C’est ça, l’Ouest, monsieur le sénateur: quand la légende devient réalité, c’est la légende qu’il faut publier. Maxwell Scott (journaliste dans ‘L’Homme qui tua Liberty Valance’, John Ford, 1962)
Le grand ennemi de la vérité n’est très souvent pas le mensonge – délibéré, artificiel et malhonnête – mais le mythe – persistant, persuasif et irréaliste. John Kennedy
If your whole candidacy is about words, they should be your words. Hillary Clinton
To avoid being mistaken as a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. (…) I watched Marcus as he spoke, lean and dark and straight-backed, his long legs braced apart, comfortable in a white T-shirt and blue denim overalls. Marcus was the most conscious of brothers. He could tell you about his grandfather the Garveyite; about his mother in St. Louis who had raised her kids alone while working as a nurse; about his older sister who had been a founding member of the local Panther party; about his friends in the joint. His lineage was pure, his loyalties clear, and for that reason he always made me feel a little off-balance, like a younger brother who, no matter what he does, will always be one step behind. Barry Obama
I think the President’s speech yesterday was the reason we Americans elected him. It was grand. It was positive. Hopeful…But what I liked about the President’s speech in Cairo was that it showed a complete humility…The question now is whether the President we elected and spoke for us so grandly yesterday can carry out the great vision he gave us and to the world. Chris Matthews
I mean in a way Obama’s standing above the country, above – above the world, he’s sort of God.(…) : « He’s going to bring all different sides together…Obama is trying to sort of tamper everything down. He doesn’t even use the word terror. He uses extremism. He’s all about let us reason together…He’s the teacher. He is going to say, ‘now, children, stop fighting and quarreling with each other.’ And he has a kind of a moral authority that he – he can – he can do that. Evan Thomas
Pour moi, la morale consiste à faire ce qui est le mieux pour le maximum de gens. Saul Alinsky
Un problème plus sérieux pour notre nation aujourd’hui est que nous avons un président dont la bénigne – et donc désirable – couleur l’a exempté du processus politique d’individuation qui produit des dirigeants forts et lucides. Il n’a pas eu à risquer sa popularité pour ses principes, expérience sans laquelle nul ne peut connaître ses véritables convictions. A l’avenir il peut lui arriver à l’occasion de prendre la bonne décision, mais il n’y a aucun centre durement gagné en lui à partir duquel il pourrait se montrer un réel leader. Shelby Steele
Pourquoi cette apparence anticipée de triomphe pour le candidat dont le bilan des votes au Sénat est le plus à gauche de tout le parti Démocrate? L´électorat américain a-t-il vraiment basculé? Comment expliquer la marge énorme de différence entre les instituts de sondage à 3% et ceux à 12%? L´explication, me semble-t-il, réside dans la détermination sans faille du «peuple médiatique»; comme Mitterrand parlait du «peuple de gauche», les uns, français, habitaient la Gauche, les autres, américains, habitent les media, comme les souris le fromage. Le peuple médiatique, l´élite politico-intellectuelle, le «paysage audiovisuel», comme on dit avec complaisance, ont décidé que rien n´empêcherait l´apothéose de leur candidat. Tout ce qui pouvait nuire à Obama serait donc omis et caché; tout ce qui pouvait nuire à McCain serait monté en épingle et martelé à la tambourinade. On censurerait ce qui gênerait l´un, on amplifierait ce qui affaiblirait l´autre. Le bombardement serait intense, les haut-parleurs répandraient sans répit le faux, le biaisé, le trompeur et l´insidieux. C´est ainsi que toute assertion émise par Obama serait tenue pour parole d´Evangile. Le terroriste mal blanchi Bill Ayers? – «Un type qui vit dans ma rue», avait menti impudemment Obama, qui lui devait le lancement de sa carrière politique, et le côtoyait à la direction d´une fondation importante. Il semble même qu´Ayers ait été, si l´on ose oser, le nègre du best-seller autobiographique (!) d´Obama. Qu´importe! Nulle enquête, nulle révélation, nulle curiosité. «Je ne l´ai jamais entendu parler ainsi » -, mentait Obama, parlant de son pasteur de vingt ans, Jeremiah Wright, fasciste noir, raciste à rebours, mégalomane délirant des théories conspirationnistes – en vingt ans de prêches et de sermons. Circulez, vous dis-je, y´a rien à voir – et les media, pieusement, de n´aller rien chercher. ACORN, organisation d´activistes d´extrême-gauche, aujourd´hui accusée d´une énorme fraude électorale, dont Obama fut l´avocat – et qui se mobilise pour lui, et avec laquelle il travaillait à Chicago? Oh, ils ne font pas partie de la campagne Obama, expliquent benoîtement les media. Et, ajoute-t-on, sans crainte du ridicule, «la fraude aux inscriptions électorales ne se traduit pas forcément en votes frauduleux». Laurent Murawiec
Nous étions en formation avec plusieurs hélicoptères. Deux ont été abattus par des tirs, dont celui à bord duquel je me trouvais. Brian Williams (NBC, 2015)
J’étais dans un appareil qui suivait. J’ai fait une erreur en rapportant cet événement intervenu il y a douze ans. Brian Williams (NBC, 2015)
Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life. And yet, even as I imagined myself following Malcolm’s call, one line in the book stayed me. He spoke of a wish he’d once had, the wish that the white blood that tan through him, there by an act of violence, might somehow be expunged. I knew that, for Malcolm, that wish would never be incidental. I knew as well that traveling down the road to self-respect my own white blood would never recede into mere abstraction. I was left to wonder what else I would be severing if and when I left my mother and my grandparents at some uncharted border. Barack Hussein Obama (Dreams of my father)
Il est tout à fait légitime pour le peuple américain d’être profondément préoccupé quand vous avez un tas de fanatiques vicieux et violents qui décapitent les gens ou qui tirent au hasard dans un tas de gens dans une épicerie à Paris. Barack Hussein Obama
Nous sommes devant toi des étrangers et des habitants, comme tous nos pères … I Chroniques 29: 15 (exorde de Rêves de mon père, 1995)
Même si ce livre repose principalement sur des journaux intimes ou sur des histoires orales de ma famille, les dialogues sont forcément approximatifs. Pour éviter les longueurs, certains personnages sont des condensés de personnes que j’ai connues et certains événements sont sans contexte chronologique précis. A l’exception de ma famille et certains personnages publics, les noms des protagonistes ont été changés par souci de respecter leur vie privée. Barack Hussein Obama jr. (préface des Rêves de mon père, 1995)
Je connais, je les ai vus, le désespoir et le désordre qui sont le quotidien des laissés-pour-compte, avec leurs conséquences désastreuses sur les enfants de Djakarta ou de Nairobi, comparables en bien des points à celles qui affectent les enfants du South Side de Chicago. Je sais combien est ténue pour eux la frontière entre humiliation et la fureur dévastatrice, je sais avec quelle facilité ils glissent dans la violence et le désespoir. Barack Hussein Obama jr. (préface de Rêves de mon père, l’histoire d’un héritage en noir et blanc, 2004)
He told the story in brilliant, painful detail in his first book, Dreams from My Father, which may be the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician. Joe Klein (Time, October 23, 2006)
Given what I do for a living, I suppose it’s only natural that I have a high degree of respect for those who write well. Good writing very often signals a strong intellect and in many cases a deep vision. It also shows its author to be a person of some discipline, in that even those who are born with a great deal of talent in this area still usually have to work hard and make sacrifices to develop their abilities. All of which is making me giddy at the prospect of Barack Obama’s coming presidency. Like many politicians Barack Obama is also an author. What makes him different is he’s also a good writer. Most books by today’s policies are glossy, self-serving, sometimes ghost-written puffery, which are designed to be sold as throwaway literature. Obama has written a couple of these books, and the best that can be said about them is that they’re a cut above the usual tripe politicians slap between two covers. Earlier, however, way back in 1995, Barack Obama penned another book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, which is easily the most honest, daring, and ambitious volume put out by a major US politician in the last 50 years. Rob Woodard (The Guardian)
Much has been made of Mr. Obama’s eloquence — his ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire. But his appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion, they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world. Mr. Obama’s first book, “Dreams From My Father” (which surely stands as the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president), suggests that throughout his life he has turned to books as a way of acquiring insights and information from others — as a means of breaking out of the bubble of self-hood and, more recently, the bubble of power and fame. He recalls that he read James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and W. E. B. Du Bois when he was an adolescent in an effort to come to terms with his racial identity and that later, during an ascetic phase in college, he immersed himself in the works of thinkers like Nietzsche and St. Augustine in a spiritual-intellectual search to figure out what he truly believed. Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times)
I was interested really in him because of his book, « Song of Solomon. » It was quite extraordinary. I mean, he’s a real writer type. (…) Yeah, well, we said a few little things about « Song of Solomon, » and I sort of acknowledged that he was a writer, also, in my high esteem. (…) He’s very different. I mean, his ability to reflect on this extraordinary mesh of experiences that he has had, some familiar and some not, and to really meditate on that the way he does and to set up scenes in a narrative structure type of conversation, all of these things that you don’t often see, obviously, in the routine political memoir biography. But I think this was when he was much younger, like in his 30s or something. So that was impressive to me. But it’s unique. It’s his. There are no other ones like that. Toni Morrison
That’s a good book. Dreams of My Father, is that what it’s called? I read it with great interest, in part because it’d been written by this guy who was running for president, but I found it well done and very persuasive and memorable too. Philip Roth
Qu’est-ce que cela fait d’avoir un nouveau président des Etats-Unis qui sait lire ? Du bien. Cela fait du bien d’apprendre qu’il a toujours un livre à portée de la main. On a tellement flatté ses qualités d’orateur et ses dons de communicant qu’on a oublié l’essentiel de ce qui fait la richesse de son verbe : son côté lecteur compulsif. A croire que lorsqu’il sera las de lire des livres, il dirigera l’Amérique pour se détendre. Michiko Kakutani, la redoutée critique du New York Times, d’ordinaire si dure avec la majorité des écrivains, est tout miel avec ce non-écrivain auteur de trois livres : deux textes autobiographiques et un discours sur la race en Amérique. Elle vient de dresser l’inventaire de sa « bibliothèque idéale », autrement dit les livres qui ont fait ce qu’il est devenu, si l’on croise ce qu’il en dit dans ses Mémoires, ce qu’il en confesse dans les interviews et ce qu’on en sait. Adolescent, il lut avidement les grands auteurs noirs James Baldwin, Langston Hugues, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, W.E.B. Du Bois avant de s’immerger dans Nietzsche et Saint-Augustin en marge de ses études de droit, puis d’avaler la biographie de Martin Luther King en plusieurs volumes par Taylor Branch. Autant de livres dans lesquels il a piqué idées, pistes et intuitions susceptibles de nourrir sa vision du monde. Ce qui ne l’a pas empêché de se nourrir en permanence des tragédies de Shakespeare, de Moby Dick, des écrits de Lincoln, des essais du transcendantaliste Ralph Waldo Emerson, du Chant de Salomon de la nobélisée Toni Morrison, du Carnet d’or de Doris Lessing, des poèmes d’un autre nobélisé Derek Walcott, des mémoires de Gandhi, des textes du théologien protestant Reinhold Niebuhr qui exercèrent une forte influence sur Martin Luther King, et, plus récemment de Gilead (2004) le roman à succès de Marylinne Robinson ou de Team of rivals que l’historienne Doris Kearns Goodwin a consacré au génie politique d’Abraham Lincoln, « la » référence du nouveau président. Pardon, on allait oublier, le principal, le livre des livres : la Bible, of course. Pierre Assouline
Apart from other unprecedented aspects of his rise, it is a geographical truth that no politician in American history has traveled farther than Barack Obama to be within reach of the White House. He was born and spent most of his formative years on Oahu, in distance the most removed population center on the planet, some 2,390 miles from California, farther from a major landmass than anywhere but Easter Island. In the westward impulse of American settlement, his birthplace was the last frontier, an outpost with its own time zone, the 50th of the United States, admitted to the union only two years before Obama came along. Those who come from islands are inevitably shaped by the experience. For Obama, the experience was all contradiction and contrast. As the son of a white woman and a black man, he grew up as a multiracial kid, a « hapa, » « half-and-half » in the local lexicon, in one of the most multiracial places in the world, with no majority group. There were native Hawaiians, Japanese, Filipinos, Samoans, Okinawans, Chinese and Portuguese, along with Anglos, commonly known as haole (pronounced howl-lee), and a smaller population of blacks, traditionally centered at the U.S. military installations. But diversity does not automatically translate into social comfort: Hawaii has its own difficult history of racial and cultural stratification, and young Obama struggled to find his place even in that many-hued milieu. He had to leave the island to find himself as a black man, eventually rooting in Chicago, the antipode of remote Honolulu, deep in the fold of the mainland, and there setting out on the path that led toward politics. Yet life circles back in strange ways, and in essence it is the promise of the place he left behind — the notion if not the reality of Hawaii, what some call the spirit of aloha, the transracial if not post-racial message — that has made his rise possible. Hawaii and Chicago are the two main threads weaving through the cloth of Barack Obama’s life. Each involves more than geography. Hawaii is about the forces that shaped him, and Chicago is about how he reshaped himself. Chicago is about the critical choices he made as an adult: how he learned to survive in the rough-and-tumble of law and politics, how he figured out the secrets of power in a world defined by it, and how he resolved his inner conflicts and refined the subtle, coolly ambitious persona now on view in the presidential election. Hawaii comes first. It is what lies beneath, what makes Chicago possible and understandable. (…) « Dreams From My Father » is as imprecise as it is insightful about Obama’s early life. Obama offers unusually perceptive and subtle observations of himself and the people around him. Yet, as he readily acknowledged, he rearranged the chronology for his literary purposes and presented a cast of characters made up of composites and pseudonyms. This was to protect people’s privacy, he said. Only a select few were not granted that protection, for the obvious reason that he could not blur their identities — his relatives. (…) Keith and Tony Peterson (…) wondered why Obama focused so much on a friend he called Ray, who in fact was Keith Kukagawa. Kukagawa was black and Japanese, and the Petersons did not even think of him as black. Yet in the book, Obama used him as the voice of black anger and angst, the provocateur of hip, vulgar, get-real dialogues. (…) Sixteen years later, Barry was no more, replaced by Barack, who had not only left the island but had gone to two Ivy League schools, Columbia undergrad and Harvard Law, and written a book about his life. He was into his Chicago phase, reshaping himself for his political future … David Maraniss
Dans sa biographie du président, le journaliste David Maraniss décrit lui aussi un jeune homme qui se cherche, et qui, lorsqu’il devient politicien, cisèle sa biographie, Dreams from my Father, pour la rendre plus signifiante politiquement et romanesque littérairement qu’elle ne l’est en réalité. Non, son gran-père kenyan Hussein Onyango Obama n’a pas été torturé et emprisonné par les Britanniques; non, le père de son beau-père indonésien n’a pas été tué dans la lutte contre le colonisateur hollandais; non, il ne semble pas avoir sérieusement consommé de drogues lorsqu’il était au lycée puis à Occidental College avant de trouver la rédemption; non, l’assurance santé de sa mère n’a pas refusé de lui payer le traitement de base de son cancer. Tous ces détails ne sont pas des inventions ou des mensonges: ce sont des embellissements, souvent repris de mythes familiaux, qui donnent du sens à son parcours. Justin Vaïsse
It has recently been discovered by Washington Post editor and Obama biographer David Maraniss that Obama’s memoir likely went much farther than just the character « compression » and chronology rearrangement that Obama admitted to in his memoir’s introduction. Maraniss reveals in his new book that, much like Frey’s memoir, Dreams contains fabrications of material aspects of Obama’s life narrative. (…) Ultimately, what Maraniss did discover is that Obama’s actual upbringing was simply too comfortable and boring to lend itself to a compelling memoir. So he did what Frey did and turned an otherwise mundane life story into a more meaningful and interesting one. Mendy Finkel
Not only did he grow up in Indonesia and Hawaii, but he also grew up amid diversity in both places, which brought him into casual, daily contact with Africans, Asians, Natives and Caucasians, people of all kinds of ethnic variations and political and social differences. What he did not experience in his early life is mainland, American-style racism. Growing up in places that were diverse, he never had to confront his identity as a black man until his college years. There are no slaves in the Obama family tree, and he missed most of the tumultuous civil rights struggle because of his youth and the physical distance from the mainland. There is an amusing section on the future president’s more than casual acquaintance with marijuana as a high school student in Hawaii. I won’t ruin the fun, but if you get the e-book, search for « Choom Gang, » « Total Absorption » (the opposite of not inhaling) and « Roof Hits. » Enough said. Even when Barry, which is how he was known, finally made it to the mainland as a college freshman, he chose elite Occidental College in Los Angeles, a diverse environment in a sheltered section of the city that gave him virtually no taste of the typical experience of blacks in America. In fact, one of his Oxy college friends said that Barry, who was starting to refer to himself as Barack in part to reconnect to his black roots, decided to transfer after his sophomore year to Columbia in New York so that he could « discover blackness in America. » What hits home in Maraniss’ book is how race was, for Barack Obama, primarily an intellectual journey of study and self-discovery. He had to discover his blackness. This sets him apart from the dominant African American experience, and it accounts for some of the reluctance on the part of veteran civil rights advocates like Jesse Jackson to embrace his candidacy early on. Dave Cieslewicz
It almost seemed too good to be true. When President Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, « Dreams From My Father, » was re-published soon after the young politican catapulted onto the national stage with a charismatic speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, his amazing life story captured the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. But like many memoirs, which tend to be self-serving, it now appears that Obama shaped the book less as a factual history of his life than as a great story. A new biography, « Barack Obama: The Story, » by David Maraniss, raises questions about the accuracy of the president’s account and delivers fresh revelations about his pot-smoking in high school and college and his girlfriends in New York City. In his memoir, Obama describes how his grandfather, Hussein Onyango, was imprisoned and tortured by British troops during the fight for Kenyan independence. But that did not happen, according to five associates of Onyango interviewed by Maraniss. Another heroic tale from the memoir about Obama’s Indonesian stepfather, Soewarno Martodihardjo, being killed by Dutch soldiers during Indonesia’s fight for independence also is inaccurate, according to Maraniss. The president explains in his memoir that some of the characters in his book have been combined or compressed. Maraniss provides more details about the extent of that alteration. One of Obama’s « African American » classmates was based on Caroline Boss, a white student whose Swiss grandmother was named Regina, according to Maraniss, a Washington Post editor and author who has won a Pulitzer Prize. The president also described breaking up with a white girlfriend due to a « racial chasm that unavoidably separated him from the woman, » writes Maraniss. But Obama’s next girlfriend in Chicago, an anthropologist, also was white. The young Obama’s lack of playing time on the high school basketball team was due more to his ability than the coach’s preference for white players, Maraniss writes. And Obama’s mother likely left his father — not the other way around — after domestic abuse, note reviews of the book in the Los Angeles Times and Buzzfeed. The Huffington Post
In his 1995 memoir, [Mr. Obama] mentioned smoking “reefer” in “the dorm room of some brother” and talked about “getting high.” Before Occidental, he indulged in marijuana, alcohol and sometimes cocaine as a high school student in Hawaii, according to the book. He made “some bad decisions” as a teenager involving drugs and drinking, Senator Obama, now a presidential candidate, told high school students in New Hampshire last November. Mr. Obama’s admissions are rare for a politician (his book, “Dreams From My Father,” was written before he ran for office.) They briefly became a campaign issue in December when an adviser to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Obama’s chief Democratic rival, suggested that his history with drugs would make him vulnerable to Republican attacks if he became his party’s nominee. Mr. Obama, of Illinois, has never quantified his illicit drug use or provided many details. He wrote about his two years at Occidental, a predominantly white liberal arts college, as a gradual but profound awakening from a slumber of indifference that gave rise to his activism there and his fears that drugs could lead him to addiction or apathy, as they had for many other black men. Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs, though, significantly differs from the recollections of others who do not recall his drug use. That could suggest he was so private about his usage that few people were aware of it, that the memories of those who knew him decades ago are fuzzy or rosier out of a desire to protect him, or that he added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic. In more than three dozen interviews, friends, classmates and mentors from his high school and Occidental recalled Mr. Obama as being grounded, motivated and poised, someone who did not appear to be grappling with any drug problems and seemed to dabble only with marijuana. Serge F. Kovaleski
Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story punctures two sets of falsehoods: The family tales Obama passed on, unknowing; and the stories Obama made up. The 672-page book closes before Obama enters law school, and Maraniss has promised another volume, but by its conclusion I counted 38 instances in which the biographer convincingly disputes significant elements of Obama’s own story of his life and his family history. The two strands of falsehood run together, in that they often serve the same narrative goal: To tell a familiar, simple, and ultimately optimistic story about race and identity in the 20th Century. The false notes in Obama’s family lore include his mother’s claimed experience of racism in Kansas, and incidents of colonial brutality toward his Kenyan grandfather and Indonesian step-grandfather. Obama’s deliberate distortions more clearly serve a single narrative: Race. Obama presents himself through the book as “blacker and more disaffected” than he really was, Maraniss writes, and the narrative “accentuates characters drawn from black acquaintances who played lesser roles his real life but could be used to advance a line of thought, while leaving out or distorting the actions of friends who happened to be white.” (…) Maraniss’s deep and entertaining biography will serve as a corrective both to Obama’s mythmaking and his enemies’. Maraniss finds that Obama’s young life was basically conventional, his personal struggles prosaic and later exaggerated. He finds that race, central to Obama’s later thought and included in the subtitle of his memoir, wasn’t a central factor in his Hawaii youth or the existential struggles of his young adulthood. And he concludes that attempts, which Obama encouraged in his memoir, to view him through the prism of race “can lead to a misinterpretation” of the sense of “outsiderness” that Maraniss puts at the core of Obama’s identity and ambition. (…) In Dreams, for instance, Obama writes of a friend named “Regina,” a symbol of the authentic African-American experience that Obama hungers for (and which he would later find in Michelle Robinson). Maraniss discovers, however, that Regina was based on a student leader at Occidental College, Caroline Boss, who was white. Regina was the name of her working-class Swiss grandmother, who also seems to make a cameo in Dreams. Maraniss also notices that Obama also entirely cut two white roommates, in Los Angeles and New York, from the narrative, and projected a racial incident onto a New York girlfriend that he later told Maraniss had happened in Chicago. (…) Across the ocean, the family story that Hussein Onyango, Obama’s paternal grandfather, had been whipped and tortured by the British is “unlikely”: “five people who had close connections to Hussein Onyango said they doubted the story or were certain that it did not happen,” Maraniss writes. The memory that the father of his Indonesian stepfather, Soewarno Martodihardjo, was killed by Dutch soldiers in the fight for independence is “a concocted myth in almost all respects.” In fact, Martodihardjo “fell off a chair at his home while trying to hang drapes, presumably suffering a heart attack.” (…) Maraniss corrects a central element of Obama’s own biography, debunking a story that Obama’s mother may well have invented: That she and her son were abandoned in Hawaii in 1963. “It was his mother who left Hawaii first, a year earlier than his father,” Maraniss writes, confirming a story that had first surfaced in the conservative blogosphere. He suggests that “spousal abuse” prompted her flight back to Seattle. Obama’s own fairy-tales, meanwhile, run toward Amercan racial cliché. “Ray,” who is in the book “a symbol of young blackness,” is based on a character whose complex racial identity — half Japanese, part native American, and part black — was more like Obama’s, and who wasn’t a close friend. “In the memoir Barry and Ray, could be heard complaining about how rich white haole girls would never date them,” Maraniss writes, referring to Hawaii’s upper class, and to a composite character whose blackness is. “In fact, neither had much trouble in that regard.” Ben Smith
Ce qui rendait Obama unique, c’est qu’il était le politicien charismatique par excellence – le plus total inconnu à jamais accéder à la présidence aux Etats-Unis. Personne ne savait qui il était, il sortait de nulle part, il avait cette figure incroyable qui l’a catapulté au-dessus de la mêlée, il a annihilé Hillary, pris le contrôle du parti Démocrate et est devenu président. C’est vraiment sans précédent : un jeune inconnu sans histoire, dossiers, associés bien connus, auto-créé. Il y avait une bonne volonté énorme, même moi j’étais aux anges le jour de l’élection, quoique j’aie voté contre lui et me sois opposé à son élection. C’était rédempteur pour un pays qui a commencé dans le péché de l’esclavage de voir le jour, je ne croyais pas personnellement le voir jamais de mon vivant, quand un président noir serait élu. Certes, il n’était pas mon candidat. J’aurais préféré que le premier président noir soit quelqu’un d’idéologiquement plus à mon goût, comme par exemple Colin Powell (que j’ai encouragé à se présenter en 2000) ou Condoleezza Rice. Mais j’étais vraiment fier d’être Américain à la prestation de serment. Je reste fier de ce succès historique. (…) il s’avère qu’il est de gauche, non du centre-droit à la manière de Bill Clinton. L’analogie que je donne est qu’en Amérique nous jouons le jeu entre les lignes des 40 yards, en Europe vous jouez tout le terrain d’une ligne de but à l’autre. Vous avez les partis communistes, vous avez les partis fascistes, nous, on n’a pas ça, on a des partis très centristes. Alors qu’ Obama veut nous pousser aux 30 yards, ce qui pour l’Amérique est vraiment loin. Juste après son élection, il s’est adressé au Congrès et a promis en gros de refaire les piliers de la société américaine — éducation, énergie et soins de santé. Tout ceci déplacerait l’Amérique vers un Etat de type social-démocrate européen, ce qui est en dehors de la norme pour l’Amérique. (…) Obama a mal interprété son mandat. Il a été élu six semaines après un effondrement financier comme il n’y en avait jamais eu en 60 ans ; après huit ans d’une présidence qui avait fatigué le pays; au milieu de deux guerres qui ont fait que le pays s’est opposé au gouvernement républicain qui nous avait lancé dans ces guerres; et contre un adversaire complètement inepte, John McCain. Et pourtant, Obama n’a gagné que par 7 points. Mais il a cru que c’était un grand mandat général et qu’il pourrait mettre en application son ordre du jour social-démocrate. (…) sa vision du monde me semble si naïve que je ne suis même pas sûr qu’il est capable de développer une doctrine. Il a la vision d’un monde régulé par des normes internationales auto-suffisantes, où la paix est gardée par un certain genre de consensus international vague, quelque chose appelé la communauté internationale, qui pour moi est une fiction, via des agences internationales évidemment insatisfaisantes et sans valeur. Je n’éleverais pas ce genre de pensée au niveau d’ une doctrine parce que j’ai trop de respect pour le mot de doctrine. (…) Peut-être que quand il aboutira à rien sur l’Iran, rien sur la Corée du Nord, quand il n’obtiendra rien des Russes en échange de ce qu’il a fait aux Polonais et aux Tchèques, rien dans les négociations de paix au Moyen-Orient – peut-être qu’à ce moment-là, il commencera à se demander si le monde fonctionne vraiment selon des normes internationales, le consensus et la douceur et la lumière ou s’il repose sur la base de la puissance américaine et occidentale qui, au bout du compte, garantit la paix. (…) Henry Kissinger a dit une fois que la paix peut être réalisée seulement de deux manières : l’hégémonie ou l’équilibre des forces. Ca, c’est du vrai réalisme. Ce que l’administration Obama prétend être du réalisme est du non-sens naïf. Charles Krauthammer (oct. 2009)
The errant Obama biography in the Acton & Dystel booklet does not contradict the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate. Moreover, several contemporaneous accounts of Obama’s background describe Obama as having been born in Hawaii. The biography does, however, fit a pattern in which Obama–or the people representing and supporting him–manipulate his public persona. David Maraniss’s forthcoming biography of Obama has reportedly confirmed, for example, that a girlfriend Obama described in Dreams from My Father was, in fact, an amalgam of several separate individuals. In addition, Obama and his handlers have a history of redefining his identity when expedient. In March 2008, for example, he famously declared: “I can no more disown [Jeremiah Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother.” Several weeks later, Obama left Wright’s church–and, according to Edward Klein’s new biography, The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House, allegedly attempted to persuade Wright not to “do any more public speaking until after the November  election” (51). Obama has been known frequently to fictionalize aspects of his own life. During his 2008 campaign, for instance, Obama claimed that his dying mother had fought with insurance companies over coverage for her cancer treatments. That turned out to be untrue, but Obama has repeated the story–which even the Washington Post called “misleading”–in a campaign video for the 2012 election. The Acton & Dystel biography could also reflect how Obama was seen by his associates, or transitions in his own identity. He is said, for instance, to have cultivated an “international” identity until well into his adulthood, according to Maraniss. Regardless of the reason for Obama’s odd biography, the Acton & Dystel booklet raises new questions as part of ongoing efforts to understand Barack Obama–who, despite four years in office remains a mystery to many Americans, thanks to the mainstream media. Joel B. Pollak
The Obama memoir is revealed not really to be a memoir at all. Most of his intimate friends and past dalliances that we read about in Dreams From My Father were, we learn, just made up (“composites”); the problem, we also discover, with the president’s autobiography is not what is actually false, but whether anything much at all is really true in it. If a writer will fabricate the details about his own mother’s terminal illness and quest for insurance, then he will probably fudge on anything. For months the president fought the Birthers who insist that he was born in Kenya, only to have it revealed that he himself for over a decade wrote just that fact in his own literary biography. Is Barack Obama then a birther? Has any major public figure (57 states, Austrian language, corpse-men, Maldives for Falklands, private sector “doing fine,” etc.) been a more underwhelming advertisement for the quality of a Harvard education or a Chicago Law School part-time billet? Has any presidential candidate or president set a partisan crowd to laughing by rubbing his chin with his middle finger as he derides an opponent, or made a joke about killing potential suitors of his daughters with deadly Predator drones, or recited a double entendre “go-down” joke about a sex act? Victor Davis Hanson
NBC Nightly News anchorman Brian Williams frequently fabricated a dramatic story that he was under enemy attack while reporting from Iraq. NBC is now investigating whether Williams also embellished events in New Orleans during his reporting on Hurricane Katrina. (…) Former CBS anchorman Dan Rather tried to pass off fake memos as authentic evidence about former President George W. Bush’s supposedly checkered National Guard record. CNN news host Fareed Zakaria, who recently interviewed President Obama, was caught using the written work of others as if it were his own. He joins a distinguished array of accused plagiarists, from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to columnist Maureen Dowd. Usually, plagiarism is excused. Research assistants are blamed or clerical slips are cited — and little happens. In lieu of admitting deliberate dishonesty, our celebrities when caught prefer using the wishy-washy prefix “mis-” to downplay a supposed accident — as in misremembering, misstating, or misconstruing. Politicians are often the worst offenders. Vice President Joe Biden withdrew from the presidential race of 1988 once it was revealed that he had been caught plagiarizing in law school. In that campaign, he gave a speech lifted from British Labor party candidate Neil Kinnock. Hillary Clinton fantasized when she melodramatically claimed she had been under sniper fire when landing in Bosnia. Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, was more overt in lying under oath in the Monica Lewinsky debacle. Former senator John Walsh (D., Mont.) was caught plagiarizing elements of his master’s thesis. President Obama has explained that some of the characters in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, were “composites” or “compressed,” which suggests that in some instances what he described did not exactly happen. What are the consequences of lying about or exaggerating one’s past or stealing the written work of others? It depends. Punishment is calibrated by the stature of the perpetrator. If the offender is powerful, then misremembering, misstating, and misconstruing are considered minor and aberrant transgressions. If not, the sins are called lying and plagiarizing, and deemed a window into a bad soul. Thus a career can be derailed. Young, upcoming lying reporters like onetime New York Times fabulist Jayson Blair and The New Republic’s past stable of fantasy writers — Stephen Glass, Scott Beauchamp, and Ruth Shalit — had their work finally disowned by their publications. Former Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke got her Pulitzer Prize revoked for fabricating a story. Obscure senator Walsh was forced out of his re-election race. Biden, on the other hand, became vice president. It did not matter much that the Obama biography by Pulitzer Prize–winning author David Maraniss contradicted many of the details from Obama’s autobiography. Hillary Clinton may well follow her husband’s trajectory and become president. The Reverend Al Sharpton helped perpetuate the Tawana Brawley hoax; he is now a frequent guest at the White House. Why do so many of our elites cut corners and embellish their past or steal the work of others? For them, such deception may be a small gamble worth taking, with mild consequences if caught. Plagiarism is a shortcut to publishing without all the work of creating new ideas or doing laborious research. Padding a resume or mixing truth with half-truths and composites creates more dramatic personal histories that enhance careers. Our culture itself has redefined the truth into a relative idea without fault. Some academics suggested that Brian Williams may have lied because of “memory distortion” rather than a character defect. Contemporary postmodern thought sees the “truth” as a construct. The social aim of these fantasy narratives is what counts. If they serve progressive race, class, and gender issues, then why follow the quaint rules of evidence that were established by an ossified and reactionary establishment? (…) Our lies become accepted as true, but only depending on how powerful and influential we are — or how supposedly noble the cause for which we lie. Victor Davis Hanson
Attention: un mensonge peut en cacher un autre !
Emprisonnement et torture de son grand-père kenyan par les Britanniques, assassinat du père de son beau-père indonésien par les colons hollandais, exagération de son expérience du racisme ou de la drogue, passage sous silence ou colorisation de ses amis blancs, racialisation – entre deux relations avec des étudiantes blanches – d’une rupture sentimentale avec une autre copine blanche ou de son évincement de l’équipe de basket-ball de son lycée, rupture de sa mère avec un père violent présentée comme abandon dudit père, refus de traitement du cancer de sa mère …
Alors qu’après son abandon de l’Irak et bientôt de l’Afghanistan comme sa lâcheté face à l’Iran …
Et suite à ses absences tant à Paris qu’à Auschwitz, avoir contre toute évidence mis en doute les mobiles antisémites du massacre de l’Hyper cacher …
Le Tergiverseur en chef et « premier président musulman » dénonce à présent comme raciste le meurtre, suite apparemment à une querelle de voisinage par un homme se revendiquant comme athée et homophile militant, de trois étudiants musulmans de l’Université de Caroline du nord …
Pendant que de Moïse à Turing et de Solomon Northup à Martin Luther King, Hollywood réécrit sytématiquement l’histoire …
Comment s’étonner qu’après nos Dan Rather et nos Charles Enderlin et concernant ses états de service en Irak ou l’ouragan Katrina, un journaliste-vedette de la chaine NBC ait à son tour enjolivé la réalité ?
Et comment être surpris sans compter les notoires dénégations de sa longue fréquentation tant de l’ancien weatherman Bill Ayers que du pasteur suprémaciste noir Jeremiah Wright …
Que le prix Nobel de la paix aux Grandes oreilles et aux bientôt 2 500 éliminations ciblées …
Et accessoirement notoire disciple d’Alinsky et auteur des « meilleurs mémoires jamais publiés par un homme politique américain » …
Ait pu accumuler sans être jamais contesté (« pour éviter les longueurs » et « donner du sens à son parcours ») comme le révélait son biographe David Maraniss il y a trois ans …
Pas moins de 38 contre-vérités dans une seule autobiographie ?
Brian Williams’s Truth Problem, and Ours
The NBC anchor’s lies are symptomatic of a culture in which truth has become relativized.
Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
February 12, 2015
NBC Nightly News anchorman Brian Williams frequently fabricated a dramatic story that he was under enemy attack while reporting from Iraq. NBC is now investigating whether Williams also embellished events in New Orleans during his reporting on Hurricane Katrina.
Williams always plays the hero in his yarns, braving natural and hostile human enemies to deliver us the truth on the evening news.
Former CBS anchorman Dan Rather tried to pass off fake memos as authentic evidence about former President George W. Bush’s supposedly checkered National Guard record.
CNN news host Fareed Zakaria, who recently interviewed President Obama, was caught using the written work of others as if it were his own. He joins a distinguished array of accused plagiarists, from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to columnist Maureen Dowd.
Usually, plagiarism is excused. Research assistants are blamed or clerical slips are cited — and little happens. In lieu of admitting deliberate dishonesty, our celebrities when caught prefer using the wishy-washy prefix “mis-” to downplay a supposed accident — as in misremembering, misstating, or misconstruing.
Politicians are often the worst offenders. Vice President Joe Biden withdrew from the presidential race of 1988 once it was revealed that he had been caught plagiarizing in law school. In that campaign, he gave a speech lifted from British Labor party candidate Neil Kinnock.
Hillary Clinton fantasized when she melodramatically claimed she had been under sniper fire when landing in Bosnia. Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, was more overt in lying under oath in the Monica Lewinsky debacle. Former senator John Walsh (D., Mont.) was caught plagiarizing elements of his master’s thesis.
President Obama has explained that some of the characters in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, were “composites” or “compressed,” which suggests that in some instances what he described did not exactly happen.
What are the consequences of lying about or exaggerating one’s past or stealing the written work of others?
Punishment is calibrated by the stature of the perpetrator. If the offender is powerful, then misremembering, misstating, and misconstruing are considered minor and aberrant transgressions. If not, the sins are called lying and plagiarizing, and deemed a window into a bad soul. Thus a career can be derailed.
Young, upcoming lying reporters like onetime New York Times fabulist Jayson Blair and The New Republic’s past stable of fantasy writers — Stephen Glass, Scott Beauchamp, and Ruth Shalit — had their work finally disowned by their publications. Former Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke got her Pulitzer Prize revoked for fabricating a story.
Obscure senator Walsh was forced out of his re-election race. Biden, on the other hand, became vice president. It did not matter much that the Obama biography by Pulitzer Prize–winning author David Maraniss contradicted many of the details from Obama’s autobiography.
Hillary Clinton may well follow her husband’s trajectory and become president. The Reverend Al Sharpton helped perpetuate the Tawana Brawley hoax; he is now a frequent guest at the White House.
Why do so many of our elites cut corners and embellish their past or steal the work of others?
For them, such deception may be a small gamble worth taking, with mild consequences if caught. Plagiarism is a shortcut to publishing without all the work of creating new ideas or doing laborious research. Padding a resume or mixing truth with half-truths and composites creates more dramatic personal histories that enhance careers.
Our culture itself has redefined the truth into a relative idea without fault. Some academics suggested that Brian Williams may have lied because of “memory distortion” rather than a character defect.
Contemporary postmodern thought sees the “truth” as a construct. The social aim of these fantasy narratives is what counts. If they serve progressive race, class, and gender issues, then why follow the quaint rules of evidence that were established by an ossified and reactionary establishment?
Feminist actress and screenwriter Lena Dunham in her memoir described her alleged rapist as a campus conservative named Barry. After suspicion was cast on one particular man fitting Dunham’s book description, Dunham clarified that she meant to refer to someone else as the perpetrator.
Surely the exonerated Duke University men’s lacrosse players who were accused of sexual assault or the University of Virginia frat boys accused of rape in a magazine article in theory could have been guilty — even if they were proven not to be.
Michael Brown was suspected of committing a strong-arm robbery right before his death. He then walked down the middle of a street, blocking traffic, and rushed a policeman. Autopsy and toxicology reports of gunpowder residuals and the presence of THC suggest that Brown had marijuana in his system and was in close contact to the officer who fired. Do those details matter, if a “gentle giant” can become emblematic of an alleged epidemic of racist, trigger-happy cops who recklessly shoot unarmed youth?
The Greek word for truth was aletheia – literally “not forgetting.” Yet that ancient idea of eternal differences between truth and myth is now lost in the modern age.
Our lies become accepted as true, but only depending on how powerful and influential we are — or how supposedly noble the cause for which we lie.
|Is the Country Unraveling?
Can there be good news in this era of Obama’s managed decline?
Victor Davis Hanson
June 25, 2012
The Thrill Is Gone
The last thirty days have made it clear that Barack Obama is not going to win the 2012 election by a substantial margin. The polls still show the race near dead even with over five months, and all sorts of unforeseen events, to come. But after the Obama meltdown of April and May, I don’t think he in any way resembles the mysterious Pied Piper figure of 2008, who mesmerized and then marched the American people over the cliff. Polls change daily; gaffes and wars may come aplenty. But Barack Obama has lost the American center and now he is reduced to the argument that Mitt Romney would be even worse than he has been, as he tries to cobble together an us-versus-them 51% majority from identity groups through cancelling the Keystone Pipeline, granting blanket amnesty, ginning up the “war on women,” and flipping on gay marriage.
Mythographer in Chief
The Obama memoir is revealed not really to be a memoir at all. Most of his intimate friends and past dalliances that we read about in Dreams From My Father were, we learn, just made up (“composites”); the problem, we also discover, with the president’s autobiography is not what is actually false, but whether anything much at all is really true in it. If a writer will fabricate the details about his own mother’s terminal illness and quest for insurance, then he will probably fudge on anything. For months the president fought the Birthers who insist that he was born in Kenya, only to have it revealed that he himself for over a decade wrote just that fact in his own literary biography. Is Barack Obama then a birther?
Has any major public figure (57 states, Austrian language, corpse-men, Maldives for Falklands, private sector “doing fine,” etc.) been a more underwhelming advertisement for the quality of a Harvard education or a Chicago Law School part-time billet? Has any presidential candidate or president set a partisan crowd to laughing by rubbing his chin with his middle finger as he derides an opponent, or made a joke about killing potential suitors of his daughters with deadly Predator drones, or recited a double entendre “go-down” joke about a sex act?
From Recession to Recovery to Stasis
As we see in New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin, the cure for the present economic malaise is not rocket science — a curbing of the size of government, a revision of the tax code, a modest rollback of regulation, reform of public employment, and holding the line on new taxes. Do that and public confidence returns, businesses start hiring, and finances settle down. Do the opposite — as we see in Mediterranean Europe, California, or Illinois over the last decade — and chaos ensues.
Obama took a budding recovery in June 2009, and through massive borrowing, the federal takeover of health care, new expansions of food stamps and unemployment insurance, the curtailing of oil and gas leasing on public lands, new regulations, and non-stop demagoguery of the private sector slowed the economy to a crawl. His goal seems not to restore economic growth per se but to seek an equality of result, even if that means higher unemployment and less net wealth for the poor and middle classes. Obama hinted at that in 2008 when he said he would raise capital gains taxes even if it meant less revenue, given the need for “fairness.” Indeed, equality is best achieved by bringing the top down rather than the bottom up. Nowhere is the Obama model of massive borrowing, vast increases in the size of the state, more regulations, and class warfare successful — not in California or Illinois, not in Greece, Spain, or Italy, not anywhere.
To Be or Not to Be a Fat Cat?
Culturally, Obama might at least have played the Jimmy Carter populist and eschewed the elite world that had so mesmerized Bill Clinton. Instead, Obama proved a counterfeit populist and became enthralled with the high life of rich friends, celebrities, high-priced fundraisers, and family getaways to Martha’s Vineyard or Costa del Sol. He somehow has set records both in the number of meet-and-greet campaign fundraisers and the number of golf rounds played. As Obama damned the fat cats and corporate jet owners, he courted them in preparation to joining them post-officium. It simply is unsustainable for a Hawaii prep-schooled president to talk down to black audiences in a fake black patois in warning about “them,” only to put on his polo shirt, shades and golf garb to court “them” on the links.
The Great Divide
Race? We live in a world where either the president or the attorney general will too often weigh in, and clumsily and in polarizing fashion, on any high-profile white/black legal matter. By now we got the message that we are all cowards, are not nice to Mr. Holder’s “people,” are racists in wanting audits of his performance, and are the sort of enemies the president wants punished.
We live in an age of a daily dose of the provocateur Al Sharpton and the nearly daily shrill accusations of the Black Caucus. No president ever entered office with more racial goodwill and no president has so racially polarized the country. Anyone who read the racially obsessed Dreams From My Father or reviewed the race-baiting sermons of the demented Rev. Wright could have predicted the ongoing deterioration in racial relations. We live in an age in which criticism of the president is alleged racism, creating an impossible situation: the country is redeemed only if it elects Obama, and stays redeemed only if he is reelected. How strange to read columnists one week alleging racism, and on the next warning us about the Mormon Church.
The most recent de facto amnesty is not just politically cynical, but unworkable. Consider that Obama himself warned on two earlier occasions that it would be legally impossible to do what he just did, and so he did not do it — even when he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress — until he was at 50/50 in the polls in a reelection fight. If we are to extend to roughly one million illegal aliens blanket amnesty on the premise that they are in or have graduated from high school and have not been convicted of a crime, then are we to deport now those who dropped out of high school (the Hispanic drop out rate in general in California is over 50%) or who have been arrested and convicted? Will this loud and public effort by the Hispanic elite to achieve amnesty for over 11 million illegal aliens moderate the MEChA/La Raza university writ that the United States is a culpable place — for how can they desire so what they so criticize? Given that Asians are now the largest immigrant group (almost all arriving legally, with either education, skills, or capital), will yet another group adopt lobbying efforts as well to increase the numbers of kindred arrivals, given that immigration policy is now predicated on ethnic and identity politics?
The Age of Transparency?
Solyndra, the reversals of the Chrysler creditors, the GSA mess, the Secret Service embarrassments, and Fast and Furious were not the new transparency. But Securitygate proved a scandal like none other in recent memory, trumping both Watergate and Iran-Contra — albeit ignored by the press. Usually administrations fight leaks from self-proclaimed whistleblowers, but do not themselves aid and abet violators of government confidentiality to promote a pathetic (reading Thomas Aquinas while selecting drone targets?) narrative of heroic wartime leadership.
Usually liberal reporters convince themselves into thinking they publish leaks as a way of speaking “truth to power,” not as near accomplices in promoting a partisan agenda. Usually leaks happen after events, not in the middle of an ongoing war against terrorists. How odd that the Obama administration has done more harm to the country than did Wikileaks. Why would the president not release subpoenaed documents to the U.S. Congress while he leaked national security secrets to the world?
Appointments? Where does one find the like of an Anita Dunn (her hero was Mao), the truther Van Jones, or Al “Crucify” Armendariz? Do we remember guests to the Bush White House being photographed flipping off portraits of Bill Clinton? Usually Treasury secretaries are models of tax probity, not tax violators themselves. Why is the secretary of Labor issuing videos inviting illegal aliens to contact her office when lodging complaints against employers? Even John Mitchell did not violate so many ethical standards as has Eric Holder, who sees nothing wrong in appointing an Obama appointee and Obama campaign donor to investigate possible Obama administration legal violations. Why was grilling Alberto Gonzalez not racism, but doing the same to Eric Holder supposedly is? From where did “Shut the f— up” National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon appear? Fannie Mae and K Street? Do Commerce secretaries usually drive Lexuses as they promote U.S. industry?
A Patch of Blue
Can there be good news in this era of Obama’s managed decline? In fact, we have two good reasons to rejoice. One, never has the hard Left had such an ideal megaphone as Barack Hussein Obama: his identity was constructed as multicultural to the core. He put liberals at ease through his comportment and chameleon voice (ask either Harry Reid or Joe Biden). He ran hard left of Hillary Clinton and promised everything from shutting down Guantanamo to ending renditions, bringing aboard the likes of a Harold Koh from Yale and Cass Sunstein from Chicago. He was young, hip, self-described as cool, and was hailed as the best emissary of the radical liberal vision of any in decades. Historians hailed Obama as the smartest president who ever held office, disagreeing only whether he was JFK or FDR reincarnate.
And what happened? In less than 40 months, Obama destroyed the greatest bipartisan good will that any recent president has enjoyed, and has done more to discredit Keynesian neo-socialist politics than have all of talk radio, Fox News, and the internet combined. In just two years, he took a Democratic Congress and lost the House in the largest midterm setback since 1938. In other words, the people — fifty percent of whom either do not pay federal income taxes or receive some sort of state or federal entitlement or both — saw the best face of modern neo-socialism imaginable, and they were not quite sold on it.
Second, it is hard to screw up America in just four years. Look at it this way: gas and oil production has soared despite, not because of, the federal government. The rest of the world — the unraveling European Union, the Arab Spring, Putin’s Russia, aging Japan, authoritarian China, the recrudescent Marxism in Latin America — reminds us of American exceptionalism. The verdict from Wisconsin is that the statist model is over. The public union, big pension, non-fireable employee model is left only with an “après nous, le déluge“ sigh. The private sector is not doing fine, but shortly will be when it is assured taxes won’t soar, energy will be cheaper, and Obamacare will cease. The irony is that the last four years have reminded us of what we still can be, and how we differ from most other places in the world.
The Real Story Of Barack Obama
A new biography finally challenges Obama’s famous memoir. And the truth might not be quite as interesting as the president, and his enemies, have imagined.
June 17, 2012
David Maraniss’s new biography of Barack Obama is the first sustained challenge to Obama’s control over his own story, a firm and occasionally brutal debunking of Obama’s bestselling 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father.
Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story punctures two sets of falsehoods: The family tales Obama passed on, unknowing; and the stories Obama made up. The 672-page book closes before Obama enters law school, and Maraniss has promised another volume, but by its conclusion I counted 38 instances in which the biographer convincingly disputes significant elements of Obama’s own story of his life and his family history.
The two strands of falsehood run together, in that they often serve the same narrative goal: To tell a familiar, simple, and ultimately optimistic story about race and identity in the 20th Century. The false notes in Obama’s family lore include his mother’s claimed experience of racism in Kansas, and incidents of colonial brutality toward his Kenyan grandfather and Indonesian step-grandfather. Obama’s deliberate distortions more clearly serve a single narrative: Race. Obama presents himself through the book as “blacker and more disaffected” than he really was, Maraniss writes, and the narrative “accentuates characters drawn from black acquaintances who played lesser roles his real life but could be used to advance a line of thought, while leaving out or distorting the actions of friends who happened to be white.”
That the core narrative of Dreams could have survived this long into Obama’s public life is the product in part of an inadvertent conspiracy between the president and his enemies. His memoir evokes an angry, misspent youth; a deep and lifelong obsession with race; foreign and strongly Muslim heritage; and roots in the 20th Century’s self-consciously leftist anti-colonial struggle. Obama’s conservative critics have, since the beginnings of his time on the national scene, taken the self-portrait at face value, and sought to deepen it to portray him as a leftist and a foreigner.
Reporters who have sought to chase some of the memoir’s tantalizing yarns have, however, long suspected that Obama might not be as interesting as his fictional doppelganger. “Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs…significantly differs from the recollections of others who do not recall his drug use,” the New York Times’s Serge Kovaleski reported dryly in February of 2008, speculating that Obama had “added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic.” (In one of the stranger entries in the annals of political spin, Obama’s spokesman defended his boss’s claim to have sampled cocaine, calling the book “candid.”)
Maraniss’s deep and entertaining biography will serve as a corrective both to Obama’s mythmaking and his enemies’. Maraniss finds that Obama’s young life was basically conventional, his personal struggles prosaic and later exaggerated. He finds that race, central to Obama’s later thought and included in the subtitle of his memoir, wasn’t a central factor in his Hawaii youth or the existential struggles of his young adulthood. And he concludes that attempts, which Obama encouraged in his memoir, to view him through the prism of race “can lead to a misinterpretation” of the sense of “outsiderness” that Maraniss puts at the core of Obama’s identity and ambition.
Maraniss opens with a warning: Among the falsehoods in Dreams is the caveat in the preface that “for the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.”
“The character creations and rearrangements of the book are not merely a matter of style, devices of compression, but are also substantive,” Maraniss responds in his own introduction. The book belongs in the category of “literature and memoir, not history and autobiography,” he writes, and “the themes of the book control character and chronology.”
Maraniss, a veteran Washington Post reporter whose biography of Bill Clinton, First in His Class, helped explain one complicated president to America, dove deep and missed deadlines for this biography. And the book’s many fact-checks are rich and, at times, comical.
In Dreams, for instance, Obama writes of a friend named “Regina,” a symbol of the authentic African-American experience that Obama hungers for (and which he would later find in Michelle Robinson). Maraniss discovers, however, that Regina was based on a student leader at Occidental College, Caroline Boss, who was white. Regina was the name of her working-class Swiss grandmother, who also seems to make a cameo in Dreams.
Maraniss also notices that Obama also entirely cut two white roommates, in Los Angeles and New York, from the narrative, and projected a racial incident onto a New York girlfriend that he later told Maraniss had happened in Chicago.
Some of Maraniss’s most surprising debunking, though, comes in the area of family lore, where he disputes a long string of stories on three continents, though perhaps no more than most of us have picked up from garrulous grandparents and great uncles. And his corrections are, at times, a bit harsh.
Obama grandfather “Stanley [Dunham]’s two defining stories were that he found his mother after her suicide and that he punched his principal and got expelled from El Dorado High. That second story seems to be in the same fictitious realm as the first,” Maraniss writes. As for Dunham’s tale of a 1935 car ride with Herbert Hoover, it’s a “preposterous…fabrication.”
As for a legacy of racism in his mother’s Kansas childhood, “Stanley was a teller of tales, and it appears that his grandson got these stories mostly from him,” Maraniss writes.
Across the ocean, the family story that Hussein Onyango, Obama’s paternal grandfather, had been whipped and tortured by the British is “unlikely”: “five people who had close connections to Hussein Onyango said they doubted the story or were certain that it did not happen,” Maraniss writes. The memory that the father of his Indonesian stepfather, Soewarno Martodihardjo, was killed by Dutch soldiers in the fight for independence is “a concocted myth in almost all respects.” In fact, Martodihardjo “fell off a chair at his home while trying to hang drapes, presumably suffering a heart attack.”
Most families exaggerate ancestors’ deeds. A more difficult category of correction comes in Maraniss’s treatment of Obama’s father and namesake. Barack Obama Sr., in this telling, quickly sheds whatever sympathy his intelligence and squandered promise should carry. He’s the son of a man, one relative told Maraniss, who is required to pay an extra dowry for one wife “because he was a bad person.”
He was also a domestic abuser.
“His father Hussein Onyango, was a man who hit women, and it turned out that Obama was no different,” Maraniss writes. “I thought he would kill me,” one ex-wife tells him; he also gave her sexually-transmitted diseases from extramarital relationships.
It’s in that context that Maraniss corrects a central element of Obama’s own biography, debunking a story that Obama’s mother may well have invented: That she and her son were abandoned in Hawaii in 1963.
“It was his mother who left Hawaii first, a year earlier than his father,” Maraniss writes, confirming a story that had first surfaced in the conservative blogosphere. He suggests that “spousal abuse” prompted her flight back to Seattle.
Obama’s own fairy-tales, meanwhile, run toward Amercan racial cliché. “Ray,” who is in the book “a symbol of young blackness,” is based on a character whose complex racial identity — half Japanese, part native American, and part black — was more like Obama’s, and who wasn’t a close friend.
“In the memoir Barry and Ray, could be heard complaining about how rich white haole girls would never date them,” Maraniss writes, referring to Hawaii’s upper class, and to a composite character whose blackness is. “In fact, neither had much trouble in that regard.”
As Obama’s Chicago mentor Jerry Kellman tells Maraniss in a different context, “Everything didn’t revolve around race.”
Those are just a few examples in biography whose insistence on accuracy will not be mistaken for pedantry. Maraniss is a master storyteller, and his interest in revising Obama’s history is in part an interest in why and how stories are told, a theme that recurs in the memoir. Obama himself, he notes, saw affectionately through his grandfather Stanley’s fabulizing,” describing the older man’s tendency to rewrite “history to conform with the image he wished for himself.” Indeed, Obama comes from a long line of storytellers, and at times fabulists, on both sides.
Dick Opar, a distant Obama relative who served as a senior Kenyan police official, and who was among the sources dismissing legends of anti-colonial heroism, put it more bluntly.
“People make up stories,” he told Maraniss.
David Maraniss Obama Biography Questions Accuracy Of President’s Memoir
It almost seemed too good to be true. When President Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, « Dreams From My Father, » was re-published soon after the young politican catapulted onto the national stage with a charismatic speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, his amazing life story captured the hearts and minds of millions of Americans.
But like many memoirs, which tend to be self-serving, it now appears that Obama shaped the book less as a factual history of his life than as a great story. A new biography, « Barack Obama: The Story, » by David Maraniss, raises questions about the accuracy of the president’s account and delivers fresh revelations about his pot-smoking in high school and college and his girlfriends in New York City.
In his memoir, Obama describes how his grandfather, Hussein Onyango, was imprisoned and tortured by British troops during the fight for Kenyan independence. But that did not happen, according to five associates of Onyango interviewed by Maraniss. Another heroic tale from the memoir about Obama’s Indonesian stepfather, Soewarno Martodihardjo, being killed by Dutch soldiers during Indonesia’s fight for independence also is inaccurate, according to Maraniss.
The president explains in his memoir that some of the characters in his book have been combined or compressed. Maraniss provides more details about the extent of that alteration. One of Obama’s « African American » classmates was based on Caroline Boss, a white student whose Swiss grandmother was named Regina, according to Maraniss, a Washington Post editor and author who has won a Pulitzer Prize. The president also described breaking up with a white girlfriend due to a « racial chasm that unavoidably separated him from the woman, » writes Maraniss. But Obama’s next girlfriend in Chicago, an anthropologist, also was white.
The young Obama’s lack of playing time on the high school basketball team was due more to his ability than the coach’s preference for white players, Maraniss writes. And Obama’s mother likely left his father — not the other way around — after domestic abuse, note reviews of the book in the Los Angeles Times and Buzzfeed.
Here is a slideshow of the new biography’s major revelations:
Though Obama Had to Leave to Find Himself, It Is Hawaii That Made His Rise Possible
August 22, 2008
On weekday mornings as a teenager, Barry Obama left his grandparents’ apartment on the 10th floor of the 12-story high-rise at 1617 South Beretania, a mile and half above Waikiki Beach, and walked up Punahou Street in the shadows of capacious banyan trees and date palms. Before crossing the overpass above the H1 freeway, where traffic zoomed east to body-surfing beaches or west to the airport and Pearl Harbor, he passed Kapiolani Medical Center, walking below the hospital room where he was born on Aug. 4, 1961. Two blocks further along, at the intersection with Wilder, he could look left toward the small apartment on Poki where he had spent a few years with his little sister, Maya, and his mother, Ann, back when she was getting her master’s degree at the University of Hawaii before she left again for Indonesia. Soon enough he was at the lower edge of Punahou School, the gracefully sloping private campus where he studied some and played basketball more.
An adolescent life told in five Honolulu blocks, confined and compact, but far, far away. Apart from other unprecedented aspects of his rise, it is a geographical truth that no politician in American history has traveled farther than Barack Obama to be within reach of the White House. He was born and spent most of his formative years on Oahu, in distance the most removed population center on the planet, some 2,390 miles from California, farther from a major landmass than anywhere but Easter Island. In the westward impulse of American settlement, his birthplace was the last frontier, an outpost with its own time zone, the 50th of the United States, admitted to the union only two years before Obama came along.
Those who come from islands are inevitably shaped by the experience. For Obama, the experience was all contradiction and contrast.
As the son of a white woman and a black man, he grew up as a multiracial kid, a « hapa, » « half-and-half » in the local lexicon, in one of the most multiracial places in the world, with no majority group. There were native Hawaiians, Japanese, Filipinos, Samoans, Okinawans, Chinese and Portuguese, along with Anglos, commonly known as haole (pronounced howl-lee), and a smaller population of blacks, traditionally centered at the U.S. military installations. But diversity does not automatically translate into social comfort: Hawaii has its own difficult history of racial and cultural stratification, and young Obama struggled to find his place even in that many-hued milieu.
He had to leave the island to find himself as a black man, eventually rooting in Chicago, the antipode of remote Honolulu, deep in the fold of the mainland, and there setting out on the path that led toward politics. Yet life circles back in strange ways, and in essence it is the promise of the place he left behind — the notion if not the reality of Hawaii, what some call the spirit of aloha, the transracial if not post-racial message — that has made his rise possible. Hawaii and Chicago are the two main threads weaving through the cloth of Barack Obama’s life. Each involves more than geography.
Hawaii is about the forces that shaped him, and Chicago is about how he reshaped himself. Chicago is about the critical choices he made as an adult: how he learned to survive in the rough-and-tumble of law and politics, how he figured out the secrets of power in a world defined by it, and how he resolved his inner conflicts and refined the subtle, coolly ambitious persona now on view in the presidential election. Hawaii comes first. It is what lies beneath, what makes Chicago possible and understandable.
Hawaii involves the struggles of a teenage hapa at Punahou School who wanted nothing more than to be a professional basketball player. It is about his extraordinary mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, deeply loving if frequently absent. While politicians burnish their histories by laying claim to early years of community work and lives of public service, she was the real deal, devoting her career, unsung and underpaid, to helping poor women make their way in the modern world.
It is about his mysterious father, Barack Hussein Obama, an imperious if alluring voice gone distant and then missing. It is about his grandparents, Madelyn and Stan Dunham, Toot and Gramps, the white couple with whom he lived for most of his teenage years, she practical and determined, he impulsive, hokey, well-intentioned and, by his grandson’s account, burdened with the desperate lost hopes of a Willy Loman-style salesman. It is about their family’s incessant migration away from the heartland, from the Great Plains to the West Coast to Hawaii.
And that was not far enough for their daughter, who followed the Pacific farther to Indonesia and traveled the world until, at the too-early age of 52, she made her way back to Honolulu, taking an apartment next to her parents’ in the high-rise on the corner of Beretania and Punahou, to die there of cancer. It was the same year, 1995, that her son made his debut on the national stage with a book about himself that searched for the missing, the void — his dad, Kenya, Africa — and paid less attention to the people and things that had shaped his life, especially his mother.
The simple fact is that he would not exist as a human being, let alone as a politician, without his mother’s sensibility, naive or adventurous or both. Of all the relationships in Obama’s life, none has been deeper, more complex or more important. They lived under the same roof for only perhaps 12 years and were frequently apart during his adolescence, but her lessons and judgments were always with him. In some sense, because they were just 18 years apart, they grew up together, each following a singular path toward maturity.
Like many presidential aspirants before him, and perhaps most like Bill Clinton, Obama grew up surrounded by strong women, the male figures either weak or absent. Once, during the heat of the primary race between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, a claim came from Bill Clinton that he « understood » Obama. As different as their backgrounds and families were, it was no doubt this strong-female-weak-male similarity that he had in mind.
* * *
Who was Obama’s mother? The shorthand version of the story has a woman from Kansas marrying a man from Kenya, but while Stanley Ann Dunham was born in Wichita in the fall of 1942, it is a stretch to call her a Jayhawk. After leaving Kansas when she was a youngster, she and her parents lived in Berkeley, Calif., for two years, Ponca City, Okla., for two years, and Wichita Falls, Tex., for three years before they ventured to the Seattle area.
They arrived in time for her to enter ninth grade at the new high school on Mercer Island, a hilly slab of land in Lake Washington that was popping with tract developments during the western boom of the postwar 1950s. The island is not much more isolated than Staten Island on the other side of the country. Just east of Seattle, it is connected to the city by what was then called the floating bridge.
The population explosion, along with a nomadic propensity, brought the Dunhams to Mercer Island. Stan was in the furniture trade, a salesman always looking for the next best deal, and the middle-class suburbs of Seattle offered fertile territory: All the new houses going up would need new living room and dining room sets. He took a job in a furniture store in Seattle.
Madelyn, who brought home a paycheck most of her life, found a job in a banking real estate escrow office, and the family settled into a two-bedroom place in a quiet corner of the Shorewood Apartments, nestled near the lakeshore in view of the Cascade Mountains. Many islanders lived there temporarily as they waited for new houses to be finished nearby. But the Dunhams never looked for another home, and they filled their high-ceilinged apartment with the Danish modern furniture of that era.
Stanley Ann was an only child, and in those days she dealt head-on with her uncommon first name. No sense trying to hide it, even though she hated it. « My name is Stanley, » she would say. « My father wanted a boy, and that’s that. » Her mother softened it, calling her Stanny or Stanny Ann, but at school she was Stanley, straight up. « She owned the name, » recalled Susan Botkin, one of her first pals on Mercer Island. « Only once or twice was she teased. She had a sharp tongue, a deep wit, and she could kill. We all called her Stanley. »
In a high school culture of brawn and beauty, Stanley was one of the brains. Often struggling with her weight, and wearing braces her junior year, she had the normal teenage anxieties, according to her friends, though she seemed less concerned with superficial appearances than many of her peers. Her protective armor included a prolific vocabulary, free from the trite and cliched; a quick take on people and events; and biting sarcasm.
John W. Hunt said those traits allowed Stanley to become accepted by the predominantly male intellectual crowd, even though she had a soft voice. « She wasn’t a shouter, but sat and thought awhile before she put forth her ideas. She was one of the most intelligent girls in our class, but unusual in that she thought things through more than anyone else, » Hunt said.
Stanley would not use her wit to bully people, her classmates recalled, but rather to slice up prejudice or pomposity. Her signature expression of disdain was an exaggerated rolling of her big brown eyes.
Susan Botkin thought back to late afternoons when she and Stanley would go downtown to the Seattle library and then hitch a ride home with Stan and Madelyn. « We would climb into the car, and immediately he would start into his routine, » she recalled. In the back seat, the daughter would be rolling her eyes, while in the front, Madelyn — « a porcelain doll kind of woman, with pale, wonderful skin, red hair, carefully coiffed, and lacquered nails » — would try to temper her husband with occasional interjections of « Now, Stan . . . »
Another high school friend, Maxine Box, remembered that they enjoyed getting rides in the old man’s white convertible and that he was always ready and willing to drive them anywhere, wanting to be the life of the party. « Stanley would gladly take the transportation from him, » Box said, but would « just as soon that he go away. They had locked horns a lot of times. » The mother, she sensed, was « a buffer between Stan and Stanley. »
Stanley and her friends would escape across the bridge into Seattle, where they hung out at a small espresso cafe near the University of Washington. Anything, Hunt said, to « get away from the suburban view. We would go to this cafe and talk and talk and talk » — about world events, French cinema, the meaning of life, the existence of God.
Their curiosity was encouraged by the teachers at Mercer Island High, especially Jim Wichterman and Val Foubert, who taught advanced humanities courses open to the top 25 students. The assigned reading included not only Plato and Aristotle, Kierkegaard and Sartre, but also late-1950s critiques of societal conventions, such as « The Organization Man » by William H. Whyte, « The Lonely Crowd » by David Riesman and « The Hidden Persuaders » by Vance Packard, as well as the political theories of Hegel and Mill and Marx. « The Communist Manifesto » was also on the reading list, and it drew protests from some parents, prompting what Wichterman later called « Mothers Marches » on the school — a phrase that conjures up a larger backlash than really occurred but conveys some of the tension of the times. « They would come up in ones and twos and threes and berate the teacher or complain to the principal, » Hunt recalled.
Wichterman and Foubert, noted Chip Wall, were « instrumental in getting us to think, and anybody who tries to do that, particularly in high school, has trouble. ‘Make my kid a thinker, but make sure he thinks like I do.’ » In tracking the Obama story this year, some conservative Web sites have seized on the high school curriculum of his mother as evidence of an early leftist indoctrination. Wall, who has spent his life challenging dogma from any ideology, and whose take on the world often veers from the politically correct, answered this interpretation with a two-word dismissal: « Oh, crap. »
Stanley was decidedly liberal. She challenged the existence of God and championed Adlai Stevenson. But while some of her friends turned toward cynicism, she did not. « She was intrigued by what was happening in the world and embraced change, » Susan Botkin recalled. « During our senior year, the Doomsday Clock seemed as close as it had ever been to boom. And the thought affected people in our class. There was a sense of malaise that permeated the group: Why bother? The boom is going to happen. But Stanley was better able to laugh it off, to look beyond it. Come out of that bomb shelter and do something. »
Their senior class graduated in June 1960, at the dawn of the new decade. A few days after commencement, Stanley left for Honolulu with her parents. Decades later she told her son that she had wanted to go to the University of Chicago, where she had been accepted, but that her father would not let her be that far from them, since she was barely 17. Her friends from Mercer Island recalled that, like many of them, she intended to stay in Seattle and go to « U-Dub, » the University of Washington, but that again her father insisted that she was too young even for that and had to accompany them to Hawaii.
That was nearly a half-century ago. Time compresses, and the high school classmates of Stanley Ann Dunham now have an unusual vantage point from which to witness the presidential campaign of her son. « You see so much of her in his face, » Maxine Box said. « And he has his grandfather’s long chin. » In watching Obama speak and answer questions, Chip Wall could « instantly go back and recognize the person » he knew decades ago. Stanley is there, he said, in the workings of the son’s mind, « especially in his wry sense of speech pattern. » The fact that her son is black was surprising but not out of character; she was attracted to the different and untouched by racial prejudice.
The hardest thing for them to grasp was that Barack Obama Jr. came into being only a little more than a year after Stanley left Mercer Island. She seemed like such an unlikely candidate for teenage motherhood, not just because of her scholarly ways and lack of boyfriends, but because she appeared to have zero interest in babies. Botkin had two little brothers and was always babysitting, she recalled, but « Stanley never even babysat. She would come over to the house and just stand back, and her eyes would blink and her head would spin like, ‘Oh, my God, what’s going on here?’ «
In the fall of 1960, as Botkin worried about whether she had the proper clothes to go through sorority rush at U-Dub, where they pinched the young women to make sure they were wearing girdles and where nylons were part of the uniform, she received her first letter from her friend in Hawaii. Stanley was enjoying newfound freedoms. She had ditched her first name and was now going by Ann. And no more nylons and perfect outfits, either. « I’m wearing shorts and muu muus to class, » she wrote.
In the next letter, she said she was dating an African student she had met in Russian class. Botkin was more interested in the fact that her friend was studying Russian than in whom she was dating. But soon enough came a card revealing that Ann was in love, and then another that said she was married and expecting a baby in the summer.
* * *
The first African student at the University of Hawaii, Barack Hussein Obama, reached Honolulu 11 months before Stanley Ann Dunham and her parents got there from Seattle. He was on the first airlift of Kenyan students brought to study at U.S. universities as part of a program organized by Kenyan nationalist Tom Mboya and funded primarily by hundreds of American supporters. At the time, there were no colleges in Kenya, which was in the last throes of British colonialism. His arrival in Honolulu was announced in an article in a local newspaper, the Star-Bulletin, under the headline: « Young Men from Kenya, Jordan and Iran Here to Study at U.H. »
Obama told the journalist, Shurei Hirozawa, that he grew up on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya, in east Africa, and was a member of the Luo tribe. He said he had worked as an office clerk in Nairobi for several years to save money for college and settled on the University of Hawaii « when he read in an American magazine about its racial tolerance. »
Other accounts have said he went to Hawaii because it was the only U.S. university to offer him a scholarship, but that appears unlikely, based on this contemporaneous report. Obama told Hirozawa that he had enough money to stay in Hawaii only for two semesters unless he applied for a scholarship. He said he would study business administration and wanted to return to Kenya to help with its transition from tribal customs to a modern economy. He was concerned, he said, about his generation’s disorientation as Kenyans rejected old ways yet struggled with westernization.
Taking a room at the Charles H. Atherton branch of the YMCA, not far from campus, Obama quickly adapted to the rhythms of student life. One of his frequent hangouts was the snack bar in an old Army barracks-style building near his business classes. It was there that he met the Abercrombie brothers, first Neil and then Hal, who had escaped the darkness of Buffalo to attend graduate school in Honolulu, and their friends Peter Gilpin, Chet Gorman and Pake Zane. They were antiestablishment intellectuals, experimenters, outsiders, somewhere between beatniks and hippies, and they loved to talk and drink coffee and beer. They were immediately taken by the one and only African student in their midst.
« He was very black, probably the blackest person I’ve ever met, » recalled Zane, a Chinese Hawaiian, who now runs an antiques shop a few miles from the university. « Handsome in his own way. But the most impressive thing was his voice. His voice and his inflection — he had this Oxford accent. You heard a little Kenyan English, but more this British accent with this really deep, mellow voice that just resounded. If he said something in the room and the room was not real noisy, everybody stopped and turned around. I mean he just had this wonderful, wonderful voice. He was charismatic as a speaker. »
It was not just the voice, said Neil Abercrombie, who went on to become a congressman from Honolulu, but Obama’s entire outsize persona — the lanky 6-foot-1 frame, the horn-rimmed glasses, the booming laugh, the pipe and an « incredibly vital personality. He was brilliant and opinionated and avuncular and opinionated. Always opinionated. If you didn’t know him, you might be put off by him. He never hesitated to tell you what he thought, whether the moment was politic or not. Even to the point sometimes where he might seem a bit discourteous. But his view was, well, if you’re not smart enough to know what you’re talking about and you’re talking about it, then you don’t deserve much in the way of mercy. He enjoyed the company of people who were equally as opinionated as he was. »
An interesting note about the snack bar crowd is that, even decades later, they all pronounce the first name of their Kenyan friend « Bear-ick » — with the accent on the first syllable. That is how he referred to himself, they said. In Hawaii at least, they never heard him call himself « Buh-rock, » with the accent on the second syllable, the pronunciation his son would adopt in his adult life. Perhaps it was a minor accommodation to westernization.
In late November, a few months into Obama’s first semester, the Honolulu paper wrote another story about him, this time focusing on his positive conclusions about racial attitudes on the island. « No one seems to be conscious of color, » he said. But there were stereotypes to shatter on both sides — his of Hawaii and Hawaii’s of Africa. « When I first came here, I expected to find a lot of Hawaiians all dressed in native clothing and I expected native dancing and that sort of thing, but I was surprised to find such a mixture of races, » he acknowledged.
When asked if people questioned him about Kenya, he laughed and said: « Oh, yes. People are very interested in the Mau Mau rebellion [a long-standing uprising against the British] and they ask about race relations in Kenya. I tell them they’ve improved since the rebellion but are not perfect. They also ask if Kenya is ready for self-government. Some others ask me such questions as how many wives each man has back home, what we eat, how I dress at home, how we live, whether we have cars. »
He did not answer those questions in the story. Nor, on one matter, was he forthcoming with his friends at the university. Neither newspaper readers nor his fellow students knew that he had left a son and a pregnant wife back in Kenya.
The events in Africa intrigued Obama’s fellow students and were inevitably part of the movable discussion, which often went from the university snack bar over to the Stardust Lounge or George’s Inn, where beer pitchers cost two bucks, and then on to Peter Gilpin’s apartment nearby. As they listened to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee on the hi-fi, Obama pontificated on Kenya and nationalism and colonialism and his fears about what might happen. « He was very concerned that tribalism would trump nationalism, » Neil Abercrombie said. « And that people like himself would not be properly recognized, would not be fully utilized, and there would be discrimination and prejudice. Jomo Kenyatta [Kenya’s first postcolonial leader] was a Kikuyu, and Barack and Mboya were Luo, and Kikuyu were going to run things. We’d get into it that deeply. »
Late in the summer of 1960, at the start of his second year and the beginning of her first, Obama and Stanley Ann Dunham met in a beginning Russian class. He was 25; she was not yet 18. She called him « Bear-ick, » too. He called her Anna. Decades later, Ann would tell her son a story about their first date that he then depicted in his memoir, « Dreams From My Father. » « He asked me to meet him in front of the university library at one. I got there and he hadn’t arrived, but I figured I’d give him a few minutes. It was a nice day, so I laid out on one of the benches, and before I knew it I had fallen asleep. An hour later he showed up with a couple of friends. I woke up and three of them were standing over me and I heard him saying, serious as can be . . . ‘You see gentlemen, I told you she was a fine girl, and that she would wait for me.’ «
Recounting the scene long after the fact, knowing how the relationship would end, the son was at his most lyrical. « My mother was that girl with the movie of beautiful black people in her head, flattered by my father’s attention, confused and alone, trying to break out of the grip of her own parents’ lives. The innocence she carried that day, waiting for my father, had been tinged with misconceptions, her own needs, but it was a guileless need, one without self-consciousness, and perhaps that’s how any love begins. »
This was the prelude to the beginning of the second Barack Obama, the hapa, and in the narrative he creates about his mother, here, as always after, he writes with the sensibility not so much of a son as of an acute if sympathetic psychologist, approaching condescension but not quite crossing that line.
During his time in Hawaii, the elder Obama seemed adept at walling off various aspects of his life. He eventually told Ann about a former marriage in Kenya but said he was divorced, which she would discover years later was a lie. While the scene in the book includes two friends who were with him when he arrived late for a first date with Ann, few members of the snack bar crowd remember the Obama-Dunham relationship. Hal Abercrombie said he never saw them together. Pake Zane, who left the island for a spell in 1961, could not recall Ann from those days but had precise memories of Obama.
Neil Abercrombie did remember her appearing at some of the weekend gatherings. Obama was such a strong personality, he said, that he could see how the young woman was awed and overwhelmed by him. « She was a girl, and what I mean by that is she was only 17 and 18, just out of high school. And he brought her at different times. She mostly observed because she was a kid. Everybody there was pretty high-powered grad-student types. »
Before the end of her first semester, Ann learned she was pregnant. The jolt that most parents might feel at such news from a teenage daughter was intensified for the Dunhams by the fact that the father was Obama. Madelyn Dunham has steadfastly declined requests for interviews this year, but a few years ago she talked to the Chicago Tribune’s David Mendell, who was researching his biography, « Obama: From Promise to Power. » Dunham, known for her practicality and skepticism in a family of dreamers, told Mendell that Stanley Ann had always been stubborn and nonconformist, and often did startling things, but none were more stubborn or surprising than her relationship with Obama.
When Mendell pressed her about Obama, she said she did not trust the stories the Kenyan told. Prodding further, the interviewer noted that Obama had « a great deal of charm » and that his father had been a medicine man. « She raised her eyebrows and nodded to herself, » Mendell wrote of Madelyn. » ‘He was . . .’ she said with a long pause, ‘strange.’ She lingered on the a to emphasize ‘straaaaaange.’ «
On Feb. 2, 1961, against Madelyn’s hopes, and against the desires of Obama’s father back in Kenya, Ann and Obama hopped a plane to Maui and got married. No guests, not even family members, were there. Barack Hussein Obama Jr. was born six months later in Honolulu.
Ann, the earnest student, dropped out of school to take care of him. Her husband finished his degree, graduating in June 1962, after three years in Hawaii, as a Phi Beta Kappa straight-A student. Then, before the month was out, he took off, leaving behind his still-teenage wife and namesake child. He did not return for 10 years, and then only briefly. A story in the Star-Bulletin on the day he left, June 22, said Obama planned a several-weeks grand tour of mainland universities before he arrived at Harvard to study economics on a graduate faculty fellowship. The story did not mention that he had a wife and an infant son.
Many years later, Barack Jr., then in high school, found a clipping of the article in a family stash of birth certificates and old vaccination forms. Why wasn’t his name there, or his mother’s? He wondered, he later wrote, « whether the omission caused a fight between my parents. »
On his way east, Obama stopped in San Francisco and went to dinner at the Blue Fox in the financial district with Hal Abercrombie, who had moved to the city with his wife, Shirley. Abercrombie would never forget that dinner; he thought it showed the worst side of his old friend, a combination of anger and arrogance that frightened him. Shirley was a blonde with a high bouffant hairdo, and when she showed up at the side of Hal and Barack, the maitre d’ took them to the most obscure table in the restaurant. Obama interpreted this as a racial slight. When the waiter arrived, Obama tore into him, shouting that he was an important person on his way to Harvard and would not tolerate such treatment, Abercrombie recalled. « He was berating the guy and condescending every time the waiter came to our table. There was a superiority and an arrogance about it that I didn’t like. »
In the family lore, Obama was accepted into graduate school at the New School in New York and at Harvard, and if he had chosen the New School there would have been enough scholarship money for his wife and son to come along. However, the story goes, he opted for Harvard because of the world-class academic credentials a Crimson degree would bring. But there is an unresolved part of the story: Did Ann try to follow him to Cambridge? Her friends from Mercer Island were left with that impression. Susan Botkin, Maxine Box and John W. Hunt all remember Ann showing up in Seattle late that summer with little Barry, as her son was called.
« She was on her way from her mother’s house to Boston to be with her husband, » Botkin recalled. « [She said] he had transferred to grad school and she was going to join him. And I was intrigued with who she was and what she was doing. Stanley was an intense person . . . but I remember that afternoon, sitting in my mother’s living room, drinking iced tea and eating sugar cookies. She had her baby and was talking about her husband, and what life held in store for her. She seemed so confident and self-assured and relaxed. She was leaving the next day to fly on to Boston. »
But as Botkin and others later remembered it, something happened in Cambridge, and Stanley Ann returned to Seattle. They saw her a few more times, and they thought she even tried to enroll in classes at the University of Washington, before she packed up and returned to Hawaii.
* * *
By the time he was 6, Barry Obama was a hyper-aware boy with much to think about. His mother had returned to school at the University of Hawaii and had received a degree in what her family considered an unlikely major — math. She had divorced Barack Obama Sr., who had finished his graduate work at Harvard and was back in Kenya, now living with a third woman. Ann had moved on and was soon to wed another international student, Lolo Soetoro, and follow him back to his home country, Indonesia, bringing Barry along. Her brief first marriage was in the past, Seattle in the remote distance, and Kansas farther still.
It was at this point that Barry developed a way of looking at his mother that essentially would last until her death three decades later. His take on her — both the ways he wanted to be like her and how he reacted against her — shaped him permanently and is central to understanding his political persona today, the contrast of an embracing, inclusive sensibility accompanied by an inner toughness and wariness. Starting at an early age, he noticed how his mother was curious and open, eager to find the best in people and situations, intent on softening the edges of the difficult world for her hapa son. There were many times when this made him think that she was naive, sometimes heartbreakingly so, and that he had to be the realist in the family. To some degree, especially as he tried to explain himself later in « Dreams From My Father, » he seemed to use his mother as a foil, setting her up as the quintessential well-intentioned white liberal idealist as a contrast to his own coming of age as a modern black man.
Whether this perception reflected objective reality is open to question. In her dealings later as a community worker and anthropologist in Indonesia and around the world, Ann showed a keen appreciation of the power structure and how to work with it or around it, and her doctoral thesis and other writings reveal a complex understanding of people and their motivations, free of dreamy idealism and wishful thinking. But she certainly tried to present the world in the most hopeful, unthreatening light to her children, first Barry and then his little sister, Maya, the daughter she bore with Soetoro.
As Maya explained recently, looking back on the way she and her brother were raised: « [She wanted to] make sure that nothing ever became acrimonious and that everything was pretty and everything was sacred and everything was properly maintained and respected — all the cultural artifacts and ways of being and living and thinking. We didn’t need to make choices. We didn’t need to discard anything. We could just have it all and keep it all. It was this sense of bounty and beauty. »
The son’s notion of his loving mother’s naivete began in Indonesia, when they arrived in the capital city, Jakarta, in 1967, joining Soetoro, who had returned to his home country several months earlier. The place was a fantasia of the unfamiliar and grotesque to young Barry, with the exotic scent of danger. Monkeys, chickens and even crocodiles in the back yard. A land of floods, exorcisms, cockfights. Lolo was off working for Union Oil, Ann taught English at the U.S. Embassy, and Barry was overwhelmed in this strange new world. He recalled those days in his memoir with more acuity than he possibly could have had as a 6-year-old, but the words reflect his perceptions nonetheless.
His mother taught him history, math, reading and social studies, waking him at 4 each morning to give him special tutoring, pouring her knowledge into his agile brain. But it was left to his stepfather to orient him in the cruel ways of the world. Soetoro taught him how to fight and defend himself, how not to give money to beggars, how to deal strictly with servants, how to interact with the world on its own unforgiving terms, not defining everything as good or bad but merely as it is. » ‘Your mother has a soft heart,’ he told me after she tried to take the blame for knocking a radio off the dresser, » Obama quoted Soetoro in his memoir. » ‘That’s good in a woman, but you will be a man someday, and a man needs to have more sense.’ » Men, Soetoro explained, take advantage of weakness in other men. » ‘They’re like countries that way.’ «
All of this, as Obama later interpreted it, related to the exercise of power, hidden and real. It was power that forced Soetoro to return to Indonesia in the first place. He had been summoned back to his country from Hawaii in 1966 and sent to work in New Guinea for a year because the ruling regime, after a widespread, bloody purge of communists and leftists, was leery of students who had gone abroad and wanted them back and under control. To his mother, power was ugly, Obama determined: « It fixed in her mind like a curse. » But to his stepfather, power was reality — and he « made his peace » with it.
Which response to the world had a deeper effect on the person Barry Obama would become? Without doubt it was his mother’s. Soetoro, described later by his daughter Maya as a sweet and quiet man, resigned himself to his situation and did not grow or change. He became a nondescript oilman, befriending slick operators from Texas and Louisiana who probably regarded him with racial condescension. He went to their parties and played golf at the country club and became western and anonymous, slipping as far away as possible from the dangers of the purge and the freedom of his student days.
Ann certainly had more options, but the one she eventually chose was unusual. She decided to deepen her connection to this alien land and to confront power in her own way, by devoting herself to understanding the people at the core of Indonesian culture, artisans and craftsmen, and working to help them survive.
Here was an early paradox that helped shape Obama’s life, one he would confront again and again as he matured and remade himself: A certain strain of realism can lead to inaction. A certain form of naivete can lead to action.
By the time Maya was born in 1970, Ann’s second marriage was coming apart. This time, there was no sudden and jarring disappearance. The relationship lingered off and on for another 10 years, and Lolo remained part of Maya’s life in a way that Barack Obama did not for Barry.
As Maya analyzed her parents’ relationship decades later, she concluded that she came along just as her mother was starting to find herself. « She started feeling competent, perhaps. She acquired numerous languages after that. Not just Indonesian, but her professional language and her feminist language. And I think she really got a voice. So it’s perfectly natural that she started to demand more of those who were near her, including my father. And suddenly his sweetness wasn’t enough to satisfy her needs. »
* * *
« Dreams From My Father » is as imprecise as it is insightful about Obama’s early life. Obama offers unusually perceptive and subtle observations of himself and the people around him. Yet, as he readily acknowledged, he rearranged the chronology for his literary purposes and presented a cast of characters made up of composites and pseudonyms. This was to protect people’s privacy, he said. Only a select few were not granted that protection, for the obvious reason that he could not blur their identities — his relatives. And so it is that of all the people in the book, the one who takes it on the chin the most is his maternal grandfather, Stan Dunham.
It is obvious from the memoir, and from interviews with many people who knew the family in Hawaii, that Dunham loved his grandson and did everything he could to support him physically and emotionally. But in the memoir, Gramps comes straight out of the plays of Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill, a once-proud soul lost in self-delusion, struggling against the days.
When Barry was 10, his mother made the difficult decision to send him back to Honolulu to live with her parents so he could get better schooling. He had been accepted into the prestigious Punahou School, and Madelyn and Stan had moved from a large house on Kamehameha Avenue to the apartment on Beretania, only five blocks from the campus.
Gramps now seemed as colorful and odd as those monkeys in the back yard in Jakarta. He cleaned his teeth with the red cellophane string from his cigarette packs. He told off-color jokes to waitresses. A copy of Dale Carnegie’s « How to Win Friends and Influence People » was always near at hand — and only those who lived with him knew the vast distance between his public bonhomie and his private despair. The most powerful scene in the memoir, as devastating as it is lovingly rendered, described how Stan, by then out of the furniture business and trying his hand as a John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance salesman, prepared on Sunday night for the week ahead.
« Sometimes I would tiptoe into the kitchen for a soda, and I could hear the desperation creeping out of his voice, the stretch of silence that followed when the people on the other end explained why Thursday wasn’t good and Tuesday not much better, and then Gramps’s heavy sigh after he had hung up the phone, his hands fumbling through the files in his lap like those of a card player who’s deep in the hole. »
By the time Barry returned to Hawaii, Toot had become the stable financial source in the family, well known in the local lending community. In the library of the Honolulu Advertiser, no clippings mention Stan Dunham, but Madelyn Dunham crops up frequently in the business pages. A few months before Barry arrived from Indonesia, his grandmother had been promoted to vice president at the Bank of Hawaii along with Dorothy K. Yamamoto — the first two female vice presidents in the bank’s history.
It was during Barry’s first year at Punahou School that his long-lost father stepped briefly into his life, and just as quickly disappeared again. He came for the month of December, and his mother returned from Indonesia beforehand to prepare Barry for the visit. She taught him more about Kenya and stories of the Luo people, but all of that knowledge dissolved at the first sight of the old man. He seemed far skinnier than Barry had imagined him, and more fragile, with his spectacles and blue blazer and ascot and yellowish eyes.
It was not an easy month, and what stuck in the boy’s memory were the basketball that his dad gave him as a present and two dramatic events: when his father ordered him, in front of his mother and grandparents, to turn off the TV and study instead of watching « How the Grinch Stole Christmas, » and when his father came to Miss Mabel Hefty’s fifth-grade class at Punahou’s Castle Hall to talk about Kenya. The first moment angered Barry; the second made him proud. But nothing much lingered after his father was gone.
That visit to Honolulu was bracketed by two trips that Obama’s old snack bar friends from the University of Hawaii made to see him in Kenya. Late in 1968, Neil Abercrombie and Pake Zane traveled through Nairobi on a year-long backpacking trip around the world and stayed with Obama for several days before they made their way on to the port city of Mombasa and to India. No mention was made of Ann or the boy, but it was clear to Abercrombie that his old friend’s life was not turning out as he had planned. « He seemed very frustrated, and his worst fears in his mind were coming true — that he was being underutilized, » Abercrombie said. « Everybody’s virtue is his vice, and his brilliance and his assertiveness was obviously working against him as well. »
Five years later, in 1973, Zane returned during another trip around the world.
« This time when I met Barack [Bear-ick, he said], he was a shell of what he was prior to that, » Zane recalled. « Even from what he was in 1968. . . . He was drinking very heavily, and he was very depressed and as you might imagine had an amount of rage. He felt totally vulnerable. »
Meanwhile, Barry’s circumstances had changed somewhat. His mother, separated from Lolo, was back in Hawaii with little Maya. Barry joined them in an apartment at Poki and Wilder, even closer to Punahou School. Ann was now fully engaged in the artisan culture of Indonesia and was beginning her master’s degree work in anthropology. They had no money beyond her graduate school grants.
Maya’s earliest memories go back to those years. Thirty-five years later, she can remember a filing cabinet and a rocking chair, and how she and her big brother would sit in the chair and keep rocking harder until it flipped over, which is what they wanted it to do. There was a television across from the rocker, and she would purposely stand in front of it during basketball games to irritate him. There were picnics at Puu Ualakaa State Park with Kentucky Fried Chicken and Madelyn’s homemade baked beans and coleslaw and potato salad with the skins still on. And there was Big Sandwich Night, when Gramps would haul out all the meats and cheeses and vegetables.
After three years in Hawaii, Ann had to go back to Indonesia to conduct her fieldwork. Barry had absolutely no interest in returning to that strange place, so he stayed behind with his grandparents.
* * *
Keith and Tony Peterson were rummaging through the discount bin at a bookstore in Boulder, Colo., one afternoon and came across a copy of « Dreams From My Father » several years after it was first published. « We’ve got to buy this, » Keith said to his brother. « Look who wrote it. » Barry Obama. Their friend from Punahou School. They both bought copies and raced through the memoir, absorbed by the story and especially by the sections on their high school years. They did not recognize any of the names, since they were all pseudonyms, but they recognized the smells and sounds and sensibility of the chapters and the feelings Obama expressed as he came of age as a black teenager.
This was their story, too. They wondered why Obama focused so much on a friend he called Ray, who in fact was Keith Kukagawa. Kukagawa was black and Japanese, and the Petersons did not even think of him as black. Yet in the book, Obama used him as the voice of black anger and angst, the provocateur of hip, vulgar, get-real dialogues.
But what interested the Petersons more was Obama’s interior dialogue with himself, his sense of dislocation at the private school, a feeling that no matter what he did, he was defined and confined by the expectations and definitions of white people. Keith Peterson had felt the same way, without being fully able to articulate his unease. « Now keep in mind I am reading this before [Obama] came on the national scene, » he said later. « So I am reading this still person to person, not person to candidate, and it meant a lot more for that reason. It was a connection. It was amazing as I read this book, so many decades later, at last I was feeling a certain amount of closure, having felt so isolated for so long. I wasn’t alone. I spent a good portion of my life thinking I had experienced something few others had. It was surprisingly satisfying to know I wasn’t crazy. I was not the only one struggling with some of these issues. »
But his brother Tony, who reached Punahou first, said he had regular discussions with Obama about many issues, including race. Tony was a senior when Obama was a freshman. The Petersons lived miles away, out in Pearl City, having grown up in a military family that was first based at Schofield Barracks. While Obama walked only five blocks to school, Tony had to ride city buses for an hour and a half each morning to get there.
As he remembered it, he was one of a handful of black students at Punahou then, a group that included Obama, Lewis Anthony, Rik Smith and Angie Jones. Peterson, Smith and Obama would meet on the steps outside Cooke Hall for what, with tongue in cheek, they called the Ethnic Corner. Obama and Smith were biracial, one black and white, the other black and Indian. Both of Peterson’s parents were black, but he felt uneasy because he was an academically inclined young man whom people thought « sounded white. »
« Barry had no personal reference for his blackness. All three of us were dealing with it in different ways, » Peterson recalled. « How do we explore these things? That is one thing we talked about. We talked about time. We talked about our classes. We talked about girls. We talked specifically about whether girls would date us because we were black. We talked about social issues. . . . But our little chats were not agonizing. They were just sort of fun. We were helping each other find out who we were. We talked about what we were going to be. I was going to be a lawyer. Rick was going to be a lawyer. And Barry was going to be a basketball player. »
Obama’s interest in basketball had come a long way since his absent father showed up and gave him his first ball. Now it was his obsession. He was always dribbling, always playing, either on the outdoor courts at Punahou or down at the playground on King Street across from the Baskin-Robbins where he worked part-time. He was a flashy passer with good moves to the basket but an uneven and unorthodox jump shot, pulling the ball back behind his head so far that it almost disappeared behind him. Basketball dominated his time so much that his mother worried about him. In ninth grade, at least, he was the naive one, believing he could make a life in the game.
In Tony Peterson’s senior yearbook, Obama wrote: « Tony, man, I sure am glad I got to know you before you left. All those Ethnic Corner trips to the snack bar and playing ball made the year a lot more enjoyable, even though the snack bar trips cost me a fortune. Anyway, great knowing you and I hope we keep in touch. Good luck in everything you do, and get that law degree. Some day when I am a pro basketballer, and I want to sue my team for more money, I’ll call on you. »
Barry’s mother, who had a wry sense of humor, once joked to friends that she was a pale-skinned Kansan who married a Kenyan and an Indonesian so she could have brown children who would not have to worry about sunburn. Her understanding of race was far deeper than that joke; she was always sensitive to issues of identity and made a point of inculcating her children in the cultures of their fathers. Still, there were some problems she could not resolve for them. Maya later said that her mother’s overriding desire that her children not suffer perhaps got in the way.
« She didn’t want us to suffer with respect to identity. She wanted us to think of it as a gift that we were multilayered and multidimensional and multiracial. This meant that she was perhaps unprepared when we did struggle with issues of identity. She was not really able to help us grapple with that in any nuanced way. Maybe it would make her feel like she hadn’t succeeded in surrounding us with enough love. I remember Mom wanting it not to be an issue. »
In an apparent effort to show a lifelong plot to power, some opponents last year pushed a story about Obama in which he predicted in kindergarten that one day he would be president. The conspiracy certainly seemed to go off the rails by the time he reached high school. Unlike Bill Clinton, who was the most political animal at Hot Springs High in Arkansas — organizing the marching band as though it was his own political machine, giving speeches at the local Rotary, maneuvering his way into a Senate seat at the American Legion-sponsored Boys Nation — Obama stayed away from student leadership roles at Punahou and gave his friends no clues that a few decades later he would emerge as a national political figure.
« When I look back, one of the things that stood out was that he didn’t stand out, » said Keith Peterson, who was a year younger than Obama. « There was absolutely nothing that made me think this is the road he would take. » His friends remember him as being kind and protective, a prolific reader, keenly aware of the world around him, able to talk about foreign affairs in a way that none of the rest of them could, and yet they did not think of him as politically or academically ambitious. In a school of high achievers, he coasted as a B student. He dabbled a little in the arts, singing in the chorus for a few years and writing poetry for the literary magazine, Ka Wai Ola.
The group he ran with was white, black, brown and not identified with any of the traditional social sets at the school: the rich girls from the Outrigger Canoe Club, the football players, the math guys, the drama crew, the volleyball guys. Among Obama’s friends, « there were some basketball players in there, but it was kind of eclectic, » recalled Mike Ramos, also a hapa, his mother Anglo and his father Filipino. « Was there a leader? Did we defer to Barry? I don’t think so. It was a very egalitarian kind of thing, also come as you are. »
They body-surfed at Sandy Beach Park on the south shore, played basketball day and night, went camping in the hills above the school, sneaked into parties at the university and out at Schofield Barracks, and listened to Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, Miles Davis and Grover Washington at Greg and Mike Ramos’s place across from the school or in Barry’s room at his grandparents’ apartment. (« You listen to Grover? I listen to Grover, » Mike Ramos still remembers Barry saying as a means of introducing himself during a conversation at a party.)
And they smoked dope. Obama’s drug use is right there in the memoir, with no attempt to make him look better than he was. He acknowledged smoking marijuana and using cocaine but said he stopped short of heroin. Some have suggested that he exaggerated his drug use in the book to hype the idea that he was on the brink of becoming a junkie; dysfunction and dissolution always sell in memoirs.
But his friends quickly dismissed that notion. « I wouldn’t call it an exaggeration, » Greg Ramos said. Keith Peterson said: « Did I ever party with Barack? Yes, I did. Do I remember specifically? If I did, then I didn’t party with him. Part of the nature of getting high is you don’t remember it 30 minutes later. Punahou was a wealthy school with a lot of kids with disposable income. The drinking age in Hawaii then was 18, so a lot of seniors could buy it legally, which means the parent dynamic was not big. And the other partying materials were prevalent, being in Hawaii. There was a lot of partying that went on. And Barack has been very open about that. Coming from Hawaii, that would have been so easy to expose. If he hadn’t written about it, it would have been a disaster. »
If basketball was Obama’s obsession during those years, it also served as a means for him to work out some of his frustrations about race. In the book and elsewhere, he has emphasized that he played a « black » brand of ball, freelancing his way on the court, looking to drive to the hoop rather than wait around for a pick and an open shot. His signature move was a double-pump in the lane. This did not serve him well on the Punahou varsity team. His coach, Chris McLachlin, was a stickler for precisely where each player was supposed to be on the court and once at practice ordered his team to pass the ball at least five times before anyone took a shot. This was not Obama’s style, and he had several disagreements with the coach. He never won the arguments, and the team did well enough anyway. Adhering to McLachlin’s deliberate offense, the Buffanblu won the state championship, defeating Moanalua 60-28. Obama came off the bench to score two points. So much for the dream of becoming a rich NBA star.
His senior year, his mother was back home from Indonesia and concerned that her son had not sent in his college applications. In their tensest confrontation in the memoir, he eggs her on by saying it that was no big deal, that he might goof off and stay in Hawaii and go to school part-time, because life was just one big crapshoot anyway.
Ann exploded. She had rebelled herself once, at his very age, reacting against her own parents — and perhaps against luck and fate — by ignoring their advice and getting pregnant and marrying a man she did not know the way she thought she did. Now she was telling her son to shape up, that he could do anything he wanted if he put in the effort. « Remember what that’s like? Effort? Damn it, Bar, you can’t just sit around like some good-time Charlie, waiting for luck to see you through. »
* * *
Sixteen years later, Barry was no more, replaced by Barack, who had not only left the island but had gone to two Ivy League schools, Columbia undergrad and Harvard Law, and written a book about his life. He was into his Chicago phase, reshaping himself for his political future, but now was drawn back to Hawaii to say goodbye to his mother. Too late, as it turned out. She died on Nov. 7, 1995, before he could get there.
Ann had returned to Honolulu early that year, a few months before « Dreams From My Father » was published. She was weakened from a cancer that had been misdiagnosed in Indonesia as indigestion. American doctors first thought it was ovarian cancer, but an examination at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York determined that it was uterine cancer that had spread to her ovaries. Stan had died a few years earlier, and Madelyn still lived in the apartment on Beretania. Ann took an apartment on the same floor, and underwent chemotherapy treatments while keeping up with her work as best she could. « She took it in stride, » said Alice Dewey, chair of the University of Hawaii anthropology department, where Ann did her doctoral dissertation. « She never complained. Never said, ‘Why me?’ «
Ann’s career had reached full bloom. Her dissertation, published in 1992, was a masterwork of anthropological insight, delineating in 1,000 pages the intricate world of peasant metalworking industries in Indonesia, especially traditional blacksmithing, tracing the evolution of the crafts from Dutch colonialism through the regime of General Suharto, the Indonesian military strongman. Her deepest work was done in Kajar, a blacksmithing village near Yogyakarta. In clear, precise language, she described the geography, sociology, architecture, agriculture, diet, class structure, politics, business and craftsmanship of the village, rendering an arcane subject in vivid, human terms.
It was a long time coming, the product of work that had begun in 1979, but Dewey said it was worth the wait: Each chapter as she turned it in was a polished jewel.
Her anthropology in Indonesia was only part of Ann’s focus. She had also worked in Lahore, Pakistan; New Delhi; and New York, helping to develop microfinancing networks that provided credit to female artisans in rural communities around the world. This was something she had begun in Jakarta for the Ford Foundation in the early 1980s, when she helped refine Bank Rakyat, set up to provide loans to farmers and other rural entrepreneurs in textiles and metalwork, the fields she knew best. David McCauley, who worked with her then, said she had earned a worldwide reputation in the development community. She had a global perspective from the ground up, he said, and she passed it along to her children, Barack and Maya.
Maya was in New York, about to start graduate school at New York University, when her mother got sick. She and her brother were equally slow to realize that the disease was advancing so rapidly. Maya had seen Ann during that visit to Sloan-Kettering, and « she didn’t look well. She was in a wheelchair . . . but I guess I thought that was the treatment. I knew that someday she would die, but it never occurred to me that it would be in November. I think children are capable of stretching out the boundaries of denial. » School always came first with Ann, and she had urged Maya to stay at NYU until the December break.
But by November her condition had worsened. She was put on morphine to ease the pain and moved from her apartment to the Straub Clinic. One night she called Maya and said she was scared. « And my last words to her, where she was able to respond, were that I was coming. I arrived on the seventh. My grandmother was there and had been there for some time, so I sent her home and talked to Mom and touched her and hugged her, and she was not able to respond. I read her a story — a book of Creole folk tales that I had with me about renewal and rebirth — and I said it was okay with me if she decided to go ahead, that I couldn’t really bear to see her like that. And she died. It was about 11 that night. »
Barack came the next day. He had just finished a book about his missing father, but now it was more clear to him than ever that his mother had been the most significant force in shaping his life. Even when they were apart, she constantly wrote him letters, softly urging him to believe in himself and to see the best in everyone else.
A small memorial service was held in the Japanese Garden behind the East-West Center conference building on the University of Hawaii campus. Photographs from her life were mounted on a board: Stanley Ann in Kansas and Seattle, Ann in Hawaii and Indonesia. Barack and Maya « talked story, » a Hawaiian phrase that means exactly what it sounds like, remembering their uncommon mother. They recalled her spirit, her exuberance and her generosity, a worldliness that was somehow very fresh and naive, maybe deliberately naive, sweet and unadulterated. And her deep laugh, her Midwestern sayings, the way she loved to collect batiks and wear vibrant colors and talk and talk and talk.
About 20 people made it to the service. When it was over, they formed a caravan and drove to the south shore, past Hanauma Bay, stopping just before they reached Sandy Beach, Barry’s favorite old haunt for body surfing. They gathered at a lookout point with a parking lot, and down below, past the rail and at the water’s edge, a stone outcropping jutting over the ocean in the shape of a massive ironing board. This was where Ann wanted them to toss her ashes. She felt connected to Hawaii, its geography, its sense of aloha, the fact that it made her two children possible — but the woman who also loved to travel wanted her ashes to float across the ocean. Barack and Maya stood together, scattering the remains. The others tossed flower petals into the water.
Suddenly, a massive wave broke over the ironing board and engulfed them all. A sign at the parking lot had warned visitors of the dangers of being washed to sea. « But we felt steady, » Maya said. « And it was this very slippery place, and the wave came out of nowhere, and it was as though she was saying goodbye. »
Barack Obama left Hawaii soon after and returned to his Chicago life.
Barack Obama’s autobiographical fictions
June 18, 2012
There’s a DVD that’s been sitting in its jewel box on my desk for a few years (I’ve been busy—no time to tidy up), and the other day, after reading through two brand-new books about Barack Obama, one admiring, the other ferociously disapproving, I snapped the cellophane at last and slid the disk into my computer drive.
I bought the video on a visit to Occidental College in Los Angeles, not long after Obama took office. He attended Oxy from 1979 to 1981, then lit out after his sophomore year and never returned. It must be a tricky business for a college publicist, marketing your school as the place that one of the world’s most famous men couldn’t wait to get away from, but these are highly competitive times in the liberal arts college racket, and a flack will work with what he’s got. During my visit the campus was transforming itself into a three-dimensional tribute to its most famous dropout.
In the common room of the library a shrine of sorts had been set up in a glass display case, under the famous Shepard Fairey Hope poster. The display promised to document “Barack Obama’s Occidental College Days,” but the pickings were slim. Every item on display was derivative and indirect in its relation to the man being honored. There were photos of three of his professors, a copy each of his two memoirs, an invitation that someone had received to his inauguration, and an issue of Time magazine showing a recently discovered cache of posed pictures taken of Obama by a classmate in 1980. Obama’s Occidental years have the same waterbug quality that so many periods of his life seem to have in retrospect: You see a figure traveling lightly and swiftly over the surface of things, darting away before he could leave an impression that might last. Archivists have combed college records and come up empty, mostly. Barry Obama, as he then was known, published two poems in the campus literary magazine his sophomore year. The testimony of the handful of professors who remembered him, four by my count, is hazy. He was never mentioned in the student newspaper, never wrote a letter to the editor or appeared in a photo; he failed to have his picture taken for the yearbook, so his likeness isn’t there either. A photo from 1981 celebrating Oxy’s 94th anniversary was in the display case, labeled, with eager insouciance: “An all-campus photo . . . included students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Perhaps Obama is included?” We can hope.
I found my DVD, called “Barack Obama’s Occidental College Days,” in the student bookstore, where shelves groaned under stacks of Obama merchandise—paperweights, caps, pennants, T-shirts, pencils, shot glasses—in which the “O” from Obama was graphically entwined with the “O” from Occidental. (You work with what you’ve got.) The film, with a cover showing a rare photo of Obama on campus, lasts no more than 15 minutes and seems padded even so. Our host is a large and enthusiastic man named Huell Howser. He sports a Hawaiian shirt and a crewcut. With an Oxy flack as guide and a cameraman in tow, he strides the sun-drenched campus and pauses here and there as if simply overwhelmed.
“This place is full of history,” he says.
“There’s a lot of history to be marked here,” the flack agrees.
On the steps of the school administration building they are almost struck dumb. Almost.
“On this spot,” our host says, Obama may have given his first political speech—a two-minute blast at the college for investing in South Africa’s apartheid regime. But we can’t be sure.
“There are no photographs,” says Howser, “but then there are very few photographs of Barack Obama at Occidental.”
“That’s right,” the flack says glumly.
Howser’s passion burns undiminished. His every glance, this way and that, says, Isn’t this something? He finds a professor who taught Obama political science. The professor says he remembers Obama, but only because of his Afro hairstyle and his improbable name. A chinwag with a former dorm-mate from freshman year—Obama moved to an apartment several miles off campus his second year, removing himself even further from the school’s day-to-day life—isn’t much help either. Howser’s imperturbable smile shows no sign of desperation even when he collars the head of alumni affairs, who boasts that his alumni association is one of only 25 in the world that could claim attachment to a U.S. president.
The host is beside himself.
“Is that right? How involved has he been in the alumni association?”
“Well, I have to admit he hasn’t been to any alumni events . . . ”
“Has he been a big contributor?”
The man gives one of those nods that are more headshake than nod. “He—he is on our mailing list.”
“We have big plans to ask Mr. Obama back to campus to speak.”
Howser beams. History has that effect on people.
And there we are. You can’t help but sympathize with our host, with the flack, with the curators at the college library. They faced a challenge known to anyone who tries to account for Barack Obama: How do you turn him into a man as interesting and significant as the world-historical figure that so many people, admirers and detractors alike, presume him to be? There’s not a lot of material here. Obama had an unusual though hardly Dickensian childhood complicated by divorce, and at age 33 he wrote an extremely good book about it, the memoir Dreams from My Father. He followed it with an uneventful and weirdly passive career in politics, and he wrote an extremely not-very-good book about it, The Audacity of Hope. Then, lacking any original ideas or platform to speak of, he ran as the first half-black, half-white candidate for president and, miraculously, won. It’s a boffo finish without any wind-up—teeth-shattering climax, but no foreplay.
There are two ways to aggrandize Obama, to inflate the reality so that it meets the expectation: through derogation or reverence. The facts warrant neither approach, but they don’t deter the Obama fabulists, two of whom have just published those brand-new books I mentioned.
The Amateur, by a former New York Times magazine editor named Edward Klein, takes the first approach. Pure Obama-hatred was enough to shoot the book to the top of the Times bestseller list for the first three weeks after its release. Klein is best known as a Kennedy-watcher, author of such panting chronicles as All Too Human: The Love Story of Jack and Jackie Kennedy and Farewell, Jackie: A Portrait of Her Final Days; among the many info-bits he has tossed onto the sprawling slagheap of Kennedy lore is the news that Jackie lost her virginity in an elevator (the elevator was in Paris, where else). More recently Klein has honed his hatchet with books on Hillary Clinton and Katie Couric. Now The Amateur proves that he has mastered the techniques of such anti-Obama pioneers as Dinesh (The Roots of Obama’s Rage) D’Souza and David (The Great Destroyer) Limbaugh. He knows how to swing the sledgehammer prose, combine a leap of logic with a baseless inference, pad the paragraphs with secondary material plucked from magazine articles you’ve already read, and render the most mundane details in the most scandalized tones.
Sure, “Michelle now likes to pretend that she plays no part in personnel decisions or in formulating policy.” We’ve all heard that. And you believe it? “The facts tell quite a different story.” Facts are stubborn things! In truth, “Michelle’s aides meet regularly with the president’s senior communications team and select public events that will maximize and reinforce the Obamas’ joint message.” Wait. It gets worse. Klein has made a source of “one of Barack’s closest confidants.” And here’s what this confidant reveals: “Barack has always listened to what she has to say.” A direct quote, from source’s mouth to author’s ear. I wonder if they met in a darkened garage.
Klein has a problem with his sources—or rather, the reader should have a problem with Klein’s use of his sources, whoever they are. Blind quotes appear on nearly every page; there are blind quotes within blind quotes. The book cost him a year to research and write, he says proudly—“an exhilarating experience that took me to more than a half-dozen cities, either in person or by telephone or email.” (I visited several cities by email just this morning.) And it’s clear that all this dialing, emailing, dialing, emailing, bore little fruit. “I was at a dinner where Valerie [Jarrett] sat at our table for nearly 10 minutes,” another anonymous source divulges. “And I wasn’t particularly impressed.” Now it can be told. The book’s big revelation comes from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He claims, in an on-the-record interview with Klein, that in 2008 an unnamed friend of an unnamed friend of Obama sent Wright an email offering him $150,000 “not to preach at all until the November presidential election.” Republicans may seethe, but it’s odd that they would suddenly take the word of Jeremiah Wright, a publicity-seeking narcissist who says AIDS was invented by the government.
With such thin material, the only way to keep a book like The Amateur chugging along is with gallons of high-octane contempt. Yet because Klein provides so little to provoke fresh outrage—or to support the theme that Obama is “something new in American politics,” a historically unprecedented threat to the Republic—readers will have to come to the book well-stocked with outrage of their own. They will be satisfied with sentences that begin with an appeal to phony-baloney authority (“According to those who know him best”) and continue with assertions that no Obama intimate would make to Edward Klein, on or off the record: “inept in the arts of management . . . make[s] our economy less robust and our nation less safe . . .” and so on. And they’ll admire his ability to fit his theme of Obama’s villainy to any set of facts. After his election, for example, Obama didn’t take a wise man’s advice to disregard his old Chicago friends—a sign of Obama’s weakness and amateurism, Klein says. A few pages later Obama and Valerie Jarrett are accused of ignoring their old Chicago friends—a sign of coldness and amateurism. Klein gets him coming and going.
If Klein makes Obama something he’s not by hating him more than he should, David Maraniss, a reporter for the Washington Post and a biographer of Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, takes the opposite approach. Klein is an Obama despiser, Maraniss is a big fan—big fan. Klein assumes the worst of his subject at every turn, Maraniss gives Obama every benefit of the doubt, sometimes with heroic effort. Klein writes hastily and crudely, Maraniss writes with great care, veering now and then into those pastures of purple prose that Obama frequently trod in his own memoir. Klein’s book aims for a limited but sizable audience of readers who already despise Obama as much as he does, and therefore don’t require footnotes or any other apparatus of verification; Maraniss, with 30 pages of notes, has grander ambitions to satisfy anyone curious about Obama’s upbringing and family life. Klein’s book is a squalid little thing, Maraniss’s is not.
It is not, however, the book that Obama lovers will hope for—maybe not the book that Maraniss thinks it is. Prepublication, his splashiest piece of news has been the extent of the future president’s love for, and consumption of, marijuana. Through high school—he apparently lost the taste for pot sometime in college—Obama’s ardor reached Cheech and Chong levels. His circle of dopers called themselves the “Choom Gang,” after a Hawaiian word for inhaling pot, and the phrase is already threatening to enter the common language, ironically or otherwise. (I Googled it today and got 560,000 hits, pardon the expression.)
Obama politically indemnified himself against charges of youthful drug use by admitting them in his memoir, though he was smart enough to avoid the words “Choom Gang.” Even at 33, when he wrote his book, he had his eye on a political landscape that would require acknowledgment if not full disclosure of youthful “experimentation,” as the charming euphemism went. In Dreams, he treats the drug use as another symptom of his singular youthful confusion. Maraniss’s explanation is less complicated: Obama really, really liked to get high. Maraniss offers similarly unblinkered portraits of Obama’s appalling father, a vain, wife-beating bigamist and drunk, and of Obama’s maternal grandfather, who comes off in Dreams as a latter-day Micawber, innocent and luckless. Maraniss hints at a darker, even slightly menacing figure. And he discovers some sharp edges beneath the flowing muumuu of Obama’s mother, more often depicted as an idealistic flower-child-turned-scholar (or, in the Klein-reading camp, a Communist agitator).
Maraniss’s book is most interesting for the light it casts on Obama’s self-invention, which is of course the theme of Dreams from My Father: a sensitive and self-aware young man’s zig-zagging search for a personal identity in a world barely held together by fraying family ties, without a cultural inheritance, confused and tormented by the subject of race. Dreams is a cascade of epiphanies, touched off one by one in high school, at Oxy, in New York and Chicago, and, at book’s end, before his father’s grave in Africa. Years before Obama haters could inflate him into an America-destroying devil or Obama worshippers spied those rolling swells of greatness that have yet to surface, Barack Obama was carefully fashioning from his own life something grander than what was there. He was the first Obama fabulist.
Obama himself drops hints of this in Dreams. He writes in his introduction that the dialogue in the book is only an “approximation” of real conversations. Some of the characters, “for the sake of compression,” are “composites”; the names of others have been changed. All of this is offered to the reader as acceptable literary license, and it is, certainly by the standards of the early 1990s, back in the day when publishers flooded bookstores with memoirs of angst-ridden youth and there were still bookstores to flood. Yet the epiphany-per-page ratio in Obama’s memoir is very high. The book derives its power from the reader’s understanding that the events described were factual at least in the essentials. Maraniss demonstrates something else: The writer who would later use the power of his life story to become a plausible public man was making it up, to an alarming extent.
At least it should be alarming to admirers of Dreams. Early on Obama signals that his book will be more self-aware, more detached and ironical, than most youthful memoirs, especially those involving the humid subject of race. Thus we meet Ray, a classmate at Punahou School in Hawaii. Ray is black and radicalized, and given to racially charged rants about “white folks,” a term the narrator comes to despise.
“Sometimes, after one of his performances,” Obama writes, “I would question his judgment, if not his sincerity. We weren’t living in the Jim Crow South, I would remind him. We weren’t consigned to some heatless housing project in Harlem or the Bronx. We were in goddamned Hawaii.”
Still Ray’s rants continue, and Obama continues to listen. Ray complains the football coach won’t start him, despite his superior skill, because he’s black; Obama is clearly being passed up by the basketball coach on account of his race, too. The white girls refuse to go out with them—for the same reason.
“Tell me we wouldn’t be treated different if we was white. Or Japanese.”
Racial resentment is the key to Ray. In Maraniss’s words, he’s “a symbol of young blackness, a mix of hot anger and cool detachment,” racially authentic in a way none of Obama’s other friends were. He provides a crucial example of the resentment that Obama is tempted by but at last outgrows.
But Ray wasn’t really there—didn’t exist, in fact. Ray is a “reinvention” of one of Obama’s friends, Maraniss tells us. His mother was half-black and half-American Indian; his father was . . . Japanese. His name was Keith Kakugawa, and he had no trouble dating white girls; his girlfriend at the time was the base admiral’s daughter. Maraniss discovered that Obama’s luck with girls, whatever their melanin count, was just as robust as Keith’s. With a Japanese name, Kakugawa would have trouble—more trouble than half-black Barry Obama—identifying himself as an African American and speaking as one. If Kakugawa was Ray, then the rants and the attitudes they represent are in this instance made up, and the story line of Dreams—the story of Obama’s life as we have learned it—loses an essential foil.
“Somewhere between pseudonymous and fictitious,” Maraniss writes, gently as always, “Ray was the first of several distorted or composite characters employed in Dreams for similar purposes.” But it’s the purposes themselves that are worrisome. Maraniss cuts Obama much more slack than he would, say, if he were an editor at the Washington Post magazine fact-checking a memoir he hoped to publish. He’s right to accept some invention from a memoirist who insists on telling his story through precise rendering of scenes and dialogue. But a memoir is just realist fiction unless the “composite” says and does things that were done and said by someone. In Dreams many of the crucial epiphanies, the moments that advance the narrator’s life and understanding to its closing semi-resolution, didn’t happen.
That first year at Oxy, Obama writes, he was “living one long lie,” crippled by self-consciousness and insecurity. (Many freshmen have known the feeling.) But then Barry Obama meets Regina.
“Regina . . . made me feel like I didn’t have to lie,” he writes. The two are introduced by a mutual friend, Marcus, in the campus coffee shop. She asks him about the name Barry—and becomes, in a liberating moment, one of the first to call him by his given name, Barack. More important, “she told me about her childhood in Chicago.” It was an authentic black American experience, he learns: “the absent father and struggling mother,” the rundown six-flat on the South Side, along with the compensations of an extended family—“uncles and cousins and grandparents, the stew of voices bubbling up in laughter.”
“Her voice evoked a vision of black life in all its possibility, a vision that filled me with longing—a longing for place, and a fixed and definite history.”
The afternoon with Regina transforms Barack. “Strange how a single conversation can change you,” he writes, setting up the ol’ epiphany.
“I had felt my voice returning to me that afternoon with Regina . . . [and] entering sophomore year I could feel it growing stronger, sturdier, that constant, honest portion of myself, a bridge between my future and my past.”
And the rest is history.
Except . . . there is layer upon layer of confusion here. When Maraniss inquired, Obama’s closest black friend at Occidental couldn’t recognize any real-life counterparts to the characters of Regina and Marcus, and in fact neither of them existed. Regina, Maraniss thinks, was the combination of a wealthy white girl (there were lots of them at Oxy, then and now, none overly familiar with the authentic black American experience) and a female black upperclassman who grew up middle class. Which part of Regina belonged to which real person isn’t mentioned and probably not discoverable. But that crucial background that Regina recounts to the narrator—the upbringing that inspired Obama to discover his voice and set in motion a train of events that led him to leave Occidental and the West for New York City and Columbia University—belonged to neither of Obama’s friends. The background, Maraniss says, may have been drawn from Michelle Robinson (later Obama), whom Obama would not meet for another 10 years. It’s like an epiphany in a time warp. And even then the facts are obscured: Michelle’s father never left his family, as Regina’s did.
Going back to Dreams after several years, and after reading Maraniss’s impressive book, you can get a bad case of the jumps. Take this spat between Regina and Barry, occurring the evening after his big antiapartheid speech, given on those steps that years later would wow Huell Howser:
Regina came up to me and offered her congratulations. I asked her what for.
“For that wonderful speech you gave.”
. . . “It was short anyway.”
“That’s what made it so effective. . . . You spoke from the heart, Barack. It made people want to hear more. . . .”
“Listen, Regina,” I said, cutting her off, “you are a very sweet lady. And I’m happy you enjoyed my little performance today. But that’s the last time you will ever hear another speech out of me. . . . I’m going to leave the preaching to you.” . . .
“And why is that?”
I sipped my beer, my eyes wandering over the dancers in front of us.
“Because I’ve got nothing to say, Regina . . .”
Knowing what we know now—that this intelligent, socially aware, fatherless girl from the South Side didn’t exist, by whatever name—we can only hope that there was some “very sweet lady” at Occidental who actually did flatter Barack Obama in this way, at that moment. If it’s pure invention it reads like a testy exchange between Norman Bates and his mother.
What’s dispiriting is that throughout Dreams, the moments that Obama has invented are precisely the occasions of his epiphanies—precisely those periodic aha! moments that carry the book and bring its author closer to self-discovery. Without them not much is left: a lot of lovely writing, some unoriginal social observations, a handful of precocious literary turns. Obama wasn’t just inventing himself; he was inventing himself inventing himself. It made for a story, anyway.
We can see the dilemma he faced. Obama signed a contract to write a racial memoir. They were all the rage in those days, but in fact their moment had passed. Even with the distant father and absent mother, the schooling in Indonesia and the remote stepfather, Obama lived a life of relative ease. He moved, however uncomfortably, into one elite institution after another, protected by civil rights laws, surrounded by a popular culture in which the African-American experience has embedded itself ineradicably. As Obama’s best biographer, David Remnick, observed, this wasn’t the stuff of Manchild in the Promised Land; you couldn’t use it to make the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or the Auto-biography of Malcolm X. So Obama moved the drama inside himself, and said he’d found there an experience both singular and universal, and he brought nonexistent friends like Regina and Ray to goose the story along.
He did in effect what so many of us have done with him. He created a fable about an Obama far bigger and more consequential than the unremarkable man at its center. He joins us, haters and idolaters, as we join Huell Howser, looking this way and that, desperately trying to see what isn’t there. Isn’t that something?
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. A graduate of Occidental College, he reviewed Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope in our February 12, 2007, issue.
The shaping of a president: David Maraniss chronicles Obama’s early years
This is a story about a girl named Stan.
David Maraniss’ Barack Obama: The Story (Simon & Schuster, $33) might have been better titled Stanley Ann Dunham: Her Story.
Stanley Ann Dunham was the president’s mother, and she is the central character in Madison native Maraniss’ 600-page epic, which ends long before her son enters politics, much less the Oval Office.
If you’re disappointed by this, don’t be. Read the book. Stanley Ann Dunham’s unlikely, uneven, unconventional weaving together of a life is fascinating in itself. But it is significant in history because along for much of that weaving was a little boy and young man who was shaped by following her through her world, and now that man shapes our world as the leader of its most powerful nation.
Barack Obama’s namesake, his father, appears, but relatively briefly, probably playing more of a role in the book than he did in his son’s life. The senior Obama is portrayed as brilliant (stopping just short of earning a doctorate in economics from Harvard in three years), driven, charismatic, but also arrogant and abusive both psychologically and physically. And, as he grew older, all of his less endearing traits were magnified by a deepening relationship with alcohol. Maraniss suggests it was lucky for his son that Barack Obama Sr. stayed out his life.
The real story is Stanley Ann, named, some say, after her father Stanley Dunham, though Maraniss advances a more or less convincing theory that it was really her mother, Madelyn, who named her after a character in a B movie played by Bette Davis. Madelyn Payne Dunham of small-town Kansas longed for sophistication. Bette Davis personified it, and the film in which Davis played a woman named Stanley seemed to embody the bold breaking loose of convention that Madelyn wanted and that was passed along to her daughter.
Parenthetically, Madelyn Payne Dunham played a small role in Madison’s connection to the historic 2008 campaign of her grandson. Near the end of the campaign, Barack Obama canceled what would have been a massive Madison rally so he could return to Hawaii and be at her side in her final days.
In Maraniss’ book, Madelyn’s grandson does not even make an appearance until chapter six, and then he’s mostly tagging along as his mother marries and divorces his father, moves from Seattle to Hawaii and back to Seattle, and then goes to Jakarta, where she marries an Indonesian man and has with him a daughter, Barack’s half-sister. Along the way, Dunham acquires a college degree and works a series of academic odd jobs on her way to a Ph.D. in anthropology.
The senior Barack Obama is eventually killed in a car accident fueled by alcohol, but by that point it hardly matters. His contribution to history is his genes, all nature, no nurture. The nurturing role belonged mostly to Stanley Ann.
Maraniss shows us in intricate detail how the personality of the president was shaped. How a young boy of high intelligence and good humor adapted to his constantly changing and sometimes odd surroundings, learning, absorbing, finding a way to get along and to blend in, but also staying apart, since he never knew what was around the next corner with his footloose mom.
He acquired a lifelong habit of holding some of himself back, watching what played out in front of him and, to use Maraniss’ central theme, « avoiding the traps » of life.
Barack Obama may be one of the least qualified men ever to occupy his office. His experience on the national stage amounts to four years as a junior U.S. senator. And yet, thanks to his mother, there were few who understood the world better.
His face is a map of the world. Maraniss reports that Obama’s heritage is 50% Lou (an African tribe), 37.4% English, 4.4% German, 3.125% Irish, 3.125% Scottish, 1.56% Welsh, 0.195% Swiss, and 0.097% French. Maraniss proves conclusively that the president is not a Muslim, but reveals he is French. For Rush Limbaugh conservatives, which is worse?
More important than Obama’s genetic makeup is his life experience. Not only did he grow up in Indonesia and Hawaii, but he also grew up amid diversity in both places, which brought him into casual, daily contact with Africans, Asians, Natives and Caucasians, people of all kinds of ethnic variations and political and social differences.
What he did not experience in his early life is mainland, American-style racism. Growing up in places that were diverse, he never had to confront his identity as a black man until his college years. There are no slaves in the Obama family tree, and he missed most of the tumultuous civil rights struggle because of his youth and the physical distance from the mainland.
There is an amusing section on the future president’s more than casual acquaintance with marijuana as a high school student in Hawaii. I won’t ruin the fun, but if you get the e-book, search for « Choom Gang, » « Total Absorption » (the opposite of not inhaling) and « Roof Hits. » Enough said.
Even when Barry, which is how he was known, finally made it to the mainland as a college freshman, he chose elite Occidental College in Los Angeles, a diverse environment in a sheltered section of the city that gave him virtually no taste of the typical experience of blacks in America.
In fact, one of his Oxy college friends said that Barry, who was starting to refer to himself as Barack in part to reconnect to his black roots, decided to transfer after his sophomore year to Columbia in New York so that he could « discover blackness in America. »
What hits home in Maraniss’ book is how race was, for Barack Obama, primarily an intellectual journey of study and self-discovery. He had to discover his blackness.
This sets him apart from the dominant African American experience, and it accounts for some of the reluctance on the part of veteran civil rights advocates like Jesse Jackson to embrace his candidacy early on. The feeling was apparently mutual. As a student at Columbia, Obama saw Jackson speak at a rally and came back unimpressed.
The argument can be made that Barack Obama, raised by a white mother and white grandparents, is half white genetically and more than that culturally. But the reality of race in America is that skin color trumps everything. It is not, still and sadly, the content of your character that shapes how you are perceived, at least initially.
This is a central theme of Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father, which Maraniss dissects in his own book. In what is probably the memoir’s most memorable scene, one Obama referred to often in the 2008 campaign, his white, Kansas-bred grandmother expresses fear of a black man she encounters at a bus stop simply because he is black.
That incident happened while the most important person in his life, his mother, was off doing her graduate research in Indonesia. During this period and for the rest of Obama’s life, Stanley Ann Dunham makes only cameo appearances in Maraniss’ book, but he leaves little doubt that the choices she made in her life, and for her son, set him on a trajectory that made him the man he became.
And even in death in 1995, at the age of 52, she had an impact on her son. Her struggle with cancer was a theme he used often as he argued for a health care overhaul.
Most of the press about Maraniss’ book has focused on the discrepancies between what he found and what Obama wrote in Dreams From My Father, or on the revelations of college girlfriends. Neither strikes me as all that important compared to the narrative surrounding Stanley Ann. Maraniss forgives most of the discrepancies as poetic license that Obama admits to at the start of his memoir. He was trying to write literature as much as a factual account of his life, and he didn’t try to deceive.
As for the girlfriends’ accounts of a charismatic but ultimately distant lover, they make for interesting reading. But his character had already been shaped by his experiences with his mother and grandparents. By the time we meet the girlfriends, they are reporting on what we already know.
If the book has a flaw, it’s that there is too much of it. For example, did I really need to learn that Obama’s grandmother’s high school Latin class met on the second floor of the southeast corner of the school? Or what Obama’s phone number was when he was a student at Columbia in 1981? (It was 401-2857.)
The book also wanders into countless narrative cul de sacs, detailing the lives, and sometimes the deaths, of people who have only a tangential relationship to Obama. We get pages of detail on the funeral of Tom Mboya, a Kenyan political operative and an important figure in Obama’s father’s life, but a man the younger Obama never met.
But in the end, when a reader is in the hands of a skilled writer it’s a small complaint to say that there’s too much good writing.
Maraniss is a reporter and editor for The Washington Post. He grew up in Madison and spends his summers here, where he wrote much of the book.
Whatever else you’ve got going this summer, it’s worth your time to read Barack Obama: The Story, if only to marvel at the twists and spellbinding turns in the life of the girl named Stanley who shaped – almost entirely for the better – the personality of the most powerful human being on the planet.
As Obama wrote, « It was my mother’s fundamental faith – in the goodness of people and in the ultimate value of this brief life we’ve been given – that channeled [my] ambitions. »
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at TheDailyPage.com.
Will Oprah Give Our President the James Frey Treatment?
June 27, 2012
Back in 2006, Oprah Winfrey admitted to feeling embarrassed after learning that James Frey, whose memoir she had praised and promoted, fabricated many of his life stories. And as we would expect from a woman who rose from poverty to build a powerful media empire, Oprah did not take this sitting down. She invited Frey back on her show to confront him face-to-face.
The interview, for anyone who missed it, was not for the faint of heart. Throughout the interview, Oprah supplied a healthy serving of indignation and anger to a hapless Mr. Frey. In describing the interview, TIME magazine noted that a « public flogging » would have been civil in comparison. Indeed, Oprah told Frey that her feelings of disgust towards him were so strong that it was « difficult for her to talk to [him]. »
Most of the media applauded Oprah’s performance. The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen labeled Oprah the « Mensch of the year. » And Maureen Dowd thought « [i]t was a huge relief, after our long national slide into untruth and no consequences, into Swift boating and swift bucks, to see the Empress of Empathy icily hold someone accountable for lying. » In other words, many members of the media agreed with Oprah that fabricating stories in a memoir is no small matter.
So if Oprah and much of the media had this strong a reaction to misrepresentations made by a previously unknown man who was just trying to make his life story sound a little exciting, one can only imagine how strong her reaction would be to a politician who was misrepresenting his life story to further his political career.
Which brings us to our president. After watching Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Oprah became Obama’s most prominent supporter. And much as with Frey, Oprah’s initial support for Obama was based largely on his life story. Not only did she invite Obama on her show to discuss his memoir, Dreams from My Father, but in 2006, even before he officially entered the presidential race, Oprah publicly endorsed Obama for president. Oprah’s endorsement received tremendous media attention, prompting TIME magazine to put Obama on the cover with the caption « Why Barack Obama could be the next president. »
According to a CBS poll, more than a third of all American’s said that most people they knew were more inclined to vote for Obama as a result of Oprah’s endorsement. It would no exaggeration to say that Oprah’s endorsement played a significant role in Obama becoming president.
So what could possibly undermine Oprah’s admiration of our president? Well, it has recently been discovered by Washington Post editor and Obama biographer David Maraniss that Obama’s memoir likely went much farther than just the character « compression » and chronology rearrangement that Obama admitted to in his memoir’s introduction. Maraniss reveals in his new book that, much like Frey’s memoir, Dreams contains fabrications of material aspects of Obama’s life narrative.
In his review of Maraniss’ book, Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard details the extent to which Obama’s memoirs depart from Obama’s actual life story. Ferguson writes:
[W]hat’s dispiriting is that throughout Dreams, the moments that Obama has invented are precisely the occasions of his epiphanies- — precisely those periodic aha! moments that carry the book and bring its author closer to self-discovery. Without them not much is left[.]
He explains that all the episodes in Dreams where Obama faced any character defining struggle were simply made up; the conversations never happened, and the characters never existed. This wasn’t a case of Obama combining several events, which together lead him to the same place anyway; it’s Obama inventing events that perfectly suited the narrative he was trying create for himself.
To be sure, Maraniss is not the first person to discover fabrications in Obama’s memoir. In fact, conservative writers and bloggers have been noting many of these inconsistencies and misstatements for the past couple of years. The only difference is that as an editor of the Washington Post, Maraniss is too prominent a liberal for the media to ignore. Indeed, many of these fabrications have been covered by news media outlets such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Buzzfeed since his book was published.
Ultimately, what Maraniss did discover is that Obama’s actual upbringing was simply too comfortable and boring to lend itself to a compelling memoir. So he did what Frey did and turned an otherwise mundane life story into a more meaningful and interesting one.
At this point, it would hardly be surprising if Oprah felt embarrassed, having endorsed Obama’s presidency and praised his memoir. Ever since she did so, her career has been in a steep decline. With enough encouragement from the media, perhaps she’ll even try to arrange another interview to confront Obama on these charges. That is, if she could even stand to talk to him at this point.
The Obama-Ayers Connection
Real Clear politics
October 8, 2008
In the best tradition of Bill Clinton’s famous declaration that the answer to the question of whether or not he was having an affair with Monica depended on « what the definition of ‘is’ is, » Barack Obama was clearly splitting hairs and concealing the truth when he said that William Ayers was « just a guy who lives in my neighborhood. »
The records of the administration of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC), released last week by the University of Illinois, show that the Ayers-Obama connection was, in fact, an intimate collaboration and that it led to the only executive or administrative experience in Obama’s life.
After Walter Annenberg’s foundation offered several hundred million dollars to American public schools in the mid-’90s, William Ayers applied for $50 million for Chicago. The purpose of his application was to secure funds to « raise political consciousness » in Chicago’s public schools. After he won the grant, Ayers’s group chose Barack Obama to distribute the money. Between 1995 and 1999, Obama distributed the $50 million and raised another $60 million from other civic groups to augment it. In doing so, he was following Ayers’s admonition to grant the funds to « external » organizations, like American Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) to pair with schools and conduct programs to radicalize the students and politicize them.
Reading, math and science achievement tests counted for little in the CAC grants, but the school’s success in preaching a radical political agenda determined how much money they got.
Barack Obama should have run screaming at the sight of William Ayers and his wife, Bernadette Dohrn. Ayers has admitted bombing the U.S. Capitol building and the Pentagon, and his wife was sent to prison for failing to cooperate in solving the robbery of a Brink’s armored car in which two police officers were killed. Far from remorse, Ayers told The New York Times in September 2001 that he « wished he could have done more. »
Ayers only avoided conviction when the evidence against him turned out to be contained in illegally obtained wiretaps by the FBI. He was, in fact, guilty as sin.
That Obama should ally himself with Ayers is almost beyond understanding. The former terrorist had not repented of his views and the education grants he got were expressly designed to further them.
So let’s sum up Obama’s Chicago connections. His chief financial supporter was Tony Rezko, now on his way to federal prison. His spiritual adviser and mentor was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, of « God damn America » fame. And the guy who got him his only administrative job and put him in charge of doling out $50 million is William Ayers, a terrorist who was a domestic Osama bin Laden in his youth.
Even apart from the details of the Obama/Ayers connection, two key points emerge:
a) Obama lied and misled the American people in his description of his relationship with Ayers as casual and arm’s-length; and
b) Obama was consciously guided by Ayers’s radical philosophy, rooted in the teachings of leftist Saul Alinksy, in his distribution of CAC grant funds.
Since Obama is asking us to let him direct education spending by the federal government and wants us to trust his veracity, these are difficulties he will have to explain in order to get the votes to win.
Now that Obama is comfortably ahead in the polls, attention will understandably shift to him. We will want to know what kind of president he would make. The fact that, within the past 10 years, he participated in a radical program of political education conceptualized by an admitted radical terrorist offers no reassurance.
Why did Obama put up with Ayers? Because he got a big job and $50 million of patronage to distribute to his friends and supporters in Chicago. Why did he hang out with Jeremiah Wright? Because he was new in town, having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia and having been educated at Columbia and Harvard, and needed all the local introductions he could get to jump-start his political career. Why was he so close to Rezko?
Because he funded Obama’s campaigns and helped him buy a house for $300,000 less than he otherwise would have had to pay.
Not a good recommendation for a president.
//Morris, a former political adviser to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and President Bill Clinton, is the author of « Outrage. » To get all of Dick Morris’s and Eileen McGann’s columns for free by email, go to http://www.dickmorris.com.
Exclusive – The Vetting – Senator Barack Obama Attended Bill Ayers Barbecue, July 4, 2005
Joel B. Pollak
4 Jun 2012
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama disavowed any connection with former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, the Weather Underground radical who was one of Obama’s early backers and his colleague on the board of the Woods Fund in Chicago. We now have proof that Obama’s association with Ayers continued even after Obama had been elected to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate–in the form of a now-scrubbed blog post placing Obama at the home of Ayers and his wife, fellow radical Bernardine Dohrn, on July 4, 2005.
Dr. Tom Perrin, Assistant Professor of English at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, was a graduate student at the University of Chicago at the time, and maintained a blog called “Rambling Thomas.” He lived next door to Ayers and Dohrn in Hyde Park. He wrote at 8:44 a.m. on July 6, 2005:
Guess what? I spent the 4th of July evening with star Democrat Barack Obama! Actually, that’s a lie. Obama was at a barbecue at the house next door (given by a law professor who is a former member of the Weather Underground) and we saw him over the fence at our barbecue. Well, the others did. It had started raining and he had gone inside be the time I got there. Nevertheless.
Dohrn is a Clinical Associate Professor of Law at Northwestern University, and Chicago did, in fact, record rainfall on the Fourth of July holiday in 2005.
Breitbart News attempted to contact Dr. Perrin for further comment:
Dear Dr. Perrin,
My name is Joel Pollak, and I am the Editor-in-Chief of Breitbart News.
We came across your blog entry from July 2005 in which you mentioned that then-Senator Obama had been a guest at the Ayers/Dohrn house next door.
I was wondering if you could provide more detail.
Dr. Perrin did not respond. He did, however, delete his entire blog from the Internet.
Of course, Breitbart News had saved a screen grab of the blog beforehand:
Obama’s presence–as a U.S. Senator–at the Ayers barbecue has been confirmed by another source, who told Breitbart News: “I too saw Obama at a picnic table in the Ayers/Dohrn backyard, munching away–on the 4th of July.”
The fact that Obama socialized with Ayers and Dorn contradicts the statement that Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt gave the New York Times in 2008:
Mr. LaBolt said the men first met in 1995 through the education project, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, and have encountered each other occasionally in public life or in the neighborhood. He said they have not spoken by phone or exchanged e-mail messages since Mr. Obama began serving in the United States Senate in January 2005 and last met more than a year ago when they bumped into each other on the street in Hyde Park.
That statement now appears to be “Clintonian” in its dance around the truth. Obama and Ayers may not have emailed or spoken by phone, but they had, we now know, spoken face to face–at least on July 4, 2005, and perhaps at other times as well.
The continued connection between Obama and his radical, domestic terrorist associates until mere months before he launched his presidential campaign is sharply at odds with the way Obama minimized the relationship, as well as the way the media largely sought to portray it as an insignificant part of Obama’s past.
Whatever differences may have emerged between Obama and Ayers–and other far-left fellow travelers–since Obama took office and grappled with the realities of governing, Obama’s migration towards the mainstream of American politics is very recent, and likely opportunistic. His intellectual and political roots remain extreme.
Obama’s Third-Party History
New documents shed new light on his ties to a leftist party in the 1990s.
June 7, 2012
On the evening of January 11, 1996, while Mitt Romney was in the final years of his run as the head of Bain Capital, Barack Obama formally joined the New Party, which was deeply hostile to the mainstream of the Democratic party and even to American capitalism. In 2008, candidate Obama deceived the American public about his potentially damaging tie to this third party. The issue remains as fresh as today’s headlines, as Romney argues that Obama is trying to move the United States toward European-style social democracy, which was precisely the New Party’s goal.
In late October 2008, when I wrote here at National Review Online that Obama had been a member of the New Party, his campaign sharply denied it, calling my claim a “crackpot smear.” Fight the Smears, an official Obama-campaign website, staunchly maintained that “Barack has been a member of only one political party, the Democratic Party.” I rebutted this, but the debate was never taken up by the mainstream press.
Recently obtained evidence from the updated records of Illinois ACORN at the Wisconsin Historical Society now definitively establishes that Obama was a member of the New Party. He also signed a “contract” promising to publicly support and associate himself with the New Party while in office.
Minutes of the meeting on January 11, 1996, of the New Party’s Chicago chapter read as follows:
Barack Obama, candidate for State Senate in the 13th Legislative District, gave a statement to the membership and answered questions. He signed the New Party “Candidate Contract” and requested an endorsement from the New Party. He also joined the New Party.
Consistent with this, a roster of the Chicago chapter of the New Party from early 1997 lists Obama as a member, with January 11, 1996, indicated as the date he joined.
Knowing that Obama disguised his New Party membership helps make sense of his questionable handling of the 2008 controversy over his ties to ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). During his third debate with John McCain, Obama said that the “only” involvement he’d had with ACORN was to represent the group in a lawsuit seeking to compel Illinois to implement the National Voter Registration Act, or motor-voter law. The records of Illinois ACORN and its associated union clearly contradict that assertion, as I show in my political biography of the president, Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism.
Why did Obama deny his ties to ACORN? The group was notorious in 2008 for thug tactics, fraudulent voter registrations, and its role in popularizing risky subprime lending. Admitting that he had helped to fund ACORN’s voter-registration efforts and train some of their organizers would doubtless have been an embarrassment but not likely a crippling blow to his campaign. So why not simply confess the tie and make light of it? The problem for Obama was ACORN’s political arm, the New Party.
The revelation in 2008 that Obama had joined an ACORN-controlled, leftist third party could have been damaging indeed, and coming clean about his broader work with ACORN might easily have exposed these New Party ties. Because the work of ACORN and the New Party often intersected with Obama’s other alliances, honesty about his ties to either could have laid bare the entire network of his leftist political partnerships.
Although Obama is ultimately responsible for deceiving the American people in 2008 about his political background, he got help from his old associates. Each of the two former political allies who helped him to deny his New Party membership during campaign ’08 was in a position to know better.
The Fight the Smears website quoted Carol Harwell, who managed Obama’s 1996 campaign for the Illinois senate: “Barack did not solicit or seek the New Party endorsement for state senator in 1995.” Drawing on her testimony, Fight the Smears conceded that the New Party did support Obama in 1996 but denied that Obama had ever joined, adding that “he was the only candidate on the ballot in his race and never solicited the endorsement.”
We’ve seen that this is false. Obama formally requested New Party endorsement, signed the candidate contract, and joined the party. Is it conceivable that Obama’s own campaign manager could have been unaware of this? The notion is implausible. And the documents make Harwell’s assertion more remarkable still.
The Long Run
Old Friends Say Drugs Played Bit Part in Obama’s Young Life
Serge F. Kovaleski
The New York Times
February 9, 2008
Nearly three decades ago, Barack Obama stood out on the small campus of Occidental College in Los Angeles for his eloquence, intellect and activism against apartheid in South Africa. But Mr. Obama, then known as Barry, also joined in the party scene.
Years later in his 1995 memoir, he mentioned smoking “reefer” in “the dorm room of some brother” and talked about “getting high.” Before Occidental, he indulged in marijuana, alcohol and sometimes cocaine as a high school student in Hawaii, according to the book. He made “some bad decisions” as a teenager involving drugs and drinking, Senator Obama, now a presidential candidate, told high school students in New Hampshire last November.
Mr. Obama’s admissions are rare for a politician (his book, “Dreams From My Father,” was written before he ran for office.) They briefly became a campaign issue in December when an adviser to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Obama’s chief Democratic rival, suggested that his history with drugs would make him vulnerable to Republican attacks if he became his party’s nominee.
Mr. Obama, of Illinois, has never quantified his illicit drug use or provided many details. He wrote about his two years at Occidental, a predominantly white liberal arts college, as a gradual but profound awakening from a slumber of indifference that gave rise to his activism there and his fears that drugs could lead him to addiction or apathy, as they had for many other black men.
Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs, though, significantly differs from the recollections of others who do not recall his drug use. That could suggest he was so private about his usage that few people were aware of it, that the memories of those who knew him decades ago are fuzzy or rosier out of a desire to protect him, or that he added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic.
In more than three dozen interviews, friends, classmates and mentors from his high school and Occidental recalled Mr. Obama as being grounded, motivated and poised, someone who did not appear to be grappling with any drug problems and seemed to dabble only with marijuana.
Vinai Thummalapally, a former California State University student who became friendly with Mr. Obama in college, remembered him as a model of moderation — jogging in the morning, playing pickup basketball at the gym, hitting the books and socializing.
“If someone passed him a joint, he would take a drag. We’d smoke or have one extra beer, but he would not even do as much as other people on campus,” recounted Mr. Thummalapally, an Obama fund-raiser. “He was not even close to being a party animal.”
Mr. Obama declined to be interviewed for this article. A campaign spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said in an e-mail message that the memoir “is a candid and personal account of what Senator Obama was experiencing and thinking at the time.”
“It’s not surprising that his friends from high school and college wouldn’t recall personal experiences and struggles that happened more than twenty years ago in the same way, and to the same extent, that he does,” he wrote.
What seems clear is that Mr. Obama’s time at Occidental from 1979 to 1981 — where he describes himself arriving as “alienated” — would ultimately set him on a course to public service. He developed a sturdier sense of self and came to life politically, particularly in his sophomore year, growing increasingly aware of harsh inequities like apartheid and poverty in the third world.
He also discovered that he wanted to be in a larger arena; one professor described Occidental back then as feeling small and provincial. Mr. Obama wrote in his memoir that he needed “a community that cut deeper than the common despair that black friends and I shared when reading the latest crime statistics, or the high fives I might exchange on a basketball court. A place where I could put down stakes and test my commitments.”
Mr. Obama wrote that he learned of a transfer program that Occidental had with Columbia and applied. “He was so bright and wanted a wider urban experience,” recalled Anne Howells, a former English professor at Occidental who taught Mr. Obama and wrote him a recommendation for Columbia.
Mr. Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, said her brother focused more on his future at Occidental. “I think he felt it was time to do some heavy thinking and assessing and time to start making a more meaningful contribution,” Ms. Soetoro-Ng said. “He felt New York was an interesting place to be in terms of the exchange of ideas, overlapping cultures and rigorous academics.”
As for Mr. Obama’s use of marijuana and, occasionally, cocaine, she said, “He wasn’t a drug addict or dealer. He was a kid searching for answers and a place who had made some mistakes.” After arriving in New York, Mr. Obama wrote in his memoir, he stopped getting high.
In the 442-page book, published when he was 33, Mr. Obama’s references to drug use are limited to the equivalent of about a page and a half. He got the book contract after becoming the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. At first, he considered writing a more scholarly book about the law, race and society, but scrapped that in favor of writing about his search for identity.
The son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father, Mr. Obama wrote that he would get high to help numb the confusion he felt about himself. “Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man,” he penned in the memoir. “Except the highs hadn’t been about that, me trying to prove what a down brother I was.”
“I got high for just the opposite effect, something that could push questions of who I was out of my mind.”
At Punahou, a preparatory school that had few black students, Keith Kakugawa and Mr. Obama were close friends. They met when Mr. Obama was a freshman and Mr. Kakugawa, who is Japanese-Hawaiian, was a junior.
Mr. Kakugawa remembered that the two often discussed wealth and class and that their disaffection would surface. He said race would come up in the conversations, usually when talking about white girls they thought about dating.
“We were dealing with acceptance and adaptation, and both had to do with the fact that we were not part of the moneyed elite,” Mr. Kakugawa said.
Mr. Kakugawa, who spent seven years in and out of prison for drug offenses beginning in 1996, said he pressured Mr. Obama into drinking beer.
But Mr. Obama did not smoke marijuana during the two years they spent time together even though it was readily available, Mr. Kakugawa said, adding that he never knew Mr. Obama to have done cocaine. “As far as pot, booze or coke being a prevalent part of his life, I doubt it,” Mr. Kakugawa said. He had graduated, however, by the time Mr. Obama was in his junior and senior years, when he wrote that he most frequently used marijuana and cocaine “when you could afford it.”
Mr. Obama describes a scene in that period where, in the meat freezer of a deli, he watched someone named Micky — “my potential initiator” — pull out “the needle and the tubing,” apparently to shoot up heroin. Alarmed, Mr. Obama wrote that he imagined how an air bubble could kill him. Neither Mr. Kakugawa or the others interviewed for this article who knew Mr. Obama at Punahou recalled hearing that story from him.
In his freshman year at Occidental, Mr. Obama and his dormitory mates would gather around a couch in the hallway of their floor while stereos blasted songs by bands like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the B-52’s and the Flying Lizards. The conversations revolved around topics like the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter’s proposed revival of draft registration and the energy crisis.
Mr. Obama displayed a deft but unobtrusive manner of debating.“When he talked, it was an E. F. Hutton moment: people listened,” said John Boyer, who lived across the hall from Mr. Obama. “He would point out the negatives of a policy and its consequences and illuminate the complexities of an issue the way others could not.” He added, “He has a great sense of humor and could defuse an argument.”
Mr. Obama seemed interested in thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre, whom he studied in a political thought class in his sophomore year.
The professor, Roger Boesche, has memories of him at a popular burger joint on campus.
“He was always sitting there with students who were some of the most articulate and those concerned with issues like violence in Central America and having businesses divest from South Africa,” he said. “These were the kids most concerned with issues of social justice and who took classes and books seriously.”
Mr. Obama was involved in the Black Students’ Association and in the divestment campaign to pressure the college to pull its money out of companies doing business in South Africa. To make a point, students camped out in makeshift shantytowns on campus.
In his book, Mr. Obama said that his role in the divestment push started as kind of a lark, “part of the radical pose my friends and I sought to maintain.” But then he became more engaged, contacting members of the African National Congress to have them speak at the college and writing letters to the faculty.
He was one of a few students who spoke at a campus divestment rally. Rebecca Rivera, then a member of a similar Hispanic students’ group, said: “He clearly understood our social responsibility and the way the college’s money was impacting the lives of black people in South Africa and preventing the country from progressing.” She added, “There was passion, absolutely, but not incoherent fieriness.”
While he would sometimes attend parties held by black students and Latinos, Amiekoleh Usafi, a classmate who also spoke at the rally, recalled seeing him at parties put together by the political and artistic set.
Ms. Usafi, whose name at Occidental was Kim Kimbrew, said the most she saw Mr. Obama indulging in were cigarettes and beer.
“I would never say that he was a druggie, and there were plenty there,” she said. “He was too cool for all that.”
Les livres qui ont fait Obama
20 janvier 2009
Qu’est-ce que cela fait d’avoir un nouveau président des Etats-Unis qui sait lire ? Du bien. Cela fait du bien d’apprendre qu’il a toujours un livre à portée de la main. On a tellement flatté ses qualités d’orateur et ses dons de communicant qu’on a oublié l’essentiel de ce qui fait la richesse de son verbe : son côté lecteur compulsif. A croire que lorsqu’il sera las de lire des livres, il dirigera l’Amérique pour se détendre. Michiko Kakutani, la redoutée critique du New York Times, d’ordinaire si dure avec la majorité des écrivains, est tout miel avec ce non-écrivain auteur de trois livres : deux textes autobiographiques et un discours sur la race en Amérique. Elle vient de dresser l’inventaire de sa « bibliothèque idéale », autrement dit les livres qui ont fait ce qu’il est devenu, si l’on croise ce qu’il en dit dans ses Mémoires, ce qu’il en confesse dans les interviews et ce qu’on en sait.
Adolescent, il lut avidement les grands auteurs noirs James Baldwin, Langston Hugues, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, W.E.B. Du Bois avant de s’immerger dans Nietzsche et Saint-Augustin en marge de ses études de droit, puis d’avaler la biographie de Martin Luther King en plusieurs volumes par Taylor Branch. Autant de livres dans lesquels il a piqué idées, pistes et intuitions susceptibles de nourrir sa vision du monde. Ce qui ne l’a pas empêché de se nourrir en permanence des tragédies de Shakespeare, de Moby Dick, des écrits de Lincoln, des essais du transcendantaliste Ralph Waldo Emerson, du Chant de Salomon de la nobélisée Toni Morrison, du Carnet d’or de Doris Lessing, des poèmes d’un autre nobélisé Derek Walcott, des mémoires de Gandhi, des textes du théologien protestant Reinhold Niebuhr qui exercèrent une forte influence sur Martin Luther King, et, plus récemment de Gilead (2004) le roman à succès de Marylinne Robinson ou de Team of rivals que l’historienne Doris Kearns Goodwin a consacré au génie politique d’Abraham Lincoln, « la » référence du nouveau président.
Pardon, on allait oublier, le principal, le livre des livres : la Bible, of course.
La star de NBC, Brian Williams est suspendu pour six mois
Accusé d’avoir menti lors de reportages en Irak, Brian Williams, l’un des présentateurs les plus célèbres des Etats-Unis, est suspendu pour six mois sans salaire
Brian Williams (AFP)
Le Nouvel Obs
C’est un énorme scandale aux Etats-Unis. Brian Williams, 55 ans, présentateur vedette du journal de NBC, depuis 2004, quitte l’antenne après avoir été pris en flagrant délit de mensonges sur ses souvenirs de reportage en Irak en 2003. Il vient d’être suspendu pour six mois sans salaire.
« Brian a déformé des événements qui s’étaient produits lorsqu’il couvrait la guerre en Irak en 2003. Il est ensuite devenu clair que, dans d’autres occasions, Brian avait fait la même chose en racontant cette histoire. Il a eu tort, c’était complètement inapproprié pour quelqu’un dans la position de Brian », a écrit Deborah Turness, la présidente de NBC News.
Alors qu’il couvrait la guerre pour la chaîne, comme reporter de guerre, il avait toujours affirmé que l’hélicoptère à bord duquel il était embarqué avec des militaires avait été attaqué au lance-roquettes. En fait, l’hélicoptère attaqué est celui qui se trouvait devant lui. Ses mensonges ont fini par en agacer plus d’un, en particulier les soldats qui ont réagi en reprochant au journaliste de s’attribuer un acte de courage qu’il ne méritait pas.
Sur le site Stars and Stripes, spécialisé dans les forces armées, ils donnent leur version. Selon Joe Summerlin, le pilote de l’hélicoptère qui transportait Brian Williams et son équipe se trouvait à plus d’une demi-heure de l’attaque. Cité par le New York Times Summerlin fait donc voler en éclat la thèse du journaliste héroïque, car non seulement son appareil n’a pas été visé mais n’était pas proche. Il avait dû en revanche se poser en raison d’une tempête de sable et ne s’est pas fait tirer dessus.
J’ai commis une erreur en rapportant cet événement datant d’il y a douze ans».
Pris dans la tourmente, Brian Williams, a présenté ses regrets lors de son journal de mercredi soir. Il a confessé avoir fait une « erreur » sur ses déclarations « Je veux m’excuser. J’ai dit que je me trouvais à bord d’un hélicoptère qui a essuyé des tirs, alors que j’étais dans un appareil qui suivait. J’ai commis une erreur en rapportant cet événement datant d’il y a douze ans».
Ses excuses n’ont pas suffi à redorer son blason. Son image en a été écornée. D’autres affirmations qu’il a faites sont mises en doute. Lors de l’ouragan Katrina, il avait ainsi dit avoir vu flotter un cadavre depuis sa chambre d’hôtel à la Nouvelle Orléans. L’ancien directeur des services de santé de la ville, le Dr Lutz a déclaré que le quartier français n’avait pas subi les mêmes dégâts que le reste de la ville.
Brian Williams se retire provisoirement de l’antenne
Samedi, Brian Williams a déclaré dans un communiqué de NBC « J’ai décidé de me retirer de la présentation quotidienne pour les prochains jours. Dans une carrière passée à couvrir et consommer l’information, j’ai compris avec douleur que je suis actuellement trop devenu une partie de cette information, en raison de mes actions », a-il ajouté.
Il est remplacé provisoirement par Lester Holt, présentateur des journaux du week-end.
La chaîne a lancé une enquête en interne, pour étudier les suites à donner aux déclarations de son présentateur vedette, qui en décembre avait renouvelé son contrat pour cinq ans, d’un montant de 10 millions de dollars par an. NBC va-t-elle céder aux critiques très virulentes des médias et d’Internet pour se séparer de sa vedette regardée par 9 millions d’américains ?
Exclusif : les confidences de Barack Obama
Le Figaro publie en avant-première les meilleurs extraits des Mémoires du candidat à l’investiture démocrate. Dans Les Rêves de mon père (éditions Presse de la Cité), qui paraît jeudi 20 mars en France, Barack Obama raconte l’histoire de sa famille et celle de son ascension. Jusqu’à la Maison-Blanche ?
La promesse du rêve américain
J’appris que mon père était africain, kényan, de la tribu des Luos, né sur les rives du lac Victoria dans une localité appelée Alego. Il gardait les chèvres de son père et fréquentait l’école construite par l’administration coloniale britannique, où il se révéla très doué. Il obtint une bourse pour aller étudier à Nairobi. C’est là que, à la veille de l’indépendance du Kenya, il fut sélectionné par des chefs kényans et des sponsors américains pour aller étudier dans une université américaine, rejoignant la première grande vague d’Africains envoyés à l’étranger pour y apprendre la technologie occidentale et la rapporter dans leur pays afin de forger une nouvelle Afrique moderne.
En 1959, à l’âge de vingt-trois ans, il arriva à l’université de Hawaii. C’était le premier étudiant africain accueilli dans cette institution. […] À un cours de russe, il rencontra une jeune Américaine timide, modeste, âgée seulement de dix-huit ans, et ils tombèrent amoureux. Les deux jeunes gens se marièrent et eurent un fils, auquel Barack transmit son prénom. Il obtint une nouvelle bourse, cette fois pour poursuivre son Ph.D., son doctorat, à Harvard, mais non les fonds nécessaires pour emmener sa nouvelle famille avec lui. Il y eut donc séparation, à la suite de laquelle il retourna en Afrique pour tenir sa promesse vis-à-vis du continent. Il laissa derrière lui sa femme et son enfant, mais le lien d’amour perdura malgré la distance… […]
Mon père ne ressemblait en rien aux gens qui m’entouraient, il était noir comme le goudron alors que ma mère était blanche comme le lait, mais cela me traversait à peine l’esprit.
De fait, je ne me souviens que d’une seule histoire traitant explicitement du problème racial. Cette histoire racontait qu’un soir, après avoir passé de longues heures à travailler, mon père avait rejoint mon grand-père et plusieurs autres amis dans un bar de Waikiki. L’ambiance était joyeuse, on mangeait et on buvait au son d’une guitare hawaïenne, lorsqu’un Blanc, à haute et intelligible voix, se plaignit tout à coup au propriétaire d’être obligé de boire du bon alcool «à côté d’un nègre». Le silence s’installa dans la salle et les gens se tournèrent vers mon père, en s’attendant à une bagarre. Mais mon père se leva, se dirigea vers l’homme, lui sourit et entreprit de lui administrer un sermon sur la folie de l’intolérance, sur la promesse du rêve américain et sur la déclaration universelle des droits de l’homme.
«Quand Barack s’est tu, le gars s’est senti tellement mal à l’aise qu’il lui a filé aussi sec un billet de cent dollars, racontait Gramps. Ça nous a payé toutes nos consommations pour le reste de la soirée… et le loyer de ton père jusqu’à la fin du mois !»
Il s’était fait passer pour un Blanc
Ma mère m’installa dans la bibliothèque pendant qu’elle retournait à son travail. Je finis mes bandes dessinées et les devoirs qu’elle m’avait fait apporter, puis je me levai pour aller flâner à travers les rayons. Dans un coin, je découvris une collection de Life, tous soigneusement présentés dans des classeurs de plastique clair. Je parcourus les publicités accrocheuses et me sentis vaguement rassuré. Plus loin, je tombai sur une photo qui illustrait un article, et j’essayai de deviner le sujet avant de lire la légende. Une photo de petits Français qui couraient dans des rues pavées : c’était une scène joyeuse, un jeu de cache-cache après une journée de classe et de corvées, et leurs rires évoquaient la liberté. La photo d’une Japonaise tenant délicatement une petite fille nue dans une baignoire à peine remplie : ça, c’était triste. La petite fille était malade, ses jambes étaient tordues, sa tête tombait en arrière contre la poitrine de sa mère, la figure de la mère était crispée de chagrin, peut-être se faisait-elle des reproches…
Puis j’en arrivai à la photo d’un homme âgé qui portait des lunettes noires et un imperméable. Il marchait le long d’une route déserte. Je ne parvins pas à deviner de quoi parlait cette photo ; le sujet n’avait rien d’extraordinaire. Sur la page suivante, il y en avait une autre : c’était un gros plan sur les mains du même homme. Elles montraient une étrange pâleur, une pâleur qui n’était pas naturelle, comme si la peau avait été vidée de son sang. Je retournai à la première photo, et je remarquai les cheveux crépus de l’homme, ses lèvres épaisses et larges, son nez charnu, et le tout avait cette même teinte irrégulière, spectrale.
Il est sans doute gravement malade, me dis-je. Victime d’une irradiation, peut-être, ou albinos. J’avais vu un albinos dans la rue quelques jours auparavant, et ma mère m’avait donné des explications. Mais lorsque je lus les mots qui accompagnaient la photo, je vis que ce n’était pas cela du tout. L’homme avait reçu un traitement chimique pour éclaircir sa peau, disait l’article. Il l’avait payé de ses propres deniers. Il disait regretter d’avoir essayé de se faire passer pour un Blanc, se désolait de la manière catastrophique dont l’expérience avait tourné. Mais les résultats étaient irréversibles. Il existait des milliers de gens comme lui en Amérique, des Noirs, hommes et femmes, qui s’étaient soumis au même traitement à la suite de publicités qui leur avaient promis le bonheur, une fois devenus blancs.
Je sentis la chaleur envahir mon visage et mon cou. Mon estomac se serra ; les caractères devinrent flous. Ma mère était-elle au courant ? Et son patron ? Pourquoi était-il si calme, à lire ses rapports, quelques mètres plus loin, au bout du couloir ? Je ressentis le besoin urgent de sauter à bas de mon siège, de leur montrer ce que je venais d’apprendre, de leur demander de m’expliquer, ou de me rassurer. Mais quelque chose me retint. Comme dans les rêves, j’étais privé de voix, incapable d’articuler les mots traduisant cette peur nouvelle pour moi.
Lorsque ma mère vint me chercher pour me ramener à la maison, mon visage était souriant, et les magazines avaient retrouvé leur place. La pièce, l’atmosphère étaient aussi tranquilles qu’avant.
Si tu veux devenir un être humain
Ma mère avait toujours favorisé mon intégration rapide dans la culture indonésienne (Sa mère et son second mari se sont installés à Djakarta en 1968, NDLR). Cela m’avait appris à devenir relativement autonome, à ne pas me montrer exigeant quand le budget était serré. J’étais extrêmement bien élevé comparé aux autres enfants américains, et grâce à son éducation je considérais avec dédain le mélange d’ignorance et d’arrogance qui caractérise trop souvent les Américains à l’étranger. Dès le début, elle avait concentré ses efforts sur mon instruction. N’ayant pas les revenus nécessaires pour m’envoyer à l’école internationale que fréquentait la majorité des enfants étrangers de Djakarta, elle s’était arrangée dès notre arrivée pour compléter ma scolarité par des cours par correspondance envoyés des États-Unis.
Désormais, elle redoublait d’efforts. Cinq jours par semaine, elle venait dans ma chambre à quatre heures du matin, me forçait à prendre un petit déjeuner copieux, puis me faisait travailler mon anglais pendant trois heures, avant mon départ pour l’école et le sien pour son travail. J’opposais une rude résistance à ce régime, mais à toutes mes stratégies, les moins convaincantes («J’ai mal à l’estomac») comme les plus véridiques (mes yeux se fermaient toutes les cinq minutes), elle exposait patiemment sa défense :
«Et moi, mon petit gars, tu crois que ça m’amuse ?
»[…] Si tu veux devenir un être humain, me disait-elle, il te faudra avoir certaines valeurs. L’honnêteté : Lolo n’aurait pas dû cacher le réfrigérateur dans la remise quand les inspecteurs des impôts sont venus, même si tout le monde, les inspecteurs y compris, s’attendait à cela. La justice : les parents des élèves plus riches ne devraient pas offrir des postes de télévision aux professeurs pendant le ramadan, et leurs enfants n’ont pas à être fiers des bonnes notes qu’ils reçoivent en remerciement. La franchise : si la chemise que je t’ai offerte pour ton anniversaire ne t’a pas plu, tu aurais dû le dire au lieu de la garder roulée en boule au fond de ton placard. L’indépendance de jugement : ce n’est pas parce que les autres enfants se moquent d’un pauvre garçon à cause de sa coupe de cheveux que tu dois faire la même chose.
Elle n’avait qu’un seul allié en tout cela, c’était l’autorité lointaine de mon père. De plus en plus souvent, elle me rappelait son histoire, son enfance pauvre, dans un pays pauvre, dans un continent pauvre ; la dureté de sa vie. J’allais suivre son exemple, ainsi en décida ma mère. Je n’avais pas le choix. C’était dans les gènes.
Vous devez être en colère quelque part
En 1983, je décidai de devenir organisateur de communautés.
Quand mes amis, à l’université, me demandaient quel était le rôle d’un organisateur de communautés, je n’étais pas capable de leur répondre directement : je discourais sur la nécessité du changement. Du changement à la Maison-Blanche, où Reagan et ses sous-fifres se livraient à leur sale besogne. Du changement au Congrès, qui était complaisant et corrompu. Du changement dans l’état d’esprit du pays, obsessionnel et centré sur lui-même. Le changement ne viendra pas d’en haut, disais-je. Le changement ne viendra que de la base, c’est pourquoi il faut la mobiliser.
Voilà ce que je vais faire. Je vais travailler à organiser les Noirs. La base. Pour le changement.
Et mes amis, blancs et noirs, me félicitaient chaudement de mon idéal, avant de mettre le cap sur le bureau de poste pour envoyer leurs demandes d’admission dans les grandes écoles. […]
Finalement, une société de conseil financier pour multinationales accepta de m’embaucher comme assistant de recherche. J’arrivais tous les jours dans mon bureau au cœur de Manhattan. J’étais le seul homme noir de la société. Ike, l’agent de sécurité noir bourru qui officiait dans le hall, n’y alla pas par quatre chemins et me dit tout net que je commettais une erreur.
«Organisateur ? C’est un genre de politique, c’est ça ? Pourquoi vous voulez faire un truc comme ça ?
» J’essayai de lui expliquer mes idées politiques, combien il était important de mobiliser les pauvres et de redistribuer les richesses à la communauté. Ike secoua la tête.
«Monsieur Barack, me dit-il, j’espère que vous ne le prendrez pas mal si je vous donne un petit conseil. Oubliez ces histoires d’organisation et faites quelque chose qui pourra vous rapporter du blé.» […]
J’avais pratiquement renoncé à devenir organisateur lorsque je reçus un appel d’un certain Marty Kaufman. Celui-ci m’expliqua qu’il avait monté une organisation à Chicago et qu’il souhaitait engager un stagiaire. Son aspect ne m’inspira pas grande confiance. Un Blanc grassouillet, de taille moyenne, portant un costume fripé. Son visage était mangé par une barbe de trois jours ; derrière d’épaisses lunettes cerclées de fer, ses yeux restaient plissés en permanence. Quand il se leva pour me serrer la main, il renversa un peu de thé sur sa chemise.
«Eh bien, dit-il en épongeant la tache avec une serviette en papier, pourquoi veut-on devenir organisateur quand on vient de Hawaii?»
Je m’assis et lui parlai un peu de moi.
«Hum, fit-il en hochant la tête, tout en prenant quelques notes sur un calepin. Vous devez être en colère, quelque part.
Que voulez-vous dire ?
Il haussa les épaules.
Je ne sais pas exactement. Mais il y a sûrement quelque chose. Ne le prenez pas mal : la colère, c’est obligatoire pour faire ce boulot. C’est la seule raison qui pousse quelqu’un à s’engager là-dedans. Les gens bien dans leur peau trouvent un boulot plus calme.»
La meilleure part de notre histoire
J’entrai à la Harvard Law School, où je passai la plus grande partie de mon temps, durant trois années, dans des bibliothèques faiblement éclairées, plongé dans les études de cas et les textes de lois. Les études de droit peuvent être parfois décevantes, car il s’agit d’apprendre à appliquer des règles rigides et des procédures obscures à une réalité qui n’est pas. Mais le droit n’est pas que cela. Le droit est aussi la mémoire ; le droit note aussi le déroulement d’une longue conversation, celle d’une nation qui discute avec sa conscience.
«Nous tenons ces vérités pour évidentes par elles-mêmes…»
Dans ces mots, j’entends l’esprit de Douglass et de Delany, celui de Jefferson et de Lincoln, les luttes de Martin et de Malcolm et de ceux qui manifestèrent pour que ces mots deviennent réalité. J’entends les voix des familles japonaises enfermées derrière des barbelés, des jeunes Juifs russes exploités dans les fabriques de confection du Lower East Side de Chicago, des fermiers anéantis par la sécheresse qui chargent sur leurs camions ce qui reste de leurs vies brisées. J’entends les voix des habitants des Altgeld Gardens, et les voix de ceux qui restent de l’autre côté des frontières de ce pays, les cohortes affaiblies, affamées, qui traversent le Rio Grande. J’entends toutes ces voix réclamer la reconnaissance, et toutes elles posent exactement les questions qui en sont venues à déterminer ma vie, les questions que parfois, tard dans la nuit, je me surprends à poser au Vieil Homme. Quelle est notre communauté, et comment cette communauté peut-elle être conciliée avec notre liberté ? Jusqu’où vont nos obligations ? Comment transformons-nous un pur pouvoir en justice, un simple sentiment en amour ? À mon retour à Chicago, je découvris une accélération des signes de détérioration dans tout le South Side : les quartiers étaient devenus plus délabrés, les enfants plus agressifs, les familles moyennes déménageaient de plus en plus dans les banlieues, les prisons étaient remplies à craquer de jeunes à l’œil sombre, mes frères sans perspectives.
J’essaie d’apporter ma modeste participation au renversement de cette tendance. Dans mon cabinet d’avocat, je travaille principalement avec des églises et des groupes communautaires, des hommes et des femmes qui construisent tranquillement des épiceries et des cliniques dans les quartiers déshérités, et des logements pour les pauvres. De temps en temps, je travaille sur une affaire de discrimination, pour défendre des clients qui viennent dans mon cabinet avec des histoires dont nous aimons nous dire qu’elles ne devraient plus exister. La plupart de ces clients sont un peu embarrassés de ce qui leur arrive, tout comme les collègues blancs qui acceptent de témoigner en leur faveur ; car personne n’a envie de passer pour quelqu’un qui sème la zizanie. Et pourtant, il arrive un moment où les plaignants aussi bien que les témoins se disent que c’est une question de principe, que malgré tout ce qui s’est passé, ces mots posés sur le papier il y a deux cents ans ont sûrement une importance. Noirs et Blancs, ils se réclament de cette communauté que nous appelons l’Amérique. Ils choisissent la meilleure partie de notre histoire.
Voir par ailleurs:
Obama Administration: Our Goal is Not to Eliminate Iran’s Nuke Program
Senators grill officials for capitulating to Tehran
January 21, 2015
A senior official in the State Department admitted on Wednesday that the Obama administration’s goal during negotiations with Iran is delaying the regime’s development of nuclear weapons rather than shutting down the Islamic Republic’s contested nuclear program.
Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken acknowledged during a tense exchange with senators on Capitol Hill a deal being sought by the Obama administration that would constrain its nuclear breakout capability without eliminating its nuclear program.
Blinken also floated the possibility of extending nuclear talks past the June deadline should additional time be needed to finalize details of a possible deal with Iran.
Leading senators on both sides of the aisle grilled Blinken and other officials in the administration over Iran’s nuclear program, which has continued despite restrictions imposed under an interim nuclear agreement made in November 2013.
Many believe that the interim deal has done little to halt the program and allows the regime to continue some of its most controversial nuclear operations, including the construction of new reactors and work on ballistic missiles.
“Let me ask you this, isn’t it true that even the deal that you are striving towards is not to eliminate any Iranian [nuclear] breakout capability, but to constrain the time in which you’ll get the notice of such breakout capability?” Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), a vocal critic of the White House’s dealings with Iran, asked Blinken during Wednesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “Is that a fair statement, yes or no?”
“Yes, it is,” Blinken responded.
This admission appeared to frustrate and anger Menendez, who accused the administration of issuing “talking points that come straight out of Tehran.”
“We’re not eliminating Iran’s ability to break out,” Menendez said. “We’re just getting alarm bells, and the question is how long are we going to get those alarm bells for?”
Asked at a later point in the hearing if the administration would consider prolonging talks yet again, Blinken said that this is a possibility.
“We might want a little more time,” he said. “That’s possible. I wouldn’t want to rule it out.”
Under the terms of the interim agreement, which the administration claims has “halted” Iran’s progress, Tehran can still enrich uranium up to a point, pursue unlimited construction of plutonium light water reactors, and advance its ballistic missile program.
Iran has enriched enough uranium to fuel two nuclear bombs in the past year, according to experts.
Menendez expressed particular frustration with the administration’s attempts to appease Iran, even as it blatantly continues nuclear work during the talks.
“The bottom line is, they get to cheat in a series of ways—and I’ll call it ‘cheat,’ you won’t—but they get to cheat in a series of ways and we get to worry about their perceptions,” Menendez said.
Despite the pressure from Menendez and others, Blinken was adamant that the administration opposes any new sanctions on Iran, even if they were scheduled to take effect only if negotiations fail.
Bliken also made clear his opposition to Congress holding an up or down vote on any possible deal that the administration may agree to.
“Why would you oppose Congress weighing in on an issue of this importance?” asked Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), the committee’s chairman, who has championed legislation that would give Congress a final say over the deal.
Corker described a White House that “continues to stiff arm every effort” and “push away Congress, who represents more fully this nation than the negotiators.”
Blinken said that the administration is apprehensive about a possible congressional role in the process.
“In terms of the negotiations themselves, the knowledge that there would be very early on this kind of vote, in our judgment, could actually undermine the credibility of the commitments we would make [to Iran] in the context of negotiations,” Blinken said.
“There’s a concern that if a judgment is reached immediately [by Congress], yea or nay on this, it may be too soon to see if Iran has complied with its agreements,” Blinken added.
Corker seemed to find these explanations wanting.
“I’m very disappointed that in essence what the administration is saying is, ‘We really don’t want, even though Congress put us in this place, we really don’t want Congress to play a role in one of the most important geopolitical agreements that may take place during this administration,’” he said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D., Vir.) expressed fear during the hearing that the United States is ignoring Iran’s pattern of deception on the nuclear front.
“Iran has made it plain in the course of this negotiation [that] this is not a negotiation about Iran dismantling a nuclear weapons program,” Kaine said. “It’s a negotiation about trying to buy a year of time to have an alarm bell ring and act.”
The administration is giving up too much, particularly on the issue of uranium-enriching centrifuges, he said.
“The kinds of things I’ve been hearing about the number of centrifuges contemplated in this deal, this is not consistent with a purely civilian program,” Kaine said.
Voir de plus:
Mainstreaming Jew hatred in America
The Jerusalem Post
13 February 2015
Barack Obama is mainstreaming anti-Semitism in America.
Last week (2/09), apropos of seemingly nothing, in an interview with Mathew Yglesias from the Vox.com website, Obama was asked about terrorism. In his answer the president said the terrorism threat is overrated. And that was far from the most disturbing statement he made.
Moving from the general to the specific, Obama referred to the jihadists who committed last month’s massacres in Paris as « a bunch of violent vicious zealots, » who « randomly shot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris. »
In other words, Ahmedy Coulibaly, the Moslem terrorist at Hyper Cacher, the kosher supermarket he targeted, was just some zealot. The Jews he murdered while they were shopping for Shabbat were just « a bunch of folks in a deli, » presumably shot down while ordering their turkey and cheese sandwiches.
No matter that Coulibaly called a French TV station from the kosher supermarket and said he was an al-Qaida terrorist and that he chose the kosher supermarket because he wanted to kill Jews.
As far as the leader of the free world is concerned, his massacre of four Jews at the market can teach us nothing about anything other than that some random people are mean and some random people are unlucky.
And anyway, Obama explained, we’re only talking about this random act of senseless violence because as he said, « If it bleeds, it leads. » The media, desperate for an audience, inflates the significance of these acts of random violence, for ratings.
Obama’s statement about the massacre of Jews in Paris is notable first and foremost for what it reveals about his comfort level with anti-Semitism.
By de-judaizing the victims, who were targets only because they were Jews, Obama denied the uniqueness of the threat jihadist Islam and its adherents pose to Jews. By pretending that Jews are not specifically targeted for murder simply because they are Jews, he dismissed the legitimate concerns Jews harbor for their safety, whether in Diaspora communities or in Israel.
If nothing distinguished Coulibaly’s massacre at Hyper Cacher from a mugging or an armed robbery gone bad, then Jews have no right to receive unique consideration – whether for their community’s security in London or Paris, or San Francisco – or for Israel’s security.
As subsequent statements from administration spokespeople made clear, Obama’s statement was not a gaffe. When questioned about his remarks, both White House spokesman Josh Earnest and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki doubled down on Obama’s denial of the anti-Semitic nature of the massacre at Hyper Cacher. Earnest said that the Jews who were murdered were people who just « randomly happened to be » at the supermarket.
Psaki said that the victims didn’t share a common background or nationality, pretending away the bothersome fact that they were all Jews.
Just as bad as their denials of the anti-Jewish nature of the attack on Hyper Cacher, were Psaki’s and Earnest’s belated revisions of their remarks. After coming under a storm of criticism from American Jews and from the conservative media, both Psaki and Earnest turned to their Twitter accounts to walk back their remarks and admit that indeed, the massacre at Hyper Cacher was an anti-Semitic assault.
Their walk back was no better than their initial denial of the anti-Jewish nature of the Islamist attack, because it amplified the very anti-Semitism they previously promoted.
As many Obama supporters no doubt interpreted their behavior, first Obama and his flaks stood strong in their conviction that Jews are not specifically targeted. Then after they were excoriated for their statements by Jews and conservatives, they changed their tune.
The subtext is clear. The same Jews who are targeted no more than anyone else, are so powerful and all controlling that they forced the poor Obama administration to bow to their will and parrot their false and self-serving narrative of victimization.
The administration’s denial of the unique threat Jews face from jihadists is not limited to its anti-Semitic characterizations of the attack at Hyper Cacher.
It runs as well through Obama’s treatment of Israel and its actions to defend itself against its jihadist enemies from Hamas to Hezbollah to Iran.
Today, the most outstanding example of Obama’s exploitation of anti-Semitic tropes to diminish US support for Israel is his campaign to delegitimize Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ahead of his scheduled speech before the joint houses of Congress on March 3.
As we belatedly learned from a small correction at the bottom of a New York Times article on January 30, contrary to the White House’s claim, Netanyahu did not blindside Obama when he accepted Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation to address the Congress. He informed the White House of his intention to accept Boehner’s offer before he accepted it.
Netanyahu did not breach White House protocol.
He did not behave rudely or disrespectfully toward Obama.
The only one that behaved disrespectfully and rudely was Obama in his shabby and slanderous treatment of Netanyahu.
It was Obama who peddled the lie that Netanyahu was using the speech not to legitimately present Israel’s concerns regarding the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran, but to selfishly advance his political fortunes on the back of America’s national security interests and the independence of its foreign policy.
It was Obama and Vice President Joe Biden who spearheaded efforts to coerce Democrat lawmakers to boycott Netanyahu’s speech by announcing that they would refuse to meet with the leader of the US’s closest ally in the Middle East during his stay in Washington.
So far only 15 members of the House and three Senators have announced their intention to boycott Netanyahu’s speech. But even if all the other Democrats do attend his speech, the impact of Obama’s campaign to defame Netanyahu will long be felt.
First of all, if all goes as he hopes, the media and his party members will use his demonization of Netanyahu’s character as a means to dismiss the warnings that Netanyahu will clearly sound in his address.
Second, by boycotting Netanyahu and encouraging Democrats to do the same, Obama is mainstreaming the anti-Semitic boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to isolate Israel.
Moreover, he is mobilizing Democrat pressure groups like J Street and MoveOn.org to make it costly for Democrat politicians to continue to support Israel.
There is another aspect of the Hyper Cacher massacre, which was similarly ignored by the White House and that bears a direct relationship to Obama’s attempt to destroy the credibility of Netanyahu’s warnings about his Iran policy.
Whereas the journalists murdered at Charlie Hebdo magazine were killed because their illustrations of Mohammed offended Moslem fascists, the Jews murdered at Hyper Cacher were targeted for murder because they were Jews. In other words, the Islamist hatred of Jews is inherently genocidal, not situational.
If Islamists have the capacity to annihilate the Jews, they will do so. And this brings us back to Obama’s statement to Vox.com. As is his habit, Obama refused to use the term Islamic to describe the « violent, vicious zealots » who randomly targeted Jews at the Hyper Cacher.
Since the outset of his presidency, Obama has vigilantly denied the connection between Islamism and terrorism and has mischaracterized jihad as peaceful self-reflection, along the lines of psychotherapy.
His denial of the Islamist nature of jihadist assaults worldwide rose to new heights when in his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast he compared today’s jihadists to the Crusaders from a thousand years ago. And whereas he identified the Crusaders as Christians, he refused to acknowledge that today’s mass murdering zealots act in the name of Islam.
Obama’s stubborn, absurd and dangerous refusal to mention the word Islam in connection with the war being waged worldwide by millions in its name, coupled with his eagerness to always compare this unnamed scourge to the past evils of Western societies, indicates that his defense of Islamic supremacism is not merely a policy preference but rather reflects a deeper ideological commitment.
The perception that Obama either does not oppose or embraces Islamic extremism is strengthened when coupled with his appalling attempts to ignore the fact of Islamic Jew-hatred and its genocidal nature and his moves to demonize Netanyahu for daring to oppose his policy toward Iran.
It is in this policy and in Obama’s wider Middle East strategy that we find the real world consequences of Obama’s denial of the unique victimization and targeting of Jews and the Jewish state by Islamic terrorists and Islamist regimes.
Loopholes in Obama’s interim nuclear framework deal with Iran from November 2013 have allowed Iran to make significant advances in its nuclear weapons program while still formally abiding by its commitments under the agreement.
Iran has stopped enriching uranium to 20 percent purity levels, and sufficed with enriching uranium to 3.5% purity. But at the same time it has developed and begun using advanced centrifuges that enrich so quickly that the distinction between 3.5% and 20% enrichment levels becomes irrelevant.
Iran has made significant advances in its ballistic missile program, including in its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads. It has continued its development of nuclear bombs, and it has enriched sufficient quantities of uranium to produce one to two nuclear bombs.
According to leaked reports, the permanent nuclear deal that Obama seeks to convince Iran to sign would further facilitate Iran’s ascension to the nuclear club. Among other things, the deal will place a time limit on the already ineffective inspections regime, thus blinding the world entirely to Iran’s nuclear activities.
At the same time that Obama is facilitating Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power, he is doing nothing to stop its regional empowerment.
Today Iran controls Syria, Iraq and Yemen and holds sway over Lebanon and Gaza. It threatens Saudi Arabia, and its Moslem Brotherhood allies threaten Egypt and Jordan.
As for Obama’s allied campaign against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the largest beneficiary to date of the US-led campaign has been Iran. Since the US-led campaign began last fall, Iran has achieved all but public US support for its control over the Iraqi military and for the survival of the Assad regime in Syria.
The trajectory of Obama’s policies is obvious. He is clearing the path for a nuclear armed Iran that controls large swathes of the Arab world through its proxies.
It is also clear that Iran intends to use its nuclear arsenal in the same way that Coulibaly used his Kalashnikov – to kill Jews, as many Jews as possible.
Perhaps Obama is acting out of anti-Semitism, perhaps he acts out of sympathy for Islamic fascism. Or both.
Whatever the case may be, what is required from Israel, and from Netanyahu, is clear. Speaking to Congress may be a necessary precondition for that action, but it is not the action itself.
Caroline Glick is Deputy Managing Editor of the Jerusalem Post. She is the author of The Israeli Solution: A One State Plan for Peace in the Middle East.
Voir par ailleurs:
The Vetting – Exclusive – Obama’s Literary Agent in 1991 Booklet: ‘Born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia and Hawaii’
Note from Senior Management:
Andrew Breitbart was never a “Birther,” and Breitbart News is a site that has never advocated the narrative of “Birtherism.” In fact, Andrew believed, as we do, that President Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961.
Yet Andrew also believed that the complicit mainstream media had refused to examine President Obama’s ideological past, or the carefully crafted persona he and his advisers had constructed for him.
It is for that reason that we launched “The Vetting,” an ongoing series in which we explore the ideological background of President Obama (and other presidential candidates)–not to re-litigate 2008, but because ideas and actions have consequences.
It is also in that spirit that we discovered, and now present, the booklet described below–one that includes a marketing pitch for a forthcoming book by a then-young, otherwise unknown former president of the Harvard Law Review.
It is evidence–not of the President’s foreign origin, but that Barack Obama’s public persona has perhaps been presented differently at different times.
Breitbart News has obtained a promotional booklet produced in 1991 by Barack Obama’s then-literary agency, Acton & Dystel, which touts Obama as “born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia and Hawaii.”
The booklet, which was distributed to “business colleagues” in the publishing industry, includes a brief biography of Obama among the biographies of eighty-nine other authors represented by Acton & Dystel.
It also promotes Obama’s anticipated first book, Journeys in Black and White–which Obama abandoned, later publishing Dreams from My Father instead.
Obama’s biography in the booklet is as follows (image and text below):
Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, was born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia and Hawaii. The son of an American anthropologist and a Kenyan finance minister, he attended Columbia University and worked as a financial journalist and editor for Business International Corporation. He served as project coordinator in Harlem for the New York Public Interest Research Group, and was Executive Director of the Developing Communities Project in Chicago’s South Side. His commitment to social and racial issues will be evident in his first book, Journeys in Black and White.
The booklet, which is thirty-six pages long, is printed in blue ink (and, on the cover, silver/grey ink), using offset lithography. It purports to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of Acton & Dystel, which was founded in 1976.
Front cover (outside) – note Barack Obama listed in alphabetical order
Front cover (inside)
Jay Acton no longer represents Obama. However, Jane Dystel still lists Obama as a client on her agency’s website.
According to the booklet itself, the text was edited by Miriam Goderich, who has since become Dystel’s partner at Dystel & Goderich, an agency founded in 1994. Breitbart News attempted to reach Goderich by telephone several times over several days. Her calls are screened by an automated service that requires callers to state their name and company, which we did. She never answered.
The design of the booklet was undertaken by Richard Bellsey, who has since closed his business. Bellsey, reached by telephone, could not recall the exact details of the booklet, but told Breitbart News that it “sounds like one of our jobs, like I did for [Acton & Dystel] twenty years ago or more.”
The parade of authors alongside Obama in the booklet includes politicians, such as former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill; sports legends, such as Joe Montana and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; and numerous Hollywood celebrities.
The reverse side of the page that features Barack Obama includes former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader and early-1990s “boy band” pop sensation New Kids On the Block.
Acton, who spoke to Breitbart News by telephone, confirmed precise details of the booklet and said that it cost the agency tens of thousands of dollars to produce.
He indicated that while “almost nobody” wrote his or her own biography, the non-athletes in the booklet, whom “the agents deal[t] with on a daily basis,” were “probably” approached to approve the text as presented.
Dystel did not respond to numerous requests for comment, via email and telephone. Her assistant told Breitbart News that Dystel “does not answer questions about Obama.”
The errant Obama biography in the Acton & Dystel booklet does not contradict the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate. Moreover, several contemporaneous accounts of Obama’s background describe Obama as having been born in Hawaii.
The biography does, however, fit a pattern in which Obama–or the people representing and supporting him–manipulate his public persona.
David Maraniss’s forthcoming biography of Obama has reportedly confirmed, for example, that a girlfriend Obama described in Dreams from My Father was, in fact, an amalgam of several separate individuals.
In addition, Obama and his handlers have a history of redefining his identity when expedient. In March 2008, for example, he famously declared: “I can no more disown [Jeremiah Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother.”
Several weeks later, Obama left Wright’s church–and, according to Edward Klein’s new biography, The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House, allegedly attempted to persuade Wright not to “do any more public speaking until after the November  election” (51).
Obama has been known frequently to fictionalize aspects of his own life. During his 2008 campaign, for instance, Obama claimed that his dying mother had fought with insurance companies over coverage for her cancer treatments.
That turned out to be untrue, but Obama has repeated the story–which even the Washington Post called “misleading”–in a campaign video for the 2012 election.
The Acton & Dystel biography could also reflect how Obama was seen by his associates, or transitions in his own identity. He is said, for instance, to have cultivated an “international” identity until well into his adulthood, according to Maraniss.
Regardless of the reason for Obama’s odd biography, the Acton & Dystel booklet raises new questions as part of ongoing efforts to understand Barack Obama–who, despite four years in office remains a mystery to many Americans, thanks to the mainstream media.
Larry O’Connor contributed to this report.
The Gospel According To Wright
How much of Pastor Jeremiah Wright’s race-based « theology » does Barack Obama really share?
The American Spectator
Charles C. Johnson
December 2011 – January 2012
In 2008 America elected a president whose pastor for 20 years preached anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, advocated bizarre pseudo-scientific racial ideas, opposed interracial marriage, praised communist dictatorships, denounced black « assimilation, » and taught Afrocentric feel-good nonsense to schoolchildren. When Americans discovered the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s views during the 2008 campaign, they rightly wondered if Barack Obama, like his pastor, really believed that HIV/AIDS was created by the American government to kill black people. Even to this day, no one knows for sure whether Obama shares the views of Wright, whom the Chicago Sun-Times once described as Obama’s « close confidant. »
Candidate Obama tried to dismiss his support for Wright, telling Charlie Gibson of ABC News, « It’s as if we took the five dumbest things that I ever said or you ever said…in our lives and compressed them, and put them out there, you know, I think that people’s reaction, would be understandably upset. » And rightly so. In sermon after sermon, Wright’s radical black nationalist ideas were clearly and emphatically stated. They were not an aberration, but the focal point of Pastor Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Obama was an active member for 20 years.
Nor has Wright renounced any of his anti-Americanism. In a sermon last September 16 marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11 entitled, « The Day of Jerusalem’s Fall, » Wright seemed to celebrate white America’s comeuppance. « We bombed Hiroshima. We bombed Nagasaki. And we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon–and we never batted an eye! » Wright preached. « We supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black south Africans and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards. » He closed, invoking Malcolm X’s statement about the assassination of J.F.K, « America’s chickens! Coming home! To roost! » White America, he was saying, had gotten its just deserts.
Candidate Obama tried to distance himself from Wright’s more damning comments. But, crucially, he didn’t disown the pastor himself. In fact, in his rise to political fame, he had made Wright’s sermons his own, drawing on Wright’s « Audacity to Hope » sermon and appropriating its theme for his political coming-out speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. He even borrowed the sermon’s title for his second autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, in a bid to get Wright and other black churches to support his candidacy.
The question is why Barack Obama, raised without any faith at all, chose one of the most incendiary preachers in Black America to preach the word of God to him. Wright became, in Obama’s words, « like family to me. [Wright] strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. » Obama told a group of ministers in June 2007 that Wright helped « introduce me to my Christian faith. » But what, exactly, is Barack Obama’s faith? Just as important, what is Jeremiah Wright’s?
JEREMIAH WRIGHT WAS BORN on September 22, 1941, in Germantown, a racially mixed, middle-class Philadelphia suburb. His father, Jeremiah Wright, Sr., became the minister of the local Grace Baptist Church in 1938 and served there for 42 years. His mother, Mary Elizabeth Henderson Wright, was a schoolteacher who eventually became the first black vice-principal at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, one of the city’s top-performing magnet schools.
Education mattered deeply to the Wrights. They helped their son with his homework while they bettered themselves with part-time courses. They enrolled him at Central High School, an all-male magnet establishment considered among the nation’s best public schools at the time. It was 90 percent white. The class yearbook announced, « Always ready with a kind word, Jerry is one of the most congenial members [of his class]. » But Wright himself dismissed that period of congeniality in a later sermon. « I used to let my behavior be determined by the white world’s expectations, » he recalled ruefully.
The young Jeremiah was off to a promising start, but at age 15 was arrested for grand larceny auto theft. His parents sent him to the all-black Virginia Union University. But Wright quit after two years and joined the Marines. Wright later said he hated being educated at « black schools founded by white missionaries. » Still, during his short time at VUU he met fellow students who made a lasting impression: a young PhD student named John Kinney who had studied under both Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Cone, the founder of black liberation theology; and Samuel DeWitt Proctor, a longtime friend and mentor of King.
After quitting the Marines, Wright joined the Navy, where he served for four years. He was stationed mostly in Washington D.C., and was there to help operate on President Lyndon B. Johnson as a cardiopulmonary technician before enrolling in college again at Howard University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1968 and a master’s in English in 1969. At Howard, Wright heard firebrand Stokely Carmichael, a.k.a. Kwame Ture, lecture on black power. He was further influenced by Cheikh Anta Diop’s racialist tomes advancing Afrocentrism, the theory that Africa was the cradle of modern civilization. After that, it was off to the University of Chicago Divinity School for six years. Then Wright, 31, joined Trinity United Church of Christ as pastor on March 1, 1972. In his provocative words, « the fun began. »
Trinity, on its last legs when Wright joined it, was an odd choice. After all, as Bill Moyers of PBS recalls in his new book, Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues, Wright « could have had his pick of large, prosperous congregations, but instead chose one with only 87 members in a largely black neighborhood » of Chicago. Wright often compared Chicago to apartheid-era South Africa: « Just as Blacks could not be caught inside the city of Johannesburg after dark…the same held true for Blacks on the Southside of Chicago. » Breaking with his parents’ Baptist denomination, Wright recognized that at Trinity he could have complete authority to implement his vision.
There were, of course, impediments to that goal, not least his white colleagues. Many couldn’t understand his love of black-style worship or emphasis on the role of Africans in biblical history. Wright recalls nearly coming to blows in 1978 with a white associate minister who called his church a « cult » and derided him for having a « big ego. »
TWENTY-TWO BLACK church members who did not like the direction in which Wright was taking Trinity lodged a complaint with the UCC, then left the church. Wright attacked them as Uncle Toms « running to ‘massa’ to tell a white man what they thought was happening to their Negro church. » He had nothing but contempt for these middle-class blacks. They were, he noted, « bourgeois Negroes who wanted to be white. » Wright considered himself a « new Black who is not ashamed of his Blackness. »
Wright had come under the sway of the writings of James Cone, a professor of divinity, father of the black theology movement and author of the seminal Black Theology and Black Power (1969). Cone taught that Christianity needed to be freed from « whiteness. » He and Wright conceived of a Christianity in which black rage and the black power ideology fused with Marxist thought. According to Cone, « black people must find ways of affirming black dignity which do not include relating to whites on white terms. » Integration was impossible because it was brought about by « black naïveté » and « white guilt. » Cone approvingly quoted Malcolm X: « The worst crime the white man has committed has been to teach us to hate ourselves. » Freeing blacks would require getting them to love their inner African and Wright would do just that–Trinity’s longtime parishioners be damned.
Trinity gave Wright a chance to introduce ordinary blacks to these writings. During the initial media dustup over Wright’s views in 2007, the media couldn’t understand Wright’s, or Obama’s, Christianity because they couldn’t understand the underlying phenomenon of black liberation theology.
It didn’t help that the mainstream media had decided to take the issue of Obama’s faith off the table. The New York Times ludicrously editorialized in 2008 that Obama’s « religious connection » with Wright « should be none of the voters’ business. » Unlike George W. Bush, Obama wouldn’t « carry religion into government, » the Times promised. In fact, Obama often invokes religion in areas–health care and economics–where it isn’t normally mentioned. An analysis by Politico found that Obama invoked Jesus far more than George W. Bush did, and cited the Sermon on the Mount to make the case for his economic policies.
Wright was Obama’s missionary in a sense, so it is worth looking at how he educated his parishioners. « I had as my goal in starting a weekly Bible class the idea of connecting the study of God’s Word to where it is we lived as Black people in Chicago in 1972, » he recalled. It would be the Gospel according to Wright. Trinity’s slogan would be « Unapologetically Black and Unapologetically Christian. » It was to be black first and Christian second. Preaching black theology, Wright made his dashiki-wearing flock the largest–and blackest–church in the largely white UCC.
In his church-associated Kwame Nkrumah Academy, the congregation’s children learned such canards as the claim that « [h]istorically, Europeans tried to build themselves up by tearing down all that Africans had done. » Obama biographer David Remnick notes that Obama approved of this « African-centered » grade school, where Wright’s God loves all people, but black people especially. And why shouldn’t he? Jesus, Wright taught, was « an African Jew, » as were most of the figures of the Bible. As Wright said in Africans Who Shaped Our Faith (1995), « evidence exists within and outside of the Bible to support the notion that the people of Israel…were of African descent! »
It is in this context that Wright’s comments on Zionism should be seen. Attacking Israel’s right to exist, Wright held that « [t]he Israelis have illegally occupied Palestinian territories for more than 40 years now. » America, by defending Zionism and its apartheid-like regime, had too long practiced « unquestioning » support of Zionism. Given his hostility to Zionism and non-« African » Jews, it wasn’t surprising that Wright’s anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in June 2009. « Them Jews ain’t going to let him talk to me, » he told the Daily Press of Hampton Roads, Virginia. They were « controlling » Obama and therefore preventing the United States from sending a delegation to an anti-racism United Nations conference. (America boycotted it on the grounds that it would descend into an anti-Jew hate fest as it had in previous years.)
Wright remained loyal to Malcolm X (Trinity United Church celebrates his birthday) and to Louis Farrakhan.
Wright even joined Farrakhan on a trip to meet with the latter’s benefactor, Muammar Gaddafi, in 1984. (Wright has also routinely bragged about his trips to Castro’s Cuba and Ortega’s Nicaragua. He predicted that his trip to Libya would cause trouble for Obama in 2008: « When [Obama’s] enemies find out that in 1984 I went to Tripoli to visit [Gaddafi] with Farrakhan, a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell, » he said.)
To further his claim that the white man was an active enemy of the black man, Wright has often recommended a favorite book of the Nation of Islam, Emerging Viruses: AIDS and Ebola: Nature, Accident, or Intentional? (1996), a self-published screed by Leonard G. Horowitz, a conspiracy theorist and former dentist, who argues that HIV began as a biological weapons project. « Based on this Tuskegee syphilis experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything. » As white people were responsible for the makeup of its government, white America bore a collective guilt, Wright said. It could not accept a black man as president of « this racist United States of America, » « the United States of White America, » and « the U.S. of KKK-A. »
WRIGHT GOT ON OBAMA’S BUS early, in the mid-1980s, when he supported Obama’s efforts to organize blacks for « social change » (i.e., to increase government welfare), and only left in 2008 when there was an increasingly serious chance of his winning the Democratic nomination and becoming president. It was, after all, Hillary Clinton–not John McCain–who used Wright as a campaign issue against Obama.
Wright had remained on the bus for so long because his friendship gave Obama an authenticity on the South Side that he otherwise lacked as a highly educated black man who grew up in white and multiracial environments. Had Obama not successfully defined himself as an ordinary African American, had he not worked the streets on poverty wages, his political career probably would have gone nowhere.
Obama came to join Wright’s church in a roundabout way, as Stanley Kurtz argues in his well-researched Radical-in-Chief (2010). We don’t know if he encountered Wright before he moved to Chicago, but it seems safe to assume he had. David Remnick recounts a significant meeting between the young Obama and Pastor Alvin Love of Lilydale First Baptist Church in Chicago. Obama and Love had organized blacks through the churches starting in 1985, so « [Obama] knew it was inconsistent to be a church-based organizer without being a member of any church, and he was feeling that pressure, » according to Love. « He said, ‘I believe, but…I want to be serious and be comfortable wherever I join.' » A pastor whom Love recommended–Pastor L. K. Curry–suggested that Obama meet Jeremiah Wright. Obama apparently liked what he saw at their meeting and he began to attend Trinity in 1988.
Obama’s decision to join Trinity was very much one of convenience. Even though he plotted his every move, we’re supposed to believe that he just happened to join the largest black church in America, whose pastor had a record for getting blacks elected to higher office. (In 1983, Wright led a coalition of black churches to help elect Harold Washington as the first black mayor of Chicago.) Obama liked to try out his ideas on Wright. « What I value most about Pastor Wright is not his day-to-day political advice, » he told the Chicago Tribune in January 2007. « He’s much more of a sounding board for me to make sure that I am speaking as truthfully about what I believe as possible and that I’m not losing myself in some of the hype and hoopla and stress that’s involved in national politics. » Wright was a means to an end.
Steeped in Marxist thought and the community organizing tactics of the radical Saul Alinsky, Obama was probably comfortable with the view that religion was the opiate of the masses and black liberation theology the opiate of blacks. Trinity Church is a place where black movers and shakers congregate. « My commitment is to the church, not to a pastor, » Obama said in May 2008. But left unsaid was just what the members of that church believed.
According to Wright, leading members have included Jawanza Kunjufu (author of Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys, which blames, among other things, interracial marriage), Iva Carruthers (who coined the term « Afrocentric » and whose work at the Jew-hating Durban Conference on Racism Wright enthusiastically endorses), and Bobby Wright, psychologist and author of The Psychopathic Racial Personality, which argues that white attitudes toward blacks are psychopathic. Other influential members include the black entertainment elite, like the rapper Common and Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey, who joined the church in the mid-’80s, eventually left in the early ’90s. An article entitled « Something Wasn’t Wright » in the May 12, 2008, issue of Newsweek explains that she knew Wright’s rants were too radical for her fans. Interestingly, though Oprah endorsed Obama and helped catapult his books to the top of the bestseller lists, she has declined to endorse him for 2012.
Common frequented Wright’s pews, occasionally rapping for its congregants. With Wright’s approval, Common even « free-styled sermons » against interracial marriage in 2005 when the Obamas were attending Trinity nearly every Sunday. (Perhaps that’s why Michelle Obama invited Common to perform at the White House in May 2011.)
Growing up in a heavily « segregated » Chicago, Common noted, you had to « enforce » black culture.
Ironically, Wright’s Afrocentrism, implicit segregationism, and explicit reverse racism didn’t prevent him from retiring to a $1.6 million home his church built for him in the lily-white Tinley Park neighborhood in 2008. The luxurious four-bedroom house features an elevator, a butler’s pantry, exercise room, four-car garage, master bedroom with a whirlpool, and spare room for a future theater or swimming pool. It abuts the Odyssey Country Club and golf course. (Its mortgage was paid for by the corrupt ShoreBank, with which Wright, along with most of the Chicago black elite, always had a cozy relationship before it went bust in 2010.)
WHERE DID OBAMA FIT in all of this? It seems he too rejected assimilation in favor of Wright’s separate-but-equal-yet-superior status for black Americans. A December 1995 article, « What Makes Obama Run, » by Hank De Zutter in the Chicago Reader, a local black newspaper, suggests as much in its profile of Obama’s first bid for the Illinois Senate. Obama, thanks to Reverend Wright’s Trinity Church, « learned that integration was a one-way street, with blacks expected to assimilate into a white world that never gave ground. » Obama bristled at the « unrealistic politics of integrationist assimilation which helps a few upwardly mobile blacks ‘move up, get rich, and move out.' »
Obama was merely following the teachings of Wright when he railed at Trinity against corporations that, Wright explains in his history of Trinity, « discriminated against women, corporations that discriminated against Blacks and Browns, corporations that supported sweatshops in Third World countries and corporations which stood in direct opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. » Capitalism was part of what led to slavery, Wright had argued. He often mentioned the black sociologist Chancellor Williams’s jeremiad, The Destruction of Black Civilization, which argues that African civilization was destroyed by the acquisitiveness–the capitalist nature–of white European civilization.
But when Wright became too embarrassing, it was time for Obama to distance himself from him. That was the not so subtle message behind Obama’s « More Perfect Union » speech in March 2008 in which he rejected Wright, not because he disagreed with him, but he had to protect himself from the charge that Wright and Trinity disliked white people. « Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect, » Obama improbably claimed. The speech, much celebrated and quickly forgotten, did what it had to do: it derailed the whiteness issue as a campaign issue.
And yet Obama never explicitly rejected the black power, anti-capitalist core of Wright’s teachings. That includes beliefs like Wright’s credo that « White folks’ greed runs the world in need. » For all Obama’s talk, he can’t claim to never have heard Wright say it. Obama titled his second book, The Audacity of Hope, after the very sermon where that line appears. Candidate Obama’s declared intention to « spread the wealth around » echoed what he had absorbed at those Trinity sermons. Now President Obama’s thinking clearly shows the same imprint, as when he preaches that « at a certain point you’ve made enough money. »
« Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., took me on another journey, » Obama once said. He merrily went along, every step of the way.
When Barack Obama met Genevieve Cook in 1983 at a Christmas party in New York’s East Village, it was the start of his most serious romance yet. But as the 22-year-old Columbia grad began to shape his future, he was also struggling with his identity: American or international? Black or white? Drawing on conversations with both Cook and the president, David Maraniss, in an adaptation from his new Obama biography, has the untold story of the couple’s time together.
May 2, 2012
Adapted fromBarack Obama: The Story,by David Maraniss, to be published this month by Simon & Schuster; © 2012 by the author.
Barack Obama transferred from Occidental College to Columbia University in 1981, his junior year. Although he left Los Angeles with enough ambitious propulsion to carry him into a more active period, he instead receded into the most existentialist stretch of his life. As he put it himself decades later during an interview in the Oval Office, “I was leading a very ascetic existence, way too serious for my own good.” In most outward ways, compared with what had come before, his life in New York was a minimalist one, without the sprawling cast of characters that had surrounded him at Oxy and in Hawaii and Indonesia. He felt no attachment to Columbia or to the first jobs he landed after graduation. But it would be a misreading to say that he was tamping down his ambitions during that period. Just the opposite, in fact. If anything, his sense of destiny deepened. He was conducting an intense debate with himself over his past, present, and future, an internal struggle that he shared with only a few close friends, including his girlfriends, Alex McNear and Genevieve Cook, who kept a lasting record, one in letters, the other in her journal.
“Where Am I Going?”
It is exponentially easier to look back at a life than to live it forward. In retrospect it becomes apparent that New York was crucial to Obama. If he had not quite found his place yet, he was learning in which directions not to go and how to avoid turns that would lead him off the path and into traps from which it would be hard to escape. Even when he was uncertain about much else, Obama seemed hyper-alert to avoiding a future he did not want.
At age 20, Obama was a man of the world. He had never been to south-central Kansas or western Kenya, the homelands of his ancestors, yet his divided heritage from Africa and the American heartland had defined him from the beginning. He could not be of one place, rooted and provincial. From his years living in Indonesia, where he was fully immersed in Javanese schools and culture; from his adolescence in Hawaii, where he was in the polyglot sea of hapa and haole, Asians and islanders; from his mother’s long-term commitment to development work overseas; from his friendship with Pakistani students at Occidental and his extended visit to their country—from all of these he had experienced far more global diversity than the average college junior. He knew the ways of different cultures better than he knew himself.
Obama’s first apartment in New York, which he shared with Phil Boerner, a friend from Oxy, was at 142 West 109th Street. Heat and hot water were scarce commodities. When the nights turned colder, the roommates took to sleeping bags for warmth and spent as little waking time in the apartment as possible, holing up in Butler Library, at 114th, parts of which were open all night. Some mornings, eager to flee their quarters, they walked to the corner of Broadway and 112th to eat at Tom’s Restaurant, the place immortalized later as the fictional Monk’s, a familiar meeting place for the characters on Seinfeld. A full breakfast went for $1.99.
The loneliness of Obama’s New York existence emerged in his letters to Alex McNear, a young woman from Occidental who had enchanted Obama when she was co-editing the literary magazine Feast, and with whom he reconnected when she spent the summer of 1982 in New York. Alex had always been fond of Barry, as she called him, and “thought he was interesting in a very particular way. He really worked his way through an idea or question, turned it over, looked at it from all sides, and then he came to a precise and elegant conclusion.” When Alex came to New York, she gave Obama a call. They met at an Italian restaurant on Lexington Avenue, and, as she remembered the night, “we sat and talked and ate and drank wine. Or at least I drank wine. I think he drank something stronger. It was one of those dark, old Italian restaurants that don’t exist in New York anymore. It was the kind of place where they leave you alone. I remember thinking how happy I felt just talking to him, that I could talk to him for hours. We walked slowly back to my apartment, on 90th, and said good-bye. After that we started spending much more time together.”
Alex remembered it as a summer of walking miles through the city, lingering over meals at restaurants, hanging out at their apartments, visiting art museums, and talking about life. She recalled one intense conversation in particular as they stood outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Obama was obsessed with the concept of choice, she said. Did he have real choices in his life? Did he have free will? How much were his choices circumscribed by his background, his childhood, his socio-economic situation, the color of his skin, the expectations that others had of him? How did choice influence his present and future? Later, referring back to that discussion, he told Alex in a letter that he had used the word “choice” “as a convenient shorthand for the way my past resolves itself. Not just my past, but the past of my ancestors, the planet, the universe.” His obsession with the concept of choice, he said in a later interview at the White House, “was a deliberate effort on my part to press the pause button, essentially, and try to orient myself and say, ‘Okay, which way, where am I going?’ ”
The long-distance relationship with Alex McNear after that summer—they would drift apart as time wore on—was conducted mostly through a series of passionate letters sent between his apartment (he was then living at 339 East 94th, in Manhattan) and hers, at 2210 Ridgeview Avenue, in Eagle Rock, California. By her account, the passion was as much about ideas and words as about their romance—what she later called “that dance of closeness through language.” Alex was interested in postmodern literary criticism, and her arguments brimmed with the deconstructionist ideas of Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher. In one letter she told Obama that she was writing a paper in her modern-poetry class at Occidental about T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” His reply wove its way through literature, politics, and personal philosophy:
I haven’t read “The Waste Land” for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes. But I will hazard these statements—Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times. You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?
He was trying to find his place in the whirl of humanity, while at the same time refining the literary riffs that filled up page after page of his journals. Here’s a passage from another section of that same letter:
Moments trip gently along over here. Snow caps the bushes in unexpected ways, birds shoot and spin like balls of sound. My feet hum over the dry walks. A storm smoothes the sky, impounding the city lights, returning to us a dull yellow glow. I run every other day at the small indoor track [at Columbia] which slants slightly upward like a plate; I stretch long and slow, twist and shake, the fatigue, the inertia finding home in different parts of the body. I check the time and growl—aargh!—and tumble onto the wheel. And bodies crowd and give off heat, some people are in front and you can hear the patter or plod of the steps behind. You look down to watch your feet, neat unified steps, and you throw back your arms and run after people, and run from them and with them, and sometimes someone will shadow your pace, step for step, and you can hear the person puffing, a different puff than yours, and on a good day they’ll come up alongside and thank you for a good run, for keeping a good pace, and you nod and keep going on your way, but you’re pretty pleased, and your stride gets lighter, the slumber slipping off behind you, into the wake of the past.
Obama was the central character in his letters, in a self-conscious way, with variations on the theme of his search for purpose and self-identity. In one letter, he told Alex that it seemed as if many of his Pakistani friends were headed toward the business world, and his old high-school buddies were “moving toward the mainstream.” Where did that leave him? “I must admit large dollops of envy for both groups,” he wrote. “Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and] classes; make them mine, me theirs.”
Here, when he was 22, emerged an idea that would become a key to understanding Obama the politician and public figure. “Without a class” meant that he was entering his adult life without financial security. Without a “structure” meant he had grown up lacking a solid family foundation, his father gone from the start, his mother often elsewhere, his grandparents doing the best they could, but all leading to a sense of being a rootless outsider. Without a “tradition” was a reference to his lack of religious grounding and his hapa status, white and black, feeling completely at home in neither race. Eventually, he would make a few essential choices in terms of how he would live out his personal life, moving inexorably toward the black world. But in a larger sense, in terms of his ambitions beyond family, he did not want to be constricted by narrow choices. The different path he saw for himself was to rise above the divisions of culture and society, politics and economics, and embrace something larger—embrace it all. To make a particular choice would be to limit him, he wrote in the letter to Alex, because “taken separately, they are unacceptable and untenable.”
Looking back on that period from the distance of the White House, Obama recalled that he was then “deep inside my own head … in a way that in retrospect I don’t think was real healthy.” But the realization that he had to “absorb all the traditions” would become the rationale for everything that followed. “There is no doubt that what I retained in my politics is a sense that the only way I could have a sturdy sense of identity of who I was depended on digging beneath the surface differences of people,” Obama said during an interview. “The only way my life makes sense is if, regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality, these essential human truths and passions and hopes and moral precepts that are universal. And that we can reach out beyond our differences. If that is not the case, then it is pretty hard for me to make sense of my life. So that is at the core of who I am.”
December 1983. A Christmas party down in the East Village, at 240 East 13th Street. It was B.Y.O.B., and Genevieve Cook brought a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream. The host was a young man employed as a typist at Chanticleer Press, a small Manhattan publishing company that specialized in coffee-table books. Genevieve had worked there briefly but had left to attend graduate school at Bank Street College, up near Columbia, and was now an assistant teacher for second and third graders at Brooklyn Friends School. She was living temporarily at her mother and stepfather’s place on the Upper East Side.
The party in the sixth-floor apartment was well under way when Genevieve arrived: lights dim, Ella Fitzgerald playing on the stereo, chattering people, arty types, recent college grads, some in the publishing world, none of whom she knew except the host. She went into the kitchen, to the right of the front entrance corridor, looking for a glass, then decided it would be less fussy to drink straight from the bottle. That was her style. She fancied smoking non-filter Camels and Lucky Strikes. She liked drinking Baileys and Punt e Mes, an Italian vermouth. Standing in the kitchen was a guy named Barack, wearing blue jeans, T-shirt, dark leather jacket. They spoke briefly, then moved on. Hours later, after midnight, she was about to leave when Barack Obama approached and asked her to wait. They plopped down on an orange beanbag chair at the end of the hall, and this time the conversation clicked.
He noticed her accent. Australian, she said. He knew many Aussies, friends of his mother’s, because he had lived in Indonesia when he was a boy. So had she, before her parents divorced, and again briefly in high school. As it turned out, their stays in Jakarta had overlapped for a few years, starting in 1967. They talked nonstop, moving from one subject to another, sharing an intense and immediate affinity, enthralled by the randomness of their meeting and how much they had in common. They had lived many places but never felt at home.
At night’s end, as Genevieve recalled that first encounter when I spoke with her decades later, they exchanged phone numbers on scraps of paper. “I’m pretty sure we had dinner maybe the Wednesday after. I think maybe he cooked me dinner. Then we went and talked in his bedroom. And then I spent the night. It all felt very inevitable.”
Obama was six months out of Columbia when Genevieve Cook came along and engaged him in the deepest romantic relationship of his young life. She called him Bahr-ruck, with the accent on the first syllable, and a trill of the r’s. Not Bear-ick, as the Anglophile Kenyans pronounced it, and not Buh-rock, as he would later be called, but Bahr-ruck. She said that is how he pronounced it himself, at least when talking to her. He was living on the Upper West Side and working in Midtown, at a job that paid the rent but did not inspire him. He was still in a cocoon phase, wondering about his place, keeping mostly to himself, occasionally hanging out with his Pakistani friends, who partied too much and too hard, he thought, but were warm and generous and buoyant intellectual company. Genevieve offered something more. She was 25, three years older than he was, born in 1958. She kept a journal, as he did, and thought of herself as an observer, as he did, and brooded about her identity, as he did, and had an energetic, independent, and at times exasperating mother, as he did, and burned with an idealism to right the wrongs of the world, as he did.
A few weeks into January 1984 they were seeing each other regularly on Thursday nights (when she would be up in his neighborhood, finishing one of her Bank Street classes) and on weekends. He was living then as a boarder in a fourth-floor walkup at 622 West 114th Street. It was a rent-controlled three-bedroom apartment. She remembered how on Sundays Obama would lounge around, drinking coffee and solving the New York Times crossword puzzle, bare-chested, wearing a blue and white sarong. His bedroom was closest to the front door, offering a sense of privacy and coziness. Genevieve described it in her journal this way: “I open the door, that Barack keeps closed, to his room, and enter into a warm, private space pervaded by a mixture of smells that so strongly speak of his presence, his liveliness, his habits—running sweat, Brut spray deodorant, smoking, eating raisins, sleeping, breathing.”
Genevieve’s journal-keeping started in 1975 during her final year at Emma Willard School, an academically rigorous prep school for young women in Troy, New York, and continued through her undergraduate years at Swarthmore and on into adulthood. As the relationship began, Genevieve was taken by Barack’s mind and the vibrancy of their discussions. Day by day, week by week, her perceptions of him became more complicated.
Sunday, January 22, 1984
What a startling person Barack is—so strange to voice intimations of my own perceptions—have them heard, responded to so on the sleeve. A sadness, in a way, that we are both so questioning that original bliss is dissipated—but feels really good not to be faltering behind some façade—to not feel that doubt must be silenced and transmuted into distance. Thursday, January 26
How is he so old already, at the age of 22? I have to recognize (despite play of wry and mocking smile on lips) that I find his thereness very threatening…. Distance, distance, distance, and wariness. Sunday, February 19
Despite Barack’s having talked of drawing a circle around the tender in him—protecting the ability to feel innocence and springborn—I think he also fights against showing it to others, to me. I really like him more and more—he may worry about posturing and void inside but he is a brimming and integrated character.
Today, for the first time, Barack sat on the edge of the bed—dressed—blue jeans and luscious ladies on his chest [a comfy T-shirt depicting buxom women], the end of the front section of the Sunday Times in his hand, looking out the window, and the quality of light reflected from his eyes, windows of the soul, heart, and mind, was so clear, so unmasked, his eyes narrower than he usually holds them looking out the window, usually too aware of me.
Saturday, February 25
The sexual warmth is definitely there—but the rest of it has sharp edges and I’m finding it all unsettling and finding myself wanting to withdraw from it all. I have to admit that I am feeling anger at him for some reason, multi-stranded reasons. His warmth can be deceptive. Tho he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness—and I begin to have an inkling of some things about him that could get to me.
Much later, after the publication of his book Dreams from My Father, and after Barack Obama became famous, a curiosity arose about the mystery woman of his New York years. “There was a woman in New York that I loved,” he wrote. “She was white. She had dark hair, and specks of green in her eyes. Her voice sounded like a wind chime. We saw each other for almost a year. On the weekends, mostly. Sometimes in her apartment, sometimes in mine. You know how you can fall into your own private world? Just two people, hidden and warm. Your own language. Your own customs. That’s how it was.”
Obama did not name this old girlfriend even with a pseudonym—she was just “a woman” or “my friend.” That she remained publicly unidentified throughout his rise to national prominence became part of the intrigue of his New York period’s “dark years” narrative. His physical description was imprecise but close. Genevieve is five-seven, lithe and graceful, with auburn-tinged brown hair and flecks of brown, not green, in her hazel eyes. Her voice was confident and soothing. Like many characters in the memoir, he introduced her to advance a theme, another thread of thought in his musings about race. To that end, he distorted her attitudes and some of their experiences, emphasizing his sense that they came from different worlds. Decades later, during an interview in the Oval Office, Obama acknowledged that, while Genevieve was his New York girlfriend, the description in his memoir was a “compression” of girlfriends, including one who followed Genevieve when he lived in Chicago.
Genevieve Cook came from not one but several distinguished families. Her father, Michael J. Cook, was a prominent Australian diplomat. Genevieve’s mother, born Helen Ibbitson, came from a banking family in Melbourne and was an art historian. Michael and Helen divorced when Genevieve was 10. Helen soon remarried into a well-known American family, the Jessups. With homes in Georgetown and on Park Avenue at various times, Philip C. Jessup Jr. served as general counsel for the National Gallery of Art, in Washington. The Jessups were establishment Democrats. Philip’s father had been a major figure in American postwar diplomacy.
In Genevieve’s conversations with Barack, her family was seldom a topic. Barack provided an escape from all that, a sanctuary. She felt that she had far more in common with him than with her relatives. “That wasn’t my world,” she said of the social circles of her mother and stepfather and father. “I was through and through infused with the sense of being an outsider, like Barack was.”
In Barack Obama she had found a kindred soul, dislocated, caught in between. But she could see that this also led to distance and caution, a sensibility in Barack that she described with a particular metaphor: the veil.
Friday, March 9, 1984
It’s not a question of my wanting to probe ancient pools of emotional trauma … but more a sense of you [Barack] biding your time and drawing others’ cards out of their hands for careful inspection—without giving too much of your own away—played with a good poker face. And as you say, it’s not a question of intent on your part—or deliberate withholding—you feel accessible, and you are, in disarming ways. But I feel that you carefully filter everything in your mind and heart—legitimate, admirable, really—a strength, a necessity in terms of some kind of integrity. But there’s something also there of smoothed veneer, of guardedness … but I’m still left with this feeling of … a bit of a wall—the veil. Thursday, March 22
Barack—still intrigues me, but so much going on beneath the surface, out of reach. Guarded, controlled. Tuesday, April 3
He talked quite a lot about discontent in a quiet sort of way—balancing the tendency to be always the observer, how to effect change, wanting to get past his antipathy to working at B.I.
“A Superhero Life”
The initials “B.I.” in that journal entry stood for Obama’s employer, Business International, located at 1 Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, on Second Avenue between 47th and 48th Streets. Business International had been operating for nearly 30 years by the time Obama went to work there. Established in 1954, its stated goal was “to advance profitable corporate and economic growth in socially desirable ways.” What that entailed, for the most part, was compiling and constantly updating newsletters and reference materials for corporations that did business around the world. Obama was a very junior employee, doing research and writing reports.
By early 1984, Obama was absorbed with Genevieve and with figuring out his place in the world. Whatever and wherever that would be, it would certainly not involve Business International or anything like it. He had turned away from the rhetoric of the left, dubious of its practicality and turned off by radical remnants of the 1960s, but was also leery of succumbing to the allure of the business world. Genevieve knew that he harbored faintly articulated notions of future greatness, of gaining power in order to change things. Once, when they were in Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, they saw a young boy in costume, playing out a superhero role. They started to talk about superheroes, the comics he enjoyed as an adolescent in Honolulu, and intimations of “playing out a superhero life.” She considered it “a very strong archetype in his personality.” But he was not to be drawn out—he shut down “and didn’t want to talk about it further.”
Wednesday, May 9, 1984
But he is so wary, wary. Has visions of his life, but in a hiatus as to their implementation—wants to fly, and hasn’t yet started to take off, so resents extra weight. Saturday, May 26
Dreamt last night for what I’m sure was an hour of waiting to meet him at midnight, with a ticket in my hand. Told me the other night of having pushed his mother away over past 2 years in an effort to extract himself from the role of supporting man in her life—she feels rejected and has withdrawn somewhat. Made me see that he may fear his own dependency on me, but also mine on him, whereas I only fear mine on him He wants to preserve our relationship but either felt or wanted it to be well protected from some sense of immediate involvement.
Genevieve was out of her mother’s Upper East Side apartment by then. Earlier that spring she had moved and was sharing the top floor of a brownstone at 640 Second Street in Park Slope. The routine with Barack was now back and forth, mostly his place, sometimes hers. When she told him that she loved him, his response was not “I love you, too” but “thank you”—as though he appreciated that someone loved him. The relationship still existed in its own little private world. They spent time cooking. Barack loved to make a ginger beef dish that he had picked up from his friend Sohale Siddiqi. He was also big on tuna-fish sandwiches made the way his grandfather had taught him, with finely chopped dill pickles. For a present, Genevieve bought him an early edition of The Joy of Cooking. They read books together and talked about what they had read. For a time they concentrated on black literature, the writers Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Ntozake Shange.
If Barack and Genevieve were in social occasions as a couple, it was almost always with the Pakistanis. Hasan Chandoo had moved back from London and taken a place in a converted warehouse on the waterfront below Brooklyn Heights. Wahid Hamid, starting a rise up the corporate ladder that would take him to the top of PepsiCo, lived on Long Island with his wife. Sohale Siddiqi was part of the crowd, along with Beenu Mahmood. It was a movable feast, and invariably a matter of bounty and excess, friends losing themselves in food and conversation. Barack for the most part declined alcohol and drugs. “He was quite abstemious,” Genevieve said. She enjoyed the warmth of the gatherings, but was usually ready to go home before him. He was pushing away from the Pakistanis, too, politely, for a different reason, she thought. He wanted something more.
Beenu Mahmood saw a shift in Obama that corresponded to Genevieve’s perceptions. He could see Obama slowly but carefully distancing himself as a necessary step in establishing his political identity as an American. For years when Barack was around them, he seemed to share their attitudes as sophisticated outsiders who looked at politics from an international perspective. He was one of them, in that sense. But to get to where he wanted to go he had to change.
Mahmood remembered that “for a period of two or three months” Obama “carried and at every opportunity read and reread a fraying copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It was a period during which Barack was struggling deeply within himself to attain his own racial identity, and Invisible Man became a prism for his self-reflection.” There was a riff in that book that Mahmood thought struck close to the bone with Obama. The narrator, an intelligent black man whose skills were invisible to white society, wrote: “America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It’s ‘winner take nothing’ that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat.” His friend Barack, Mahmood thought, “was the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity, and his achievement was really an achievement of identity in the modern world. [That] was an important period for him, first the shift from not international but American, number one, and then not white, but black.”
Obama disciplined himself in two activities—writing and running. When he was on the Upper West Side, he would run in Riverside Park. When he was in Brooklyn, he would run in Prospect Park. He was what Genevieve called “a virtuous daily jogger,” and that was one of the differences between them. For weeks that summer, Genevieve challenged Barack to a footrace. Not long-distance but a sprint. If they sprinted, she insisted, she would beat him. Barack kept putting it off. “His response was merry disbelief,” Genevieve recalled. “By merry I don’t mean he laughed at me, though he was amused. He had this way … where he inhabits a mocking space—it’s sort of a loving mocking—as if to imply ‘Ah, the frailties and tendencies we all have to be delusional, self-deceiving, preposterous even, but you are cute, and I like you better for it.’ ” Finally, he relented. They picked a day, went to the park, and chose a walkway lined by lampposts for the dash. Her journal entry:
On Sunday Barack and I raced, and I won. I ran so fast my body transformed itself onto another plane. We ran, he started off behind me and I just said to myself stay ahead, stay ahead and my body became a flat thin box w/ my arms and legs coming each precisely from a corner. And I didn’t know how long I could keep it up, but I was going to try—my whole sight concentrated on the lamp post when I felt him slow and yell you beat me, at first I thought he was giving up, but then I realized he’d meant the lamp post on the left and I’d really won! The feel of the race was exhilarating, but I didn’t feel very victorious. Barack couldn’t really believe it and continued to feel a bit unsettled by it all weekend, I think. He was more startled to discover that I had expected to win than anything else. Anyway, later in the shower (before leaving to see The Bostonians) I told him I didn’t feel that good about winning, and he promptly replied probably cos of feelings of guilt about beating a man. In which case, no doubt, he’d already discovered the obverse feelings about being beaten by a woman. Nevertheless, it was a good metaphor for me, despite, as I confessed to Barack, that in some ways it would have appeased some aspect of my self-image to have tried and lost. But I didn’t; I won.
Kenya had been weighing on Obama’s mind since the death of his father, and he talked to Genevieve about wanting to visit his family in Kenya. On one occasion he had a vivid dream about his father. It was a dream of a distant place and the lost figure brought back to life, a vision that later inspired his memoir’s title. In this dream, as he recounted it in Dreams from My Father, Barack rode a bus across a landscape of “deep fields of grass and hills that bucked against an orange sky” until he reached a jail cell and found his father before him “cloth wrapped around his waist.” The father, slender, with hairless arms, saw his son and said, “Look at you, so tall—and so thin. Gray hairs, even,” and Obama approached him and hugged him and wept as Barack Hussein Obama Sr. said the words Barack Hussein Obama II would never hear in real life—“Barack, I always wanted to tell you how much I love you.”
Genevieve recalled the morning he awoke from that dream. “I remember him being just so overwhelmed, and I so badly wanted to fix him, help him fix that pain. He woke up from that dream and started talking about it. I think he was haunted.”
Genevieve and Barack talked about race quite often, as part of his inner need to find a sense of belonging. She sympathized and encouraged his search for identity. If she felt like an outsider, he was a double outsider, racial and cross-cultural. He looked black, but was he? He confessed to her that at times “he felt like an imposter. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body.” At some point that summer she realized that, “in his own quest to resolve his ambivalence about black and white, it became very, very clear to me that he needed to go black.”
Early in Barack’s relationship with Genevieve, he had told her about “his adolescent image of the perfect ideal woman” and how he had searched for her “at the expense of hooking up with available girls.” Who was this ideal woman? Genevieve conjured her in her mind, and it was someone other than herself. She wrote, “I can’t help thinking that what he would really want, be powerfully drawn to, was a woman, very strong, very upright, a fighter, a laugher, well-experienced—a black woman I keep seeing her as.”
In Dreams from My Father, Obama chose to emphasize a racial chasm that unavoidably separated him from the woman he described as his New York girlfriend.
One night I took her to see a new play by a black playwright. It was a very angry play, but very funny. Typical black American humor. The audience was mostly black, and everybody was laughing and clapping and hollering like they were in church. After the play was over, my friend started talking about why black people were so angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering—nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said—and she said that’s different, and I said it wasn’t, and she said that anger was just a dead end. We had a big fight, right in front of the theater. When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough.
None of this happened with Genevieve. She remembered going to the theater only once with Barack, and it was not to see a work by a black playwright. When asked about this decades later, during a White House interview, Obama acknowledged that the scene did not happen with Genevieve. “It is an incident that happened,” he said. But not with her. He would not be more specific, but the likelihood is that it happened later, when he lived in Chicago. “That was not her,” he said. “That was an example of compression I was very sensitive in my book not to write about my girlfriends, partly out of respect for them. So that was a consideration. I thought that [the anecdote involving the reaction of a white girlfriend to the angry black play] was a useful theme to make about sort of the interactions that I had in the relationships with white girlfriends. And so, that occupies, what, two paragraphs in the book? My attitude was it would be dishonest for me not to touch on that at all … so that was an example of sort of editorially how do I figure that out?”
Obama wrote another scene into his memoir to serve a dual purpose, exposing what he saw as a cultural gap with Genevieve. He described how his New York girlfriend finally persuaded him to go with her to the family’s country estate in Norfolk, in northwestern Connecticut, for a weekend.
The parents were there, and they were very nice, very gracious. It was autumn, beautiful, with woods all around us, and we paddled a canoe across this round, icy lake full of small gold leaves that collected along the shore. The family knew every inch of the land. They knew how the hills had formed, how the glacial drifts had created the lake, the names of the earliest white settlers—their ancestors—and before that, the names of the Indians who’d once hunted the land. The house was very old, her grandfather’s house. He had inherited it from his grandfather. The library was filled with old books and pictures of the grandfather with famous people he had known—presidents, diplomats, industrialists. There was this tremendous gravity to the room. Standing in that room, I realized that our two worlds, my friend’s and mine, were as distant from each other as Kenya is from Germany. And I knew that if we stayed together I’d eventually live in hers. After all, I’d been doing it most of my life. Between the two of us, I was the one who knew how to live as an outsider.
The differences in this case between Barack’s portrayal and Genevieve’s recollections are understandable matters of perspective. It was her stepfather’s place. They rode the Bonanza bus up from New York and got off at the drugstore in Norfolk. It was indeed a beautiful autumn weekend, though colder than expected, and Obama complained about it. He did not bring warm enough clothes, so he had to borrow a woolen shirt from Genevieve. The Jessup property was 14 acres, with woods, brook, and pond. The library was exactly as he described it, cluttered with photographs and memorabilia of the grandfather’s distinguished career. The family mostly watched the evening news in there, and played charades.
From the distance of decades, in reading the memoir, what struck Genevieve most was Obama’s description of the gravity of that library, and the vast distance between their worlds, and his conviction that he alone was the one who knew how to live as an outsider. She felt as estranged from that milieu as he did, and he knew it, and over the ensuing decades it was Barack, not Genevieve, who would move closer to presidents, diplomats, and industrialists, the world of an insider. “The ironic thing,” she noted, “is he moved through the corridors of power in a far more comfortable way than I ever would have.”
“I Pushed Her Away”
Genevieve had started teaching at P.S. 133, on Butler Street in Park Slope, that fall of 1984. She had fretted about it all of the previous summer, and now that she was in the classroom it proved even more difficult than she had anticipated. She confided to Barack one day that she had mentioned the idea of leaving to a colleague, who told her that if she stayed she would end up with a nice pension. “That was the only time he raised his voice and got really, really upset with me,” she recalled. “He went berserk about the trade-offs he saw his grandparents make for some supposed safety net at the expense of something He meant at the expense of their souls.”
That was something Obama, in his own self-assessment, deeply wanted to avoid. He said he would never keep a job just for security. In early December, after one year at Business International, he quit. He also left the apartment on 114th Street and moved in with Genevieve. It was to be a temporary arrangement until he left for Hawaii over the Christmas holidays. When he returned, he would find another place of his own, he said. Their time living together did not go well.
Monday, December 10
After a week of Barack and I adjusting to each others constant presence and his displacement, I expect that this week will make it hard to be alone again when he has gone [to Hawaii for Christmas]. We got very irritated w/ each other Fri. night and Saturday, talked about it. Thursday, December 13
Induced a flare-up yesterday between Barack and me over a suddenly felt irritation at doing the breakfast dishes. Then I was less than honest when I broached my irritation w/ Barack in the vein of, I’m going to tell you I’m irritated, but only because I don’t want to be, and expected him to just let it roll off his back … living w/ someone, you inevitably turn your private frustrations out on that person, because that kind of projection is such a basic and pervasively influencing ego defense mechanism. And too, as one is so unaware of the other person’s living reality, I had not taken into account Barack’s feeling of being displaced and in the way. In the end he said I know it’s irritating to have me here, and I wanted to say and mean, no of course it isn’t, but I couldn’t. That has been the biggest surprise, that rather than enjoying his extended presence like a very long weekend, as I think I thought I would, and reveling in the comfort of reliably having someone to eat dinner with, and talk to and go to sleep with, I’ve been …resentful I suppose—no—as he said, impatient and domineering How beneath the surface things are after all.
Before Obama left for Hawaii, she bought him an expensive Aran-wool cable-knit white sweater at Saks Fifth Avenue to replace an old one he had inherited, likely from his grandfather, that had holes in it and that Genevieve liked to wear. He was embarrassed that she had spent so much money on it.
When he returned from his western travels in mid-January, he was still without a place of his own and back in her apartment in Park Slope. He had landed his first organizing job for the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit founded in the state in 1973 and inspired by the national organization created by citizen activist Ralph Nader. Obama had focused his ambitions on organizing since his last year at Columbia, while acknowledging that he was not entirely certain what it meant. He was hired at a salary that was barely more than half what he had earned at B.I., and his job was to organize students up on the Harlem campus of the City University of New York, focusing on environmental and student-aid issues.
He succeeded at the job, by most standards, bringing more students into the organization and rejuvenating the chapter. But the issues seemed secondary to him, and he went to work every day with that same sense of remove and distance that he had carried with him at Columbia. Looking back on it decades later, he said that that first organizing job “had always felt sort of like a tryout of organizing as opposed to plunging into it in a serious way.” When he talked about the job with Genevieve, he mostly just said that it was depressing, which captured his mood much of that winter and early spring of 1985.
In his memoir, explaining his relationship with Genevieve to his Kenyan sister, Auma, he wrote: “I pushed her away. We started to fight. We started thinking about the future, and it pressed in on our warm little world.” All in the perspective, again. From Genevieve: “My take on it had always been that I pushed him away, found him not to be ‘enough,’ had chafed at his withheld-ness, his lack of spontaneity, which, eventually, I imagined might be assuaged, or certain elements of it might be, by living together. Because it felt so intrinsically to be part of his character, though, this careful consideration of everything he does, I saw it, then, as a sort of wound, one which ultimately I decided I was not the person he would ‘fix’ it with.”
At the end of March, Genevieve moved from Second Street to another apartment, on Warren Street, in Brooklyn. Barack helped her move, then found a place for himself in the 30s, off Eighth Avenue, in Hell’s Kitchen. He and Genevieve continued their earlier routine of seeing each other on weekends, but things had changed. By the middle of May, their relationship was over.
Thursday, May 23, 1985
Barack leaving my life—at least as far as being lovers goes. In the same way that the relationship was founded on calculated boundaries and carefully, rationally considered developments, it seems to be ending along coolly considered lines. I read back over the past year in my journals, and see and feel several themes in it all … how from the beginning what I have been most concerned with has been my sense of Barack’s withholding the kind of emotional involvement I was seeking. I guess I hoped time would change things and he’d let go and “fall in love” with me. Now, at this point, I’m left wondering if Barack’s reserve, etc. is not just the time in his life, but, after all, emotional scarring that will make it difficult for him to get involved even after he’s sorted his life through with age and experience.
Hard to say, as obviously I was not the person that brought infatuation. (That lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere!)
Obama had been thinking about Chicago since April 29, 1983, when Harold Washington made history, sworn in as the city’s first black mayor. Obama’s hope initially had been that he could land a job in the Washington administration after he graduated, which only showed how unschooled and naïve he was. Not until a decade later, when he was fully immersed in the give-and-take world of Illinois politics, would he learn how crucial it was to have a patron, or “Chinaman,” as it was called in that inimitable legislative milieu. In the spring of 1985—from the remove of New York City, having visited Chicago only once in his life, on a summer tour of the mainland with his family when he was 12 years old—Obama had no Chinaman, but he did have something. He had a telephone call from Jerry Kellman.
The connection began when Obama was at the New York Public Library and came across the latest copy of Community Jobs, a publication of six to eight pages that listed employment opportunities in the social-justice and social-services fields. One listing was for a group called the Developing Communities Project, which needed a community organizer to work in the Roseland neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Right city. Right line of work. Obama sent in his résumé and cover letter, something he had done many times before with no luck. Two matters left unstated in the ad were that Kellman, who oversaw the project, specifically wanted an African-American for the job, and that he was getting desperate.
Obama’s application seemed intriguing, though it gave no indication of his race. The résumé noted his Hawaiian childhood. The surname sounded Japanese. Kellman’s wife was Japanese. He knew that Obama could be a Japanese name and that Japanese-Americans were common in Hawaii. It would take a conversation to find out more, so he reached Obama in New York and they talked on the phone for about an hour. At some point, without asking directly, Kellman came to the realization that Obama was black. It was even more apparent to him that this applicant was smart and engaging and interested in social issues. Definitely worth a deeper look. Kellman told Obama that he would be in Manhattan soon to visit his father, a theatrical-copyright attorney who lived at 92nd and Broadway, and suggested they get together then. The meeting took place across town and down in Midtown, at a coffee shop on Lexington Avenue.
Kellman challenged Obama, throwing questions in his path as obstacles, one after another. Why did he want this line of work, with its low pay, long hours, and endless frustration? How did he feel about living and working in the black community for the first time in his life? “I asked him, ‘Why do you want to do this? Why do you want to organize? You graduated from Columbia. You are an African-American when corporations are looking for people like you. Why don’t you do something else?’ But first, Why? Where does this come from? What place and how deep does it come from? And what I got from him was that the people in the civil-rights movement were his heroes. And I also got from him that his mom was a social activist, an academic social activist, but a social activist.”
As the coffee-shop conversation progressed, Obama turned the tables and started interviewing Kellman. He wanted to make sure that the Developing Communities Project was legitimate and serious. This wasn’t some far-left enterprise, was it? He had moved beyond that, he said. Obama turned his questioning to Chicago and what this disheveled white man could teach him. Kellman wondered what Obama knew about Chicago. Not much. Hog butcher for the world, Obama said, reciting the famous Carl Sandburg line. Not anymore—the stockyards had closed, Kellman responded. Obama mentioned the Cubs, perennial losers, and Harold Washington, the town’s new winner. He pressed Kellman for more observations about the city and the South Side neighborhoods, what was happening with the steel mills, the decline of factory work, the fraying of families and communities. The more they talked, the more it became obvious to Kellman that Obama was his man.
Before leaving New York, Barack spent $2,000 on a blue Honda Civic that he would drive into the heartland to start his new life. He also took along the white cable-knit sweater that Genevieve had given him for Christmas. It would comfort him in the cold Chicago winter.