Obama's grandmother helped mold candidate's character
Barack Obama's mother was an adventurous woman who took her son around the globe. His grandmother was a rock of stability, giving him the...
MIAMI — Barack Obama's mother was an adventurous woman who took her son around the globe.
His grandmother was a rock of stability, giving him the American roots that would ground his teenage years as well as his career in politics.
His mother died too young to see him become a U.S. senator, much less the Democratic presidential nominee and someone who could become the first African American to win the White House.
Now, just two weeks before the election of his life, that other maternal figure — Madelyn Dunham, who helped raise him — is in such fragile health that family members are gathering at her Honolulu bedside.
The 85-year-old former bank executive is said to be "gravely ill" after falling and breaking her hip, and some reports suggest she might not live to see the results of the Nov. 4 vote.
Whatever happens, she's already lived long enough to see her "Barry" achieve what she'd wanted for him, her brother says.
"I think she thinks she was important in raising a fine young man," said Charles Payne, 83, from his Chicago home. "I doubt if it would occur to her that he would go this far this fast. But she's enjoyed watching it."
Although she was too ill to travel for the campaign, she followed it closely on television — even undergoing a corneal transplant earlier this year so she could watch the coverage.
"She was almost totally blind," Payne said. "She's not physically able to" campaign, he said, "but it doesn't mean her interest has flagged."
The country hasn't really met this key figure in Obama's life. Dunham, who turns 86 on Sunday, has rarely spoken to the media, and she doesn't appear at campaign events.
Yet she is a crucial part of Obama's story, a woman he speaks of often when he's campaigning. He has invoked memories of her at his most crucial moments in politics, notably when dealing with the complex multicultural tapestry that is his personal narrative.
And when the Illinois senator decided to seek the Democratic presidential nomination, Dunham provided the "Kansas heartland" pedigree he needed to appeal to conservative white voters — and a personal anecdote about racial prejudice that helped the man with the foreign name and Ivy League résumé connect with the African-American experience.
Those close to Obama say she is more than just a part of that story, she's part of his personality — a towering image reflected in her grandson alongside that of her daughter, his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham.
"The two women who really raised him, his mom and grandma, are both strong, and they've struggled in the course of their lives and overcome great obstacles," said Valerie Jarrett, a close Obama family friend.
"They are extraordinarily determined and empathetic, and I see that in him," she said. "All of these unusual characteristics, they're all rolled up into one person."
Obama's wife, Michelle, often speaks of the two "strong women" who made her husband who he is. One of those women gave him wings. The other gave him roots.
Stanley Ann Dunham, who was white, married Obama's father, a Kenyan student, and had her son when she was 18. She later married Lolo Soetoro, the father of Obama's sister, Maya, and the couple moved to Indonesia.
But a time came when the family agreed Obama should return to Hawaii for high school. The grandparents he called "Gramps" and "Toot" took him in, living in a modest Honolulu apartment so they could send him to the elite Punahou Academy. In a rare 2004 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Madelyn Dunham noted her daughter's global interests and said she and her husband offered Obama a greater sense of normality. "I suppose I provided stability in his life," she said.
Obama and others credit Dunham with instilling in him an appreciation for education and hard work, and with setting an example of thrift, practicality and tolerance.
"I think there's nobody more important than her, except his mother, in shaping his character," said David Mendell, who interviewed Dunham in 2004 for the Chicago Tribune and later wrote the book, "Obama: From Promise to Power."
Mendell said Obama got "that dreamer quality" seen in his speeches from his late mother. But when he has to decide whom to trust in politics, "that's his grandmother's practicality coming out in him."
"His grandmother was a real no-nonsense, no-frills woman who was far more skeptical of human nature than his mother," Mendell said Tuesday. "And in politics, he has to rely on both of those characteristics."
This week, Obama returns to those family roots. He is canceling events on most of Thursday and Friday to go to Hawaii where his sister is caring for their grandmother.
Dunham's illness may remind some voters of Obama's white, Midwestern family at a time when Republicans are trying to stir up doubts about his identity. Some supporters, though, worry the temporary suspension of his campaign will cost him precious time on the campaign trail.
But Obama may be troubled by the painful memory of his mother, who died of ovarian cancer in 1995.
He has said one of his greatest regrets is not being at her bedside in Hawaii during her final hours, Mendell said.
"She [Madelyn Dunham] and her husband were really there when he needed their love and support," Jarrett said. "It should be no surprise that he would say, 'Yes, this campaign is extremely important, but I am not going to forget the person who raised me and go back and be with her when she needs me.' "
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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