Politics & Policy

A Tragedy of a Father and Son

Before Wright and after.

If Barack Obama falls short of the Democratic nomination for the presidency, there will be a good chance that Jeremiah Wright played a key role in derailing his ambitions. Historians contemplating the rise and fall of the first serious African-American contender for the presidency will struggle with a lot of questions beginning with “why.”

Why did Obama feel compelled to join a church whose teachings were so inherently controversial? Of all the pastors, ministers, priests, rabbis, and imams in Chicago, why did Obama choose Wright to be his close friend and confidant? Why, when the first examples of Wright making shocking and outrageous comments from the pulpit became well-known, did Obama insist that critics were jumping to conclusions based on snippets? Why couldn’t Obama completely distance himself in his initial speech on the matter in Philadelphia? If Obama is honest when he says that Wright’s comments at the National Press Club shocked him, how could he so misjudge a man over 20 years?

Some of the answers may be found in Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from My Father, published in 1995.

Despite being described as a memoir, Obama’s book is actually arranged as something of a mystery. The book’s first anecdote is Obama’s memory of receiving the call from his Aunt Jane in Nairobi that his father is dead. Immediately, we’re told that Obama’s father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., left Hawaii when his son was two years old and that the son knew his father only through stories told by his mother and maternal grandparents. His departure is described in the vaguest of terms: “A separation occurred, and he returned to Africa to fulfill his promise to the continent. The mother and child stayed behind, but the bond of love survived the distances. . . . ”

For hundreds of pages, Obama describes his childhood, young adulthood, college, and early efforts as a community organizer. But that fundamental question hangs unspoken in chapter after chapter: Why did Barack Obama’s father leave his wife and son behind? (There is a brief explanation from Obama’s mother, citing family difficulties and an intention for all of them eventually to move to Kenya, but the story doesn’t seem sufficient.)

Why did Obama Sr. return only once, when his son was ten, and then never return? One doesn’t need to be a parent to be baffled by the decision to leave one’s offspring behind, to move across the world, and to communicate only through letters for the first decade. One might expect that three-week visit to stir Obama Sr.’s desire to have a physical presence in his son’s life, but again, another decade passes, with only letters exchanged between the two men.

Obama had other male role models growing up, but their presence is often brief and their flaws are all too clear, at least in the interpretation of memories that Obama gives us in the book. His mother’s next husband, an Indonesian University of Hawaii student named Lolo, appears as a well-meaning but ultimately beaten man, one who has witnessed too many horrors in his home country to do much more than keep his head down and take satisfaction in mere survival.

“Have you ever seen a man killed?” I asked him.

He glanced down, surprised by the question.

“Have you?” I asked again.

“Yes,” he said.

“Was it bloody?”

“Yes.”

I thought for a moment. “Why was the man killed? The one you saw?”

“Because he was weak.”

“That’s all?”

Lolo shrugged and pulled his pant leg back down. “That’s usually enough. Men take advantage of weakness in other men. They’re just like countries that way. The strong man takes the weak man’s land. He makes the weak man work in his fields. If the weak man’s woman is pretty, the strong man will take her.” He paused to take another sip of water, then asked, “Which would you rather be?”

I didn’t answer, and Lolo squinted up at the sky. “Better to be strong,” he said finally, rising to his feet. “If you can’t be strong, be clever and make peace with someone who is strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always.”

Lolo, a caring but quiet and clearly wounded man, is only in Obama’s life when the lad is between the ages of four and ten; two years in Hawaii, four years in Indonesia. After that, Obama returns to Hawaii, to live with his grandparents. (His mother continues her work overseas for years at a time, leaving Obama effectively abandoned by both parents.)

The description of Obama’s maternal grandfather perhaps partially explains the candidate’s recent portrait of “bitter” Americans. The candidate offers a vivid portrait of a rapidly aging dreamer, who moved from Kansas to Hawaii with a head full of ambitions and crazy schemes; over time it becomes clear his discussions of writing a book of poetry, taking up painting, or building his dream house are increasingly far-fetched daydreams — a momentary analgesic from the day’s troubles, not an impetus for action.

Obama’s grandmother earned more money than her husband, and Obama’s “Gramps” appears to cope by retreating to a dive in Honolulu’s red-light district, “past hard-faced, soft-bodied streetwalkers into a small dark bar with a jukebox and a couple of pool tables.” His career as a life-insurance agent stumbles and slows.

Every Sunday night, I would watch him grow more and more irritable as he gathered his briefcase and set up a TV tray in front of his chair, following the lead of every possible distraction, until finally he would chase us out of the living room and try to schedule appointments with prospective clients over the phone. Sometimes I would tiptoe into the kitchen for a soda, and I could hear the desperation creeping out of his voice, the stretch of silence that followed when the people on the other end explained why Thursday wasn’t good and Tuesday not much better, and then Gramps’s heavy sigh after he had hung up the phone, his hands fumbling through the files in his lap like those of a cardplayer who’s deep in the hole.

One of his grandfather’s drinking buddies, an elderly black man named Frank who lives in a rundown section of Waikiki, mostly seems to impart . . . well, more bitterness and a sense of being defeated by life, along with a clear warning that his white grandfather will never really relate to young Obama’s problems.

“You can’t blame Stan [Obama’s maternal grandfather] for what he is,” Frank said quietly. “He’s basically a good man. But he doesn’t know me. Any more than he knew that girl that looked after your mother. He can’t know me, not the way I know him. [Italics in original.] Maybe some of these Hawaiians can, or the Indians on the reservation. They’ve seen their fathers humiliated. Their mothers desecrated. But your grandfather will never know what that feels like. That’s why he can come over here and drink my whiskey and fall asleep in that chair you’re sitting in right now. Sleep like a baby. See, that’s something I can never do in his house. Never. Doesn’t matter how tired I get, I still have to watch myself. I have to be vigilant, for my own survival.”

Later in life, when Obama is a community organizer in Chicago, a casual conversation with an employee named Johnnie suggests that Obama senses what he was missing. The employee notes that growing up, he was ashamed of his father, a man who “worked like a dog” and spent his weekends getting drunk with his brothers. But Johnnie belatedly realizes that when other family members laughed at his college ambitions, his father didn’t, and that his father “always made sure me and my brother got up for school, that we didn’t have to work, that we had a little walking-around money.” Obama notes that Johnnie’s father was there for him, and he urges Johnny to call his father and tell him he realizes that now.

Other potential role models and mentors come and go in Obama’s young adult life, and all (in Obama’s portrayal) have such glaring flaws as to make them unsuitable. Obama’s employer, a middle-aged Jewish community activist, is canny and fired up, but ultimately driven by a sense of betrayal; his efforts are about as productive as those of Sisyphus. In an interview with “the director of a prominent civil rights organization” in New York City, Obama is offered a cushy job that screams “selling out to the establishment.” The broadly drawn, unnamed character might as well be introduced as “Beelzebub Mephistopheles.”

By comparison, Jeremiah Wright’s brief appearance in the book shows him unlike any of the other men who appear in Obama’s story. Confident, cheerful — not unaware of the challenges before him, but undeterred — Wright is the man who comes closest to achieving what Obama deems his personal Holy Grail both then and now: achieving “real change” in the lives of ordinary people.

“He learned Hebrew and Greek, read the literature of Tillich and Niebuhr and the black liberation theologians. The anger and humor of the streets, the book learning and occasional twenty-five-cent word, all this he had brought with him to Trinity almost two decades ago. And although it was only later that I would learn much of his biography, it became clear in that very first meeting that, despite the reverend’s frequent disclaimers, it was this capacious talent of his — the ability to hold together, if not reconcile, the conflicting strains of black experience — upon which Trinity’s success had ultimately been built.” He shrugs off criticism, is beloved by his flock. His congregation rises, shouts, claps, cries. As a young adult, Obama struggles to bring Chicagoans together to improve their poor communities; Wright grows his flock from 200 to 4,000 members. He is the wise graybeard to the struggling youngling.

In light of all this, by the time Obama settled into the pew at Trinity United that Sunday morning, it seems he was ready to believe in Wright’s greatness, and in fact he wanted to believe in Wright’s greatness. Perhaps in a different setting and context, Wright’s sermon about “white folks’ greed runs a world in need” would have offended him, or at least triggered some sense of inaccuracy. He might have questioned whether Wright’s references to “Sharpsville [a 1960 massacre in South Africa] and Hiroshima” really were fair examples of “the callousness of policy makers in the White House and in the State House,” that Obama describes Wright denouncing in sermon.

Instead, Obama describes an overwhelming sense of emotional connection, feeling “a light touch on the top of my hand,” as a young boy hands him a pocket tissue, and he realizes he’s been moved to tears by the experience.

Wright provided Obama with what he had been searching for throughout his early life (and the first 295 pages of his book): a sense of belonging.

A good role model or mentor helps dispel the influence of bad role models or mentors. And in this area, nature abhors a vacuum. Perhaps if Obama’s grandfather, or Lolo, or even Frank had been different men, young Obama would not have been such a lost soul when he encountered Jeremiah Wright, so eager for connection.

By the book’s conclusion, Obama has learned why his father left. Obama Sr. did not tell his father, Onyango, about his marriage to Obama’s mother. His paternal grandfather, furious, threatened to have his son’s visa revoked; Obama’s mother refused to move to Kenya with her husband.

Obama’s father, according to this account, was another deeply flawed man — arrogant, sometimes abusive, often drunk, spendthrift, collecting wives with regularity, a haphazard presence in the lives of his children even in Kenya. But he had his strengths as well, and in his brief appearances in Obama’s life, he urges his son to work hard, to study hard, constantly telling his son he can achieve great things. Wright appeared when Obama was searching for someone to believe in; ironically he was filling the vacuum of a man who, if our limited accounts and glimpses are accurate, had limitless faith in his son.

Had Barack Obama Sr. been around for Barack Obama Jr., the senator would almost certainly be a different man today. And perhaps Jeremiah Wright would have indeed been just a pastor to him.

 – Jim Geraghty writes the “Campaign Spot” blog for National Review Online.

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