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Obama Still Stumps on 2002 Anti-War Declaration

On Oct. 2, 2002, a modest crowd gathered at the Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago for what would be the city's first organized rally to protest the coming war.

The roster of speakers included a future presidential front-runner. But back then, Barack Obama was a little-known state senator with an eye on a U.S. Senate seat.

Now, at nearly every campaign rally in his run for the presidency, Obama cites the speech he delivered on that day, in which he came out strongly against the Bush administration on Iraq.

"I'm the guy who didn't quote Barack Obama," says Bill Glauber.

As a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Glauber covered the October 2002 anti-war rally in Chicago where Illinois Sen. Barack Obama delivered his now-famous speech opposing the use of force in Iraq.

In his resulting article, Glauber did not even mention Obama, who was a state senator at the time. Instead, Glauber focused on the day's featured speaker, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the size of the crowd — about 1,000.

But even then, Glauber says, Obama "had something."

"It was the ability to communicate to a crowd," Glauber says.

Glauber, who now writes for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, marvels at Obama's meteoric rise.

"It really probably started at that rally," he says.

"Now, he's running for president, and I'm in Milwaukee."

Obama told the anti-war rally that day, "I don't oppose all wars. I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war."

The speech, delivered five-and-a-half years ago, allows Obama, now the junior senator from Illinois, to say something that his rival for the Democratic nomination, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), cannot: that he never supported the war. At the time of the speech, the U.S. Senate had not yet given President Bush authorization to use military force to topple Saddam Hussein.

A Centerpiece of Obama's 'Judgment' Argument

On the campaign trail, Obama promotes his 2002 speech in steady and relentless fashion.

"On the most important national security question since the Cold War, I am the only candidate who opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning," he said.

Clinton dismisses Obama's early opposition to the war, saying, "I have the experience. John McCain has the experience. All Barack Obama has is just a speech."

Obama counters that the speech demonstrated his sound judgment, and that it showed the kind of political courage a president needs. He says it was risky to deliver such a speech barely a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, at a time when the president was riding high in the polls.

"My objections to the war in Iraq were not simply a speech," Obama said. "I was in the midst of a U.S. Senate campaign. It was a high-stakes campaign. I was one of the most vocal opponents of the war." (Obama delivered the speech in October 2002; he did not officially declare his candidacy for the U.S. Senate until January).

Rally Attendees Remember Obama's Speech

Even in this era of YouTube and camera phones, a recording of Obama's speech is all but impossible to find. The Obama campaign has gone so far as to re-create portions of the speech for a television ad, with the candidate re-reading the text, with audience sound effects.

In the actual speech, Obama said the U.S. should focus on Afghanistan and on capturing Osama bin Laden. He spoke of "weekend warriors in the Bush administration with an ideological agenda." He called Saddam Hussein a butcher, but also stressed that the Iraqi dictator posed no imminent or direct threat to the United States. On that day, Obama also predicted a United States' occupation of Iraq of undetermined cost, length and consequences.

Marilyn Katz, one of the event's organizers, recalls the audience's reaction. "The crowd was pretty much transfixed," she said.

But Juan Andrade Jr., president of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, was less impressed. Andrade says he has seen Obama give great speeches, most notably at the 2004 Democratic Convention, but the 2002 anti-war speech was not one of them.

"There was nothing magic about it," Andrade said, adding, "There was nothing about that speech that would have given anybody any sense that he was going places. We were just glad that he was one of those who was willing to step up at a time when very few people seemed to be willing to do that."

So, just how much attention did the speech attract?

Bill Glauber, who covered the rally for the Chicago Tribune, says he didn't even quote Obama.

"I guess other media was there," Glauber says, "but we didn't quote Barack Obama at his famous anti-war speech. He was not the main guy."

Glauber says that he did not even mention Obama in his newspaper article on the rally and instead focused on the rally's other speaker, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Was the Speech Risky?

Obama cites the speech as an example of his political courage, but David Mendell, author of Obama: From Promise to Power, says the address was not necessarily a risky move.

"I still don't think it was an inordinate risk here in Illinois, where you have a very blue-state crowd," Mendell said, adding, "I might take issue with just how risky it was."

In Obama's subsequent successful run for the Senate, he benefited from word-of-mouth about the speech — spread by the educated, liberal, mostly white crowd that attended the rally. The same word-of-mouth about the speech could also help him in his run for the White House.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

At nearly every campaign rally, Barack Obama cites a speech he gave in 2002 in Chicago. In it, he came out strongly against the Bush administration on Iraq. That was nearly six months before the war began and before the Senate gave President Bush authority to go to war.

Yesterday, we heard how Senator Hillary Clinton is still explaining her vote to give the president that authority. Today, NPR's Don Gonyea examines what Obama claims as his key moment on the war.

DON GONYEA: Let's go back to the 2nd day of October in 2002. Here's what was on NPR's newscast that morning.

MONTAGNE: Former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow turned himself in.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Martha Stewart's troubles with Wall Street are mounting.

MONTAGNE: Northwest Airlines announced more job cutbacks today.

GONYEA: That same afternoon, President Bush was in the Rose Garden at the White House.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Saddam must disarm. Period. If, however, he chooses to do otherwise, if he persists in his defiance, the use of force may become unavoidable.

GONYEA: And at the exact moment the president was speaking in Washington, a modest crowd was gathering in downtown Chicago for what would be the city's first organized rally to protest the coming war.

The scene was Federal Plaza, with its giant orange Calder sculpture looming over the proceedings. The roster of speakers included a future presidential front-runner, who was then a little-known state senator.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I don't oppose war in all circumstances. And when I look out over this crowd today, I know there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I do oppose is a dumb war.

GONYEA: It is that speech, five-and-a-half years ago, that allows Barack Obama to say something Hillary Clinton cannot say: that he never supported this war. And it is a speech that Obama promotes in steady and relentless fashion on the campaign trail as he seeks the Democratic nomination for president.

Here he is from earlier this month.

(Soundbite of audio)

Sen. OBAMA: On the most important national security question since the Cold War, I'm the only candidate who opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning.

GONYEA: Of course, Senator Clinton dismisses Obama's early opposition to the war and the Chicago speech.

(Soundbite of audio)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I have a lifetime of experience that I will bring to the White House. I know Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience that he will bring to the White House. And Senator Obama has a speech he gave in 2002.

GONYEA: Obama counters that the speech demonstrates his sound judgment. Further, he says it shows the kind of political courage a president needs. He says it was risky to give such a speech barely a year after the 9/11 attacks and while President Bush was still riding high in the polls.

Sen. OBAMA: My objections to the war in Iraq were not simply a speech. I was in the midst of a U.S. Senate campaign. It was a high-stakes campaign. I was one of the most vocal opponents of the war. And I was very specific…

GONYEA: Though technically Obama was not in the midst of a U.S. Senate campaign in October of '02. He wouldn't officially declare until January.

Interestingly, even in this YouTube, camera-phone age, finding a recording of this speech is all but impossible. That small portion you heard at the start of this story, 13 seconds in length, is all NPR could find. The Obama campaign has gone so far as to re-create portions of the speech for a TV ad, with the candidate re-reading the text, complete with audience sound effects.

Sen. OBAMA: I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames in the Middle East.

GONYEA: In the speech, Obama said the U.S. should focus on Afghanistan and on capturing Osama bin Laden. He spoke of, quote, "Weekend warriors with an ideological agenda in the Bush administration." He called Saddam Hussein a butcher, but stressed that the Iraqi dictator posed no imminent or direct threat to the U.S. On that day, Obama also predicted a U.S. occupation of Iraq of undetermined cost, length and consequences.

Marilyn Katz was one of the event's organizers.

Ms. MARILYN KATZ (Chicago Rally Organizer): The profound nature of his remarks, the taking of a crowd through a thought process by which he had come to the conclusion of why he would be against the war was transformative.

GONYEA: But Juan Andrade, president of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute in Chicago, was less impressed. Andrade said he's seen Obama give great speeches, most notably to the 2004 Democratic Convention, but the '02 anti-war speech wasn't one of them.

Mr. JUAN ANDRADE (President, United States Hispanic Leadership Institute): There was nothing magic about it. There was nothing out of that speech that would have given anybody any sense that he was going places. We were just glad that he was one of those who was willing to step up at a time when very few people seemed to be willing to do that.

GONYEA: So, just how much attention did this speech attract? Journalist Bill Glauber covered the rally for the Chicago Tribune. He met us last week at the site of the event.

Mr. BILL GLAUBER (Reporter, Chicago Tribune): I'm the guy who didn't quote Barack Obama at his famous anti-war speech. He was not the main guy on the dais.

GONYEA: And let's be clear - not only did you not quote him, you didn't mention him.

Mr. GLAUBER: Didn't mention him at all. Met him, didn't mention him.

GONYEA: Glauber explains that Obama was a relatively unknown state senator. His story that day focused more on who was in the crowd and on the biggest named speaker at the rally, the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

As for the risk Obama says giving that speech was, David Mendell, who has written a new biography of Obama, says that's debatable.

Mr. DAVID MENDELL (Author, "Obama: From Promise to Power"): I still don't think it was an inordinate risk here in Illinois, where you have a very blue-stated crowd here in Illinois. So I might - yeah, you might take issue with just how risky it was.

GONYEA: In Obama's subsequent successful run for the Senate, he benefited from word-of-mouth about the speech spread by the educated, liberal, mostly white crowd that was there. And the love affair that such votes have with him may have indeed begun that day in 2002 in Federal Plaza in Chicago.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: To hear an extended interview with the Illinois journalist who attended Obama's 2002 anti-war speech, go to npr.org/elections. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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