Skip to comments.Punahou grad stirs up Illinois politics
Posted on 08/08/2004 8:25:02 PM PDT by flowerjoyfun
Special to the Star-Bulletin
Punahou grad stirs up Illinois politics
The driven Democrat could become the only black U.S. senator
By Peter Serafin
|Age : 42
Born : Aug. 4, 1961, Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children, Honolulu.
Hawaii schooling : 1979 Punahou School graduate.
College : 1983, bachelor's degree in political science, Columbia University. 1991, magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School. First African-American president of the Harvard Law Review.
Career : 1992-present: Attorney in private practice, senior lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago. 1997-present: Illinois state senator.
Family : Married to Michelle Obama. Two children: Maile Ann, 5, and Natasha, 2.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama, a Chicago Democrat, talks with his daughter Maile Ann, 5, as his wife Michelle holds their other daughter Natasha, 2, in their hotel suite on the evening of last week's U.S. Senate Democratic primary, which he later won. Obama will face Republican Alan Keyes in November's general election.
When he kicked off his campaign 16 months ago, few people thought Barack Obama had a chance.
Veteran political observers and Democratic Party insiders throughout the country had written off this Hawaii-born civil rights lawyer, law professor and Illinois state senator who was trying to win that state's Democratic nomination for U.S. senator.
But last Tuesday's primary election was an Obama blowout. The 1979 Punahou School graduate took 53 percent of the votes in a seven-person race. His nearest opponent had 24 percent.
Obama, 42, will face Republican Alan Keyes and fellow Harvard grad in November's general election to replace incumbent Peter Fitzgerald, who did not seek re-election.
If Obama wins, he will be the only African-American U.S. senator in office, and one of only three black senators since Reconstruction.
The mood was jubilant at Obama's Tuesday night victory celebration in the ballroom of a downtown Chicago hotel.
Barack Obama, " I guess they thought there was no way this skinny little guy from the South Side (of Chicago) with a funny name like Barack Obama could ever win a statewide race," he told an overflowing throng of supporters.
In 1960, Kenya native Barack Obama Sr. was the first African to study at the East-West Center, when he met S. Ann Dunham, from Kansas, who was attending the University of Hawaii-Manoa. The two married and young Barack was born the following year.
His parents divorced when he was 2 years old and his mother married another East-West Center student. In 1969, his stepfather moved the family to the stepfather's native Indonesia. After two years in Jakarta, Barack moved back to Hawaii to stay with his maternal grandmother, who still lives in the same house on Beretania Street. He enrolled in the fifth grade at Punahou School.
His first job was at the Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop at King and Punahou streets, and he has said he's "never liked ice cream since."
" I could see he was bound for bigger things," said longtime friend, classmate and football teammate Bobby Titcomb. "He looked at the world more globally than the rest of us. There was something driven about him.
" But he also played basketball, tennis and hung out at the beach with the rest of us."
" He loves Hawaii and comes back with Michelle (his wife) and the girls whenever he can," said his sister, Maya Soetoro, who teaches history and social studies at the UH Lab School.
" My brother had it together at an early age. He had a strong sense of ethics, but with humor, literature, poetry, music, a sense of what's important in the world," she said.
After earning his bachelor's degree in political science from Columbia University in 1983, Obama went to work as a community organizer in Chicago's South Side.
Titcomb, 42, now a commercial fisherman and Northwest Airlines flight attendant living in Kailua, remembers visiting Obama in Chicago shortly after his friend had moved there.
" Barry told me, 'I really want to be able to do something for the community, but to do what is necessary I'll need a law degree,'" Titcomb recalled. "That's why he applied to Harvard. It was never about making money for Barry. That's never what motivated him."
Obama declined Star-Bulletin requests to interview him about his Hawaii years.
Eric Kusunoki, Obama's homeroom teacher at Punahou for four years, said, "I'm proud, but not surprised, that he is where he is today.
" He was always bright and personable; questioning without being arrogant about it. He was a good devil's advocate."
Obama passed the bar and worked for a Chicago law firm known for its civil rights and anti-discrimination work. In addition, he was named senior lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School in 1992, and was elected state senator in 1997. Obama also chairs the $50 million Annenberg Challenge, a foundation dedicated to reforming public schools.
Throughout his political career, Obama has built a broad base of support statewide. His campaign Web site, www.obamaforillinois.com, features pages in Spanish, Korean and Polish as well as English. His ability to appeal to such diverse groups of people may have been honed in Hawaii.
" I realize how truly lucky I was to have been raised here," he wrote in his essay "A Life's Calling to Public Service" in the Fall 1999 Punahou Bulletin. "Hawaii's spirit of tolerance might not have been perfect, but it was -- and is -- real. The opportunity that Hawaii offered to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values I hold most dear."
Obama's primary victory has thrust him into the Democratic Party's national spotlight.
" What he did last Tuesday was an extraordinary accomplishment," said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee's subgroup on Senate elections. "He is without question our best chance to take back an open seat currently held by a Republican."
James Grissom, 70, a retired physician and Obama campaign volunteer from suburban Chicago, marvels at the candidate's accomplishments and potential.
" I really think he could be president someday," said Grissom. "Can you imagine that -- our first black president -- and he's from Hawaii?"
Isn't Punahou the school where the elite WASPS go?
Looks like Obama's mother may have had some bucks.
I thought his father was a goatherder and here it says he was a student.I guess the Dems like goatherders better than students.
After all, we all have to become Citizens of the World...doncha know..
Not at all, it was founded in 1841 as a school for missionary children, but has never had any racial restrictions or customs in the modern era. It is also is/was very expensive despite having an endowment fund that colleges would kill for. 10 kids apply for every one that gets in. It is one of the very best prep schools in the nation. I think its the only non college in the .edu hierarchy (www.punahou.edu). It is very token christian (note the use of the small c). Disproportionate shares of its graduates go on to become MDs and JDs. Its graduates are normally over represented at places like Stanford, the Ivy League schools, and the military academies. Obama is not the only high profile graduate. Steve Case (of AOL fame) went there, some of the original members of the Kingston Trio, Mosilua Tatupu (NFL), and others who have done well in many fields.
Even while I was there in the 70s, Punahou was swinging to the left. The faculty had a steady influx of liberals from the eastern universities, some of which were Punahou graduates themselves. During various straw polls, the staff would go for Dems and the students go Republican. The contrast was most stark when McGovern was running. The campus politics are now even further left wing.
It should be noted that my siblings and I are Punahou graduates
April 5, 2004
BY CATHLEEN FALSANI SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST
Casually straightening his tie with one hand as he holds the door for a stranger with the other, the young politician strides into the cafe, greeting an employee by name and flashing a big grin at the rest of the room.
He grabs a bottled protein shake from the cooler at the back of Cafe Baci on South Michigan Avenue, and settles into a table near the soft-drink dispenser, doffing his suit jacket along the way.
Barack Obama is alone on this Saturday afternoon in the city, his press secretary nowhere in sight. He's not carrying anything with him. Not even notes.
Yet he appears confident as he answers questions about his spiritual life, a subject that would make many politicians -- on or off the campaign trail -- more skittish than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
If an hourlong conversation about his faith unnerves him, Obama's not letting on.
The first question he fields without hesitation: What does he believe?
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"I am a Christian," the 42-year-old Illinois state senator and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate says, as one of the nearby customers interrupts to congratulate him on his recent primary win. Obama shakes the man's hand and says, "Thank you very much. I appreciate that," before turning his attention directly back to the question.
"So, I have a deep faith," Obama continues. "I'm rooted in the Christian tradition. I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people.
"That there are values that transcend race or culture, that move us forward, and there's an obligation for all of us individually as well as collectively to take responsibility to make those values lived."
It's perhaps an unlikely theological position for someone who places his faith squarely at the feet of Jesus to take, saying essentially that all people of faith -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, everyone -- know the same God.
That depends, Obama says, on how a particular verse from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me," is heard.
Obama's theological point of view was shaped by his uniquely multicultural upbringing. He was born in 1961 in Hawaii to a white mother who came from Protestant Midwestern stock and a black African father who hailed from the Luo tribe of Kenya.
Obama describes his father, after whom he is named, as "agnostic." His paternal grandfather was a Muslim. His mother, he says, was a Christian.
"My mother, who I think had as much influence on my values as anybody, was not someone who wore her religion on her sleeve," he says. "We'd go to church for Easter. She wasn't a 'church lady.' "
In his 1993 memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Obama describes his mother as "a lonely witness for secular humanism."
"My mother's confidence in needlepoint virtues depended on a faith I didn't possess, a faith that she would refuse to describe as religious; that, in fact, her experience told her was sacrilegious: a faith that rational, thoughtful people could shape their own destiny," he says in the book.
When he was 6 years old, after his parents divorced, Obama moved with his mother and her new husband -- a non-practicing Muslim -- to Indonesia, where he lived until he was 10 and attended a Roman Catholic school.
"I went to a Catholic school in a Muslim country, so I was studying the Bible and catechisms by day, and, at night, you'd hear the [Muslim] prayer call," Obama recalls. "My mother was a deeply spiritual person and would spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world's religions and talk to me about them.
"Her view always was that underlying these religions was a common set of beliefs about how you treat other people and how you aspire to act, not just for yourself, but also for the greater good."
Obama earned a degree in political science from New York's Columbia University in 1983 and in 1991 graduated magna cum laude with a law degree from Harvard University. Since 1993, he has been a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School.
Those experiences, as much as his multireligious childhood, affect how he expresses his faith, Obama says.
"Alongside my own deep personal faith, I am a follower, as well, of our civic religion," he says. "I am a big believer in the separation of church and state. I am a big believer in our constitutional structure. I mean, I'm a law professor at the University of Chicago teaching constitutional law.
"I am a great admirer of our founding charter and its resolve to prevent theocracies from forming and its resolve to prevent disruptive strains of fundamentalism from taking root in this country.
"I think there is an enormous danger on the part of public figures to rationalize or justify their actions by claiming God's mandate. I don't think it's healthy for public figures to wear religion on their sleeve as a means to insulate themselves from criticism, or dialogue with people who disagree with them."
Still, Obama is unapologetic in saying he has a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." As a sign of that relationship, he says, he walked down the aisle of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ in response to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's altar call one Sunday morning about 16 years ago.
The politician could have ended his spiritual tale right there, at the point some people might assume his life changed, when he got "saved," transformed, washed in the blood. But Obama wants to clarify what truly happened.
"It wasn't an epiphany," he says of that public profession of faith. "It was much more of a gradual process for me. I know there are some people who fall out. Which is wonderful. God bless them.... I think it was just a moment to certify or publicly affirm a growing faith in me."
These days, he says, he attends the 11 a.m. Sunday service at Trinity in the Brainerd neighborhood every week -- or at least as many weeks as he is able. His pastor, Wright, has become a close confidant.
So how did he become a churchgoer?
It began in 1985, when he came to Chicago as a $13,000-a-year community organizer, working with a number of African-American churches in the Roseland, West Pullman and Altgeld Gardens neighborhoods that were trying to deal with the devastation caused by shuttered steel plants.
"I started working with both the ministers and the lay people in these churches on issues like creating job-training programs, or after-school programs for youth, or making sure that city services were fairly allocated to underserved communities," he says. "And it was in those places where I think what had been more of an intellectual view of religion deepened.
"I became much more familiar with the ongoing tradition of the historic black church and its importance in the community. And the power of that culture to give people strength in very difficult circumstances, and the power of that church to give people courage against great odds. And it moved me deeply."
Obama says he reads the Bible, though not as regularly as he'd like, now that he's on the campaign trail. But he does find time to pray.
"It's not formal, me getting on my knees," he says. "I think I have an ongoing conversation with God.... I'm constantly asking myself questions about what I'm doing, why I am doing it.
"The biggest challenge, I think, is always maintaining your moral compass."
Friends and advisers, such as the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church in the Auburn- Gresham community on the South Side, who has known Obama for the better part of 20 years, help him keep that compass set, he says.
"I always have felt in him this consciousness that, at the end of the day, with all of us, you've got to face God," Pfleger says of Obama. "Faith is key to his life, no question about it. [It is] central to who he is, and not just in his work in the political field, but as a man, as a black man, as a husband, as a father.... I don't think he could easily divorce his faith from who he is."
Another person Obama says he seeks out for spiritual counsel is state Sen. James Meeks, who is also the pastor of Chicago's Salem Baptist Church. The day after Obama won the primary in March, he stopped by Salem for Wednesday-night Bible study.
"I know that he's a person of prayer," Meeks says. "The night after the election, he was the hottest thing going from Galesburg to Rockford. He did all the TV shows, and all the morning news, but his last stop at night was for church. He came by to say thank you, and he came by for prayer."
Obama admits it's not easy for politicians to talk about faith.
"Part of the reason I think it's always difficult for public figures to talk about this is that the nature of politics is that you want to have everybody like you and project the best possible traits onto you," he says. "Oftentimes, that's by being as vague as possible, or appealing to the lowest common denominators. The more specific and detailed you are on issues as personal and fundamental as your faith, the more potentially dangerous it is.
"The difficult thing about any religion, including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelize and proselytize. There's the belief, certainly in some quarters, that [if] people haven't embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior, they're going to hell."
Obama doesn't believe he, or anyone else, will go to hell.
But he's not sure if he'll be going to heaven, either.
"I don't presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die," he says. "When I tuck in my daughters at night, and I feel like I've been a good father to them, and I see in them that I am transferring values that I got from my mother and that they're kind people and that they're honest
My daughter-in-law is a Kemehameha grad.What a beautiful place to grow up.