From timesonline.com on March 23, 2008: "Long before Barack Obama launched his campaign for the White House, when he was considering a run for the US Senate in 2003, he paid an intriguing visit to a former Chicago sewers inspector who had risen to become one of the most influential African-American politicians in Illinois.
“You have the power to elect a US senator,” Obama told Emil Jones, Democratic leader of the Illinois state senate. Jones looked at the ambitious young man smiling before him and asked, teasingly: “Do you know anybody I could make a US senator?”
According to Jones, Obama replied: “Me.” It was his first, audacious step in a spectacular rise from the murky political backwaters of Springfield, the Illinois capital.
The exchange also sealed an intimate personal and political relationship that is likely to attract intense scrutiny amid the furore over Obama’s links to some of Chicago’s most controversial political and religious power brokers.
Obama has often described Jones as a key political mentor whose patronage was crucial to his early success in a state long dominated by near-feudal party political machines. Jones, 71, describes himself as Obama’s “godfather” and once said: “He feels like a son to me.”
Like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the outspoken pastor of Obama’s Chicago church, and like Tony Rezko, the millionaire fundraiser and former friend of Obama who is on trial for corruption, Jones is in danger of becoming a hindrance to his prot駩’s presidential ambitions.
For almost a year Jones has used his position as leader of the state senate to block anticorruption legislation passed unanimously by the state’s lower house. He has also become embroiled in ethical controversies concerning his wife’s job and his stepson’s business.
None of them is linked to Obama, but the Democratic contender can ill afford another scandal related to his former Chicago allies. Despite his electrifying speech on race last week, the opinion polls make worrying reading for the senator and his aides. Hillary Clinton appears to be regaining lost ground and John McCain, the Arizona senator who has sewn up the Republican nomination, has edged ahead of his warring rivals.
When Obama stood before a row of American flags in Philadelphia on Tuesday, he faced the greatest challenge of his candidacy. His campaign was reeling from the potentially fatal fallout of Wright’s rabid videotaped sermons, in which the Chicago preacher exclaimed, “God damn America,” and said that the US government had invented Aids to infect black people.
Obama’s response was hailed as one of the bravest and most eloquent speeches on race delivered by an American politician. Even conservative commentators such as Charles Murray of National Review called it “flat-out brilliant”; Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to president George W Bush, called it “one of the finest political performances under pressure” since John F Kennedy addressed concerns about his Catholicism in 1960.
Other analysts, Democrat and Republican, took a different view of Obama’s refusal to turn his back on Wright – whom he portrayed as part of an embittered legacy of discrimination.
Some saw it as a potential gift both to Clinton, who has been surging in opinion polls since videos of Wright were posted on the internet, and to McCain, whose aides have begun to wonder whether Obama might prove an easier target than Clinton in November.
“Nothing could be more dangerous to Mr Obama’s aspirations than the revelation that he, the son of a white woman, sat Sunday after Sunday – for 20 years – in an Afrocentric, black nationalist church in which his own mother, not to mention other whites, could never feel comfortable,” said Shelby Steele, a Stanford University historian and author of a book on Obama.
Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio talk-show foghorn, expressed the popular view more succinctly: “No country wants a president who is a member of a church with this kind of radicalism as its mainstream.”
The latest polls confirm that, for all the acclaim heaped on Obama’s speech by political insiders, voters seemed to be taking a sharp step back from the charismatic candidate who built his campaign on the promise of a break from “old politics”. One of Obama’s best-known slogans – and the title of his bestselling book – is “the audacity of hope”, a phrase that originally came from one of Wright’s sermons.
In Pennsylvania, the next big state to hold a primary, on April 22, Clinton has doubled her lead in the past two weeks and is now 26 points ahead. In North Carolina, which votes on May 6, Obama has been leading comfortably all year but is now only one point ahead. A national Gallup poll on Friday put Clinton ahead of Obama by two points for the first time since January.
Unfortunately for Democrats, their nomination battle seems to be helping McCain. The Republican rose to a eight-point lead over Obama and a 10-point lead over Clinton in Rasmussen tracking polls released on Friday.
Obama retains an almost insurmountable lead in the crucial count of convention delegates who will pick the Democratic nominee, and on Friday he picked up a useful endorsement from one of those delegates – Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, one of America’s leading Hispanic politicians. Richardson had been close to the Clintons and was regarded as a possible vice-presidential choice for Hillary. His first task will be to rally Hispanic voters in the hope of averting late primary losses that would damage Obama’s chances of picking up uncommitted party officials – the so-called superdelegates likely to decide the contest.
Other Democrats are worried that Obama may have given his Republican rivals the ammunition needed to undermine his campaign. McCain insists he will not engage in dirty tricks, and his aides distributed a memo last week warning Republicans to stay away from “overheated rhetoric and personal attacks”.
Yet Republican surrogates are drooling at the prospect of linking Obama to Wright’s rants.
They intend to ask why he has stopped wearing an American flag badge on his lapel, and why his wife, Michelle, said at a rally: “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.”
The Clinton camp is treading carefully, aware that overt attacks on Obama might alienate black voters. Yet the New York senator’s aides are quietly pleased by what they regard as an overdue scrutiny of Obama’s past. They believe he will come to be seen not as some Messiah but as an unusually gifted political hack who has made compromises with dodgy associates, just like most other American politicians.
That intensifying scrutiny may soon lead to Jones’s Illinois door, and to further uncomfortable insights into the unflattering political realities that accompanied Obama’s climb from obscurity.
At one point during Obama’s 2003 Senate campaign, Jones set out to woo two African-American politicians miffed by Obama’s presumption and ambition. One of them, Rickey “Hollywood” Hendon, a state senator, had scoffed that Obama was so ambitious he would run for “king of the world” if the position were vacant.
When Jones secured the two men’s support, Obama asked his mentor how he had pulled it off. “I made them an offer,” Jones said in mock-mafioso style. “And you don’t want to know.”
Jones is now at the centre of a long row over his attempt to block proposed laws cracking down on his state’s “pay-to-play” tradition – whereby companies hoping to win government contracts have to contribute to the campaign funds of officials.
Jones’s staff say he blocked the bill because he intends to produce something tougher. No proposals have appeared.
Cynthia Canary, an activist against corruption who is fighting to have the laws passed, says Obama had little choice as an Illinois politician but to deal with an ethically dubious regime. “You hold your nose and work through the system,” she said.
Yet she also thinks America is being done a disservice by those who portray Obama as somehow above the uglier wheeler-dealing of politics. “He’s a pragmatic politician, and in the end if you think that he’s superman, your heart is going to get broken.”