Commentary: An election choice made only in America
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Public-opinion polls show that adult Americans like Barack Obama a little better than they like Mitt Romney.
That affection for the president will be on display Thursday night at the Democratic convention in Charlotte when he is joined on stage at an open-air stadium by his wife and two daughters, a smiling, affectionate, all-American family.
Except, of course, the Obamas aren't the Brady bunch. The Obamas are African-Americans. They are black, and millions of white Americans are still not convinced they deserve to be in the White House. This, of course, has something to do with race, which has been at the center of American politics for more than 150 years. Though racial animosity is greatly diminished, it still exists.
A USA Today/ Gallup survey shows that 25 percent of adult Americans continue to believe Mr. Obama was born somewhere outside the United States. Among Republicans, the figure is much higher. They may believe that, against a storm of evidence showing that Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, because they want to believe that the man who occupies the White House is there illegitimately.
What seems to play into their hands is that the president's background is unquestionably exotic.
The president's father, Barack Obama Sr., was born in Kenya, a member of the Luo tribe, composed mostly of fishermen, farmers and herders of domestic animals. The president's father, though, was exceptional. He was smart and scholarships came to him; one of them led him to the University of Hawaii in 1959, where he met Stanley Ann Dunham, a white woman.
They were married the following year, and the president was born at a hospital in Honolulu on August 4, 1961. Birth announcements appeared the following day in the local newspapers.
Barack Obama Sr. was a bit of a vagabond. He didn't mention, for example, that when he married the president's mother, he already had a wife back in Kenya. He left his American wife and son behind in June of 1962 to attend Harvard University. He worked his way back to Kenya, married again, and began to drink heavily.
The last time he saw his son, the future president, was during a visit to Hawaii in 1971, when the boy was 10 years old.
"I only remember my father for one month my whole life," Mr. Obama once noted.
Barack Obama Sr. died in a car crash in Kenya in 1982. Ann Dunham, following her divorce, married again and she and the family moved to Indonesia, a largely Muslim country. That brief episode raised questions among those who were receptive to anything that marked Mr. Obama as someone not quite American.
A Pew Research Group poll shows that 18 percent of adult Americans believe Mr. Obama is a Muslim. Among Republicans, the number is 30 percent.
The president may have unknowingly inspired some of these feelings by writing a book in 1995 with the title, "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," which is pretty much an autobiography covering his life up to the time he entered the Harvard Law School (and including his visit to Kenya and his relatives there before entering law school).
The book, or at least the book's title, may have inspired Dinesh D'Souza, president of a small Christian college in New York City, to write his latest book, "Obama's America: Unmaking the American Dream."
Mr. D'Souza, who was born in India, argues that Mr. Obama is driven by a psychological desire to fulfill his father's dream of dimishing the power of Western imperial states. "Incredibly," Mr. D'Souza writes, "the United States is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. ... America today is governed by a ghost." The book is on The New York Times best-seller list and a movie based on Mr. D'Souza's theory is packing theaters.
Many conservatives disagree with Mr. D'Souza. The problem, they say, isn't that America is being ruled by the ghost of the president's dead father but that it's being run by an old-fashioned Democratic liberal.
One of the curiosities of this election is that Mitt Romney has an exotic background too. He is, of course, a Mormon, but, more than that, he's a member of one of the church's founding families.
The early Romneys were polygamists, like everyone else. (Brigham Young had 51 wives.) With non-Mormons outraged at this state of affairs, Congress passed a bill in 1862 outlawing "plural marriages" but didn't get around to enforcing it until 30 years later. That led many Mormons to escape what they perceived as persecution by taking up residence in Mexico. Mitt Romney's grandparents, Gaskell and Anna Amelia, who were monogamous, settled in a Mormon colony called Colonia Dublan, Galeana, in the Mexican state, Chihuahua.
The Mexican revolution began in 1910 and in a year or so started closing in on the Romneys' Mormon colony. Mitt Romney's father, George W. Romney, remembered seeing rebels armed to the teeth walking down his village street. Not long after that he began hearing gunfire.
George Romney and his family fled to the United States in 1912, leaving almost everything they owned behind. George Romney never went to college but he rose to head American Motors (they made the little Ramblers) and was elected governor of Michigan. He ran unsuccessfully for president in 1968. Both he and now his son faced questions about whether the Mormon religion was truly Christian.
A recent Pew Research poll found that 60 percent of adult Americans know that Romney is a Mormon; 19 percent said they were uncomfortable with that. A survey by LifeWay Research, affiliated with the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, reported that three out of four Protestant pastors did not consider Mormons to be Christians.
Millions of Americans don't believe the president is a Christian. Millions of other Americans aren't sure Mormons are Christians. There's never been anything like it. What is certain is that the Democrats will re-nominate the son of a Luo tribesman from Kenya and the Republicans have nominated the son of a man whose family fled from a revolution in Mexico.
Only in America.
First Published September 4, 2012 12:00 am