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Required Reading in Preparation for the Swift-boating of Obama

Reported by Judy - December 14, 2006 -

There are multiple reasons for reading Barack Obama's autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. One is to learn what an extremely gifted bi-racial person has to say about growing up in a black-white world. Another is to try to search for answers to the question that Obama inherited from his father -- how far do the boundaries of family extend, what do we owe each other in a world that has grown larger than an African village?

The third reason, however, is far less noble but far more pressing. And that is to prepare to rebut what is likely to be a right-wing assault on a decent human being that will make the swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004 look like a 1960's love-in.

The jackals are already circling. First, there was Fox News' Carl Cameron's hit-piece about Obama, full of distortions about Obama's childhood of "privilege." Then came the call from disgraced-congressman-reborn-as-a-blogger Tom DeLay to investigate Obama. And then there are Republican operatives pointing out his middle name is Hussein and right-wing bloggers suggesting that he actually is a former Muslim, as The Frameshop has noted.

On the surface, Obama’s autobiography is about his search for himself, his relationship to his father, and his place as a bi-racial person in a largely black and white America. On a deeper level, however, it is a story about a search for community, about figuring out what obligations Americans have to each other, and how to forge the bonds of community that will allow us to take up those obligations more willingly. It is that universal meaning that lifts Dreams from My Father above a simple story of one person’s life and makes it speak to broader issues.

Obama finally figures out what his inheritance is from his father after meeting his father's family and visiting their home in Kenya for the first time, where he hears how his father insisted on buying gifts for friends, lending money to anyone who asked him for it, even when he had little money of his own. As a result, Obama begins to wonder what the boundaries of family are, what people owe each other.

"What is our community, and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How far do our obligations reach?" Obama asks, rhetorically, of his father. As a young civil rights lawyer in Chicago, Obama said he found himself "modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail."

Obama wrote his autobiography long before he became the freshest face among likely 2008 presidential candidates, Democrat or Republican. He also wrote it well before he had become a Democratic senator from Illinois and only the third African American to serve in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction. Obama wrote the book in the early 1990s after being approached by a publisher shortly after he was selected as the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review. The timing gives the book an air of candor and a lack of calculation that might have been missing had Obama already held -- or at least been actively striving for -- electoral office when he told his life story. Obama had few reasons to hide or embellish the facts. (He admits to drug use, for example.)

Because of his candor, I am willing to take this account of his life at face value until something proves it wrong. And in no way do the facts of Obama's life support the ridiculous claim by Fox News' chief political reporter, Carl Cameron that Obama had an "uncommonly privileged life." Obama did not grow up in the projects of South Side Chicago, although he worked in the area after graduating from Columbia University.

Obama was born in Hawaii. His mother was an 18-year-old white college student, whose parents had moved to Hawaii from Kansas. His father, Barack Hussein Obama, was an African, a native of Kenya employed as a low-level clerk who wrote letters to 30 colleges in the United States asking for a scholarship before getting an offer from the University of Hawaii. Obama already had a wife and family in Kenya when he married Obama's mother, Stanley Ann. When he left Honolulu, Stanley Ann and their two-year-old son did not go with him because he could not afford it on the scholarship Harvard offered. Obama saw his father again only once – when he was 10 and his father came to visit.

As a sign of the privileged life that Cameron claims Obama led, Cameron notes that both Obama’s parents had doctoral degrees. But Obama Sr. obtained the degree after he left his son's life. And Obama’s mother did not get her degree until he was out of high school. Another marker of "privilege" in Cameron's report is that Obama "grew up in Hawaii and abroad." By abroad, Cameron means the years that Obama spent in Indonesia, after his mother remarried an Indonesian she met as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii. Obama tells of living in a "modest stucco and red tile" house, walking dirt roads to school, of the family owning a motorcycle but no car, and of attending Indonesian schools, with his mother waking him at 4 a.m. to tutor him in an English correspondence course because she couldn't afford to send him to the International School. Although his step-father’s fortunes eventually improved, Obama's mother got a job at the U.S. Embassy teaching English to supplement his earnings.

Another tell-tale sign of privilege, according to Cameron, is that Obama attended "elite private schools," meaning, apparently, a private prep school in Honolulu. Obama writes that his mother sent him to live with his grandparents in Hawaii because the education he was getting in Indonesia was not enough for him. He was admitted to Punahou Academy, he says, "only because of the intervention of Gramps' boss, who was an alumnus" and that his admission "heralded the start of something grand, an elevation in the family status that they took great pains to let everyone know." With only one other African American child in his grade, Obama said he felt like a misfit. He writes that "I was mostly left alone. I made a few friends, learned to speak less often in class, and managed to toss a wobbly football around."

While his classmates mostly lived in spacious split-level homes with swimming pools, Obama lived with his grandparents in a small, two-bedroom apartment while his mother remained in Indonesia. After she returned, Obama lived with her and his sister in a small apartment, supported by her meager graduate student grants. "Sometimes, when I brought friends home after school, my mother would overhear them remark about the lack of food in the fridge or the less-than-perfect housekeeping," Obama rcalled.

While Cameron notes that Obama attended Columbia University, he omitted the fact that Obama also attended the lesser-known Occidental College in Los Angeles (ranked 36 on U.S. News and World’s Report rankings for liberal arts colleges in 2007). Did Cameron leave out Obama's attendance at Occidental because he did so little research that he did not know about it or because it would undercut his narrative of privilege that he is trying to spin?

Obama is unclear as to how his college education was financed, but certainly having parental support for college is hardly a sign of "privilege." And as for Harvard, Obama had been out of school and working as a community grassroots organizer in Chicago before returning to school.

Cameron referred to Obama’s parents in the present tense. Had he done any research at all (like, read his autobiography) he would know that both Obama's parents are dead.

If nothing else, reading Obama’s autobiography is a way to prepare for the coming presidential campaign, a way to load up on facts to throw out at Republican friends who watch Fox News and start to spew their nonsense about the privileged Obama.

On a deeper level, the reason to read Obama's autobiography is to learn an awful lot about black-white relations in the U.S. and how hurtful they can be. That is another one of the "privileges" of Obama’s life that Cameron fails to mention.