Shades of Truth
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, www.contrariancommentary.com, 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:
"There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together, and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don't tell me I'm not coming home to Selma, Alabama."
The problem here is that the Selma marches occurred in 1965. Obama was born in 1961. So whatever was "stirring" in Honolulu probably had very little to do with the little town in Alabama.
The Chicago Tribune picked up on this discrepancy and cursorily reported it. Obama's campaign told the newspaper that the senator was referring to the entire civil rights movement, not just Selma.
So Obama was caught making a connection that wasn't quite there. You have to give Martin some points on this one, since it's clear that Obama fudged the facts to falsely impress his audience.
The political objective of the Selma speech was obvious: An almost defensive Obama was trying to build his cred with the African-American community. That support is crucial, since his most formidable opponent, Hillary Clinton, enjoys popularity with blacks, partly due to the coattails of her husband, and was also in Selma that weekend (at another church, of course).
There's a reason Obama might be trying too hard. Unlike most black Americans, his family history doesn't have roots in slavery. His grandfather, Onyango, lived in a small village in Kenya while it was under British rule. Here's how the senator tried to tie Onyango to the folks in Selma:
"You see, my grandfather was a cook to the British in Kenya. Grew up in a small village, and all his life, that's all he was a cook and a houseboy. And that's what they called him, even when he was 60 years old. They called him a houseboy. They wouldn't call him by his last name. Sound familiar?"
Martin bristles at this account.
"He makes his grandfather out to be a houseboy, but his grandfather was an extraordinary human being," Martin says. "He educated himself. He learned to read and write. He adopted Western attitudes about cleanliness. He was a major-domo, a head of the household."
Obama's grandfather is indeed an extremely interesting character and though he worked as a servant, he was much more than a "houseboy" for the British. We know this because Obama wrote about Onyango, whom he never met, in his first book, Dreams From My Father. He describes him in the first pages of the book as "a prominent farmer, an elder of the tribe, a medicine man with healing powers."
Obama conveys in the book that his grandfather embraced the British and their Western ways zealously. When white people first came into the region, Onyango disappeared for many months and came back "wearing the trousers of the white man, and the shirt of a white man, and shoes that covered his feet," Obama quotes a Kenyan relative as saying.
For this transgression Onyango's father shunned him for the rest of his life. As British rule became more oppressive in Kenya, Onyango worked for the empire, overseeing road crews. He then moved to Nairobi, where he worked at white-owned estates as a cook and house organizer. He traveled around the world with the British during World War II. And he was paid wages that he used to buy land and cattle in his village, where he owned a sizable compound and was known as a man alternately cruel and generous.
Obama writes in his book that when he heard his grandfather's story, "ugly words flashed through my mind. Uncle Tom. Collaborator. House nigger."
When he asked his African stepgrandmother about Onyango's views toward the white man, this is what she told him: "... he respected the white man for his power, for his machines and weapons, and the way he organized his life. He would say that the white man was always improving himself, whereas the African was suspicious of anything new. The African is thick,' he would sometimes say to me. For him to do anything, he needs to be beaten. '"
Yet Onyango, an almost ridiculously stern man, wasn't obsequious in the face of British power. He refused to be beaten and was said to have lost jobs because of it. "If the white man he was working for was abusive, he would tell the man to go to hell and leave to find other work," his granny told him, adding that Onyango once took the cane from a white man and beat him with it.
So Obama's grandfather's experience with the white man was a far cry from slavery. And dubbing him as only a cook and "houseboy" does seem a bit disingenuous.
But technically, Onyango did work as a cook and servant for white people. And he was called a boy, no doubt. So was Obama lying through his teeth, as Martin believes, or was he just being politically creative?
It's the latter, of course. Obama chose small details to deliver a message while shading larger truths. If Obama were giving a speech before an upper-crust white crowd, for instance, he might tell them how Onyango was an immediate convert to Western ways and one of the richest people in his village.
It's called playing to the audience. It's what politicians do good ones, anyway. And Obama is nothing if not a politician, and he comes with all the baggage that the label implies. Both he and his campaign would do well to make sure he sticks to the facts in the future, because he might cross the line in a way that will discredit him if he's not careful.
And Andy Martin will be there to report every misstep he makes and even some he doesn't.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.