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Pulitzer Prize winner describes Obama’s rise

By : Eric Coker

Barack Obama’s time as a community organizer in Chicago inspired him to set the path that would lead to the presidency, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Garrow told an Anderson Center crowd on Sept. 21.

“Those three years on the far South Side transformed a rather ordinary young man in his early 20s into someone with a very intense and ambitious commitment to a political career that can bring about a scale of change that he painfully concluded community organizing at the local level could not achieve,” Garrow said.

Garrow, now a senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1987 for Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He has spent the past year and a half working on a biography of President Obama. The book will focus on Obama’s life before he gained national prominence by speaking at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Garrow’s lecture, sponsored by the Harpur College Dean’s Office, the Institute for the Advanced Studies in the Humanities and the Alumni Association, gave a brief overview of the president’s early life before the “fundamentally unremarkable” Barry Obama leaves Occidental College in Los Angeles for Columbia University in New York in 1981.

“The decision to transfer to Columbia and move to New York looms as the first fascinating decision Obama makes,” Garrow said.

Barry Obama decides to go by his birth name in New York, but his years in the city are “obscure,” Garrow said. Obama takes jobs with a financial newsletter and NYPIRG before answering an ad looking for a black community organizer in Chicago in 1985.

The community Obama helps there is actually a large area on the South Side that is far from unified. Different areas have different focuses: Some are concerned about jobs, others preventing high school dropouts or improving city parks and public transportation.

“It’s come to me gradually over time that what Barack Obama was parachuted into in 1985 was an inescapably impossible situation,” Garrow said.

Community organizing did at times seem impossible for Obama, who wrote to friends in New York that the work was “90 percent frustration and 10 percent exhilaration,” Garrow said.

But Obama starts to see achievements: Mayor Harold Washington comes to the neighborhood to help open a job application processing office. Some of the volunteers Obama helps go on to rewarding experiences, such as teachers and health-care workers.

Garrow sees 1985-87 as having two “transformative effects” on Obama. The Obama who leaves Chicago in the summer of 1988 has gone from someone looking for his place in the world to a man with “a burning desire to do something.” Obama also concludes that he must go into politics to bring about significant change.

Obama is accepted at Harvard Law School and leaves Illinois. The difference in Obama is easily noticed, Garrow said.

“It is striking to me that no one who met Obama before 1985 will ever say, ‘I knew he would be someone special,’” he said. “The majority of people who meet him at Harvard Law School say ‘Wow’ or ‘I told my wife that this will be the first black president.’”

Obama becomes president of the Harvard Law Review, which Garrow said put him in the position to make any career choice he wanted. After graduation, he returns to Chicago, directs a voter registration project, gets married and bypasses greater job offers by taking a position with a civil rights law firm.

“When you look at the choices Obama is making from 1987-1993, they are choices that fall into a pattern of someone who wants the ideal résumé for becoming a political candidate,” Garrow said.

Obama then begins a period in which he becomes, Garrow said, one of the “luckiest politicians of our lifetime.” He gains an Illinois Senate seat after a long battle in 1995, loses a race for U.S. Congress and returns to the Illinois legislature before making an “audacious decision for a middling state senator” to run for U.S. Senate.

But Obama has networked himself into Chicago political financial circles and is able to raise a great deal of money. He wins the election after personal issues force Jack Ryan, his main Republican challenger, to drop out. The GOP turns to Alan Keyes and has no hope in the race.

“He lucks his way into a seat in the U.S. Senate without any real opposition,” Garrow said.

Garrow, who said he still has at least another two years of work on the biography, said he is astounded to be able to talk with the largely overlooked people of Chicago who witnessed Obama’s rise.

“I think it is the experience of the people and the neighborhoods that made him want to change the world,” Garrow said. “He develops a deep affection for some of the people, and I think it’s the first time in his life that he cares this way. That is probably the wellspring of the ambition.”

Garrow compared his visits to Chicago to traveling in the South in the early 1980s, learning about Martin Luther King Jr. from those who knew him.

“There are huge aspects of Barack Obama’s development in the 1980s that the journalism we’ve all seen hasn’t begun to scratch the surface of,” he said. “The key to doing good history is not sitting around talking to your fellow academics. The key is finding people that no one has made the effort to locate and asking them for their memories.

“I feel greatly lucky to spend another two to three years with the old friends of Barack Obama.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08