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The Woman Who Changed the World

(Cross-posted from the WPRI blog)

With Barack Obama’s meteoric rise topping the news these days, many people have forgotten the bizarre series of events that paved the way to his stunning ascendance. It’s especially interesting given that some personal and minor details, thought at the time to be insignificant, could now eventually shape the world we live in - given that Obama has a realistic chance to win the presidency. In retrospect, Obama’s presidential run was the candidacy that almost never happened.

Back in 2004, Barack Obama was an Illinois state senator with some modest accomplishments on his resume. He spearheaded welfare reform in the Illinois statehouse, and took the lead in passing a law that required interrogations in murder cases to be videotaped.

After unsuccessfully challenging strong Democratic incumbent Bobby Rush in a Congressional primary in 2000, Obama returned in 2004 to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald. Obama emerged from a crowded Democratic primary that included multi-millionaire Blair Hull, who spent $29 million of his own money in the primary alone (including paying homeowners $75 a day to keep his signs in their yards). In an 8-candidate race, Obama garnered 53% of the vote, routing his opponents.

Yet despite running away with the primary, Obama still had a formidable challenge in Republican Jack Ryan. Ryan was an impressive candidate - attractive and wealthy, with law and business degrees from Harvard. After making a fortune at Goldman Sachs, Ryan left to teach in an inner city school.

Yet Ryan had a problem - during the campaign, he was going through a messy divorce from actress Jeri Ryan, of “Star Trek: Voyager” fame. Details of Jeri Ryan’s testimony contained lurid details about Ryan forcing his wife to go to sex clubs in Paris. These details were toxic to Jack Ryan’s campaign, and he saw his poll numbers plummet - eventually, Republican leaders pressed Ryan to quit the race, fearing he was toxic to the statewide ticket.

Eventually, Ryan bowed out, leaving the Illinois Republican Party to find a candidate to run against Obama. This led to the national embarrassment of Alan Keyes moving to Illinois to run. Naturally, Obama won 70%-27%, buoyed by his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention.

The rest is history. Certainly, Obama deserves all the credit for the way he has excited Democratic crowds around the country - leading to his rout of Hillary Clinton in Iowa. And he may have beaten Jack Ryan on his own. But it’s fascinating to think that the salacious testimony of a woman scorned could one day fundamentally alter the path of the world in which we live. Without it, Barack Obama could still be sitting in the Illinois statehouse, planning his next political move.

UPDATE: Charlie Sykes discussed this post on the air today. Listen to it here.