Who Is Barack Obama?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," January 17, 2007, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Time for "Big Politics." Sure he's young, sure he's charismatic, but what do we really know about Barack Obama? And what does he really stand for?

Obama is the kind of presidential hopeful who appeals to the masses. He portrays himself as a political moderate, but he's much more liberal than he says he is. And his team works overtime trying to hide Obama's dirty little secret. He is — get this — a secret cigarette smoker.

The point is, what else do we not know about Barack Obama? America seems to love him now, but will we still love him tomorrow? With me now is senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, John McWhorter, and Malia Lazu with the Young Democrats of America.

John, what else do we not know about Barack Obama?

JOHN MCWHORTER, SENIOR FELLOW, MANHATTAN INSTITUTE: Well, I don't think that we really know a whole lot about Barack Obama at all that you would really call distinctive. He's said some very nice things and he says them well. But if you ask me, the reason that we're looking at somebody who is such an inexperienced senator, who has said some very pleasant but not especially sterling or innovative things, the reason that he's considered such a big deal is simply because he's black. That doesn't mean that he's not smart. That doesn't mean that he isn't good. But if you took away the color of his skin, nobody right now would be paying him any attention. And that's just to say that we don't know yet and we don't know him just because he has brown skin and a touching story.

GIBSON: Malia, if he were exactly the same person but he were white, would we — same resume, same bio, same, you know, excellent speaking manner but he wasn't black — would he be a presidential hopeful at this point?

MALIA LAZU, YOUNG DEMOCRATS OF AMERICA: I'm not sure. I think that race plays a role into this. But I think what Obama does more than his amazing speaking ability is he's able to connect with voters. And it's that hope that he brings out in American citizens that we are all hungry for, that people get excited about Sen. Obama.

And yes, he may have a habit that millions of Americans want to quit. We all know people who want to quit smoking. But the real question here is that America is ready for a change, and are traditional politicians going to be able to answer that call?

GIBSON: Malia, I'm glad you brought it up. Let me put something up on the screen: "Obama Behind Closed Doors." You never see him smoke. You never see a pack of cigarettes in his pocket.

The question is: Would you vote for a smoker as president? John, is that an impediment?

MCWHORTER: I really don't think it is because it depends on the person. And Obama is seen as very, very cool. I think a lot of people find him sexy. And I think even in today's America, there's a sense that there's something vaguely sexy about cigarettes. You've got fire in your hand. So to tell you the truth, I think it will only help.

LAZU: I think Americans will be happy that his vice doesn't lead him to pages or to choking his mistress. I mean, all humans have vices. And he has one. But what Americans want is they want a change and they want that hope that Obama sparks in people.

GIBSON: You know, the only problem I have with this, John, is if it were that easy a barrier for him to overcome, why is he so determined to make sure nobody ever sees him with a cigarette in his hand?

MCWHORTER: Well, to tell you the truth, knowing that he does it and keeping it secret is even better. To actually see the so-called filthy habit would be different. But it's that little thing that he kind of does behind closed doors.

GIBSON: Let me put this up on the screen: "Obama's Formula for Success." He has a moderate image, but he has one of the — if not the most — liberal voting record in the Senate.

Malia, is that part of the secret of his success, is actually obscuring his liberal voting record?

LAZU: I don't think that Obama has obscured his liberal voting record. I think Obama has put out two books that lay out who he is and what he stands for. He has been very public about who he is and what he stands for, and the American people like that. And I think that we need to understand that Americans want to hear true talk, and that's what Obama does.

GIBSON: How liberal is he, John?

MCWHORTER: Well, frankly, he is a standard issue leftist that you would expect of somebody with his particular experience, and he doesn't exactly hide it. But it's true, and somehow we like to think that he represents some sort of hope of bringing us all together anyway.

And that means that somehow he is going to bring together the Michael Moores and the Grover Norquists and everybody in between. And, again, I think the only reason that looks plausible is because we see something about his being brown that creates that. It's almost like he is ma'amy, and it kind of worries me.

GIBSON: John McWhorter and Malia Lazu, thanks very much. Appreciate it both of you.

LAZU: Thank you.

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