‘A Complicated Formula’: Obama Had a Mother

In Michael Powell’s piece in the New York Times (10/22/08) on Barack Obama “changing his tempo,” I found this passage to be a little creepy:

Mr. [Jim] Webb, a red-haired, proudly Scots-Irish pol with a John Wayne cadence, introduced Mr. Obama in Roanoke and began: He’s one of you.

Mr. Webb offered a complicated formula that involved putting to the side Mr. Obama’s Kenyan father, then tracing the lineage of Mr. Obama’s white mother, who was born in Kansas to parents whose grandparents came from Kentucky and whose ancestors somewhere in their wanderings from Ireland and Scotland presumably settled for a spell in southwestern Virginia.

Mr. Webb finished with a broad smile. He has divined the backwoods white bonafides of an urbane, mixed-race Chicagoan.

“They say he’s not like you.” He shook his head, sternly. “Barack Obama is just like you.”

The crowd puzzled for a second, then clapped at his effort.

What, exactly, makes this a “complicated formula” that Powell thinks “puzzled” an audience? Some of Obama’s mother’s ancestors used to live in Virginia. If John McCain’s maternal line passed through Virginia, and a Virginia politician mentioned this as a reason his state’s voters should identify with him, would Powell see this as at all complicated or puzzling? Probably not–because noting McCain’s ancestral roots in a given state wouldn’t involve “putting to the side” any “Kenyan father.” It’s only with a “mixed-race” candidate like Obama that acknowledging that he had a mother can be portrayed as a slick feat of misdirection.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.