Maureen Dowd is perplexed: How can Barack Obama, who grew up with a poor, single mother, keep appearing to be the black John Kerry, an effete Ivy Leaguer, out of touch with the ordinary voter? In her mind, it’s all the problem of a low class black kid have overlearned his lesson when he was forced (poor thing) to move amongst the wealthy white:
It must be hard for Obama, having applied all his energy over the years to rising above the rough spots in his background, making whites comfortable with him, striving to become the sophisticated, silky political star who looks supremely comfortable in a tux. Now he must go into reverse and stoop to conquer with cornball photo ops.
I think Dowd is barking up the wrong tree. It’s not about money. It’s about class. Obama’s mother may have opted for poverty, but that’s not how she was raised. She came from what appears to be a solid working-class family, and was a college grad. Her husband, Barack’s father, may have been a Communist, but he was widely traveled, well-educated and apparently extremely bright. In other words, these two were the new intelligentsia of the 1950s/1960s. That’s a class thing. The fact that Mom was a nutcase who drifted into marital and economic insecurity doesn’t change the patina of style that her solid background, augmented by a middle class education, gave her.
I can say all this with a certain amount of confidence. My father was a truly dreadful breadwinner, so we were always living on a very thin financial margin. I didn’t lose my jackets or complain when my shoes got tight, because I knew that, absent a hand-out from my grandmother, I wasn’t in line for new shoes or jackets. We struggled. BUT….
My Mom’s background was incredibly upper class. On her father’s side, they were minor aristocracy, a benefit of his ancestors having been Hungarian court Jews. On her mother’s side, she was descended from a wealthy Hanseatic trading family, and her grandfather was a wealthy banker. Whatever her parents lacked in money (the declining fortunes of WWI, the Depression and WWII), they more than made up for in oodles of class. I grew up knowing that I could dine comfortably with the queen, even if I couldn’t afford a dress for the ball. I too am utterly lacking in beer-drinking finesse.
Obama and his parents may not have had the rarified upbringing my mother did, but he did not grow up wallowing in either Southern Black Jim Crow poverty, or Northern Black Detroit or Watts poverty, both concepts beloved of liberals when they think about American blacks. Instead, he grew up in the middle to working class, the child and step child of intellectual elites. He then compounded that class-ist sin by going to only the finest schools. He comes by his elitism honestly, and it has nothing to do with money, the lack of money, or his having run to or escaped from his African-American genetic legacy.