Thursday, October 23, 2008

Obama Takes Time for a Woman Dear to Him

In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president, Senator Barack Obama spoke of how his grandmother started as a secretary without a college degree and worked her way up to be a vice president of a bank.

“She’s the one who taught me about hard work,” Mr. Obama said in that speech in Denver. “She’s the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. She poured everything she had into me. And although she can no longer travel, I know that she’s watching tonight and that tonight is her night as well.”

Mr. Obama’s maternal grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, has been a powerful figure throughout his life, one he has frequently invoked in his speeches, in his television advertisements and in his memoir. But now 85, she has a broken hip and other ailments, and her medical condition has been described by his campaign as “very serious.” He is therefore canceling his campaign appearances for two days to fly to her bedside on Thursday, with less than two weeks to go in his quest for the presidency.

The timing is something Mr. Obama could not have foreseen when writing in his memoir about the grandmother he calls Toot, a tough-as-nails woman who loved playing bridge, reading Agatha Christie mysteries and coming home from work to slip into a muumuu and have a smoke.

Ms. Dunham has rarely been interviewed, but Mr. Obama has woven her into the narrative of his campaign as the influential presence who was there even when his father, a black Kenyan, abandoned him, and his mother, a free-spirited anthropologist, lived thousands of miles away. She is the last survivor of the people who raised him.

In a television advertisement, Ms. Dunham was deployed as a reminder of Mr. Obama’s family roots in Kansas. In a voice-over, he said she “taught me values straight from the Kansas heartland.”

Mr. Obama talked about his grandmother in March when he defended the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. in one of the most wrenching speeches of his career. “I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother,” Mr. Obama said. “A woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

And in his memoir “Dreams from My Father,” Mr. Obama recalled an incident from his childhood, when his grandmother refused to take the bus to work after being harassed by a panhandler at a bus stop.

“She’s been bothered by men before,” Mr. Obama’s grandfather told him at the time. “You know why she’s so scared this time? I’ll tell you why. Before you came in, she told me the fella was black. That’s the real reason why she’s bothered.”

Mr. Obama recalled that his grandfather’s words were “like a fist in my stomach.”

The trip on Thursday will be the second time since August that Mr. Obama has flown to Hawaii, where he grew up. While on a weeklong vacation there, Mr. Obama visited Ms. Dunham at her modest apartment building in Honolulu nearly every day, often with his wife, Michelle, and their two young daughters in tow.

During the trip, Mr. Obama told reporters that Ms. Dunham was “sharp as a tack,” but that her osteoporosis prevented her from traveling.

While in Hawaii, Mr. Obama also visited Punchbowl National Cemetery, where his grandfather Stanley Dunham, a World War II veteran, is buried. During the war, Ms. Dunham worked on a bomber assembly line in Kansas while her husband was overseas.

Ms. Dunham’s illness may remind some voters of Mr. Obama’s white, Midwestern family at a time when Republicans are trying to create doubts about his identity. Some supporters worry, however, that the visit to Hawaii will cost him precious time on the campaign trail.

But Mr. Obama may be troubled by the painful memory of his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, who died of ovarian cancer in 1995.

“The biggest mistake I made was not being at my mother’s bedside when she died,” he told The Chicago Sun-Times in 2004. “She was in Hawaii in a hospital, and we didn’t know how fast it was going to take, and I didn’t get there in time.”

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