Saturday, November 16, 2019

Flashback 2006: Took shot at a politician, got call from a man

     Monday's column on the tempest over the Daily Northwestern daring to cover a news story mentioned that I once got was chewed out over the phone by Barack Obama. Regular reader Holger Meerbote was skeptical: "Barack Obama really called and yelled at you?? Over what, may I ask?" I sighed, and was about to explain it all, when I remembered I wrote a column about it—how could I not?
    It was back when my column filled a page and ended with a joke. I've kept the joke because it's an oldie but a goodie.

     The late Steve Neal was vigorous and unrelenting in his attacks on Sen. Dick Durbin. Eloquent, razor-sharp keelhaulings, again and again, for Durbin's bobbling O'Hare reconstruction, for his not commanding respect, for a variety of sins. This did not go over well with the senator. I remember Durbin once showing up for an editorial meeting. "Where's Steve Neal?" he demanded. "I want to see him!" You could tell he was angry. I, as the junior member of the board, was dispatched to Steve's office to go fetch him. But Steve had vanished, through luck or design, a skill I wish I could master.

                                                            * * *

     Late Friday afternoon. The Sunday column's in. Nothing much to do but clean off the desk, best I can—it never gets clean, or even close—drink one last cup of coffee, and call it a week.
     Phone rings. Barack Obama, from Africa. As if he's in the next room, as the cliche goes. My skin goes clammy, and I get a sinking in my gut, the way it felt when, as a kid, I'd get in bad trouble. Oh no. . . .
     He's mad. Not hopping mad, or temper-flaring mad, but steely, calm and controlled mad. We've crossed paths before, but that was politics, he says, and this is personal, and he's offended.
     "I didn't mean to offend you," I say, weakly, and that's true. I thought I was parsing the Gordian knot of racial politics. I presented his trip to Africa not as the sincere personal odyssey that the seal pack of journalists following him are describing, but as calculated political theater.
     Only Obama didn't read it that way. How could he? He saw it as my suggesting he's ashamed of his mother. Or neglecting his grandmother, whom he visits regularly. He was just Downstate, he says, just in Cairo—the press certainly covered it, though of course not to this extent. It wasn't the big deal Africa is because he only gets to Africa once every 14 years.
     I try to explain to Obama—I don't know about his personal life. I'm speaking of images, of politics, of how America views race, a subject that endlessly fascinates me. I didn't think he'd be offended—heck, I didn't even think he'd read it. Africa is far away, or used to be.
     He knows politics, he says, he knows the give and take. But we're friends, and this is over the line.
     "I'm sorry," I say, surrendering. "How can I make it up to you?"

* * *

     After Steve died, I felt duty-bound to take up the Durbin beat, to seize the bastinado and go after the senator. It was easy and fun.
     Then one day, the senator's office called—would I like to have breakfast with him?
     "You realize who you're calling?" I said. Yes indeedy.
     This put me in a pickle. I knew if I started taking meals with Durbin, I would never be able to lay into him the way I once had.
     On the other hand, a senator calls, you go. At least I do.
     At breakfast, Durbin waved off past misunderstandings. He was either sincere or masterful—probably both. Either way, I decided he wasn't the bad guy I once thought he was. We've been pals ever since. Co-opted? Educated? Probably both.

* * *

     Frankly, I can't even write about Obama's call without being aware that there's an undercurrent of bragging on my part—look at me, not an anonymous mediocrity trying to fill his space, but a real pundit, phoned up by God's chosen vessel in American politics, all the way from Africa on a Friday afternoon. Well, that's journalism. People hate us for a reason.
     In our defense, like politicians, we have various audiences. Readers who dislike Obama— and I've got 'em in droves—wonder who's paying for the trip, why he isn't at home, bringing the bacon to Illinois, instead of campaigning in a foreign land. They applauded my candor.
     Those who revere and respect Obama—and I've got them, too—hooted and questioned what I could possibly be thinking.
     My wife is among the latter group—she ran me over the coals so thoroughly Friday morning ("Africa is interesting. . . ," she said) as if warming me up for Obama, I asked her if she was on retainer.
     And me? I meant what I wrote when I wrote it—I always do—but I'm not the Jedi Council. Half the time, I write something because I'm trying to figure it out. I don't always succeed.
     After our phone call, I reeled into the newsroom, green around the gills, and bumped into the editor.
     "What's wrong?" he asked, reading my expression. I told him, and he grabbed me by the shoulders, spun me around and sent me back here to write this.
     As the sky darkened, I found myself thinking about my own father. I took a trip in his honor, too, once. We took his old Merchant Marine ship across the Atlantic together. I thought I was writing a book of remembrance, of love and reconciliation. He hated it. He thought I was lashing out at him, and didn't talk to me for a year. I was shocked.
     I wish I could portray that oblivious quality as courage—I write, and consequences be damned. But that isn't it. I never think of the consequences; they always surprise me.
     When I parsed Barack Obama, the politician, I never imagined I'd offend, and hear from Barack Obama, the man. Very few politicians would do that. I've been slagging Mayor Daley for years, and not a peep out of him. Frankly, I prefer it that way. But Obama is extraordinary—everybody knows that—and we expect great things of him. I certainly do, and if I resist joining the hallelujah chorus, well, that's just me doing my job as best I know how. It's nothing personal.


Nancy Rudins, of Champaign, offers this one:

     A guy goes to a supermarket and notices a beautiful woman smiling at him and waving.
     He's rather taken aback because he can't place how he knows her—he'd certainly remember a face like that.
     She walks over.
     "Do we know each other?" he says, tentatively.
     "I think you're the father of one of my kids,'' she says.
     The man is shocked. His mind races back to the only time he has ever been unfaithful to his wife.
     "My God," he says, "are you the stripper from my bachelor party when I laid on the pool table, with all my buddies watching, while your partner whipped me with wet celery???"
     She looks into his eyes and says, "No, I'm your son's math teacher."
                     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 27, 2006


  1. Neil, thanks for re-posting this for all to enjoy. Thanks also for the shoutout in the intro to this.

  2. I hope Obama forgave you in time. Yes, that would give fodder to the right. By the way the joke is hilarious.

  3. I never could figure out why Neal despised Durbin so much. Generally, I agree with Durbin's political stances while finding him a little pompous perhaps in stating them.


  4. Didn't Obama squeeze your shoes once at the East Bank Club? I remember a column about you closing a locker door and he was standing on the other side of it?

    I'm interested in how your dad went from the Merchant Marines to a scientist, with NASA was it? That's one of your books I haven't read. I'll order it tonight.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.