President Obama: not sweating it. Credit: AP/Nick Ut

John Kass told
a couple of stories about Barack Obama this past week that will change the way you think of him. The president was visiting the General Assembly in Springfield, where he got his start in politics, and Kass knew he must speak. “These are true stories,” Kass wrote. “And now is the time to tell them.”

First: the phone rang. It was Obama, then a mere state senator. “I want your input on what I should include in my ethics bill,” he said to Kass.

Kass told him that every state contract and subcontract must list: “Cost of materials, the price of every sack of concrete, every truckload of asphalt, and all trucking and labor fees, and all political contributions made. And it all should be easy to read for federal prosecutors and taxpayers.”

Obama thanked Kass, hung up, and didn’t call back. The bill was not written as Kass proposed.  

End of story.

But Kass had another one.

In February 2003, as Obama was preparing his run for the U.S. Senate, Kass spotted him standing alone outside the E2 nightclub, where a few days earlier 21 people had been crushed to death in a stairwell. Kass asked why he was there. “The owners are friends of mine,” said Obama.

TV news crews approached. Kass suggested Obama take off. Obama did.

If Kass had shared these stories when they happened could Obama possibly have been elected president? I don’t want Kass to be too hard on himself. Yes, it’s true that journalists are masters at turning nothing into something—consider the tradition of foreign correspondents extrapolating from the remarks of the cabby who picks them up at the airport the state of whatever nation in turmoil they overnight in. But this was a different situation. Here was a something merely disguised as utter triviality. Kass must have sensed his brief encounters were fraught with meaning, but it took him more than a decade to understand how revealing they truly were.

I get it. In 1969 I happened to spend an hour or two with an elderly Austrian man named Kurt von Schuschnigg. In 1938 he was the chancellor who surrendered Austria to Hitler in the Anschluss. When we met, he talked not of Hitler but of the clam chowder he enjoyed so much when he taught political science in Saint Louis after the war. Yet, surely, embedded in his sentimentality there must be profound insights about the origins of World War II! It’s simply a matter of teasing them out.

I’m still doing the teasing and not making much headway, but I’ll pass the insights along once I put my finger on what they are. It heartens me to know Kass needed a decade or more to figure out that those long-past brushes with Obama stripped the man naked. But he stuck to it! It’s better we learn what’s what too late than not at all.