I first interviewed Barack Obama 13 years ago, when he was running against Bobby Rush in the 1st Congressional District Democratic primary. He lost that race, and he deserved to lose, because he was a terrible candidate: immature, impatient, arrogant and more interested in advancing his political career than advancing any particular policies that would help the South Side.
For a long time, I’ve had the tape of the hour-and-40 minute interview I conducted with Obama in his office at Miner, Barnhill and Galland. I finally put it up on YouTube this week, because I think it documents Obama before he became the Obama we know now. He had not yet found his voice as a politician, which is evident from his response to my very first question.
Why, I asked him, should the voters choose a newcomer to the South Side over two men who had grown up in Chicago?
Obama hemmed and hawed for a moment, then came up with an answer that condescended to his would-be constituents. He joked that his willingness to move “from Hawaii to Chicago” showed he was even more committed to the city than many natives.
“I really have to want to be here,” he said. “I'm like a salmon swimming upstream in the South Side of Chicago. At every juncture in my life, I could have taken the path of least resistance but much higher pay. Being the president of the Harvard Law Review is a big deal. The typical path for someone like myself is to clerk for the Supreme Court, and then basically you have your pick of any law firm in the country.”
We also talked about gun control, an issue that has become especially important in his second term as president. As a candidate in an urban district, Obama was more outspokenly anti-gun than he would be today:
“I think that if you look at the statistics, the murder and violent crime rate in America is so much higher than anywhere else in the industrialized world, and when you look at all the variables that are involved, the biggest single variable that you can attribute this difference to is gun prevention," he said. "Non-violent crimes in England are just the same as they are in the United States. It’s undeniable that the pervasiveness of guns in this country contributes to violence, and if we can eliminate those guns, we’ll never eliminate violence, but it eliminates the most egregious results.”