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Confessions From The Obama Campaign Trail: Reporter Finds Empty Suit

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Covering Obama 18 hours a day — in and out of the limelight — offers few glimpses of his true self. When in robo-candidate mode, he can be sort of dull, a Los Angles Times reporter finds.

By Peter Nicholas
October 28, 2008

One of the things we in the press try to do is tell politicians how they’ve screwed up. So it was a rare instance when I told Barack Obama to his face that I was the one who’d made the mistake.

Let me explain. For the last year and a half I’ve covered the presidential race, focusing first on Hillary Clinton, then moving over to Obama.

After Clinton’s defeat in the Iowa caucuses, she decided she needed an emergency reinvention. She began mixing with reporters, sipping a glass of wine late at night in the aisle of her campaign plane and unburdening herself about the state of the race. As her prospects dimmed, her accessibility grew. Sometimes she was off the record, but you can’t say she wasn’t fun.

Not so with Obama. One of the striking ironies is that a man who draws tens of thousands of people to his rallies, whose charisma is likened to that of John F. Kennedy, can be sort of a bore.

Discipline is essential for candidates who want to drive home a consistent message, or avoid the self-sabotage that comes with a careless answer. A steely perseverance helps explain why Obama at this point stands a better than even chance of becoming the 44th president. But when you’re exposed to the guy 18 hours a day, it’s a bit maddening. You want him to loosen up.

I’ve watched Obama demonstrate a soccer kick to his daughter in Chicago; devour a cheesesteak in Philly; navigate a roller rink in Indiana; drive a bumper car; and catapult 125 feet in the air on an amusement-park ride called “Big Ben.” He’s done it all with dogged professionalism, but with little show of spontaneity. After all this time with him, I still can’t say with certainty who he is.

A couple of images from the long campaign stay with me.

One was watching Obama enter an apartment building near his Chicago home for a morning workout. He wore dark sweats, a gray T-shirt and a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead. In those few seconds it took him to walk from the car to the building, with his head down, thin and solitary, he looked nothing like the adored politician presiding over rallies. It was a reminder that behind the hype and the TV ads is this one rather vulnerable-looking guy. And in that moment came the question: Is he really ready to take over the toughest job on the planet?

The other was a hot summer afternoon in Iowa. Obama was flipping burgers at a backyard barbecue, in what the campaign hoped would be an exquisite photo opportunity. A fly began circling his head. Then more flies. Pretty soon flies were swarming him, the burgers — everything. It was awful to watch. But in rhythmic fashion he began waving them off with his hand. He scooped up the burgers and headed back to the picnic table, as if nothing had gone wrong. That small episode told me something about Obama’s temperament. I would have wanted to fling the grill over the fence in frustration.

Both impressions came from a distance. A cordon of aides ensures nothing more intimate is available to the traveling press.

Once I stood a few feet from him as he fielded questions in the center aisle of his plane. Press aide Linda Douglass stood directly behind him, monitoring the Q&A. After a bit, Douglass discreetly put her hand on his lower back. He ignored it. She did it again, pressing harder. This time, Obama said he had to go.

Of course, at Obama’s level, there’s no such thing as harmless chatter. There’s a pattern to these moments. Obama comes to the back of the plane. Light banter ensues, usually about Obama’s favorite baseball team, the White Sox. Then a reporter slowly pulls out a tape recorder and turns it on. Obama notices. Now he’s more cautious. More tape recorders pop up, and pretty soon we’re back to a recitation of his stump speech.

The chances to gain insights into his character were like rare mutations in the evolution of his campaign.

One day in July, I was the pool reporter at an event in Zanesville, Ohio, meaning I was responsible for writing up for the rest of the press corps Obama’s visit to a ministry that was tutoring young students. Again kept at a distance, I watched as Obama chatted with the kids. One boy approached him and held out his fist. Obama drew back. “If I start that . . .” he said. From where I stood, it looked like he was refusing a request for a fist bump — a gesture that had gotten a lot of attention after Obama fist-bumped his wife at a campaign event the month before. A Fox News host had even suggested that it was a “terrorist fist jab.” If Obama was rolling out a no-fist-bump policy, that seemed worth mentioning.

The pool report quickly got around.

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times cited the episode in her column. Obama complained to an aide that it hadn’t happened that way. He was right. A videotape of the conversation would later show the boy was merely asking Obama to autograph his hand.

We heard Obama was steamed. On the plane later, Obama was working his way up the aisle, past reporters. He got to me.

It was no one’s fault but mine, so I told him: “Senator, I was the one who wrote the flawed pool report.” I wanted him to know that, but I was also curious to see how he would react. He looked at me and said he appreciated that I had ‘fessed up. Changing the subject, he asked me about my hat. I wear a big floppy hat on sunny days, and he had seen it at an outdoor news conference.

“I use it to block the sun,” I said.

Does the brim cover your ears? Obama asked.

“Well, my ears,” I said.

He drew back and laughed. You’re making fun of my ears?! he said.

I told him our family has had medical issues with the sun. He quietly took that in. I wasn’t expecting any empathy — and didn’t need any — but I felt surprised nonetheless that he evinced little or no interest. It seemed like a chance to make a human connection, if he wanted one.

In any case, I held out my fist. He looked quizzically at it for a second, then realized what I was doing.

“That’s what I’m talking about!” he said. We fist-bumped, and he moved on. The animation he showed in that instant surprised me; it doesn’t seem that he lets himself laugh much.

There was another moment not long ago when I tried to wrest from Obama some display of personality.

Amy Chozick, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was wearing a new engagement ring. I told Obama’s staff members they should send him back to take a look. A few minutes before takeoff my seatmate, Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, nudged me: “He’s coming back.” I looked up and there he was, hovering over Chozick, clucking about her “rock.”

He turned to our row. Just for fun and to see what he might say, I held out the $200 wedding ring I’d purchased four years ago at a chain jewelry store in a Sacramento mall.

What do you think of this ring, Senator? I asked.

He looked at it for a few beats. No reaction. He was back in robo-candidate mode.

Zeleny then asked him about a recent debate. Obama chided him for asking the question, then eased back to his seat at the front of the plane without answering. I later asked Douglass if Obama understood I was joking. She assured me he did.

First Clinton, then John McCain made the argument that Obama is someone we don’t really know. Obama’s supporters counter that we have his record in the U.S. and Illinois senates (but of course the Illinois Senate records are now missing, or don’t exist), two memoirs that reveal his inner thinking and a vast trove of staged, controlled public speaking.

Ironically, those of us who were sent out to take his measure in person can’t offer much help in answering who he is, or if he is ready. The barriers set in place between us and him were just too great.

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