Sunday, October 26, 2008

Portraits of Obama From His Past

This piece covers new territory for me, and I've read a lot about Obama. I really recommend the whole piece in the British paper, The Guardian, called Obama As We Knew Him...Man and Boy.

Some highlights:
  • Barry was the only one in the class who had bread in his lunch box - the rest of us had traditional Indonesian snacks. There's one called kepan - sticky rice and desiccated coconut which you have to dip in this very strong chilli sauce. It's hot even for us. But Barry was very curious. He tried it and burnt his mouth, and he was saying: 'It's hot, it's hot.' You can see he was always open to learning something new.
  • We'd sit on the sidestep of the library, where a radio would be playing Marvin Gaye and the Eagles, and have these great conversations about life. I recorded one for an English assignment. Rik asked what we thought 'time' was, and Barry replied: 'Time is just a collection of human experiences combined so that they make a long, flowing stream of thought.' He was 14 then, Rik was 16, I was 17, and Barry was definitely matching us.
  • I studied in a creative writing class with him. I remember him submitting a poem called 'Pop' (since published in the New Yorker). It was a penetrating portrait of his grandfather, in which his grandfather asked him what he was going to do with his life.
  • It's like Shakespeare's line: 'Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.' He was the guy who achieved greatness and it clearly took a lot of hard work to do that.
  • To take a break, we went to the coast. Coming back (from Mombasa to Nairobi) we travelled by bus. The driver was going so fast and I was so, so scared. Barack took it all in his stride. I, the Kenyan who should have been used to it, was furious at the driver. But Barack was just like: 'OK, this is the adventure that it is.' He came with this big baggage of tolerance and relaxedness and the ability to just absorb.
  • One of his preoccupations was being a novelist and he had taken the journalism job to facilitate that. He wrote a number of short stories about his experiences, other people's lives and their struggles. I read a couple and I thought they were pretty good. He's a wonderful writer by non-professional standards, but he knew he wasn't up with his heroes.
  • He was resilient and good at turning things around. Always, when things were going badly, Barack would stay up most of the night, trying to figure things out. And by the next day he'd be meeting people and we'd be trying an alternative strategy.
  • The fact that he wants to work for the community, that was his mum. The people's person side of him, that was his mum. Ann and Barry have 'fire', but in the case of Ann, it was tempered by her earthy, motherly nature, whereas with Barry, he's more 'air' and expresses his passion more through his intellect.
  • He had a combination of intellectual acumen, open-mindedness, resistance to stereotypical thinking and conventional presuppositions. He also had a willingness to change his mind when new evidence appeared, confidence in his own moral compass and a maturity that obviously came from some combination of his upbringing and earlier experience.
  • He had a charismatic quality and was very engaging. Other students gravitated towards him and liked him rather than envying him or wanting to compete with him.
  • He had a personal quality which was transcendent and I continued to feel that way about him each time we met. And the quality he demonstrated that I've always been left with more than any other is authenticity. There isn't a fibre of phoniness about this guy.
  • There was another player, Larry Walsh, a relatively conservative Democrat. Barack trumped his four of a kind with a higher four of a kind to take the pot and Walsh threw his cards down. 'Doggone it, Barack,' he said. 'If you were more liberal in your card playing and more conservative in your politics, we'd get along much better.'
  • As Republicans controlled the House it was a monumental task to get legislation passed. Barack could forge relations with others very well. He was very even-keeled, even when bullied on the Senate floor. It frustrated him, but he always kept his cool. His demeanour was: 'I'm going to explain this, I'm not going to get into a fist fight about this.'
  • Like all inquisitive, curious and interesting politicians, he is someone who can scan the horizons of many different issues and can find politics in cultural situations - the sadness of death, the experience of living in a developing country and what that means, or economic hardship in rural middle America. He is someone who has a strong emotional intelligence as well as a strong cognitive intelligence.

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