Politics: Mr. Obama Goes to Philly

Last spring, Barack Obama holed up in a Center City hotel room and crafted the most important speech of his life. How that address came to be — and how people reacted to it — says as much about us as it does about him

“A necessary evil,” Boy said. “Otherwise, people won’t listen.”

On their website, Campaign Boy and Girl have posted an interview with a man who said he planned to vote in November. “This Obama guy, he’s cool,” he said.

Campaign Boy asked: Does Obama have superpowers?

“I do not know that much about the man,” the voter said. “He has the ability to lift people up.”

Like Campaign Boy, the voter wore his own superhero outfit, complete with cape. This simplifies matters for today’s presidential candidates; they need not practice any public-speaking mental tricks to feel at ease before a crowd. Much of their audience has shown up already, wearing its underwear on the outside.

FOR BETTER OR worse, the world received the prophecies of Jeremiah Wright — ­himself a Philadelphia native­ — through one of the “little boxes” of our day: online video clips. There, his miniature likeness called out “the U.S. of KKKA,” and all the rest.

About the time the scandal first took shape, a team of people called the National Constitution Center and said they’d like to rent the auditorium. The team represented someone who preferred to remain ­anonymous — all very cloak-and-dagger — but said they’d like to tour the facilities. Only later did they acknowledge they represented someone who worked in politics.

And finally, after a thorough tour, they named Obama as their sender.

“It was a slow undressing,” says Joe Torsella, the center’s CEO. The Obama team said the Senator planned to deliver a speech on foreign policy on March 18th.

Obama faced mounting obstacles, though: Hillary Clinton led him in polls at the time, and he faced a yawning stretch between primary votes in Mississippi and Pennsylvania with nothing to occupy people’s minds but his self-immolating pastor. Perhaps foreign policy could wait.

A couple of days before the planned speech, State Representative Josh Shapiro of Montgomery County received a call from Obama advisers. “They said he was planning this speech to outline race relations, and they were looking for any input,” says Shapiro. “Where things stood, there were just a few [Wright] snippets on YouTube and Fox News, so the politically convenient thing to do would have been to throw his pastor and his church under the bus.”

On Saturday, March 15th, Barack Obama dictated a general outline of his speech to Jon Favreau, his head speechwriter. (Through a campaign spokesman, Favreau, who is unrelated to the actor of the same name, declined to speak about his role in the speech.)

The next day, Favreau presented Obama with a fuller version. Sunday night, the Senator worked to rewrite it from about 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. the next day, Monday.

That day — the final day before the speech itself — Obama slept for a few hours, then made various campaign stops around Pennsylvania. About 9:30 that night, he returned to the speech, working in his room at the Sheraton Hotel at 17th and Race streets.