By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 25, 2008
HONOLULU, Oct. 24 -- Of the four people who helped shape young Barry Obama into the man who stands at the threshold of the American presidency, only one is left.
Barack Obama does not know if his maternal grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, will live to see whether the improbable dream is realized. He left the campaign trail and arrived Friday at the modest apartment building at a busy intersection near downtown where he once lived with his grandparents, to see her at least one more time.
"You know, we weren't sure, and I'm still not sure, whether she makes it to Election Day," Obama said in an interview with "Good Morning America." "We're all praying and we hope she does."
The Democratic nominee crossed the country -- he campaigned Tuesday night in Miami, 4,800 miles away -- to see Dunham, whose 86th birthday is Sunday. The trip served to remind not only of Obama's biracial heritage but also the unusual and even exotic upbringing that shaped his life.
Dunham, Obama said, is the "rock" who provided financial and practical stability among the colorful and enigmatic characters who populated his young life: the Kenyan father who left early on, the anthropologist mother given to wanderlust, the dreamer of a grandfather who was, as Obama wrote, "always searching for that new start."
But Dunham was the down-to-earth one. "She's where I get my practical streak," Obama has said.
"She's the one who taught me about hard work," he told a packed stadium in Denver the night he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. "She's the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life.
"She poured everything she had into me."
The candidate often mentions Dunham on the campaign trail -- including her days in a bomber assembly plant during World War II -- and he never praises parents who sacrifice for their children without mentioning grandparents as well.
But Toot, as Obama calls her -- a shortened version of "tutu," the Hawaiian word for grandparent -- is largely unknown in the political world. She has not played a role in his campaigns, although she was filmed here in Hawaii for a commercial Obama ran during the Democratic primaries, and her poor health in recent years has kept her largely confined to her apartment.
She rarely gives interviews; the most extensive was in 2004.
Obama has not mentioned her illness while campaigning, and, as has become his custom, rarely answers questions from the reporters who travel with him. He took a break from his visit Friday morning to walk around his old neighborhood, dressed in a casual shirt, jeans and sandals. He appeared sad, and cut his walk short when he saw reporters across the street.
But Obama has talked openly about his relationship with his grandmother this week in interviews with morning network news shows.
"She has really been the rock of the family, the foundation of the family," he said on CBS's "The Early Show." "Whatever strength and discipline that I have, it comes from her."
Obama at times points to Dunham as an example of a generation of women who advanced despite sexist constraints.
She worked her way from the secretarial pool to become the Bank of Hawaii's first female vice president and the family's breadwinner. But it was a process that took more than 20 years, and in the memoir that he wrote as a young man, "Dreams From My Father," Obama said his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, complained about the treatment her mother received.
"More than once, my mother would tell Toot that the bank shouldn't get away with such blatant sexism," Obama wrote. "But Toot would just pooh-pooh my mother's remarks, saying that everybody could find a reason to complain."
Part of the reason may have been that she never thought of her job as a career.
Obama wrote that late in life, his grandmother told him she had always dreamed of life as a housewife or volunteer.
"I was surprised by this admission, for she rarely mentioned hopes or regrets," he wrote. "It may or may not have been true that she would have preferred the alternative history she imagined for herself, but I came to understand that her career spanned a time when the work of a wife outside the home was nothing to brag about, for her or Gramps -- that it represented only lost years, broken promises."
Dunham was not pleased when she found out that her 18-year-old daughter was pregnant and planning to marry Obama's Kenyan father, and Obama writes frankly about the racial dynamic of the newly expanded family and the views -- largely open and tolerant -- of his white grandparents from Kansas.
In the book, Obama recounts how his grandfather once told him that his grandmother was afraid of a panhandler at the bus stop, and that the reason she had given him money was because he was black. The words, he said, "were like a fist in my stomach."
And Obama was criticized for bringing Dunham into the controversy that surrounded the racially charged comments made by his former longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
In a highly scrutinized speech about race, the candidate said he could not "disown" Wright any more than he could his "white grandmother."
He described her as someone who "loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."
Obama did eventually disown Wright. But he often speaks of his grandparents' love and how they scrimped to send him to the exclusive Punahou Academy while his mother was living in Indonesia.
Obama -- who last visited Dunham in August, with his wife, Michelle, and two daughters coming to her apartment each day -- plans to return to the campaign trail on Saturday.
Obama has talked about how, when his mother died young of cancer, the end came so suddenly that he did not make it to Hawaii in time to say goodbye. He said he did not want that to happen again.
"One of the things I want to make sure of is that I had a chance to sit down with her and talk to her," he said of his grandmother on "Good Morning America." "She's still alert and she's still got all her faculties. And I want to make sure that I don't miss that opportunity right now."