Advertisement
News

A product of struggle

Four years ago, Barack Obama introduced himself to America by painting a picture of a nation that was united, somehow, in spite of itself.

The pundits, he said in the keynote address to the Democratic National Cnvention, like to "slice and dice" the country: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats.

Advertisement

"But I've got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states."

His task that night was to ready the crowd for the presidential nominee, John Kerry, but in the end his words were most memorable for an argument that challenged the partisan divide - built on the foundation of his own unique story.

Advertisement

Since then, on his successful campaign to become the nation's 44th president, it has become a familiar element of his speeches. His black father was from Kenya, and his white mother from Kansas, a story he calls uniquely American.

But it's more complicated than that.

Abandoned by his father, separated for long periods from his mother, Obama searched for many years to find his identity. He was caught between his love and loyalty for his white family and his respect for and inchoate sense of belonging to the black community.

He writes in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, that his adolescence in Hawaii provoked "a fitful interior struggle ... trying to raise myself to be a black man in America."

He eventually learned to navigate between black and white worlds, a skill that would play well in the political arena. He earned a reputation as a pragmatist and a consensus builder, along the way raising the bridges that would sustain his ambition.

A telephone call

As a scholarship student at Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1979, Obama faced assertions of identity everywhere: Democrat/Socialist Alliance, Black Student Association, Jewish Student Action Coalition, Feminist Support Group, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan. He didn't relate to the anger, the sense of marginalization, that other black students felt, and when he copped to popular stereotypes and assumptions, he realized he was living, in his words, "a lie."

"My identity might begin with the fact of my race," he wrote in his memoir, "but it didn't, couldn't, end there."

Advertisement

Obama left Occidental in 1981 to finish his degree in political science at Columbia. He had spoken with his mother about taking a trip to Kenya. She encouraged him, and then the phone rang.

"Barry? Barry, is this you?"

"Yes. Who is this?"

"Aunt Jane. Listen, Barry, your father is dead. He [was] killed in a car accident."

Over the next few years, he would learn how his Harvard-educated father's dreams for changing Kenyan society foundered on harsh realities, leaving him burdened, drinking and unhappy. Obama recently told Vanity Fair, "I do think that part of my life has been a deliberate attempt to not repeat mistakes of my father."

Coasting no longer seemed an option. He read more - Nietzsche, Morrison, Melville and the Bible - and stopped getting high.

Advertisement

By 1984, he was working for a consulting firm, living on New York's Upper West Side. On some days he would catch sight of himself, suit and tie, briefcase in hand, in the elevator doors and feel a rush of power and then, suddenly, remorse.

A friend who worked with Obama told David Mendell, author of Obama: From Promise to Power, that Obama always talked about the New Rochelle train, "the trains that took commuters to and from New York City, and he didn't want to be on one of those trains every day. The image of a life, not a dynamic life, of going through the motions ... that was scary to him."

A drive to Chicago

He wasn't exactly sure what a community organizer did, but he liked the idea. It fit with the liberal sensibility encouraged by his mother. When friends asked, he railed on about the need for change with a capital C. So he quit his job and started working part time for a Ralph Nader group in Harlem.

Then he saw an ad looking for organizers to help churches on Chicago's South Side stem unemployment and foreclosures triggered by the '81-'82 recession. In June 1985, he drove west to a city where he knew no one. The job paid $10,000 a year.

He set up interviews, up to 40 a week. He was indefatigable. Catholic, African Methodist, Baptist, each congregation was an island unto itself, and as much as he tried to draw them together, the pastors were suspicious of his motives.

Advertisement

One day he met with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a man whose values - a commitment to the black community and black family life - he admired and, more important, who welcomed his help.

One Sunday, he arrived at Wright's church not as an organizer but as a communicant. Here he met other black professionals whose spiritual dilemmas mirrored his own. As Wright preached his "Audacity of Hope" sermon, Obama knew that, after 25 years, he had found the place he had been looking for, a place where he could "put down stakes and test [his] commitments."

It would prove to be a fateful relationship.

At Harvard Law

In 1988, Obama enrolled at Harvard Law School to learn about "power's currency in all its intricacy and detail."

When he was named president of the university's law review, the first black editor of one of the most prestigious journals of legal scholarship in the United States, he disappointed those who assumed that he would name more blacks and liberals to the board.

Advertisement

"Even though he was clearly a liberal, he didn't appear to the conservatives in the review to be taking sides," Bradford A. Berenson, a classmate and former Bush administration lawyer, told The Boston Globe. "Barack tended to treat disputes with a certain air of detachment and amusement."

Playing the game

The knock on Obama has been that he is too soft, too naive for national politics, but his first campaign, in Chicago in 1995, proved his willingness not only to play hardball but also to position himself as a politician first and a black politician second.

When Alice Palmer, who represented Hyde Park in the state Senate, endorsed him so she could run for Congress, she called his candidacy the "passing of the torch."

But when he resumed campaigning in December, after flying to Hawaii for the memorial for his mother, who had died at 52 from cancer, the landscape had shifted.

Palmer had lost the Democratic congressional primary and wanted Obama to step aside so she could run for re-election. He refused. Too many friends and allies, white and black, had invested in him.

Advertisement

When Palmer filed the petition to have her name put on the ballot, he challenged the signatures she had gathered and the signatures for other candidates. Irregularities were found, and in time he had the field to himself.

In January 1997, when he took his place among the other legislators in Springfield, he started calculating his future.

An early setback

Obama soon learned the limits of challenging the black establishment, even from the inside.

Nearly everyone tried to talk him out of running in the 2000 congressional race against Bobby Rush, former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, former leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party and supporter of late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. Obama thought Rush was vulnerable after a recent defeat in a mayoral contest, and he had calculated that Rush and the other black candidate would split the black vote, leaving him to win with the white vote.

But it was never that easy. President Bill Clinton endorsed Rush. Rush earned sympathy from voters after his son was gunned down in a robbery.

Advertisement

Then Obama, who in 1992 had married Chicago native Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, had to miss an important gun-control vote because their 18-month-old daughter had fallen ill. His opponents had a field day.

Rush beat Obama, 2-1.

'Spooky good fortune'

By 2002, Obama seemed to be back on track. He had just been re-elected for another four-year term as a state senator. He and Michelle and now two daughters were living in a comfortable condo in Hyde Park.

He was working as a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago, had a position on the board of a prominent charity and was paying down student loans and a credit card he had maxed out during the Rush campaign.

Still, something was missing.

Advertisement

Perhaps it was the memory of his mother prodding him on. Perhaps it was his fear of the New Rochelle train. Perhaps he was unwilling to let go of his dream of "creating an America that is fairer, more compassionate and has greater understanding between its various peoples," as he told Mendell, his biographer.

Or perhaps it was simply that he saw an opportunity in the coming Senate race.

For nearly a year, he polled third in the field of Democrats. Then the cards fell his way. One opponent fell out of contention when his ex-wife alleged he had tried to kill her, and another was stung by questions about his fundraising practices.

When the Republican candidate had to withdraw four months after his primary victory - divorce records revealed allegations by his former wife that he had taken her to sex clubs - the Illinois Republican Party recruited Alan Keyes, a conservative black politician from Maryland.

Obama's address to the Democratic convention sealed the deal.

He won with 70 percent of the vote.

Advertisement

"Spooky good fortune," he later described it.

Not predictable

As the fifth black U.S. senator in history and the third since Reconstruction, Obama stood out, but not as other black leaders expected.

When Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans in 2005, he sidestepped the accusations of some blacks who attributed the government's response as racist in spirit. Instead, he called the government's incompetence "color-blind."

While he voted along party lines 95 percent of the time and was scored by the National Journal as the 16th-most-liberal senator (his ranking in 2007 was the most liberal), he also sided with Republicans. He co-sponsored an immigration bill with Sens. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat.

War of attrition

Advertisement

The 2008 Democratic primary contest was historic: a woman and a black man fighting a war of attrition, state by state. The issue of race came up, but the references were mostly veiled, and Obama stayed above the fray.

Then came the video clips on YouTube showing Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, raging against America.

One March evening in Philadelphia, Obama walked to a podium flanked by a row of American flags.

Obama once again borrowed from his own past to tell a complex story about America:

"I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman ... who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street. ... These people are a part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love."

He explained the anger in the black community as a failure of the American dream. The path to a more perfect union, he concluded, "requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams."


Advertisement