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A year with Obama

The journey from college kid to presidential candidate was short. Yet it is the audacity of that cho

It was early October 2007 in Iowa, the drying stalks still stood in cornfields grown more precious in the age of ethanol, and far away, in the moneyed precincts of both coasts, Barack Obama's top donors were anxious. Despite having raised heaps of cash, he was trailing Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points in the national polls with only three months to go before Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus. For the worriers, it was getting late. But for Iowa voters, it was early enough that many barely knew what to make of this biracial rookie senator and still muffed his exotic name. In Waterloo, it had been "Hi, Senator Barack." Now, here at the Buchanan County fairgrounds in Independence, it was "Hi, Obama," from a nervous Geri Punteney as she rose in the front row to ask her question.

But it wasn't a question, really. "I have a brother who's dying of cancer," she said, and as soon as it was out she had broken into sobs, and then apologies for her sobs, and more sobs. Obama stepped forward, as if knowing what was expected of him and yet slightly embarrassed by it. He took her hand with some consoling mumbles. Punteney, 50, collected herself enough to tell the rest: her 48-year-old brother was working as a truck driver despite having cancer, so as not to lose his insurance. She herself had stopped working at a riverboat casino to care for her mother, and so was forgoing needed dental surgery. "I don't think it's fair that my brother has to work when he's dying of cancer just to keep his insurance," she said.

And here Obama parted from his two main rivals in the race, Clinton and John Edwards, and from the only Democrat elected president in the past 30 years, Bill Clinton, and from the whole tradition of politics that had prevailed in his party for the past few decades as it tried to maintain its historic bond with the common man. He did not get angry. He did not wrap Punteney in a hug. Instead, he stood still and said in a level voice, "First of all, we're all praying for you." He then told her that he had lost his mother to cancer in her early fifties. And only then looking up at the crowd, he segued into a policy conclusion that was startling for its cool rationalism. Punteney's and her brother's plight, he said, was a sign of the problem in tying health insurance to work without real alternatives. It was wrong that the US was the only developed nation not to guarantee health coverage for its citizens, even as it spent more per person on health care than anyone else. "We don't spend it wisely and we don't spend it fairly," he said.

Moments later, Obama decided to bring up two minor campaign squalls. The day before, an Iowa television reporter had asked him why he was not wearing a flag pin on his lapel, and Obama had answered that he had worn a pin after September 11 2001 but stopped when the pins "became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security". Incipient outrage was already spreading online, and Obama wanted to revisit it - to drive the point further. "After a while, you start noticing people wearing a lapel pin, but not acting very patriotic," he said. "My attitude is, I'm [less] concerned about what you're wearing on your lapel [than] what's in your heart." He moved to another internet favourite, his suggestion to some Iowa farmers a few months earlier that they consider growing speciality vegetables, such as rocket (Americans know it as "arugula"), instead of only subsidised crops such as corn and soybeans. "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?" he had said, which had brought derisive reminders from the press that Iowa had no branches of that organic grocery chain. In Independence, Obama went back at it. He repeated his suggestion on speciality crops and mocked the response to his earlier comment. "They said, 'Oh, Obama's talking about arugula in Iowa. People in Iowa don't know what arugula is.'" He paused, and the scorn rose as he continued. "People in Iowa know what arugula is. They may not eat it but they know what it is."

I don’t know where he’s come from, but he speaks on a whole other level, and he transcends the politics of today . . . We’ve been waiting for a guy like this

A year to the 2008 election, on the first of my many tours covering Obama on the trail, it was all here. There was the inability, or reluctance, to capitalise fully on the woes of working-class Americans beaten down by deindustrialisation, globalisation and Republican governance – a characteristic that would become all the more consequential as the economy crumbled over the next year, providing a giant opening for the Democrats that Obama would not deign to exploit to its utmost until Wall Street’s collapse last month, when a surge of voter discontent swept him along

almost in spite of himself. And there was the conviction that flaps over trinkets and leafy vegetables had debased politics, and that voters would agree if he made the case – a conviction that would be challenged as those very two symbols took leading roles in the cultural resistance to him that would be capped by John McCain’s selection for his running mate of a conservative Alaska governor whose every feature seemed designed for contrast with Obama.

Together, these early clues pointed to an extraordinary fact about the 2008 election, nearly as extraordinary as the racial breakthrough it represented: Barack Obama was running not on a record of past achievement or on a concrete programme for the future, but instead on the simple promise of thoughtfulness - the notion that the leadership of the country should be entrusted not on the basis of résumé and platform, but on the prospect of applying to the nation's problems one man's singularly well-tempered intelligence.

Many of Obama's own supporters would miss this, would grow upset later as he moved from a perceived position on the left to the centre on several issues - voting for compromise legislation to permit federal wiretapping, for instance, or speaking out in favour of a Supreme Court decision that strongly endorsed the right to bear arms. Obama is betraying his politics, came the charge from the left. What does he really stand for? From the other side came: he's offering nothing new, it's all warmed-over liberalism. Overlooked was that his politics appeared a matter less of weighing left and right than of judging smart and less-smart, with nods to fairness and common sense tossed in the mix - a matter of hashing things out, hearing out the other side, seeing what worked. He found tiresome many of the usual ideological tussles, wanted to save the fight for the biggest issues - health care, taxes, global warming. His best, most invigorated moments on the trail would come when he was summoning his audience to step back and think, and showing he believed them capable of that, urging them to demand an end to the petty skirmishes distracting from the greater cause. And his true self-betrayals would come in concessions not to conservatism, but to point-scoring or glibness, in his truisms about energy independence, education reform and trade policy, or in his habit of misquoting rivals.

So, the candidate of hope was at bottom hoping that aptitude could trump experience, though his campaign would never put it that way. Instead, it gamely inflated his qualifications. His three years as a community organiser in Chicago were made out to have been a bounty of hard-won successes for the “families devastated when the steel mills closed down”, when his own memoir had defined that episode precisely by its instructive futility. The results of his eight years in the state legislature (concluded only four years prior!) were exaggerated to the point of casting the creation of a health-care task force as an important step on the way to universal coverage. His work in the US Senate on the noble but innocuous subject of nuclear non-proliferation was used as evidence of his ability to work across the aisle. And the campaign would make much of his policy plans, though on most counts, his proposals differed from Clinton’s only in the small print. This was something Obama himself once acknowledged with candour to a roomful of voters in Iowa City, saying that all the Democratic candidates were going to “set up [health-care] plans you can buy into it if you’re poor – if you can’t afford it we’re going to subsidise it, we’re going to emphasise prevention, blah blah blah” – the last three words amounting to as offhand an indictment of campaign plank-peddling as I had ever observed on the trail.

No, as much as Obama claimed that "this is not about me", of course it was. Not about what he had done or what his website said he would do, but about the man and the qualities he appeared to possess - eloquence, self-possession, charisma, decency, lucidity, sobriety, discipline, judiciousness, empathy, wit, verve, acumen, suppleness, equipoise, confidence, style. (Not to mention his grandfather's strong chin and an enviable cigarette-burnished baritone.) In a word, talent. Which meant that Obama was testing one of the deepest schisms in the country's character, the Jeffersonian conundrum. The same Founding Father who saw as America's unique strength its capacity to produce leaders of modest origins but profligate gifts had also set in motion the forces that, two centuries on, would work to undermine such men and women.

In 1813 Jefferson wrote to John Adams to declare that "there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents . . . The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society . . . May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?" As if anticipating the Bushes and Clintons, Jefferson had set against his natural aristocrat the nepotism of the "pseudo aristoi", a "traditionary reverence for certain families, which has rendered the offices of the government nearly hereditary in those families".

But it was Jefferson, too, who in his debates with Alexander Hamilton - first treasury secretary, Anglophile and advocate of a strong central government - had exalted the yeoman farmer and the honest earth he tilled, setting his inherent goodness against the corrupted hordes of the metropolis, which Jefferson slapped with the same epithet wielded to effect today: European. "Our governments will remain vir tuous for many centuries, as long as they are chiefly agricultural," he wrote to James Madison in 1787. "When [Americans] get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe."

For two centuries, this rural bias had manifested itself mainly in the woefully unrepresentative US Senate (where Wyoming has the same two votes as New York, despite having one-fortieth its population) and in campaign imagery (Lincoln's log cabin, Teddy Roosevelt's years in Dakota Territory). It would take Nixon and his heirs to distil Jeffersonian egalitarianism to its most potent form, a hardy sour mash of righteous resentment against "elites" that flourished to the point where a savant like Bill Clinton had to lard his brilliance with McDonald's photo ops, while George W Bush, a product of Andover and Yale, settled on a West Texas ranch and found little political cost in mangling his mother tongue like so much cleared brush. A country that demanded only the best - best digital camera, best heart surgeon, best college - had developed ambivalence about undisguised excellence in its highest office.

“I never heard of Obama. I don’t know where he came from. My boyfriend said he gave a speech at the last convention, but I don’t remember that”

This was the asterisk in the American meritocracy that Obama was attempting to erase. And if America was divided, this was the great cleavage confronting him as the self-anointed unifier. To those inclined to recognise potential in the qualities he represented even in the absence of hard evidence of its having been realised, here was a leader unlike any the country had seen for quite a while. These voters thought they grasped at some level what the world was coming to, that it demanded effervescence over solidity, knowledge over dogma, nuance over vehemence, and that it no longer distributed rewards according to years of attendance at the company holiday party. It was the world of the Google boys setting up shop in their Silicon Valley garage, high-school basketball stars going straight to pro, and wars begun by men of deep experience but rigid minds. Many saw this, and were either themselves prospering on these new terms or, if not, had accepted them as the new reality and had decided that the kid with the big skills and short résumé was the one for the moment. "It's a miracle that [Obama's] come aboard. I don't know where he's come from, but it's communication on a whole other level, and it transcends the politics of today," Doug Summers, a screenwriter in Santa Fe, said to me. "It's old versus new. We've been waiting for a guy like this. Like I told my kids: this guy's going to change your lives."

Many others looked at this same new world and were flummoxed by it. To them, it was a betrayal of what they held dear - that time served counted for something, as did work that involved something other than talking or writing or computing. If the winnings were now being given out on the basis of talent and not rank, then why was it that kids of a certain class were riding the escalator faster than ever? For these voters, Obama offered ultimate proof that this new so-called meritocracy of the number-crunchers and keyboard-tappers was bankrupt. That this man who had "done nothing" should be considered for the most powerful office in the world on the basis of certain personal qualities was a bad joke, an affront and, yes, possibly a conspiracy. "I never heard of Obama. I don't know where he came from," said Kathy Zarzycki, a nurse and Clinton supporter in Ohio's industrial Mahoning Valley, a Democratic stronghold where Obama has struggled. "My boyfriend said he gave a speech at the last convention, but I don't remember that."

On these terms would the lines be drawn. The divisions became quickly evident, so much so that one could have taken US census data and predicted most primary outcomes to within a few points. (Clinton's late rally was more than anything a matter of the schedule; the Rust Belt and Appalachian states where she was strong fell later in the order.) There were some exceptions. Geri Punteney, not an obvious demographic match for Obama, told me that day at the fairgrounds that his measured response to her plea had won her over. "You don't have to get outraged," she said. "He seems more down to earth, more mellow." The question was whether the millions of other Geri Punteneys, those who had not seen the thoughtfulness gambit up close, would feel the same way.

The basic biography is by now familiar to most. Barack Hussein Obama was born in 1961 in Hawaii to an 18-year-old white woman with middle-class Kansas roots and a 25-year-old Kenyan exchange student who married her but left two years later to attend Harvard. Moved with his mother, an idealistic anthropologist, to Indonesia between the ages of six and ten to live with her new husband. Returned to Hawaii to be raised primarily by his grandparents. College in Los Angeles and New York, then the organising stint in Chicago, law school at Harvard, and a return to Chicago, where he ran for state senate in 1996. Eight years in the legislature wrapped around a failed run for the US House, then the race for US Senate, blessed by luck when two different opponents were felled by tawdry divorce scandals, and capped by The Big Speech at John Kerry’s 2004 convention in Boston, which got all the speculation started.

Missing from the standard chronology is how, or when, it happened - how a late adolescent adrift in a mild pot habit, misguided fantasies of basketball greatness and steadily accreting racial confusion grew, within a decade, into the outstanding law student many of his classmates predicted would be the first black president. In his own narrative of self-discovery - written at the age of 33 - Obama pinpoints a few key moments: an anti-apartheid speech at his Los Angeles college, where he realised the power of his voice; a turn towards scholarly self-discipline in his next few years at Columbia; his exposure to urban deprivation in Chicago. Underlying it all, he postulates, was the desire to live up to the expectations of, and fill the void left by, the brilliant, flawed and vanished African father.

What matters most, though, is not so much when the light of ambition went on – Obama’s own

account is as reliable as any self-mythology – but that Obama realised that it had, and decided to follow it even at the risk of appearing highly presumptuous. Try as his campaign might to mask it, he knew full well the audaciousness of his bet on talent. It was why he was going for it this time around, despite the calls to wait his turn. If he was to run on potential, it would do no good to dull the package with more years on Senate subcommittees. In 2008, he could still run his race from a skyscraper in Chicago, that great heartland city he’d made his home; any later, he’d be running out of DC, where stardom, like the city’s building heights, was levelled by custom. The timing was ideal in other ways, too. If ever the country would be ready for a hyperarticulate candidate running on a platform of pragmatism and reconciliation, it was at the end of the Bush years. Even more opportune was the presence of Hillary Clinton. What better way for a candidate whose biggest weakness was his inexperience than to prove his worth in the act of campaigning – by slaying a giant?

What matters most is not so much when the light of ambition went on, but that Obama realised that it had, and decided to follow it

In August 2007, Obama visited with some Democrats in New Hampshire, the first primary state. Carol Moore, a former state representative, told him she was tired of losing her heart to cerebral, liberal insurgents like Bill Bradley, the former New Jersey senator and New York Knicks player who ran against Al Gore in 2000, only to see them crushed by the Democratic machine. She had decided never to fall for one again, but still she wanted to know from Obama why he would be any different. How could she know he would be able to see it home? "Once I win the primaries, no one's going to doubt my credentials or my toughness," he said, as she relayed it to me. "If I beat Hillary, no one's going to doubt my electability and my qualifications - or my strength."

But Clinton would be most valuable of all as a foil, so well did she offset Obama's "new politics" mantra. There was the war in Iraq, which Obama had opposed, not because it was wrong but because it was "dumb" and "rash". Obama's anti-Clinton critique extended further. His speeches were riddled with put-downs no less effective for leaving her name unsaid, as he called for a politics that "wasn't based on spin and PR" or "triangulating and poll-driven positions". He said he was not running "because of some long-held ambition", and turned every barb from Clinton into a teasing new take on the failures of the "old politics", infuriating her camp.

And Clinton played to form. She seemed to have it both ways in a debate answer on immigration. Her campaign dredged up writings from Obama's Indonesian kindergarten purporting to show that he, too, had nursed presidential dreams. And, one snowy December day at a law office in New Hampshire, one of her top advisers there, a lawyer married to the state's former governor, responded to my questions about Obama's rising poll numbers by expressing his deep concern that, if Obama were to win the nomination, Republicans would inevitably bring up his admitted cocaine use as a young man, and might ask whether he had ever been a drug dealer, because, after all, they would argue, who really knew the extent of it?

In Iowa, where Obama had spent by far the most time, the equation tipped his way. In New Hampshire, where the Clintons' roots ran deeper, she shocked us all, winning by three points just a week after her campaign was caught trying to make its crowds appear larger than they were. Here, Obama's bet on raising the level of discussion had failed. In a debate three days before the vote, he found himself in an awkward position. The moderator had asked Clinton about her low likeability ratings, and her charming response had included praise for Obama. He had to say something, and his rejoinder - "You're likeable enough, Hillary" - made for the most charged and grown-up moment between the two of them all campaign. Saying any more would have been phoney, given her recent attacks on him, yet for all that he still felt some affection for her, and expressed it in the dry tone of a 1940s leading man. She got this, and accepted it with an equally wry and genuine smile. But the adult irony did not translate on screen, the line became enshrined as smug condescension, and, combined with her welling up on camera two days later, it helped rally New Hampshire women to her in big numbers on primary day.

We would get much else wrong. In South Carolina, we would unfairly blame Hillary’s wipeout on Bill’s blundering, when in fact his one big stumble came after most of the votes were cast, when he compared Obama’s victory to the 1984 and 1988 South Carolina wins by Jesse Jackson, the demonstrative civil rights leader who shares little with Obama but the colour of his skin. Obama’s rout was instead the result of the shift of the African-American vote after Iowa – which offered proof “they” would vote for him – a shift that was sealed by his transformation on the South Carolina stump into a master of Southern black vernacular. We would also be slow to recognise that Obama had put himself in position to win the nomination by holding his own on Super Tuesday, the early February day on which 22 states voted. And as it dawned on us, we tried to explain it away, to pretend that this gathering upset was about things other than his talents and the electorate’s gradual reckoning with them. Doing so would have required acknowledging his abilities to an extent that the press felt uncomfortable doing, spooked as it was by Clinton’s (and later John McCain’s) charges of favouritism.

So we focused instead on Obama's record-breaking fundraising, his cohesive brain trust, his stellar ground organisation, his decision to rack up delegates in states with caucuses, where voters expressed their preference in public and where liberal Democrats dominated. All these things were true, but by emphasising them we skirted the obvious, that Obama had been in a position to win those caucuses, starting with Iowa, only because many Democrats had fallen for him in a way they never would for Hillary. Because he had it and she did not - the promise of a true break from the past and the ability to walk two or three times a day into an arena of thousands and pull them in and lift them up with barely a shout, so modulated and assured was his 45-minute, off-the-cuff stump speech. There was, it turned out, a difference between being able to inspire and to rally, which is why Clinton would fall short even as her pitch grew more insistent. The sheer relentlessness could do nothing for the hint of joylessness her campaign had laboured under from the start.

We tried our best to ignore this. In April, many of us gathered in Butte, Montana, a once-thriving silver and copper town that now stands, half-abandoned yet stately and surreal, on a bluff beside a huge abandoned mining pit. There, Obama and Clinton addressed Montana Democrats in a rare joint appearance. He, delivering the norm, and somewhat perfunctorily, held the hall rapt. Whereas she offered herself as merely a more famous variation on the local officials who also spoke - punches at the air, a charge of partisan particulars, the laundry list of correctives, all of it nearly as classic and time-worn as that city on the bluff. The crowd half-listened, the line for Moose Drool beer grew longer. The story of the campaign was laid bare in the contrast, but we, sitting back in the rafters, averted our eyes as best we could. Despatches from the event focused on this or that new charge or policy twist, as if the candidates had even been competing in the same decade.

Clinton herself was more honest on this score, and knew she could never close the gap, which was why she launched her critique of the oratory itself as "empty words". This resonated with those already inclined to distrust Obama, but had limits as an attack, because what was politics but the attempt to communicate with voters and other politicians and bring them to one's side? More than that, it ran up against the fact that Obama was not a political performer in the conventional sense. Most American stump showmen - Huey Long, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton - plunged into the moment, lost themselves to it and the narrative created for them. Obama did not. He relished the crowd, sure, but he did not entirely open himself up to it. Even in the biggest arenas, he retained a hint of the observer's remove, which was to be expected given that he was, after all, a writer. His memoir, Dreams From My Father, if clichéd at moments, had demonstrated a true writer's sensibility, and his political tract, The Audacity of Hope, had managed at points to transcend that form.

This aspect of the candidate was, to me, the biggest mystery of all. Most of us tend towards one pole or the other, observer or participant, critic or actor, consultant or candidate - one burdened by heightened self-awareness, the other liberated, if not always for the best, by a shortage of the same. Here was someone who possessed enough self-consciousness and detachment to have noted, in The Audacity of Hope, telling details of his first visit to the White House - of Bush's asking an aide for a squirt of hand sanitiser in a moment alone with Obama, of the Secret Service's reaction when Obama set his hand on Bush's shoulder. Yet here he was, day after day, also satisfying huge crowds who all expected a revelation. In the week leading up to Super Tuesday: 13 cities in 11 states. In one day alone: 14,000 in Boise, 18,000 in Minneapolis and 20,000 in St Louis. This hybrid character type confounded Clinton's attempt to cast him as a mere itinerant troubadour. But it also helped explain why not all the voters he met were signing on. At some level, perhaps, they could sense that even as Obama was shaking their hand or asking about the new machine on their shop floor, he might be filing something away for the next book.

We could see this unusual blend behind the scenes as well. On his ventures back to the press section of the plane, he bantered with the challenging bravado of the self-confident politician, leaning forward in his trademark white shirt into the scrum of mini-tape recorders and cameras. But even here there was a reserve, a not entirely concealed disdain for our clamouring questions and whatever dust-up of the day they happened to revolve around, as if he thought that presumably well-educated scribes like us ought to know better. There was also a slight reticence one on one. Assigned as the lone "pool" reporter to cover him on a detour from the campaign trail in Ohio to Illinois to attend a memorial service for five college students killed in a classroom shooting, I had several amiable chats with him on the chartered private jet.

We spoke about our kids, home towns, sports. But there was a limit to the engagement - unlike Bill Clinton, this was not a candidate who needed to win over every person presented to him, to convey as much of his brilliance as possible in each encounter. It was as if Obama was held in check by a constant sense of perspective. He enjoyed good conversation, but there were a lot of reporters to meet along the way, a lot of people, and only so many hours in the day. At some point on our return flight, it became clear he just wanted to read the papers, which he did, ploughing through the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, front to back.

Even as he stayed on course to claim the nomination, he felt demoralised over the campaign’s detour into the cultural shadowlands

One April day on her way back from a lunch break in the withered steel town of Charleroi, Pennsylvania, Theresa Krall, a social worker and Democrat, said she liked Clinton the best. Between Obama and McCain, she wasn’t so sure. “Obama speaks wonderfully, and he’s very intelligent. But I’d have to research more about him against McCain.”

Such was the nature of Obama's bet on meritocracy that, at some point along the way, the primaries against Clinton seemed to blur into the looming general election against John McCain. The conservative, blue-collar Democrats who sided with Clinton in the Pennsylvania primary following the rantings of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the long-time minister of Obama's Chicago church, were the same voters Obama would be fighting hardest for months later against McCain. McCain and Clinton echoed each other in savaging Obama for his poorly phrased musings, at a fundraiser in San Francisco, about "bitter" small-town Americans and their tendency to "cling" to guns and religion. It was a riff that showed Obama's analytical side in a less flattering light, drew attention to the very cultural gap he was seeking to close, and was only partly mitigated by having been intended as a defence of rural America against charges of bald racism. Even as he stayed on course to claim the nomination, Obama's demoralisation over the campaign's detour into the cultural and racial shadowlands was plain - the listlessness that some saw on his face at a Philadelphia debate where Clinton brought up his association with a 1960s domestic terrorist-turned-college professor was more like aggrieved disbelief that it should have come to this. Urged to counter during this difficult Rust Belt phase, Obama maintained his trademark equanimity but also stoked false fears about Clinton's health plan and misquoted her as praising the North American Free Trade Agreement. (Later, he would also take out of context McCain's comments about the need for a 100-year US presence in Iraq and about the economy.) Clinton hurt her own cause with embellished tales of landing under sniper fire in Tuzla, Bosnia, ammunition for those who did not trust her word. But Obama's true deliverance came, at last, when both Clinton and McCain tried to push their populist advantage too far, clubbing Obama for his refusal to go along with their call for a summer-long gas tax holiday. It was a classic gimmick (in reality, it would save consumers little) and one that seemed perilous to oppose, but it was just the foothold Obama needed to return to the high ground as he ridiculed the idea at every stop.

This was Obama in his element - quoting experts, appealing to higher reason: "The American people are smarter than Washington gives us credit for." And it worked, as he put the race away in North Carolina. Shortly before the final primaries, he embarked on a victory lap through Oregon, and here was Obama as he wanted to be seen. On the long flight west, he made a rare extended visit to the back of the plane for a word game with the press and aides. (Having to lead his team-mates to the word "revolution" without resorting to the words "American" or "French", he offered: "Thomas Jefferson called for it to happen every once in a while." When none of his team-mates knew the answer, he went more middlebrow: "A Beatles song.") In Eugene, he paid an unannounced visit to the University of Oregon's legendary track in the middle of a big annual athletics meeting; once the women's two-miler was done, the meet came to a halt and the candidate strolled around the track, bathed in sunset and waving up to the old grandstand as the crowd - the ultimate Obama demographic, track enthusiasts in the Pacific north-west - rose as one to applaud. An hour later he spoke to thousands on campus, aglow with self-reflective triumphalism.

"There've been times where you get whacked so many times that after a time, you feel you have to whack back. You've got to go negative. You don't want to look like a wimp," he said. "The times . . . I'm most proud of is when we resisted the impulse, and the times that I'm least proud of is when we succumbed to that impulse."

 

But the turn towards McCain would renew the original challenge in a different form. Against Clinton, his best card had been the one he wanted to play, the call for new politics. Against McCain, he was expected to wield a blunter instrument: the charge that McCain’s party had made a complete hash of everything. An obvious tack, but it complicated his call for post-partisan reconciliation. His stump speech had from the start been full of economic prescriptions – though these were often overlooked in the focus on his rhetorical crescendos – and he had given several serious addresses on Wall Street reform, demonstrating a deeper engagement on the subject than McCain. Yet the pitch lacked an overarching thrust, a lunge for the Republican jugular. It was as if Obama was held back by what he knew, that much of the country’s economic pain had as much to do with global upheavals as with the Bush tax cuts and trade policies. As if he knew his forays into populism in the primaries had edged into protectionist demagoguery, and that an African-American candidate could afford to sound only just so angry and intense. But it was also as if he thought that winning on the economy was somehow too easy and more conventional than what he had really set out to do in this campaign.

To those unnerved by his gifts, the African roots and Muslim name only ratcheted up the distrust. Where do they make people like this? Not around here

Chatting with me early in the primaries, David Axelrod, Obama's strategist, said not to expect the usual partisan fire from Obama: "He's never been an aficionado of the cheap applause line. Voters get sold short. They're smart and sophisticated. They realise that it's important to replace a Republican with a Democrat, but that it won't do enough", if "all we do is change parties without challenging our politics".

This sort of talk unnerved Democrats who did not understand why many of Obama's ads against McCain did not hammer the Republican brand more aggressively. They fretted about how Obama's discursive style would fare in the debates, even though he had shown improvement over the course of his countless encounters with Clinton. Obama's challenge on the economy also involved an awkward political reality. Even as the weak economy was making him the alleged favourite, he was in fact lagging in states and regions that had been hit the hardest under Bush. Conditions had only worsened across the Rust Belt since 2004, when Kerry won Michigan and Pennsylvania and narrowly lost Ohio, yet all summer Obama was barely holding on to the first two and lagging in the third. Meanwhile, the former Republican strongholds he was hoping to nab, Virginia and Colorado, were states that remained relatively prosperous.

The easy explanation for this paradox was racial prejudice, but something broader was at work. Over the past decade, Democrats had gained with college-educated professionals and in the more dynamic regions, in formerly Republican areas such as northern Virginia and the Philadelphia suburbs, while Republicans had claimed distressed states that had been Democratic, such as West Virginia, places that felt increasingly disconnected from the megalopolises that candidates of the Kerry and Gore kind most represented. Leading Democrats were worrying about Obama's struggle to carry conservative "Reagan Democrats" whom Clinton had won in the primaries in places like western Pennsylvania, yet many of them had already deserted the party for Bush, and Kerry and Gore had carried that state anyway. Sure, Clinton had a better shot at reclaiming them, and Obama could not lose too many of them, but they were no longer the base of the party, certainly not of his party.

 

Not that race didn’t play into it. For some, particularly older voters, Obama was the first affirmative-action nominee, period. Bob Norman, a retired awning maker, was blunt when I came to his door in the working-class Cleveland suburb of Parma. “The media’s letting him sled on down the hill because he’s coloured,” he said. Marlene Newlon, a landlord in Grafton, West Virginia, offered a more direct variant as we strolled down the street of that shrivelled railroad town: “I’m not voting for a black president. I’m sorry.”

On the flipside, who knew how many of the young voters who were shattering all assumptions about their endemic apathy were doing so to flaunt their tolerance, a benefit gained from a youth spent listening to Kanye West and imitating Kobe Bryant? And there was the basic fact that what Obama had done was essentially to carry the same highly educated liberals attracted to reformers past (Bradley, Howard Dean, Gary Hart) and then, thanks in part to his heritage, add to them black voters, breaking up the coalition that had helped past machine Democrats stave off the highbrow types.

The more interesting role of race, though, lay in the way Obama's ethnic particulars exacerbated the split perception of his talent. To those unnerved by his gifts, the African roots and Muslim name only further ratcheted the distrust: Where do they make people like this? Not around here . . . Meanwhile, among his admirers, much was made of Obama's ability, as a biracial American, to embrace and represent all. But was it not also true that for many his appeal lay in all the things he was not - that his confounding of the stereotypes on either side only made him more appealing for those inclined to admire such singularity? Consider a black politician of equivalent aptitude with typically African-American roots. Would not his uniqueness have been more obscured than Obama's by discussions of racial redemption and his embodiment of a group? And consider a young white Democrat with the same outsized skills. Would the ambition that drives Obama be writ more conspicuously, and unappealingly, on the face of a rising star who could not, like Obama, be said to be putting his talents towards the cause of national reconciliation? If this bright young white candidate gazed into the distance as is Obama's wont, chin upturned just so, might it appear to voters as if he were thinking only of himself, not of history?

Thus did the elite candidate who happened also to be the first serious black candidate move into the home stretch. McCain picked up where Clinton left off with his “Country First” theme, casting Obama as a self-aggrandising climber and going so far as to charge that “Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign”. There were the “celebrity” ads, which in a clever twist showed Obama in a dazzling light, smiling broadly before 200,000 Berliners – he is a star, you are not, and he knows it. But the most direct counter to the audacity of talent would come from Sarah Palin.

Here was a culture warrior from the front lines, her pro-life convictions evident in her decision to carry to term a baby with Down's syndrome and to encourage her pregnant 17-year-old to marry and start a family. In her convention speech, Palin delivered with gusto a speech that bristled with rural resentment, including a quotation from the notorious arch-conservative, anti-Semitic columnist Westbrook Pegler: "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity." This was followed by a string of bold appeals to the heartland, including her declaration that "it's time that normal Joe Six-Pack American is finally represented in the position of vice-presidency".

Challenges to her qualifications brought retorts about Obama's own swift rise, to which Obama partisans wanted to respond that it was less about résumés than about capacity and learning and engagement with the broader world. They wanted to say this, but with the spectre of Jefferson's yeoman looming, they mostly held their tongue and grimaced - until, to their delight, Palin's glaring struggles in her television interviews made their case for them.

Palin's stunning burst into the Outside, as Alaskans call the Lower 48, was soon enough trumped by cataclysm, the Wall Street meltdown. And within two weeks, the financial crisis had, among other things, utterly reshaped the presidential race, throwing a bevy of key swing states into clear leads for Obama. This was received as predictable - any evidence of economic plight worked to Obama's benefit, right? But this had not been the case all year. The economy had been in decline all campaign, and yet Obama had failed to open as wide a lead as many Democrats thought he should. Yet something was different now. At one level, the sheer scale of the devastation was prompting a partisan shift that brushed aside all else, a furious lashing out at the incumbent party, maybe even an ideological epiphany. Beyond that, however, it seemed possible that Obama was at last benefiting from the politics of thoughtfulness. Voters who had lost their jobs in Steeltown, USA a year ago had wanted to see more passion than Obama was able or willing to provide. But voters terrified and perplexed about this more abstract, far-reaching crisis wanted something else: to know that the people in charge were thinking hard and carefully before acting. They wanted to see serious deliberation among wise men. Many voters rightly saw the crisis as the fault of the coastal elite, the MBAs who had made their millions pushing paper in New York and the hedge-fund outpost of Greenwich, Connecticut. But voters also saw that a crisis this grave and convoluted required an elite response, measured, informed, competent. And as Obama reacted with his usual restraint - restraint bordering on detachment - and as McCain jerked into a more haphazard response, the needle moved. McCain, so long simply a default option for voters wary of Obama, had, between the Palin pick and response to the crisis, come to seem "unsafe" in his own right, polls showed.

Voters saw that a crisis this grave required an elite response, measured, informed, competent. McCain had come to seem “unsafe” in his own right

The numbers continued to move after their first two debates, where Obama met McCain’s visible contempt with yet more calm, to the frustration of some of his own supporters. Just like that, he was suddenly in command, finally riding the current of economic distress, and positioned to close the deal with the far superior ground organisation and money machine he had been building all year. McCain, meanwhile, made a final attempt to frame the out-of-nowhere talent he was up against as threatening. Palin started it off, with new warnings about the radical/professor whom Obama once knew in Chicago.

"Our opponent . . . is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country," she said on the trail in Colorado. "This is not a man who sees America as you see America and as I see America." Such remarks provoked a virulent sort of enthusiasm from members of the party base who now dominated McCain-Palin events. Among undecideds, however, Obama again appeared to be reaping the benefits of his demeanour - exotic as he was, his extreme moderation made it harder for voters to picture him in cahoots with bomb-throwers. His surrogates scolded McCain and Palin for inciting the crowd, and a somewhat abashed McCain tried to switch to a more temperate tone. And Obama plodded happily along, proposing a new $60bn economic relief package on 13 October before retiring to Toledo, Ohio - selected for its proximity to all those long-suffering post- industrial voters who seemed to be finally warming to him - to prepare for the final presidential debate.

Before Palin's debut, and before the markets fell apart, Obama had his final chance at a mass, unmediated presentation of the meritocrat's case, at the Denver convention. The McCain camp howled at Obama's choice of a 76,000-seat stadium and the classical backdrop constructed for the stage, and even many Democrats cringed, but they should have seen it coming. This campaign, after all, had been launched on aspiration and presumption. Not for him the cramped indoor podium where a hundred other pols had all, in their way, made the customary appeal to the average voter in the average state. Barack Obama was betting, again, that America was ready for a little elevation.

So much hung in the dry, thin air of Denver - not just the rest of this astonishing campaign, but also everything after that. What would come of all this if he made it, and finally had the chance to embark on the work he had spent 21 months talking about? How would a post-partisan candidate rein in a Democratic congressional majority out to run roughshod? How would the decisions be made at day's end when all due deliberation had run its course, and the thoughtful unifier was in the position of having to make one side or the other unhappy? (Most immediately: would he stand by his calls for middle-class tax cuts and big spending on health care, alter native energy and infrastructure, even as the deficit hawks claimed these things were now unaffordable? Would he raise taxes on the wealthy and on capital gains even in a deep recession?) How would his reform push fare in a Washington so calcified by lobbyists and corporate lucre, and how disappointed would his expectant base be by the inevitable lapses and compromises?

Most of all, how would this man, who had never run anything but a law review, a Senate office and his campaign staff, fare as national leader in a time of ultimate stress? From early in the campaign, he had opened his stump speeches by declaring he was running now because "we are at a defining moment in our history" and "cannot afford to wait". To some ears, it sounded grandiose. Now, it was all too true. Was this more than he had bargained for - or was this just the sort of moment for which the natural aristocrat was made?

But first, the speech. He laced it with enough partisan fire to satisfy the back-seat drivers worried that he had been insufficiently tough in the face of McCain's barrage. Yet near the end he managed to return to the idea that got it all going back in Iowa a year earlier, and in Boston three years before that, only now it came with the extra edge of having seen just how many were hoping he would fail.

"For part of what has been lost these past eight years can't just be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits. What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose - our sense of higher purpose. And that's what we have to restore," he said. "I know there are those who . . . dismiss such beliefs as happy talk. They claim that our insistence on something larger, something firmer and more honest in our public life is just a Trojan horse for higher taxes and the abandonment of traditional values. And that's to be expected. Because if you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from . . . You make a big election about small things. And you know what - it's worked before. Because it feeds into the cynicism we all have about government . . . But I stand before you tonight because all across America something is stirring."

With just a couple weeks to go, amid earth-shaping gusts even stronger than what he has been creating for nearly two years, it's looking like he might be right.

Alec MacGillis writes the "Letter from Washington" for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama

Ason Mceachern
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He gave a total stranger $50,000 in cash: the strange, multi-million dollar empire of Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Kate Mossman meets the man behind one of the world’s wealthiest rock bands.

He calls it “whacking”. It began near his property on 12th Street, Manhattan. He’d get his driver to circle Union Square while he identified a suitable beggar; then he’d jump out, shove a hundred-dollar bill into their hand, jump back in and drive off. Soon, he realised that many of the people he was giving to were schizophrenic and he was scaring them out of their wits. So he started passing the money to his daughter because, he reasoned, they were more likely to accept it from a three-year-old girl. He gradually increased the amount he gave – from a hundred to ten, twenty, fifty thousand dollars in a roll of notes. Paul O’Neill and his daughter would drive around the square and she’d say: “Let’s whack ’em, Dad, let’s whack ’em hard.”

****

One of the biggest bands on the planet ­remains unknown to much of the world. Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) have spent much of the past decade on Billboard’s annual list of top music moneymakers; they now play to a million people a year and have grossed over $500m in concert revenues since they were founded 20 years ago. In 2014 they made almost $52m in 52 days. They tour for seven weeks only, from November to January. To maximise profits, they split into two halves – one band for the west coast of America and the other for the east – and play matinees as well as evening shows.

Their genre? Heavy metal Christmas music. TSO are a glittering chorus line of rock chicks and axe heroes in black tie and tails, suspended on wires or balancing high above the stage on hydraulic platforms playing rock’n’roll mash-ups of “Deck the Halls” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”. There are 18 people on stage, 240 staff and 40 trucks to transport them. The show, which looks like Pink Floyd-meets-Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, employs 18 lasers and 750 pyrotechnics. The band travels with two trailers of generators: they once blew out the electricity grid in Jackson, Mississippi.

TSO’s creator, O’Neill, divides his time between New York City and Florida, where the band began. I speak to someone at a UK rock magazine who once had a phone call with him. “Just don’t get him on to Chur­chill,” he says.

The Morrisound Recording studio in north Tampa was once the nerve centre of Florida’s legendary metal scene, playing host to many of the genre’s nastiest acts, including Sepultura, Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death. Like most luxury recording spaces, it hit hard times in the past decade; then, in 2015, TSO bought it and turned it into their headquarters, Night Castle. It lies behind high gates and is staffed by polite young engineers with russet beards. Visitors are met with a large food centre stocked with six different kinds of mineral water and a pine-fresh smell not typical of the recording studios of the past.

O’Neill has taken on a slightly mythical status within TSO. The official photographer tells me that you rarely see him because he is “so protected”. When in Tampa, he is accompanied by a 6ft 4in driver-cum-security guard with the physique of a wrestler, whose name is Tracey.

O’Neill emerges grinning from a darkened doorway. He has the little, anthropoid legs of Jeff Beck or Mick Jagger (finished off with heavy biker boots) and the sprung stoop of one who has great nervous energy – a coiled way of moving along, like someone who is ready to help but equally ready to flee.

He sits down, throws one knee over the other and gestures at a large analogue mixing desk, saying, “You don’t see too many of these any more,” in the quick voice of a native New Yorker.

He was born in Flushing, Queens in 1956, one of ten children of second-generation Irish immigrants. His father, who had fought in France, worked for a telecoms company; he put himself through night school and qualified as a history teacher. O’Neill’s siblings are high achievers. He was “always the dumb one”. At seven, he still couldn’t read, so his mother kept him in the house for the summer and “forced phonics down my throat” until he could.

As an adolescent in the early 1970s, he performed at Manhattan folk clubs, though he is not nostalgic about it. He played guitar in productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair – “Well, illegal touring versions,” he qualifies. “Everyone was doing it at the time.” He entered Jimi Hendrix’s ­Electric Lady Studios at 52 West Eighth Street to produce a progressive rock band called Slowburn but failed to translate the baroque melodies in his head into playable music, so he gave up and went to work for the infamous management duo Leber and Krebs, who broke Aerosmith and AC/DC. These were tough times – Sharon Osbourne’s father, the manager Don Arden, would assert his power over rivals and clients by hanging them out of windows. O’Neill worked for Aerosmith as a tour manager and “settler” – meaning, he explains, that he would carry a fee of up to $50,000 in cash in a briefcase that, for security reasons, was handcuffed to his arm.

He has the disconnected synapses suggestive of years of hard living and his soft voice flits between business, American sentimentality and early-20th-century warlords at alarming speed.

“I’ll tell you why Aerosmith don’t play the UK,” he says. “They can’t stand the plumbing. They can’t believe you don’t have the mixer taps. You know Churchill was a fan of American plumbing, too?”

His long chin gives his face a perpetual expression of mischief. When he is not wearing his sunglasses, he keeps his pale, grey eyes shut. He says things like, “The one rule of work is: don’t do anyone any favours, because then they’ve got nothing on you.”

In the mid-1980s he was booked to produce a band called Heaven but was ejected halfway through a project that could have been huge – a heavy metal version of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, five years before Guns N’ Roses did theirs. He’d also wanted to try out something else with the band – a mash-up of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells”, played on electric guitars.

Joan Jett to Jefferson: O’Neill with his treasure collection (large “Mr Livy” on the left). Photo: Bob Carey

It wasn’t your average business proposal: “six rock operas, a trilogy about Christmas and one or two regular albums”. O’Neill put it to the Atlantic Records mogul ­Ahmet Ertegun in the mid-1990s and claims to have been written a blank cheque. “Christmas is the holy grail,” he tells me. “Dickens wrote five books about Christmas. So I said, ‘Then it’s too big for one album, too.’”

On TSO’s first Christmas album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, a young man wanders into a bar and learns the magic of Christmas from a mysterious old man; it has sold 3.4 million copies. Then there’s The Christmas Attic, in which a child explores an attic on Christmas Eve; The Lost Christmas Eve; and the DVD The Ghosts of Christmas Eve. Sleeve notes include short stories written by O’Neill. A few years ago, he even produced a 50-page novella called Merry Christmas Rabbi, which featured Nazis. Atlantic wouldn’t let him turn it into an album “because they were too freaked by it. Now it’s on Amazon for, like, a buck 99.”

His plan was to create a modern-day Nutcracker, something whole families would come to see, year after year. 
“I think we were in the right place at the right time,” he says. “Even Grandma has been to Woodstock. It made it a lot easier for us to jump the generational wall. That’s what I wanted to do with the Beethoven and Mozart, too. People treat the symphonies like they’re museum pieces but I think they scream out for electric guitars. The record industry acts as if people only like one kind of music. In truth, they like variation. Which is why we have hamburgers and chicken nuggets.”

Symphonic rock was not a new idea. Emerson, Lake and Palmer threw Bach, Mussorgsky and Grieg into their prog concoctions forty years ago. “I worship Greg Lake,” O’Neill says. “Greg is the Obi-Wan Kenobi – he is the Socrates of prog rock.” Both Lake and Jon Anderson of Yes have joined TSO on stage, as have the Who’s Roger Daltrey and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.

I call Lake at his home in Guildford to find out what it was like. His version of the band’s inception is different from O’Neill’s. “They are the most peculiar operation,” he says. He is 68 and sounds a bit like Ray Winstone. “I heard they came up with the idea of doing a prog-rock Christmas show and took it to the promoters, who told them it was a dumb idea. They have a friend in Cleveland, a small-time promoter, and they basically bullied him into doing it. And they got away with it. The more I talk to them, the more I realise that they don’t really understand what the phenomenon is. On paper, it looks like a bad idea. A prog-rock Christmas show? Stop it. But it’s like a cult.”

Backstage at Long Island, before the TSO show, Lake’s new iPhone disappeared from his dressing room. He told a security guard, and ten minutes later the device turned up next to the urinals. O’Neill had gathered the entire crew and told them no one would receive their Christmas bonus if the phone was not surrendered. “That’s Paul for you,” Lake says. “He is like the Mafia.”

Back at the studio, O’Neill plays me a YouTube clip of one of his west coast singers, John Brink, doing a TSO showstopper called “Back to Reason”, a ballad about a father searching for his son. By the end of the song, Brink is crying.

I ask where he sourced the tenor.

“Les Mis!” he says brightly. “I always go to Broadway shows to steal!”

Though TSO might sound like a racket, they could be making even more money. Tickets are capped at about $75. “There is enough money for everybody,” O’Neill says. “You don’t have to gouge every last penny out of people.” With a $20m production, they have to sell out every night. When he started out, he could see Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden for $7.50, he says. “And here’s the sad thing – nowadays, the first 20 rows are empty because the only people who can afford them are corporations, and they’re in the bar the whole time, making business deals.”

He says that Florida was destined to be the birthplace of his group because it is the home of both heavy metal and Disney World. “I worship Walt Disney,” he says. “He decided he was going to build an amusement park so clean that if you lost your three-year-old, you wouldn’t worry. And you would just pay one price and all the rides were free. TSO is an ideal, too – charge the fans the lowest price and make them feel emotions they have never felt before.

“Aaaaanyway,” he says, spinning on his chair, “time for more swag. It’s all about the swag.”

He heaves the four-disc vinyl version of TSO’s 2009 concept album, Night Castle, on to his lap. While Yes had their in-house artist, Roger Dean, TSO have Greg Hildebrandt. “He did the most iconic painting of the 20th century,” O’Neill explains – “the original Star Wars poster.”

He opens a glossy tour programme. “I said to Greg, ‘I want multiple pictures of Beethoven.’ And then I said, ‘I need you to Churchill him up a bit.’” He shows me a sorrowful, white-haired Beethoven, thickset like a Disney character and bulldog-ish around the jaws, crouching over the body of a fallen woman. His index finger flies over the images. “Here’s the condemned banker who cooked the books. Here’s the carousel from Coney Island, all broken. And here’s my daughter, Ireland, on her unicorn. And here’s the castle – I’m gonna to build that, one of these days.” I ask him whether the fans know what all these symbols mean.

“That is one of the things we need to do,” he says. “I need to explain this to the fans!”

****

Cut to a café in Tufnell Park, north London, on a cold February day. Anna Phoebe lives nearby with her children and husband, the BBC presenter Gavin Esler. She studied social policy and government at the London School of Economics. She was also a member of TSO for six years, from 2004 to 2010, eventually becoming the lead violinist.

Phoebe had played violin at university. On graduating, she went to New York for an audition where a woman in dark glasses said, “There’s someone I want you to meet.” She was 22 years old when she joined TSO and suddenly found herself performing to 20,000 people a day, executing knee slides while cranking out rock versions of “Ode to Joy”. “You’re playing the same size stages as Springsteen or Bon Jovi and you’re paid as a rock star, too,” she says.

The fee for the three-month TSO ­season covered her living costs for the rest of the year; it bought her a flat in Berlin and ­financed two solo albums. “We’d be given $5,000-worth of Bloomingdale’s vouchers at the start of every tour. Paul would say, ‘If you’re gonna be a rock star, kitten, you’ve gotta look like a rock star.’”

She explains that part of the business model was signing merchandise and meeting fans: between 700 and 1,000 people each night, after every show, and double that on matinee days. She mentioned in a blog that she liked banana bread; at a gig soon after, a fan turned up with several slices of the cake strapped to his torso (“I’ve been trying to get this into the venue for, like, three days,” he said). She received other gifts from followers: an ice sculpture carved in her image and CDs of TSO fans reading the Bible.

Middle America is the band’s heartland; they don’t often play college towns. In 2004 an electrical engineer from Mason, Ohio, programmed 16,000 Christmas lights on his house and had them flashing to TSO’s song “Wizards in Winter”; when a video of this was put online, it became an internet sensation. Two years ago, 16 households in Yucaipa, California, synchronised an entire neighbourhood to the song, filming it from above with a flying drone.

“I learned more about America in that signing line than anywhere else,” Phoebe says. “The people we were playing to, they were Sarah Palin voters at the time. The poorer the state, the bigger the audience and the more men in military uniforms. This was the height of the Iraq War. They’re saying, ‘Can you draw a star for my son? He’s 17 years old and he’s passed away in Iraq.’”

She says that O’Neill is “kind of insane, smart, extremely kind – and in a very privileged position to be like that and be able to follow it through”. There are musical directors, Al Pitrelli and Bob Kinkel, to make his unplayable melodies a reality, and a business manager, Adam Lind, “to take his 20 ideas and home in on the one that is going to make money – or not lose money”.

Once, in the studio garden, she saw what she thought was a crumpled bag of rubbish and realised it was a bundle of hundred-dollar bills that O’Neill had dropped by accident. At Christmas, the whole band would be given money in an envelope and were told to give it away within 24 hours to  a member of the public. “It’s quite an addictive feeling. It makes you feel like Mother Teresa,” Phoebe says.
“He has created a world, and whether he sees an idealised version of himself, or what the world should be, or what the people around him should be, I don’t think anyone really knows exactly what is going on in his head.”

****

When O’Neill and I finish going through Hildebrandt’s artwork, it is dinner time. We move out to the car park, surrounded by staff, and he heads over to a BMW i8, which can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.4 seconds and retails for $150,000. It resembles the Batmobile. Its doors peel upwards and O’Neill, as bendy and black as the machine itself, deposits himself in it, then changes his mind and joins me and Tracey in an armoured SUV.

“Have you got the baby?”
he says.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got the baby,” Tracey says. The baby is a large, black briefcase. It is too full to close and weighs at least 45lb. He tells me it contains the only copy of a forthcoming TSO project, Running in the Passions of the Fairy Tale Moon – the music and the full libretto.

“I still handwrite everything,” he says. “I can barely master email. I learned to text two months ago.”

Our car is overtaken by the Batmobile, driven by one of the young engineers. O’Neill will follow us back in it. “I know how to get home from the studio but not from the restaurant,” he explains. “I’m sorry. You’re thinking, ‘I’ve come to America to interview a retard.’”

We arrive at our destination and he takes the baby from the car. Its huge weight makes him lean to one side, like a thin tree in the wind. We enter a dark, nondescript restaurant in the basement of a hotel. He whispers something to the hostess that ends with: “It’s non-negotiable.” He ­orders a large steak that remains pretty much untouched and asks for an extra salt cellar, which he lines up next to the other one. He does not remove his sunglasses. He listens to everyone else talk and asks me how my bacon cheeseburger is, adding shyly, “I have bacon flavour toothpaste and bacon floss.”

He is less than comfortable. I cannot believe that he fears being recognised when few know what he looks like. I wonder whether the baby causes his anxiety – whether carrying the next multimillion-pound project in his hand at all times sends him back four decades to the briefcase handcuffed to his arm. He hesitates, grinning, then leans over and takes my wrist, plunging it into the left-hand side of his leather jacket and pressing my fingers around the thick, bobbly grip of a Glock semi-automatic pistol.

****

It was summer 1986 in Los Angeles. O’Neill’s friend Ray Gillen was standing in for Glenn Hughes as the lead singer of Black Sabbath, after Hughes had injured his throat in a fistfight. It was early morning and the Rainbow Bar had chucked out, so O’Neill got his Ferrari and the two of them went to the 24-hour Tower Records store on Sunset Strip. They bought a tape of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, which had just opened in London, and drove around until 6am listening to “The Music of the Night”, saying: “He’s God, we suck, he’s God, we suck.”

The idea of a rock band as a stage musical may be a desperately unromantic proposition but it has taken root among a generation of rock stars trying to ensure that people play their music way beyond its creators’ natural lifespan. O’Neill whispers that Queen came to see TSO shortly before they launched their West End musical We Will Rock You in 2002. Then came Rock of Ages, in which young musicians acted out the glory days of the Sunset Strip in a plot based on the narrative of the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’”, which in turn has enjoyed a second life through the TV show Glee.

Journey now tour not with their original singer, who had hip problems, but with a Filipino fan they found on YouTube. Yes recruited a younger Canadian vocalist, Benoît David, to take the place of Anderson, another singer known for reaching notes that others cannot reach. Singers are always the first to go, says O’Neill, who has little attachment to individual rock stars. “The human voice is just these thin Kleenex tissue muscles; they’re not designed to scream on top of amps five nights a week. It’s not a matter of if you are going to destroy these guys’ instrument but when. That’s why we have multiple lead singers – to allow the vocalists to rest. TSO can go into their eighties.”

There’s an old-school heavy metal band scattered among the TSO chorus line, whose story is a litany of all that can go wrong in rock’n’roll.

Two brothers, Jon and Criss Oliva, had grown up playing Kiss and Alice Cooper covers in the car parks around Clearwater, north of Tampa. Jon had a voice that could do Robert Plant one minute and Freddie Mercury the next: “I call it the Mel Blanc gift,” says O’Neill. “You know, the guy who does all the sounds in Looney Tunes?”

They called themselves Savatage and, with O’Neill as producer, they conquered MTV in 1987 with a video filmed in an underground cavern featuring a dwarf (“Hall of the Mountain King”). But demons crushed the band. Jon wrote most of their second album in rehab. In October 1993, Criss was killed by a drunk driver on the way to a Livestock Festival in Zephyrhills, Florida, and Savatage went into a state of suspended animation.

“I knew we needed something to justify a band with no original members left,” says O’Neill, with no sense at all of how strange that sounds. “I didn’t want to see all those albums disappear. It’s not about getting caught up in the person or the individual.”

In 1996 Savatage’s “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” – O’Neill’s longed-for mashup of Christmas carols – was picked up by a New York radio station and metal band morphed into TSO. Their name comes from an unfinished rock opera about the Romanovs – just one of fifty Broadway musicals O’Neill claims to have conceived.

“Look, this band doesn’t make sense on paper,” he concludes. “When I started out with Savatage, I thought it would be like the Eagles. I thought I’d be living off the royalties by now. I did not foresee the collapse of the record industry. I had to find a way to make it work. I worry about the next Steven Tyler or Janis Joplin – where are they going to go? What a thousand generations took to build, a single generation can lose. I’m sure Washington and Alexander Hamilton worried about the future, too.”

Last July, TSO played the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany – a heartland for them, because of all the Beethoven. After dark, the site was hit by a storm, knocking down the sound system. While the stage was being repaired, O’Neill wandered around the camp, talking to punters, possibly in a cloak, like Henry V before Agincourt. He found two young men of 19 who turned out to be Sunni Muslims from Iraq. About 90 feet away, he talked to two men from Iran who were Shia Muslims.

“During those three days of that festival,” he says, “I can’t imagine those four young men didn’t bump into each other. And God forbid, two years from now, they end up in two different militias and they recognise each other, I’d bet everything I have that not only would they not pull the trigger; they would un-chamber their weapons and say, ‘Hey, weren’t we together at a TSO ­concert?’ It’s hard to hate – let alone kill – somebody that you went to a concert with.”

****

The next day, O’Neill is jumpy. We’re travelling to one of his properties to look at his treasure collection. He shows me CCTV footage filmed from the main entrance of the band’s former studio in Tampa. On the noiseless laptop screen, in broad daylight, the stockinged head of a robber slides into the frame; he gets to work on the studio doors with a pair of bolt-cutters. “Three pairs of lady’s pantyhose,” says O’Neill in horror, pointing at the robber’s disguise. “We were inside the whole time – I had my Glock and I didn’t want to use it but I would have.” When the burglar realises that the band is home, he beats a speedy retreat.

O’Neill has had problems with aggressive fans, too, which he passes over with a shudder. “I hate evil,” he says, more than once. TSO’s product manager Thomas Ayad, of Universal Music Group, was killed in the Bataclan terror attack last year. Today, as if to mirror O’Neill’s increased anxiety, there is not one overstuffed briefcase but three.

Sitting next to me in the back of the car, he tosses a small box from hand to hand. He opens it to reveal a Fabergé egg containing a microfilm edition of 50 pages of the original King James Bible that was sent up in the Apollo 14 space mission. He says that he lets kids hold it, so they can feel history in their hands. It’s not clear which kids he means.

We enter his property. I hear sighing and turn to find O’Neill splayed against a wall, throwing the five-point handle of a vault’s combination lock from left to right as if wrestling with the wheel of a mighty ship. In the close confines of a walk-in safe, he pulls items from the shelves: first editions of proceedings from the trial of Thomas Paine from 1793, and Churchill’s two-volume biography of his father, signed. He shows me signed first editions of Dickens’s Christmas Books and two original anonymous prints of The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde, after whom O’Neill’s daughter, Ireland Wilde, is named. (Wilde means as much to him as Churchill.) Then he gets out a picture book that Joan Jett gave him. A note says: “Dear Paul. I hope you enjoy this reflection into the past and thanks for being a big part of mine.”

“Here’s Louis XV borrowing a tonne of money in 1732,” he says, presenting me with a piece of parchment, “and Benjamin Franklin building some forts.” There’s a letter from Nelson from before the Battle of Trafalgar (“I wrote a rock opera about him”) and a handwritten fragment of a speech by Reagan (“I love Ronald Reagan”). There are dozens of letters from Thomas Edison to his engineer, detailing every stage of the invention of the phonograph. He has the whole set, apart from one he gave to Steven Tyler.

He shifts a painting out of the way – a colourful scene of some rabbits, painted by Jon Anderson for his daughter – and pulls out the pièce de résistance: a gorgeous first edition of Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, signed “To Lord Kitchener of Khartoum” by Queen Victoria. “Can you get any more historic?” he asks. “Kitchener went to Khartoum two days too late and saw Chinese Gordon’s head on a spear.”

Finally, with embarrassment, he shows me a letter from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, dated 1779. It has been badly crumpled in storage. “Maybe one of these big heavy books will help?” He reaches for a giant edition of Livy and flattens the letter under it. “Mister Livy, can you please help out poor George?”

He drifts out of the room. “There’s other stuff I want but I’ve got to stop because I’m losing track of it,” he says. “My daughter says, ‘Dad, don’t die and leave me with all this stuff. It’s like King Tut’s tomb.’”

He wanders out on to the patio, where the sun beats down so strongly that he must be melting in his leathers. He pulls himself up to perch on a little stucco balcony, legs swinging, and for a moment he epitomises the contradiction at the heart of rock’n’roll wealth: the baby boomers who bought the lifestyles of the landed aristocracy but insist on looking like pickled versions of the boys they were when they first picked up a guitar.

I ask him whether he’s glad that his days with Aerosmith are over. His liver shut down in the 1970s; he broke one of his vertebrae wrestling with bouncers. On the one hand, these stories are badges of honour; on the other, there is relief in his voice.

“Cocaine is Russian roulette,” he says. “One person can walk away from it and another can’t. I never thought I would live this long. My mother told me I wouldn’t live past 30. I was always falling through roofs. I still feel like I’m 19. I’m 60. How did this happen?”

I ask him if he is happy. He says, “Solon said to Croesus, ‘Don’t judge your life a success or a failure until the very end.’”


****

Despite O’Neill’s obsession with the British empire (“Churchill understood India better than Gandhi did”), his band is cagey about plans to play in the UK. TSO first performed in London at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2011, to an audience of about 2,000, with just six trucks of gear. The boiler was broken, the auditorium was freezing and everyone kept their coat on. Ask O’Neill if he is coming back any time soon and he gives a small sigh.

“I think he’d settle for nothing smaller than the O2 Arena,” says Anna Phoebe, “but, for a start, they’d have to get rid of all the narration in the show because British people do not like being told what to think.”

O’Neill’s characters are simplified figures – Tiny Tims or Little Match Girls, or the ­brazier-hugging idiots savants of 1980s Christmas movies. At the age of 16, working as a busboy in Hell’s Kitchen, he received a hundred-dollar bill as a tip from a stranger and never looked back.

“They’re selling the American dream and yet ‘the American dream’ no longer exists,” says Phoebe. “Even Barack Obama said it – what your father earns is more of an indicator of your future wealth than anything else. TSO sell the romanticised version – you can be poor, you can work hard, you can get yourself out of where you came from – and we don’t relate to that. But he enjoys a challenge. His brain will probably work overtime to overcome this problem.”

“I don’t necessarily think it will work over here,” Greg Lake says. “I don’t necessarily think they’d be doing themselves any favours. What is it, the money? They’re not going to sell 100,000 tickets!”

I ask Lake whether he can see a future in which young stage-school kids play the hits of long-dead bands, giving them eternal life.

“I’ve seen a Japanese ‘version’ of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, believe it or not,” he says. “I felt quite ill. Fact is, who is going to interpret the classical music of today – which is rock music – when the original players are gone?

“It’s hard to imagine what sort of currency rock music will have in a hundred years’ time. I’ve played some biblical shows – 600,000 people in one go – and that era won’t be easily forgotten. I’ve never seen that many people in one place. You wouldn’t. Other than in a war.”

Two days after we spoke, Lake’s bandmate Keith Emerson committed suicide after a period of depression connected with a degenerative disease that was affecting his playing. Before he hung up, Lake had told me about the last time he saw O’Neill: he presented Lake with a gift, one volume of the multi-volume memoirs of Winston Churchill, and told him he had put a bookmark in it.

“I opened it up and it’s a thousand-dollar bill,” Lake said. “Tell him he can ‘whack’ me whenever he wants.”

****

The sun goes down on Tampa as we barrel along Interstate 4. O’Neill takes his shades off in the evening light. He says he wears them because he is afraid of going blind. His father has lost his sight and blindness has affected nine members of his family. He is tired, and when he is tired, he speaks in military history.

Is the age of the rock’n’roll hero over?

“It’s all about the idea and real heroes grasp that. Washington didn’t want to be king. He had an idea, which was America.”

Who will he hand his project on to?

“Some kid who hasn’t been born yet. Abraham Lincoln came out of nowhere. He had ten days of schooling in his whole life. I had the ultimate gift in life, which was low expectations. I just feel lucky that it’s happened and I just hope that no one catches on that I’m getting away with murder.”

He is fed up with talking about the band but is too polite to say so. “Thank God for Britain,” he says instead. Congress is a mess. Obamacare? Please. Trump is a moron.

He sings a couple of bars of “Rule, Britannia!” soft and high.

“Seriously, it’s like the last days of Rome here,” he says. “But I think it will pull together. I believe in happy endings.”

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue