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Obama the Musical

November 05, 2014

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Kauai, Hawaii

The traditional understanding of America as a country for whites was seen as a detriment in waging the Cold War:

If Hawaiian statehood rendered America a little less white and Western in its national identity, that was apparently fine with many statehood advocates. … Newsweek in 1959 similarly noted that … “€œno longer would America be known as a “€œland of the white man”€ and “€œtarred with the brush of “€˜colonialism.”€™”€ Time in turn celebrated statehood as an act through which America “€œleaped over its old, European-rooted consciousness of Caucasian identity.”€

These Cold War arguments were repeated a half dozen years later in pushing the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

The federally funded flagship for fighting this cultural Cold War was the U. of Hawaii’s East-West Center, with which the President’s mother would be affiliated for much of her life:

In 1959 Washington launched the East-West Center in Honolulu, which the Saturday Review hailed, in yet another reworking of Kipling, as the place “€œWhere the Twain Will Meet.”€ The East-West Center promoted both cultural policies of integration and military policies of containment. Designed as a counterpart to Moscow’s Friendship University, it brought Asian, Pacific, and American students together in one setting; at the same time it coordinated grants for Indonesian military officers who were undergoing small-arms training before the 1965 military coup that, with the goal of eradicating communism, left a half-million Indonesians dead.

In Janny Scott’s 2011 biography of the President’s mother, A Singular Woman, Obama’s half-sister Maya jokes:

“€œWe often say that Mom met her husbands at the East-West Center.”€

Scott goes on to note that this wasn”€™t unusual:

… Students who married after coming to the center had at least a thirty-three percent chance of marrying across national or ethnic lines.

Stanley Ann Dunham Obama Soetoro’s predilection for marrying natives reflects a female version of an old WASP pattern that goes far back. In the 21st century, American history is increasingly retconned to emphasize how racist the past was. But the reality was that racial barriers were sharp-edged only with blacks. In fact, Yankee adventurers helped spread American power via strategic marriages to targeted native elites.

What the president’s mother did in marrying men of different races picked out by the American intelligence apparatus as future leaders in their homelands was novel only in that she was a WASP adventuress rather than a WASP adventurer.

Traditionally, this flexibility in marriage rules gave the English and their American descendants some political and business advantages over more ethnocentric and illiberal rival cultures that practiced arranged marriage until far more recently, such as Jews. This Anglo preference for giving young people the freedom to contract love matches goes back many centuries.

Ruling class Yankees of mixed ancestry have included the legendary head of CIA counterintelligence James Jesus Angleton, whose mother was Mexican. George P. Bush, who appears to be penciled in by the Bushes for the White House some time after his father Jeb is done with it, also has a Mexican mother.

In early 19th-century California, sailors from Boston and New York would jump ship in the sleepy Mexican province. The most enterprising Yankees would convert to Catholicism and marry the daughters of local landowners (who were typically triracial). Then in the 1840s, the Yankees helped subvert Mexican rule and sponsor California’s annexation by the U.S.

Similarly, Northeastern merchants arriving in Hawaii married into the native Hawaiian royal family and obtained title to huge expanses of some of the most beautiful land in the world. In Alexander Payne’s 2011 movie The Descendants, George Clooney plays a 1/32nd native Hawaiian scion of a King Estate that owns 25,000 acres of Hawaii. In reality, the Bishop Estate”€”which originated in the 1850 marriage of Princess Bernice Pauahi PākÄ« to merchant Charles Reed Bishop of upstate New York”€”owns 365,000 acres, or 9 percent of Hawaii.

Another Hawaiian example was John Palmer Parker of Massachusetts, who married a native chief’s daughter in 1816. His descendant Richard Smart (1913-1992) inherited the half-million-acre Parker Ranch on the Big Island. In keeping with this column’s song and dance theme, it’s worth noting that the one-quarter Polynesian cattle baron was also a musical comedy leading man who was given his big break on Broadway in 1940 by the future director of South Pacific, Josh Logan.

Now, it may seem like I”€™m just cherry-picking examples for this novel category of “€œnot exactly white but very WASP foreign policy guys.”€ But consider the politician who may have been Obama’s role model: his rival for the 2008 Democratic nomination, former UN Ambassador Bill Richardson.

The vaguely mestizo-looking Richardson is 3/4 Hispanic and 1/4th Boston upper crust. Richardson’s father broke Dwight Eisenhower’s leg in a 1913 college football game between Tufts and Army, then headed what’s now Citibank’s office in Mexico City, where he married his secretary. Richardson grew up in Mexico City until boarding school in Concord, Massachusetts at 13. After earning an international relations degree at Tufts, he became a staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Much as Obama did seven years later by moving to Chicago to become a community organizer, foreign policy whiz kid Richardson reinvented himself in 1978 as a Hispanic politician by moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He won eight terms in the House. His friend Bill Clinton made him UN Ambassador and Energy Secretary and he later won two terms as governor of New Mexico by wide margins.

In other words, going into the 2008 nomination race, Richardson was vastly more experienced than Obama on the national and world stage, much more successful at winning elections, and more Mexican than Obama is black. Richardson launched his candidacy in heavily Hispanic Los Angeles with a bilingual speech denouncing immigration control. “€œNo fence ever built has stopped history,”€ he thundered.

Yet, despite his resume and all the theoretical power of the Latino tidal wave we keep hearing about, Richardson’s candidacy was an utter flop with Democratic voters.

Why?

For the same reason that Obama changed identities in 1985: because black and white is still what gets people excited.

Obama is now a couple of years away from retiring to play golf and give speeches to Goldman Sachs. Like the Yankee missionaries who went to Hawaii, it will perhaps be said of him that he went to the South Side of Chicago to do good and wound up doing well.

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