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Barack Obama recently purchased a $12 million summer place on Martha’s Vineyard and planned to host 600 “swells” there for his 60th birthday, until the resurgent pandemic shrunk his party numbers.I thought to myself: Come on, Barack, do you really need an over-the-top man- sion on an island playground for the rich and famous, strictly separated from the hoi polloi who put you in the White House? And 600 at a party, from George Clooney to Oprah! I can’t imagine there could be any memorable conversations, as guests jostled for wine and canapes. The sole purpose of the gather- ing was obviously to see and be seen, to validate one’s social standing.Let me stipulate that, politics aside, Barack is a good man who wants to do right by his country. After all, as a newbie president in 2009, he and his administration took strong action that prevented a national, probably global, economic collapse. (Unfortunately, after the fact he failed to prosecute the criminals on Wall Street who knowingly sold toxic mortgages to unsuspecting investors.)My acquaintance- ship with Obama goes back to the late 1990s, when he was thinking about Illinois politics, and I was still an expert of sorts on Illinois budgeting and taxation. Barack would attend sessions at which I was on the panelists’ dais, holding forth. We came to chat after these sessions. A quick learner, Barack was soon himself among the panelists.Later, when I was teaching American politics at the University of Illinois and Barack was a state senator, I would take my students to Mr. Lincoln’s hometown for a day at the Capitol. Barack would always give my students more of his time than we deserved. In his charming, intelligent, witty way (I’m a Kenyan from Kansas, he would introduce himself), he explained how things worked. My students adored him.I still recall standing with Barack at a street corner outside the Union League Club in Chicago, after one of our panel discussions. “Should I run for the U.S. Senate, Jim?” I am sure he was planning to do so, and that he was just stroking me, yet the memory allows me to reflect.Success in life is often a confluence of talent, drive —and good fortune. In the run up to the 2004 Senate race, rather unexpectedly, both wide-open primary and general election races presented them- selves. Then, come the Democratic primary, the megabucks front-runner was accused of battering his wife, and his campaign collapsed. Barack moved to the head of the line, and won the nomination. In the general election campaign, the highly attractive GOP nominee saw his divorce settlement exposed, rich with sexual misadventures, which forced him to with- draw. His replacement was an out-of-state Black man, a kind of minstrel in reverse, who became a joke. Voila. Barack enters the U.S. Senate.I belabor the above a bit simply to make the point that lady luck played possibly key roles in Obama’s success. Who knows? Without that, Barack might today be but a foundation president, not even on the invite list for parties of the high-and- mighty at Martha’s Vineyard.But then, I realized that buying the sum- mer place on the islandmade good sense. First, the property probably appreciated in value the day he inked the purchase. After all, there are today billion- aires for whom eight-figure trophy homes are but trifles. This investment of his will prove valuable to his daughters’ inheritance.Second, Barack tells us he needs to raise hundreds of millions for his presidential library and museum in Chicago. (Why it takes hundreds of mil- lions, I know not.) So, and I’m serious, his palatial summer place becomes a perfect place to host his fel- low nouveau riche overnight. They would become easy marks for seven-figure, tax deductible donations to the Obama museum. (I am sure “old money” folks would sniff at Barack’s raising money for a monument to himself as but an example of newcomer tackiness. But, hey, the old money types inherited their wealth, so why should they be so uppity?)I come back to my point that Barack is a good man. So, I am hoping he will make his new museum a testament, not only to himself, but also to an America where a fellow from the wrong side of the tracks can still make it to the top.As for the $12 million summer place and his 600 closest friends: I was more comfortable in America, in my lifetime, when Harry Truman drove Bess in the family car from the White House back to Independence, Missouri, after his service to his country (by the way, stopping overnight at a motel on the outskirts of down- state Decatur). Those days are, I fear, gone, forever.
A former president of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois, Jim Nowlan has taught American politics at the University of Illinois and as a “foreign expert” with the School of International Affairs and Public Administration at Fudan University in Shanghai.