Barack Obama's outsized ambitions and his progressive politics have been on a crash course since that fateful day in October 2002 when the Chosen One truly began his public life.
The occasion was an antiwar rally in Chicago's Federal Plaza. Although the Obama faithful would memorialize the day, and Obama operatives would use it to flank Hillary Clinton to the left, the event itself had all the freshness of a Crosby, Stills & Nash reunion show on PBS.
Among its highlights: two thousand or so protesters dancing to the lively tunes of a kazoo band led by a marching skeleton only slightly distinguishable from the creaky SDS veterans who organized the show -- Marilyn Katz and Carl Davidson. For all their seeming obsolescence, however, the '60s-era radicals have become an increasingly potent force on the left side of the political aisle.
An out-of-the-closet communist, Davidson first met Barack Obama in 1996, when the aspiring state senator actively sought the endorsement of Davidson's New Party. Davidson and like-minded Marxists had created the party specifically to elect fellow travelers and useful idiots to political office. Obama apparently fit the bill. He secured the endorsement, and party volunteers proceeded to assist him in his successful campaign.
Six years later in Chicago, Obama's radical friends would call in their chits, and Obama obliged them with his antiwar speech. On the presidential stump at Dartmouth College in late 2007, Obama congratulated himself for "telling the truth to the American people even when it's tough, which I did in 2002."
It was not tough at all. Eight of Illinois' nine Democrats in the House would vote against the Iraq war resolution. So would its only Democrat senator, Dick Durbin. "I was risking my political career," Obama continued in his Dartmouth dissembling, "because I was in the middle of a U.S. Senate race."
Obama's campaign website in 2008 would formalize this petty deceit. "As a candidate for the United States Senate in 2002," it told us, "Obama put his political career on the line to oppose going to war in Iraq."
Of course, Obama did no such thing because he was no such candidate. An obscure state senator who had just been whipped his 2000 run for U.S. Congress by Black Panther emeritus Bobby Rush, Obama would not announce for the U.S. Senate until the following year. In reality, he would have risked his political career if he had turned down the invitation to speak at the rally.
As Michael Crowley, senior editor at the liberal New Republic, would report in February 2008, "Obama's best shot at the Democratic nomination involved consolidating a coalition of lakefront liberals and African Americans." Crowley quoted Obama's 2002-era campaign manager, Dan Shomon, on Obama's ambitions: "He knew, and I knew, that the liberal progressives were key in any Democratic primary."
Aggressively ambitious -- his friends had along ago taken to calling him "the governor" -- Obama still worried that an antiwar speech would hurt his long-term prospects. "What about the people that are for the war?" Obama reportedly asked Shomon. "Am I gonna have damage politically?"
Obama need not have worried. The speech written for him was as cagey and politically calculated as any in recent political history. In retrospect, its comic highlight was Obama's claim that "after September 11, after witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears ... I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such a tragedy from happening again."
This was the same man, by the way, who would address the jihadi slaughter at Fort Hood only after giving a jovial shout-out to a friendly chief at a gathering of American Indians.
In Chicago, however, with his potential presidency a running joke to everyone but himself, Obama could indulge in theatrics. As he told the antiwar crowd, he was "not opposed to war in all circumstances." He was opposed to "a dumb war" like the impending one in Iraq.
As to the rationale behind the war, still six months in the future, Obama cited "a cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz," the only two officials so named, "to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats." There was no reference to Bush, Cheney, Rice, or Rumsfeld -- just two then-obscure Jewish advisers within the Defense Department. What their actual agenda was went unsaid.
In Obama's defense, the implicit anti-Semitism of this riff had no more likely sprung from his brain than did the rest of the speech. The slur was radical inside-baseball, a lob to the lakefront libs from an anonymous one of their own.
For the larger public, Obama gave his belated approval to World War II and sang the praises of his grandfather, who fought in Patton's army and "heard the stories of fellow troops who first entered Auschwitz and Treblinka."
By Memorial Day 2008, however, Obama was claiming that it was his "uncle" who was "part of the first American troops to go into Auschwitz." When reminded that his mother was an only child and his father a Kenyan, Obama designated his "great uncle" as the liberator of Auschwitz.
This proved problematic as well because Auschwitz, as the Republican National Committee gleefully pointed out, was actually liberated by the Soviets. No matter. Obama was learning that he could say pretty much anything he wanted without consequence.
Unchallenged by the media, macho candidate Obama insisted throughout the campaign that if Iraq was a dumb war, then Afghanistan was the smart war, the necessary war, the war that he himself would have signed up to fight.
America's progressives understood Obama's need to be crafty, but they never cut him the slack the media did. Even during the heat of the primary campaign, in April 2008, radical kingmaker Bill Ayers was quietly cataloging America's efforts in Afghanistan among our "illegal wars of conquest and domination" and demanding reparations for the Afghan people.
In February 2009, less than five weeks into the Obama era, Ayers went public with his dissent when he told Alan Colmes on Hannity that Obama's decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan was a "colossal mistake."
"We've seen this happen before," Ayers continued, "We've seen a hopeful presidency, Lyndon Johnson's presidency, burn up in the furnace of war."
This past week, after the surge announcement, Ayers escalated his attack on Obama policy in the very Chicago streets in which the ambitious Obama first found his antiwar voice.
"I am here demonstrating against the war because I am appalled and alarmed that once again we are escalating the war," Ayers told an interviewer. "This is an absolute tragedy for the people of the Mideast, for Afghanistan, and for us."
Those few in the mainstream media who have noticed this schism have slighted it. If anything, they cite it as proof of conservatives' paranoia about the nature of Obama's relationship with his "supposed pal."
The media, however, have once again missed the obvious. As befits a prominent Weatherman, Ayers has long been signaling which way the lakefront winds are blowing. He and his progressive allies are no mere fringe. In the ideological void that is the Democratic Party, they are the only ones providing real direction.
On that windy day in 2002, they marshaled their forces to make Obama. As Obama knows, they can unmake him just as easily.