Why Can't Barack Obama Speak English?

Um, because that's not him.

A wake of astonishment follows him through Miami International Airport on a windy Friday, 27 days before Election Day. A blond businesswoman with a cell phone glued to her cheek halts her hurried stride. "I think I just saw Bar ..." she exhales into the phone, but can't bring herself to finish the declaration. She joins a growing crowd stalking the entourage from a safe distance.

"That's the man!" yells one of a pair of airport workers, bounding down an escalator after spotting him.

On the campaign trail: Faux-bama and his Miami New Times Secret Service.
C. Stiles
On the campaign trail: Faux-bama and his Miami New Times Secret Service.
Shaking hands at Miami International Airport's Versailles restaurant.
C. Stiles
Shaking hands at Miami International Airport's Versailles restaurant.

Outside the airport's miniature version of Versailles restaurant, shrieks of "Barack!" and "Obama!" ring out, and the candidate, standing in line while a bearded, forbidding Secret Service agent purchases a bottle of water, is briefly engulfed by a now-familiar commotion.

He shakes a dozen hands and kisses a baby as airport employees from around the terminal come running. Camera phones emerge from seemingly every pocket.

A few bystanders wonder, "Why is Obama traveling with only one Secret Service agent?" The whole airport is locked down by other agents, reassures a journalist flanking the entourage.

The senator, most likely exhausted, seems to communicate mostly through peace signs, although he leans toward a few people's ears and utters — in a deep, deliberate voice — a slogan: "Believe in yourself. Believe in change."

The blond businesswoman, Amy Kelly, finally allows herself to admit her sighting. "That's something I'm going to tell my kids," she says. "I saw Obama."

A half-hour later, he's meandering through the sparsely populated halls of Dolphin Mall. The hands of a woman managing a beauty products kiosk tremble when she sees the senator reading the ingredients on the back of one of her facial creams. A Dutch tourist asks the candidate if he knows where Outdoor World is. A few minutes later, when the Dutchman and his wife realize who he is, they nearly melt with excitement. "Super!" they yell in unison.

"In the Netherlands, we are very proud of Obama," the husband explains.

A neck-craning mall security guard riding a Segway scooter follows the shifting mob of photo-takers and handshakers, but more out of his own fandom than any attempt to keep order. When the crowd dissipates, the guard quietly asks if he can have a photo with the senator. "Nobody told me he was coming," the guard says. "I was doing my report and — whoa!"

As Obama poses for pictures, he turns so that only his right side faces the lens. On the left, a slight but noticeable scar, long and thin, runs from his hairline to his temple. Perhaps this is an imperfection a makeup artist usually conceals.

But doesn't the senator have a mole near his left nostril? And on this day, Obama's famous grin seems to gleam a bit less brightly than usual; his teeth appear more brown than most photos show.

But it's unmistakably the figure — tall, lean, straight-backed — and the face — high forehead, firm chin, low-sloping eyebrows, those big ears — that has inundated television this election season.

After the wave of fans dissipates, Obama wanders into an FYE record store and silently contemplates the back of a Sex and the City: The Movie DVD. An employee, Zingah Wright, too excited to form much in the way of sentences, walks up to him carrying a cereal-box-size talking Obama doll. It's newly arrived merchandise. The senator and the employee cradle his likeness as a camera flashes. While the doll prattles on about America's destiny, the real-life version remains curiously tight-lipped.

Has the candidate contracted laryngitis?

On his way out of the mall, Obama and entourage traverse a food court, where the frenzy hits its shrill apex. Hair-netted employees of Chinese-food stands call him by name, offering chunks of glazed chicken on toothpicks (which he gracefully declines with a wave of the hand). A table of Sbarro-eating Republicans boos and flashes a thumbs-down signal. Two teenage girls, flush with baby fat and the word "Pink" emblazoned across the rears of their velour shorts, jump up and down like they've met the lead singer of Maroon 5. "Oh my God! Thank you so much!" one screams as she captures Obama on her neon camera phone.

"We were at Denny's, eating," explains the girl, who just turned 18, "and then we got a call, like, 'Obama's at Dolphin!' We were like —"

"Oh my God!" assists her friend.

"I ran over here; I came running with my car," continues the first breathless girl. "I almost crashed, like, 50 people!"

But a young Trinidadian tourist, who gives her name only as Anna, has managed a brief conversation with her hero. She smiles coyly. "Tell him not to talk," she says. "He sounds Latin."


In fact, Gerardo Puisseaux was born in Cuba, with forebears of Haitian descent. He warmly greets a visitor in the reception area at the Hialeah studios of Spanish-language TV channel América TeVé. He is between takes of a sketch show, so he's in costume: a dark suit and a big mole plastered next to his left nostril. Sure there are a few imperfections: the scar on the temple, the smile, and a gold watch that dangles tackily from his right wrist. But these details do little to diminish that first impression: He doesn't just look like him; they share the same damn face.

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