The Luncheon Society has always aimed for a modest and quiet existence, but in a time when we grapple with so many of life’s smaller decisions (who picks up the kids, who pays the bills), it’s often nice to sit back and ponder some of life’s larger overarching questions. If you’re going to do that, you may as well do it at a great restaurant and that’s what we’re all about.
Over the years, The Luncheon Society has quietly convened over 200 times for movable feasts at over 40 restaurants like One Market, nestled at the foot of San Francisco’s Financial District, or Michael’s, which caters to the entertainment industry in Santa Monica. The kindness of a gracious friend allowed us to use The Lotos Club, one of the oldest literary clubs in the United States, frequented by the likes of Mark Twain and today residing in a Manhattan mansion once owned by the Vanderbilt family.
Then there’s The Napa Valley Grille in Westwood, right around the corner from UCLA, which welcomes us like an old friend of the family who offers a drink the moment you come in from the cold.
It was there where we gathered with Richard Wolffe, best-selling author of Renegade, the Making of a President (Crown, June 2009), which details the personality behind Barack Obama’s improbable rise, for our 29th Luncheon Society gathering this year. We met thanks to the kindness of an old friend, Wendy Wanderman, who suggested—actually insisted—that we should put something together. As usual, she was right.
We are now in the season where books that detail the 2008 President campaign are emerging in print and like all of the past races, the winner earns the spoils. There won’t be many books on the McCain campaign, perhaps only emerging as cautionary tales in Republican memos for potential candidates for 2012.
I thought we would garner a modest crowd, somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 20, but I was wrong on that count too; the gathering continued to grow. People’s schedules magically opened up and important meetings simply disappeared. I spent some time worrying how I was going to shoehorn 45 people in around a table that normally fits 30, but knew it would work out fine. I have always enjoyed the chaos of the larger Luncheon Society events anyway, whether it was the Ted Sorensen or Mario Cuomo gatherings in New York, the Astronauts and Cosmonauts in San Francisco, or the Frank Gehry luncheon in Santa Monica.
As we warbled through grilled Scottish salmon with artichoke, prime filet of center cut sirloin, as well as a house made sweet pea agnolotti with parmesan broth, market sugar snap peas and petit pois, a central mystery remained—how could Barack Obama arc from the guy whose American Express Card was declined at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles to the nominee who became its chosen standard bearer a mere eight years later in Denver? How could an African American whose last name rhymed with an international terrorist, whose middle name mirrored a sworn enemy of the United States, and whose first name appeared dangerously exotic by many outside of the ex-pat community transform himself into the 44th President of the United States?
If the Obama campaign had been constructed as a work of fiction, it would have been quickly rejected by every publishing house out of mere improbability. As a nation, we always seemed to be two decades from the potential of electing an African American as President of the United States and the betting was that Colin Powell, prior to ruining his reputation with the build up in Iraq, had earned the inside track.
Wolffe mentioned that Obama understood the power of his own story, perhaps the result of actually writing his two books himself (versus having them ghosted) and realized that his own narrative would be more compelling if somebody else crafted it, along the lines of the Teddy White series on American elections. On a plane flight early in the campaign the Senator suggested that Wolffe might be the guy but he demurred until friends urged him to reconsider, which was wise, because his book spent a good deal of the summer on the New York Times Best-Seller list.
For somebody who earned his Secret Service codename of Renegade, Wolffe reminded us that Obama often erred on the side of caution, something that harkened back to his days as the Editor of Harvard’s Law Review. There was a deep worry that his caution would alienate his core constituency, the progressive aisle of the Democratic wing. Unlike George W. Bush, who would decide something and move on to the next issue, Obama would review, rehash, and reopen policy questions that many thought were long closed. He was complex, elusive, and a chronic procrastinator who could elevate his game and put it all together in the eleventh hour.
It’s true that Obama caught an updraft of tremendous luck in his rise to prominence, but his good fortune cloaked the fact that he possessed some tremendous political skills. Early on the planets aligned. Blair Hull, a well-funded rival dropped out of the US Senate primary in 2004 because of a messy divorce. Months later, Hull’s departure was followed by the spectacular flameout of Jack Ryan’s Republican senate candidacy amidst allegations that he wanted his wife to perform intimate acts in public which are better left to the privacy of a bedroom. After the convention speech in Boston and the win in November, he inherited the bulk of Tom Daschle’s staff, who were looking for jobs because the Minority Leader had lost his re-election bid for the Senate. He picked up David Plouffe to run his campaign as he inched toward his national candidacy; it was Plouffe who had organized Iowa for Dick Gephardt’s losing effort four years earlier. Thanks to good timing, Obama emerged as a liberal candidate while what was left of the Reagan Coalition broke up in the atmosphere and came crashing back to earth.
Obama’s early days in Chicago were plagued by suspicions, ironically by those whom outsiders would have considered part of his natural core base. Early on he lacked the nuance to navigate through the minefield of racial politics essential to political survival on Chicago’s South Side. He had little roots in the community and lacked a linear connection to those who had fought the critical Civil Rights battles a generation earlier. Some African American leaders in Chicago did not know what to make of this outsider. Others questioned his biracial complexion and wondered aloud if his sensibilities would skew more white than black. When he challenged incumbent Congressman and former Black Panther Bobby Rush in 2000, all of those factors added up to a crushing defeat.
However, Wolffe points out that the very qualities that doomed Obama locally propelled him on the national stage. Because he was not party to the racial politics of Chicago, he had the ability to crossover to non-African American audiences (especially white liberal and moderate audiences) in a fashion that eluded Jesse Jackson and most certainly, Al Sharpton.
More importantly, many who gravitated towards Obama understood the twin calling of biography and history. While there was precious little difference between Clinton and Obama on most issues, the vibe of the campaign was worlds apart. Hillary’s campaign was fueled on gender and restoration but the internal team was rife with turmoil. On the Obama side, the difference was palpable. There were no Shepherd Fairey posters of Hillary Clinton and the personal support for past candidates like John Kerry, Walter Mondale or even Jimmy Carter appeared lukewarm, at best. Wolffe pointed out a critical element, a deep antipathy towards the Clintons, which proves again that all politics is local. People like David Plouffe, who served as a staffer to the Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, was angered that the Clintons lost a year of policy opportunities because of the President’s bedroom behavior and subsequent impeachment proceedings.
As somebody who watched from the Clinton side of the fence during the 2008 primaries, I thought the Obama campaign would wind down without too much fanfare and the obituary would be filed under “too much, too soon.” Obama was not a very good debater in the early rounds and during the 2004 Senate race, he allowed Alan Keyes to get under his skin. In the slugfest of primary politics, the Clintons knew how to take a punch but Obama remained untested. His time in the field during the 2007 campaign was lackluster and in the arena of competing historics, I thought the first female nominee would probably beat out the first potential African American nominee on the strength of sheer demographics alone.
Three days before last year’s California Primary we held a Luncheon Society gathering in San Francisco with Lanny Davis, who would make the argument for Hillary Clinton around a large table evenly split between Obama and Clinton people. We had a civilized food fight for the better part of two hours. The Obama faction was led by Craig Newmark and it was telling that the Obama group cleaved both younger and wealthier than the older Clinton supporters. Obama got badly beaten in California but understood the nomination process better than anybody else.
Most insurgent campaigns, while stirring romantic notions, tend to fail and only a slender few pass through the brutal filter of an eighteen month contest. Bill Bradley’s run against Al Gore ran out of gas after Iowa and New Hampshire in 2000 and four years later Howard Dean’s imploded famously. Other campaigns were outmaneuvered by smarter operatives, which was the case in 1984, when Walter Mondale found his footing against Gary Hart after Super Tuesday, even though the Colorado Senator produced better numbers by night’s end.
When Obama finally chose to run after the 2006 midterms, he did poorly out on the campaign trail. Although his team proved they could raise a staggering sum through grassroots small sum donations (with an apparatus designed, in part, by Wendy Wanderman’s boyfriend, Mark Gorenberg, who served on his Finance Committee), the candidate could not find his stride. There was a great gulf between the hype and the reality of those early months. Then, in the eleventh hour, true to form, the unlikely contender found his voice. Obama built a network of active supporters, won in Iowa, survived the setback in New Hampshire, outlasted the trench warfare with the Clintons over the ensuing months, and emerged as the nominee.
Two critical moments defined his campaign and played a significant role in garnering votes that crossed political parties. The first came in a speech in 2002, long before he appeared on the national landscape, when he opposed the Iraq War. It gave the future United States Senator and presidential candidate a chance to separate himself from the pack, almost all of whom, including future opponent, Hillary Clinton, voted for President Bush’s resolution. In the end, Obama accomplished in a videotaped speech what others wished they had done in a parliamentary vote. The second defining moment was a first-person conversation on race which took place after the initial Jeremiah Wright episode. His ability to reengage the nation on race and evocatively extricate himself out of a political corner only amplified the perception that the Clinton campaign was about “the tactic of the week” and little else.
As the bottom fell out of the economy in September 2008 and with the McCain-Palin ticket trailing right behind, Barack Obama achieved something quite remarkable–the first African American Presidency. However, the process of governing is far more challenging that running for office. Just as candidate Obama encountered a steep learning curve as he ramped up in the primary phase, Wolffe thinks that President Obama will need to do the same as President. The difference here is that governing has the potential of becoming a far more dangerous minefield that what is found out on the campaign trail.
If you look closely, you’ll see Oprah Winfrey weeping on the shoulder of TLS member Sam Perry
Books If anybody would like to purchase the book, click here. If you would like to have an autographed copy, please let me know and we’ll handle that.
Final note. About a couple of days after we gathered, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald took a bit of a shot or two at Richard Wolffe, suggesting that since his departure from Newsweek, MSNBC should have disclosed his relationship with Public Strategies. I cannot speak for MSNBC, but I can say that Richard fully disclosed his relationship with Public Strategies to The Luncheon Society.
The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.