HOW HE GOT HERE
The Ghost of a Father
Friday, December 14, 2007
Sometimes the trigger will be a newspaper story he is reading about Africa. Or he may spot a group of boys on a street corner on the South Side of Chicago and think that one or more of them "could be me, they may not have a father at home." At other moments, he will be playing with his daughters -- Malia, 9, and Sasha, 6 -- and begin to wrestle with what kind of father he has become, what a career in politics has meant to their lives and how to guard against his father's mistakes.
Thoughts of his father "bubble up," as Barack Obama puts it in an interview, "at different moments, at any course of the day or week."
"I think about him often," he says.
He last saw his father in 1971, when he was 10 years old. Remarried and living in his native Kenya, Barack Obama Sr. sent word that he wanted to visit his son in Hawaii over Christmas.
To the son, he had become a ghost, an opaque figure hailed as brilliant, charismatic, dignified, with a deep baritone voice that reminded everyone of James Earl Jones. All the boy knew was that his father had gone off to study at Harvard and never come back. Now, the old man would put flesh on the ghost.
On the day his father arrived, young Barack, known as Barry then, left school early and headed toward his grandparents' apartment, his legs leaden, his chest pounding. He nervously rang the doorbell. His grandmother opened the door, and there in the hallway was a dark, slender man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and sporting a blue blazer and scarlet ascot.
"He crouched down and put his arms around me, and I let my arms hang at my sides," the son recalled in "Dreams From My Father," a soul - baring memoir rare for a politician, written long before Obama contemplated a run for the White House.
"Well, Barry," his father said. "It is a good thing to see you after so long. Very good."
For a month, the father hung around, speaking to his son's fifth-grade class, taking the boy to a Dave Brubeck concert, but never quite reestablishing himself. The trip's pivotal moment came one night as Barry prepared to watch "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," the annual Dr. Seuss special. The father said the boy had watched enough television and insisted that he go to his room to study. Barry's mother and grandparents intervened in what became a heated family argument. But they proved no match for the strong-willed father, who in an instant had reclaimed the paternal role he had long ago abdicated.
Barry went to his room, slammed the door and "began to count the days until my father would leave and things would return to normal."
* * *
That visit set in motion a journey to make sense of his father, so that he could make sense of himself. It was the last time he would ever see his father, whose squandered promise and abandonment of his son have molded the man who is now running for president.