by Dave Kopel
Rocky Mountain News. August 27, 2008
Who is Barack Obama? Biographical pieces about Obama this week have included excellent investigative reports and shallow puffery. Yet even the best work on Obama has omitted an important part of the story.
Monday's Washington Post featured a huge, excellent biographical piece, focusing on Obama's early life, and his mother, Ann Dunham. The article describes Dunham's intriguing combination of naivete and determination, her romance with the charming but dishonest and cold-hearted Kenyan Barack Hussein Obama Sr., and her complicated relationship with her own parents.
When Obama Jr. was 10, his mother sent him to live with his grandparents in Honolulu where he attended Punahoe, an excellent prep school.
Although the article doesn't say so directly, it does show that the Obama campaign's theme that Obama was raised with "Kansas values" is something of a stretch. He grew up mainly in Hawaii, along with several years in Indonesia.
In the left-leaning magazine The New Republic, John Judis pens "Creation Myth: What Barack Obama won't tell you about his community organizing past." On the South Side of Chicago, Obama followed Saul Alinsky's theories of community organizing: appeal to the self-interest of the people being organized, and eschew charismatic leadership. Obama's experience showed that the Alinsky principles could produce limited success, at best. Obama's subsequent life in politics is (to his credit, I think, although Judis isn't so sure) nearly the opposite of the Alinsky method.
The right-leaning National Review offers an all-Obama issue, including a pair of biographical pieces. David Freddoso, author of the new book The Case Against Barack Obama, details Obama's participation in Chicago machine politics. There, Obama allied against bipartisan reformers, and supported the corrupt regime of Cook County Commissioner John Stoger and his son Todd.
Another article reviews Obama's autobiography, Dreams From My Father, and describes its almost unrelievedly bleak view of the United States and of racial relations.
Meanwhile, Newsweek's lengthy but shallow biography of Obama (Sept. 1 issue) might as well have been written by Obama's press office.
The biographical pieces in The Washington Post and Newsweek discuss Barack Hussein Obama Sr., describing him as an advocate of Kenyan national unity, and an opponent of tribalism. This is technically true, but only in the same sense that Josef Stalin urged people to think of themselves as workers for the Soviet Union, rather than as Ukrainians, Georgians and so on.
Last April, the weblog PrestoPundit found Barack H. Obama's July 1965 article in the East Africa Journal, titled "Problems Facing Our Socialism." (The blogger provided the article to Politico.com, where it is posted.) Obama Sr. claimed that the leaders of Africa were not socialist enough. What Kenya needed, he wrote, was the confiscation of privately owned land; he also urged the confiscation of businesses, including "small shops," owned by nonblacks (immigrants from Asia and Europe).
Dreams From My Father doesn't say so, but the conflict that destroyed Obama Sr.'s career in Kenya was apparently one in which he allied with politician Oginga Odinga, who was communist and anti-Western, and who complained that the ruling government in Kenya was neither. (Archives available at Time.com detail Odinga's political struggles.)
None of this means that Barack Obama shares his late father's views. It does suggest that newspaper and magazine biographies that have discussed Obama Sr. have not provided a full picture.