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The Ghost of a Father

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

When he talks today about his father's desertion, Obama frequently summons a quotation that he believes explains how it directed him. "Every man is either trying to make up for his father's mistakes or live up to his expectations," he says. Until recently, he thought it came from Lyndon B. Johnson, who had his own unresolved issues with his father.

At one point in the campaign, Obama asked an aide to call Robert A. Caro, the preeminent Johnson biographer, to check. Caro said no, the quote was not from Johnson. The biographer was reminded, though, of something Johnson's brother had told him. The most important thing to Johnson, the brother had told Caro, was "not to be like Daddy," whom LBJ had once idolized but who later lost the family ranch and became a laughingstock.

Not to be like Daddy.

"I think he sees this as a challenge every day, that I want to do better than my father," says former federal judge Abner Mikva, a longtime Obama mentor.

When you grow up without a father, Michelle Obama says of her husband, you think about what you may have missed. "At some level, you wonder," she says. "You wonder all the time: Who would I be if I had my father in my life? Would I be a better person?"

Uncertainty crowds your mind about your own abilities. As Obama wrote in "The Audacity of Hope," his 2006 bestseller, "of all the areas of my life, it is in my capacities as a husband and father that I entertain the most doubt."

It is the reason why Dan Shomon, for many years Obama's top political aide in Illinois, urged him not to run for the U.S. Senate in 2004. "I think you're going to feel guilt about your kids," he told his boss, to no avail.

Obama hasn't found a way to reconcile his desire to be the father he never had with the long absences required of a presidential candidate. He attends parent-teacher conferences and dance recitals, and he structures his campaign day to always include a call to his daughters. But as his wife notes, "they are sometimes not ready to receive you when you call, and he has to suck that up."

"It's a struggle not just for him but for me," she says, adding that they have concluded that there is great value to their daughters in having a father with the ambition to be president. "One thing I learned from Barack is there is not one right way to parent."

Men often long for their fathers' approval, to shine in their fathers' light. Obama is asked how he feels about his father today, the dominant emotion. Regret? Unhappiness? Anger?

"I didn't know him well enough to be angry at him as a father," Obama says. "Mostly I feel a certain sadness for him, and the way that his life ended up unfulfilled, despite his enormous talents."

* * *

Barack Hussein Obama Sr. grew up herding goats in the remote village of Alego, Kenya. He belonged to the Luo tribe, one of the nation's largest. Bright and enterprising, he became in 1959 part of the first large wave of African students to study abroad. With a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, the 23-year-old quickly fell into a small group of graduate students who met on Friday evenings to eat pizza, drink beer, and talk world politics and economics.

"He was an intellectual in every sense of the word," recalls Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), who was part of the inner circle. "He was the sun, and the other planets revolved around him."

It wasn't long before Obama brought another planet into their orbit, an 18-year-old white freshman from Wichita, Stanley Ann Dunham (so named because her father had wanted a boy). In late 1960, despite concerns from both families, Obama and Dunham were married. On Aug. 4, 1961, Barack Hussein Obama Jr. was born.

The fact that there was a marriage at all -- such interracial unions were banned in 22 states -- reflected, as Abercrombie saw it, his friend's incredible confidence and daring, traits the younger Obama would later display as a politician. But the marriage did not last long. When Obama won a scholarship to study at Harvard in 1963, and didn't have the money to take his young family with him, some were not surprised that he didn't return. Abercrombie sums up the reason in a single word: ambition.

"His ambition was to be a force in Kenya, to fulfill the drive that he had to make a difference in Kenyan life and perhaps even in African life. And don't forget, this is young love -- or maybe passion is closer to it. And passions can burn out."

It was Ann Dunham who filed for divorce in January 1964, citing "grievous mental suffering," according to court documents. Whatever anger she felt, she did not share it with her son. She made a point of telling Barry that his smarts, character and charm came from his father. Years later when he became upset about his father's behavior, she counseled against judging him too harshly.

The effect, as Obama's sister Maya Soetoro-Ng saw it, was to make him more independent. "It made him perhaps more introspective, perhaps more thoughtful than many people his age," says Soetoro-Ng, the daughter from Dunham's second marriage, to Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student she met at the University of Hawaii. Soetoro moved the family to Indonesia, where Barry lived for four years before returning to Hawaii to live with his grandparents and to attend the prestigious Punahou prep school. The Dunham-Soetoro marriage would not last either.

Every adult in Barry Obama's life, it seemed, was something of a rolling stone -- his grandparents had moved around, and his mother had hopscotched back and forth from Indonesia to Hawaii, getting her master's degree in anthropology and becoming an expert in microfinance. His father? He wrote occasional letters, on a single blue sheet, with messages that seemed disingenuous, sometimes baffling.

"Like water finding its level," the father once wrote, "you will arrive at a career that suits you."

It would take Barry years -- and a 1987 sojourn to Kenya -- to unravel the mystery of his father, who died in a car accident in 1982. The painful truth was that his father had a series of tangled relationships -- by some accounts, four wives and nine children. When he came to the United States, he left behind a pregnant Kenyan wife and a child. And when he returned to Kenya, he took with him an American woman he had met at Harvard, with whom he had a brief marriage and two children.

Professionally, he was prosperous enough to drive a Mercedes and generous enough that family members and friends knew where to go for handouts. But he often drank too much, stayed out too late, mouthed off too frequently. Though a respected economist in his country, he never reached the heights he set for himself.

"His ideas about how Kenya should progress often put him at odds with the politics of tribe and patronage," his son said in a 2006 speech in Nairobi, "and because he spoke his mind, sometimes to a fault, he ended up being fired from his job and prevented from finding work in the country for many, many years."

Abercrombie witnessed the crumbling of Barack Obama Sr. during a trip to Africa in 1968. He and a mutual friend from Hawaii stayed with their old pal in Nairobi. "It was clear to us how disappointed he was," Abercrombie recalls. "He was drinking. There was a bitterness in him, an edge."

Years later, after "Little Barry" had become an Illinois state senator and had unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) for a congressional seat, Abercrombie telephoned Obama to let him know that he had been a friend of his father's. Obama was grateful for the call, Abercrombie says, but left the impression that "he didn't want to pursue it."

Though both now serve in Congress and Abercrombie is an ardent supporter of Obama's presidential campaign, they have never discussed his dad. "We've never explored it, not even a little bit," Abercrombie says. "And that might have something to do with him."

Obama says he normally sees Abercrombie on Capitol Hill and the conversation is typically about politics and legislation. "It's certainly not out of a sense of avoidance."

But it is also true that Obama, after his election as the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review, wrote a 442-page memoir, published in 1995, that deeply explores his father's absence. It is rich with dialogue, precise recollections and emotion-laden self-analysis. It concludes with several chapters about his visit to Kenya, where he meets siblings, aunts, uncles, his grandmother and his father's ex-wives, and he finally understands the turmoil that consumed his father's life. At the end of the book, Obama is sitting between the graves of his father and paternal grandfather, weeping.

"When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me," he writes. "I felt the circle finally close. I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America -- the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I'd witnessed in Chicago -- all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father's pain."

At some point, maybe enough is enough.

"I think that book was very cathartic for him, and it was a hard book to write," Michelle Obama says. "It was very hard for him to get all the pieces and make sense of them. But once you do that, you're done. I think he has clarity on that part of his life."

* * *

Those who know Obama say he didn't seem to need a replacement father.

He was always good at finding "different kinds of people he could learn from," says Jerry Kellman, a Chicago community organizer who worked with Obama for three years. Abner Mikva became one of those people, as did the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his pastor, as did Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr., among others.

Kellman notes that "mentors very quickly ceased to be mentors with Barack, they became collaborators. . . . He was able to form intimate relationships with people, but they were friendships. He was not in search of surrogate fathers."

In a speech he gave just before Father's Day this year at a church in Spartanburg, S.C., Obama told some stories. One was about Frasier Robinson, his late father-in-law, whose multiple sclerosis was diagnosed when he was 30 and who made it to work every day at a water-filtration plant, even if he had to rely on a walker to get there. He sent two kids to Princeton. To Obama, a model father.

And then there was the story of 22-year-old Joshua Stroman, now a senior at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., and president of the student body. His journey brought the church audience to its feet.

"Joshua never knew his father," Obama said, "and when he was very young, his mom and stepfather both died from cancer. . . . He was then taken in by family members who were involved with gangs and drugs. He experimented with that lifestyle for a bit, and his low point came when he went to jail at 18 years old. That's when he decided that his story would have a different ending."

Asked about his encounter with Obama months later, Stroman says he felt the pull of Obama's presence during the few minutes they shared in a holding room. He wanted more connection, but there was not enough time. It would have been "cool," Stroman says, to talk to Obama about what it meant to lose a father. "I guess we do share that link, and we're not the only ones."

W.E.B. Du Bois, Jackie Robinson, Ralph Ellison, Clarence Thomas, Al Sharpton, Shaquille O'Neal, Samuel L. Jackson. All are black men who grew up without their biological fathers. More than half of the nation's 5.6 million black boys live in fatherless households, 40 percent of which are impoverished.

"It's an enormous problem," Obama says, but one he has been willing to engage, including highlighting examples of good parenting, co-sponsoring a "responsible fatherhood" initiative in the Senate and sometimes prodding black men to do better.

"If we are to pass on high expectations to our children," he said in a 2005 speech on the South Side of Chicago, "we've got to have high expectations for ourselves. . . . It is a wonderful thing that you are married and living in a home with your children, but don't just sit in the house watching 'Sports Center' all weekend long."

Sometimes when Obama sees friends who have their fathers to rely on for support and advice, "I look at them with a little bit of envy," he acknowledges. But not remorse. The abandoned son is still working to carve out something positive from the legacy of the goat herder, who also dreamed of changing a nation.

A lot of Democrats offer programs, Obama says, but his personal history has given him something more: "the ability to connect with men who didn't have fathers themselves and to tell them, 'Your obligation is not to perpetuate that cycle of absence but to engage with your child.' " Maybe, he says, that's "something I can offer as a candidate and a president."

Research editor Alice Crites and staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Rena Kirsch contributed to this report.

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