Read an Excerpt
CHAPTER FOUR: BARACK OBAMA
Barack Obama, by his own admission, is the ultimate political Rohrschach test.
"I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views," he observes. "As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them."
Such candid self-awareness abounds in Obama's two bestselling memoirs, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. If nothing else, the books have established the Illinois Democrat as certainly the best writer in the 2008 presidential campaign. Indeed, Obama might have been more circumspect in writing his first book, Dreams, if he had known at the time that he would one day run for president. The volume is filled with the racial angst of a young man haunted by his black father's abandonment of his white mother.
Americans tend to elect sunny, optimistic presidents who seem capable of uniting the nation. So it remains unclear whether Obama will be hurt by his brooding prose about "white people's scorn" and "all the traps that seem laid in a black man's soul." Perhaps voters will find something refreshing about a candidate who describes himself as "an American with the blood of Africa coursing through my veins." After all, as Obama points out, "Shortly after 2050, experts project, America will no longer be a majority white country."
Obama is equally frank about "my fierce ambitions" for the presidency. But as John Kerry and Al Gore discovered in the last two presidential contests, ambitions are not votes.
In what has to be one of the biggest coincidences of the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama, like Mitt Romney, is the great-grandson of a polygamist who had five wives.
Obama's busy forefather, also named Obama, was born in 1895, orphaned as a young boy, and grew up to become a farmer near Lake Victoria. His first wife died young, so Obama married her sister, Nyaoke, and, eventually, three other women, all of whom had children.
Nyaoke's fifth son was named Hussein Onyango Obama, who grew up to become a domestic servant for wealthy whites. This fact would one day disappoint his grandson, the presidential candidate, who had imagined his grandfather to be "an independent man, a man of his people, opposed to white rule." When Barack learned the truth during a 1988 visit to Kenya, it caused "ugly words to flash across my mind. Uncle Tom. Collaborator. House nigger."
During that same visit, Barack also learned that his grandfather, who died in 1979, had been fiercely devoted to Islam. His devotion was described by one of his surviving wives, Sarah, and recorded by Barack in Dreams.
"What your grandfather respected was strength. Discipline," Barack quoted the widow as telling him. "This is also why he rejected the Christian religion, I think. For a brief time, he converted, and even changed his name to Johnson. But he could not understand such ideas as mercy towards your enemies, or that this man Jesus could wash away a man's sins. To your grandfather, this was foolish sentiment, something to comfort women. And so he converted to Islam he thought its practices conformed more closely to his beliefs."
Onyango married at least four women, including Sarah, age 16, and Akumu, who gave birth to a son, Barack Hussein Obama Sr. Abandoned by his mother at age 9, the boy was raised by Sarah, who described her stepson as "wild and stubborn."
"My father grew up herding his father's goats and attending the local school, set up by the British colonial administration, where he had shown great promise," Obama Jr. wrote in Dreams.
By the time he was 23, Obama Sr. had a wife, Kezia, and son, Roy. When Kezia was pregnant with their second child, Obama Sr. abandoned the family in 1959 to move to the United States and accept a scholarship at the University of Hawaii. The following year, in a Russian language course, he met an 18-year-old white woman with the unusual name of Stanley Ann Dunham (her father, also named Stanley, had desperately wanted a boy). Dunham, who went by the name of Ann, was a liberal feminist from Kansas. She was also an atheist.
"Her memories of the Christians who populated her youth were not fond ones," her son later wrote. "For my mother, organized religion too often dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb of piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness."
Unfazed by the fact that Obama Sr. already had a wife and children back in Africa, Dunham agreed to marry him. When news of the forthcoming nuptials reached Africa, the father of the groom fired off a letter to the father of the bride, "saying he didn't want his son marrying white," according to Obama Jr.'s account in Dreams. Dunham's parents, while taken aback, did not stop their daughter from marrying black.
"Like most white people at the time, they had never really given black people much thought," Obama Jr. wrote in Dreams. "Would you let your daughter marry one? The fact that my grandparents had answered yes to this question, no matter how grudgingly, remains an enduring puzzle to me."
And so, within a year of meeting Obama Sr., Dunham was married and pregnant.
"He was black as pitch, my mother white as milk," Obama Jr. wrote in Dreams. "In many parts of the South, my father could have been strung up from a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way; in the most sophisticated of northern cities, the hostile stares, the whispers, might have driven a woman in my mother's predicament into a back-alley abortion."
But she did not abort Barack Hussein Obama Jr., who was born in Honolulu on August 4, 1961, into a decidedly non-religious household.
"Although my father had been raised a Muslim, by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist," wrote Obama, who nonetheless cited Islam when explaining his own first name. "It means 'Blessed.' In Arabic. My grandfather was a Muslim."
Young Barack's Americanized moniker became Barry, which was often shortened by family members to Bar. His parents planned to move the family to Kenya after Obama Sr. finished his studies. But when Barry reached the tender age of two, his father left the family to accept another scholarship, this one at Harvard. He did not return to Hawaii, where his wife filed for divorce. Obama Sr. eventally married a white woman named Ruth and lived with her in Kenya, where he reclaimed his two children from his first wife, telling them that Ruth was now their mother. Obama Sr. went to work for Shell Oil Co. and prospered.
Obama Jr. later traced "the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy" to the fact that his father deserted him before "my own memories begin." He harbored a "fantasy of the Old Man's having taken my mother and me back with him to Kenya." He looked back on "a past that left me feeling exposed, even slightly ashamed," noting: "I was too young to realize that I was supposed to have a live-in father, just as I was too young to know that I needed a race."
Obama would long be troubled by his mixed-race identity and the fact his father had abandoned him. In fact, these two festering psychological wounds would come to define his very existence. He became acutely conscious of his own angst, even imagining that others could see the "tragedy" of "my troubled heart." He brooded over "the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds."
When Obama was six, his mother married another foreign student at the University of Hawaii, Lolo Soetoro of Indonesia, and the family moved to Jakarta. As a stranger in a strange land, young Barack found himself "puzzling out the meaning of the muezzin's call to evening prayer" and other mysteries. He became almost completely dependent on his new stepfather.
"It was to Lolo that I turned to for guidance and instruction," he recalled in Dreams.
Still, it took Obama "less than six months to learn Indonesia's language, its customs and its legends," he recalled. It was such a "rapid acculturation," Obama wrote, that he was soon participating in "the goose-stepping demonstrations my Indonesian Boy Scout troop performed in front of the president."
Even his diet changed.
"I was introduced to dog meat (tough), snake meat (tougher), and roasted grasshopper (crunchy)," Obama wrote in Dreams. "Like many Indonesians, Lolo followed a brand of Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths. He explained that a man took on the powers of whatever he ate: One day soon, he promised, he would bring home a piece of tiger meat for us to share."
Although his mother was an atheist, young Obama was not shielded from religion. "In our household, the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf," he later recalled. He spent his first two years in Indonesia attending a Catholic school, then "spent two years at a Muslim school," he wrote.
The latter taught the Koran, Islam's holy book, along with subjects such as math and science. "The teacher wrote to tell my mother that I made faces during Koranic studies," Obama recalled in Dreams.
As he grew older, Obama became more self-conscious about his race.
"I noticed that there was nobody like me in the Sears, Roebuck Christmas catalogue," he wrote in Dreams. "And that Santa was a white man."
Obama's mother eventually gave birth to a girl, Maya, in Indonesia, although Ann's marriage to Lolo later failed and she returned to Honolulu with her two children. Barack began fifth grade at Punahou, which he described as "a prestigious prep school, an incubator for island elites." At Christmastime, Obama's missing father, Barack Obama Sr., visited the family for the first and only time. He had sired four more sons in Kenya, two by his first wife, Kezia, and two by his third, Ruth. But Ruth had just left Obama Sr., who now suggested a reunion with Ann. This suggestion was rejected because, for starters, Ann had not yet divorced Lolo. So after a somewhat tense, month-long visit, Obama Sr. departed, never to be seen by his Hawaiian family again.
Three years later, Ann returned to Indonesia, taking Maya with her. Young Barack chose to remain in Hawaii with his maternal grandparents, noting: "During my teenage years I would return to Indonesia three or four times on short visits."
By this time, Barack's self-described "racial obsessions" were in full bloom. He complained of a "constant, crippling fear that I didn't belong somehow, that unless I dodged and hid and pretended to be something I wasn't I would forever remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment."
Obama said he punched out "the first boy, in seventh grade, who called me a coon." Writing in Dreams, he vividly recalled the bigot's "tears of surprise - 'Why'dya do that?' - when I gave him a bloody nose."
He added: "I ceased to advertise my mother's race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites."
And yet even through high school, he continued to vacillate between the twin strands of his racial identity.
"I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds," he wrote in Dreams. "One of those tricks I had learned: People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved - such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn't seem angry all the time."
Despite the fact that Obama spent various portions of his youth living with his white maternal grandfather and Indonesian stepfather, he vowed that he would "never emulate white men and brown men whose fates didn't speak to my own. It was into my father's image, the black man, son of Africa, that I'd packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela."
Obama was particularly drawn to the writings of Malcolm X, an influential American Muslim who served as the spokesman for the militant Nation of Islam.
"Malcolm X's autobiography seemed to offer something different," Obama wrote. "His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will."
He added: "If Malcolm's discovery toward the end of his life, that some whites might live beside him as brothers in Islam, seemed to offer some hope of eventual reconciliation, that hope appeared in a distant future, in a far-off land."
Obama described himself as "disaffected" during his last two years of high school. Like many, he sought solace in drugs.
"Pot has helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it," he wrote in Dreams. "Not smack, though."
Obama was a casual user of cocaine, and wrote that he even came close to trying heroin. In fact, he went so far as to enter the freezer of a delicatessen with "my potential initiator," a junkie who "pulled out the needle and tubing" for Obama.
"Right then an image popped into my head of an air bubble, shiny and round like a pearl, rolling quietly through a vein and stopping my heart," recalled Obama, who got cold feet and declined the heroin.
Instead, Obama turned to basketball and even made the high school varsity squad.
"It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn't be a disadvantage," he recalled. "I was living out a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood."
And yet even the basketball court proved no refuge from racism. He once heard an assistant basketball coach to a group of black men as "niggers."
"I told him - with a fury that surprised even me - to shut up," Obama wrote.
"There are black people, and there are niggers," the coach explained, according to Obama. "Those guys were niggers."
Obama answered with contempt.
"'There are white folks and then there are ignorant motherf-ers like you,' I had finally told the coach before walking off the court," he wrote.
The exchange appeared to reinforce Obama's distrust of whites.
"That's just how white folks will do you," he wrote. "It wasn't merely the cruelty involved; I was learning that black people could be mean and then some. It was a particular brand of arrogance, an obtuseness in otherwise sane people that brought forth our bitter laughter. It was as if whites didn't know they were being cruel in the first place. Or at least thought you deserving of their scorn."
Obama wrote that he and a black friend in high school would sometimes speak disparagingly "about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother's smile, and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false." Obama recalls telling his friend to "give the bad-assed nigger pose a rest. Save it for when we really needed it." He concluded that "certain whites could be excluded from the general category of our distrust."
Donna Brazile, who managed former Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, said Obama's feelings of distrust towards most whites and doubts about himself are fairly typical for black Americans.
"He was a young man trying to discover, trying to accept, trying to come to grips with his background," she told me. "In the process, he had to really make some statements that are hurtful, maybe. But I think they're more insightful than anything."
Obama's candid racial revelations abound in Dreams, which was first published in 1995, when he was 34 and not yet in politics. By the time he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, he observed of that first memoir: "Certain passages have proven to be inconvenient politically. "
Thus, in his second memoir, The Audacity of Hope, which was published in 2005, Obama took a more conciliatory, even upbeat tone when discussing race.
"I have witnessed a profound shift in race relations in my lifetime," he wrote. "I insist that things have gotten better."
This appears to contradict certain passages in his first memoir, including a description of the white race as "that ghostly figure that haunted black dreams."
"That hate hadn't gone away," he wrote, blaming "white people - some cruel, some ignorant, sometimes a single face, sometimes just a faceless image of a system claiming power over our lives."
There are other stark differences in the racial tones of Obama's first and second memoirs. For instance, in the second memoir, when discussing his multiracial family, Obama wrote: "I've never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe."
But in his first memoir, Obama took the opposite stance, as evidenced in his description of black student life at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
"There were enough of us on campus to constitute a tribe, and when it came to hanging out many of us chose to function like a tribe, staying close together, traveling in packs," he wrote. "It remained necessary to prove which side you were on, to show your loyalty to the black masses, to strike out and name names."
He added: "To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friend carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists. "
Obama said he and other blacks were careful not to second guess their own racial identity in front of whites.
"To admit our doubt and confusion to whites, to open up our psyches to general examination by those who had caused so much of the damage in the first place, seemed ludicrous, itself an expression of self-hatred," he wrote.
While at Occidental, Obama was assigned to read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
"It is a racist book. The way Conrad sees it, Africa's the cesspool of the world, black folks are savages, and any contact with them breeds infection," Obama concluded. "I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate."
After his sophomore year, Obama transferred to Columbia University. He lived on Manhattan's Upper East Side, venturing to the East Village for "the socialist conferences I sometimes attended at Cooper Union," he recalled, adding: "Much of what I absorbed from the sixties was filtered through my mother, who to the end of her life would proudly proclaim herself an unreconstructed liberal."
Back at his apartment, he would sit on his fire escape and "watch white people from the better neighborhoods nearby walk their dogs down our block to let the animals shit on our curbs," Obama wrote. "'Scoop the poop, you bastards!' my roommate would shout with impressive rage, and we'd laugh at the faces of both master and beast, grim and unapologetic as they hunkered down to do the deed. I enjoyed such moments."
Later, looking back on his years in New York City, he recalled: "I had grown accustomed, everywhere, to suspicions between the races."
Obama graduated from Columbia in 1983 with a political science degree and joined what he called a "consulting house to multinational corporations." He became a writer and financial analyst for Business International Corp., an employer he immediately distrusted.
"Like a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan office and sat at my computer terminal, checking the Reuters machine that blinked bright emerald messages from across the globe," he recalled. "I had my own office, my own secretary, money in the bank. Sometimes, coming out of an interview with Japanese financiers or German bond traders, I would catch my reflection in the elevator doors - see myself in a suit and tie, a briefcase in my hand - and for a split second I would imagine myself as a captain of industry, barking out orders, closing the deal, before I remembered who it was that I had told myself I wanted to be and felt pangs of guilt for my lack of resolve."
He added: "As far as I could tell I was the only black man in the company, a source of shame for me."
Obama quit after a year to find more satisfying work.
"I spent three months working for a Ralph Nader offshoot up in Harlem, trying to convince the minority students at City College about the importance of recycling," he wrote in Dreams. "In search of some inspiration, I went to hear Kwame Toure, formerly Stokely Carmichael of SNCC and Black Panther fame, speak at Columbia. At the entrance to the auditorium, two women, one black, one Asian, were selling Marxist literature."
Although Obama had disapproved of what he called fellow "half-breeds" who gravitated toward whites instead of blacks in college, he now found himself gravitating the same way.
"There was a woman in New York that I loved. She was white," he wrote in Dreams. "We saw each other for almost a year. On the weekends, mostly. Sometimes in her apartment, sometimes in mine. You know how you can fall into your own private world? Just two people, hidden and warm. Your own language. Your own customs."
But there was no getting around their racial differences, which ultimately doomed the relationship.
"I pushed her away," Obama recalled. "I realized that our two worlds, my friend's and mine, were as distant from each other as Kenya is from Germany. And I knew that if we stayed together, I'd eventually live in hers. After all, I'd been doing it most of my life. Between the two of us, I was the one who knew how to live as an outsider."
He added: "The emotion between the races could never be pure; even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart."
In June 1985, Obama was interviewed in New York by Marty Kaufman, a community organizer from Chicago.
"He was trying to pull urban blacks and suburban whites together around a plan to save manufacturing jobs in metropolitan Chicago. He needed somebody to work with him, he said. Somebody black," Obama recalled. "There was something about him that made me wary. A little too sure of himself, maybe. And white."
Nonetheless, Obama took the job and moved to Chicago's South Side, where his "racial obsessions" seemed only to intensify. He even asked himself whether "hatred of whites" served any purpose.
"Ever since the first time I'd picked up Malcolm X's autobiography, I had tried to untangle the twin strands of black nationalism, arguing that nationalism's affirmative message - of solidarity and self-reliance, discipline and communal responsibility - need not depend on hatred of whites any more than it depended on white munificence."
But he added: "In talking to self-professed nationalistséI came to see how the blanket indictment of everything white served a central function in their message of uplift."
Of course, as the son of a white woman, Obama was ambivalent about any ideology premised on "the blanket indictment of everything white." And yet he couldn't help but see the merits of black nationalism.
"Desperate times called for desperate measures, and for many blacks, times were chronically desperate. If nationalism could create a strong and effective insularity, deliver on its promise of self-respect, then the hurt it might cause well-meaning whites, or the inner turmoil it caused people like me, would be of little consequence," he wrote. "It was this unyielding reality - that white were not simply phantoms to be expunged from our dreams but were an active and varied fact of our everyday lives - that finally explained how nationalism could thrive as an emotion and flounder as a program."
He added: "Among the handful of groups to hoist the nationalist banner, only the Nation of Islam had any significant following: Minister Farrakhan's sharply cadenced sermons generally drew a packed house, and still more listened to his radio broadcasts."
In Dreams, Obama cited "the much-admired success of the Nation of Islam in turning around the lives or drug addicts and criminals. But if it was especially well suited to those at the bottom rungs of American life, it also spoke to all the continuing doubts of the lawyer who had run hard for the gold ring yet still experienced the awkward silence when walking into the clubhouse."
By this point in his life, Obama had a keen understanding of the role that race could play in politics.
"Black politicians," he wrote, "discovered what white politicians had known for a very long time: that race-baiting could make up for a host of limitations." He added: "Black rage always found a ready market."
Obama made clear that such rage was driven, in part, by Republican policies.
"Ronald Reagan was doing quite well with his brand of verbal legerdemain, and white America seemed ever willing to spend vast sums of money on suburban parcels and private security forces to deny the indissoluble link between black and white," he lamented. "We sank into further despair."
FINDING RELIGION, ROOTS
Meanwhile, Obama's work required him to work with numerous Chicago churches, where parishioners noticed that he did not share their religious faith. He was repeatedly asked to join Christian congregations, but begged off.
"I remained a reluctant skeptic, doubtful of my own motives, wary of expedient conversion, having too many quarrels with God to accept a salvation too easily won," he wrote. "I had no community or shared traditions in which to ground my most deeply held beliefs."
But he did have an aversion to what he called "the religious absolutism of the Christian right." He wrote that such believers insist "not only that Christianity is America's dominant faith, but that a particular, fundamentalist brand of that faith should drive public policy, overriding any alternative source of understanding, whether the writings of liberal theologians, the findings of the National Academy of Sciences, or the words of Thomas Jefferson."
Although the overwhelming majority of Americans describe themselves as Christians, Obama did not believe that any one religion should define the United States.
"We are no longer just a Christian nation," he argued in Audacity. "We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers."
Although Obama's father, stepfather, brother and grandfather were Muslims, and Obama himself had been fascinated by the Nation of Islam, he decided to become a Christian. He attributed this to "the particular attributes of the historically black church, attributes that helped me shed some of my skepticism and embrace the Christian faith."
But Obama, a staunch liberal, did not join the sort of socially conservative church that is frequently found in the black community. Instead, he joined Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's south side, which was led by a radical leftist, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Routinely denouncing the U.S. as a "racist" and "imperialistic" nation dominated by "white arrogance," Wright advocated a redistribution of wealth that went beyond socialism. The congregation was required to embrace "economic parity" and disavow "the pursuit of 'middleclassness.'" Above all, the militant, Afrocentric church insisted on what it calls "a non-negotiable commitment to Africa."
Best of all, Obama wrote, Trinity was a church where "religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world I knew and loved." So he joined and became a Christian.
"I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized," he recalled. "It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth."
In 1988, after three years of community organizing in Chicago, Obama made his first visit to Kenya, where his father had died in a car accident half a dozen years earlier. In typical fashion, he viewed the trip with an abundance of racial trepidation. He brooded about "my own uneasy status: a Westerner not entirely at home in the West, an African on his way to a land full of strangers."
But when he arrived, Obama found it refreshing to be in the racial majority.
"You could experience the freedom that comes from not being watched, the freedom of believing that your hair grows as it's supposed to grow and that your rump sways the way a rump is supposed to sway," he marveled. "Here the world was black, and so you were just you; you could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie or committing betrayal."
Obama shared moonshine while reminiscing with long-lost relatives. He wrote that he found it "intoxicating" to gaze at "the entrance to an open-air mosque, where we watched a group of bank officers carefully remove their wing-tipped shoes and bathe their feet before joining farmers and ditchdiggers in afternoon prayer."
Still, he wasn't fond of white tourists, which he considered "an encroachment."
"They were everywhere - Germans, Japanese, British, American," he groused. "Some came because Kenya, without shame, offered to re-create an age when the lives in whites in foreign lands rested comfortably on the backs of the darker races."
Upon reaching his father's gravesite, Obama was told by his brother, Roy, that "the government wanted a Christian burial. The family wanted a Muslim burial."
'A CERTAIN MEGOLOMANIA'
Returning to America, Obama decided not to resume his community organizing in Chicago.
"I went to Harvard Law School, spending most of three years in poorly lit libraries, poring through cases and statutes," he wrote in Dreams.
After his first year, he was hired as a "summer associate" at a big corporate law firm in Chicago, Sidley & Austin. He was assigned a mentor, Michelle Robinson, a 24-year-old practicing attorney who had already graduated from Harvard Law. Obama was smitten, but Robinson initially refused to date him because she was his advisor. Eventually, she relented.
Obama later was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. This brought him "some modest publicity," he recalled, which in turn led to a publishing deal to write his first memoir, Dreams from My Father.
After graduating from Harvard, Obama spent most of 1992 running a voter registration drive in Chicago. In October, he married Michelle at Trinity United in Chicago in a ceremony attended by some of Obama's African siblings.
"The person who made me proudest of all," Obama wrote, "was Roy. Actually, now we call him Abongo, his Luo name, for two years ago he decided to reassert his African heritage. He converted to Islam, and has sworn off pork and tobacco and alcohol."
Obama added: "His conversion has given him solid ground to stand on, a pride in his place in the world." However, there was also a new "tension. He's prone to make lengthy pronouncements on the need for the black man to liberate himself from the poisoning influences of European culture."
In 1993, Obama joined a Chicago law firm and became a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. He continued working on his first book, Dreams, which was published in 1995. "Sales were underwhelming," he noted, unaware of the bestseller status that would accompany his entry into national politics years later.
But first he entered state politics. In 1996, Obama was elected to the Illinois state senate, winning reelection two years later. Setting his sights on the U.S. Congress, he made the mistake of challenging the wildly popular Congressman Bobby Rush of Chicago in the Democratic primary of 2000.
"Less than halfway into the campaign, I knew in my bones that I was going to lose," Obama wrote in Audacity. "I arrived at my victory party to discover that the race had already been called and that I had lost by thirty-one points."
Years later, Obama still burned with the thought of his only loss in politics, which he called a "drubbing." It reminded him that politicians are driven by a combination of ambition and fear.
"Not just fear of losing - although that is bad enough - but fear of total, complete humiliation," he wrote. "In politics, there may be second acts, but there is no second place."
On October 2, 2002, ten days before the U.S. Senate planned to vote on an Iraq war resolution, Obama warned that such a conflict would be a catastrophic mistake.
"Even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences," he said at an anti-war rally in Chicago. "I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars."
This was not a popular position to take just one year after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Democratic Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards ended up voting for the war resolution, although both would profoundly regret their votes as the 2008 presidential election approached. By contrast, Obama's early opposition to the war would gradually come to be viewed as prescient by liberal voters.
In 2004, while still a state senator in Illinois, Obama was asked to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The speech was devoid of the angst that had dominated Obama's early writings. He now chose to paper over the nation's racial differences.
"There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there is the United States of America," he said. "We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."
It was Obama's first major national exposure and he wowed the party faithful, many of whom gushed that a political star had been born. The fawning press coverage gave Obama a major boost in his latest political campaign, a bid for the U.S. Senate.
"It requires a certain megalomania, a belief that of all the gifted people in your state, you are somehow uniquely qualified to speak on their behalf," he observed.
It also requires "breathtaking" amounts of money, he quickly learned. "Without money, and the television ads that consume all the money, you are pretty much guaranteed to lose," he added.
"As a consequence of my fund-raising, I became more like like the wealthy donors I met," he acknowledged. "I can't assume the money chase didn't alter me in some ways. Certainly it eliminated any sense of shame I once had in asking strangers for large sums of money. By the end of the campaign, the banter and small talk that had once accompanied my solicitation calls were eliminated. I cut to the chase and tried not to take no for an answer."
At least Obama didn't have to worry about the media.
"For a three-year span, from the time that I announced my candidacy for the Senate to the end of my first year as a senator, I was the beneficiary of unusually - and at times undeservedly - positive press coverage. No doubt some of this had to do with my status as an underdog in my Senate primary, as well as my novelty as a black candidate with an exotic background. Maybe it also has something to do with my style of communicating, which can be rambling, hesitant, and overly verbose (both my staff and Michelle often remind me of this), but which perhaps finds sympathy in the literary class."
He added: "I've watched the press cast me in a light that can be hard to live up to."
In addition to getting a free ride from the media, Obama was blessed with political opponents who self-destructed. He won the Democratic primary after watching his top rival "flame out" because of an "unflattering divorce file," Obama conceded. Then his Republican opponent "was felled by a divorce scandal of his own," he added.
"There was no point in denying my almost spooky good fortune," he acknowledged. "To political insiders, my victory proved nothing."
As a senator, Obama frequently made a point of finding something charitable to say about his opponents' arguments, yet almost always ended up voting liberal.
"The arguments of liberals are more often grounded in reason and fact," he wrote in Audacity.
Obama has a 95 percent liberal rating from Americans for Democratic Reform, a liberal advocacy group that ranks all members of Congress. Yet he is often portrayed as a centrist.
"His record is liberal and his rhetoric is moderate," explained Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for politics.
For example, Obama went out of his way to voice approval of at least some aspects of Ronald Reagan's presidency.
"At times, in arguments with some of my friends on the left, I would find myself in the curious position of defending aspects of Reagan's worldview," he wrote in Audacity. "When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, I had to give the old man his due, even if I never gave him my vote."
But in summing up Reagan, Obama concluded that the former president's "clarity about communism seemed matched by his blindness regarding other sources of misery in the world."
By pointing out the merits of both sides of an argument, Obama could at times sound statesmanlike, even if he almost never actually sided with conservatives. This dichotomy could also be seen in Obama's analysis of President Bush's foreign policy.
"I agree with George W. Bush when in his second inaugural address he proclaimed a universal desire to be free," Obama wrote. "But there are few examples in history in which the freedom men and women crave is delivered through outside intervention."
In January 2007, with just two years of experience in the Senate, Obama threw his hat into the presidential ring. Almost immediately, he eclipsed John Edwards, who had been toiling on his own White House bid for two years, as the leading Democratic alternative to front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. Even Clinton was forced to react to Obama's entry into the race by announcing her own candidacy just days later. Thus began an historic struggle between the first woman and the first black to have realistic shots at the presidency.
Mindful of his relative inexperience, Obama cast himself as the candidate of change. But he made a series of early gaffes on foreign policy that allowed Clinton to emphasize the importance of her long years of experience.
Meanwhile, Obama had found that the press was not as fawning as it had been during his Senate campaign. He lamented "the growth of an unabashedly partisan press: talk radio, Fox News, newspaper editorialists, the cable talk-show circuit, and most recently the bloggers, all of them trading insults, accusations, gossip, and innuendo twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week."
"The constant vitriol can wear on the spirit," he wrote in Audacity. "Oddly enough, the cruder broadsides you don't worry about too much; if Rush Limbaugh's listeners enjoy hearing him call me 'Osama Obama,' my attitude is, let them have their fun."
Obama's wife, Michelle, now the mother of two daughters, objected to pundits who often asked of her husband: Is he black enough? Yet the question was also asked and answered by Obama supporters, including civil rights leader Roger Wilkins, who introduced Obama at a speech by telling the liberal audience: "This man is black enough, I guarantee you."
Obama didn't bother pointing out that he had once described his father as "black," but himself as "brown." He didn't tell the audience that a Manhattan publisher had once reminded him that he didn't "come from an underprivileged background."
Instead, Obama was content to be as black as people wanted him to be, knowing that he could never satisfy everyone's racial expectations.
"I can't even hold up my experience as being somehow representative of the black American experience," he conceded before adding: "I can embrace my black brothers and sisters, whether in this country or in Africa, and affirm a common destiny without pretending to speak to, or for, all our various struggles."
Ultimately, however, Barack Obama will have to demonstrate that he can also embrace whites and other races if he wants to be the next president. Copyright © 2007 by Bill Sammon