the morning, two nights before. There was a crowd of more than 15,000 in the square, it was freezing out and Obama looked even skinnier than usual in his big wool coat. Axelrod’s cameras roamed through the crowds, interviewing Illinois locals with mustaches and rural accents, who talked about how Obama is »different, » »inspiring. »
The historic overtones of the speech were unguarded and blunt. Obama mentioned Lincoln half a dozen times. His central theme was the promise of the future, of himself: »Let’s be the generation, » he said over and over again, that meets the big challenges of the day — poverty, energy independence, the environment. »What’s stopped us from meeting these challenges, » he said, »is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics. »
Axelrod says that Obama wrote nearly all of the speech, but there were distinct echoes of Axelrod’s previous clients: not just Patrick but also John Edwards’s campaign for president in 2004 — Axelrod was his chief media adviser. Edwards and his message never really took hold. One rival Democratic media consultant told me, »What I’d like to know about David Axelrod is, What the hell happened with the Edwards campaign? » Axelrod says the Edwards campaign didn’t falter because of the message, »which was pretty good, it got us pretty far. » Instead, he points to Edwards: »I have a whole lot of respect for John, but at some point the candidate has to close the deal and — I can’t tell you why — that never happened with John. »
But the lingering lesson of the Edwards campaign may be that presidential campaigns are wide open and unpredictable things, dozens of different actors pouring their political convictions into a single vessel, with convictions of his own, and they can slip out of the media consultant’s control. In early March, for instance, a minute-long commercial appeared on YouTube attacking Hillary Clinton as a drone out of »1984, » showing her speaking on a giant screen in front of a group of zombielike followers — mimicking the famous Apple commercial — and purporting to come from the Obama campaign. Close to two million people watched the ad in two weeks, and it moved the Obama message in ways Axelrod hadn’t planned. (It later emerged that the ad’s creator worked for a company that contracted for the Obama campaign, though the campaign itself wasn’t involved.) The spot made Axelrod cranky. »I didn’t think much of it, » he told me.
The ad incident came just a month after the campaign’s first disruption, when the Hollywood mogul and liberal Obama fund-raiser David Geffen gave an interview to Maureen Dowd, the Times columnist, in which he said that the Clintons lie »with such ease, it’s troubling. » The Clinton campaign immediately called on Obama’s team to repudiate the comments, but they refused, and afterward the two camps volleyed barbs back and forth for a day or so. It was one of those early campaign spats that get endlessly analyzed for who won some minor tactical advantage, but to Axelrod it was a mistake, a self-induced undermining of the transcendent character he spent so long helping to cultivate. The Geffen episode was »a good object lesson about how easy it is to slide into the morass, » he told me. »I’m mindful of the responsibility not to lose our way, not to disappoint, not to sink into the conventional and lose our soul in the process. There are enormous pressures to conform. And to fight a small tactical battle. »
His friends put it more bluntly. »What David is going to learn in the course of this presidential campaign, » Emanuel told me, »is the economic efficiency of the four-letter word. »
Photos: Biographer: David Axelrod with Barack Obama in the senator’s Capitol Hill office. (Photograph by Jamie Rose); Street Fighter: To find out what voters are thinking, Axelrod heads to the political wards of Chicago. (Photograph By Paul D’amato For The New York Times)
Obama donor received a state grant
Chuck Neubauer and Tom Hamburger
Los Angeles Times
April 27, 2008
After an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2000, Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama faced serious financial pressure: numerous debts, limited cash and a law practice he had neglected for a year. Help arrived in early 2001 from a significant new legal client — a longtime political supporter.
Chicago entrepreneur Robert Blackwell Jr. paid Obama an $8,000-a-month retainer to give legal advice to his growing technology firm, Electronic Knowledge Interchange. It allowed Obama to supplement his $58,000 part-time state Senate salary for over a year with regular payments from Blackwell’s firm that eventually totaled $112,000.
A few months after receiving his final payment from EKI, Obama sent a request on state Senate letterhead urging Illinois officials to provide a $50,000 tourism promotion grant to another Blackwell company, Killerspin.
Killerspin specializes in table tennis, running tournaments nationwide and selling its own line of equipment and apparel and DVD recordings of the competitions. With support from Obama, other state officials and an Obama aide who went to work part time for Killerspin, the company eventually obtained $320,000 in state grants between 2002 and 2004 to subsidize its tournaments.
Obama’s staff said the senator advocated only for the first year’s grant — which ended up being $20,000, not $50,000. The day after Obama wrote his letter urging the awarding of the state funds, Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign received a $1,000 donation from Blackwell.
Obama’s presidential campaign rejects any suggestion that there was a connection between the legal work, the campaign contribution and the help with the grant. « Any implication that Sen. Obama would risk an ethical breach in order to secure a small grant for a pingpong tournament is nuts, » said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political advisor.
Business relationships between lawmakers and people with government interests are not illegal or uncommon in Illinois or other states with a part-time Legislature, where lawmakers supplement their state salaries with income from the private sector.
But Obama portrays himself as a lawmaker dedicated to transparency and sensitive to even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Recently, Obama expressed regret over a property deal with Illinois power broker Tony Rezko after Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. In an interview this spring with the Chicago Sun-Times, Obama said his regret was not just because the real estate and restaurant entrepreneur was under criminal scrutiny, but because he was « a contributor and someone doing business before the state. »
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs, who provided The Times with details of Obama’s compensation from EKI, said Obama did nothing wrong acting on behalf of Killerspin. He said the state senator simply wrote a letter backing a worthy project developed by a constituent.
Killerspin’s owner, Blackwell, was a political supporter and friend as well. Both men lived on Chicago’s South Side. Blackwell, a savvy and successful entrepreneur, was one of the first donors to Obama’s early campaigns, including the state senator’s failed bid for a congressional seat in 2000. In the presidential race he is credited on Obama’s website with committing to raise $100,000 to $200,000 for Obama’s campaign.
When Blackwell sought backing for his table tennis tournament in 2002, other politicians, including U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, offered support for the event. But Obama was the only one who provided a letter that became part of the initial application for state funds, state records show. In addition, he wrote a state Senate proclamation heralding the first tournament and an official letter that welcomed “table tennis friends” to the 2004 contest and thanked spectators for helping to « make Chicago the table tennis capital of this nation. »
Initially, the idea of table tennis receiving funds from a state tourism program — designed to encourage overnight visits to Illinois — was met with skepticism by one Republican state official. But the funding was granted at the $20,000 level that first year, grew to $200,000 in 2003 and totaled $100,000 in 2004.
High-dollar tourism grants from the state are often reserved for events like the Breeders’ Cup, an internationally known horse race that brought 50,000 to the Chicago area in 2002. But Blackwell and his allies promised good attendance, hotel bookings and international attention. Today, Illinois Tourism Director Jan Kosner lauds the state’s decision to support the table tennis tourneys and dismisses the role that letters from politicians play in the grant-making process.
Unofficial estimates place 3,000 to 6,000 spectators in the 8,000-seat University of Illinois-Chicago arena during some table tennis events. Blackwell said in a statement that « the 2002 and 2003 events were among the largest-ever table tennis events held on U.S. soil in terms of attendance. »
Blackwell deployed high-wattage showmanship that put an international spotlight on his tournaments and his brand of table tennis equipment, DVDs and sportswear. Under a plan developed by Blackwell, the 2003 and 2004 tournaments were filmed at Killerspin’s expense for occasional broadcast later by ESPN. The cost to Killerspin for the broadcast, laced with promotions for the company as well as Illinois tourism, was in effect defrayed by the state aid.
Blackwell said the grants — which paid only part of the cost his company had to bear — provided the state with « thousands of hours of domestic and international exposure via ESPN. . . . Additionally, hundreds of hotel rooms were occupied all three years that the state supported the event. »
‘A very dry period’
In his book « The Audacity of Hope, » Obama tells how his finances had deteriorated to such a point that his credit card was initially rejected when he tried to rent a car at the 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. He said he had originally planned to dedicate that summer « to catching up on work at the law practice that I’d left unattended during the campaign (a neglect that had left me more or less broke). »
Six months later Blackwell hired Obama to serve as general counsel for his tech company, EKI, which had been launched a few years earlier.
The monthly retainer paid by EKI was sent to the law firm that Obama was affiliated with at the time, currently known as Miner, Barnhill & Galland, where he worked part time when he wasn’t tending to legislative duties. The business arrived at an especially fortuitous time because, as the law firm’s senior partner, Judson Miner, put it, « it was a very dry period here, » meaning that the ebb and flow of cases left little work for Obama and cash was tight.
The entire EKI retainer went to Obama, who was considered « of counsel » to the firm, according to details provided to The Times by the Obama campaign and confirmed by Miner. Blackwell said he had no knowledge of Obama’s finances and hired Obama solely based on his abilities. « His personal financial situation was not and is not my concern, » Blackwell said. « I hired Barack because he is a brilliant person and a lawyer with great insight and judgment. »
Obama’s tax returns show that he made no money from his law practice in 2000, the year of his unsuccessful run for a congressional seat. But that changed in 2001, when Obama reported $98,158 income for providing legal services. Of that, $80,000 was from Blackwell’s company.
In 2002, the state senator reported $34,491 from legal services and speeches. Of that, $32,000 came from the EKI legal assignment, which ended in April 2002 by mutual agreement, as Obama ceased the practice of law and looked ahead to the possibility of running for the U.S. Senate. .
Blackwell said that « Barack worked extensive hours advising the company on compliance and human resource issues, » negotiated contracts, reviewed confidentiality agreements and provided reports on topics requested by the company’s senior management. Obama was not involved in soliciting city or state contracts for EKI, Blackwell said, and there was an agreement that he would not contact any government agencies.
Illinois ethics disclosure forms are designed to reveal possible financial conflicts by lawmakers. On disclosure forms for 2001 and 2002, Obama did not specify that EKI provided him with the bulk of the private-sector compensation he received. As was his custom, he attached a multi-page list of all the law firm’s clients, which included EKI among hundreds. Illinois law does not require more specific disclosure.
Stanley Brand, a Washington lawyer who counsels members of Congress and others on ethics rules, said he would have advised a lawmaker in Obama’s circumstances to separately disclose such a singularly important client and not simply include it on a list of hundreds of firm clients, even if the law does not explicitly require it. « I would say you should disclose that to protect and insulate yourself against the charge that you are concealing it, » Brand said.
An Illinois ethics advocate who worked with Obama to pass state ethics reforms, Cynthia Canary, said she was not troubled by Obama’s handling of the Blackwell business. She said his listing of all the law firm’s clients « was a more complete disclosure than you see 80% of the time in Illinois. » Further, she said that Obama’s letter on behalf of the table tennis tournament did not « rise to the level of a conflict of interest » because Obama did not have decision-making authority over the grant.
Obama’s spokesman said that listing all clients was appropriate and that doing so allowed the public to see any and all potential conflicts for Obama and his law firm colleagues. « He was especially mindful of this responsibility as a leader of ethics reform, » said Gibbs, his chief campaign spokesman.
Obama’s wife, Michelle, then a member of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, reported her husband’s work for EKI on a city of Chicago financial disclosure form obtained by The Times. Gibbs said she had identified EKI on her form after consulting with her husband. Gibbs said the questions on the city form were different from the state’s and required different answers.
Gibbs said the letter Obama wrote on behalf of the Killerspin-backed tournament was appropriate and entirely unrelated to any payments by Blackwell’s other firm for Obama’s legal services.
« He wrote the letter on behalf of a constituent » with a worthy cause, Gibbs said, noting that the contest was broadcast internationally, reaching as many as 200 million viewers in 156 countries.
Though Obama’s formal efforts for Killerspin consisted of writing a letter and a proclamation, the nitty-gritty of obtaining state grants fell to a former state Senate and campaign aide to Obama, Dan Shomon.
Shomon, working part time for Obama’s campaign and for Killerspin, helped prepare Killerspin’s initial grant application in 2002. Still working part time with Obama, Shomon helped Killerspin secure a $200,000 grant for its 2003 tournament and a $100,000 grant for its 2004 tournament.