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Courtland Milloy

Mother's hard work shaped a president

WASHINGTON — Did you see Barack Obama's mother at his swearing-in Tuesday?

She was all over the new president — in the cut of his face, his smile, the shape of his eyes, his spine and especially the soaring spirit that brought him to this historic moment.

"What is best in me," Obama has said, "I owe to her."

Let us join him, then, in paying respect to Stanley Ann Dunham, who did not live to see the enormous fruits of her labors. She died of cancer in 1995, at age 52.

Stanley. What a name for a girl. A twist, perhaps, on the Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue, in which the name helps the boy toughen up in anticipation of hard times ahead.

Dunham, an anthropologist, was certainly tough on Obama, chastising him in high school for failing to put enough effort into his studies. "Remember what that's like? Effort?" he has recalled being asked by her. "You can't just sit around like some good-time Charlie, waiting for luck to see you through."

So when Obama reminded the nation in his inaugural address of the values on which our success depends, he was speaking words that had come straight from his mother's heart.

"Hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true," Obama said. "They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths."

But this was more than an echo from his upbringing. It was a wake-up call meant to avert a looming national disaster, as wars rage on and the economy teeters on the verge of collapse.

Parents, teach your children well.

"For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies," Obama said. "It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate."

Dunham did that for Obama, waking him up at 5 a.m. to tutor him in English, making sure the boy could speak properly. And look how it turned out. He is extraordinarily well educated but not aloof. He's tough and regal, not a rogue. He sacrificed the chance to make millions of dollars in corporate America and chose instead to advocate on behalf of the downtrodden.

He's a man of the people, not a snob. And what does he get for all of that?

Michelle Robinson, for starters, whose upbringing reinforced the importance of discipline, commitment, unity and love. They married and had two wonderful daughters. And he went on to become president of the United States.

It is a remarkable achievement when any parent raises a child who actually lives by such truths. Dunham, phenomenally, helped Barack to meet the highest standards of citizenship.

There has never been much of a chorus to sing Dunham's praises, no doubt in part because of the racial politics that characterized the presidential contest. She was most often presented as Exhibit A in attempts to prove that Obama was biracial, not black. Or not black enough. Or else she was given little notice, as if too much emphasis on her would dilute the one thing that makes Obama's presidency seem so miraculous.

The first black.

In the end, though, it was Stan who had the plan, and the blueprint is embodied in her son, the new president:

"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility," Obama said, "a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task."

Mother's hard work shaped a president 01/21/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 7:17pm]

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