In this review article of David Marniss’s account of the early life and formation of Barack Obama I will now attempt to tie various loose ends together and draw some conclusions based upon this lively and well-written social biography of the early life of our 44th president. My seventh review article, published tomorrow, will complete this series.
My personal conclusion, after reading this lengthy work based upon obviously careful research, is that Barack Obama is our first postmodern, globalist president. I also believe, based upon his own words and the witness of numerous friends of his that I know in public and (and in several instances) in private, that Barack Obama is a thoughtful and deeply engaged Christian. I will define these three terms at the conclusion of my seventh article tomorrow.
Barack Obama was deeply impacted, as a developing boy, by the absence of his father. This is true of so many children in our time. This is one reason that he seems to care so deeply about the breakdown of the family. I know critics will say that his policies are not helpful to families, and a case can be made that this is often the case. Yet he cares deeply about parenting and has clearly developed personal parenting skills and provides evidence that he is good husband and loving father.
His great-grandmother committed suicide while she was still a young mother in Kansas. She left behind several children who (in effect) were raised by their grandparents. A similar thing happened to Barack when his birth father left him as an infant in Hawaii. Barack’s grandfather Dunham was an emotionally distant man because of his background without a mother. Yet he was virtually the only male role model that Barack had when he was a boy. The irony is that Dunham was an emotional orphan himself. The result is that Barry experienced the absence of a healthy male in his most formative years.
On his father’s side of the family the Obama’s go back for generations in a rural, and very poor, part of Kenya. To this day many regard the people of this area as aliens, or jadak. Again, regarding the nature/nurture part of Obama’s social development he was deeply impacted by his African roots (even titling his memoir, Dreams from My Father). Barack seems to have only discovered all of this when he was a young adult in college.
It is most important to note that it was his Kenyan grandfather who converted to Islam. It was also Barack’s grandfather who abused his numerous wives and left a powerfully negative mark on his extended family. Over time Barack had to come to terms with both his father and these deep Kenyan roots, roots in male domination, control and abuse. Roots that were fed by polygamy and roots that led to the self-destruction of Barack’s own birth father, who died in a tragic road accident in Kenya after ruining a promising life many times over.
Barack’s maternal family comes from Kansas. His grandfather served in a maintenance company in England and France during World War II while his grandmother worked as a B-29 inspector on the assembly line at the Boeing factory in Wichita. When Barack’s mother was born her mom Madelyn chose the unusual name of Stanley Ann for her daughter. There have been many suggestions as to how and why she chose this name but it is made clear by Maraniss that Madelyn chose the name because her favorite actress, Bette Davis, had played a female character named Stanley in the 1942 move: “In This Our Life.” As a result of this unique name, Stanley Ann, Barack’s mom suffered sharp ridicule while growing up. She had a keen mind and was a woman who possessed a sharp tongue that many insisted “could kill.”
Obama grew up a hapa, or a half-and-half. This was a common experience for children in Hawaii in the 1960s. Multihued combinations among Asians was normal but there were very few Africans in Hawaii, explaining why Barry did not identify with what we call African-American culture until he entered college in California. Later, at Columbia University in New York, and then in Chicago, he began to discover this identity that he chose for himself–that of an African-American male who proudly identified with this cultural and ethnic identity. Some have criticized the president’s sense of himself because it took him so long to identify with black America but when you understand the real story I believe that it makes perfect sense to fair-minded readers.
Despite the prevailing myths about Barack Obama’s Muslim background it was actually evangelical missionaries who influenced his family the most. Barack Obama Sr., who was never a practicing Muslim, came to America because of the tireless help of a missionary named Betty Mooney. This came about because of Frank Laubach’s famous Christian literacy program, “Each One Reach One.” These facts alone should put to death the idea that President Obama was, or still is, a Muslim. Yet in a July 2012 Pew Research Poll 17% of all Americans still think their president is a Muslim. 34% of conservative Republicans think that he is a Muslim. This is staggering when you understand just how clear the truth really is in this regard. Barack Obama never was a Muslim! Neither his father nor his mother were believers of any kind. He never attended Muslim schools and he was never trained to believe or practice Islam. The truth is this–his mother, and his grandparents, never trained him in any religious faith whatsoever. Until he was in his mid-20s he professed no faith and had experienced no religious influence. The only religious school that he ever attended, during his five years as a young boy in Indonesia, was Jesuit! The state school he attended in Indonesia did not even use the name Allah when referring to God! Honestly, no claim about President Barack Obama could be further from the truth. I recently asked an American Muslim imam if Barack Obama was, or ever had been, a Muslim. He politely laughed at my question and assured me that no serious Muslim ever thought that he was, or is, a Muslim. I asked the imam what he considered Obama to be and, without any hesitation, he said that he was a Christian. I wish many of my Christian friends were equally charitable in their response.
When Barry was six years old he moved with his mom, and her new husband Lolo Soetoro, to Indonesia. The reason for this move was that Obama’s new step-father was Indonesian. Lolo had met Stanley Ann at the East-West Center in Honolulu and took his new wife, and her son Barry, to Jakarta. Barry was quite overwhelmed, as most six year old boys would be, by what he called “the vastness of things” he saw and experienced at this time. His relationship with his step-father was neither deeply tragic nor particularly meaningful because before long he had a new sister, Maya, and his step-father was increasingly absent from home. Stanley Ann would move back to Hawaii for a short time, after Lolo abandoned her, and eventually left Barry with her parents in Hawaii so that she could return to Indonesia to rear her daughter in her own culture. She plainly felt that Barry had not had this privilege and made, what she felt, was the best decision for both of her children. It is this background, combined with his experience in Hawaii, that leads me to conclude that Barack Obama was becoming a globalist. He learned from a very early age about several different cultures and grew up seeing the world more holistically than a lot of typical Americans of his age. The closest comparison that I have with this is the students I went to college with who were missionary kids. They had at least two or more cultural backgrounds that richly shaped their view of the world and of global concerns. I do not recall one single missionary kid who was a deeply shaped American exceptionalist.
Barack met his real father only once, in 1971. He was ten. Barack Sr. came to visit his ex-wife and son in Hawaii for Christmas. The father lived, very temporarily, near Obama’s maternal grandparents in the Punahou Circle apartments. He tried to lecture and sought, in some odd way, to discipline his son as if he had always been there as his real father. Barack Sr.’s Kenyan wife Ruth had left him by this point (he was still married to Ruth under Kenyan law when he married Stanley Ann under American law in 1960) so he sought to lure Ann to return to Kenya with him. She would have nothing to do with this idea. Barry entered Punahou School in the 5th grade. Interestingly, his first teacher had spent a year teaching in Kenya. When she heard that Barry’s father was coming to Hawaii she invited him to speak to her fifth grade class. This was a memorable moment for the introverted and shy boy. He treasured this brief moment of father-son connection.
After two failed marriages Ann found her vocation as an anthropologist. She began surveying the life and work of villagers on the island of Java, looking for ways to help the peasants and their handicrafts survive in the modern world. Ann was adventurous and fearlessly embraced Javanese culture. Her love of cultures and indigenous people had a great influence on her son as well. It has been said by those who knew Ann Dunham that she would drink and eat anything. She loved new experiences and was a devoted adventurer.
Barry adjusted to school in Hawaii and loved to play basketball. His team became the state champions his senior year in high school but was never a star nor a starter. He was considered to be number eight in the team’s rotation and, according to his peers, could not dunk a basketball. He was also drawn, for a season, into a gang in high school. These boys taught him to smoke marijuana, among other youthful experiences. In his senior class photo he took on the role of John Travolta in the famous movie, “Saturday Night Fever.”
After a not too illustrious high school experience Barack Obama went to Occidental College in Pasadena, California. Two years there did little to change him but he then transferred to Columbia University in New York. He had at least two serious female relationships during his college years, both with white girls. One, an Australian named Genevieve Cook kept a diary and the other, named Alex, kept her letters. Cook wrote in her journal: “Barack–still intrigues me, but so much going on beneath the surface. Guarded, controlled. . . . He is that sort of person–trying hard to be.”
After his time in New York Barack went to Chicago. The election of Harold Washington as mayor lured him to Chicago to work with a tiny organization called the Developing Communities Project. His hero, at least for a time, was Mayor Harold Washington. Washington came down to help Obama open a jobs center on the South Side. This may have been the moment that he first realized how a politician could have the “ability to move people and set an agenda was always going to be superior to anything I could do to organize at a local level.” Slowly politics intrigued him thus when he headed off to Harvard Law School this sense of his future began to dawn upon him. At one point he would say that he might someday be the mayor of Chicago. The city intrigued him and the challenges moved him to get more involved.