The last word: Chasing a ghost

It took three decades for Barack Obama to understand the father who abandoned him, says <em>The Washington Post</em>&rsquo;s Kevin Merida. He has spent the years since trying not to be that man.

It took three decades for Barack Obama to understand the father who abandoned him, says The Washington Post’s Kevin Merida. He has spent the years since trying not to be that man.

Sometimes the trigger will be a newspaper story he is reading about Africa. Or he may spot a group of boys on a street corner in Chicago and think that one or more of them “could be me, they may not have a father at home.” At other moments, he will be playing with his daughters—Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7—and begin to wrestle with what kind of father he has become, what a career in politics has meant to their lives and how to guard against his father’s mistakes.

Thoughts of his father “bubble up,” as Barack Obama put it in an interview last year, “at different moments, at any course of the day or week.”

“I think about him often,” he says.

America’s new president-elect last saw his father in 1971, when the future politician was 10 years old. Barack Obama Sr.—remarried at the time and living in his native Kenya—sent word that he wanted to visit his son over Christmas at the apartment in Hawaii that the boy shared with his white grandparents.

To the son, the father had become a ghost, an opaque figure hailed as brilliant, charismatic, dignified, with a deep baritone voice that reminded everyone of James Earl Jones. All the boy knew was that his namesake had gone off to study at Harvard and had never come back. Now, the old man would put flesh on the ghost.

On the day his father arrived, young Barack, known as Barry then, left school early and headed toward his grandparents’ apartment, his legs leaden, his chest pounding. He nervously rang the doorbell. His grandmother, “Toot,” who died of cancer just this week, opened the door, and there behind her was a dark, slender man wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a blue blazer, and scarlet ascot.

“He crouched down and put his arms around me, and I let my arms hang at my sides,” the son recalled in Dreams From My Father, his soul-baring 1995 memoir.

“Well, Barry,” his father said. “It is a good thing to see you after so long. Very good.”

For a month, the father hung around, speaking to his son’s fifth-grade class, taking the boy to a Dave Brubeck concert. But he never quite re-established himself. The trip’s pivotal moment came one night as Barry prepared to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the annual Dr. Seuss special. The father said the boy had watched enough television and insisted that he go to his room to study. Barry’s mother and grandparents intervened in what became a heated argument. But they proved no match for the strong-willed father, who in an instant had reclaimed the paternal role he had long ago abdicated.

Barry went to his room, slammed the door, and “began to count the days until my father would leave and things would return to normal.”

For Barack Obama, that visit set in motion a journey to make sense of his father so that he could make sense of himself. The sojourn marked the last time he would ever see his father, whose squandered promise and abandonment of his son have molded the man preparing to become this nation’s 44th president.

When Obama talked on the campaign trail about his father’s desertion, he frequently summoned a quotation that he believes explains how it directed him. “Every man is either trying to make up for his father’s mistakes or live up to his expectations,” he would say. Until recently, he thought it came from Lyndon B. Johnson.

At one point in the campaign, Obama asked an aide to call Robert Caro, the pre-eminent Johnson biographer, to check. Caro said no, the quote was not from Johnson. The biographer was reminded, though, of something Johnson’s brother had told him. The most important thing to Johnson, the brother had told Caro, was “not to be like Daddy,” whom LBJ had once idolized but who later lost the family ranch and became a laughingstock.

Not to be like Daddy.

“I think he sees this as a challenge every day, that I want to do better than my father,” says former federal judge Abner Mikva, a longtime Obama mentor.

When you grow up without a father, Michelle Obama says of her husband, you think about what you may have missed. “At some level, you wonder,” she says. “You wonder all the time: Who would I be if I had my father in my life? Would I be a better person?”

Uncertainty crowds your mind about your own abilities. As Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, his 2006 best-seller, “of all the areas of my life, it is in my capacities as a husband and father that I entertain the most doubt.”

It is the reason why Dan Shomon, for many years Obama’s top political aide in Illinois, urged him not to run for the U.S. Senate in 2004. “I think you’re going to feel guilt about your kids,” he told his boss, to no avail.

Obama struggled to find a way to reconcile his desire to be the father he never had with the long absences required of a presidential candidate. Over the past two years, he attended parent-teacher conferences and dance recitals, and he structured his campaign day to always include a call to his daughters. But as his wife noted, “They are sometimes not ready to receive you when you call, and he has to suck that up.”

“It’s a struggle not just for him but for me,” she said recently, adding that they have concluded that there is great value to their daughters in having a father with the ambition to be president. “One thing I learned from Barack is there is not one right way to parent.”

Men often long for their fathers’ approval, to shine in their fathers’ light. Obama was asked last year how he felt about his father, what the dominant emotion was. Regret? Unhappiness? Anger?

“I didn’t know him well enough to be angry at him as a father,” Obama said. “Mostly I feel a certain sadness for him, and the way that his life ended up unfulfilled, despite his enormous talents.”

Barack Hussein Obama Sr. grew up herding goats in the remote village of Alego, Kenya. He belonged to the Luo tribe, one of the nation’s largest. Bright and enterprising, he became in 1959 part of the first large wave of African students to study abroad. With a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, the 23-year-old quickly fell into a group of graduate students who met on Friday evenings to eat pizza, drink beer, and talk world politics and economics.

“He was an intellectual in every sense of the word,” recalls Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), who was part of the older Obama’s inner circle. “He was the sun, and the other planets revolved around him.”

It wasn’t long before Obama brought another planet into their orbit, an 18-year-old white freshman from Wichita—Ann Dunham. In late 1960, despite concerns from both families, Obama and Dunham were married. On Aug. 4, 1961, Barack Hussein Obama Jr. was born.

The fact that there was a marriage at all—such interracial unions were banned in 22 states—reflected, as Abercrombie saw it, his friend’s incredible confidence and daring. But the marriage did not last long. When Obama Sr. won a scholarship to study at Harvard in 1963 and didn’t have the money to take his young family with him, some were not surprised that he didn’t return. Abercrombie sums up the reason in a single word: ambition. “His ambition was to be a force in Kenya, to fulfill the drive that he had to make a difference in Kenyan life and perhaps even in African life.”

It was Ann Dunham who filed for divorce in January 1964. Whatever anger she felt, she did not share it with her son. She made a point of telling Barry that his smarts, character, and charm came from his father. Years later when he became upset about his father’s behavior, she counseled against judging him too harshly.

The effect, as Obama’s sister Maya Soetoro-Ng saw it, was to make him more independent. “It made him perhaps more introspective, perhaps more thoughtful than many people his age,” says Soetoro-Ng, the daughter from Dunham’s second marriage, to Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student she also met at the University of Hawaii. Soetoro moved the family to Indonesia, where Barry lived for four years before returning to Hawaii to live with his grandparents and to attend the prestigious Punahou prep school. The Dunham-Soetoro marriage would not last either.

Every adult in Barry Obama’s life, it seemed, was something of a rolling stone—his grandparents had moved around, and his mother had hopscotched back and forth from Indonesia to Hawaii, getting her master’s degree in anthropology and becoming an expert in microfinance. His father? He wrote occasional letters, each on a single blue sheet. “Like water finding its level,” the father once wrote, “you will arrive at a career that suits you.”

It would take Barry years—and a 1987 sojourn to Kenya—to unravel the mystery of his father, who died in a car accident in 1982. The painful truth was that his father had a series of tangled relationships—by some accounts, four wives and nine children. When he came to the United States, he left behind a pregnant Kenyan wife and a child. And when he returned to Kenya, he took with him an American woman he had met at Harvard.

Professionally, he was prosperous enough to drive a Mercedes and generous enough that family members and friends knew where to go for handouts. But he often drank too much, stayed out too late, mouthed off too frequently. Though a respected economist in his country, he never reached the heights he set for himself. During a 1968 visit to Nairobi, Abercrombie and a mutual friend witnessed his crumbling. “It was clear to us how disappointed he was,” Abercrombie recalls. “He was drinking. There was a bitterness in him, an edge.”

Years later, after Obama’s election as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, he used his 1995 memoir to deeply explore his father’s absence. Rich in emotion-laden self-analysis, it concludes with five chapters about his visit to Kenya, where he meets siblings, aunts, uncles, his grandmother, and his father’s ex-wives, and he finally understands the turmoil that consumed his father’s life. At the end of the book, Obama is sitting between the graves of his father and paternal grandfather, weeping.
“When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me,” he writes. “I felt the circle finally close. I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America—the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy—all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away.”

At some point, maybe enough is enough.

“I think that book was very cathartic for him, and it was a hard book to write,” Michelle Obama says. “It was very hard for him to get all the pieces and make sense of them. But once you do that, you’re done. I think he has clarity on that part of his life.”

Sometimes when Obama sees friends who have their fathers to rely on for support and advice, “I look at them with a little bit of envy,” he has acknowledged.

But not remorse. The abandoned son is still working to carve out something positive from the legacy of the goat herder, who also dreamed of changing a nation.

From a story originally published in The Washington Post. ©2007 and 2008 by The Washington Post Co.


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