Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Barack Obama saw his future home for the first time a quarter-century ago.
He was a year out of Columbia, working in Harlem as a community organizer, when he rode to Washington with a scrum of college undergraduates protesting proposed cuts in student aid. After a long day on Capitol Hill, they walked west along the Mall, then circled around to Pennsylvania Avenue and paused in front of the White House. Beyond the fence, past the northwest gate, lived Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States.
Ambitious political thoughts would enter the young traveler's mind soon enough, but not yet. The year was 1984. Obama, a study of cool on the outside, burned inwardly with what he once described in young black men as a "knotted, howling assertion of self." At age 22, he was just emerging from a few lonely years in New York, a lost period even in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father." He had not yet figured out the life course that would take him from then to now -- to this historic day, Jan. 20, 2009, when he enters that same White House to live and work as President Obama.
There is improbability in the making of any president, some more than others, none comparable to Obama. From Lincoln to Truman to Clinton, the cast of American presidents who came out of nowhere, with no connections, is as conspicuous as the well-born lineage of Adams and Roosevelt and Bush. And there were some intimations of fame, real or imagined, along the way with Obama, dating to his toddler days in Honolulu when his grandfather told camera-toting tourists that the chubby, tan little boy at his side was the progeny of a great Hawaiian king. In later years, men of a more serious mien, from the constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe at Harvard to the federal judge Abner Mikva in Chicago, were sufficiently impressed to proclaim that young Obama had the wherewithal to become the first black president.
But it is common to find bits of predictive bread along the trail of a prominent life when retracing it. Who knows how many sure-bet future national leaders have slid instead into anonymous careers? In the 47 years since he was born in Hawaii to a white teenage mother and a black African father, as distant from the White House figuratively and physically as it is possible to get in the United States, the Obama story has unfolded as a triptych of the unlikely. The biography of his family, the sociology of his skin color and the geography of his political rise -- these three panels of his story combined to make the end result all the more vivid, if implausible.
The first president to enter the White House with a literate and introspective memoir behind him, Obama is his own book of firsts. He is the first president with a foreign father. He is the first president to grow up in Hawaii, the 50th state. He is the first president whose parents earned doctoral degrees. He is the first president who once could speak the Indonesian language. He is the first president who was president of the Harvard Law Review. He is the first president who was a hapa, as they are called in Hawaii, with parents of different races. He is the first president who has a sister from Asia and a sister from Africa and a wife from the black working-class South Side of Chicago. And he is the first African American president, yet one with no slaves but a few slaveholders in his ancestry.
Obama is the creation of restlessness, searching, odd connections. He springs out of this wide world, defined by disparate locations that together enfold many of the central themes and movements of modern times.
His father comes out of Kenya as it struggles through anticolonialism toward freedom and the promise and disappointments of a new Africa. His mother comes out of a Seattle suburb at a time when education and global optimism are the twin gods of postwar America's liberal middle class. His parents connect briefly in remote Hawaii, where East meets West, the world's future in redefining race. His mother becomes obsessed with Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, a vibrant and dangerous clash of old and new cultures, testing the rights of women and of individuals in an authoritarian state.
Obama grows up without a father and often apart from his mother, wrestling with feelings of abandonment while trying to resolve perplexing questions of race and identity. After attending Honolulu's elite prep school, he leaves the faraway island for the cosmopolitan areas of Los Angeles, New York and Boston before settling in Chicago, building a family, a network of close friends and a political life in a city that has served as a social and cultural haven for so many black Americans who migrated there before him.
The traits that might define President Obama arise from this history: his blend of idealism and pragmatism, his intellectualism and ego, his calm aggressiveness and seeming lack of neediness, his determination not to be boxed in, his open-minded guardedness and aversion to naiveté, his capacity to view himself from outside as a character in his own story, alternately dramatic and ironic. Coming of age as a "mutt like me," as he said at the first news conference after his election, at once set him apart, making his journey often a lonely one while also making him seem accessible to the world.
It is a modern-day version of the classical odyssey, leaving home for a long journey in search of home. In his memoir, Obama's search takes him back to the place that was least familiar to him during his childhood, to his father's roots, in the village of Alego in the central Nyanza district in the country of Kenya. The African saga is so chaotic and exotic -- the sights, smells and tangle of relationships with various relatives from different marriages -- that it tends to overwhelm the other side of the family, which has its own measure of color and racial significance. This story starts on the turf of his white grandfather: the town of El Dorado in the county of Butler in the state of Kansas.
From El Dorado to the White House
As the geographic center of the United States, Kansas suggests the stability of Middle America, Dorothy's no-place-like-home of "The Wizard of Oz" but also the churning and yearning that reshaped the American idea of equality. The seminal court decision that desegregated the nation's public schools, in Brown v. Board of Education, came out of Kansas in 1954. Exactly a century earlier, the state played a critical role in the slavery disputes that led up to the Civil War. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, a contentious compromise that left the voters of the territories to decide whether their states would be slave or free, spawned a period when "Bleeding Kansas" became a violent battleground in the fight between abolitionist and proslavery forces. The state motto, "Ad Astra per Aspera" -- "to the stars, through difficulty" -- was meant to convey how Kansas joined the Union in 1861 after a fierce struggle to become a free state.