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The upbringing which shaped Obama

By Clive Myrie
Reporter, Obama: His Story

Charismatic, brilliant, mesmerising, hypnotic, charming, intelligent, driven, ambitious, empathetic, ruthless. Just some of the words interviewees use to describe the 44th President of the United States Barack Obama.

I have spoken to some of the closest people to him who have been there throughout his astonishing journey from inquisitive child to troubled teenager, to the embodiment of the hopes of millions of people.

Barack Obama on the campaign trail
A young Obama vowed not to squander his life

His closest friend Marty Nesbitt, a Chicago businessman, used to fly out on the campaign trail to play pick-up basketball games with Obama to help him to decompress.

He says he can sum up the reason for Obama's success in one memorable phrase. "Quite simply," Marty told me, "he's got the juice."

But where did "the juice" come from? How did this man of mixed-race heritage, once racked by insecurity about his place in the world, develop the confidence we see today?

How can someone who's suffered two broken homes be as grounded and secure as he is? The answer lies in the love of a doting mother and the failures of an absent father.

FIND OUT MORE
Obama: His Story is on BBC Two on Tuesday at 7pm
Or watch again on the BBC iPlayer

Hardworking mother

I spoke with a woman called Alice Dewey in Honolulu, where Barack Obama was born. She provided a wonderful insight into the character of his mother Ann Dunham, a white woman originally from Kansas and the most important influence on the future President's life.

Alice supervised Ann's doctorate in anthropology at the University of Hawaii and they became close friends.

"Ann was good fun, extremely hardworking and had a great sense of humour," she told me. "She was also serious about giving young Barack the kind of start in life that might help him succeed."

A young Barack Obama with his mother.
Barack Obama was brought up by his white mother and grandparents

Ann had met and fallen in love with a handsome Kenyan student at university, Barack Obama, and they were married. It was a time of racial tension in America in the early 1960s and with mixed marriages outlawed in more than half the states of the union, though not in Hawaii.

Ann was anxious to instil in her son a sense of self worth, that he should never be ashamed of who he is.

"He was woken up at four in the morning," Alice told me, "so Ann could home school him, so that he could get the kind of education that would give him a chance to help people, and it worked."

The self confidence and belief in his own abilities that have helped shape Barack Obama's destiny, were the fruits of a doting mum.

Idealised father

But what about his Kenyan father, Barack Snr?

He is the other major influence in his life, proving the point, Obama believes, "that every man is trying to either live up to his father's expectations, or make up for his father's mistakes."

The young Barack created an idealised vision of his absent father to fill a void. The image was of a learned, scholarly and wise man.

Barack Obama and father
Barack Obama only met his father once

The truth however was a shocking revelation for the son when he made an emotional pilgrimage to Kenya in the late 1980s. He found that the father whom he had placed on a pedestal had died a washed-up drunk, bitter and alone.

The younger Obama has written about how he sat by his father's grave and wept, vowing never to make the same mistakes, that he would not to squander his life.

Political motivation

His closest friends and colleagues during his time as a community organiser in the poor, deprived Southside area of Chicago, the period in his life when he realised his future was in politics, say that Obama never forgot the conflicts of his mixed race heritage.

Gerald Kellman gave Obama the job in Chicago and told me Obama identified with other outsiders.

"And that was a good connecting point for people who were poor," he said. "People who faced racial discrimination - it helped him identify with their lives."

During Obama's time at Harvard some black students thought he was a sell out when he reached out to whites on the Harvard Law Review.

Later on, the fall-out of the Reverend Wright affair threatened to bring him into conflict with the African-American community. And despite the seemingly effortless political ascent there was an election defeat along the way, to former Black Panther and congressman Bobby Rush.

Obama learned some fundamental lessons from this defeat, lessons that made him a stronger campaigner and political operator.

Obama: His Story is on BBC Two on 20 January 2009 at 7pm



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