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Restless Searcher On an Improbable Path

By David Maraniss
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

The main proponent of the act was Lincoln's antagonist in Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas. Another sponsor was a senator from South Carolina, Andrew Pickens Butler, a strong advocate of Kansas becoming a slave state. There is more than a touch of incongruity in the fact that the county where Obama's grandparents grew up is named for this same slaveholding Butler. But then again, slaves are part of the family story. Old Violet. Young Violet. Nancy. Peggy. Little William. Moriah. Sarah. Caty. Susannah. Selah. Isaac.

According to documents analyzed by the expert genealogist William Addams Reitwiesner, these are the names of slaves Obama's white ancestors owned in the first half of the 19th century, in Virginia and Kentucky, before the families moved west to Kansas. During a speech two years ago in Selma, Ala., one of the iconic place names in the civil rights struggle, Obama acknowledged the family's past as illustrative of the nation's. "That's part of our tortured, tangled history," he said.

El Dorado, the county seat of Butler County, was home to Stanley Armour Dunham, Obama's grandfather, whose distinct facial features were passed along to his grandson. "El dorado" is Spanish for "the gilded one," or golden one, and represents the mythological city of wealth long sought by Spanish explorers. The El Dorado of Kansas, pronounced el-duh-RAY-dough, was gilded in oil during Stan Dunham's early years. The El Dorado oilfield started gushing a few miles east of town in 1915, three years before Dunham was born, and throughout the 1920s Butler County was enriched by an oil boom, transformed into a jumble of derricks, pipelines and refineries that briefly made Kansas the third-leading oil producing state in the country.

From El Dorado to President Obama in two generations -- but Stan Dunham was not a golden one. Family lore, passed along by Obama in his memoir, is that Stan's mother, Ruth Lucille Armour Dunham, committed suicide in 1926, when he was 8 years old. Contemporaneous obituaries say that she died of ptomaine poisoning late one November night, and according to local history archivists, suicides were common in that era and generally not covered up with euphemisms in the newspaper. In any case, young Stan, who went to live with relatives rather than his rejecting father, became unsettled and footloose. He punched a teacher at El Dorado High and did not graduate with his class, but a year later. He did have some of the charisma of his grandson, it appears, enough to get the studious Madelyn Lee Payne to marry him, secretly, several weeks before her high school graduation.

Madelyn started dating Stan Dunham, who was four years older, during her senior year after meeting him in Wichita, probably at the Blue Moon dance pavilion. One night that spring of 1940, at a slumber party with 11 friends at Nina June Swan's downtown apartment above LoVolette's China and Gifts, she shocked them all by letting on that she had secretly wed Stan earlier in May on the night of the junior-senior prom. Madelyn's friends were not impressed by her catch. They thought Stan was full of himself, a fast-talking showoff with what one called "a superior attitude."

In the first days of married life, Madelyn lived at home with her parents and two younger siblings until school let out, hiding the secret. Her father, Rolla Payne, a clerk for a pipeline company, was less than happy when he finally got the news. Stan had slicked-back hair and darker skin than most people in Butler County, and though he was not Italian, there were many Italians who came to Kansas to work in the mines near the Missouri border. Old Man Payne is said to have called his son-in-law "that wop."

In two years, Stanley Ann Dunham, Obama's mother, was born.

In Obama's unlikely saga, history would repeat itself, in a way, a generation later. Stan, a salesman with what Madelyn called "itchy feet," had taken the family to California, Oklahoma, Texas, back to El Dorado and on to Mercer Island in suburban Seattle before finally migrating farther West for a final stop in Honolulu.

And here came their daughter, Stanley Ann, the same age that Madelyn was when she secretly married Stan, befriending an older man with darker skin, a student from Africa named Barack Obama, getting pregnant by him, marrying him in private, and bearing a single child by him, a son. "Ever see the movie 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?' " Stan would later ask Rolf Nordahl, a friend and colleague at the John Hancock Insurance Co. office. "Well, I lived it."

Political Resurrection

The theme of that movie, white parents dealing with the idea of their daughter marrying a black man, seems anachronistic now, but it was a different world then. When Stanley Ann Dunham married Barack Hussein Obama in February 1961, the union of a white woman and a black Kenyan man was still illegal, breaking anti-miscegenation laws in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wyoming and West Virginia.

The racial distance the nation had to travel to reach the inauguration of President Obama can be measured by what was going on in the United States on the day of his birth.

He was born on Aug. 4, 1961. On that day in Alabama and Mississippi, an early voting rights battle was waged, with lawsuits filed in three counties where voting officials imposed prohibitively rigid standards on black applicants. In one Mississippi county, there were 2,490 blacks -- and none was registered to vote. In New Orleans that day, a federal appeals court ruled on the expulsion of six black students from Alabama State College who staged a sit-in at the Montgomery County Courthouse lunch grill, where African Americans could not eat. In Washington, five blacks who had been arrested by security police for trying to integrate the Glen Echo Amusement Park in the Maryland suburbs were asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

And in Shreveport, La., on the day Obama was born, a squadron of policemen assembled in the Continental Trailways bus depot to uphold local and state laws prohibiting black people from stepping foot in a waiting room reserved for whites. Across the Deep South that summer, black and white Freedom Riders had encountered violence and arrests as they challenged Jim Crow laws by trying to integrate buses and bus stations. At 5:20 that August morning, four African Americans arrived at the Trailways depot with tickets to take the 5:45 from Shreveport to Jackson, Miss., the hub of protests where hundreds of Freedom Riders had been arrested in previous months. When the four attempted to enter the white waiting room, they were met by the Shreveport police chief and 40 officers. The riders refused orders to leave and were arrested for disturbing the peace, along with two compatriots who had driven them to the bus station and were accused of "counseling and encouraging" them.

Aug. 4, 1964, the day Obama turned 3, was one of the seminal tragic dates in civil rights history. It was on that day that FBI agents in Mississippi, at the end of a two month search, discovered the bodies of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney after bulldozing a partly constructed earthen dam in the woods outside the town of Philadelphia. The three men -- Goodman and Schwerner white, Chaney black, all voting-rights organizers during what was known as Freedom Summer -- had been murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan with the implicit acquiescence of racist local authorities.

Seven months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson traveled along Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the U.S. Capitol to urge a joint session of Congress to pass legislation that would remove every barrier discriminating against blacks and their right to vote. The National Voting Rights Act of 1965 moved swiftly through Congress, with the Senate giving final approval to the conference report -- on Aug. 4, Obama's fourth birthday. "We've lost the South for a generation," Johnson told Bill Moyers, his aide, after he signed the measure two days later. Perhaps so, as it turned out, but without Johnson and voting rights, the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president might not have been possible 44 years later.

One popular account that spread in the aftermath of Obama's election, mostly told through the Internet, is that Robert F. Kennedy predicted in 1968 that the United States would elect a black president in 40 years. Close, but not quite. Kennedy did once state that the nation might someday elect a black president, but he was speaking on May 27, 1961, in a Voice of America broadcast. "There's no question that in the next 30 or 40 years, a Negro can also achieve the same position that my brother has as president of the United States, certainly within that period of time," Kennedy said. History, in any case, tends to move in 20-year cycles, and so does the story of Obama and race.

On the evening of April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated as he stood on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. One of the young aides looking up to him from the parking lot, waiting for King to come with them for dinner, was Jesse Jackson, then 26, who ran the Southern Christian Leadership Conference office in the northern outpost of Chicago. In one of the more dramatic and controversial moments of Jackson's early career, he flew home the next day and appeared at a memorial session of the Chicago City Council still wearing the shirt he had worn the day before. "I come here with a heavy heart, because on my chest is the stain of blood from Dr. King's head," he said. "He went through, literally, a crucifixion. I was there. And I'll be there for the resurrection."

Twenty years later, in 1988, Jackson sought the Democratic presidential nomination for a second time. He received nearly 7 million votes and won primaries in Southern states that had been at the heart of the long political struggle for voting rights: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia. And 20 years after that, the television cameras seemed transfixed by the sight of that same Jesse Jackson, back in Chicago, standing in the crowd on election night 2008, tears streaming down his cheeks as he watched Barack Obama step onto the stage as the president-elect of the United States and evoke the words of the two great martyred figures of America's difficult racial history, Lincoln and King. Human interaction is never as uncomplicated as the symbolism, and Jackson did not always accept Obama's rise without envy and skepticism, but here, it seemed, was the political resurrection that he had long ago foreshadowed.

Seeking, and Striking, Gold

But of course the coming of this black president was not preordained. By the time Obama entered elective politics in 1996, he had channeled his inward churning into a strong-willed ambition to reach the White House, a political explorer in determined search of his el dorado. He had prepared at Harvard Law School and returned to Chicago with something that golden in mind. Still, there was an uncommon amount of luck along with skill that propelled him on the path that brought him to this implausible day.

He might not have been elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996 if Alice Palmer, the incumbent from his South Side district, had not been sidetracked by an unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat and had not failed to round up the required number of signatures when she petitioned to get back in the race. That was good fortune; Obama deciding to challenge her petitions was competitive will. He probably would not have been elected to the U.S. Senate eight years later if not for the collapses of two formidable opponents: first the demise in the primary campaign of Democrat Blair Hull when it was revealed that he had beaten his former wife, then the implosion of Republican Jack Ryan after unsealed divorce records detailed his fondness for sex clubs. That was all luck. Obama deciding to run in the first place, after losing a congressional primary in 2000 and feeling the increasing impatience of his wife, Michelle, who would grant his political obsession only one last chance -- that was burning will.

It was luck for Obama to be chosen to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention at a time when he was virtually unknown outside his home state. It was outsize confidence that led him to boast to friends as he walked to Boston's Fleet Center that pivotal day, as recounted by Chicago writer David Mendell, that he was as cool and self-assured as LeBron James and would nail the speech just like the NBA star would nail a game-winning shot. He was lucky that Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign was overconfident and believed the primary contest would be over by February last year, but it was skill and will for Obama and his team to prepare for the long slog and organize in caucus states that the formidable Clinton ignored. That same cycle of luck and would be repeated over and over until the historic Election Day in November.

Many times during the dozen years of Obama's political rise, he appeared destined only for obscurity. The afternoon in 1998 when he spoke to an audience of seven people at a brightly lit ice cream parlor at 183rd and Crawford Avenue on the southern rim of Chicago, sitting on a wooden stool, relaxed with legs crossed, patiently going through an early version of a stump speech about hope and racial reconciliation that later would become his trademark. In the summer of 2000 when he flew from Chicago to Los Angeles for the Democratic convention and no one knew him, his credit card bounced, and he left after a forlorn day hanging out as an unimportant face lost in the power-lusting crowd. On the January evening in 2003 when he began his U.S. Senate campaign by driving his Jeep Cherokee up from Springfield to Rockford for a banquet honoring black and Hispanic professionals and was barely recognized and not called on to talk, instead having to sit at a back table as a motivational speaker droned on.

Mike Jordan, an insurance agent from suburban Chicago and a longtime associate, was with Obama that night in Rockford and worried that the candidate would be depressed afterward, or so in need of political affirmation that he would work the crowd for every hand he could possibly shake on the way out the door. Instead, Obama went off to a corner to talk to the 15 or so young people who had been awarded minority scholarships, thanking each of them, listening to their stories. No need to panic, Obama told his staff on the way out. No one knew us, okay, but let's see what happens.

The essence of Barack Obama has been his capacity to avert life's roadblocks and disappointments during his journey. The first could have been his unusual family biography, with the challenges it presented in terms of stability and psychology. The second could have been the sociology of race in America, with its likelihood of rejection and cynicism. And the final was the geography of elective politics, with all the variables of ideology and luck. In each case, Obama kept moving, finding his way around dead ends, avoiding the traps.

Today, a quarter-century after his first glimpse of the White House, he retraced the route from the U.S. Capitol west along Pennsylvania Avenue, this time ensconced in the back of a presidential limousine, the whole world watching, as he glided toward his new home.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

David Maraniss, an associate editor at The Washington Post, won the Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting for his coverage of Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential campaign. He is the author of "First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton," and seven other books. He has begun a biography of Barack Obama that will be published in late 2011.

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