Barack Obama's words are often attractive but oddly concealing. His
speeches are all balm and mood. It's all very well to seek, as Mr.
Obama claims, to transcend old categories, to reject the "old
politics." But then what? This graceful rhetorician leaves you
wondering: Who is he really? What does he want for himself and for his
In search of answers that go deeper than the
Congressional Record, I read his first book, "Dreams from My Father: A
Story of Race and Inheritance." Once you get past the happy surprise of
finding a politician who can actually write, the book contains some
Mr. Obama is the product of a union
between a white Kansan and a black Kenyan who met in Hawaii. I had
assumed, before reading his memoir, that Mr. Obama viewed himself as a
natural bridge between the races and that his message of unity sprang
in part from his biology. That was wrong. From his earliest years, Mr.
Obama was preoccupied by an internal struggle to make himself a fully
authentic black man.
Young Barack hardly knew his father
because the elder Mr. Obama left when he was 2. One meeting when Barack
was 10 and a few letters were all he had. Only much later would Mr.
Obama discover that his father had many wives and many children — all
of whom wound up disappointed in him. Barack's mother, Ann, went on to
marry another non-American, an Indonesian named Lolo, and took the
young Barack to live in Jakarta. Perhaps she was hoping to live some
sort of Third World idyll. Mr. Obama never reveals her political views
nor her feelings about America. But we get one glimpse in this passage:
back, I'm not sure Lolo ever fully understood what my mother was going
through... why the things he was working so hard to provide for her
seemed only to increase the distance between them. ... He landed a job
in the government relations department of an American oil company. ...
Sometimes I would overhear him and my mother arguing in their bedroom,
usually about her refusal to attend his company dinner parties, where
American businessmen from Texas and Louisiana would slap Lolo's back
and boast about the palms they had greased to obtain the new offshore
drilling rights, while their wives complained to my mother about the
quality of Indonesian help. He would ask her how it would look for him
to go alone, and remind her that these were her own people, and my
mother's voice would rise to almost a shout. 'They are not my people.' " Grasping, insensitive Americans? Businesspeople? Or just Americans? Whom did she reject?
does he reject — or what? Left-wing ideas are not so much articulated
in this memoir as presumed. Mr. Obama has claimed his experience living
abroad gives him a valuable perspective for a chief executive. Yet his
reflections on the effect Western capitalism has had on Jakarta and
Chicago's South Side sound like warmed-over Herbert Marcuse. "How could
we go about stitching a culture back together after it was torn? How
long might it take in this land of dollars? ... The very existence of
the factories, the timber interests, the plastics manufacturer, will
have rendered their [Indonesian] culture obsolete; the values of hard
work and individual initiative turn out to have depended on a system of
belief that's been scrambled by migration and urbanization and imported
Mr. Obama's self-portrait in this book is that of
a searching, nonjudgmental young man attempting to find his rightful
place after a confusing start in life. But he is attracted by the
harshly ideological Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose church he joins. Mr.
Wright peddles racial grievance religion. Following the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001, he said, "[W]hite America got a wake-up
call. ... White America and the Western world came to realize that
people of color had not gone away, faded into the woodwork or just
'disappeared' as the Great White West kept on its merry way of ignoring
Mr. Obama says he doesn't agree with the
Rev. Wright about everything. Fine. And maybe he doesn't agree with his
wife when she (twice) said that she had never been proud of her country
until its people began to support her husband. But then, what did he
mean when he said on March 4 that making a little girl proud to say she
is an American is the "change we are calling for"?
One suspects that beneath the soothing talk, there is bitterness in the man that we had best learn more about before voting.