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Walking the World Stage

It is not too early to pronounce Barack Obama a political phenomenon unlike any previously seen on the American scene. He proved that last week in Kenya, where he was received in a manner more befitting a messiah than a junior senator bearing nothing more than opinions and good cheer. Obama began his two-week African odyssey in South Africa and ended it in Chad, but Kenya (the only country in which his wife and two young daughters accompanied him) was at its literal and emotional center. For it was in Kenya (in a village called Kogelo, Alego, in a district called Siaya), where paternal roots run unbreakably deep, that his father was born. The Luo tribesmen there claim Obama as one of their own; and as his motorcade passed through Kisumu en route to his ancestral village, thousands lined the path.

They wore Obama T shirts and Obama caps, and waved Obama flags. Many climbed trees to catch a glimpse. Others sang songs in his honor. "He's our brother. He's our son," said one man in the throng, and a multitude nodded in agreement. It was much the same in Nairobi the day before, where, during his visit to the memorial park erected at the site of the 1998 Qaeda bombing that destroyed the American Embassy, a rapturous crowd chanted, "Come to us, Obama."

Throughout it all Obama walked an exquisitely fine line. He graciously accepted the homage due a person of immense power while simultaneously making it clear that he essentially has none. As Kenyan adulation poured forth, he admitted--indeed, insisted--that his loyalties lay back home: "I'm the senator from Illinois, not the senator from Kogelo."

The delirium evoked memories of Bill Clinton's 12-day African visit in 1998. But while Clinton came offering apologies--for slavery, for genocide in Rwanda, for America's support of a motley crew of despots--Obama came armed with tough love. "I want to be a truth teller," he told me during a lengthy conversation in Nairobi. And he played that role to the hilt. In South Africa, he scoffed at Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's home remedies for AIDS. He blasted Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, whose schemes have made a violent mess of his country. And he hit the government in Khartoum for the genocide in Sudan. But his most unrelenting critique was of Kenya. He took the government to task for violating freedom of the press, lectured its citizens on the folly of tribalism and slammed government corruption in a nationally televised speech: "While corruption is a problem we all share, here in Kenya it is a crisis."

Prominent visitors have criticized Kenyan corruption before. But hearing the message from Obama was different. For he was seen not only as a fellow Kenyan standing up to power, but also as a Luo standing up to a Kikuyo--the dominant ethnic group to which President Mwai Kibaki belongs and against which Luo resentment runs deep. And worse, in the government's eyes, at least, he was seen as siding with the opposition--in particular with Raila Odinga, a powerful kingmaker and Luo whose Orange Democratic Movement has been a painful thorn in Kibaki's side. "It is very clear that the senator has been used as a puppet to perpetuate opposition politics," sniffed Kibaki spokesperson Alfred Mutua.

That a man who had been to Kenya only two times previously--and had never been elsewhere on the continent--should stir up such a commotion is astounding; but, then, so has been everything else about Obama's political career. Obama himself seems bemused by the turns of events that have people comparing him with JFK: "I think about the fact that two years before I announced for the U.S. Senate, I got whipped by Bobby Rush in a congressional race." At the time he was dispirited and "flat broke," having suspended his law practice to run for office; his wife was none too happy with his choices. Friends suggested a trip to the 2000 Democratic National Convention as a way of cheering himself up. When he arrived at Los Angeles airport and tried to rent a car, the credit-card company initially refused to approve it. With no official status and no floor pass, he was relegated to the fringes of the convention. Recognizing he was serving "no useful purpose," he came home. "I think about that ... four years later," he said. "I'm not that much smarter. Maybe a little wiser; but not that much smarter ... This stuff is pretty fleeting, ultimately."

Whether it is fleeting in his case remains to be seen, but he is comforted by the fact that the attention has not turned his head. "It's nice ... nice precisely because it happened so fast and because I worked in almost total obscurity for most of my adult life ... [but] I don't find that [celebrity] aspect of my work deeply satisfying." Nonetheless, and despite his formulaic denial of interest in running for president, Obama acknowledges the notion has crossed his mind: "I would be lying if I said I never think about these things. In politics, you want to have impact." And no job has more impact, he didn't have to say, than the presidency of the United States. "At times," said Obama, "I listen to how the debate is being framed and I say, 'That's not right; we can do better than that'."

Why has a man with such a meager public record emerged as this mega-celebrity? The answer lies partly in the kind of society we have become--one that feeds on celebrity like locusts on crops and creates stars out of nothing but bright lights and hype. But also, in this new America, multicultural fluency and ethnic fluidity suddenly have become colossal virtues. Mike Flannery, a Chicago TV political newsman, calls Obama "perfectly bicultural." But he is more than that. With his Kenyan father and Kansas mother, his Hawaiian/Indonesian childhood and Midwestern adulthood, his community-organizer background and Harvard law degree, he is the perfect mirror for a country that craves to see itself as beyond race, beyond boundaries, beyond the ugly parts of its past; he is a candidate with whom virtually anyone can identify. "I have a lot of different pieces of a lot of different people in me," he acknowledged, which leads many people to see him as a unifying figure. "I don't mind that. It is maybe a simplification in terms of who I am," but there is something "hopeful in that that is healthy."

Obama placed himself among a new generation of black politicians with no ceiling on their aspirations: "I feel confident that if you put me in a room with anybody--black, white, Hispanic, Republican, Democrat--give me half an hour and I will walk out with the votes of most of the folks ... I don't feel constrained by race, geography or background in terms of making a connection with people ... When people told me I couldn't win a Senate race in Illinois, I didn't believe them. I didn't believe them because of the groundwork that has been laid by the previous generation."

His political heroes are Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln: "They didn't just practice politics. They changed how people thought about themselves and each other ... They dug really deep into the culture and wrestled with it." But they were also "good politicians."

To the extent that being a good politician means attracting attention and money, Obama has already proved his bona fides. His PAC, the Hope Fund, has pulled in roughly $4 million, and his staff credits him with raising some $6 million for the party and other candidates. Meanwhile his sheen grows ever brighter. He has a new book--"The Audacity of Hope"--due out in October and is already set to appear on "Oprah." He has taken on Chicago politicians and African presidents--without getting his graceful hands the least bit dirty. He has had a good bit of luck, including opponents who melted down. He has also benefited from being underestimated. "He didn't see me coming," said Obama, referring to his main Senate primary rival. As Chicago newsman Charles Thomas notes, that has been true of virtually every political opponent he has faced.

They sure as hell see him now--and will not make the mistake of selling him short again, or of leaving his record unexploited. Obama has generally voted with his Democratic colleagues--for withdrawal from Iraq but not for a deadline, against confirmation of the two most recent Supreme Court nominees, for stem-cell research, against a flag-burning amendment--avoiding positions that seem particularly risky. But eventually, if he is to justify the aura of greatness, he will have to compile a record that makes him stand out--one that will also make him more vulnerable to attack.

"If we had only three more people like him, [Kenya] could come together," said Millicent Obaso, the CARE International adviser who conceived a small program, funded by Obama, to help grandmothers care for children orphaned by AIDS. The question that time will ultimately answer is whether there is even one person like him, or whether, in the way media-saturated cultures are wont to do, we have created a figure out of dreams and need that says more about us than about him.