As the Democratic Party nomination race moves to a close-- the relatively unknown Illinois Senator pulling ahead of a political powerhouse-- the race begins to further parallel another historic run.
Prairie State "DD"s are behind both races: Dave Davis and Dick Durbin guided their respective Illinois candidates, Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, out of obscurity and onto the national stage. Last year a Midwestern Barack Obama campaign coordinator told me that Obama's declaring in Springfield was a nod to Lincoln's beginnings, but these parallels did not resonate with the rest of the country the way the did here in the Land of Lincoln.
Hillary Clinton was born in Illinois, and Obama chose to move here as a young lawyer. During the crucial primaries last week, Clinton's staffers called Bloomington, Illinois, radio station WJBC to ask how election day was going. It was the wrong Bloomington. They meant to call Bloomington, Indiana. The radio hosts had good fodder for the day but, in all fairness, local lore describes Sean Penn once flying here to visit John Mellencamp. Again, the wrong Bloomington.
This is the Bloomington where Dave Davis, a judge who rode the Illinois judicial circuit with Lincoln, encouraged his friend to run for the nation's highest office. Davis became Lincoln's campaign manager once he agreed to run, and the small-town judge eventually served in the US Supreme Court. Davis had already voted in the Illinois legislature to repeal all laws that distinguished between black and white Americans decades before the end of slavery, a vote that shows why he worked so hard to convince Lincoln to run on behalf of the unraveling United States. When Lincoln finally consented to run, an autobiography was requested by journalist Jesse Fell of Bloomington. Lincoln took his time, finally adding, "There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much to me." At the first Republican National Convention, Davis was instrumental in fighting for every possible delegate. According to some historians, there was already a strong feeling that the new party's candidate would be unstoppable in the general election.
Senator Dick Durbin is Barack Obama's original Illinois advocate. He first posted an online petition encouraging the candidacy in 2006, the year this photo was taken in Metropolis, Illinois:
"I've known Barack since he was first elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996, and I'm impressed by what he has accomplished in his relatively short political career. I'm also proud to call him my friend."
The Midwest is not where one comes for false flattery. It is often an ideal spot for no flattery at all, so when a trusted adviser says that now is the time to run for president, apparently there is a good chance that that the advice will be convincing. In Durbin's online petition he also wrote:
"Not only does Senator Obama do a wonderful job representing the people of Illinois, in just a few short years he has proven himself to be an incredibly inspirational national leader. From his memorable and unifying speech at the Democratic National Convention to his new book The Audacity of Hope, Barack has shown that he has the best interests of all Americans at heart. That is why I want to see Barack run for President in 2008. I believe that he is the right man to lead our country at a time of such turmoil around the globe, and will bring Americans together at a time in our nation's history when we need unity more than ever."
Long before the race came down to Clinton and Obama, Durbin also compared Barack to Bill:
"In all my years in politics, I have only met one other person who connects with people as well as Barack does: former President Bill Clinton. That says a lot about Barack's superior skills as a politician and a leader. I have complete confidence that Barack will be able to unite Americans across our country in support of a new agenda of hope. As his memorable speech at the 2004 convention proved, Barack understands that our country isn't as simply divided between red and blue as political commentators seem to believe. There isn't a monolithic "red state voter" who is different in every way from her blue state counterpart, but rather there are Americans in every corner of our country who have their own hopes, dreams, and communities -- and many more of these overlap than conflict. With a unifying leader like Barack Obama in the White House, I know that we can overcome the deep divisions that cause such unnecessary friction to arise between red and blue, both in Washington and in our nation as a whole. That is why I hope you will join me in urging Barack to run for President."
The DDs-- Davis and Durbin-- are a minor parallel but as the Illinois Senators' comparisons multiply, it's a jumping off point. Yesterday Durbin was quoted in the Associated Press saying:
"Nothing was ever the same" after Obama's Boston speech. Durbin recalls pulling Obama into a vacant meeting room in Chicago's Union League Club, where both had spoken on a Friday afternoon in November 2006. He felt it was time for his young colleague to decide whether to run for the White House. "There are moments in life when you can pick the time," Durbin said he told Obama. "But when it comes to running for president, the time can pick you. You've been picked. This is your moment." A short time later, Obama launched his candidacy."
Next year is the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birthday, and a "Riding the 8th Circuit with Lincoln" tour will begin and end in Bloomington. History will decide whether Durbin's encouragement is as significant as Davis's was, but Barack Obama signs are beginning to spring up on front lawns across town in the birthplace of the Republican Party.