Sen. Barack Obama takes the stage tonight to accept the Democratic presidential nomination a mere four years after his speech to the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston propelled him to national prominence and preceded his first election to national office. A lot of people will be asking themselves, how did this guy get so far so fast? Talent and luck.
Barack Obama is one of the most naturally gifted American politicians in the last half century. His gift for oratory, his personal charm, and his sharp mind helped make him a star at an impressively young age. But Obama had as much help, if not more, from Lady Luck. It might be said that were it not for a string of sex scandals, Obama would still be awaiting his chance for political prominence in Chicago.
In 1994, U.S. Rep Mel Reynolds, Democrat of Chicago, was indicted on charges that he had sex with a 16-year-old campaign worker and pressured her to cover it up. The next year he was convicted on 12 counts of sexual assault, solicitation of child pornography, and obstruction of justice. That freed his seat, and state Senator Alice Palmer ran for it. She happened to be Obama’s state senator.
Obama announced his candidacy for Palmer’s seat not quite a month after Reynolds’ conviction. A few months later, Jesse Jackson Jr. defeated Palmer in the Democratic primary for Reynolds’ seat, and Palmer wanted her state Senate seat back. Obama said no. Palmer had to collect signatures to get her name on the ballot. Obama challenged them, and many were found to be ineligible. Not only that, but the Obama team was able to get every other challenger knocked off the ballot, too. So he wound up running unopposed, easily winning his first race for elected office.
In 1999, Obama ran against U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush. It was a mere three years after he was first elected to anything, and Obama was gunning for Congress. This time, no sex scandal. In fact, Rush’s son was murdered and his father died during the campaign. It’s hard to hit an opponent who has just had such tragedies strike. Obama lost — by 31 points.
But in 2004, Obama decided it was time to run for the U.S. Senate. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald was resigning, creating an open seat that drew a slew of Republican and Democratic hopefuls. On the Democratic side, securities trader Blair Hull put $29 million of his own money into the race and took early leads in the polls. But he crashed after his divorce records were unsealed, revealing that he’d hit his ex-wife and allegedly threatened her. Obama cruised to the nomination.
Jack Ryan won the Republican primary, but his candidacy collapsed when his divorce records were unsealed. They revealed that his ex-wife, Star Trek: Voyager actress Jeri Ryan, had alleged that Ryan took her to exotic sex clubs and pressured her to have sex in front of strangers. Ryan was replaced with increasingly eccentric Alan Keyes, and, of course, Obama won easily.
And of course, Obama’s campaign for the White House might have been very different were it not for two national sex scandals. The first was Bill Clinton’s, which gave his wife victim status and helped her emerge with the image of strength and steely determination. But it also turned a lot of Democrats away from the Clintons by sealing their reputations as liars who would say anything to further their careers.
The other scandal was the one that didn’t erupt until this summer — John Edwards’s. It is conceivable, as some have argued, that Hillary Clinton would have won the presidential nomination had Edwards’s affair been confirmed last year. Maybe, maybe not. But Edwards probably did take more votes from Clinton than from Obama.
Yes, Obama is an impressively gifted politician. But with all of that skill has come a great deal of luck. Today Obama accepts the Democratic presidential nomination just four years after being elected to national office and only 12 years after entering politics. In all that time, Obama has lost only one election. And that one was the only contested election in which Obama did not face an opponent tainted by a sex scandal. Maybe he is The Chosen One after all.
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