Monday, May 19, 2008

Former Dookie and Presidential Politics

Reggie Love and Obama.
The presidential candidates are all middle-age or elderly. Their campaigns, though, run on the power of youth, driven by legions of eager 20- and 30-something staff members.

Their ranks are thick with political-science geeks. The people who knew in third grade how many Electoral College votes went to Utah. The people who harbored dreams of a West Wing office before they could even drive.

And then there's Reggie Love.

At 26, Love, a former basketball and football player at Duke University, isn't exactly sure how he ended up as one of Barack Obama's most indispensable aides on the trail this year.

As Obama's "body man," he has spent almost every hour of every day with the presumptive Democratic nominee for the past 15 months.

He makes sure that Obama gets up on time in the morning, gets in the shower and has breakfast. He makes sure he has his daily briefing books and list of fundraisers or super delegates to call that day. He makes sure he gets to bed at night.

In between, he does a thousand other tasks that busy presidential candidates cannot do for themselves.

Love isn't quite sure how he ended up here, which is remarkable in an arena populated by young, careerist politicos.

Love is a native of Charlotte and majored in political science at Duke University, but until he fell into a job in Obama's Senate office in Washington in early 2006, he didn't expect to actually work in politics.

"Before I started working for Barack, I was very cynical about politics," he said in an interview this month.

He hoped to become a professional athlete. And though many people harbor those dreams unrealistically, Love almost made it -- and still might, at least overseas.

He was never the best player on Duke's basketball team during his run from 2000 to 2005. Playing forward and center, though, he was a key role player during a stretch in which Duke won a national championship and several ACC championships.

On Duke's sub-par football team, Love stood out. As a 6-foot, 4-inch, 225-pound wide receiver, he was good enough to try out for two NFL squads, the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers, though he missed the cut for both.

In 2006, he was considering entering a training program for a Wall Street investment bank, when a friend alerted him to an opening in Obama's Senate office in Washington. He got the job, and when Obama decided to run for president, moved on with him.

Mentally, he said, the past 15 months on the campaign trail have been like playing four straight seasons of college sports. Physically, he's feeling better than he did during the bruising NFL training camps.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Obama pointed out that one of the body man's most important roles is making sure the candidate isn't overwhelmed by demands to call fundraisers, or meet local supporters or edit a speech.

Love's temperament is suited for the job, he said.

"People … want me here or want me there, or are making requests, or are wanting some phone call out of me. Having somebody who is a good people person is really important," he said of Love.

At a campaign rally in Charlotte, Love's hometown, the weekend before the North Carolina primary, Obama coaxed a reluctant Love onto the stage, calling him "one of the staffers I love the most."

"He is there, day in, day out, never complains, has always got a cheerful attitude," Obama told the crowd. "He is going to be going places."

Basketball rivalries in North Carolina are fierce, and hatred of Duke is intense in many pockets. But Love said he didn't meet a single person who said they would not vote for Obama because of his decision to bring a Blue Devil on staff.

"Even though the Duke-Carolina rivalry is fierce, there's some civility to it. Much more so than with the (University of) Maryland fans," he said.

The body-man position has been around for years, but only gained recognition with the television show The West Wing, which made a lead character of the president's body man, Charlie Young.

The job is both exhausting and frequently repetitive, and includes lots of menial jobs. At a restaurant in Greensboro on the eve of the North Carolina primary, Love held Obama's box of hot wings while the candidate worked the crowd. Love carries his suit jacket when Obama gets warm.

The pressure is intense. He and other staff members are surrounded by hundreds of press members, so the fear of accidentally saying something to damage the campaign is real. Even seemingly trivial things get reported.

For example, earlier this month Obama, Love and other staff members went to the back of the campaign plane to challenge members of the press to a game of Taboo, a word-association game.

Players offer clues to teammates to get them to guess words. One of Love's clues, "where gay people buy clothes" was reported by dozens of news outlets. Obama guessed Abercrombie & Fitch. The answer was The Gap. More...