WASHINGTON -- On the stump, presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama suggests his political career was an afterthought. He tells of returning to Chicago from Harvard Law School to be part of a civil rights practice and teach law.
However, a new book reveals a reason Obama joined a politically connected law firm: to give him entree to the powerbrokers in Chicago's elite liberal political community who helped elect Mayor Harold Washington -- a job the new lawyer had his eye on.
Obama actually pondered a political career early on, even telling Craig Robinson, his future brother-in-law, he might get into politics after Harvard and "maybe I can be president of the United States."
This supplemental, more opportunistic narrative comes as Obama is relying intensely on his biography to propel him to the White House. It is delivered in a copy I obtained of Obama: From Promise to Power, by Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell to be published in August.
Last June 19, Obama offered an audience at the Take Back America/Campaign for America's Future conference a riff from his stump speech. "I joined a civil rights law practice, and I started teaching constitutional law. ... And after a few years, people started coming up to me and telling me I should run for state Senate. So I jumped in the race."
But another view is offered by Mendell, who covered Obama during his 2004 Illinois Senate race, which is covered in detail in his book. Spending large amounts of time with Obama, Mendell writes about what he calls Obama's "hidden side: his imperious, mercurial, self-righteous and sometimes prickly nature, each exacerbated by the enormous career pressures that he has inflicted upon himself."
Obama's interest in politics, contrary to the narrative he weaves, started long before his first run for office, an Illinois state Senate seat.
During his time at Harvard, "he wanted to be mayor of Chicago, and that was all he talked about as far as holding office," said Cassandra Butts, a law school classmate and current Obama adviser.
After Harvard and a stint working on a voter registration drive in Chicago, the much recruited Obama took a job at a firm now called Miner, Barnhill & Galland. Among other cases, the firm handled litigation stemming from reapportionment battles. But partner Judson Miner served in Mayor Washington's administration and, Mendell writes, appealed to Obama because he had "a bevy of contacts in Chicago's political circles."
Mendell also writes on a central premise of Obama's presidential candidacy: that he had the judgment to oppose authorizing the Iraq war and that his key rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, did not.
Obama decided to oppose the impending war "in part as a political calculation that he hoped would benefit him among Democrats," Mendell wrote.