Obama’s Ambition

I have noticed that there are certain similarities between the life histories of Sen. Barack Obama and myself (even though I’m old enough to be his father). For one, we were both community organizers — he in Chicago in the 1980s; I in Cranston, Rhode Island, about 1970. As community organizers, we were both inspired by Saul Alinsky. Obama was working in Chicago, Alinsky’s hometown, where his legacy lived after him. My inspiration came from the fact that Alinsky was a great friend and favorite of the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, whose writings I spent a lot of time studying in the 1960s.
Obama and I were both members of state legislatures — he of the Illinois Senate, I of the Rhode Island Senate. And we were both soundly defeated when we ran for the United States House of Representatives. He was defeated 2 to 1 in a Democratic primary contest against an incumbent. I won my Democratic primary, but then I was defeated 3 to 1 when I ran against the Republican incumbent.
Obama and I have each had two books published. His became bestsellers and made him a relatively rich man. Mine have had modest sales, enough to take my wife to dinner and the movies on numerous occasions; I did not quit my day job. Both Obama and I have worked as teachers in higher education — I at the Community College of Rhode Island, he at the University of Chicago Law School.
There, whatever similarities there may be between us come to an end. My political talent was considerably less than his, and my political ambition far, far less. When I was defeated in my race for the U.S. House, my ambitions ended. When Obama was defeated in his race for the House, his ambitions had hardly begun. And we all know the rest of the story: He became a member of the United States Senate, and he’s now on the verge of becoming president of the United States.
It seems to me that my personal history, including my rather moderate level of political ambition, has helped me to understand the apparently dubious associations that have come back to embarrass Obama — I mean Bill Ayers, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Tony Rezko, and ACORN.
Put yourself in Obama’s shoes when it first seriously occurred to him that he might have a very promising career in politics. You’re an ambitious young man, and you get a chance to enter into an ongoing association with Bill Ayers. Ayers used to be a domestic terrorist; you don’t like that. And normally, as a man with political ambitions, you’d stay a million miles away from a man with that kind of record. Strange to say, however, Ayers seems to have put the Weather Underground behind him and become a respectable professor and community do-gooder in Chicago. People respect him. He’s well-connected. So while it’s strange to think that this apparently solid citizen was once a terrorist, you decide it’ll be good for your political future if you befriend him and work with him.
And then there’s Reverend Wright. You need to belong to a local Chicago church — maybe for the good of your soul, and certainly for the good of your political career. And since you’re Barack Obama, a man who had a Muslim father and Muslim stepfather, it’s doubly important that you join a Christian church — you don’t want some future political opponent circulating the rumor that you’re a Muslim. Now, what’s the best-attended African-American church in your part of Chicago? Reverend Wright’s Trinity Church. So you join, naturally. It’s true that Reverend Wright sometimes says very strange things from the pulpit. But so what? Listening to such nonsense is a small price to pay for the political advantage of being part of the Trinity community.
Next there’s Tony Rezko. Rezko has money — lots of it — and he has lots of friends who have lots of money. If you’re planning to zoom up the political ladder, you’ll need oodles of campaign money — which means you’ll have to make connections with people like Rezko and his friends. It may be true that Rezko is rumored to be a bit unsavory. But what of it? Up till now (that is, up till the time you first began hanging around with him), he’s never been convicted of anything. And besides, if you postpone your ambitions till you find a rich friend with perfectly clean hands, you’ll wait forever. So you hold your nose, and you become Rezko’s good friend.
Finally, there’s ACORN. They’re not very scrupulous about whom they hire to sign up voters, and they’re not very scrupulous about whom they sign up, either. But you have figured that your political career will be based on two main constituency groups: well-educated white liberals plus African Americans. There’s no need to worry about registration rates among well-educated whites or middle-class blacks; they register and vote. But lower-class blacks are another story. ACORN can get them registered to vote, and maybe even get them to the polls on election day.
If you had your druthers, you’d keep your distance from Professor Ayers, Reverend Wright, Mr. Rezko, and ACORN. Had you chosen some line of work other than politics (if you had pursued, for instance, your law career), you could have kept your distance. You could have been an amateur moralist and sneered in a very superior way at the likes of Ayers, Wright, Rezko, and ACORN. But you’re a politician, and you’re a realist. So you don’t sneer. Instead, you embrace these people and use them to your advantage. Of course the day may come when they will cause you embarrassment, and then — ever the realist — you will disown them.
Obama is not a wild-eyed radical (like Ayers); he is not a black fanatic (like Wright); he is not a crook (like Rezko); and he is not politically unscrupulous (like ACORN). He is simply a very intelligent, very realistic, and extraordinarily ambitious man who decided years ago that he would like to go all the way.


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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