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Charles Madigan

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Obama's Election: Destiny Called

Posted: 11/23/09 07:14 PM ET

It sounds pretty arrogant--"I'm going to find a new way to write about politics" -- but that was my objective with Destiny Calling: How the People Elected Barack Obama. My sense was that the old hierarchy -- newsroom elites deciding what was important, reporters following orders and each day filing dozens of very similar stories from the campaign trail -- was melting away.

I was out of the game, one of a small army of veterans who either chose to leave the Chicago Tribune or were invited to leave to cut costs. But I wasn't done with politics yet, particularly in light of Obama's campaign, its epicenter in Illinois, and an awareness that a new kind of history was being written. Media may have been in collapse, but I wasn't. I needed to find a better (and frankly, cheaper) way to do it.

I concluded that what was most important was the condition of the nation after eight years of George W. Bush. What a disaster the man created! -- from Hurricane Katrina (the natural catastrophe he couldn't handle), to a pair of badly managed wars, to ethical behavior that recalled 19th Century politics, to a shattering economy with all its consequences still to play out. It seemed clear to me that the story of this campaign would not be told in an airplane flying over the nation. I wanted to find the people who reflected the problems I identified.

2009-11-24-destiny.jpgThat took me to Mississippi to talk with a Katrina victim; to North Carolina to watch a campaign play out through the eyes of a political veteran; to Maryland, where a valiant retired army colonel told me about the price of war and why he would vote for the first person who promised to bring the troops home; and lots of other places to talk about the fissures of the economy.

There is nothing traditional about the book I wrote. It is defined by special people who reflect on the state of the nation. One of the most interesting pieces, to me, played out in Evanston, Illinois, where I spent some time with a woman I have known for years, Birch Burghardt. She did a big favor for me: she watched the Republican convention on television and set down her thoughts for me. Here is how I told her story in Destiny Calling.

Giving people are hard to find. Some people just send money. Some people send their concerns or their wishes for the best. Some people send their prayers. Birch Burghardt does all of that, but she also sends herself, which makes her unusual in the firmament of givers. Whether it's supporting after-school programs for disadvantaged children or tackling that biggest of all challenges, teaching in the Chicago Public Schools, somehow she has been there. There are people like this all over the North Shore of Chicago, folks who could sit comfortably back, send a check now and then, and feel just fine about it. But they don't. The place fairly buzzes with do-gooders, many of whom actually do good instead of just talking about it.

Burghardt lives in a couple of places, one of them Evanston and one of them an island off Seattle where she and her husband Galen have constructed a dream house for themselves and their children. A strong singer and lover of folk music, she is frequently seen in the company of her daughter, a tall blond like herself with blue eyes and the gift of a strong alto. It is a very musical family.

I asked her to watch the Republican convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul and tell me what she thought of the performances. I believed she would be particularly astute at this assignment because, first of all, she is fair-minded, and second, she is very smart, with a master's degree in economics from Georgetown and a doctorate in education from Northwestern.

She has an interesting background. Burghardt was born in New Haven, Connecticut. She went to public schools in Farmington then shifted to private schools. She spent her childhood in such a Republican family that she would be sent to school wearing a little gold elephant pin that said GOP on it, or "I Like Ike" buttons. All of that changed in the 1970s and 1980s, when her family abandoned the GOP and became activist Democrats in the wake of the Nixon administration and Watergate. They were inspired by Jimmy Carter.

Burghardt wants the next president to be careful about balance on the Supreme Court. She hopes he will not be so partisan when it comes to filling high court vacancies. She wants serious action on the environment -- not that she believes the nation can turn back the clock, but it has to make a commitment "to reduce our negative impact on the environment." Having taught school in Chicago, she knows "the immensity of the challenges faced by the schools," so federal funding efforts are important.

Then she pops up with an issue that sounds classically conservative to me: "balance the budget." But she adds that she would support tax increases to do that, which sounds Democratic again. She does not like the fact that the Chinese hold so much of America's debt.

Put it all together and you end up with a voter who looks a lot like many independent voters across the country -- concerned about social issues like education and improving living conditions around the world, a little conservative on budget questions, and an advocate for public schools. It's healthy that her positions are not predictable, because most people don't fit handily into the boxes created for them. There are gun-owning liberals, for example, and conservatives who deeply oppose the death penalty. There are libertarians who feel pot smoking is just fine, and Democrats who support strong enforcement action on all drugs.

Simple categories are just not broad enough for people like Burghardt. Because of her background as an economist, she has an inherent distrust of big government and what it can do. At the same time she liked the description "compassionate conservative" when it appeared in Republican circles in 2000 because it sent the message that you could be conservative and also care about the well-being of your fellow man. "It really made me think that people do care," she said. "They want there to be goodness. They want there to be kindness. They want there to be relationship and caring. They want to help people who need help, but they are still conservative." She hastened to point out that she believed President Bush was disingenuous and never voted for him.

By the time of the Republican convention, with its faux start because of Hurricane Gustav, she had been following both sides of the contest closely and was eager to see what the Republicans had to say. My sense was that even though I thought of her as liberal, she could be swayed by a good argument to do an about-face. Her comments on the convention indicated that was likely true, up to a point -- the point being the arrival of Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

"I thought that at the beginning, McCain and Fred Thompson were incredibly eloquent. And they said what was most important. The most compelling thing about McCain, I think, is that he has, in the past, been really open and really productive, often working across the aisle. He has that experience of being a prisoner of war and being very loyal to the United States. I think that's compelling. Whether it's important or not, I don't know. When I watched those speeches, I thought, 'Huh, maybe I'd vote for McCain. Too bad I don't agree with him on some points.'"

"When Sarah Palin gave her speech, I hated it. She was so sarcastic. I thought she was playing herself up as a great person, really spunky and neat, right? But not really a person of substance so much as a person of punch and power. And then this nastiness that came out, I was very sad ... Then [Rudy] Giulani's speech -- same thing. I thought he was unpleasant ... I mean, when he smiles it looks strange. So anyway, I thought, 'Okay, good. I don't have to vote for McCain.'"

As the convention progressed, Burghardt thought it was clear that the Republicans were still working on the party base, very late in the game. All the speeches seemed aimed at convincing the party faithful they had nominated the right candidate, even though his conservative credentials were hardly sterling. And the more she found out about Palin, the more concerned she became that the Alaska governor was unprincipled.

Palin's problem with the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere" got Burghardt's attention. The Alaska governor claimed she had canceled the project, a pet project of Alaska senator Ted Stevens, but that happened only after she first supported the construction project, then nixed it and used the money for other highway construction.

"There's that," she said. "I mean, the New York Times has biases, but they probably don't report falsehoods. Then there's the trooper story, which just makes me think, 'I want a slime ball like that as president?' Inexperienced and a slime ball. An emotional slime ball. Oh God!"

McCain put the deal breaker on the table for Burghardt when he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. Burghardt is not a vulgar woman, so when a "bitch" slips out, she gets a little pink and apologizes. It's a fetching gesture, but not a good sign for the McCain-Palin ticket.

In making her decision, true to form Burghardt didn't just send money or offer lip service. She gave herself to the Obama campaign.