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Ambition isn’t always blind

Monday, Jan 23, 2017

* My weekly syndicated newspaper column

On a fairly regular basis back in the day, state Sen. Barack Obama would walk up to the Senate press box and bum cigarettes off me. That was 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 strictly 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 come in and join him. I presumed he wanted to bum yet another cigarette and I was right. I tossed my pack on his desk and he took one out, 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 by then, 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 Sen. 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 go 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 said 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.

I tell this story whenever somebody asks me for advice about whether to run for higher office in order to explain why I no longer provide that sort of counsel. I mean, 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.

* Related…

* Bernie Schoenburg: Obama’s legacy ‘forever tied’ to Springfield

* Christi Parsons: I reported on Obama longer than anyone else. Here’s what I learned.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

21 Comments
  1. - A guy - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 9:17 am:

    There’s a million stories in the big city. This is a good one.


  2. - Stones - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 9:20 am:

    As my Dad taught me…one normally regrets the chances they don’t take rather than the chances they take. Very interesting g piece, Rich.


  3. - Anon 7 - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 9:26 am:

    That is truly an amazing story! Very cool piece of history. Thanks.


  4. - MSIX - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 9:28 am:

    Great story. Thanks for sharing it, Rich.


  5. - 47th Ward - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 9:39 am:

    He offered me a job on his senate campaign in 2003. I turned it down, explaining politely that I didn’t want to be unemployed after the primary. Oops.

    He forgave me for that mistake, and later I accepted another offer and worked for him for about a year. I was with him early enough when no one really knew him, before, during and after the famous speech in Boston that put him on the international celebrity A-list. What a ride that was.

    And then, after he won and was sworn-in in the Senate, we had just closed down the campaign office and were leaving together. I looked at him with great pride and admiration, and said, “wow, who could have predicted your meteoric rise? You’ve gone from here to way up here so fast. You realize, don’t you, that there is only one direction you can go from here, right?” and my hand dropped lower and lower. He laughed and said I was probably right. Double oops.


  6. - Citizen A - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 9:39 am:

    You, Sir, are one of the good ones………

    PS. For those that are wondering, my statement is NOT an “Alternative Fact”!!!!!!


  7. - chiatty - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 9:46 am:

    Obama and Blagojevich were state legislators at the same time. Each man had an ambition for higher office. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that each believed that he would one day be a good candidate for president of the country. I knew both men during those days in Springfield and I remember thinking to myself that I didn’t know who was crazier ambition-wise, the African American guy with a Middle Eastern sounding name or Rod, who didn’t appear all that bright and had a tough to pronounce last name. Both men were opportunists. Both reached higher office. One reached the ultimate office. Obama’s Senate run and his presidential run are indicia of timely political opportunism. A politician will go nowhere if he/she shrinks away when opportunity presents itself.


  8. - Downstate - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 9:52 am:

    Great story, Rich! Thanks for sharing.


  9. - Oneman - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 9:56 am:

    Unlikely but I think it would be interesting if someone did a Paul Simon and wrote a book about Obama’s time in Springfield like Simon did about Lincoln and his time in Springfield.

    The book Simon wrote is hard to find (I think my interlibrary loan copy came from the museum in Springfield) but it worth a read.


  10. - Langhorne - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 10:02 am:

    When O first arrived in spfld, i asked a senior senator about him. He said, well, hes the first new senator he knew of, to arrive w an autobiography.

    When blago first arrived, he skipped some of the new member training to tour lincolns home w patti.


  11. - illini - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 10:03 am:

    Echoing 47th Ward - back in 2003 I was involved in a Primary Campaign. A friend of mine was appointed as a Downstate Coordinator for Blair Hull and asked me to come on and to take primary responsibility for 5 counties. And this was to be a paid position - quite unlike most all previous campaigns I chose to become involved with.

    After looking at the candidate and his campaign organization and agenda I decided that this could be a comfortable match for me. And much was looking very positive until he totally imploded 2 weeks before the election.

    I was involved in the General Election that year and have been on board ever since.

    Big mistake on my part those many years ago, but maybe I have redeemed myself since then.


  12. - Gone, but not forgotten - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 10:10 am:

    Went from OPC to OPM.


  13. - Anonymous - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 10:20 am:

    Great story…..thanks for sharing.


  14. - Amalia - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 10:47 am:

    more like ambition isn’t bad. got so tired of hearing that Hillary was too ambitious. ridiculous.


  15. - Anonymous - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 11:40 am:

    If it’s in your blood to go for it, go for it. You’ll eventually find out for yourself if you overshot. If you don’t go for it. Perhaps you’re simply wise and humble.


  16. - Six Degrees of Separation - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 12:12 pm:

    Let ‘em be as ambitious as they want. The Peter Principle (as espoused by Dr. Laurence J. Peter) will sort ‘em out.


  17. - GlimmerGirl - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 12:33 pm:

    Truly book worthy.


  18. - Wouldn't it be great? - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 12:45 pm:

    We should change “T-R-U-M-P” on the trump building to “O-B-A-M-A”. One letter already is in place. Just 4 to go.


  19. - molly maguire - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 2:25 pm:

    great story! appreciate your look in the mirror with honesty and modesty. used to be an OPC myself–you can tell yourself you’re not a smoker because you aren’t buying em.


  20. - Captain Obviuos - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 5:08 pm:

    Too bad he didn’t take your advice. It turned out to be correct in the end.


  21. - wordslinger - Monday, Jan 23, 17 @ 7:41 pm:

    You could choose any president from the 20th Century on and point to a time in his adult life when the idea of him ever achieving that office would have seemed ridiculous.

    Same with many in the 19th Century (after the first six or so), including Lincoln and, especially, Grant.


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