Sunday, August 12, 2007

Obama's New Politics and Old Friends

In all the to-do about Barack Obama as “new,” it’s easy to lose sight of his connections to the Kennedy era that transformed American politics half a century ago.

A lengthy Washington Post profile today is headed, “A Series of Fortunate Events” and summarized: “Barack Obama needed more than talent and ambition to rocket from obscure state senator to presidential contender in three years. He needed serious luck.”

True enough, but what strikes an older reader is the part played in his political ascent by two important figures associated with the Democratic idealism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Before he decided to run for President, Obama consulted those two mentors, Newton Minow and Abner Mikva.

“Shortly before Christmas 2006,” the Post reports, “he met with Minow and Mikva to discuss whether to run. ‘He was very worried about what this was going to do to his family,’ says Minow. ‘I think Michelle at that point was very dubious, not at all enthusiastic about his running.’ The two men, who have six adult daughters between them, said they thought it made more sense to run when Obama's children were young and relatively insulated.”

Obama, who barely knew his own father, was turning for advice to two men who had nurtured his career to that point.

At Harvard Law School in 1988, he had impressed one of his professors, Martha Minow, who recommended him for a summer internship with the Chicago law firm headed by her father, Newton Minow, who had been chairman of the FCC under JFK and is still remembered for his speech describing TV as “a vast wasteland” and helping launch the public television network that is now PBS.

"He was at the firm for only one summer,” Minow recalls, “and when we offered him a job to come back, he came in to see me and told me he was going to go into politics. I think he had that in mind very early."

Minow became a friend and adviser to the young man with "the combination of a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament."

In 1990, he came to the attention of Abner Mikva, then a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, who offered him a clerkship, but Obama turned it down. A Chicago lawyer, Mikva had been a liberal Congressman who opposed the Daley machine, fought with the National Rifle Association over gun control and against racial discrimination. Later, he served briefly as chief counsel to Bill Clinton in the White House.

Mikva encouraged Obama in 2000 after he lost a primary and considered quitting politics. Four years later, when he was running for the Senate, Mikva “gave him more money than I've ever given anyone in my life."

Now Barack Obama is campaigning for a “new politics” in American life, but what he is offering clearly has roots in the best of the old.

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