Although the lives of father and son scarcely intersected beyond a few letters and a 1971 visit in Hawaii when the younger Obama was 10, friends and family see similarities in the men's charisma and eloquence, even if their lives took dramatically different turns.He sounds like a fascinating guy, a classic example of the tragic hero:
Both achieved success at a young age. Both advocated change. And both displayed a self-confidence that friends described as bordering on cocky.
"The father was full of life, ebullient and arrogant, but not unpleasantly so," recalled Philip Ochieng, a former drinking buddy of Obama Sr. and veteran Kenyan journalist.
"But in many ways, the son is quite the opposite. He has self-control. The ambition is controlled. And he has a more sober mind."
The elder Obama was one of Kenya's most promising sons, rising from the goat pastures of a western village to the study halls of Harvard, eventually taking a coveted spot among the nation's post-colonial government leaders.
Despite his ambition and talent, the elder Obama's career disintegrated amid
external forces and personal weaknesses, including the alcohol problem, which
led to a string of car accidents. A crash in 1982 took his life.
Friends and family say his career imploded in part because of his brash personality and an idealistic belief, nurtured in America, that the best ideas and smartest people would always rise to the top. Confronted with the reality of corruption and cronyism in Kenya, Obama sank into disillusionment and despair.The relationships of our recent Presidents, and Presidential candidates, with their fathers is a rich source of drama. Bill Clinton, of course, never knew his father. Both Bushes benefited enormously from their fathers' power and influence, as did Kennedy. And now we have Obama, who had a complicated relationship with an absent father, and McCain, who also had a complicated relationship, with a father who was far away for much of his life, but also extremely powerful and influential. Maybe an emotionally fraught relationship with your father is a challenge that drives particular politicians.
"To that extent, he was naive," said his friend Peter Aringo, a longtime member of parliament from Obama's home village. "He thought he could fight the system from the outside. He thought he could bring it down."
Instead, it brought him down.
The story of Obama's relationship with his father is particularly fascinating, because it also tells the story of the relationship of America with the rest of the world. Obama Sr. came to this country to prepare himself to help run a post-colonial Kenya. One of his fellow Kenyans described it this way:
"We were going to the U.S. to be educated so we could come back and take over, and that's exactly what we did."In the immigration debate, this is something that is very sorely overlooked: when we invite people to come to this country, we invite them to learn our system, and when they return, they take our ideals with them. In this respect, the Bush Administration's tendency to close the doors on immigrants is a crying shame. Given Barack Obama's personal history, I think we can trust that he will be very, very different.