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When I asked Obama about this, he began to answer before I finished the question. "There's a core decency to the American people that doesn't get enough attention," he said, sitting in his downtown Chicago office, casually dressed in jeans and a dark blue shirt. "Figures like Oprah, Tiger, Michael Jordan give people a shortcut to express their better instincts. You can be cynical about this. You can say, It's easy to love Oprah. It's harder to embrace the idea of putting more resources into opportunities for young black men--some of whom aren't so lovable. But I don't feel that way. I think it's healthy, a good instinct. I just don't want it to stop with Oprah. I'd rather say, If you feel good about me, there's a whole lot of young men out there who could be me if given the chance."
But that's not quite true. There aren't very many people--ebony, ivory or other--who have Obama's distinctive portfolio of talents, or what he calls his "exotic" family history. His parentage was the first thing he chose to tell us about himself when he delivered his knockout keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004: his father was from Kenya and his mother from Kansas. He told the story in brilliant, painful detail in his first book, Dreams from My Father, which may be the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician. His parents met at the University of Hawaii and stayed together only briefly. His father left when Obama was 2 years old, and Barack was raised in Hawaii by his Kansas grandparents, except for a strange and adventurous four-year interlude when he lived in Indonesia with his mother and her second husband. As a teenager at Hawaii's exclusive Punahou prep school and later as a college student, Obama road tested black rage, but it was never a very good fit. There was none of the crippling psychological legacy of slavery in his family's past. He was African and American, as opposed to African American, although he certainly endured the casual cruelties of everyday life--in the new book, he speaks of white people mistaking him for a valet-parking attendant--that are visited upon nonwhites in America. "I had to reconcile a lot of different threads growing up--race, class," he told me. "For example, I was going to a fancy prep school, and my mother was on food stamps while she was getting her Ph.D." Obama believes his inability to fit neatly into any group or category explains his relentless efforts to understand and reconcile opposing views. But the tendency is so pronounced that it almost seems an obsessive-compulsive tic. I counted no fewer than 50 instances of excruciatingly judicious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-handedness in The Audacity of Hope. At one point, he considers the historic influence of ideological extremists--that is, people precisely unlike him. "It has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty," he writes about the antislavery movement of the 19th century. "Knowing this, I can't summarily dismiss those possessed of similar certainty today--the antiabortion activist ... the animal rights activist who raids a laboratory--no matter how deeply I disagree with their views. I am robbed even of the certainty of uncertainty--for sometimes absolute truths may well be absolute."