Saturday, November 1, 2008
The other Obama-Kennedy Connection
How a Kenyan airlift that brought a young scholar named Obama to America in 1960 - where he met a wife and fathered a son - was saved by a young senator from Massachusetts
Elana Schor in Washington
January 10 2008
In his command of the US political stage over the past year, Barack Obama has inspired many a comparison to John F Kennedy. Both young senators brought a lofty message, an appealing young family and a movie-star aura to the presidential race. But the two men forged a less known link - before Obama was even born.
The bond began with Kenyan labour leader Tom Mboya, an advocate for African nationalism who helped his country gain independence in 1963. In the late 1950s, Mboya was seeking support for a scholarship program that would send Kenyan students to US colleges - similar to other exchanges the US backed in developing nations during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Mboya appealed to the state department. When that trail went cold, he turned to then-senator Kennedy.
Kennedy, who chaired the senate subcommittee on Africa, arranged a $100,000 grant through his family's foundation to help Mboya keep the program running.
"It was not a matter in which we sought to be involved," Kennedy said in an August 1960 senate speech. "Nevertheless, Mr Mboya came to see us and asked for help, when none of the other foundations could give it, when the federal government had turned it down quite precisely. We felt something ought to be done."
One of the first students airlifted to America was Barack Obama Sr, who married a white Kansas native named Ann Dunham during his US studies. Their son, born in 1961 and named for his father, has only once mentioned his Kennedy connection on the campaign trail.
"[T]he Kennedys decided: 'We're going to do an airlift,'" senator Obama said during a March speech in Selma, Alabama. "We're going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country and give them scholarships to study so they can learn what a wonderful country America is. This young man named Barack Obama [Sr] got one of those tickets and came over to this country."
Many of the airlifted students worked their way up to elite universities in America before returning to help Kenya adjust to independence, and Obama Sr was no exception. He left the family to take a Harvard scholarship when the young Obama was only 2 years old, beginning the future presidential candidate's remarkable personal journey to Indonesia, New York and Chicago and Capitol Hill.
"Obama is hailed in Kenya as one of the great results of the airlift," said Cora Weiss, who led the US group that helped Mboya organise the airlift. At a recent reception for alumni of the program, she recalled, one Kenyan journalist made a rousing toast to the student exchange that produced "the next president of the United States". Thanks to a bizarre twist in the airlift saga, Kennedy ended up discussing his Obama connection much more openly than Obama mentions the late president's role in his life.
The bitterly fought presidential campaign of 1960 pitted Kennedy against Richard Nixon, then the vice president, who tried to steal his opponent's thunder by winning state department money for the airlift before the Kennedy family's grant could go through. A thoroughly modern political scuffle erupted over who would claim credit for supporting Obama's father and the other Kenyan students. Kennedy ultimately prevailed. ...