I've finally snagged a one-on-one interview with the political rock star of the 2008 cycle, Barack Obama, who while not number one in the polls has raised mo' money and exudes more Mojo than any other candidate on the trail and still sits in the top tier of the Democratic presidential candidate circle.
Don't ask how I did it. All I can say is that it's been a combination of persistence, patience, pleading (groveling? oh yeah) and a local press pass didn't hurt, either.
Still, this is the most tightly controlled press lockdown of any presidential campaign I've ever covered and I've been doing this since the 1980 election, mostly reporting on the ground from the first caucus state in the nation and my hometown, Des Moines, Iowa.
So far as I can recall, Senators Clinton and Obama have only deigned to give one press conference while campaigning in Iowa.
Their handlers prefer their candidates spend time (when not making fundraising calls) with actual voters where, just by chance, they can easily slip slide around tough questions from non-reporters and dole out the same pat answers, successfully avoiding the press dogging their every move and itching for clarity.
Frankly, even in a one-on-one interview it's nearly impossible to get them off-message and glimpse a real human being under their carefully scripted personal narratives and candidate façades, but I gave it a try and for a few precious minutes in this weird and wacky world of presidential politicking, the magic moment occurred when Barack was just being Barack.
Arriving at 9:30 in the morning at the Holiday Inn parking lot in Des Moines for my hook-up with the Obama entourage of six shinny SUV's, a half dozen secret service agents, Iowa Highway Patrol cars, and young staffers for the 12-hour day traveling over three hundred miles of dusty roads and jam-packed campaign events, I climbed into Obama's suburban after the
obligatory photo op.
Two Secret Service agents slid into the front seat. Barack and I were in the second seat, and my colleague, Stefan Janny sat in the third seat with one of Obama's Iowa press guys who was already slamming on his digital recorder even before I did. The staffers are there to protect their
god-candidates day and night but that's another story.
I am granted a rare 20-25 minutes for my interview in between bumps and lurches of the speed bending Iowa Highway patrol cars sweeping the inside and outside lanes of Interstate 35, guaranteeing no vehicle could pass the long and impressive Obama caravan that would make any other presidential candidate - except Hillary Clinton - drool with envy.
In Obama's defense, the Secret Service detail is required - obviously his life has been threatened, so he's got no choice in the matter. It gives the illusion that he is already President just as Hillary Clinton's Secret Service Dudes and Dudettes make her seem more presidential than any junior senator deserves to be.
OffTheBus: What about driving all these gas guzzling SUV's? We're just now riding in a large suburban, probably a 2-ton car, when you've stated numerous times that the US is consuming too much oil and that's one of your major issues.
As president what would you do to reduce the oil dependency in the country?
Senator Obama: [A slow smile creeps across his face] "I've already talked to the Secret Service about getting equipment that is more fuel efficient, but I have no control over that at this point.
Look, I've been a strong promoter of increased fuel efficiency standards in cars. If we were able to just increase our fuel efficiency to just 40 miles per gallon we would end up saving the equivalent of all the oil we import from the Persian Gulf.
I think we should combine that with what I call a national low carbon fuel standard, where we're encouraging a greater use in clean energy blends. Those two things alone would save us enormous amounts of oil and would also make significant reduction in greenhouse gasses.
I gave this speech to a group of car makers in Detroit. There wasn't a lot of applause."
Inside the SUV, the 6 foot 2 inch Senator strikes a patrician pose; head cocked ever so slightly but sitting erect with chin held high. His white shirt is without a tie. His black slacks are neatly pressed.
He is casually elegant when out on the trail and he absentmindedly thumbs through his Blackberry apologizing, "Sorry, I'm expecting something."
Senator Obama slips his Blackberry into the compartment behind the front seat, and then turns toward me looking a bit bored at the prospect of spending these rare quiet moments talking to a journalist in a day filled with talking to strangers.
He yawns and excuses himself again as he gazes out the window watching acres of soybean and cornfields fields as the caravan speeds by. Obama is not a morning person.
He sips green tea at breakfast, swigs countless bottles of water and munches on trail mix during the day. His staff tells me, "He's not a snacker."
He chews Nicorette gum when he feels the need after kicking the smoking habit shortly (like days) before he announced his candidacy.
It's at this moment that I can't help feeling compassion for him or anyone who puts him or herself through this horrific grind.
Ok, it's not like they're digging ditches or working the graveyard shift at a convenience store, but I have a tremendous urge to throw my copious notes away and just hang.
However, the clock is ticking, so I go jump back into reporter mode:
OffTheBus: Many in this country and others around the world are skeptical about us going out and talking about human rights when we see what's going on in our own country - the recent case in Jena, Louisiana as an example - and the obvious lack of equal rights here.
In Bernard Henri-Levy's book, American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Paperback), he noted the danger of the tyranny of the majority in America's version of democracy - the majority overwhelming and denying the rights of the minority - and now we have the suspension of habeas corpus, Guantanamo, CIA spying on US citizens.
As president, what are you going to do about restoring human rights here?
Senator Obama: "A lot of the encroachments on civil liberties have been done not by legislation but through Executive Order, so one of the things I want to do is first of all have an Attorney General that believes in protecting Constitutional Rights and the separation of powers and have him or her and the Justice Department engage in a through evaluation of our Executive Orders. Restoring Habeas Corpus, Closing Guantanamo, strengthening the role of the FISA court in reviewing wire tape requests. Those are all areas were we can more rapidly rollback some of the more damaging aspects of President Bush's approach."
OffTheBus: Every time I go to any campaign event the Iraq War comes up. In your response to Senator Petraeus's [report] you said you would bring all the troops out within a year. If you become president, you would take office in January 09. How soon would you withdraw troops in that case and how many troops would you leave?
Senator Obama: "Let me be very clear about what I said. I said I would begin immediately an orderly withdrawal, one to two brigades per month. At that pace, we would have our combat troops out next year. We would still have a force in the region, although how many in Iraq proper vs. outside of Iraq would be in part determined by recommendations by the commanders.
Their functions would be to carry out protective measures for our embassy and our diplomats and civilians there.
We would also want to have a strike force capable going after Al-Queda in Iraq and we would I think be open to providing training to a non-sectarian Iraqi security force. But what we can't do is to train sectarians who are essentially just fueling civil war, that would not be a good use of our.... [Phone rings] I'm sorry, this is my wife."
Ah, so here it comes, the moment when the presidential candidate steps out of his campaign skin and becomes - for a few minutes - an ordinary person like the rest of us caring about the small stuff that makes life worth living.
He answers the phone and awakens from his presidential candidate slumber:
"Goal! That's outstanding! [ talking to his daughter] Tell me about it, how did it happen? Ah, uh. Wow, that is outstanding. This is your first goal of the season isn't it? This is excellent. I'm very proud of you. We'll have to celebrate when I get home. All right, well, have fun sweetie. I'm proud of you. All right. Love you.
[Now talking to his wife] Hey, well that's good. Solid kick, uh? All right. Well, you tell her I'm proud of her. Bye."
Senator Obama tells us that his oldest daughter, Malia has just scored a goal for her soccer team and they won their match this morning.
"Way to go proud, Dad," and everyone laughs, including Obama.
"I take full credit," he says with his typical self-deprecating humor but quickly settles back into completing his last response:
Senator Obama: "Where were we? Oh yes, Iraq. None of this makes any sense. The premise of drawing down troops is not just that America can't continue to finance this war, it's also that it's the only way to bring about security, long term in the region, based on political accommodations
between the various factions there and it's my strong belief that until we get we get political accommodation we're not going to see any real stability inside Iraq and we'll continue to see instability in the region."
OffTheBus: What part do you see the neighboring states playing in a political solution?
Senator Obama: "I think they're going to be critical and we've got to talk directly with Iran and Syria as well as our friends like Jordan in the region and insist that they all have a stake in stabilizing Iraq.
Iran and Syria have been destabilizing influences but part of the reason they have been able to engage in this destabilizing behavior is that the United States is there to keep a lid on things. They can't afford to have Iraq collapse into an all-out civil war that potentially spill over into
their nations and they know that.
They already have huge numbers of refugees, certainly Syria is already housing hundreds of thousands of refugees and it's putting a strain on them. Jordan is potentially a destabilizing situation. So, we've got to convene a robust diplomatic effort in the region and it includes the
permanent members of the UN Security Council."
OffTheBus: At the same time Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. Is there enough being done to prevent Iran from doing that and bringing Iran into compliance?
Senator Obama: "No"
OffTheBus: What could or should the US do?
Senator Obama: "Our phased withdrawal from Iraq will facilitate better relationships with our allies like France and we need to work with Russia and China and India and other countries that have more influence over Iraq than we do to tighten up sanctions. But it's hard for us to do that when our position in Iraq so dominates how people view this country."
OffTheBus: You mentioned Russia. Do you perceive a cold peace, if not another cold war with Russia given their anti-democratization of the country, the media, and the government?
Senator Obama: "Obviously, the direction that Putin has taken the government has been discouraging and in part, it's been facilitated by an over-optimistic view that transition both under Yeltzin and then under Putin. We didn't get in there earlier enough and shore up some of the democratic forces there.
I think there was a toleration of corruption and it's been unfortunate that George W. Bush turned a blind eye and sent signals early on that there would be no consequences for his [Putin's] anti-democratic behavior.
Now, at this point, flush with Petro-dollars, Putin is largely ignoring any human rights imperatives and probably the best thing we can do at this point is to try to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and soften up the oil market and to work in coordination with our European allies to find areas where we can find areas to work together with Russia on anti-terrorism, on Iran, on non-proliferation.
But [we need to] send a clear signal to them [Russians] that the direction they are moving in when it comes to civil society, cracking down on journalism, etc. is contrary to becoming a part of the community of nations that is in their long term self interest."
OffTheBus: You just mentioned US European allies. Have you met any of the new European leaders and what is your impression of them?
Senator Obama: "The three new leaders who have come into power - Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Zarchozy. Of those three, only Zarchozy have I met. I had a cordially relationship with Tony Blair before he left office and my intention and my hope is that the next time I am in Europe that I have an opportunity to meet with the other two as well.
My sense is that all three of them are practical leaders who ought to move their country forward and continue to modernize their policies to adapt to a global economy. All three of them are interested in pursuing effective relations with the United States.
I don't get any of them are running against the United States in ways that some European leaders have done in the past. But, I also think that they are understandably skeptical of some of the Bush Administration policies that have appeared to be unilateral.
Part of the job for the next president is to send a strong signal that we want to be full partners with them and that we are listening to them and not just trying to dictate policy."
OffTheBus: When it comes to actually building relationships whether here in Congress or within the states or elsewhere [Obama yawns and says, "It's been a long week."], George Bush looked into Putin's eyes and saw his soul. Are you going to be an emotional president like that and what is your process of actually building relationships and what values do you take into that process?
Senator Obama: "I don't think foreign policy is the place to be emotional and try to look into the souls of people. Foreign policy is the area where you have to be clear-eyed and realistic in your approach. But I do think that our foreign policy should also be driven by a broader set of values
and ideals; a belief in liberty and human rights and the dignity of all people. We have to understand that there are limits to United States ability to project those values through coercion but through example and through diplomatic pressure, economic, political and cultural influence, we can make a difference.
You start with the principal that you listen to everyone; that you talk to your friends as well as our foes. I'm not a believer that somehow we are punishing countries by refusing to talk to them. I think you also though understand that not all countries are going to share our values and we have to be clear about what stand for and what we believe in, and have a healthy skepticism about the motives and interests of many of the countries that we're dealing with but that doesn't mean we can't make hard headed assessments about areas of cooperation and mutual self-interests."
OffTheBus: You've been campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination for the past seven months, what have you learned?
Senator Obama: "I've found that the American people are desperate for a different kind of politics. They are really not only fed-up with the Bush/Cheney administration policies but they are also very weary of special interest-driven politics in Washington and the tone of politics. As a
consequence we've found a great receptivity to our message of change and bringing the country together.
I also think that ordinary Americans are frustrated over the lack of economic progress that they've seen in their own lives. There's a discrepancy, a gap, between the statistics of economic growth over the last six years and their stagnating wages and rising costs on everything on
health care to gasoline...so there's a lot of economic anxiety out there."
OffTheBus: Is that why you announced a plan for a middle class tax cut?
Senator Obama: "I think it reflects what I'm hearing from people that if your wages are flat lined and your costs are going up, then you feel squeezed and that's part of the reason by the way that I think you've seen such a low savings rate and high debt levels among individuals a lot of it
facilitated by home equity loans which are going to be banishing as a consequences of the sub-prime lending crisis.
But people have been borrowing to keep up; any time there is an emergency like an unexpected medical bill that really throws their budgets out of whack.
You've got young people taking on thousands of dollars of debt. I was at Iowa State [University] yesterday and they, the president of the student body, was telling me that the average student leaves with $27,000 worth of debt, now that's the average student at Iowa State, we're not talking about Harvard, Princeton or some fancy private school.
The average [individual student debt] is $27,000 and that means that there are probably a lot of kids are probably taking on $40 to $50,000 worth of debt."
OffTheBus: Was the Federal Reserve right in cutting interest rates to help institutional investors and financial institutions with all their sub-prime mortgage problems?
Senator Obama: "I think it was appropriate for the Fed to make sure that the credit crisis did not spill over or let me put it this way; I think it was appropriate for the Federal Reserve to try to prevent the credit crisis in the financial markets from spilling over more broadly into the economy. Whether it's going to accomplish that goal or not is not clear."
OffTheBus: So you would agree that to some extent that could be viewed as a partial bailout for certain financial institutions and share holders?
Senator Obama: "It's a tough balance to strike. My main concern is making sure as much as possible we avoid 2 million people losing their homes and that people here in Iowa and elsewhere across the country who are just barely getting' by already aren't hit further.
But obviously, that does raise questions, how do you discipline the big boys on WallStreet without hurting ordinary people and I guess I would ere on the side right now of just making sure people aren't losing their homes."
OffTheBus: I think it was the Economist that wrote you might do for the tie what President Kennedy did for the hat, meaning that many men stopped wearing hats after the Kennedy Administration and others may follow your habit of not wearing ties. What is your response to that?
Senator Obama: [He laughs] Yes, that's true though it wasn't always intentional, sometimes I just spill soup on my tie and I take it off."
The driver pulls over to a rest stop mid-way to their first event and I am escorted out of Senator Obama's van. He will make his fundraising calls or political organizing calls, wooing local powerful legislators and activists who can turn out the vote.
I return to my photographer's car, where we will follow the candidate for the rest of the day, but with a stern warning from the Secret Service, "Stay behind the caravan by 500 feet."
Senator Obama says, "Good-bye," shakes my hand and flashes his $75 million dollar smile that will shine frequently throughout the grueling day of campaigning in southern Iowa, not a bastion of Democratic voters. But even in these small county seat towns, he draws bigger crowds than any of his competitors.
How effectively Obama can transform these adoring fans - or just curious tire kickers - into caucus voters is the key to his success or failure in the first in the nation caucuses.
Obama holds up a caucus sign up sheet before and after every event. His political organizers are on the ground, handing out literature, gathering sign-up cards. He's doing what you have to do in Iowa - asking for their votes.
It's been a slice to snag this interview for OffTheBus and share this insider glimpse into the rarified air of one of America's most compelling politicians. He's a combination of contradictions; black and white, hip and stiff, patrician and community activist, celebrity and dad, savvy
politician and poetic writer.
But when I look back at my time spent with him, it comes to me that even if he doesn't win the nomination and if he does, even if he doesn't win the goal of the White House, Barack Obama will be O.K.
Beyond remaining on the national radar screen for years to come and selling million-dollar books that he (and not some flack) has written, he's got something else. He's got a life and I can imagine him standing on the sidelines, happy to watch his daughters score a goal even if he missed his this time around.