The boxing gloves were new, and smelled of leather. It was the mid-1960s, in Jakarta, Indonesia. Barack Obama had come home the day before with what he recalled as “an egg-sized lump” on the side of his head, the result of a fight with a boy who had stolen a friend’s soccer ball and then hit Obama with a rock. Wounded but not bleeding, a humiliated Obama found his stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, in their yard, tending to the chrome on a beloved motorcycle. The boy whined a bit—”It wasn’t fair”—and Soetoro said little. Now, 24 hours later, the stepfather appeared with two sets of boxing gloves, one for himself and one for Obama. “The first thing to remember is how to protect yourself,” Soetoro said as they began to spar. “Keep your hands up,” he ordered, circling the boy. “You want to keep moving, but always stay low—don’t give them a target.” Obama bobbed and weaved, learning to throw punches; at one point in the half-hour lesson, he let his defenses down, and paid for it. “I felt a hard knock to the jaw, and looked up at Soetoro’s sweating face,” Obama recalled. “Pay attention,” Soetoro instructed.
“Keep your hands up.” Afterward, sipping water from a jug next to a crocodile pond, the stepfather mused about the nature of things, and about what it took to survive in a difficult and dangerous world: “Men take advantage of weakness in other men. They’re just like countries in that way. The strong man takes the weak man’s land. He makes the weak man work in his fields. If the weak man’s woman is pretty, the strong man will take her.” As Obama recalled the moment in his 1995 memoir “Dreams From My Father,” Soetoro took another sip and then asked: “Which would you rather be?”
Obama did not answer—the question seemed rhetorical—but in a way Obama’s whole life has been a reply to the question Soetoro posed four decades and half a world away, in the dusty heat of Jakarta after the boxing lesson. “I remember that very vividly, and my stepfather was a good man who gave me some things that were very helpful,” Obama told me in an interview last Thursday. “One of the things that he gave me was a pretty hardheaded assessment of how the world works.”
As Obama accepts the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States, he faces concerns about his toughness—the Kennedys, too, were obsessed with the word, and with appearing to have plenty of it—in the contest with John McCain. The selection of the pugnacious Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. for the second slot on the ticket brings a fighting spirit to the Democratic campaign, but the conventional wisdom of the moment still has it that Obama—or “Obambi,” as he has been called—may be too cerebral, too elite, too soft to prevail.
But whatever one’s politics, a fair-minded reading of Obama’s history suggests that he is a figure of strength whose resilience was forged by his struggles to fill the hole left by an absent father, a Kenyan whom he met once, at Christmastime 1971. When Obama was a toddler, his father had declined a scholarship to New York University that would have supported the whole family in order to go to Harvard. The Ivy League was, it seems, more important to the ambitious Obama Sr. than his wife and child. There is a picture of Obama and his father in the Honolulu airport on that brief visit. Obama Sr., in a dark suit and red tie, is smiling, his arm around his somewhat chubby son’s left shoulder, his eyes directed to something, or someone, outside the frame. Barry, as the junior senator from Illinois was then known, is smiling, too, but he is not looking away: he is fully engaged in the moment, looking straight at the camera. His arms crossed, Barry is holding on tightly, pressing his father’s large hand to his heart. He looks as though he would like to hold on forever.
He never saw his father again. Deprived of a father’s love, Obama chose to build his own universe, an invisible center where the failings and flightiness of others could do him the least harm. Obama himself acknowledges the centrality of the question. “A man’s either trying to live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes,” says Obama, who often adds: “In my case, both things might be true.”
In Obama’s case, yet a third thing is true: he had to find a way to be comfortable in his own skin, reconciling his black and white ancestries while being raised largely by his white grandparents. Without a father, he was forced to arm himself and to make his own way into the worlds he chose to join and to master. This is not to say that he did not love and respect his mother and grandparents, and appreciate their care. It is, rather, that, through no fault of their own, their care was simply not commensurate with his needs. He grew up in a milieu of unspoken truths, unacknowledged complexities and hidden histories.
Obama was left with two alternatives: either descend into chaos as a lost soul or steel himself against the world in order to rise in it. He chose steeliness over surrender. The story of the Barack Obama who will become the Democratic nominee at the age of 47 is thus one of survival and defense, for of all the advice he was ever offered, the most significant, and the one perhaps most relevant to his rise and to his fate, was Soetoro’s: always protect yourself.
Obama cherishes his life story as a unique saga, but the drama of a fatherless child’s rise to temporal power, driven by ambition, a hunger for control and an appetite for the approval of others, is a familiar one in American politics. Presidents, and presidential candidates, tend to come from one of two kinds of distinct families. There is either a powerful, prominent father at the center of the clan (the Adamses, the Kennedys, the Bushes, the McCains) or, more often than you might think, there is either a weak father or no father at all. An unusual number of presidents have been the sons of absent or weak fathers. Andrew Jackson and Bill Clinton lost their fathers before they were born; Gerald Ford did not meet his biological father until he was 17 years old.
I asked Obama why he thought powerful politicians had either a strong father, or no father at all. “I think to put yourself through what is a pretty rigorous process of running for president you’ve got to have learned to set up some pretty high expectations for yourself,” he said. “Something’s got to be driving you, and in my case if you have somebody that is absent, maybe you feel like you’ve got something to prove when you’re young, and that pattern sets itself up over time. But also because, again in my case, the stories I heard about my father painted him as larger than life, which also meant that I felt I had something to live up to. You could argue that if you’re too well adjusted, you don’t end up running for president.” I laughed at this; journalists often joke that nobody normal ever makes it to the presidency, and it was funny to hear it from a man who wants the office. Obama went on: “So if the pattern sets in pretty early on where you’re pushing your comfort level it probably has to do with those very early influences, and that can come from either the absence or the presence of a father who ends up motivating you in some way.” He has a romantic streak about the possibilities of politics—hence the theme of hope—but Obama is also a realist, and his pragmatism has ancient roots.
To those who follow politics closely, and to the legions of book buyers who have purchased Obama’s two memoirs, his biography seems familiar now, but it still bears repeating; many Americans are still rather fuzzy about the details. Born in 1961, Obama is the son of a white mother from Kansas; his father was a black man from Kenya. The parents met at the University of Hawaii, and married; Obama was born; the father, who, it turned out, already had one family in Africa, left for Harvard and never came back. “I consider myself a serial polygamist,” Obama Sr. once told a friend. “That is, one wife at a time.” By most accounts Senior had eight children with four women. The candidate’s mother, Ann Dunham Obama, married Lolo Soetoro, the Indonesian, and took her son, Barack, to Jakarta; Barack later returned to live with his grandparents in Hawaii. His mother, who had a daughter, Maya, with Soetoro, separated from Soetoro and also moved back to Hawaii. Obama went to college at Occidental, in Los Angeles, for two years before moving east to Columbia University. He worked in Chicago as a community organizer before applying to Harvard Law School—echoes of his father’s earlier journey—and rising to become president of the Harvard Law Review. (If you are really into armchair psychology, consider that the son returns to the scene of his betrayal by his father and outperforms the old man. It is sort of “One L” meets “Oedipus.”) At Harvard, Obama, long confused about his identity, learned to negotiate across color lines, and whites began to see him as a redemptive figure. Already interested in politics—an arena in which success brings attention, authority and accomplishment, all things the fatherless tend to crave—he returned to Chicago, married a woman with a strong father, and was soon seeking office.
Where did his drive come from? “At some level I had to raise myself,” Obama says. “My mother obviously was the dominant influence in my life, and I had a stepfather and a grandfather who both participated in raising me and were good men … But if I think about how I have been able to navigate some pretty tricky situations in my life, it has to do with the fact that I had to learn to trust my own judgment; I had to learn to fight for what I wanted.”
Obama’s father was a striking presence on the campus of the University of Hawaii in the early 1960s. Tall, loud, charismatic, opinionated, he had arrived as part of a scholarship program to educate the new generation of African leaders as countries such as Kenya were emerging from colonial rule. Neil Abercrombie quickly befriended Obama, who was studying economics. Obama seemed the embodiment of a new world, a smart set of modern thinkers who would remake the planet. “When he came into a room, you knew it right away,” says Abercrombie, now a congressman representing Hawaii. “He had a big heart and a brilliant, brilliant mind.”
Their conversations would run long and late, fueled by beer and pizza. Obama and his friends were obsessed with world politics, with freedom movements internationally: the anticolonial independence movement in Africa, and civil rights in the United States. “He was very concerned that the nationalist impulse in Kenya and elsewhere would fall prey to tribalism and individual rivalries,” says Abercrombie. For Obama, those tribal concerns were not abstract. The Obama family is of the minority Luo tribe, but the emerging leader Kenyatta was of the majority Kikuyu tribe. The rivalries worsened soon after independence, in the late 1960s, and remain in force today. But Obama was determined to return to Kenya. His decisions to go to Harvard and then to Africa led to the failure of his short marriage to Ann.
A smart, young student with a passion for the emerging civil- rights movement, she had been a teenager when she met Obama in a Russian class. They fell in love, but Obama’s ambition quickly broke up the family. “When he brought her to our gatherings, we were pontificating all the time,” recalls Abercrombie. “It was clear she had a very adventurous spirit, but she was very calm while he was very voluble. She was an observer and a quiet participant. I think she concluded after little Barry was born that when Barack had an opportunity to go to the mainland, that his ambitions and her ambitions weren’t going to work out. He came out of the 1950s in Africa and was affected by the patriarchal culture, as well as his own sense of destiny to participate in this movement. In the end, he went to Harvard because it was the top of the heap.” Ann eventually divorced Senior. There were letters from father to son, and replies, but the younger Obama recalls nothing particularly heartfelt.
His grandfather, Stanley, was the most constant male presence in his life. Abercrombie often saw young Barry with Stanley in Hawaii, walking the neighborhood together or going to the beach. “He was very avuncular and very well liked,” says Abercrombie. “And he loved that little boy, just loved him. He took him everywhere.”
Stanley Dunham was a vivid American character. He grew up in El Dorado, Kans., an oil town in the 1920s that declined sharply in the Depression. He was himself abandoned by his own father, and his mother committed suicide. (The 8-year-old Stanley discovered her body.) Like Obama, Dunham was raised by his grandparents. But in spite of—or perhaps because of—their devout Baptist faith, Dunham was something of a rebel and a drifter. He was kicked out of high school for punching the principal, and spent the next three years riding rail cars. He was a charmer and a dreamer who courted his Wichita girlfriend Madelyn (Obama calls her “Toot”) even though her parents—Methodists and more middle class—disapproved. The young couple eloped just before Pearl Harbor. Stanley enlisted in the Army while Madelyn worked on a bomber-assembly line. After the war, he found work as a salesman in a furniture store first in El Dorado, then moved from small-town Texas to Seattle, finally settling in Hawaii. Stanley styled himself as a freethinker and apparently raised no objections to his daughter’s marriage to Obama, and he cherished his grandson.
Soon Ann met and fell for another foreign student—Soetoro, a geologist from Indonesia. The new stepfather liked tennis, played chess with Stanley and playfully wrestled with Obama. He returned to Jakarta first, with Ann and Obama joining him later. (Toot, forever practical, telephoned the State Department to check on Indonesia’s stability and insisted on packing trunks of food. “You never know what these people will eat,” she said.)
In the years since Sukarno had created a new regime in the aftermath of centuries of colonialism, Indonesia had been tense. Ronny Amir, a neighbor of Obama’s who went to school with him, remembers stories about kidnappings, about disappearances, about communists chopping people’s heads off. It was tense inside Obama’s house, too. Ann and Obama both thought Soetoro different, more distant, than he had been in Hawaii. “It was as if he had pulled into some dark hidden place, out of reach, taking with him the brightest part of himself,” Obama wrote. Some nights Soetoro would be “wandering through the house with a bottle of imported whiskey, nursing his secrets.” The truth—which he kept from his new family—was that he had been recalled to Indonesia during a bloody purge, and he had been sent to New Guinea. “And he was one of the lucky ones,” a cousin told Ann. Other students had been imprisoned or had disappeared. Little wonder, then, that he wanted his stepson to know how to fight.
Barry liked being in charge. Every day before class, kids lined up outside the classroom. In first grade, his first year at the school, Barry commanded the front of the line, calling out baris (“make a line”)—the kids would line up; siap grak (“get ready”)—the kids would straighten the line; tegap (“stand straight”), and then, once he was convinced the lines were straight, he would let them into the classroom. His third-grade teacher had to encourage him to take turns. “He always wants to be No. 1, to be at the front. Psychologically, he wants to be in charge,” she says. “Sometimes I had to tell him to let other kids do it.” He ceded his place willingly, she says. (Still, he acknowledges a bossy streak. As a young man, he recalled, he was tough on his sister and mother: “I scolded Maya for spending one evening watching TV instead of reading the novels I’d bought for her,” Obama wrote. “I instructed my mother on the various ways that foreign donors and international development organizations like the one she was working for bred dependence in the Third World.”) In the Jakarta years, Obama also often tried to be the schoolyard peacemaker. “Barry, if his friends were having arguments, he’d become a mediator,” says Harmon Askiar, a neighborhood playmate. “He would grab one friend’s hand and grab the other friend’s hand and force them to shake each other’s hands and be friends again.”
Ultimately Ann decided that her son needed to be in America, even if it meant they had to live apart. And so Obama returned to Hawaii and to the care of his grandparents. Their world was his world for crucial years. Stanley had moved out of furniture sales and into life insurance; Madelyn, meanwhile, became a successful executive at the Bank of Hawaii. Obama’s life with them was as conventionally American middle class as his life with his mother in Indonesia had been foreign. Obama bought comics from the local newsstand, spent hours watching television (he had to go to bed when Johnny Carson came on), fell asleep to top 40 on the radio.
Obama seems never to have heard a word said against the man who, from year to year and move to move, was not there. There were stories, always stories, about his father: about his brilliance, his charm, his ambitions to be a great man in a new era of Kenyan history. Then, at Christmastime 1971, came word that both Obama Sr. and Ann, still in Indonesia, would be coming to Honolulu for the holiday. “Should be one hell of a Christmas,” Stanley said, and he was right.
Who was the man at last making the journey to see his son? Over the years, Obama was to discover the more complicated truth about the father so often spoken of as larger than life. “My father was a deeply troubled person,” Obama told me. “My father was an alcoholic. He was a womanizer. He did not treat his children well.” Barack Obama Sr. had grown up near Kenya’s far western border, not far from the silvery waters of Lake Victoria, in a small house surrounded by a riot of millet, wheat and sorghum, where the land was crisscrossed with rutted dirt lanes that turned to mud in the rainy season and appeared baked red in the dry months. The local school at the time was several miles away, but he happily made the trip every day, on foot. Afterward, he would return home and boast and brag and confide to his mother, Sarah, about his academic accomplishments and whatever he had learned that day. It seemed to her that her son, from a very early age, was intent to do great things, to rise from the rutted roads. He was proud of himself, and she was proud of him. He soaked up knowledge as if he depended on it for survival—which, in a way, he did. He was prideful. “I got the best grades today,” he would say to Sarah. “I am the cleverest boy.” If he did not get the best marks, which was not often, he sulked. He had a complex relationship with his own father, who once beat Barack Sr.’s back bloody with a stick when he was expelled from a school. The father was bent on his son’s behaving “responsibly,” Sarah later told the grandson, and he thought it irresponsible when Barack Sr. left his first African wife and married Ann.
When he graduated from Harvard, Barack Sr. made sure to have his picture taken. It is black-and-white, a 10-by-12 portrait in which he wears a suit and tie, and the horn-rimmed glasses that were fashionable at the time. He is gazing off into the middle distance, looking both relaxed and serious. After he graduated, he brought the picture home to his mother and told her to hang it on the wall. “Whenever you look here you’ll be reminded of me, of what I have achieved, and you’ll think of me,” he told her. Scott Johnson, NEWSWEEK’s Africa bureau chief, visited Sarah recently, and there the picture still sits, opposite Sarah’s favorite chair.
Barack Sr., or Senior, as most of his family members call him, carried his sense of purpose into his professional life in Kenya. He went to work at the Ministry of Planning and National Development. By all accounts, he was exceedingly frustrated much of the time, not just with the almost nonexistent pace of change, but also with people he often considered to be his intellectual inferiors. “Senior had no use for diplomatic niceties; people didn’t like meeting him,” says Walter Ochoro, who worked with him. “He had no time for mediocrity and stupidity. He’d spare you no time.”
By now, Senior had already fathered Barry and left him. Yet the particular pride he felt for this son—not even his oldest, and not of full Luo blood since his mother was an American—was apparent. “He used to talk about Barry. He’d say, ‘You need to work hard like your cousin Barry’,” recalls Hilba Were Ismael, one of Barry’s stepsisters. Senior would talk about him as intelligent, like himself. Senior had a photo of Barry that he kept with him in his wallet, a black-and-white school picture, and he would show it to brothers, sisters, cousins, anyone who would look, anyone who showed an interest, anyone who wanted to know about the American son of the brilliant economist. “Look at my son,” he would proudly say.
It is a reassuring story: at least Senior did not forget the son he had forsaken. But that snapshot—a kind of photographic trophy—was of a real boy, thousands of miles away, who was forced to live with an idealized image of his distant father. Then, as it so often does, reality intruded. The occasion was the Christmas visit.
Mabel Hefty had a special morning planned for her fifth-grade homeroom class at Castle Hall on the campus of the elite Punahou School in Honolulu. Miss Hefty was something of an internationalist—she had taught in Kenya for a time—and had invited a guest speaker: Dr. Barack Obama Sr. It was a grand enough occasion that a neighboring homeroom teacher, Pal Eldredge, whom the young Obama recalled as a “big, no-nonsense Hawaiian,” brought his students in for the program, too. As Eldredge, now retired, recalls the morning, Barry could not have been more delighted. The son, Eldredge says, introduced the father to the classroom, which was filled with 54 students. Barack Obama Sr. was dressed in traditional Kenyan clothing—Eldredge remembers it looking something like a skirt—and spoke about the importance of education. “He was like a visiting professor,” says Eldredge. “It was a special occasion.” Obama Sr. spoke for about 30 minutes and then answered the fifth graders’ questions. Eldredge recalls the young Barack’s warm reaction to the performance: “He seemed to be real proud, right at his side, kind of holding on to his dad’s arm.” A touching scene of paternal interest in his son, and of the son’s pride in the father—except that Barack Obama’s recollection of the moment is at odds with the retired teacher’s in revealing ways.
Obama was not delighted by the visit. He dreaded it. He had boasted that he came from African royalty, and that his father was a prince. “My grandfather, see, he’s a chief,” Barry had told his classmates. “It’s sort of like the king of the tribe, you know … like the Indians. So that makes my father a prince. He’ll take over when my grandfather dies.” The truth was more mundane—tragically mundane, in Barry’s view. The Obamas were Luo, a nomadic tribe that, as Barry recalled, “raised cattle and lived in mud huts and ate corn meal and yams and something called millet. Their traditional costume was a leather thong across the crotch.” Told that Miss Hefty had invited Obama Sr. to the class to talk about life in Kenya, Barry was crushed: his tale of princely blood would be exposed, he feared, by the harsh reality of mud huts. “I couldn’t imagine worse news,” Obama wrote of the invitation to his father. “I spent that night and all of the next day trying to suppress thoughts of the inevitable … all my lies exposed, the painful jokes afterward. Each time I remembered, my body squirmed as if it had received a jolt to the nerves.”
When the day arrived, Barry did not introduce his father, as Eldredge recalls, but sat in his own seat, terrified. “I held my head stiffly, trying to focus on a vacant point on the blackboard behind him,” Obama wrote. The father, though, was a hit. “He had been speaking for some time before I could finally bring myself back to the moment,” Obama wrote. “He was leaning against Miss Hefty’s thick oak desk and describing the deep gash in the earth where mankind had first appeared. He spoke of the wild animals that still roamed the plains, the tribes that still required a young boy to kill a lion to prove his manhood. He spoke of the customs of the Luo, how elders received the utmost respect and made laws for all to follow under great-trunked trees. And he told us of Kenya’s struggle to be free, how the British had wanted to stay and unjustly rule the people, just as they had in America; how many had been enslaved only because of the color of their skin, just as they had in America, but that Kenyans, like all of us in the room, longed to be free and develop themselves through hard work and sacrifice.” The children were intrigued; the teachers impressed. Writing about the incident long afterward, though, Obama says nothing of his own reaction aside from the initial shame and fear. He was, it seems safe to say, ambivalent about his father’s success at charming his immediate world: partly proud, partly angry that his classmates got about as much of his father as he did. Reminded of the episode last week, Obama said: “It was just a tortured moment. Now what is true is the fact that my father’s presentation impressed my teachers and my fellow students was an enormous relief. The fact that he’s different, but is somehow able to communicate with great confidence a sense of common humanity was actually a great object lesson for me.” It was a quick lesson. Two weeks later Obama Sr. left Hawaii for good.
It is interesting that Obama’s memory of the homeroom performance is so much colder and more realistic than Eldredge’s. Many sons trying to re-imagine a difficult past might recast the morning in the warmer way Eldredge did. There is something cheerful about thinking of Barry clinging affectionately to his father’s arm. Yet Obama does not flinch from the painful reality, and depicts the encounter in its complexity—his staring at the blackboard, vacantly, instead of proudly into his father’s eyes.
The worst moment of the visit came one evening at Stanley and Madelyn’s apartment. Barry had been waiting all year for the annual broadcast of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” but Senior chose this moment to assert paternal authority for the first (and apparently last) time. Ordering his son to turn off the TV and to go read, Senior provoked a family-wide crisis, forcing deep-seated resentments to the surface. As the argument wore on, Barry managed to see the last bit of the holiday special, but he was ready for the father to go: “After a week of my father in the flesh, I had decided that I preferred his more distant image, an image I could alter on a whim—or ignore when convenient. If my father hadn’t exactly disappointed me, he remained something unknown, something volatile and vaguely threatening.”
He was certainly volatile. Back in Kenya, Senior liked to show off how much he knew and how well connected he was. In the early 1970s, Mwai Kibaki (the current president) was Kenya’s Finance minister. On one occasion Senior took Hilba and some other cousins to see Kibaki at the Kenyan Treasury. “Kibaki, come and see my children,” he told his boss. Senior joked, “You see Kibaki here, he’s the minister, but I’m better than he is.” Despite his Harvard pedigree and his skills, he did not get the opportunities he wanted—or, when he got them, he squandered them. “He was alcoholic, yes, and he was brilliant, everyone in that line [of the family] is brilliant,” recalls Hilba of those years. “But [Senior] wasn’t getting the opportunities to prove himself, even though he was maybe the first Kenyan to go to Harvard. So you release your frustrations through alcohol, not because you want to, but because society pushes you to.” Sometimes, Senior would beat her, though not, she says, in the vicious way that some alcoholics do, but rather as punishment if she did not do well in school. “And he would say to us,” Hilba recalls, ” ‘I am trying to discipline you to be like me, to excel even me’.”
By 1982 Senior was working on a plan to revitalize Nairobi’s infrastructure. One night that year, as on so many nights, Senior was out in Kaloleni after working hours, drinking. Kaloleni was an old gathering place that dated back to colonial days. Senior was in a jovial mood. He had bought a few rounds for everyone else, including some of the barmaids. In a few days he was meant to travel to Uganda. There was even talk of a promotion—to chief economist at the Ministry of Finance. But that night, driving himself home, he ran off the road and crashed into the tall stump of a giant gum tree. He died instantly.
Family memory—understandably, given Obama’s trajectory—puts the distant American son at the center of the Kenyan father’s life. It is impossible to judge how much of this is embellished and how much reflects what really happened, but Obama is a cold-eyed historian of his own life. Today, when “Granny” gazes at the portrait of her African son on her wall, she thinks of her American grandson. “I look at him and I see all the same things, he has taken everything from his father,” she tells Scott Johnson. “The family is still intact, this son is realizing everything the father wanted—fighting for people, the dreams of the father are still alive in the son. The two loved each other so much and when Barry was here, and was asking, we could see the emotion, the emotion of losing someone, his head would go down. After the burial, he came away but his head was down for losing the father, and that for his love he had to come all this way and bury the father.”
Obama did not attend his father’s burial; he came to Kenya only in 1987, on a journey, perhaps, to metaphorically bury Senior—or “the Old Man,” as others in the family called him. In fact, Barack Obama was in New York, making breakfast in his apartment on 94th Street between First and Second Avenues, when an aunt telephoned him with the news of his father’s death. As his eggs burned, Obama wondered how to react to the news. To his son, Obama Sr. was “both more and less than a man,” and he would ultimately travel to Kenya in search of the reality behind the mythology and the facts behind the dreams. What he found, as he (and we) now know, was the most human of fathers.
As he had grown older, Obama had struggled to see himself as a black man, though his experience was far from that of the typical African-American. Hawaii helped; there, his grandfather had introduced him to one of the most intriguing mentors of his youth, Frank Marshall Davis. Davis had been a leading black activist and writer of the 1930s and 1940s—a contemporary and friend of Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. Davis grew up in Kansas, where he was nearly lynched by a group of schoolchildren at the age of 5. He took up a career as a journalist and poet with a strong voice for racial justice, working in Chicago before moving to Hawaii with his second wife, who was white. His political activism, especially his writings on civil-rights and labor issues, prompted a McCarthyite denunciation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Davis was an eccentric but engaging figure by the time Obama met him in the 1970s. “I was intrigued by old Frank, with his books and whiskey breath and the hint of hard-earned knowledge behind the hooded eyes,” wrote Obama. It was around this time that Obama started his own course of reading black literature—Wright, Hughes, Du Bois and Baldwin. “It was almost as if Obama had wandered into a museum,” says Dr. Kathryn Takara, a Hawaii-based political scientist who first met Davis at the same time and is now writing a biography of the poet-activist. “It was an electrically charged intellectual atmosphere, with culture all around. There was always music and news, and the TV was never off. The house was full of books and records, old albums and old furniture. He had a porch that was almost on the sidewalk and you could sit out there and hear the jazz from the living room. People would walk up and he invited conversation. There was always something going on.” It was Davis who delivered one of the most enduring lessons of Obama’s teenage years. After his grandparents argued about a black panhandler who scared his grandmother, Obama visited the poet, shared some whiskey, and recounted the story. When Davis told him his grandmother was right to be scared, that “black people have a reason to hate,” Obama realized how distant he was from his closest family. “The earth shook under my feet, ready to crack open at any moment,” he wrote. “I stopped, trying to steady myself, and knew for the first time that I was utterly alone.”
The story of the rest of his life—a story that is, obviously, still unfolding—is how Obama, now necessarily self-sufficient and wary, always surrounded himself with those with whom he felt secure—though he knew, and knows, that any one of those people might eventually disappoint him. In Chicago he found his way to the Trinity United Church of Christ, and to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. When Wright’s “God Damn America” clips emerged earlier this year, Obama’s friend Jim Wallis sent him a note of condolence. Late one night, Wallis received an e-mail in reply, something like: “God has his purposes.” “I was quite astounded,” says Wallis, the left-leaning evangelical writer, activist and founder of Sojourners. “Here’s a 46-year-old, which for me at 59 seems young, and he says something like that. This is not what politicians think and do. Politicians want always to be predictive and controlling.”
Obama’s reply to Wallis reflected a kind of Lincoln-esque fatalism. It is a sad but inescapable fact of life that people—in Obama’s case, people close to you—often fail you. Wright, obviously, was far from the first man to disappoint Obama.
Dwight Hopkins, a professor of theology at the University of Chicago and a member of Trinity, believes that Obama was drawn to Wright as a father figure. If Trinity was the large, extended family Obama never had—”people are walking around talking, shaking hands, saying, ‘How’s your child?’, ‘How’s the cancer?’ ” Hopkins says—then Wright was the paterfamilias.
Much has been written about the “Africentrism” of Trinity: the African-American Last Supper that hangs in the church lobby and the kente cloth that drapes its altar. But Wright’s ideas about Africa were more than decorative. Wright taught that African- Americans should be proud of their African heritage, of the stories of slavery and freedom handed down by their grandparents and great-grandparents. He also preached that people should feel a financial and social responsibility to their brothers and sisters in Africa, especially those without food and water, those with chronic or incurable disease, those without any education.
There were other churches Obama could have joined when he moved to Chicago after law school. The Rev. James Meeks runs the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, 10 blocks away from Trinity—another huge African-American church on the South Side where the Rev. Jesse Jackson has made frequent appearances. But no other Chicago church would have given Obama such a strong connection to Africa. “Here’s what Meeks can’t offer,” says Wallis. “Barack has an African father and I’m speculating that the connection to Africa might have appealed to him.”
In an interview with NEWSWEEK’s Lisa Miller, Obama characterized his relationship with Wright this way: “He was my pastor. And he was a friend.” He disputes the characterization of “spiritual adviser”: “I cannot recall a time where he and I sat down and talked about theology or we had long discussions about my faith. If I met with him, it was after church to have chicken with the family and we would have talked stories about the family. But he certainly strengthened my faith.”
How close were they, really? The Rev. Obery Hendricks, a good friend of Wright’s, says the two men were not that intimate. “He wasn’t buddies with him,” says Hendricks, author of “The Politics of Jesus” and a professor at New York Theological Seminary. “[Wright] has some close people, and Obama wasn’t one of them.”
The Rev. Stephen Gray is the conference minister of the Indiana-Kentucky conference for the United Church of Christ. In meetings with Wright when Obama was in the Senate, Gray twice recalls Wright’s leaving the room to take a call on his cell phone from Obama. “All I can tell you is there was a big smile on Jeremiah’s face as he ended those conversations,” Gray remembers. ” ‘That was our senator,’ he said. We asked him, ‘What kind of a fellow is he?’ ‘Well, I trained him. He’s a pretty good fella’.”
That anecdote foreshadowed the grandiosity that led to Wright’s fall from grace with Obama during the presidential campaign, when the minister went to the National Press Club in the wake of the release of clips of controversial sermons. At the Washington luncheon, Wright treated the media to a racially charged stemwinder in which he defended some of his most controversial statements. Obama had tried to stand by Wright, initially refusing to repudiate him, but the National Press Club was too much.
The origins of the clash are generational. “Their racial politics are very different,” says Hendricks. “Barack, because of his experience, didn’t have the same perspective, the same level of resentment as so many in Jeremiah’s generation. And so Jeremiah comes from another era, closer to my own, when segregation was still the law of the land. He still carries that, his outrage at those injustices. Barack, of course, is sensitive to that, but he did not experience it.”
Wright’s friends talk about how difficult things have been since Obama’s repudiation. “One of the pains is—remember, Barack grew up without a father,” Hendricks adds. “To jettison your pastor, it’s like being abandoned all over again.” But there is a lesson here for those who underestimate Obama. He tried to save Wright, standing by him until it became untenable. And when he struck, he struck, and the turbulent pastor was cast out.
In his earlier days in Chicago politics and in the legislature in Springfield, some people thought Obama talked a bit too much about his Harvard Law degree. But Harvard is essential to understanding Obama. “From what he had learned about his dad, he was overidealistic, not practical, and that ended up in his not achieving anything effectively,” says Jerry Kellman, Obama’s community-organizing boss in Chicago. “Law school was a means to a kind of security. He spoke of it [his decision to apply to law school] in terms of what it meant in terms of him being effective.”
It was not just law school that Obama was interested in—it was Harvard Law School. “If he was going to go to law school, he was going to go to the best law school,” says Kellman. “It was very utilitarian: ‘If I’m going to do this, this is where I’m going to form the right relationships’.” That he was matching his father—and, by winning the Law Review presidency, surpassing him—is in keeping with the arc of Obama’s life. He knew what he wanted: political stardom, not highbrow legal celebrity. Shortly after the Law Review election, David Wilkins, one of his professors, told him that he would be happy to talk about which Supreme Court justice Obama would like to clerk for. “He said to me, ‘Professor Wilkins, thank you, but I’m not very interested’,” Wilkins remembers. “And he said something like, ‘I’m going to use these 15 minutes of fame to get a book contract’ … and then he said, ‘I’m going to go back to Chicago, continue the work I was doing beforehand, and then I want to run for elected office’.”
In Chicago he courted and married Michelle Robinson, the daughter of Frasier Robinson, a formidable figure who, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 30, kept working at a water plant and sent two children to Princeton (and Michelle went on to Harvard Law). “I think in many ways Barack was really searching for something that might not have been evident in any one person,” says Craig Robinson, Michelle’s brother. “I think Reverend Wright had his place in his life as a young man and I think our father had [a] strong influence on him as well. Barack was very interested in any man who valued his family and respected his community. And I applaud Barack for where that search took him because it translated into him treating my sisters and nieces the way they should be. And as a brother, that’s all I can ask.”
Atonement for the sins of the fathers is a powerful drive for men who grew up the way Obama did. “He is a very loyal and dedicated family man,” says his friend and campaign treasurer Martin Nesbitt. “It is my perspective that the fact that his dad was not around had some impact on that.” There is complexity here, too: Obama works hard to be a good father to his two girls, but the ambition that is partly rooted in the absence of his own father has created a life in which he is one of the busiest human beings on the planet. But if anyone understands the perils, it is Obama. His children provide him with connection, even redemption.
A few days before leaving for Denver, as he answered my questions about Soetoro (who died in 1987) and the life lessons his stepfather taught him about power, he stepped back to assess what makes him who he is. His childhood, Obama said, created “impulses that continue in me to this day, and that is between the idealism of my mother and her sense of empathy and compassion, and the hard-headed realism that the world out there can be tough.” As can he.
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