Obama's Hawaii Trip: Family Comes First

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Hugh Gentry / Reuters

US Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama walks around the neighborhood after visiting his ailing grandmother in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Hawaii's favorite son had taken the long flight in from mainland, leaving a rally in downtown Indianapolis to arrive at 7:15 p.m. Thursday, Honolulu time. Back east, in his second hometown of Chicago, it was already past midnight — and an hour later in Washington where he hopes to take up a famous residence next year. Sen. Barack Obama immediately drove to see his ailing grandmother, the woman he affectionately calls "Toot," at her apartment on Beretania Street, before retiring to a hotel on the city's touristy Waikiki strip. By daylight, he was again at the Beretania Street apartment, emerging at one point, dressed in a black polo shirt, dark-glasses and flip-flops, walking pensively and unsmiling along the unsteady and overgrown the sidewalk on nearby Young Street before the crowding press forced him back into the privacy of his grandmother's home. He did not issue any statement and did not speak to journalists hungry for any kind of word.

Despite the silence, the locals feel that, by itself, Obama's brief 22-hour visit spoke volumes — and more importantly reflected the islands' ethos and culture. Take the nickname he uses for his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham. It's short for tutu, the Hawaiian term for grandmother. And, to the islanders, it means that even though Obama may be the U.S. senator from Illinois, he really is at heart a Honolulu-born, son of Hawai'i who will drop anything to care for his family, says another Hawaii-born politician, Democratic state Sen. Clayton Hee. "It is all at once a message to the world," says Hee, a Native Hawaiian who has served as the chairman of the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs. "It is an identity to the Islands. From the first time I heard that he referred to his grandmother as 'Toot,' I felt a profound linkage to this man. As a Native Son of Hawaii, it suggests very strong in my mind that there is a connection to Hawaii that remains at the core of this man who seeks to be president."

"You can hear it in his voice when he says it, 'Toot,'" says Alice Dewey, a University of Hawaii professor emeritus of anthropology, who is a family friend and was the graduate studies advisor to Obama's mother Stanley Ann Dunham. "They are very close. [His grandmother] has always been a small, slight woman, but tough. She held his nose to the grindstone, but also lavished him with love."

In early October, Madelyn Dunham, her mobility already limited by osteoporosis, slipped in her apartment and broke her hip. She has since suffered from undisclosed, serious medical problems. Obama made the decision to temporarily postpone his campaign on Thursday night and Friday because he did not want to live through the same experience in 1995 when he arrived too late to say farewell to his mother who died of cancer at the age of 53, says U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie. "Those of us who live here in the Islands are used to how long it takes to get here," Abercrombie says. "If the physicians say it's a serious situation, you don't hesitate to come, particularly if it's his grandmother and the last link to his mom. It's the Hawaiian style, the way we deal with things in Hawai'i. Its all family. It's all ohana. We all come together."

Obama's family in Hawaii has kept a relatively low profile through his campaign. But his grandmother was anything but low key during her career. Dunham was a trailblazer in her day in the 1960s and 1970s, a Caucasian female who rose in 1970 to become one of the first two female vice presidents at Bank of Hawaii, the islands' largest bank at the time. After she retired in the mid-1980s, she has mainly kept to herself in the Beretania apartment, cared for mostly by Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. Soetoro-Ng does appear on her brother's campaign; she and her husband are prized guests at dinner parties in Honolulu social circles. But she tends to keep the press at arms length, trying to lead the life of a teacher at one of Honolulu's private schools, La-Pietra-Hawaii School for Girls on the slopes of Diamond Head.

Some acquaintances say that Soetoro-Ng has the independent spirit of her mother, Stanley Ann, who took young Maya along when she went to Indonesia and Africa to pursue her master's and doctoral degrees studying and helping village craftsmen (Barack was left behind to be raised by Madelyn Dunham and her late husband Stanley in the 10th story Beretania duplex in the Makiki area of Honolulu). Nevertheless, cautioned by her brother's campaign advisers, Soetoro-Ng always watches her words, knowing how easily the words of a relative can reflect in unintended ways on the candidate.

Although Honolulu is the 14th largest city in America, the chain of islands in the most isolated, populated spot on the planet makes Hawaii a small-town kind of place to live. The place reacts with a kind of star-struck energy whenever an islander makes it big. Friends and families, for example, organized call-in centers to flood votes for Hawaii-born contestants on "American Idol." This year's Little League World Series champions from the Oahu community of Waipio were given a parade by the city that ran straight through Waikiki. But Obama's candidacy for the U.S. presidency "transcends them all," Sen. Hee said. "Maybe it's because we're isolated from the other 49 states that we feel so strongly about those who bring out the best in these Islands," Hee says. "But can you imagine a son of Hawaii is going to be the next president of the United States of America? People better wear zippered shirts because their buttons are going to be pop off from the tremendous pride."

Already, local anticipation is brimming over. It wasn't just the press crowding to see the candidate outside his grandmother's apartment. "I appreciate him visiting his grandmother," says Arthur Witherspoon of Honolulu, who stood outside Dunham's apartment on Friday within the crowd of about 100 people. "It shows character," says Norma Parado, who lives half of each year in Honolulu, "I'm so glad he's here doing this. He's paused his campaigning for family. That's the kind of person you want leading our country."

See here for a gallery of Barack Obama's family tree.

See here for a story about Barack Obama's Mother