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In search of identity

Times Staff Writer

Four years ago, Barack Obama introduced himself to America by painting a picture of a country that was united, somehow, in spite of itself.

The pundits, he said in the keynote address to the Democratic convention, like to “slice and dice” the country: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats.

“But I’ve got news for them too: We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”

His task that night was to ready the crowd for the presidential nominee, John F. Kerry, but in the end his words were most memorable for an argument that challenged the partisan divide and was built on the foundation of his own unique story. Since then, it’s become a familiar element of his speeches. His father was from Kenya and his mother from Kansas.

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But it’s more complicated than that.

Abandoned by his father, separated for long periods from his mother, Obama searched for many years to find his identity. He was caught between love and loyalty to his white family and respect and an inchoate sense of belonging to the African American community.

He eventually learned to navigate between black and white worlds, a skill that would play well in the political arena. He earned a reputation as a pragmatist and a consensus builder, and along the way raised the bridges that would sustain his ambition.

On the campaign trail this year, he is both a political and cultural phenomenon. For some, he represents a new beginning for the nation. For others, he is inexperienced, merely lucky, even a fairy tale. Underlining it all is a historic prospect: He would be the first black president of the United States.

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Race has been the steady undertow of his candidacy -- and of his life.

As he paraphrased William Faulkner this March in a landmark speech on race: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”

EARLY YEARS

Interracial relationships in Hawaii are an accepted fact of life. Nevertheless, the parents of Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack Hussein Obama didn’t like the idea of their children getting married. She was studying anthropology at the University of Hawaii. He was a graduate student from Kenya, the first African to be enrolled at the university, and they had fallen in love.

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They married in late 1960, and on Aug. 4, 1961, Barack Jr. was born. Two years after that, his father disappeared, enticed to study economics at Harvard.

The separation led to divorce. Ann married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student at the university. She and her 6-year-old son, whom she called Barry, in 1967 followed Soetoro to Jakarta, a strange and wonderful place of kite-flying and crocodiles, exotic foods and strange religions. Years later in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” Obama would describe the experience as “one long adventure, the bounty of a young boy’s life.”

But the adventure had a darker side as well. The poverty was inescapable. Ann and Lolo drifted apart. She took a job teaching English at the U.S. Embassy, and it was here in the library, Obama said, that he read about a black man who had tried to peel off his skin.

Although his mother tried to affirm his black heritage -- bringing home books about the civil rights movement, speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and recordings of Mahalia Jackson -- Barry was learning the price people pay for being different and sensed that he would not be able to escape a similar judgment.

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When he was 10, his mother sent him back to Hawaii to live with her parents and attend the prestigious Punahou School. His education in Jakarta -- first at a Catholic school, then at an elementary school where he received some Islamic instruction -- had run its course.

He wrote in his memoir that his adolescence provoked “a fitful interior struggle . . . trying to raise myself to be a black man in America.”

On an island where there were few blacks, he watched “I Spy” on television, tried to sing like Marvin Gaye and cursed like Richard Pryor. He stayed out late at night, shooting hoops, and started to drink and smoke weed, just to “push questions of who I was out of my mind.”

IDENTITY CRISIS

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On the mainland, the reality of race was more stark.

As a scholarship student at Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1979, Obama faced assertions of identity everywhere: the Democrat/Socialist Alliance, Black Student Assn., Jewish Student Action Coalition, feminist support group, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan.

It was here that he asked to be called by his given name, Barack. He later explained the decision to Newsweek as not an “assertion of my African roots” so much as “being comfortable with the fact that I was different and that I didn’t need to try to fit in in a certain way.”

He didn’t relate to the anger, the sense of marginalization that other black students felt, and when he played along with popular stereotypes and assumptions, he realized he was living, in his words, “a lie.”

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“My identity might begin with the fact of my race,” he wrote in his memoir, “but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there.”

He was beginning to understand where the interests of blacks and whites overlapped. One afternoon he found himself being dissed by a friend for reading “a racist tract,” Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” an acclaimed novella about colonial Africa, and he pushed back.

“See. The book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. . . . So I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. . . . That’s the only way to cure an illness, right? Diagnose it.”

As a man of mixed race, Obama was discovering his potential to negotiate both black and white worlds.

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TURNING POINT

Obama had come to see himself as a black American, yet still there was the question of his African heritage and his father, whom he had met only once in the last 21 years.

Obama left Occidental in 1981 to finish his degree in political science at Columbia University, in New York. He spoke with his mother about taking a trip to Kenya. She encouraged him, and then the phone rang.

“Barry? Barry, is this you?”

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He had been preparing breakfast.

“Yes. . . . Who’s this?”

“Aunt Jane. Listen, Barry, your father is dead. He is killed in a car accident.”

Over the next few years, more alone than ever, Obama would learn how his father’s dreams of changing Kenyan society had foundered on harsh realities, leaving him burdened by family, drinking and unhappy. Obama recently told Vanity Fair, “I do think that part of my life has been a deliberate attempt to not repeat mistakes of my father.”

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Coasting no longer seemed an option. He read more -- Nietzsche, Morrison, Melville and the Bible -- and stopped getting high. Cigarettes were his vice, but he ran three miles a day, fasted on Sundays and wrote “a journal of daily reflection and very bad poetry.” A friend called him a bore.

By 1984, he was working for a consulting firm, living on the Upper West Side and paying off his student loan. On some days he would catch sight of himself -- suit and tie, briefcase in hand -- in the elevator doors and feel a rush of power and then, suddenly, remorse.

A friend who worked with Obama told David Mendell, author of “Obama: From Promise to Power,” that Obama always talked about the New Rochelle train, which “took commuters to and from New York City, and he didn’t want to be on one of those trains every day. The image of a life, not a dynamic life, of going through the motions . . . that was scary to him.”

PUBLIC SERVICE

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He wasn’t exactly sure what a community organizer did, but he liked the idea. It fit with the liberal sensibility encouraged by his mother, who was working for the Ford Foundation developing economic programs for women in Southeast Asia.

When friends asked, he railed about the need for change with a capital C. So he quit his consulting job and started working for a Ralph Nader group in Harlem. He passed out fliers for an assemblyman in Brooklyn. It was slow going. He was eating soup from a can.

Then he saw an ad looking for organizers to help churches on Chicago’s South Side stem the unemployment and foreclosures triggered by the ’81-'82 recession.

In June 1985, he drove west in a beat-up Honda to a city where he knew no one. The job paid $10,000. He found an apartment in Hyde Park, a liberal intersection in the city, a crossroads where blacks on the South Side mixed with whites from downtown, all in the context of the University of Chicago.

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Once settled, he headed further south to the neighborhoods of West Pullman and Roseland and to 131st Street, where fumes from a paint factory and a landfill choked the air and every other home was boarded up.

He set up interviews, up to 40 a week. He was indefatigable. Catholic, African Methodist, Baptist -- each congregation was an island unto itself, and as much as he tried to draw them together, the pastors were suspicious of his motives.

One day he drove down to 95th Street and met the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., a man whose values -- a commitment to the black community and black family -- he admired and, most importantly, who welcomed his help.

One Sunday, he came to Wright’s church not as an organizer but as a communicant. Here he met other black professionals whose spiritual dilemmas mirrored his own. As Wright preached his “Audacity of Hope” sermon -- with its tale of Hannah strumming her harp before a broken-down world -- Obama realized that after 25 years he had found the place he had been looking for, a place where he could “put down stakes and test [his] commitments.”

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His relationship with Wright would prove to be fateful, one that Obama would shed when the undertow became too strong.

THE HARVARD YEARS

Drug dealing. Violence. Anger. Hopelessness. The streets of the South Side were getting worse, and in the power vacuum and political mayhem that followed the death of Mayor Harold Washington, Obama left Chicago.

He had been there almost three years, had worked his way into the community and in his memoir wrote that he felt as if he were on track to become “an example of black male success.” But he still felt “a more demanding impulse.”

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In 1988, he enrolled at Harvard Law School to learn about “power’s currency in all its intricacy and detail.”

Entering one of the premier arenas of American political debate, whose history had long been written by white men in long robes, he looked like a street tough -- with torn jeans, a cap hiding his afro, a pack of smokes and more life experience than most other students.

Still, he confounded his African American classmates. As popular and respected as Obama was, they had to persuade him to add his name to the list of candidates who aspired to oversee the university’s law review, one of the most prestigious journals of legal scholarship in the country. And when he was elected president, the first black editor of the publication, he disappointed those who assumed that he would name more blacks and liberals to the board.

A second-year student told the Los Angeles Times in 1991 that Obama’s election was significant for a while, “but now it’s meaningless, because he’s becoming just like all the others [in the Establishment].”

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For the annual Supreme Court issue, he brought aboard the conservative Charles Freed and the critical race theorist Patricia Williams for the lead articles. When William Brennan announced his retirement, he published an assessment of the liberal justice’s career written by Richard Posner, a Reagan appointee to the 7th Circuit.

“Even though he was clearly a liberal, he didn’t appear to the conservatives in the review to be taking sides,” Bradford A. Berenson, a classmate and former Bush administration lawyer, told the Boston Globe. “Barack tended to treat those disputes with a certain air of detachment and amusement,” he said.

At the end of Obama’s tenure, in 1991, the other review editors turned the joke on him with a parody of his life for the annual humor issue: “I was born in Oslo, Norway, the son of a Volvo factory worker and part-time ice fisherman. My mother was a backup singer for Abba. . . . At the age of 15, I went off to California to enroll at Accidental College. After a couple of years, I decided to go to Colombia, but when offered a position as a judge in Bogota, I fled to Chicago. There I discovered I was black, and I have remained so ever since.”

MARRIAGE

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He wrote about one of his girlfriends in “Dreams From My Father”: She was white and had dark hair with specks of green in her eyes. One day he went to visit her family’s country house, and he knew he had to get away.

“Our two worlds . . . were as distant from each other as Kenya is from Germany. And I knew that if we stayed together, I’d eventually live in hers. After all, I’d been doing it most of my life. Between the two of us, I was the one who knew how to live as an outsider.”

They broke up, and he met Michelle when he returned to Chicago on a summer break from Harvard.

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson had grown up in a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment with her parents and an older brother on the South Side. Her father worked for the city’s water department and, shortly after Michelle was born, developed multiple sclerosis. The disorder defined her childhood, and his tenacity set expectations high.

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Michelle followed her brother to Princeton, where she studied sociology, ran a literacy program for neighborhood children and turned the feelings of isolation that she and her friends felt as African Americans at the university into her senior thesis. She graduated from Harvard Law School in 1988, just before Obama arrived.

Obama fell right in with the Robinsons, playing basketball with Michelle’s brother and enjoying the company of the uncles and aunts who stopped by “to sit around the kitchen table and eat until they bust and tell wild stories and listen to Grandpa’s old jazz collection and laugh deep into the night.”

He had never experienced such a world, and one night he took Michelle to dinner and proposed. The ring arrived on a dessert plate.

Michelle had found her anchor too. Her father had just passed away, as had a close college friend. The losses made her question her own principles and the purpose of practicing corporate law.

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Jeremiah Wright officiated at their wedding. Obama’s half-sister described the guests, whose backgrounds spanned the globe, as “the rainbow tribe . . . the united colors.”

Their first year took some adjustment. Michelle woke up early; he stayed up late. She started a new job in the mayor’s office, and he practiced law, taught at the University of Chicago, worked on Project Vote (registering 150,000 new voters for the ’92 election) and wrote his book.

“Dreams From My Father” proved difficult to write. Initially conceived as a story about the challenges of African American identity, it soon drew him toward “rockier shores,” a more personal account of his experience of race.

Even though it sold only about 9,000 copies, it made him enough of a celebrity in Chicago that a political career suddenly seemed possible.

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FIRST CAMPAIGN

The knock on Obama is that he is too soft, too naive for national politics, but his first campaign, begun in 1995, proved his willingness to not only play hardball but also position himself as a politician first and a black politician second.

When Alice Palmer, who represented Hyde Park in the state senate, endorsed him midterm so that she could run for Congress, she called his candidacy the “passing of the torch.”

The words sounded promising. Soon the local alderman, ward chairman and residents, including ‘60s radicals Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, were on board. Developer Antoin Rezko contributed about 10% of the election fund.

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For the moment, nothing seemed to be standing in his way. But when he resumed campaigning in December, after flying to Hawaii for the memorial service for his mother, who had died of cancer at 52, the landscape had shifted.

Palmer had lost the Democratic congressional primary and wanted Obama to step aside so that she could run for reelection to her old seat. He refused. Too many friends and allies, white and black, had invested in him.

When Palmer filed a petition to have her name put on the ballot, he challenged the signatures she had gathered, as well as the signatures for the other candidates. Irregularities were found, and in time Obama had the field to himself.

In January 1997, when he took his place among the other legislators in Springfield, he started calculating his future, building a network and taking arms, when necessary, against other African American legislators who were eager to haze him in the aftermath of the Palmer affair.

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“Senator, could you correctly pronounce your name for me?” asked Rickey Hendon, a state senator who, according to a New Yorker article, was close to Palmer. “I’m having a little trouble with it.”

“Obama.”

“Is that Irish?”

“It will be when I run countrywide.”

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A CRUSHING DEFEAT

Obama soon learned the limits of challenging the black establishment, even from inside.

Almost everyone tried to talk him out of running in the 2000 congressional race against Rep. Bobby L. Rush, a former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a former leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party and a supporter of the late Harold Washington. Obama thought Rush was vulnerable after a recent defeat in a mayoral contest, and he had calculated that Rush and another African American candidate would split the black vote, leaving him to win with the white vote.

But it wasn’t that easy. President Clinton endorsed Rush. Rush earned sympathy from voters when his son was gunned down in a robbery. Then Obama’s 18-month-old daughter, Malia, fell ill, forcing him to miss an important vote on gun control. His opponents had a field day.

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As the race neared its end, Obama was described as “the white man in blackface” and “the educated fool.” There were rumors of a “Hyde Park Mafia” and an “Obama Project,” organizations run by the white establishment in Hyde Park and funded by developers like Rezko who were profiting on the gentrification projects to the south.

By the time the winter wind had stopped blowing off Lake Michigan and the votes were counted, it was clear that Obama had utterly miscalculated black sentiment. Rush beat him by a margin of more than 2 to 1.

Of defeat, Obama wrote: “It’s impossible not to feel at some level as if you have been personally repudiated by the entire community, that you don’t quite have what it takes, and that everywhere you go the word ‘loser’ is flashing through people’s minds.”

‘YES WE CAN’

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If you learn from defeat, what are the lessons of a victory that seems preordained?

By 2002, the pain of the Rush drubbing had subsided, and Obama seemed to be back on track. He had just been reelected to another four-year term as a state senator. He and Michelle and their two daughters were living in a comfortable condo in Hyde Park.

He had his gig at the university, and a position on the board of a prominent charity in Chicago and was starting to pay down their student loans and a credit card that he had maxxed out during the congressional campaign.

Still, something was missing. Perhaps it was the memory of his mother reminding him of his greater responsibility. Perhaps it was his fear of the New Rochelle train. Perhaps he was unwilling to let go of his dream of “creating an America that is fairer, more compassionate and has greater understanding between its various peoples,” as he told Mendell, his biographer.

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Or perhaps it was simply that he saw an opportunity in the upcoming Senate race.

Michelle didn’t like the idea, but he insisted that if he lost, he’d drop out of politics altogether. He brought aboard political consultant David Axelrod, whose clients had included Chicago Mayors Richard M. Daley and Harold Washington, and former Illinois Sen. Paul Simon. He enlisted the support of Democratic legislators in Springfield, and he hit the road, making a key aspect of his campaign his opposition to the war in Iraq.

For nearly a year, he polled third in the field of Democrats. Then the cards fell his way. One opponent fell out of contention when his ex-wife alleged that he had tried to kill her, and another was stung by questions about his fundraising practices.

And when the Republican candidate had to withdraw four months after his primary victory -- divorce records revealed allegations that he had taken his ex-wife to sex clubs -- the Illinois Republican Party recruited Alan Keyes, a conservative black politician from Maryland.

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Keyes attempted to peel off voters over wedge issues: school prayer, abortion, gay rights and affirmative action.

“Christ,” Keyes even argued, “would not vote for Barack Obama because Barack Obama has voted to behave in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved.”

“Yes We Can” -- a slogan coined by Axelrod that, according to Mendell, left Obama “far from impressed” -- caught fire, and his address at the Democratic convention sealed the deal. When it was over, he had won with 70% of the vote.

“Spooky good fortune” was how he described it.

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A U.S. SENATOR

As the fifth African American U.S. senator in history and the third since Reconstruction, Obama stood out, but not as other black leaders expected.

When Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans in 2005, he sidestepped the accusations of some African Americans that the government’s response was racist in spirit. Instead, he called the government’s incompetence “color-blind,” and as the country’s black leadership debated his loyalty, he worked with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to win approval of a bill limiting favoritism in awarding reconstruction contracts.

While he voted along party lines 97% of the time that first year and was scored by the National Journal as the 16th-most-liberal senator (his ranking in 2007 was the most liberal), he also sided with Republicans.

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He cosponsored an immigration bill with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). He again joined Coburn on another bill that required the government to create an online record of contracts, grants and earmarks. He showed support for merit pay for teachers, voted to limit the amount of money awarded to plaintiffs in class-action suits and traveled to Russia with Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), with whom he sponsored a bill to curtail the spread of conventional and nuclear weapons.

And when Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) invited Obama to his Indianola steak fry in 2006, a late-summer event at which Iowa Democrats could look over possible presidential candidates, he accepted.

RACE SPEECH

The 2008 Democratic presidential contest was historic: a female candidate and a black candidate fighting a war of attrition, state by state. The issue of race came up, but the references were mostly veiled, and Obama stayed above the fray.

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Then came the video clips on YouTube showing Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, raging against America (“No, no, no, not God bless America, God damn America”), arguing among other things that the U.S. government was perpetrating genocide against African Americans.

Stung by association, the Obama campaign knew it had to respond. He condemned Wright’s remarks at a news conference. He penned a column for the Huffington Post clarifying his position.

Still the video played on.

Walking to the podium that March evening in Philadelphia, he wore a charcoal suit and blue tie similar to those he had put on for his Boston address four years earlier. But the mood was far from celebratory.

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That night, flanked by a row of American flags, he was ready to talk about the elephant in the living room, the issue of race that “this nation cannot afford to ignore.”

Instead of simply rejecting Wright’s claims, Obama once again borrowed from his past to tell a more complex story about America today.

“I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown the black community,” he said. “I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother, a woman . . . who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street. . . . These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”

He explained the anger in the black community as a failure of the American dream.

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The path to a more perfect union, he concluded, “requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams.”

When he was through, the speech became an online hit. He was compared to Lincoln. He was compared to King.

Critics immediately took him to task for not completely repudiating Wright. That would come in six weeks, just seven days after his loss to Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania.

It was time to cast off Wright to save his campaign from a tempest that would only remind a nation of its deepest wounds. Once again, he had avoided the undertow.

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thomas.curwen@latimes.com

Times researcher John Tyrrell contributed to this report.


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