On a fairly regular basis back in the day, state Senator Barack Obama would walk up to the Senate press box and bum cigarettes off me. That was back when people could smoke in the Senate chambers, and back when both of us smoked. Now we both chew nicotine gum, and smoking on the Senate floor is forbidden.
Obama was mainly an OPC smoker, meaning “other peoples’ cigarettes.” I’d usually give him a little grief about how maybe he should buy his own pack once in a while, but I never denied his request unless I was almost out. He’d always take the cigarette to a room in the back of the chamber, never seeming to smoke at his desk like others did.
One day as I was wandering through the Statehouse near his office, Obama hollered out my name and asked me to join him. I presumed he wanted to bum yet another cigarette, and I was right. I tossed my pack on his desk, he took one out and lit it, and we made a little small talk.
Honestly, I didn’t much care for the guy in those days. He hadn’t yet done a lot of real work, or built strong relationships with fellow legislators, particularly with members of the Senate Black Caucus. And by the time of our little chat he’d gotten way ahead of himself by challenging Congressman Bobby Rush in the 2000 Democratic primary and losing badly.
I was interviewed by the Chicago Reader newspaper during that campaign. I told the reporter that Obama was “a very intelligent man” who has “some really good ideas” and would “probably make a pretty good congressman.” But I also pointed out that he hadn’t had a lot of success in Springfield and speculated that it could be “because he places himself above everybody. He likes people to know he went to Harvard.”
I got a phone call from Obama after that story was published. He was stung by my comments. I tried to point out the positive things I said, but that didn’t work. At the end of our conversation, we agreed to start talking more often, which may have been why he called me into his office that day.
We had finished our cigarettes and I remember getting up to leave. It’s not like he knew any hot inside information that I could use in my Capitol Fax publication, so I had work to do and needed to move on. But Obama asked me to stay a while longer, so I sat back down and we each lit another smoke.
Obama then stunned me by asking a question that I never in a million years would’ve anticipated: What would I think of him running for U.S. Senate in 2004?
His question seemed so ... presumptuous. Rush had just cleaned his clock by a 30-point margin, I reminded Obama. If he ran for statewide office and lost, he’d be finished, washed up, out of the game for good. “There is still some honor to serving in the Illinois Senate,” I gently scolded him.
But Obama said he was getting heat from the home front. His Springfield duties were preventing him from making a decent living as an attorney, so he either had to move up to a much higher office or get out of politics and make some real money.
I couldn’t argue with that logic, but I suggested that maybe he stop using “Barack” and call himself “Barry” or something. He said that’s what his friends called him when he was growing up, but he added that he wanted to stick to his given name. I made some sort of joke about Irishing up his last name with an apostrophe after the “O” and using green yard signs. Had I known at the time that his middle name was “Hussein,” I’m sure I would’ve made some sort of inappropriate joke.
Whenever somebody asks me for advice about whether to run for higher office, I tell this story to explain why I no longer provide that sort of counsel. I actually told a future president of the United States to not be so darned ambitious. It was not my proudest moment.
Nowadays, I just say, “What do you really want to do?” And if they can answer that question, I urge them to put their entire heart and soul into the effort.
It works out much better that way – for them and for me.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.