The life stories, when the presidential candidate tells them, have a common theme: the quest to belong.
A boy wants to find his place in a family where he is visibly different:
chubby where others are thin, dark where others are light.
A young black man struggles for acceptance at an institution of privilege,
where he finds himself growing so angry and disillusioned at the world around
him that he turns to alcohol and drugs.
These have been the stories told about the first two character-shaping
decades of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's life, a story line largely shaped by his
own best-selling memoir, political speeches and interviews.
But the reality of Obama's narrative is not that simple.
More than 40 interviews with former classmates, teachers, friends and
neighbors in his childhood homes of Hawaii and Indonesia, as well as a review
of public records, show the arc of Obama's personal journey took him to places
and situations far removed from the experience of most Americans.
At the same time, several of his oft-recited stories may not have happened
in the way he has recounted them. Some seem to make Obama look better in the
retelling, others appear to exaggerate his outward struggles over issues of
race, or simply skim over some of the most painful, private moments of his
The handful of black students who attended Punahou School in Hawaii, for
instance, say they struggled mightily with issues of race and racism there.
But absent from those discussions, they say, was another student then known as
In his best-selling autobiography, "Dreams from My Father," Obama describes
having heated conversations about racism with another black student, "Ray."
The real Ray, Keith Kakugawa, is half black and half Japanese. In an interview
with the Tribune on Saturday, Kakugawa said he always considered himself mixed
race, like so many of his friends in Hawaii, and was not an angry young black
He said he does recall long, soulful talks with the young Obama and that
his friend confided his longing and loneliness. But those talks, Kakugawa
said, were not about race. "Not even close," he said, adding that Obama was
dealing with "some inner turmoil" in those days.
"But it wasn't a race thing," he said. "Barry's biggest struggles then were
missing his parents. His biggest struggles were his feelings of abandonment.
The idea that his biggest struggle was race is [bull]."
Then there's the copy of Life magazine that Obama presents as his racial
awakening at age 9. In it, he wrote, was an article and two accompanying
photographs of an African-American man physically and mentally scarred by his
efforts to lighten his skin. In fact, the Life article and the photographs
don't exist, say the magazine's own historians.
Some of these discrepancies are typical of childhood memories -- fuzzy in
specifics, warped by age, shaped by writerly license. Others almost certainly
illustrate how carefully the young man guarded the secret of his loneliness
from even those who knew him best. And the accounts bear out much of Obama's
self-portrait as someone deeply affected by his father's abandonment yet able
to thrive in greatly disparate worlds.
Still, the story of his early years highlights how politics and
autobiography are similar creatures: Each is shaped to serve a purpose.
In its reissue after he gave the keynote address at the Democratic
convention in 2004, "Dreams from My Father" joined a long tradition of
political memoirs that candidates have used to introduce themselves to the
From his earliest moments on the national political stage, Obama has
presented himself as having two unique qualifications: a fresh political face
and an ability to bridge the gap between Americans of different races, faiths
and circumstances. Among his supporters, his likability and credibility have
only been boosted by his stories of being an outsider trying to fight his way
As much as he may have felt like an outsider at times, Obama rarely seemed
to show it. Throughout his youth, as depicted in his first book, he always
found ways to meld into even the most uninviting of communities. He learned to
adapt to unfamiliar territory. And he frequently made peace--even allies--with
the very people who angered him most.
Yet even Obama has acknowledged the limits of memoir. In a new introduction
to the reissued edition of "Dreams," he noted that the dangers of writing an
autobiography included "the temptation to color events in ways favorable to
the writer ... [and] selective lapses of memory."
The not-so-simple story of Barack Obama's youth
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