A star is born

Published July 28, 2004 3:50AM (EDT)

Larry King cornered Rep. Rahm Emanuel on the convention floor Monday night. "Hey Nine," he said in a weird Bushian reference to the fact that Emanuel is missing part of one finger, "I hear this fellow from Illinois is terrific."

Emanuel is from Illinois, but he wasn't the fellow King had in mind. That fellow was Barack Obama, the state senator from Chicago who is running for the U.S. Senate. And his keynote address Tuesday night was, in fact, terrific.

"He knocked it out of the park," Emanuel said Tuesday night as he stood in a swarm of wildly cheering Illinois delegates. "He told the story of his life. And he wrote it himself. No, I know everybody says that, but he really did." Emanuel shares the same media advisor, David Axelrod, so he should know. Obama, 42, crafted the speech himself over the weeks that the legislature was deadlocked over a budget, according to Emanuel. "He's going to be a great senator because he believes in public service and the role of government."

Obama's address was the convention's first big bring-down-the-house moment. He traced his own improbable path to political prominence, and then he laid out his emotional vision for a united America.

"If there's a child on the South Side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child," Obama said. "If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother. If there's an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It's that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper -- that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. 'E pluribus unum.' Out of many, one."

Obama contrasted his vision with those who would divide the country. "The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats," he said. "But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

On the convention floor, in the heart of a red state -- Mississippi -- African-American delegates wiped tears from their eyes when they weren't jumping to their feet. "Come on," one man kept shouting, urging Obama on. "Come on! Come on!"

Johnnie Patton, a 62-year-old delegate from Jackson, Miss., said that Obama was "the real deal. He had the energy we need in this party. He is so articulate, and he makes the whole circumference of all of the political problems we have and makes them so simple. And he's so young -- young Democrats and leaders can identify with him and move this party where he needs to go."

More important, Patton said, Obama talked about God -- something Democrats sometimes have a hard time doing. "That means he was brought up right," she said.

The Illinois delegation went wild, too. "He's a man whose time has come," said Joyce Washington, who ran against Obama in the Democratic Senate primary. "He's the man of the hour. We're so proud of him. I'm more excited than he is." Washington said the speech worked because "he spoke from the heart. He's given many dynamic speeches, but this was his best."

Ayumi Fukuda, 24, who emigrated from Japan in 1990, was also electrified. "Obama is a reflection of today's Democratic Party," said Fukuda, a deputy press secretary in the Tennessee delegation. "The future is now. Forty percent of the Democrats in Boston are minorities."

Just before Obama spoke, another once-and-future star made his way through the halls of the Fleet Center to the convention floor. Tennessee's Harold Ford, who gave the keynote address in 2000, had nothing but praise for his successor, but he was cautious about just how much a big keynote address can do for the speaker's career. What did it do for his? "Well," he said, "we lost the election."

As yet unopposed in his Senate race, Obama has a brighter future ahead. And if Kerry wins in November, the Senate might not be Obama's last stop. "The speech was wonderful," said Jesse Jackson. "I was delighted, but not surprised. He'll win the Senate, but that's just the beginning. He's got a big future." The first minority president? We asked the man who ran for president twice. "It's not his talent that's the question, it's only the opportunities. If George Bush can be president, Obama can certainly be president."

[See C-Span's streaming video of Obama's speech]

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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