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The Front-Runners: Barack Obama

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Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007; 1:00 PM

"His father had become a ghost to him, an opaque figure hailed as brilliant, charismatic, dignified, with a deep baritone voice that reminded everyone of James Earl Jones. Ten-year-old Barack Obama had not seen his father in eight years, not since the old man went off to study at Harvard and never came back. ... Thoughts of his father continue to 'bubble up,' as Obama puts it in an interview, 'at different moments at any course of the day or week.' Sometimes the trigger will be a newspaper story he is reading about Africa. Or, he may be driving on the South Side of Chicago and spot a group of boys on the corner 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."

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Washington Post writer Kevin Merida was online Friday, Dec. 14 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his article exploring Barack Obama, his relationship with his father, and his campaign for the presidency.

The transcript follows.

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Kevin Merida: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining.

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Washington: What about Obama's mother? Never hear him (or anyone else) speak about her. I imagine she must have had some influence on his life, as she was more a part of it than his father was -- or was she? Did she also abandon him and leave him with his grandparents?

Kevin Merida: His mother indeed had considerable influence on his life. In fact, in the updated preface of his memoir, "Dreams from My Father," he says had he known his mother would not have survived her illness -- she died of cancer -- he might have written a different book. His mother was an anthropologist, and a pioneer in microenterprise development, a close friend of hers told me. She recognized early on the importance of supporting poor women in developing countries, at the village level.

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Palisades Park, N.J.: Most politicians who rise as Obama has risen usually have people who stay with him/her throughout that rise (Carter had Jody Powell, Bush 41 had Jim Baker). Who are the people who have remained close to Obama? Has anyone dropped from his inner circle, and if so, why?

Kevin Merida: David Axelrod, the preeminent political consultant in Chicago, has been with Obama throughout his rise. Abner Mikva, a former federal judge who served in Congress and as a White House senior staffer, has been a longtime mentor. Others have been helpful in his rise, including Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones and Harvard Law School Prof. Charles Ogletree.

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Annapolis, Md.: How do you perceive Obama's past drug use? Do you believe it was -- as he describes it -- a way to escape questions about identity and self? Or do you think it may be a convenient excuse to explain reckless youthful behavior?

Kevin Merida: He wrote his memoir while he was still at Harvard Law School. It seemed an attempt to put his own young life and search for identity in some perspective. It is refreshingly candid. Voters will make what they will of the events of his past. He would not be the first politician or public figure to experiment with drugs or to acknowledge such.

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Washington: Good afternoon. I have a question for Barack. With him having a direct bloodline to Africa, as president, what efforts will he make to support and promote "real development" in Africa with American leadership?

Kevin Merida: He certainly has the interest. In 2006, he gave a speech at the University of Nairobi in which he said that he believed the U.S. and other nations had an obligation -- and a self-interest -- to be full partners with Africa, with a foreign policy that gives hope and opportunity to the continent. But at the same time, he challenged Kenya: "Create a government that is transparent and accountable. One that serves its people and is free from corruption."

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Albany, N.Y.: Obama's grandparents from Kansas seem quite unusual for their time and place. Am I correct that Obama's grandmother is still alive, and if so did you contact her

Kevin Merida: Sen. Obama's maternal grandmother Madelyn (Toot, he called her) is still alive, but in poor health in Hawaii.

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Williamsburg, Va.: As a 51-year-old African American female who admires Clinton for her courage and convictions and had supported her -- I believe this country is ready for new and fresh ideas. Give this man the opportunity to learn and make the mistakes that the other old and stale leaders have made in the past.

Kevin Merida: This dilemma that weighs on many black voters -- whether to support Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama -- is not new. Back in 1984, many black Democrats were torn between Walter Mondale and Jesse Jackson, especially established politicians. There was a concern that black voters would be wasting their vote giving it to Rev. Jackson because he couldn't win. Unlike Obama, though, Jackson had a long record as a civil rights figure and was well known to many African Americans, and the overwhelming percentage of black votes that he received was a reflection of that. Unlike Rev. Jackson, Sen. Obama is thought to be someone who has a shot at winning the nomination and his campaign is being evaluated differently.

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Lansing, Mich.: I hope Obama does well. Maybe I am cynical, but with the Democratic machinery seeming to be behind Hillary Clinton, it seems that we are going to be stuck with her as our Democratic choice. With all the baggage that another Clinton is going to carry and the negative effect that such a nomination will have on Democratic congressional candidates, it seems incredible that she is apparently on her way to securing the nomination, if one looks at the national polls.

Kevin Merida: Even though this has been already a long campaign, the votes will come quickly in a short period of time -- Iowa and New Hampshire within five days of each other, and 20 states voting on Feb. 5. The dynamics of a campaign can shift quickly. We saw that in the Democratic nominating contests in 1992 (when Bill Clinton looked like he was on the ropes) and in 2004 (when it appeared early that the nomination was Howard Dean's to lose). There was a moment in 1984 when Walter Mondale looked vulnerable to a challenge from Gary Hart, and in 2000 when George W. Bush looked vulnerable against the momentum of John McCain. ... So, it's not over yet.

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Rockville, Md.: Does Obama have his father's pictures?

Kevin Merida: I do not know if he has his father's pictures. I believe he still has his father's letters. I would assume he has at least some photos of his father, given that he has developed relationships with his siblings from Africa, especially his half-sister Auma.

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Islamabad, Pakistan: It is not my business to pinpoint any existing sociopolitical deficiency in American democracy, but the election of the president is thought to be one with far-reaching impacts globally. I would like to ask a simple question that bothered me for years, but I want to mention here that I have a master's degree in American History, under the guidance Dr. Montagno in 1960-62 (American visiting professor in Karachi university).

It has become a custom on the occasion of each presidential election in America that one black is certainly brought to the forefront of the race, with extensive global media publicity; The world knows the fact well that he is put on the stage just as a "show boy." Every American also believes that it would be a miracle if an American African were elected president. Do you agree that the American society is not a balanced society, and that the democratic system is a sort of jugglery, having a lot of weaknesses and flaws?

Kevin Merida: I would agree that our democratic system has weaknesses and flaws. But it allows a Barack Obama to make his case and to be judged against every other candidate. The nation has not evolved to the point where we see multiple black candidates running as major contenders for president -- and in some election cycles we see none -- but on this occasion we have a woman, an African American and a Hispanic candidate,  all of whom have credentials to be on the same stage together. Which is some progress.

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Los Angeles: Does Obama have a history of being able to take the kind of punches that are being thrown his way? How has he responded to negative attacks in the past?

Kevin Merida: Sen. Obama is still fairly new to politics and has not been in many electoral street brawls, so to speak. In his first Illinois State Senate race, all of his contenders withdrew or were forced off the ballot because of voter signature challenges. He was not strongly challenged in the 2004 U.S. Senate race, either. The leading Democrats fell by the wayside, and Republicans brought Alan Keyes in from Maryland to put up a token campaign against him. Perhaps the toughest shots he had to take came in his ill-fated run against incumbent Rep. Bobby Rush, in 2000. He had an uphill fight and got some of the same questions about his credentials, pedigree and his "black authenticity" that have surfaced in this campaign. It was not a good race for him.

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New York: Should the Obama campaign make Mark Penn an issue? After all, Penn was "Karl Rove" long before Karl Rove was "Karl Rove." Should the pro-war members of the chattering class be forced to defend their silence on Penn's dominant role in Clinton's campaign?

Kevin Merida: I don't know how much appetite voters have for a back-and-forth discussion/dissection of campaign consultants. I think the role consultants play is far more interesting to journalists who cover the candidates (and thus are trying to sort out their strategies, etc.) than to the average voter. That said, it was very interesting, as my colleagues Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz noted in their story this morning, that even in trying to distance the campaign from its co-chairman's comments Mark Penn said on Hardball: "The issue related to cocaine use is not something the campaign is in any way raising."

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New York: Kevin, I realize The Post is in full-on spin mode regarding Perry Bacon's hit-piece on Obama, but I believe I can still ask you if the campaign itself is still upset over the piece?

washingtonpost.com: Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him (Post, Nov. 29)

Kevin Merida: First, I think it is wrong to call it a "hit piece." I know of no journalist who cares more about his or her work than Perry Bacon. He has produced some marvelous journalism in his young career, and he has much more of it ahead of him. I also think he is engaged in his own self-critique of the story you mentioned, as most good journalists do with their work. As for the response of the Obama campaign, it has been on record objecting to the piece. But all campaigns react to stories they don't like or those which they feel do not represent them fairly. It is part of the process, and I think we in the media accept that and welcome it.

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Lake Forest, Calif.: Good morning ... thank you for taking questions today. The reporter who interviewed Hillary Clinton for The Washington Post's "Front-Runners" is a sports writer. Do you have a specific area of reporting? If so, what is your usual area of reporting?

Kevin Merida: Yes, the author of the Hillary Clinton piece was Sally Jenkins. Not just a "sportswriter," but one of the finest writers -- on any subject -- working in daily newspapers. A tremendous sports columnist. I have written a number of profiles, portraits of one sort or another on a wide range of public figures. It is one of my areas of interest. I plan to write about the campaign, in different forms, from here on out -- and notably for the Style section. This is the sixth presidential campaign I have reported on or directed the coverage of. Happy to be a part of The Post's coverage team.

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Kevin Merida: Well, folks, my time is up. It's been a pleasure.

Happy holiday to all.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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