Cultural Caviar

Obama the Musical

November 05, 2014

Multiple Pages
Obama the Musical

I’m writing this a day before the midterm elections and you’re reading it at least a day after, so I’ll focus upon a continuing feature of the political landscape: Barack Obama.

No doubt the results of the midterm election are being interpreted as a referendum on Obama. But who exactly is this curious individual, and why did we make him president? I’ve long argued that the most interesting thing about Obama is what we can learn from his career as a “blank screen” upon which Americans project all those myths, longings, and inchoate fantasies about race.

After eight years of trying to make sense of Obama’s life story, I’ve stumbled upon a way to put his famous origin story in historical context, to make it not quite so random.

A particularly screwy aspect of the first black president is that he didn’t seem to his friends to be black until in 1985 he suddenly turned his back on the first 24 years of his life and asserted a black identity to replace his previous “international” and “multicultural” identities.

Previously, Obama had been guided by his family and friends (none of whom were black) toward a reasonable career working for U.S. institutions in non-Arab Muslim countries in Asia or Africa: a professional “Muslimist.” As Obama told his biographer David Maraniss, the “obvious path for me given my background” was to get a graduate degree in international relations and wind up “working in the State Department, in the Foreign Service, or working for an international foundation.”

Last week I wrote about Obama’s many odd Indonesian connections.

But even more central to Obama’s life is Hawaii. In almost all discussions of Obama, whether birther or mainstream, Hawaii is treated as essentially irrelevant to Obama’s parentage, a run-of-the-mill location. For example, because Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, was written for mainlanders interested only in black and white, it barely touches on Hawaiian society. And that’s convenient for Obama, because 1950s Hawaii’s extreme racial liberalism (some 30 percent of marriages were interracial) doesn’t fit in well with contemporary prejudices about America’s racist past.

“Stanley Ann Dunham Obama Soetoro’s predilection for marrying natives reflects a female version of an old WASP pattern that goes far back.”

Yet when Obama’s 17-year-old mother arrived in Hawaii in 1960 and quickly became pregnant by an exotic black man, Hawaii was of obsessive interest to the liberal mainstream imagination as the leading symbol of America’s new post-colonial empire.

It turns out that the strange life the President’s mother forged for herself by marrying men of other races brought to Hawaii by Cold War initiatives wasn’t just driven by this adventuress’s own idiosyncratic desires, as an embarrassed and annoyed Obama discussed in Dreams from My Father. She was also following (in an extreme fashion) the messages being transmitted in the 1950s by the most respected voices of mainstream culture about what progressive, patriotic Americans should believe—and even do—in order to ensure the triumph of the free world.

Having been born in Southern California a few years before Obama, I can recall Hawaii’s outsized role in American popular culture in the 1960s. For example, the number one box office movie of 1966 was the lavish adaptation of James Michener’s innovative 1959 novel Hawaii, with Julie Andrews playing the wife of a fictionalized version of the New England missionary Hiram Bingham I, who founded the Punahou School in 1841 (from which Obama graduated in 1979).

Michener was a WWII naval officer whose first book, Tales from the South Pacific, was adapted into the 1949 Broadway hit South Pacific, with music by Richard Rodgers and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.

Hawaii was the novel in which Michener introduced his trademark style that made him the middlebrow publishing sensation of his generation. “Middlebrow” is a term of critical abuse for artists who combine information, entertainment, and uplift, but, in truth, those are all good things. And Michener was prodigiously educational. Back then, if you were going somewhere on a vacation, there was likely a 900-page Michener novel covering the entire history of the place from the Ice Age to the Space Age by tracking a few family trees over the centuries.

I recently discovered a 2003 academic book, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961, by Christina Klein, a Boston College English professor. It documents that I’m not just hallucinating my childhood memories of Hawaii’s cultural centrality, and explains why statehood for Hawaii in 1959 was seen by Cold War liberals as such a triumph.

The writers Michener and Hammerstein figure largely in Klein’s book, and rightly so. The two classy Democratic Protestants embodied postwar liberalism at its expansive and earnest peak as it tried to reengineer Americans to be able to grapple with the global responsibilities Washington took on in the 1940s.

Hammerstein enjoyed a titanic career on Broadway, from Show Boat in 1927 through Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The Sound of Music. The estates of Rodgers and Hammerstein earn over $235 million in royalties per year from the endless revivals of their shows, including high school productions that continue to engrain Hammerstein’s liberal didacticism in today’s youth.

Intermarriage was a theme that ran throughout Hammerstein’s works, beginning with Show Boat’s sympathetic depiction of a black-white marriage.

Michener and Hammerstein worked hard, together on South Pacific and apart in other pieces, to rid American society of prejudice against intermarriage. They had personal and professional reasons.

The father of Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein II (an aggressively non-Jewish set of given names, by the way) was German Jewish and his mother Scottish and English. Michener was adopted, and the third wife he married in 1955 was named Mari Yoriko Sabusawa.

The professional reason is that in English-language literature and theater, nothing appeals more to the sympathies of audiences than lovers separated by social conventions, as demonstrated by the greatest WASP of them all, William Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet.

Out of Michener’s 19 short stories, Hammerstein selected two involving some form of miscegenation. Lt. Joe Cable loves a Tonkinese girl, but does he dare bring her home to Philadelphia’s Main Line? Nurse Nellie Forbush (whom my wife played in a high school production) falls in love with an older French planter, but is shocked to discover he has two half-Islander children.

South Pacific was the first of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s three musicals about Asians and Pacific Islanders. The other two are The King and I—which is driven by the unconsummated sexual tension between the Victorian Englishwoman and the King of Siam—and the all-Asian-American Flower Drum Song.

America in the 1945-1965 era is stereotyped as insular and “white-bread,” but its middlebrow kings, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Michener, were infatuated with the foreign. Today, if white guys like them tried to do anything as exotic and crazy as, say, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet in The King and I—the Burmese slave girl’s adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin—they would be given a long lecture about Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism.

Michener’s Hawaii was published in 1959, the year Hawaii became a state and regular jet airliner service was inaugurated; the year before the President’s grandparents and mother arrived from Seattle. Hawaii occupied a strategic spot, both geographically and ideologically. Klein notes:

Defense dollars poured into the islands and became a pillar of the post-plantation economy, providing a livelihood for fully one-fourth of the islands’ population; more than any other state, Hawaii depended financially upon the continuation of the Cold War.

Likely of more interest to the young Stanley Ann Dunham when she arrived was the vanguard cultural role Hawaii had been assigned:

The U.S. government also treated Hawaii as an important location from which to wage the struggle for the hearts and minds of Asia.

Granting Hawaii statehood was intended to symbolize the new multiracial America that would appeal to the developing countries:

Hawaii’s campaign for statehood, which ran more or less continuously from 1945 to 1959, kept the territory alive in the nation’s political culture. … Race was the big issue: people of Asian and Pacific background outnumbered whites three to one. … There was no legal segregation on the islands and intermarriage was common, with about 10 percent of marriages before World War I and more than 30 percent in the 1950s taking place between people of different races.

Southern Democrats fought a rearguard action against admitting Hawaii as a state, but were ultimately overwhelmed by the globalist imperatives for which Michener was an able spokesman:

To Michener, Hawaii’s familial and cultural ties to Asia made it worth incorporating into the Union. He saw the people of Hawaii as an exploitable natural resource who could facilitate U.S. global expansion by serving as native informants and guides … Other statehood advocates shared this view. BusinessWeek in 1950 explained that “the islands have brought to the U.S. a new national resource—a population that is the logical stepping stone between the U.S. and the Orient” and went on to praise these people as the “logical intermediaries to carry an understanding of U.S. democracy to the Orient.” One of the Congressional committees investigating statehood came to a similar conclusion: “Many of her people have their racial background in that Asian area,” … as a result, Hawaii could become a “natural training ground for leaders to administer American interests in this area.”

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 … “no longer would America be known as a “land of the white man” and “tarred with the brush of ‘colonialism.’” Time in turn celebrated statehood as an act through which America “leaped 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 “Where 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:

“We 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 Pākī 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 “not 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. “No 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.


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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