Enjoy it, Mr. Obama - it won't last

October 24, 2006|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Memo to Sen. Barack Obama: That giant swooshing sound that you hear is the roar of a media wave, urgently pushing you to run for president. Don't let it go to your head. What the media giveth, we can take away - and usually we do, shortly after the candidate announces.

Time magazine featured you on its cover. My conservative column-writing colleague David Brooks urges you to run, even though he admits he may not vote for you because "the times will never again so completely require the gifts that he possesses." And you can't beat the publicity boost of the happy hour on The Oprah Winfrey Show with your wife, Michelle.

Political life doesn't get much better than this. And you know what? For you, it most likely will not get any better than this. Enjoy your sweet media treatment. Worse is bound to come.

Colin L. Powell's experience is instructive. In 1996, after the Los Angeles riots, the O. J. Simpson verdict, the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings and the Million Man March, much of America longed for a commanding candidate-of-color to confirm that we really were a land of merit and opportunity after all. President Bill Clinton was "apoplectic ... terrified" of a Powell campaign taking away black voters, Clinton adviser Dick Morris told interviewers later - just as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's team is said to be on pins and needles about Mr. Obama.

But Mr. Powell took a pass, and after his unfortunate association with the Iraq war, his big moment has passed.

Now it is your moment, senator, to weigh the upside against the naysayers: You're too young? Hey, as Michael Tackett, the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau chief, pointed out, you would be older than Mr. Clinton and John F. Kennedy were when they ran for president. Too inexperienced? That didn't stop John Edwards. Besides, Senate experience may be overrated, judging by history: Only two presidents were elected while serving as senators.

Wait for 2012? You could be running against an incumbent president from your own party. Awkward. Or you could face an incumbent from the other party. Difficult. For the foreseeable future, only 2008 offers an open campaign with no incumbent president or vice president planning to run. That's rare. Seize the day, I say.

But that doesn't mean your E-ZPass on the turnpike to the White House will stay valid for long. Once you declare your candidacy, expect the media to turn on you, picking your life apart all the way back to your preschool playmates.

And the bigger your popularity, the more vicious the attacks from your rivals will be. Even in this day, some rivals might play, yes, the race card.

Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. has found that out. The young Tennessee Democrat has been in a tight race to be the first African-American senator elected from the South since Reconstruction. Fearing his success, a group calling itself "Tennesseans for Truth" has aired a radio ad so racially inflammatory that Mr. Ford's Republican opponent, Bob Corker, denounced it.

The ad portrays Mr. Ford's membership in the Congressional Black Caucus as if the group were some kind of anti-white conspiracy and smears the caucus' appeals for "aid to black Americans" as "discrimination at its worst."

Mr. Obama, in this season of partisan rancor, a Capitol Hill sex scandal involving pages and less-than-inspiring leadership in both parties, you embody the politics of hope. But such moments don't last forever.

I hope you run. Americans deserve to be offered that choice. Besides, you may never again see this many people who are this eager for you to run. Just don't expect us to be nice to you after you decide to do it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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