Sweet on Obama!

At some point in 1999, Barack Obama, then a young and virtually unknown Illinois state senator, was considering running for a seat in the House of Representatives representing Illinois’ First Congressional District—which includes parts of the South Side of Chicago and some southern suburbs—against longtime incumbent Bobby Rush.

So on a visit to Washington, D.C., he stopped in at the office of Lynn Sweet, the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

It’s what everyone does when they’re in a tough race: introduce themselves to Ms. Sweet, who since 1993 has been the voice of Washington politics for the Chicago tabloid.

“When he walked in, the first thing he did was hand me this book,” said Ms. Sweet, as she settled down into a seat at Morty’s, a Washington delicatessen, for a toasted onion bagel and a Dr. Brown’s diet black cherry soda. “He walked into my office in the Press Club with his aide Dan Shomon and he hands me his book and says, ‘This is my story.’ And I said, ‘Oooh. Okay?’”

Mr. Obama gave her a copy of Dreams from My Father, his 1995 memoir, which Ms. Sweet had no idea he had written. Ms. Sweet, who turned 57 years last week, made a crooked face.

“Probably if you saw me, you would have seen me raise—it was a silent huh? It was a silent huh. If you could hear me say, silently, huh, it raised a huh for me.” She looked like she had swallowed a few lemon slices.

“The huh is, he’s 40-something and he’s written his memoir already? I wasn’t aware of the whole story line, though; I just thought he had a memoir. I did not know that much about his life. We just met a few hours ago. If the first thing you did was say, ‘Lynn, here’s my memoir,’ I would say ‘Ooookay?’”

He was unlikely to unseat Mr. Rush (he didn’t, in fact), so she shelved the book and forgot about it. “In hindsight, I wish I had gotten the book a week beforehand. But who knew? Who knew at the time?”

She didn’t start leafing through it until June 2004, the same summer Mr. Obama was well on his way to his Senate seat and delivered his famous speech at the Democratic National Convention.

The book was an instant hit when it was re-released that year, when Ms. Sweet finally got around to reading it.

“Composite characters. Changed names. And reams of dialogue between Obama and other people that moves the narrative along but is an ‘approximation’ of the actual conversation,” she wrote in the Sun-Times. “Except for public figures and his family, it is impossible to know who is real and who is not.”


Ms. Sweet is not the person to think of if you think of the reporters that people like to say have given in to Barack Obama’s charms. Nor does she have an axe to grind. She is not a pledged foe of Mr. Obama the way some reporters for hometown papers become when the people they have covered emerge from their backyard to become national figures.

But even other reporters who follow her around say she’s the first to call “bullshit.”

“I don’t write a story saying how Obama came out of the rough-and-tumble of Chicago politics,” she said, quietly and forcefully in her Chicago accent—she’s lived there nearly 40 years. “Because in my experience, he was able to avoid the rough-and-tumble of Chicago politics. Au contraire! He didn’t come up through the system.”

She was now speaking from the same office where Mr. Obama had met her nine or so years before, and I suspect it hasn’t much changed since then. It’s full of memorabilia from her days from Chicago: Sun-Times baseball caps; a framed gag license plate that reads ‘SCOOP,’ accompanied by a laudatory note from then Illinois Secretary of State George Ryan, who later became governor and after a recent conviction for corruption is serving a six-year prison sentence. On the wall is a road sign indicating the Lincoln Park West neighborhood where she used to live. A broken computer sat in front of her with a sheet of paper taped to its side reading, “Shut the fuck up and type.”

“Obama came in and had a very lucky break to come in in 90-something, make some of the right connections, and have an opening,” she said. “He returned to Chicago and worked with a law firm that gave him a lot of political network advantages, and started looking around for some office to run for, found this opening in the State Senate where he put himself in it. Now that’s not coming through the rough-and-tough of Chicago politics. And then once he knocked his opponent off the ballot, he represented a safe Democratic district, and that if he chose to, he could have represented until he stopped working. O.K.?”

Sweet on Obama!