Five years ago, I was back home in Chicago. My family drove into the city one evening from Glencoe to visit relatives. Standing by the kitchen, I picked up the newspaper and began reading about the Democratic primary for U.S. Senator which was then going on. It was a fascinating race, with some well-known (and very well-funded) locals vying at the top. I turned to Dick Mandel to find out who he favored.
I've always trusted Dick's opinions on most things. A bright, erudite, outspoken fellow, he's one of those people you're really glad is in your family for any number of reasons. He's been a lawyer in Chicago for an extremely long time, involved with wonderful causes, most recently children's education, and I knew he knew Chicago politics inside and out, as well as Illinois politics.
It was a surprise therefore when he answered, "There's this guy, Barack Obama, who's just great."
The surprise wasn't that he named this Obama person, but that - checking the list - Dick is very astute, and Obama was in sixth place. And there were only six candidates running. I pointed this out, but Dick wasn't phased. "He's great. I've worked with him briefly, and he's really impressive." Well, okay, but of the people who had a chance of winning, who did Dick like? Sorry, he wouldn't budge from Barack Obama.
(Side note: it was on one of those children's programs that they had crossed paths.)
At that point, I began to follow this Obama guy. I started seeing lots of lawn signs for him in the North Shore suburbs, where my folks lived. And going back to California, I began telling friends about this Obama. And little by little, I watched as he moved up the ranks and eventually won the Democratic nomination. I gained a lot of street cred from my friends when they saw that Obama guy electrify the Democratic National Convention with a speech that launched to the White House.
"Is that the guy you were telling us about???!" I kept getting asked. "He's amazing!!" He was. But it wasn't any great prescience on my part. I was just smart enough to pass along what Dick had told me.
It turns out that a lot of people in my circle knew all about this Obama long before I did. All I had to do was listen and be smart enough to remember.
Indeed, through the intervening years, I kept having other little paths cross my way, out of the mainstream, but all noting behind the scenes how brilliant this Barack Obama was.
My almost too-accomplished friend Nell Minow of the Corporate Library (you can regularly watch her on CSPAN testifying before Congress, railing against corporate malfeasance, long before it became cool) mentioned that her sister Martha had been Barack Obama's law professor at Harvard - and thought he was so amazing that she recommended him to her father. It's worth noting that this is the only time she recommended a student to her father - and that Obama was only a first-year student - and the firm didn't take first-year students for its intern program. Her father, Newton Minow (the renowned former FCC Chairman under President Kennedy, who coined the famous phrase calling TV a "vast wasteland"), was smart enough to listen to his children, and this Obama fellow was hired at his Chicago firm, Sidley Austin. In case you haven't been following the torrent of warm-hearted profiles, that's where Barack Obama met Michelle Robinson. Newton Minow became one of Barack Obama's early political mentors.
It's not well-known, but the moment Barack Obama is sworn in as president, this country owes a lot to this Minow family.
And the paths keep winding.
One day, driving home, I was listening to Randi Rhodes ranting against those who where wrongly claiming how Obama got his start in Chicago, that it wasn't through former radicals at all. "You want to know where he got his start?" she asked. "His first coffee was given by a rabbi! Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, that's who gave Barack Obama his very first fundraiser."
Something else Rabbi Wolf gave was, one year, a boxful of Hanukkah gifts to me and my brother. He had been my rabbi when our family attended Congregation Solel, in Highland Park, Illinois. Always very liberal (he marched in Selma, brought temple members to Washington, D.C., to protest the Vietnam War, and invited Rev. Martin Luther King to speak), he left the temple after 25 years to move to Yale, but eventually returned to Chicago, where he led Chicago's oldest temple, K.A.M. Isaiah Israel.
Across the street from his temple lived a fellow named Barack Obama. And he became one of Mr. Obama's earliest champions.
All of these are only paths, though. Small weavings in and out that are a part of Barack Obama making many people feel that he connects with their lives.
But it's one other comment that has stuck with me and says most loudly why today America is celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States.
On election night, I called my family. Talking with my father, Edward, himself a bright, erudite wonderful fellow who has lived through much in the past century. I asked him a question that I'm sure was asked countless times throughout the country that night. "In your entire life," I said, "did you ever think you'd see a Black man elected president?" Immediately he answered what almost everyone must have answered, "No," he replied. However, after only the briefest pause, he added something else, so pointed, so wise.
"But then, in my entire life, I never saw a candidate like Barack Obama."