Excerpt from Airlift to America by Tom Shachtman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Airlift to America

How Barack Obama, Sr., John F. Kennedy, Tom Mboya, and 800 East African Students Changed Their World and Ours

by Tom Shachtman

Airlift to America
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  • Published:
    Sep 2009, 288 pages

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Jo Perry

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Prologue
Iowa and Kogelo

In December of 2007, before the Iowa caucuses— the first tests of the 2008 presidential primary season—Senator Barack Hussein Obama of Illinois was not thought by most Americans to have much of a chance of winning his party’s nomination or the presidency. He was not well known in the rest of the country, and the media for the most part treated his candidacy as a novelty because he was African- American. That he was truly an African-American, the son of a Kenyan father of the same name and of a white mother from Kansas, was not well understood despite the growing popularity of his memoir Dreams from My Father, in which he explored his unusual combination of African and American heritage.

Prior to Obama’s 2004 election to the Senate he had been an Illinois state senator, and before that a community organizer, civil rights attorney, and law school professor. His curriculum vitae also included having been elected editor in chief of the Harvard Law Review, the first black to hold that position. Prior to declaring his candidacy for the presidency he had come to intense national attention only briefly, during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when he gave a rousing, well-received keynote address that marked him as an up-and-coming national figure. In that speech he mentioned that his father, the son of a cook, had herded goats in Kenya and attended a school with a tin roof, and then had received “a scholarship to study in a magical place, America,” but this aspect of his story did not attract much attention.

Though a 60 Minutes profile in early 2007 raised his visibility, for most of 2007 his chances to become the Democratic nominee were considered slim. New York Senator Hillary Clinton, wife of former president Bill Clinton, was the front- runner, and she and the pundits predicted that she would wrap up the nomination in advance of the February 5, 2008, Super Tuesday primaries. But Obama kept on giving speeches and meeting people and touching bases. Although his campaign was relentlessly forward- looking, he frequently acknowledged the past. Speaking in Selma, Alabama, site of the 1965 civil rights confrontation known as Bloody Sunday, he told an audience, “I’m here because somebody marched. I’m here because you- all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

By December 2007 opinion polls in Iowa, portions of which adjoin Illinois, showed a definite shift to Obama. His message of change and his friendly appeal, coupled with superior organizing, drew him even with Clinton. The polls showed that white voters were not afraid to vote for this particular African- American candidate. Time magazine commented, though, that Iowa “isn’t always a good match for Obama’s strengths. The graveyards of political campaigns are littered with candidates who excel at forging connections with individual voters but who can’t give a big speech to save their lives. Obama may be that rare politician with the opposite problem. Before a crowd of 4,000, he can be magnetic and compelling. But before a crowd of several hundred, he can sometimes fall flat.”

Predictions were for a virtual three-way tie in the Iowa caucuses among Obama, Clinton, and former senator John Edwards, the 2004 vice- presidential nominee. It was expected that after Iowa, primaries in New Hampshire and other New En gland states would put Clinton in position to clinch the nomination. Obama, like other supposedly attractive candidates before him, was expected to fold his campaign within a month or so.

And so on January 4, 2008, when Obama unexpectedly won the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses, handily defeating Clinton even among women voters, the effect was stunning. Overnight he became a leading contender for his party’s presidential nomination. David Brooks, conservative columnist for The New York Times and commentator for PBS, in his Times column called Obama’s primary victory a political “earthquake.”

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel moved by this. An African- American man wins a closely fought campaign in a pivotal state. He beats two strong opponents, including the mighty Clinton machine. He does it in a system that favors rural voters. He does it by getting young voters to come out to the caucuses.

Excerpted from Airlift to America by Tom Shachtman. Copyright © 2009 by Tom Shachtman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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