Thursday, October 09, 2008

Post profile touches on Obama's rural experiences

While Barack Obama has established a lead in the race for president, it remains to be seen whether this fundamentally urban candidate can improve his standing with rural voters, who favor John McCain. Some answers may be suggested in The Washington Post this morning, in Eli Saslow's story about Obama as a state senator in the Illinois state capital, "a sophisticated urbanite living in a town built on cornfields," as Saslow writes. The story, headlined "From Outsider to Politician," is mainly about Obama's vivid tussles with other African American senators from Chicago, but includes this rural vignette:

Obama needed allies to make headway in a place like this, so he set out to find some. A group of Springfield political aides and lobbyists invited him to join their poker game, a low-stakes gathering attended by three other senators. On a weeknight in April 1996, Obama met the other players in a private room at a local country club. Big-screen TVs showed a Chicago Bulls game, and cigar smoke clouded the air.

His arrival surprised the other senators at the table. Jacobs, Terry Link and Larry Walsh -- all white Democrats, all older than 50, all from rural parts of the state -- would become Obama's closest friends in Springfield, but they viewed his initial arrival as the intrusion of an outsider. Jacobs was a loudmouth from the Iowa border, a self-described "backroom dinosaur" famous for his love of gambling. Walsh was a farmer from Elmwood who sometimes snuck out of session for a hot toddy. Link was a forklift business owner who narrowly graduated from high school.

As the young black senator from Chicago -- an Ivy Leaguer, a law professor -- bought into the poker game for $100 and lit a cigarette, Jacobs wondered: "What could he have in common with us?"

"It wasn't the most obvious fit," Jacobs said. "You've got two fat guys, a medium-heavy guy and then Obama. On the surface, there's not a lot that we shared."

Obama folded frequently during the games, preferring to watch the action unfold until he could pounce with the occasional great hand. He filled the long gaps in between by seeking advice from his playing partners about balancing work and family, crafting legislation and aligning with Republicans. Even as Obama routinely took their money, the other players regarded him as naive but genuine. In various capacities, Link, Walsh and Jacobs all considered themselves Obama's mentors.
Obama was never a big drinker, but he faithfully brought along a six-pack of beer and downed a couple. He smoked and pitched in for midnight pizza. The poker game eventually migrated to Link's house and became the one social staple on Obama's schedule. The Committee Meeting, Obama called it -- and the appointment stood for eight years. His poker-mates sometimes teased him for becoming "one of the good ol' boys."

As a Democrat in a legislature controlled by Republicans, Obama had lots of free time in Springfield, and used it to take up golf. "After his first year in Springfield, Obama took a golf trip to southern Illinois with his top adviser, Dan Shomon," Saslow reports. "Obama wanted to test how rural voters would respond to a black man, because he already had designs on a run for statewide office. Shomon coached him: Order regular mustard instead of Dijon; wear simple golf shirts instead of fancy button-downs. Obama returned from the trip convinced he could assimilate." (Read more)

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