The Barack Obama Sr. I knew

Barack Obama Sr., with his son Barack in an undated photograph.
Barack Obama Sr., with his son Barack in an undated photograph. (Via Bloomberg News)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Bruce L.R. Smith
Friday, October 15, 2010

I suspect I am one of the few Americans still alive and modestly in possession of his faculties who knew President Obama's father, and I see nothing of the man I knew in Dinesh D'Souza's Oct. 8 Washington Forum commentary, "The dreams from his father."

Barack Obama Sr. was a graduate student in the economics department at Harvard while I was in the government department as a PhD student. He was in several of my wife's classes (she was studying in the econ department), and we both got to know him. I can't claim to have been close to Obama, but we became sufficiently familiar socially to invite him to our wedding in New York City in June 1964. We gave him the phone number of my wife's parents in Manhattan to call in case he had trouble finding a place to stay.

As it turned out, he didn't make it to the wedding. But he did call my wife at her parents' apartment at 3 a.m. on our wedding day. He said it was a Kenyan custom; he was in high humor, possibly aided by a few drinks. Judging from the times we had a beer in one or another Cambridge hangout for students, Obama Sr. was no teetotaling Muslim.

He was, in fact, an urbane, Western-oriented intellectual -- of a modestly leftist bent, to be sure, but much like many Indian, Pakistani and other Third World exchange students who studied economic development. Obama was playful, jested a lot and had histrionic gifts that he frequently displayed in his deep voice.

He was overall, though, a serious man (even if it wasn't always easy to tell when he was joking and when he was serious), extremely private and something of a mystery to his classmates. He disappeared at times, apparently on travel connected with his fellowship, then would reappear in good spirits and give the appearance of having accomplished some mission. It was known that he was close to Tom Mboya, a leading Kenyan politician who many thought would be a great friend of the West. Some of his fellow economics students speculated that Obama Sr. was on some sort of mission for Mboya, but no one really knew.

D'Souza made much of one 1965 article to buttress his claims about Obama Sr.'s militant anti-colonialism. One supposedly telling point, according to D'Souza, was Obama's pointed reference to Chinese (and European) control of the Kenyan economy. I know from the several economic development courses I took at the time that the Chinese entrepreneurial role in Third World economies in Africa and Asia was widely discussed and acknowledged as a problem. In the political climate of the day, the senior Obama's rhetoric was not that of the most rabid anti-Western fringe.

A close reading of "Dreams From My Father" does not support D'Souza's contention that the president inherited political radicalism from his father. More telling are the passages that refer to the father as a man of reason, a defender of modernity against tribalism and corruption, and as one unfairly ostracized by Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta for opposing the latter's corrupt practices and tribal style of politics. President Obama's self-identification as a black man did not originate with his father but is a rather more mysterious process that apparently took shape in his teenage years or even slightly later.

In "Dreams," Obama does not seem to acquire his black identity out of rage, a deep sense of social injustice or wrenching affronts. It is more cerebral, rooted in a kind of pragmatic view that one has to choose to be either black or white, and since he is obviously not white, he should accept his blackness -- while understanding that he has a special status as a bridge between the races and someone able to accommodate different traditions.

It is surely this detached, almost clinical, and highly cerebral bent that is a source both of President Obama's appeal and of the anger of his detractors. We expect our politicians to have some core, and we can tolerate much if we feel confident we know what they stand for. President Obama is a politician whose inclination is to veer with the political winds as he seeks to satisfy one side of his coalition and then another -- often leaving everyone angry at him.

What he is not is a rabid anti-colonialist. Conservatives have many reasons to oppose and criticize the president, but caricatures such as D'Souza's contribute nothing to the political dialogue.

The writer is a retired senior staff member of the Brookings Institution and now a visiting professor at George Mason University's School of Public Policy.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company