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21 March 2018 16:44 (South Africa)

Barack Obama at 50: Almost the all-American hero

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • Politics
obama 50

Like that omnipresent electric smell that follows a Highveld thunderstorm at the height of summer, recognitions of Barack Hussein Obama's incredible life and importance have saturated the air across the planet on his 50th birthday – as befits a man of such achievements and faced with such onerous challenges. Here is Daily Maverick’s take, by J BROOKS SPECTOR.

On Wednesday 3 August, Barack Obama celebrated his 50th birthday in Chicago, with almost 2,500 friends. The party conveniently also served as a campaign fundraiser for the heavy lifting next year when Obama runs for re-election. He returned that night to Washington for a day of work and a BBQ (okay, a braai) with family and staffers.

After being introduced by Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Obama told well-wishers, “It’s good to be among friends. I could not have asked for a better early birthday present than being here with all of you. I love you back.” The cheers had to have been a sound for sore ears after all the harsh words in Washington over the debt ceiling. “No matter how tough a week I had in Washington, I know you’ve got my back. When I travel to Chicago and across the country, I know we can’t be stopped.” Except by Tea Party Republicans. Maybe.

Obama’s ratings have hit their nadir and critics are zeroing in on unemployment at 9.2%, up from 7.8% when he took office. But in pre-emptive reply Obama added, “We did what was needed to get the economy growing, and it’s growing. When I said ‘change you can believe in,’ I didn’t say ‘change you can believe in tomorrow, change you can believe in next week.’ It is going to take time.” Time may not be on his side, however. Potential Republican Party candidates like Mitt Romney are already pointing to what they call those failed Obama policies as the reason voters need to change their minds about what kind of change to believe in next year.

If Harry Truman’s adage that if you want a friend in Washington, you’d better get a dog has any meaning, maybe Obama took the hint and left the capital to bask in the adoration of friends. But contemplating Obama’s birthday, Slate’s Libby Copeland commented: “This has been a tough week for Barack Obama…. But while Obama may not see his birthday as cause for celebration, social scientists suggest there may be something magical in that landmark. The growing body of research on happiness shows that as we pass middle-age, our sense of well-being improves.”

It may come as a shock to realise Obama is only now turning 50 – younger than almost every other major world leader save David Cameron and Dimtry Medvedev – although Obama’s hair has gone conspicuously grayer in the past two-and-a-half years. Michelle Obama’s office sent an email to many millions: “Every day, I see Barack make choices he knows will affect every American family. That's no small task for anyone - and more proof that he's earning every last one of those gray hairs.”

In broad strokes, Obama’s life story is now well known. Barack Obama, the future president’s Kenyan father, and Sydney Dunham, his American mother, were both students at the University of Hawaii when they met and were married. The marriage soon foundered – for whatever reasons – and his mother eventually remarried, this time to an Indonesian petroleum engineer. The family moved to Jakarta, still in a shaky recovery after the megalomaniac excesses of the Sukarno era and the subsequent violent crushing of the country’s leftwing political movements.

From his Jakarta primary school, Obama was sent back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents. He became a teenager at Honolulu’s most exclusive prep school, where Barry (as he was known) turned into the cool loner who showed off best on the basketball court.

Had anyone asked, Obama was almost certainly the least likely presidential possibility they’d imagine. For one thing, as he’s said himself, he just didn’t look like those presidents on America’s currency and stamps. He was after all the child of a marriage that would still have been a felony in southern states like Virginia. But Hawaii is the only state in the country where whites do not comprise a majority of the population.

Obama’s life was something like the westward movement of the pioneers - only running in reverse. He moved further eastward to Occidental University in Los Angeles and eventually on to Columbia and then Harvard Law School in the country’s most easterly big city. Given his situation, it might even have been possible to see him turning to life on the streets and the temptations of that world. And perhaps he was tempted – his memoir alludes to such a thing. Without the challenge of a national crisis, it probably took time to find a footing without any family or long-time friends any closer than 8,000km from New York or Boston.

Before he published “The Bridge” author David Remnick, writing in The New Yorker magazine describes these internal complications and calculations: “Long before he ever had to think through the implications, racial and otherwise, of running for president, Barack Obama needed to make sense of himself to himself. The memoir that he published when he was thirty-three, ‘Dreams from My Father’, explored his biracial heritage: his white Kansas-born mother, his black Kenyan father, almost completely absent from his life. The memoir is written with more freedom, with greater introspection and irony, than any other by a modern American politician. Obama introduces himself as an American whose childhood took him to Indonesia and Hawaii, whose grandfathers included Hussein Onyango Obama, a prominent farmer, an elder of the tribe, a medicine man with healing powers.

“As a young man, Obama was consumed with self-doubt, trying always to reconcile the unsettling contradictions of his history. His parents married in 1960, when interracial marriage was still prohibited in almost half the states of the union. As Obama entered adolescence, in Hawaii, his father had returned to Africa and started a new family, but, at the same time, the boy was careful around his white friends not to mention his mother’s race; he began to think that by doing so he was ingratiating himself with whites. He learned to read unease in the faces of others, the split second adjustments they have to make, when they found out that he was the son of a mixed marriage.

“ ‘Privately, they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds,’ he writes, with the wry distance of the older self regarding the younger.”

Perhaps it might even be possible to find in Barack Obama something of the self-made man described by Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave turned abolitionist and 19th century public intellectual, who, in his famous lecture, “Self-made Men,” said: “Self-made men are the men who, under peculiar difficulties and without the ordinary helps of favouring circumstances, have attained knowledge, usefulness, power and position and have learned from themselves the best uses to which life can be put in this world, and in the exercises of these uses to build up worthy character. They are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, or friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any favouring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results.

“They are in a peculiar sense indebted to themselves for themselves. If they have travelled far, they have made the road on which they have travelled. If they have ascended high, they have built their own ladder . . . Such men as these, whether found in one position or another, whether in the college or in the factory; whether professors or ploughmen; whether Caucasian or Indian; whether Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-African, are self-made men and are entitled to a certain measure of respect for their success and for proving to the world the grandest possibilities of human nature, of whatever variety of race or colour.”

Except that Obama had had advantages – unusual opportunities to see a wider world while still a child, a fine education, and the gift of an agile mind – even as he also had the kind of rootlessness that sometimes brings larger trouble. Fortunately, Obama had found a vocation as a community social activist before he settled into law school and then teaching law at the intellectually rigorous University of Chicago.

But a personal sense of community eluded him until he married Michelle Robinson, another young lawyer, and a person who was part of a family solidly enmeshed in the institutions and life of Chicago’s large African American community. Marriage also led to joining Jeremiah Wright’s church, with its tradition of social commitment and activism, although that participation eventually brought Obama his greatest challenge on the way to winning his landmark 2008 presidential election.

Meanwhile, his growing sense of place seems to have nurtured a realisation that he wanted to be a part of the world of politics, first as a state legislator, then as a US senator, elected from Illinois only in 2004, and then to reach for the presidency. Obama may not have been so much a self-made man as he was a re-made man – a man he reconfigured himself out of his past, his imagined world and his envisioned future. Only five years ago, he was still so new at the national political game in 2006 that in his visit to South Africa, while he had a widely observed visit to the Constitutional Court, most of Thabo Mbeki’s cabinet brushed off his requests for appointments (although not Trevor Manuel).

Then, the crisis: In early 2008, Obama would need to confront what he understood about a central question of American society – its unfinished business with race. When astonishingly racist videos of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons appeared on the Internet early in the primary season, Obama had to find a way of explaining how he saw himself in terms of race. In a speech of rare rhetorical grace, Obama found the sweet spot.

In Philadelphia, on March 18, 2008, he introduced himself to the country: “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during  World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave-owners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

“It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one…

“On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike….

“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”

To me, this speech was the most masterful attempt since Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” to explain America’s complex struggle with race in both personal and universal terms – and it became one of the keys to winning the Democratic nomination and then the presidential race in November 2008.

Here was a man who knew how complex and toxic this topic could be, even as he was determined to address it head-on in public, rather than fall back on politicians’ more usual weasel words. But Obama’s background and his explanations also fit the nation more than many people understood. From a generally segregated nation at the time of his birth, Obama’s America now has some 6 million people who describe themselves as mixed race and millions of others who say they are in a marriage or longtime relationship with someone of another race. Obama could speak to these people in a way few other politicians could.

Now we have just passed the halfway mark in his term of office as president. Regardless if success ends up being measured by whether his administration beats back unemployment sufficiently to gain him a second term, it is still true his election became a turning point in American political life. From now on, when parents tell their children any child can grow up to become president, they will be half right, that is, until the election of a female president means parents can tell that very same thing to their daughters as well. DM

For more, read:

  • Obama celebrates 50th birthday at White House on AP;
  • Barack Obama’s Speech on Race in The New York Times;
  • Obama at 50: Older, Wiser ... Happier? How the study of happiness is changing our understanding of aging in Slate;
  • Happy Birthday, Mr. President: Barack Obama at 50 in Time;
  • At Obama’s birthday party in Chicago, a warm embrace from die-hard supporters in The Washington Post;
  • President Barack Obama bio on the official White House website;
  • Senator Barack Obama Visits South Africa at the US Embassy website.
  • President-Elect Barack Obama's South African Connection - A photographic record at the US Embassy website;
  • “Self-Made Men” by Frederick Douglass at Artofmanliness.com;
  • Race and the campaign of Barack Obama in the New Yorker.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington after the U.S. Senate passed a bill raising the debt ceiling and cutting spending, August 2, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • Politics

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