‘08: Year of Obama

Growing up in Hawaii helped make Barack Obama a citizen of the world, with an outlook unlike any other presidential candidate running in ‘08

Dan Boylan
Wednesday - January 02, 2008
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Obama and his supporters say that he is the only candidate who can deliver real change in D.C.
Obama and his supporters say that he is the only candidate who can deliver real change in D.C.

fall on Indianola that afternoon.

Magnetism and popularity alone won’t win in the complicated Iowa caucus system. A candidate’s supporters have to get to the precinct meetings - often on cold, snowy evenings - in order to win. “My mother supported Howard Dean in 2004,” says Mikulanec. “He led in the polls, but his people weren’t organized for the caucuses.

“This year John Edwards has the best caucus organization, because he’s done it before. But Obama probably has the next best. They’re extremely well-organized. They’ve done their leg work, have confirmed caucus attendees, and are prepared to get them out on Jan. 3.”

The weekend before Christmas last year, Obama was famously in Honolulu, his birthplace, chasing golf balls and pondering the possibility of running - at the youthful age of 46 - for the presidency of the United States. Local journalists begged for interviews, hoping to get a scoop on whether the Hawaii-born, freshman U.S. Senator from Illinois would in fact run for the nation’s highest office.

Obama didn’t tell them, but on Feb. 10, 2007, in Springfield, Ill., he announced his candidacy. Suddenly many Hawaii Democrats had found a favorite son.

Obama was not their first. In the mid-1960s, after he had given the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye received a brief mention as a possible vice presidential candidate. And in 1972, Patsy Mink entered Oregon’s Democratic presidential primary as an anti-war candidate.

Neither went anywhere in the presidential sweepstakes of more than a quarter century ago. Both were of Japanese-American ancestry in an overwhelmingly Caucasian country. Both came from a small state of less than 1 million people, far out in the Pacific Ocean with few delegates to their party’s national political convention and still fewer electoral votes that could be delivered in the general election.

But in this first week of January, 2008, the most recent polls show Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, Punahou Class of 1979, tied with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in Iowa, where the caucus votes will be counted on Thursday; in New Hampshire, where the primary will take place five days later, on Jan. 8; and in South Carolina, where the primary will be run on Saturday, Jan. 26. Only in the Jan. 19 Nevada caucuses does Clinton have a healthy lead over Obama - in a poll run more than two months ago.

If he wins in Iowa on Jan. 3, media attention and campaign money will flow toward him in a torrent - a torrent that may be strong enough to give Obama a win in New Hampshire as well. Should he then take either South Carolina or Nevada - or both, the inevitability of Clinton securing the nomination on what’s been called Super Duper Primary day Feb. 5 evaporates.

Nineteen states will hold their primaries or caucuses that day, including delegate-heavy New York, Illinois and California. By the end of the evening, more than 2,400 convention delegates will have been divided up on that date alone.

Brickwood Galuteria and Rep. Neil Abercrombie
In Honolulu a year ago with then Democratic Party chair Brickwood Galuteria and Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who attended UH with Obama’s father

How did this happen? How did Obama, who claims both Kenyan and Kansan parentage, who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia - far from the epicenter of these United States - whose first, middle and last names are so exotic, find himself a contender for the country’s highest office? And what, if anything, did his

place of birth have to do with it?

When Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell set out to write a book about Illinois’ new and promising U.S. senator, Obama’s wife urged him to visit the state in which her husband was born: “There’s still a great deal of Hawaii in Barack,” she said. “You really can’t understand Barack until you understand Hawaii.” And that understanding begins with the arrival of Obama’s father in Hawaii.

In his career-making keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama told the gathered faithful that his father “grew up herding goats (and) went to school in a tin-roof shack. His father, my grandfather, was a cook, a domestic servant to the British.

“But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son. Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America.”

The “magical place” in which the 23-year-old Barack Hussein Obama Sr., chose to study was Hawaii, more specifically at its burgeoning land grant university in Manoa Valley. He arrived from his native Kenya in 1959, intent on studying for a baccalaureate degree in economics.

Hawaii was ready for the young African, and for a host of other foreign students who would come to its university in ensuing years. The Islands had just become a state, in part on the promise of its entering the union as a bridge to Asia and the Pacific from which so many in Hawaii’s diverse population came.

In 1960, the United States government would found the East-West Center for Cultural and Technological Interchange at the university, with the specific intent of bringing Asian and Pacific Islanders together with East-West Center grantees from Mainland states. In the same year, a training center on the Big Island would begin training young Americans for two years of Peace Corps service in countries in Asia and the Pacific.

Ed Hasegawa, a retired school-teacher and longtime Hawaii Democratic Party activist, knew the senior Obama at Manoa. “I was in a public speaking class with him,” says Hasegawa.

“When he’d talk, he was very substantive, very grounded,” says Hasegawa. “He was really sharp.

“After class we’d walk over to the old snack bar that was just mauka of Hemenway Hall, eat lunch, and talk some more. (Future United States Congressman) Neil Abercrombie was often with us.”

Abercrombie was even more impressed with the foreign student from Kenya. He remembered Obama Sr. as part of a group of UH graduate students who shared pizza, beer and talk on Friday nights. “We’d gather to drink beer and pontificate to one another,” says Abercrombie. “In terms of sheer intellect, he was probably the brightest man I’ve ever run into. He was very verbal and very well-read.

“He had this James Earl Jones voice; it was resonant, deep, booming and rich. It carried authority. He spoke in sentences and paragraphs, and he thought that way. He possessed great certainty about his positions.”

In a Russian language class, the elder Obama met Ann Dunham, an 18-year-old freshman recently arrived from Seattle. In Hawaii her father, Stanley Dunham, was on the last stop of a career - mostly as a furniture salesman - that had taken him to Wichita, Kan.; Berkeley, Calif.; a series of small Texas towns; and Seattle. In Seattle, Stanley and wife Madelyn watched their daughter Ann graduate from high school.

Obama was immediately taken with the bookish coed - and vice versa. Ann Dunham and Barack Hussein Obama Sr. were married


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