Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Barack Obama: A meteoric rise

CNN) -- When Sen. Barack Obama accepts his party's presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, he will have experienced one of the most rapid -- and unexpected -- ascents in American political history.

Barack Obama entered politics in 1996, when he was elected unopposed to the Illinois state Senate.

more photos » Obama, an Illinois Democrat, burst onto the national stage in 2004, when he electrified the convention with a keynote address that called for the end of the divisive politics that have pitted Americans against each other.

"There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America. There's not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there is the United States of America," Obama told the delegates.

It was a message Obama may have been uniquely able to deliver, because he has straddled divisions his entire life. Born in Hawaii in 1961, Obama is the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. When Obama was 2, his father left Hawaii to pursue a degree at Harvard University and later returned to Kenya; Obama saw him only once when he was growing up. See Obama timeline »

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"All my life, I had carried a single image of my father, one that I had sometimes rebelled against but had never questioned, one that I had later tried to take as my own. The brilliant scholar, the generous friend, the upstanding leader -- my father had been all those things," Obama said in his 1995 autobiography, "Dreams from My Father." Test your knowledge of Obama »

"All those things and more, because except for that one brief visit in Hawaii, he had never been present to foil the image, because I hadn't seen what perhaps most men see at some point in their lives: their father's body shrinking, their father's best hopes dashed, their father's face lined with grief and regret."

Obama later lived with his mother and stepfather in Indonesia until age 10, when he moved back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents. In his autobiography, Obama describes a troubled adolescence in which he struggled with his biracial identity. He acknowledges that he used marijuana and cocaine.

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Young Obama frustrated by slow change
After high school, Obama attended college in Los Angeles, California, and New York before working as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, from 1985 to 1988.

He attended Harvard Law School, where he became the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, and returned to Chicago after graduating in 1991 to work as a civil rights lawyer and teach constitutional law. There he met his future wife, Michelle Robinson, a Chicago native. Watch Michelle Obama talk about her husband's style »

Obama's career as a politician began in 1996, when he was elected unopposed to the Illinois state Senate. While in office, he helped pass welfare reform legislation, a state earned-income tax credit, ethics reform and a bill requiring the videotaping of police interrogations and confessions in murder cases.

Obama first took a stab at national politics when he challenged Rep. Bobby Rush, a Chicago Democrat and a former Black Panther, in 2000. Obama lost badly to Rush in the Democratic primary, but, four years later, he made a second attempt to be elected to Congress, running as the Democratic candidate from Illinois for the U.S. Senate. See Obama on the campaign trail »

After his speech at the national convention and scandals involving his Republican challenger, Obama won by a wide margin and arrived in Washington with national prominence, a rarity for a freshman senator. He was often mentioned as a future presidential nominee.

That White House bid came much sooner than many had expected. After just three years in the Senate, Obama formed a presidential exploratory committee in January 2007 and one month later launched his presidential campaign on the steps of the old Statehouse in Springfield, Illinois.

At the time, Obama's chances of winning the Democratic presidential nomination appeared to be a long shot. Hillary Clinton, the senator from New York and former first lady, was viewed as the candidate to beat, and many more experienced contenders -- including fellow senators Joe Biden of Delaware and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, former Sen. John Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- were running to be the "un-Hillary" candidate.

Although Clinton continued to enjoy a large lead throughout 2007, Obama emerged as her main challenger and slowly began to erode her lead in the polls.

Clinton's "inevitable" status cracked when Obama won the Iowa caucuses in January. She came in a surprising third, with 29 percent, just behind Edwards, who had 30 percent.

The New York senator was able to become the latest "comeback kid" in the Clinton family when she won the New Hampshire primary three days later, and the race essentially turned into a two-person contest that latest throughout the spring.

After Obama won the South Carolina primary and the two candidates split the Super Tuesday contests -- Clinton won large states like California and New York, but Obama won more states -- Obama won 13 straight contests in February and built a sizeable lead in pledged delegates.

After Obama's winning streak, some within the party began calling for Clinton to drop out of the race, but she kept her campaign alive by winning in Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio.

Throughout the primary season, Obama fought constant rumors that were circulated via anonymous e-mail messages and Web sites, including rumors that he was a Muslim (he is a Christian) and that he was educated at a madrassa when he lived in Indonesia.

CNN and other media organizations debunked the madrassa rumor by traveling to Indonesia and finding that the school Obama attended was a secular institution that taught the Koran as part of a basic religious class.

As the protracted primary fight headed into March, Obama's relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his onetime pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, came under scrutiny after video of Wright's sermon's circulated on the Internet. In one of the most controversial clips, Wright says blacks should sing "God damn America" rather than "God Bless America" after the attacks of September 11.

Although many viewed the media scrutiny of Wright's sermons as an attack on the black church, Obama repudiated Wright's comments and made a major speech on race. He eventually left Trinity, the church where he was married and where his two daughters were baptized.

In April, before the Pennsylvania primary, comments Obama made at a private fundraiser in San Francisco, California, drew further criticism. He said that many Americans in small towns in Pennsylvania and across the Midwest were "bitter" because of their declining economic situation, which, he suggested, caused them to "cling to guns or religion."

The comments, posted on the Huffington Post Web site, drew charges that Obama was an "elitist" from Clinton and his conservative critics. The criticisms echoed those made when Michelle Obama said during an appearance in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in February, that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country."

Despite Obama's stumbles, Clinton was not able to overcome his lead in the pledged delegate count, although the Democratic contest continued until the final contests in Montana and South Dakota on June 3. That night, Obama, before a raucous crowd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, declared that he would be the Democratic nominee, and in an emotional speech, Clinton conceded the race and threw her support to Obama four days later.

It was an outcome that few would have predicted when the voting began in January, and, as the Democrats gather in Denver, they will be making history by naming Obama the first African-American nominee of a major party.
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Editorial: African neighbors key to saving Zimbabwe

Defiant Mugabe must go to end nation's suffering.

Last update: June 25, 2008 - 7:00 PM

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"Regional [African] bodies have tremendous influence. There are so many things that could be brought to bear, that could have a tremendous, immediate impact on Zimbabwe.''


U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe

It sounds like an epic tragedy. A man of the people helps free his own from oppression, then rises to become king. But later he slides from hero to dictator. Once a respected leader/liberator, he descends into murderous, power-crazed madness -- and takes his country with him.

On stage, it would be compelling drama. But it's today's reality for the poor people of Zimbabwe, the central African nation that is suffering under the brutal tyranny of President Robert Mugabe. Now the country's desperate plight demands that the international community isolate the 84-year-old leader and refuse to recognize his administration. More importantly, African nations should do all they can to force the strongman out the door -- up to and including military intervention.

Government policies have turned the once agriculturally self-sufficient nation into an economic disaster. Unemployment is about 80 percent, and the currency is practically worthless. An estimated quarter of the 12 million citizens have fled to other countries.

His nation in shambles, Mugabe rejected election results that voted him out and called for a runoff presidential election on Friday. He defiantly declared that "only God'' can remove him from office and that he'll wage war to stay put.

His security forces have murdered nearly 100 political opponents, and thousands have been beaten, tortured and intimidated. The brutality is so widespread that opposition leader and presidential opponent Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of the race this week to help stop the killing. Fearing for his own life, he sought refuge in a foreign embassy and has asked the United Nations and African leaders to help restore conditions for free and fair elections.

That is key to saving the nation -- neighboring nations must keep the economic, trade and travel pressure on for change as only they can do. Refugees are pouring across their borders, giving them a vested interest in resolving the crisis. South Africa can be particularly influential because it supplies electricity to Zimbabwe and provides vital port access.

In addition, organizations of African nations have developed a record of cooperating to solve serious problems in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and most recently, Kenya.

Sadly, like despots before him in Africa and other parts of the world, Mugabe's egomaniacal hunger for power has nearly ruined his country. Zimbabweans have tried using the ballot to make change, but it's clear that they cannot end their national tragedy alone. Other African neighbors, with support from the international community, must help.

Zimbabwe's factions close to power-sharing agreement: aide

Zimbabwe's opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, centre, arrives at the opening ceremony of the 28th summit of the Southern African Development Community in Sandton, South Africa, on Saturday. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)Zimbabwe's bitter factions are close to a power-sharing agreement in talks mediated by South Africa, an aide to South African President Thabo Mbeki said Saturday.

Mbeki, speaking Saturday at the opening of a regional summit, has spent much of the past week in Zimbabwe trying to push Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his rival Morgan Tsvangirai to strike a deal to resolve the country's protracted political crisis.

Chances that Mbeki would be able to present an agreement at the summit appeared slim after Tsvangirai walked out of talks in Harare on Tuesday, but an opposition official said the negotiations were back on track.

"We're talking, here," Tendai Biti, Tsvangirai's top negotiator, said after attending the opening session of the summit of the Southern African Development Community, or SADC.

Biti sat with Tsvangirai just behind cabinet ministers from the region during the opening session, while Mugabe sat at the front table with other heads of state.

'We're close. We're now relying on the collective wisdom of this leadership'
—South African cabinet minister Sydney MufamadiTsvangirai and Mugabe both claim the mandate to lead Zimbabwe, stalling power-sharing talks over the issue of who should have the main role in any unity government. But a South African cabinet minister closely involved in the talks was optimistic of a deal.

"We're close," Sydney Mufamadi said. "We're now relying on the collective wisdom of this leadership."

The regional summit was drawing the world's attention.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement from London that the meeting offers Africans an important opportunity to support the negotiations, saying: "The outside world continues to watch developments in Zimbabwe closely and with concern, not least given the deteriorating humanitarian situation. We will do all we can to help."

German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul called on Zimbabwe's neighbours "finally to make fully clear to Robert Mugabe that a new government in Zimbabwe that must reflect the will of the Zimbabwean population is necessary."

The South Africans, appointed mediators by SADC, helped guide Mugabe and Tsvangirai to sign a memorandum of understanding July 21 establishing a framework for negotiations. Mbeki praised that agreement Saturday and said the SADC would continue working "to help put Zimbabwe on the right road to its recovery.

"We are towards them their brothers' and sisters' keepers," Mbeki said.

Mbeki has insisted on quiet diplomacy, and some have portrayed his refusal to publicly condemn Mugabe as appeasing a leader seen as increasingly autocratic.

Botswana's President Seretse Ian Khama refused to attend the summit to protest Mugabe's welcome as a head of state.

'Serious blot on the culture of democracy'
President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia also has been sharply critical of Mugabe but remained hospitalized in Paris because of a stroke.

But in a speech read aloud by his foreign minister, he called events in Zimbabwe a "serious blot on the culture of democracy in our subregion," singling out for criticism Zimbabwe's presidential runoff.

Tsvangirai came first in a field of four in the first round of presidential voting in March, but did not win by the margin necessary to avoid a runoff against second-place finisher Mugabe.

Tsvangirai withdrew from the June 27 runoff because of attacks on his supporters blamed on Mugabe's party militants and security forces.

Mugabe held the runoff and was declared the overwhelming winner, though the exercise was widely denounced.

In the streets of Johannesburg, several hundred protesters marched peacefully outside the summit to protest Mugabe's presence. Some held up red soccer penalty cards that read: "Mugabe must go."

Tensions over Zimbabwe come at a time when southern Africa is struggling to unify to fight poverty. SADC was to launch a free trade agreement Sunday scrapping tariffs on 85 per cent of goods traded among member nations.

Mbeki said soaring food and fuel prices and global economic decline make greater regional economic co-operation "more urgent," and expressed concern about threats to "unity and cohesion."

© The Canadian Press, 2008