Shades of Truth

Does Barack Obama embroider his own history for political effect?

Shades of Truth
C. Stiles
Bam bam Obama
The e-mails regarding one of the leading 2008 presidential contenders arrive every week or so, and the subject lines aren't kind.

"Obama profits from media cover-up of family ties to slavery."

"Letter to Random House charges Barack Obama book is a fraud."

"The last days of Obama."

"Obama caught in boneheaded behavior — again."

They come from the desk of Andy Martin, an undercooked political commentator and Florida gubernatorial candidate who is fond of giving little-attended sidewalk news conferences in New York. A longtime South Florida character currently living in Chicago, he's not to be taken too seriously. On his Website,, Martin digs up facts and then puts his own fevered stamp on them. In a 2003 story I described him as "an enigma wrapped in a riddle who probably should be wrapped in a straitjacket."

But he's nothing if not dogged, and there's usually a kernel of truth in what he says, if you can find it. He was right, for instance, about the Iraq War — and traveled several times to Baghdad to produce on-the-ground reports (and hype his absurd search for Saddam Hussein).

So what of his ranting about Barack Obama Jr., the junior Illinois senator who wants to run the free world? We who live in the make-or-break political sand of South Florida can expect to see quite a bit of Obama, who will certainly make frequent visits here as he campaigns for president. Might as well get to know him.

Obama has been a favored child of the media, though recent cracks have begun to mar his sparkling public image. He bought his Chicago estate, for example, with the help of an indicted political operative and accused extortionist named Tony Rezko. The New York Times reported last week about questionable investments, and the Los Angeles Times hit him for inflating his achievements in a recent book.

Martin, who has been "researching" Obama for the past three years, claims the White House hopeful's flaws are chronic, and that he is, in fact, a "congenital liar" (see, the man uses extreme editorial license).

"I have become an Obama guru," he boasts. "I wrote that he is lying to the public. Does that make him a bad man? No. He's a nice man. But I would no more want Obama in the White House than I would want him in the cockpit of an airplane I was in."

Martin has a knack for that kind of loaded language. But you have to be wary of attacks on Obama, especially after an anonymously authored Insight magazine article (published by the right-wing, Sung Myung Moon-owned Washington Times newspaper) accused the senator of having attended a radical Muslim school as a youth. The story was untrue, and the article proved to be a journalistic travesty rife with glaring inaccuracies.

Martin, an unorthodox Republican who is backing Rudy Giuliani for president, says the New York Times called him and asked if he authored the piece, which he didn't. But he does have a penchant for repeatedly dropping the term "Muslim" into his Obama rants.

Obama, for the record, is a Christian. His African father was an atheist, and his father's father was a Muslim. His white mother's side, hailing from Kansas, is Christian. He did his best to exemplify his coziness with Jesus during a highly publicized March 4 speech in a black church in Selma, Alabama, where he commemorated the famous marches of 42 years ago.

That speech, as it happens, provides a good test for Martin's claims against the politician. And it's a good jumping-off point for exploring Obama's complex and fascinating family history.

Martin insists that Obama lied several times in Selma. He says one big fib was the senator's claim that his father, Barack Obama Sr., left Kenya for Hawaii with the help of an iconic American political family. Here's what Obama told the church crowd:

"[T]he Kennedys decided we're going to do an airlift. We're going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country and give them scholarships to study so they can learn what a wonderful country America is. This young man named Barack Obama got one of those tickets and came over to this country."

Martin seized on those words.

"Barack Obama Sr. came to Hawaii to study in 1959," Martin says. "That's an objective fact. When did Kennedy become president? It was 1961. It had nothing to do with the Kennedys. Nothing."

Sounds feasible, but Martin is wrong. Though Kennedy wasn't president at the time, he was a U.S. senator, and the Kennedy Foundation helped fund the students' airfare, according to congressional records and a Time magazine article from 1960.

Obama, however, overstated the Kennedy family's role. John, Bobby, and Teddy didn't "decide" to do the airlift. It was a group called the African American Students Foundation that made that decision and organized the mission. But that is hardly a political crime, so I'm scoring one here for the senator.

Martin may have a bit more of a leg to stand on, however, when he points to Obama's strange claim that he was actually born as a result of the Selma marches. Here's what Obama said about his parents' union:

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