"Keep your hands up." Afterward, sipping water from a jug next to a crocodile pond, the stepfather mused about the nature of things, and about what it took to survive in a difficult and dangerous world: "Men take advantage of weakness in other men. They're just like countries in that way. The strong man takes the weak man's land. He makes the weak man work in his fields. If the weak man's woman is pretty, the strong man will take her." As Obama recalled the moment in his 1995 memoir "Dreams From My Father," Soetoro took another sip and then asked: "Which would you rather be?"
Obama did not answer—the question seemed rhetorical—but in a way Obama's whole life has been a reply to the question Soetoro posed four decades and half a world away, in the dusty heat of Jakarta after the boxing lesson. "I remember that very vividly, and my stepfather was a good man who gave me some things that were very helpful," Obama told me in an interview last Thursday. "One of the things that he gave me was a pretty hardheaded assessment of how the world works."
As Obama accepts the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States, he faces concerns about his toughness—the Kennedys, too, were obsessed with the word, and with appearing to have plenty of it—in the contest with John McCain. The selection of the pugnacious Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. for the second slot on the ticket brings a fighting spirit to the Democratic campaign, but the conventional wisdom of the moment still has it that Obama—or "Obambi," as he has been called—may be too cerebral, too elite, too soft to prevail.
But whatever one's politics, a fair-minded reading of Obama's history suggests that he is a figure of strength whose resilience was forged by his struggles to fill the hole left by an absent father, a Kenyan whom he met once, at Christmastime 1971. When Obama was a toddler, his father had declined a scholarship to New York University that would have supported the whole family in order to go to Harvard. The Ivy League was, it seems, more important to the ambitious Obama Sr. than his wife and child. There is a picture of Obama and his father in the Honolulu airport on that brief visit. Obama Sr., in a dark suit and red tie, is smiling, his arm around his somewhat chubby son's left shoulder, his eyes directed to something, or someone, outside the frame. Barry, as the junior senator from Illinois was then known, is smiling, too, but he is not looking away: he is fully engaged in the moment, looking straight at the camera. His arms crossed, Barry is holding on tightly, pressing his father's large hand to his heart. He looks as though he would like to hold on forever.
He never saw his father again. Deprived of a father's love, Obama chose to build his own universe, an invisible center where the failings and flightiness of others could do him the least harm. Obama himself acknowledges the centrality of the question. "A man's either trying to live up to his father's expectations or make up for his father's mistakes," says Obama, who often adds: "In my case, both things might be true."
In Obama's case, yet a third thing is true: he had to find a way to be comfortable in his own skin, reconciling his black and white ancestries while being raised largely by his white grandparents. Without a father, he was forced to arm himself and to make his own way into the worlds he chose to join and to master. This is not to say that he did not love and respect his mother and grandparents, and appreciate their care. It is, rather, that, through no fault of their own, their care was simply not commensurate with his needs. He grew up in a milieu of unspoken truths, unacknowledged complexities and hidden histories.
Obama was left with two alternatives: either descend into chaos as a lost soul or steel himself against the world in order to rise in it. He chose steeliness over surrender. The story of the Barack Obama who will become the Democratic nominee at the age of 47 is thus one of survival and defense, for of all the advice he was ever offered, the most significant, and the one perhaps most relevant to his rise and to his fate, was Soetoro's: always protect yourself.