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Obama biographer comes to WJ Conversations

November 12th, 2019 2:40 PM

David Mendell

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By Stacey Sheridan

Staff Reporter

Former Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell made history writing President Barack Obama's first biography, Obama: From Promise to Power. Mendell, who moved to Oak Park almost 20 years ago, will be sitting down with Chicago Public Square's Charlie Meyerson on Nov. 20 for Wednesday Journal Conversations at Dominican University Performing Arts Center. 

For years, Mendell tirelessly covered Obama, his career and his family. He was privy to one-on-one conversations with the future president, traveled the world to report on him and had almost unlimited access to Obama and his inner circle. Mendell's presence was so constant, he started to blend in with Obama's team.

"Other state reporters didn't know I was a reporter," Mendell said. "They thought I was staff." 

Mendell chronicled Obama's ascent from local statesman to rising superstar. His years-long reporting efforts culminated in the 2007 publication of his book, making him the journalistic authority on the nation's first black president. He found himself in something of a role reversal, turning from interviewer to highly sought-after interviewee.

"It was bizarre," Mendell said. "The first interview I did was on Meet the Press. I was scared to death. Suddenly I'm sitting next to Carl Bernstein and Doris Kearns Goodwin and I'm thinking, 'How did this happen?'"

Mendell called Bernstein, the legendary Watergate journalist, one of his heroes. 

"When I was in middle school, I did a book report on All the President's Men," he said. 

After the taping, Bernstein asked Mendell to sign his copy of Obama: From Promise to Power, a surreal moment for Mendell. "I don't even remember what I wrote," he said. "My hands were probably shaking."

Mendell first covered Obama, then a state senator, in January 2000, a month after Obama missed the vote on a gun-control measure — a disastrous move, as Obama was running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives against Rep. Bobby Rush, whose son had been fatally shot that year. 

Obama had gathered senior citizens in Hyde Park to promote a prescription drug proposal, but that fell by the wayside as reporters clamored to find out why he'd missed the Safe Neighborhoods Act vote. 

"Nobody cared about the health-care plan," said Mendell. "Everyone wanted to know, 'Where were you?' He looked like a failing politician at that point."

While on their annual Hawaii Christmas trip, daughter Malia fell sick; Obama chose to stay with her and his wife. Looking back on it after years of covering and interviewing the family, Mendell no longer believes the sick daughter line was a ploy to prolong a tropical vacation.

"I think it was all completely accurate," he said. "He was in Hawaii and he had to make a choice, 'Do I stay with my wife? Do I stay with my family?'"

Not long after, Mendell followed Obama all through his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign. According to Mendell, Obama was extremely reluctant to hire a driver, preferring to drive his Jeep, one side of which had a large dent. Mendell would follow behind in his Saturn with its broken sunroof. 

"I was chasing around a dented Jeep in a Saturn," Mendell said. "You wouldn't have thought we were going places at that point."

The Tribune was one of the few media outlets taking Obama's campaign seriously.

"Early on, I always gave Obama a lot of attention that maybe other reporters didn't give him," he said. "It was funny because he would actually show me off like, 'I've got a reporter following me around; see, I am a serious candidate,' when no one was really taking him seriously."

The year of its publication, Mendell's book received a prestigious honor from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), winning an Image Award.

Although Mendell was also one of Obama's fiercest critics, he recognized fairly early that Obama would go far in his career, turning heads in Washington D.C. and promoting change. 

"I was one of the few people who thought maybe he is going to president one day, but I didn't say that out loud," Mendell said.  "There just seemed to be something attached to him."

Wednesday Journal Conversations with David Mendell is 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20 at Dominican University Performing Arts Center, 7900 Division St., River Forest. Tickets are $15.

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