Former Reader staff writer Edward McClelland (who’s also written for the Reader under the names Ted McClelland and Ted Kleine) has a story up at Salon (brief ad viewing required) on Chicago’s and Illinois’ favorite-son presidential candidate. McClelland covered Obama not just during the 2004 Senate race but back when he was nobody, in 2000, running an inept campaign against a south-side fixture, U.S. Representative Bobby Rush, and losing.
But any credit Salon deserved for publishing real reporting instead of a hatchet job or a swoon got drastically diminished when some errant editor described the early Obama as “uppity” in the story’s subhead. (That racially charged adjective has since been changed to “smug.”)
McClelland’s tough but fair take on Obama’s prehistory didn’t sit well with many commenters at Salon or “MissLaura,” a poster at DailyKos who apparently can’t tell a reporter from a hit man.
McClelland on 2000: “I got my first sight of Obama early that winter, at a church in the South Side’s Bronzeville neighborhood. It was a Saturday afternoon–as a greenhorn challenger, Obama wasn’t getting the Sunday pulpit invitations–and maybe a dozen people were scattered in the worn pews. Obama was a mere two-term state senator, and this was half a decade before ‘-mania’ was added to his name. Weak December light strained through the stained glass. Obama wore a suit and tie–he hadn’t yet pioneered high-fashioned, open-necked campaign casual–and, posing uncomfortably before the baptismal, tried to relax the crowd with self-deprecating wit.
“‘The first thing people ask me is, “How did you get that name, Obama,” although they don’t always pronounce it right. Some people say “Alabama,” some people say “Yo Mama.” I got my name from Kenya, which is where my father’s from, and I got my accent from Kansas, which is where my mother’s from.’
“At the time, Obama was teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and this was the sort of awkward, beginning-of-the-semester joke you hear from a professor trying too hard to prove a sense of humor. If anyone caught that Obama was trying to connect himself both to the birthplace of civil rights and a time-honored black party joke, they didn’t laugh or nod.”
In 2004: “As a black candidate, he’d been too inhibited, too embarrassed, to force out phrases like ‘our community.’ Finally, he was comfortable in his own skin, now that he’d accepted that the skin was half-white. Obama wasn’t born to be a voice of black empowerment, like Rush or Jesse Jackson. It’s not just a racial thing. It’s generational, too. Confrontational ’60s-style politics are not his bag. But as a multicultural politician, trying to find the unified theory of ethnic politics, he was rolling like Tiger Woods at the Masters.”
As they say, read the whole thing. The story is how a candidate learned from adversity–a staple of political reporting because it’s a staple of politics. One of the many ways Democrats shouldn’t imitate Republicans is an inability to recognize real journalism.