Easy-going youth who put passion into politics

 

PROFILE:Barack Obama's mother instilled in her son a sense of pride in his mixed heritage, writes Denis Staunton

BARACK Obama, who remained unusually cool and unflappable throughout the long campaign, shed tears openly the day before the election when he spoke of his grandmother's death a few hours earlier.

Madelyn Dunham had raised Obama through much of his childhood and adolescence when he was at school in Hawaii and his mother was living in Indonesia.

"There's still a great deal of Hawaii in Barack," Obama's wife Michelle told his biographer David Mendell. "You can't really understand Barack until you understand Hawaii."

Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, a white couple from Kansas , moved to Hawaii soon after their daughter Ann - Obama's mother - graduated from high school. Ann, who studied anthropology at the University of Hawaii, was academically gifted, curious about other cultures and approached life with an air of good-natured innocence.

"I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known and what is best in me, I owe to her," Obama said.

In a Russian class at the University of Hawaii, Obama's mother met a Kenyan foreign exchange student called Barack Hussein Obama. He was 23 and she was just 18 but in late 1960 they eloped to the island of Maui and married and in August the following year, Barack Hussein Obama jnr was born.

When Obama was two years old, his father won a scholarship to Harvard but he could not afford to take his family with him. He left Hawaii and never returned to the family, leaving Obama in his mother's care.

Obama met his father only once after that, when he was 10 years old and his father made a short visit to Hawaii.

Obama's mother never showed any bitterness about the separation and instead presented Obama with an image of his father as a brilliant, powerful, successful man. She also instilled in her son a sense of pride, not only in his African heritage but in his identity as a black American.

"To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear," Obama wrote in his memoir Dreams of My Father.

After Obama's father left Hawaii, his mother married again, this time to an Indonesian student named Lolo Soetoro and when Obama was six, the family moved to Jakarta.

Four years later, however, Obama returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents, attending Punahou School, an elite, private high school where he was one of only a handful of black students.

At school, Obama showed more interest in playing basketball than in his studies and he has spoken of using marijuana, cocaine and alcohol as a teenager.

He took the same, easy-going attitude at Occidental College in Los Angeles but when he moved to New York's Columbia University to major in political science, something changed.

At Columbia, Obama immersed himself in reading works of political philosophy and started running every day, beginning a regular fitness routine that he maintains to this day.

After a year working at a consultancy that advised US businesses investing abroad, Obama moved to Chicago to work as a community organiser on the city's South Side, helping tenants in public housing to lobby city authorities about asbestos in the buildings and setting up job training programmes.

Obama became frustrated with the work, however, and found that some local black leaders viewed him with suspicion as an interloper with an elite background who could not understand the lives of poor African-Americans.

An exception was Jeremiah Wright, whose Trinity United Church of Christ was popular among Chicago's black upper crust.

Wright welcomed Obama, introducing him to Christianity, and becoming his pastor for 20 years.

In 1988, Obama went to Harvard Law School, becoming the first black editor of the Harvard Law Reviewand working during the summers at Chicago law firm Sidley Austin, where he met his wife Michelle.

She was three years ahead of Obama at Harvard Law School and his superior at the law firm but Obama pursued her without hesitation.

"She's incredibly grounded," says Susan Page, who became friends with Michelle at Harvard. "That was the biggest impression I had of her even then - very dedicated, extremely hard-working and even though she'd gone to Princeton and then to Harvard, never snobby. She's very funny and just doesn't take herself too seriously."

Back in Chicago, Obama set his sights on a political career, succeeding Alice Palmer as state senator for Illinois' 13th district. Palmer had backed Obama as her successor, believing she would win a congressional seat. When she failed, she asked Obama to step aside and allow her to remain in her state senate seat. He not only refused but had Palmer knocked off the ballot for irregularities in her nomination.

In 2000, Obama lost his own bid for a congressional seat but in 2004, he was elected to the US Senate. By then, Obama was already a national figure after his speech to the Democratic National Convention that nominated John Kerry.

In the Senate, Obama initially kept a low profile but he worked hard in advance of the 2006 congressional elections, raising money for Democratic candidates and building relationships within the party that would prove useful in his presidential campaign.