Editor’s Note: As the 2016 National Democratic Party Convention fast approaches in July, OPB took a look back at the power the convention has to change the party’s direction, particularly in 2004 before Barack Obama became a household name.
On the fourth floor of a dusty office building across the street from Chicago’s Trump Tower, there’s a collection of U.S. election memorabilia that includes rarities only the geekiest of political watchers would appreciate: Campaign posters of fringe candidates hang on the walls, buttons and bumper stickers with slogans not fit for print are in glass cases.
Overhead, large, rusty TV studio lights hang from the ceiling.
“These are lights that were used in the Nixon-Kennedy debates,” explains Kevin Lampe, who owns the collection of bizarre political memorabilia — a collection that includes a yellowed letter from Sen. Joseph Hamilton Lewis.
“He’s writing a letter explaining he can’t write a letter,” Lampe says. “The letter says, ‘I am confined to bed to a nervous breakdown caused by the awful heat because of the day and night sessions in the Senate. The doctor has forbidden me to see people, or reply to letters.’”
But in a collection of the political historic and hysteric, Lampe gets most animated showing a picture of himself and Barack Obama, then a candidate for U.S. Senate from Illinois. It shows Lampe and Obama on a couch, with the future president laughing, a hand on Lampe’s shoulder.
“I love this picture,” Lampe says. “It’s my favorite political picture I got.”
That’s high praise from Lampe, a man who has worked with some of the most successful Democrats in the past 30 years. The Chicago-based political consultant has counseled a diverse group of politicians — from former Ambassador Carol Mosely Braun to Che “Rhymefest” Smith, cowriter of Kanye West’s platinum hit “Jesus Walks” and a one-time candidate for Chicago alderman.
But Lampe says the smartest and hardest-working politician he ever saw in action was Obama, who would often file information and conversations away, only to bring them out months or years down the line at the most opportune moment.
“It was always fun to see him in action, because you knew that every interaction was building this longer career,” Lampe says. “I think some of us realized he could be president, but you know, they’re never going to elect an African-American president.”
Obama’s potential star power is a big reason why John Kerry picked the unknown politician from Chicago’s south side to accompany him during an Illinois fundraising swing. And Obama’s charisma impressed the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.
“He should be one of the faces of our party now, not years from now,” Kerry told the Chicago Tribune in 2004.
Lampe’s prized picture was snapped at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Lampe and his partner, Kitty Kurthe, were there to help Obama with logistics and preparation.
“We got a call from the National Democratic Party,” Lampe says. “Every four years at the national convention, we’re part of the team that handles all the speakers at the convention. We’re there to make things easier and we get them and we schedule their rehearsals.
“Everybody who speaks at the convention has to rehearse at least once,” he says.
There was only one problem, and it led to serious worries that Obama’s speech would be subpar.
“Barack never used a teleprompter before the summer of 2004,” Lampe says.
Which is, in many respects, a political irony given how much criticism Obama received in his first term for using teleprompters during his speeches.
A Politician Who Could ‘Suck The Life Out Of The Room’
The concern about Obama’s teleprompter skills really represented a symptom of a bigger problem, which was he was seen as a boring — if not bad — public speaker.
“He really just wasn’t a dynamic speaker,” says Ted McClelland, a reporter who covered Obama’s early career for the Chicago Reader. “Stilted. Professorial. He almost sucked the life out of the room.”
Lampe agrees, and adds Obama’s body movements during his speeches were stilted and awkward.
He was so bad that when the future president challenged Rep. Bobby Rush in 2000, Obama’s advisers gave him a speech intervention. Chief among their concerns was the perception in the predominately black district that the Ivy League graduate and Hawaii native “wasn’t black enough.”
McClelland details that tense meeting in his book “Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President.”
“’You’re giving a lecture,’ they told him, ‘That’s not a campaign speech,’” McClelland writes. “’M—————-, you’re not going anywhere,’ they taunted Obama. ‘You ain’t going to get elected dog-catcher.’”
The advisor was right: Obama would lose to Rush by 30 percent. Observers blamed his poor performance in large part on his public speaking style.
“It indicated that he had not made his mark in the African-American community and didn’t particularly have a style that resonated there,” Obama supporter and Rep. Abner Mikva told the New York Times in 2007.
Grit, Good Writing, And Crowd Energy Transform Obama
While his speaking style was still roundly criticized in 2004, Obama’s ideas resonated with a public who had been bombarded by hyper-partisan attacks. That’s because as Obama prepared for a tough race against a well-financed candidate, he spent months honing a message of bipartisan cooperation and unity.
“He was sort of working that out throughout the entire year,” McClelland says, pointing out lines that Obama tried out in Illinois months before he took the stage.
McClelland continued, “[Before Obama’s DNC speech], he says, ‘There’s a tradition of politics that says we’re all connected, that if there’s a child on the south side who cannot read, it makes a difference in my life, even if it’s not my child … that if an Arab-American family is rounded up by John Ashcroft without benefit of due process, that threatens my civil liberties … that’s what this country is all about. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.’”
Obama would use all of those lines in his 2004 keynote.
Still, the message would’ve fallen flat if Obama had delivered a snoozer of a speech.
Lampe says ahead of the speech, Obama was struggling to find a rhythm, especially with the teleprompter. His first go at it was around 20 minutes, Lampe says, much too long for a prime-time speaking slot.
“Learning to use a teleprompter is one of the hardest things to do, because you are talking to that audience at home and you have to just keep talking,” Lampe says, “even though there may be noise or applause in the hall.”
Obama’s first practice speech was so subpar, his team decided to do a second practice round. That practice was a bit better, Lampe says.
“He gets better, he’s starting to loosen up a little bit,” Lampe says. “And he’s getting more and more comfortable with the words, even though he wrote them, which makes it so much easier. And he’s understanding what he needs to do to sell it. And so we think, ‘Can we get one more rehearsal?’”
A third rehearsal is rare for convention speakers. Lampe says Obama is the only politician he remembers taking three practices — and that doesn’t count the times Obama went over the speech in his hotel room, or at the breakfast table during the four days leading up to his keynote.
“The expectations weren’t great about the speech,” Lampe says. “A lot of times, you’ll start hearing backstage, oh my gosh, this person is going to be amazing. You weren’t hearing that about Barack.”
Yet, Obama kept practicing.
On the night of the speech, Lampe thinks Obama won’t embarrass himself, but he’s not expecting the Senate candidate to capture the nation’s attention. Lampe would end up being the closest person to Obama during the speech. And for the first four minutes or so, Lampe was worried Obama’s nerves were getting to him.
“He’s uncomfortable, he’s shifting his weight,” Lampe says. “But then he settles, and the audience stays with him. And you could just see him take all that energy from the crowd, and he was comfortable because he worked so hard, and it just all came together. He had the raw talent, but he had to develop the talent.”
Lampe says the crowd began to swell with energy when Obama began the “red-state, blue-state” portion of his speech.
“He turned a corner, and still hasn’t looked back,” Lampe says.
Longtime political analyst Jeff Greenfield, then at CNN, would call it “one of the really great keynote speeches of the last quarter century.”
“Obama is a rock star,” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell would say.
“We’ve just seen the first black president,” her colleague Chris Matthews would add.
But Lampe says the forgotten part of that speech is that Obama’s overnight success came with intense preparation.
“We forget about the hard work,” Lampe says. “I do it too. I mean, I say this time and time again: I walked on stage with my state senator from my neighborhood, and I walked off stage with the next Democratic president of the United States.”