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Enjoy, Senator, It'll Get Worse

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON-Memo to Sen. Barack Obama: That giant swooshing sound that you hear is the roar of a media wave, urgently pushing you to run for president. Don't let it go to your head. What the media giveth, we can take away and usually we do, shortly after the candidate announces.

Time magazine featured your happy face on its cover. My conservative column-writing colleague David Brooks urges you to run, even though he admits he may not vote for you, because "the times will never again so completely require the gifts that he possesses." And you can't beat the publicity boost of a happy hour on Oprah Winfrey's show with your wife, Michelle.

Congratulations, by the way. The timing of your well-written, thought-provoking memoir, "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream," is excellent. You know you're doing something when you can write two memoirs at your young age and get away with it. Authors crave an Oprah book endorsement. You get an endorsement for president, too!

Political life doesn't get much better than this. And, you know what? For you, it most likely will not get any better than this for you, either. Enjoy your sweet media treatment. Worse is bound to come.

Colin Powell's experience is instructive. In 1996, after the Los Angeles riots, the O.J. Simpson verdict, the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings and the Million Man March, much of America longed for a commanding candidate-of-color to confirm that we really were a land of merit and opportunity after all. President Bill Clinton was "apoplectic. terrified" of a Powell campaign taking away black voters, Clinton's then-advisor Dick Morris told interviewers later, just as Sen. Hillary Clinton's team is said to be on pins and needles about Obama today.

But, Powell took a pass, partly because of his wife's well-known reservations about his safety. Now he's still popular and respected but, after his unfortunate associations with the Bush administration's Iraq war mistakes, his big moment has passed.

Now it is your moment, Senator, to weigh the upside against the naysayers: You're too young? Hey, as Michael Tackett, the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau chief, pointed out in a recent analysis, you would be older than Bill Clinton and John Kennedy were when they ran. Too inexperienced? That didn't stop John Edwards. Besides, Senate experience may be overrated, judging by history: Only two presidents, John F. Kennedy and Warren G. Harding, were elected while serving as senators.

Wait for 2012? You could be running against an incumbent president from your own party. Awkward. Or you could face an incumbent from the other party. Difficult. For the foreseeable future, only 2008 offers an open campaign with no incumbent president or vice president planning to run. That's rare. Seize the day, I say.

But that doesn't mean your EZ-Pass on the turnpike to the White House will stay valid for long. Once you declare your candidacy, expect the media to turn on you, picking your life apart all the way back to your pre-school playmates.

And the bigger your popularity, the more vicious the attacks from your rivals will be. Even in this day and some rivals might play, yes, the race card.

Rep. Harold Ford has found that out. The young Tennessee Democrat has been in a tight race to be the first African-American senator elected from the South since Reconstruction. In a sign of his success, a group calling itself "Tennesseans for Truth" has aired a radio ad so racially inflammatory that Ford's Republican opponent, Bob Corker, denounced it.

The ad portrays Ford's membership in the Congressional Black Caucus as if the group were some kind of anti-white conspiracy and smears the caucus' appeals for "aid to black Americans" as "discrimination at its worst." In fact, Ford is one of Congress' most conservative Democrats and the caucus is about as threatening as the United Negro College Fund. But, there's not a lot of shame in politics these days.

In fact, that's a big reason why Democrats were so excited about your 2004 National Democratic Convention speech. At last, they had their own Colin Powell.

Now, in this season of partisan rancor, a Capitol Hill sex scandal involving pages and less-than-inspiring leadership in both parties, you embody the politics of hope. But such moments don't last forever.

I hope you run. Americans deserve to be offered that choice.

Besides, you may never again see this many people who are this eager for you to run. Just don't expect us to be nice to you after you decide to do it.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) By The Chicago Tribune | Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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