Judging a Magazine by its Cover- the New Yorker’s Obama edition
Given the New Yorker’s well-known political slant, its hard to imagine they meant to try to damage Obama; I find the cover delightfully over the top, with an American flag in the fireplace and a portrait of Bin Laden on the wall. When things get ridiculous enough, you’ve got to laugh- unless you’re thin skinned as a skeleton.
But behind the controversial cover is a substantive story, covering Obama’s rise to power in Illinois. The journalist managed to do the legwork to track down a lot of people who were involved in his career in state politics. The portrait they paint is largely one of just another ambitious American politician- not the most flattering way to describe someone, but an obvious juxtaposition to the cover which portrays him as a secret terrorist. The article gives the sense that he is just a man- obviously not out to destroy America, but not exactly the superman, the savior that many hope for.
They focus on the 9 short years it took Obama to become a lawyer in Chicago, get elected to the state senate, make a failed run for the US congress, then a successful one for US senate.
It is an inspiring story of rapid successes. The lessons that I see:
1) Work hard, work smart.
2) Make connections with people who have power, or money, or are just eager to help. Obama never ceased to seek out and befriend established politicians, donors, or potential campaign workers. My favorite example: his early support from Christie Hefner, CEO of Playboy.
3) Learn from your mistakes- like what went wrong in a failed run for Congress
4) Don’t be afraid to be ruthless- whether it getting all your opponents (including the woman who helped launch your career) knocked off the ballot with legal challenges, allowing you to run uncontested; or redrawing your district to have a better chance at reelection. Victory silences many moral qualms. These somewhat shady acts may have tainted Obama’s sterling image, but if he hadn’t won those elections, he would have had no national reputation to taint. This lesson might be the least applicable to other, non-political fields of endeavor.
5) You don’t get to the top by being humble. Obama had the ambition and confidence to put himself forward for ever more important positions, using each as a stepping stone to get to the next. He never stayed in the same job for more than 4 years without trying for a “better” one (a record it may be difficult to keep up as president).
Seeing the details behind Obama’s meteoric rise may lessen the enthusiasm of his more ardent supporters. As a relatively neutral observer, I don’t think the knowledge makes me any more or less likely to vote for him. But knowing how quickly he rose, as a newcomer to Chicago with no rich or influential family, gave me a lot more respect for him.