Numerous conservative talk show programs and commentators have stirred a great deal of controversy about President Obama’s birth and background. David Maraniss plainly puts several of these myths to rest. (I will not, however, hold my breath that conspiracy theorists, especially if they hate the president, will stop spreading these ridiculous lies!) Barack Obama was legitimately born on American soil as the son of an American citizen who was born in Kansas and married to his father in Hawaii. She was married to his Kenyan father seven months before his birth. His father was married to another women in Kenya but Stanley Ann Dunham, and the American judicial system, had no knowledge of this fact when the president’s parents were married. The physician who delivered Barack Obama is named and discussed in Barack Obama: The Story. He actually jokingly told another doctor the day he delivered Barack that he had delivered a baby that day whose mother was named “Stanley.” Maraniss plainly shows that any serious research will prove facts to be true beyond any doubt whatsoever. Argue about a birth certificate if you wish but there is absolutely no doubt that President Barack Obama is a natural born American citizen.
The second myth that is rabidly told and retold by hyper-critics of President Barack Obama is that he is secretly a Muslim. Another version says he was born a Muslim, or trained to be a Muslim in Indonesia in his grammar school years, and thus is still a Muslim. The primary basis for this claim is that his father was a Muslim so this, it is argued, makes Barack, Jr., a Muslim. This is much like saying a person is a Christian, even without infant baptism or Christian training, because their father was born into a Christian home. Barack, Sr. never followed Islam. He consistently considered himself a self-proclaimed atheist. The other source of this claim, as I noted, is that young Barack went to a Muslim school as a boy, a school that taught him Islam and indoctrinated him very deeply. Again, this is pure myth. In this case, the truth is far more interesting than the myth. He was actually enrolled in a Jesuit school for a time and later went to a government school where the only religious education was generic, to the chagrin of the Muslim majority. God was not even named as Allah in the school he attended! So much for his being a non-American Muslim with an agenda to bring down the nation from the inside. These claims are so preposterous as to be silly if they were not repeated by so many people who want them to be true because of their deep hatred for Barack Obama.
A few weeks ago I was on a panel with a Muslim imam. I asked him, after I had made a reference to the president, if he thought Barack Obama was a Muslim. He laughed and said, very simply, “Of course not. He never was a Muslim and is not one now and every Muslim knows this to be true. I consider him to be a Christian.”
When Barack Obama returned to Hawaii to finish his final grade school years, and then to attend high school, he lived with his grandparents. Because his grandfather worked for an employer who helped students who had promise, and who also had financial needs, Barack entered the famous Punahou High School. Here he got an excellent education, enjoyed playing basketball (he was the eighth man on the team that won the state championship but could never drive to the basket from his left, only from his right). He finished as a student with some promise but he never stood out as a great leader or as person who would become a great leader in the distant future. From Punahou he entered Occidental College in California for two years and then transferred to Columbia University in New York City. He graduated at age 21. Again, as in high school, he did nothing that made him stand out as remarkable. Contra Bill Clinton, Barack Obama was never “first in his class.” This all would change, in a rather remarkable way, once he got to Harvard Law School in 1988. Following his first year at Harvard he returned to Chicago to be a summer associate at the firm of Sidley Austin, an elite law firm where a friend of his had previously interned. His mentor was a young woman named Michelle Robinson. It is Michelle who became the strong black woman in his life that a previous girlfriend in New York has told him he would eventually find and marry. This girlfriend was proven right. In 1992 Barack and Michelle Robinson got married in Chicago.
When did Barack Obama first show an inclination to engage in political life? As I have noted this certainly did not happen when he was still young. In 1978 a state senator named Neil Abercrombie visited Punahou and told the students not to enter politics. He said, in effect, if you enter politics then be honest and straightforward and “don’t bullshit people. If you don’t know, say so. If you think you know, tell why you think you know.” (Ironically, Neil Abercrombie had been Barack Sr.’s friend when he came to the island. Neil Abercrombie eventually became a U.S. Congressman from Hawaii and then served as the governor of the State of Hawaii.) Maraniss notes that when Barry (that was Barack’s name in those days) heard this speech by Abercrombie he had the very qualities that Abercrombie spoke about. He could tell the straight truth and say what he thought but he could also do so in a manner that soothed people. He had learned, during this same time, what Maraniss calls “the power and danger of words, and though he did not use them to hurt others, he could deploy them to his advantage.” This ability would serve him well once he developed into the man who became president. This power seems to have evolved as the young man learned how to live in a world without a strong nuclear family at the center of his life.
As he grew up Barack was called a hapa. Hapa is a Hawaiian term that describes a person of mixed Asian or Pacific Islander racial or ethnic heritage. Though his mix was Caucasian and African he was treated as a hapa. This was not necessarily an ethnic or racial slur but a category used in the island cultures to explain certain people groups. This description clearly impacted Barry when he came to adopt the name Barack because of a growing awareness, post-high school, that he was an African-American by American cultural standards. (This is a controversy that again is misunderstood and often over-stated by his fiercest critics!) All of Barack Obama’s serious girlfriends were white until he met, and married, Michelle. This is why one of Barack’s New York girlfriends, a woman slightly older than him who came from Australia with the name of Genevieve Cook, predicted that he would eventually marry a “strong African-American woman.” The various theories about how Barack Obama became self-consciously African-American are also the stuff of more myths, myths that are wonderfully destroyed by David Maraniss. The truth is that Obama grew into a deep and growing sense of his own identity after working on the South Side of Chicago in the 1980s. This became particularly clear after law school when he became genuinely comfortable with his social and ethnic identity as African-American. Once he married Michelle, who came from a very strong family, his sense of who he was became profoundly clear to him.
Barack’s mother gave him many values that were slowly developed in his life as his story unfolded over the years. Maraniss says, “She exuded goodness and unconditional love, she would do anything for her family–except sublimate her will and sacrifice her career. She had taught her son the importance of empathy, urging him to put himself in others’ shoes, and the likelihood is that had he been in her situation, given his will and determination to avoid traps, he would have made the same choices she made” (325). There is so much in that statement that is worth pondering if you want to understand the development and emotional life of Barack Obama today.