Friday, April 09, 2010

The Ann Dunham Presidency

Ann Dunham, Barack Obama's mother, emerges pretty clearly in David Remnick's The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama as a secular saint. I say that without cyncism, knowing that such people exist because I've been married to one for 27 years -- a person of deep empathy, zero malice, all benevolence, naturally cheerful and optimistic. At least that is how Dunham's daughter Maya sees her:
Ann started to roam the markets of Jakarta and make trips around the country, learning more about Indonesian culture and handicrafts. "She loved batik and Indonesian art and music and all of the human creation that in her estimation elevated the spirit," Maya said. "She saw the beauty of community and kinship, the power of cultural collision and connection. She thought that all of her encounters were delightful--in Indonesia and elsewhere. She was just happy. She enjoyed herself immensely. Although she was aware of struggle and grappled with it, she did so cheerfully and with great optimism and belief that things could get better. Why mourn reality? (70)

Along with that great endowment of temperament came people skills that her not-quite-so-sunny son seems to have inherited:

To do her research, Dunham had to insinuate her way into the smithies of Kajar, a village in Gunung Kidul, a region of central Java....The blacksmith's workshop, in Javanese tradition, is sacred and mostly barred to women. The craftsmen think of their work as a spiritual endeavor, their products as sacred as a crucifix or a Torah scroll. Offerings are draped on the anvil. Dunham's work was, in man way, economic anthropology, but she also had the requisite skill of a social anthropologist: the capacity to gain access. She persuaded these craftsmen to let her inside the smithy, observe their work, and interview them at length.  She had a capacity to get these craftsmen to reveal even their innermost thoughts; in one passage, Pak Sastro, the head of the blacksmithing cooperative in Kajar, describes a dream he had before being visited by the regional sultan. Because Dunham was American, she was regarded, above all, as a foreign  guest and able to transcend, somehow, her status as a woman among men.
     "She really earned their trust," Maya Soetoro-Ng said. "She knew their extended families and their children and grandchildren."
    "The fact that she worked so closely with blacksmiths is proof of her subtlety as a person," Bronwen Solyom, a friend and expert in Indonesian art, said. "If she hadn't been so congenial, she wouldn't have been able to gain access to those men and their venerable skills" (85).
Compare Barack Obama in his mid-twenties, beginning work as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side. From a letter he wrote to an friend:

I work in five different neighborhoods of differing economic conditions. In one neighborhood, I'll be meeting with a group of irate homeowners, working-class folks, bus drivers and nurses and clerical administrators, whose section of town has been ignored by the Dept. of Streets and Sanitation since the whites moved out twenty years ago. In another, I'll be trying to bring together a group of welfare mothers, mothers at 15, grandmothers at 30, great-grandmothers at 45, trying to help them win better job-training and day care facilities from the State. In either situation, I walk into a room and make promises I hope that thy can help me keep. They generally trust me, despite the fact that they've seen earnest young men pass through here before, expecting to change the world and eventually succumbing to the lure of a corporate office.  And in a short time I've learned to care for them very much and want to do everything I can for them. It's tough,though. Lots of driving, lots of hours on the phone trying to break through lethargy, lots of dull meetings. Lots of frustration ...But about 5% the time, you see something happen--a shy housewife standing up to a bumbling official, or the sudden sound of hope in the voice of a grizzled old man--that gives a hint of the possibilities, of people taking hold of their lives, working together to bring about a small justice.  And it's that possibility that keeps you going through all the trenchwork (141-2).

About Obama's first meeting with historian and South Side 'elder' Timuel Black, Remnick writes:

They met for the first time at a student hangout near the University, Medici on 57th, where Obama quizzed him for hours about the history of the migration and the political and social development of the South Side. Obama was not only fascinated by the history of black Chicago; he also chose to enter that history, to join it. Chicago was where he found a community, a church, a wife, a purpose, a political life--and he was absorbed in its past. "He soaked it up," Black said. "He made it his own" (143).
Obama is not his mother -- or Bill Clinton, for that matter. He can come across in public as aloof, condescending, fastidious. But by the account of virtually everyone who's worked with him, his listening skills are extraordinary. And he has his mother's ability to put himself in others' shoes.

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