Obama's "Aloha" Days In The Spotlight

Barack Obama, Diamond Head, Hawaii AP / CBS

By The Politico's Hans Nichols.


Until recently, the players on Hawaii's 1979 state basketball championship team thought their glory days were behind them, consigned to yearbooks and faded newspaper clippings.

Now lots of people are interested in helping graduates of Punahou School jog their foggy memories, trolling for revelations about a young man who spent much of his time that season riding the bench. The Los Angeles Times weighed in the other day. Vanity Fair is coming soon.

So far, the candidacy of the man known by his high school friends as Barry Obama has been good for the Hawaii economy and bad for newsroom budgets. Since January, more than a dozen news organizations from around the globe, from the BBC to TV Asahi to People magazine, have dispatched reporters to Oahu.

Most classmates and teachers recall an easygoing, slightly chunky young man, with the same infectious smile he sports today. Yet many say they have trouble reconciling their nearly 30-year-old memories with Obama's more recent descriptions of himself as a brooding and sometimes angry adolescent, grappling with his mixed race and the void left by a father who gave him his black skin but little else.

The attention on Obama's time at Punahou — a country club campus with nine tennis courts, an Olympic-size pool and an endowment of $180 million — represents the next important challenge for a celebrity politician who leapt onto the national stage with a few swift strides.

Obama's presidential prospects have been fueled in large part by an arresting life story: The son of a Kenyan goatherder, he wrestled with his dual identities to become the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review and a member of the U.S. Senate. So far, it has been a narrative spun almost entirely on Obama's terms and in his own words — most prominently in his bestselling memoir, "Dreams From My Father."

Now that life story is being edited by others. He is undergoing what some have called the "Profile Primary" — which is testing his ability to keep control of his public image, as journalists sketch portraits of the candidate as a young man and comb for contradictions and potential embarrassments in his past.

So far, this process has not yielded anything especially damaging to Obama's candidacy. But it has revealed the vagaries of memory, as well as the ambivalent emotions stirred among old acquaintances when someone they once knew becomes famous.

Dan Hale, the 6-foot-7-inch star center of the 1979 Punahou basketball team, said Obama's depiction of Hawaii as a place where race really mattered hardly resonates with him.

"I was certainly oblivious to a lot of what he references," Hale said in an interview. "If you look at our teams, that year I was the only white guy on the starting five. You had three part-Hawaiians, one Filipino and me."

But Hale said he is still enjoying the novelty of a famous classmate. "It's good for me, pre-Alzheimer's, to try and remember this stuff," he said, struggling to recall something other than Obama's love for basketball and his improbable hook shot. "If only I had saved that Nerf hoop we used to dunk on. I'd put that up on e-Bay."

Alan Lum, another teammate from the championship squad who now teaches second grade at Punahou, has done enough interviews that his fellow teachers have started to rib him about his newfound fame. After a recent lunch with a reporter, he winked at a table of faculty-lounge colleagues and joked, "This one is with Playgirl."
  • David Miller

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