Obama unmasked

What's going wrong for the man who would be president? Our US editor Andrew Stephen reports from Was

We at the New Statesman must take some of the blame, I suppose. Barack Obama had been a senator for just ten months in 2005 when we devoted a cover to his face, anointing him as one of ten people likely to have an impact on the world. It was only during 2007, however, that the American media fell head-over-heels in love with Obama; when he trounced Hillary Clinton in the Democratic party caucuses in Iowa on 3 January, it seemed that the electorate was swooning in a headlong rush to the altar with Obama, too. By the end of the first week of the '08 presidential election year, the media had all but handed over the keys to the White House to him.

So it all came as a shock to the pundits and pollsters on the night of 8 January when, despite predictions of an overwhelming Obama triumph, it became clear that the voters of New Hampshire had given Hillary Clinton the victory over Obama she badly needed. The reason for the media's distortions, I believe, is that Obama's relationship with the press and the electorate is still at the stage of starry-eyed infatuation. Yes, he is a mesmerising political orator who offers a magic elixir that somehow contains both stimulants and sedatives: that we need not worry about the present or future, because we can look forward to a new dawn of hope and reassurance in the safe hands of President Obama. Exactly how and why this would happen is not clear, but it is heady and exciting stuff.

I suspect that the longer the relationship continues, however, the more Obama's many faults and shortcomings as a presidential candidate will emerge. In his speech admitting defeat in New Hampshire on Tuesday, for example, a hint of his bad-tempered haughtiness emerged. He is not the fresh-faced young idealist the media like to portray, but a hard-headed 46-year-old lawyer whose monumental drive and political calculations make the Clintons seem like a pair of amateurs. The media and electorate may have fallen in love with him spontaneously, but Obama has been carefully plotting his strategy to seduce them for decades.

A little "blow"

Even dedicated political operators such as the Clintons, for example, did not publish self-promoting memoirs at the age of 33 - but that is exactly what Obama did, revealing his use of cocaine ("a little blow") before anybody else could beat him to it, for example. In those memoirs, Dreams from My Father, he burnished a personal and political résumé that, in places, seemed almost unbelievable - so I was not surprised to read in his introduction to the reissued edition of "selective lapses of memory" and "the temptation to colour events in ways favourable to the writer".

I'll provide two brief examples of how Obama did just that. He wrote movingly of a turning point in his life when, as a nine-year-old, he read in Life magazine of a "black man who had tried to peel off his skin". But the Chicago Tribune - it and the Chicago Sun-Times being honourable exceptions to the media quiescence I have described - reported that "no such Life issue exists", and an exhaustive search of similar magazines failed to find any article remotely similar to the one Obama had described. The Obama media machine, too, obligingly enabled television crews this month to interview Obama's very elderly Kenyan "grandmother"; the only problem was that the woman in rural Kenya was not Obama's grandmother, but the alleged foster mother of Obama's father. "Give me a break . . . this whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," huffed Bill Clinton, visiting Dartmouth College on the eve of the New Hampshire vote, telling his audience the US media are not being tough enough on Obama.

Politically, there is remarkably little difference between the three leading Democrats - Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Obama was not in the Senate in 2002 and did not therefore vote for the resolution that authorised the invasion of Iraq. But he has not been the sainted man of peace his supporters portray, either. In his three years in the Senate he has kept his head safely below the parapet, leaving two congressional colleagues - Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania - to spearhead opposition to the war on Capitol Hill. In 2006 he voted against a Senate resolution calling for the withdrawal of troops and has also voted to continue funding the war.

Most recently, he said he would not hesitate to send US troops into Pakistan without Pakistan's permission to hunt down terrorists, and he insists that the US must not "cede our claim of leadership in world affairs". He wants the military to "stay on the offensive, from Djibouti to Kandahar" and to increase defence expenditure. Like most identikit US mainstream politicians, he talks of "rogue nations" and "hostile dictators", and says the US must maintain "a strong nuclear deterrent" and be ready to "seize" the "American moment". He appeared to support Israel's attack on Lebanon, but then said "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people" - which, in turn, he denied saying.

In the meantime he let his mentor and fellow senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, swing alone in the wind after Durbin - perhaps the most liberal Democrat in the Senate - compared US interrogation techniques of prisoners in Guantanamo with those of the Soviet Union, Nazis and Khmer Rouge. He voted to reauthorise the Bush administration's repressive Patriot Act, and says that as president he would not rule out a US first-strike nuclear attack on Iran.

His equivocations and contradictions thus proliferate. He promised solemnly on coast-to-coast live television on NBC in 2006 that he would complete his six-year Senate term and definitely not run for the presidency. He voted in favour of President Bush's nomination of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. I am not the first to see Obama's self-portrayal as almost Christlike: a young black man is tormented by racism and gets into drugs, and only his own inner goodness rescues him from the ghettos to which he was surely consigned. Human foibles - that he smokes and likes playing poker, for example - are determinedly kept under wraps.

Dysfunctional

The sad point of all this is that the reality of his life is actually much more fascinating than the manufactured version. His background is strikingly dysfunctional but by no means economically underprivileged. His eccentric white American mother met his Kenyan father when both were students at the University of Hawaii, but like so many male politicians - Bill Clinton, for one - his father, an alcoholic who ended up fathering several families before being killed in a car accident in Kenya in 1982, was literally and figuratively absent from his life. He abandoned Obama and his mother to take up a scholarship at Harvard when the young Barack was a toddler. So much for his Kenyan "relatives".

His mother, who died in 1995, subsequently remarried an Indonesian student destined to become an oil company executive, and the newlyweds took the young Obama to live in Jakarta when he was six. He duly attended a local school that the Fox News channel gleefully but inaccurately labelled a madrasa. His middle name, like his father's, is Hussein - though Obama insists that his father was not, in fact, a Muslim but an atheist. The adult Obama now attends the evangelical Trinity United Church of Christ in Chi cago and says he is a devout Christian.

The young Obama acquired a half-sister when he lived in Jakarta (she is now a Buddhist), but his mother sent him to live permanently with his white grandparents in Honolulu when he was ten. He then began a new, elitist life that even he describes as "a childhood dream": surfing in Hawaii and attending the renowned private Punahou School, founded by Congregationalist missionaries in 1841 and known to local people as a school for the haole (whites). Its annual tuition today costs $15,725.

Far from being the brilliant student his image suggests, Obama was a consistently B-grade pupil. He went on to attend Occidental College, a perfectly respectable private liberal arts college in Los Angeles, but hardly an academic powerhouse; its present-day endowment is $377m. He transferred to Columbia University in New York and completed his degree there, and finally graduated with a degree from Harvard Law School at the age of 30. His upwardly mobile ascent had begun, and Obama joined the Chicago law firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland. He began his professional political career when he stood successfully for the Illinois General Assembly (the state senate) in 1996.

Here we come to one of the major contradictions between Obama's image and reality. The media, both here and in Britain, assume that Obama has the black vote sewn up - a Daily Telegraph columnist, with stupendous racism, casually asserted on Monday that Hillary Clinton has lost an opportunity because American blacks now "have one of their own to support" - but Obama is regarded with suspicion by most African Americans. My postman, for example, screws up his face with disdain at the mere mention of Obama's name. He alienated much of the black political Establishment in 2000, when he ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primaries against the incumbent congressman for an Illinois district, Representative Bobby Rush - a former Black Panther and current leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus. His congressional district has more black people than any other in the country, and Obama lost to Rush by 31 points.

In a career that has seemed - until now, at least - to be unstoppable, he nonetheless went on to win the Democratic nomination to run for the US Senate in 2004. The seat was being vacated by a retiring Republican, Peter Fitzgerald, but Obama had a tremendous stroke of luck: the former wife of his strong Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, made sordid allegations about their sex life and Ryan was forced to drop out. He was replaced by Alan Keyes, a former black activist and diplomat who had morphed into a figure of the far right and become one of America's fully paid-up political lunatics. Obama, having won national attention for the first time by delivering the keynote address at John Kerry's Democratic coronation convention in Boston the previous July, won by a 70-27 per cent landslide.

Which brings us back to his entry to the Senate in 2005 and our cover of him less than ten months later. Part of Obama's contrived sainthood is an undertaking that he will not take funds from lobbyists or political action committees. But, like the Clintons and just about any other American politician, he has assiduously done just that. According to the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton has so far raised $78,615,215 and Obama $78,915,507; Obama's campaign has relied heavily on people such as Kenneth Griffin, a Chicago-based hedge-fund manager who reportedly earned $1.4bn last year.

The further away you get from Chicago, though, the more the saintly image takes hold. Publications like the New Yorker may coo for pages over "the conciliator", but the two Chicago newspapers are much more interested in Obama's close 17-year friendship with Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a long-time Obama donor and property developer awaiting trial on charges of attempted extortion, money laundering and fraud. A low-income housing project received more than $14m from taxpayers while Obama was a state senator, but he consistently denied that he had done any favours for Rezko.

The hope mantra

That was until the Chicago Sun-Times unearthed two letters Obama wrote to state officials in 1998 urging them to grant extra funds for Rezko's project. Democrats and Republicans alike in Chicago, too, are intrigued by the question of why Obama paid $1.65m for a mansion in the city's south side in 2005 - $300,000 less than the asking price - on the very same day Rezko's wife happened to buy the house next door for the asking price. In their tax return for the following year, Obama and his wife, Michelle, who is vice-president of a non-profit hospital organisation, reported taxable income of $983,826 for 2006, down from $1.6m the previous year.

"Hope" is the mantra word in Obama's magic elixir, but Bruce Reed - president of the Democratic Leadership Council - points out that tens of millions of Americans are supporting Obama not because of what he's done, but because of what they hope he might do. "We don't need leaders to tell us we can't do what we need to do," Obama said in a typical stump speech on 7 January. "We need them to say 'yes, we can', to say 'yes, we believe'."

Huge crowds roar their approval over lines like this, long on beautifully delivered rhetoric but short on facts and concrete undertakings. A casual observer might assume Obama is proposing a vastly more ambitious health-care plan than Clinton; in fact, the reverse is true.

Those who know Obama say privately that he has a healthy sense of entitlement that often manifests itself in an imperious, thin-skinned manner. We caught just a glimpse of this peevishness in his concession speech in New Hampshire, I thought - of a man somehow denied his rightful Schadenfreude over the second humiliating defeat of Clinton that he and the American punditocracy had confidently anticipated. Obama's latest book may be called The Audacity of Hope, but it really should be called The Audacity of Hype.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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