From Boston.com By Scott Helman, Globe Staff | April 16, 2007
"Of all the things Deval Patrick's Republican opponent threw at him in last year's governor's race, one charge that stuck in his craw was that his speeches were more fluff than substance -- that they were, in Patrick's telling, "just words." So he devised an artful response.
" 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal' -- just words," Patrick said at a rally in Roxbury right before Election Day. " 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' -- just words. . . . 'I have a dream' -- just words. They're all just words."
The crowd erupted as it got Patrick's point about the power of language. But perhaps no one at the rally understood the point better than Barack Obama, who had joined him on stage that night.
Not five months later, Obama, his presidential campaign gaining steam, had this to say about legendary Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky in The New Republic: "Sometimes the tendency in community organizing of the sort done by Alinsky was to downplay the power of words and of ideas when in fact ideas and words are pretty powerful. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal.' Those are just words. 'I have a dream.' Just words."
In the midst of his improbable run for office, Obama and his advisers have evidently studied Patrick's up-from-nowhere victory in Massachusetts and are borrowing themes, messages, and even specific lines for the presidential campaign.
It's the latest chapter in a symbiotic friendship between Obama and Patrick that continues to shape their political careers, according to admirers, observers, and associates of the two men.
The similarities between Patrick and Obama, who have known each other for more than a decade, are obvious: Both are idealistic African-American leaders who came of age after the Civil Rights movement. Both have Chicago roots, a Harvard Law degree, and a gift for appealing to both blacks and whites.
Their political likeness runs deeper. Both believe that people long for a new dawn of postpartisan, hopeful, and optimistic public leadership. Both staked their fates on grass-roots activism and fund-raising. Both campaign on supplanting cynicism with citizenship.
It was Obama who first tested the approach during his Senate victory in Illinois in 2004. Patrick improved on it last year. Now Obama is building on both of those successes as he makes his historic run for the White House.
When a delegation of Massachusetts Democrats heard Obama speak at the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting in Washington in February, they could trace the thread, said state Democratic Party chairman Philip W. Johnston.
"We all said that we could have closed our eyes when Obama spoke [and] it could have been Deval," Johnston said. "To us it was a similar kind of message. It's a message that transcends partisan politics."
The man who has honed that message for both candidates is veteran Chicago political strategist David Axelrod, who guided Obama's Senate campaign and Patrick's gubernatorial bid and is now a top strategist on Obama's presidential effort.
Axelrod said Obama was the first person he called when Patrick's campaign approached him to work on the governor's race, and that Obama was "effusive" about Patrick.
Since then, Axelrod said, he's seen a kinship in their message, in their "shared belief in the power of aspirations." While Patrick's campaign was not a "petri dish" for Obama's presidential campaign, Axelrod said, "it was a wonderful model for a change-oriented challenge to entrenched politics."
"It's not happenstance that there's a similar feel to the [Obama] campaign," he said. "Both of these guys have a sense that the sort of politics as it's evolved has not lived up to the challenges that we face. And the only way to really change it is to get citizens involved, to make them the engine of the campaign. I am attracted to both those guys because I feel that way, too."
Aides to Obama and Patrick said they weren't available to comment on their relationship.
At another rally with Obama last year, at the Hynes Convention Center in June, Patrick told supporters that the gubernatorial election was not about him, encouraging them to "take a chance not on me but on your own hopes and aspirations."
Two days later, at the state Democratic Convention, he said, "Our cause succeeds only if you see this not as my campaign, but as ours -- not as my chance to be governor, but your chance to rebuild your community."
It's a theme Obama revisited on a frigid February day in Springfield, Ill., as he launched his presidential bid.
"That is why this campaign can't only be about me," he said. "It must be about us -- it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams. . . . This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change."
To be sure, Obama and Patrick are hardly the first politicians to have built campaigns around hope and change. Johnston said their rhetoric reminded him of Robert F. Kennedy, whose 1968 presidential effort he worked on.
Others said they hear echoes of President Clinton, or even John Edwards, former North Carolina senator, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, and a candidate for president in 2008.
"They're good learners, obviously," said Debra Kozikowski, a member of the Massachusetts Democratic Committee.
But Obama and Patrick have been learning from and feeding off each other, those who know them say.
A Patrick adviser recalled how the future governor observed Obama's grass-roots fund-raising methods in 2005 and applied the small-donor concept to his own campaign.
At the same time, Patrick's and Obama's campaigns have been sensitive about mirroring each other too closely.
Obama, in his Senate race, used the well-worn phrase "Yes, we can!" as a rallying cry.
After Patrick employed the same phrase at a state Democratic Convention in 2005, a reporter alerted the campaign that it was Obama's signature line, and they went back to the drawing board, said Dan Payne, a Democratic strategist working for Patrick at the time. (Patrick would adopt "together we can" instead.)
"We definitely didn't want to copy him," Payne said. "Deval takes pride in his words and he wants to use them uniquely."
And Alan Solomont, who heads Obama's New England fund-raising, said what links the two men as politicians is a desire for change among the electorate, not a conscious effort to mimic one another.
"They are very similar, but I don't think it's a studied similarity," said Solomont, who supported Patrick after the primary last year. "They're both speaking to the same longing that voters have."
If the plaudits for Obama and Patrick as campaigners are similar, so are the criticisms. Obama is facing the same charge Patrick did last year: that he's long on atmospherics and short on specifics. Patrick overcame that critique, but Obama, given the unprecedented media scrutiny of a presidential campaign, won't have it so easy, Payne said.
"I think there's a lesson . . . for Obama that things you may be able to get away with in a statewide campaign, let's say, you're not going to get away with in a national campaign," he said.
Still, those who know and support both men say that if their messages weren't resonating, one wouldn't be governor of Massachusetts and the other wouldn't have a shot at winning the presidency.
"I see them as similar kinds of fresh voices," said Abner J. Mikva, a former US representative from Illinois and US Appeals Court judge who is credited with introducing Patrick and Obama.
"They're not radicals, they're not bomb-throwers. But they have a way of making clear that they haven't bought into the old politics. . . . They're prepared to carve out their own path, and both of them have."