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Elitist Charge Not New for Obama

Well before Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) remarks about small town voters growing bitter, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) labeled the Democratic presidential candidate an elitist because of one telling item on his resume. Inouye said, during an interview with the Honolulu Advertiser before the Feb. 19 Hawaii caucuses, that Obama may have grown up and graduated high school in the Aloha State, but most Hawaiians know little about him because "he went to Punahou and that was not a school for the impoverished."

Obama jumped on the remark, scolding Inouye. "Shame on Danny for trying to pull that stunt," Obama said. "I went to Punahou on a scholarship. I was raised by a single mom and my grandmother." Inouye later apologized to Obama — and Punahou.

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

Obama’s years at Punahou, one of the nation’s top preparatory schools, illustrate that the elitist charge he now hears on the campaign trail is nothing new for him. And the charges keep coming. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said his remarks about working class people "clinging" to religion and guns during hard times were "elitist and out of touch." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) echoed Clinton and upped the ante by repeatedly calling on Obama to apologize.

Recent polling suggests these charges are gaining traction among blue-collar voters, leading some Democrats to worry that, if Obama becomes the party’s nominee, he’ll be vulnerable to McCain, whose maverick brand has wide appeal for this Reagan Democrats demographic. Unless Obama, whose biography is anything but elitist, can dispel the false charge, it could well undermine his presidential campaign. Combined with the recent problems created by his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the young senator has had the the toughest month of his campaign.

"It could hurt Obama’s campaign significantly" said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University, "if he is perceived by many working-class voters as someone who looks down on them."

To defuse these charges, the Obama camp has been shifting course. The New York Times reported Monday that the Obama camp recognized it "needed to do a better job reminding voters of his biography, including his modest upbringing by a single mother."

Despite Inouye’s comments, Obama’s childhood and his years at Punahou are aspects of Obama’s biography that his campaign might do well to bring up. Obama’s experience at Punahou, a bastion for the children of Hawaii’s ruling class, was that of an outsider. Because his family’s income was modest, Obama attended the school on a scholarship, and never fully assimilated into the wealthy and exclusive society of his classmates. Furthermore, Obama was ostracized because of his race — the vast majority at the school was white.

Yet, in spite of Obama’s straitened circumstances growing up, and his time organizing unemployed workers in Chicago, Clinton and McCain, who both have more blue-blooded biographies, have been able to tag the Illinois senator as an elitist. To Obama’s well-educated, affluent base, the irony of this charge is easy to understand. But if Obama wants to win less-well-educated working- and middle-class voters, he has to learn how to communicate this disconnect between his humble upbringing and his exclusive schooling so it doesn’t get lost in the high winds of this whirlwind political season.

In the mid-19th century, Congregational missionaries descended on Hawaii. They bought land for farming and also established businesses, which became highly lucrative. There is a saying in Hawaii, said Ira Rohter, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii: "The missionaries came here to do good, and they ended up doing quite well indeed."

These missionaries deemed the schools in Hawaii lacking, so they established their own, to prepare their children for elite colleges. In 1841, Punahou opened for their children, heirs to what became the island’s ruling and landholding class. From the first, Punahou was small and exclusive — and almost entirely white.

Since those early years, Punahou has grown to 3,750 students, from kindergarten to 12th grade, the largest independent school west of the Mississippi River. And its commitment to excellence remains. It continues to place students in Ivy League and other top-tier schools.

Because of Punahou’s storied history, its superior facilities and, more recently, its high tuition — it now costs $15,725 per year — many working- and middle-class Hawaiians developed a strong distaste for it. "Resentment was always there," said Kirby Wright, a Punahou alum who wrote "Punahou Blues," a novel about his experiences there. "Think of it as the Harvard of high schools in Hawaii. The kids at other schools think of it as an elitist school and they hate it."

Many people familiar with the school and Obama said that the senator attended Punahou at a time when the resentment toward the school was at a zenith and the students were among the island’s richest. "For those on the outside, the school was for people who were privileged," added Alan Lum, who teaches at Punahou and played on Obama’s 1979 varsity basketball team there. "People that didn’t go to Punahou were bitter that they weren’t."

Image has not been found. URL: /files/washingtonindependent/obamas-high-school/Obama_Class_9th_grade.jpg But Obama was never part of this aspect of the school’s culture. In his first book "Dreams From My Father," Obama writes, "for my grandparents, my admission into Punahou Academy heralded the start of something grand, an elevation in the family status." Obama was admitted to the school, which he describes as "an incubator for island elites," because his grandfather’s boss, an alumni, pulled strings. Because his family couldn’t afford the steep tuition, he went on a scholarship.

With his admission to Punahou, Obama entered Hawaii’s, and the country’s, meritocracy, its educated elite — a status reinforced when he attended Columbia College and Harvard Law School. But Obama’s home life was far more modest than that of his classmates. He lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment with his grandmother, who worked at a local bank, and his grandfather, who sold life insurance.

Because Obama’s family had significantly less money than those of his classmates, there was a sharp contrast between the affluence at his school and his simple home life. This dichotomy made it hard for Obama to fit in with his wealthier classmates, for Punahou’s status extended beyond its walls. When Obama was there, Wright said, there were many legacies at the school and many students acted entitled. These same kids, for example, usually belonged to the island’s most exclusive country clubs.

Obama also struggled to fit in because the school was predominantly white. When he entered, there was only one other African-American student, and Obama was often ridiculed by his classmates. At first, they used to taunt him, asking him what tribe his father was a member of, if they could touch his hair and if his father ate people. "The novelty of having me in class quickly wore off for the other kids," Obama later wrote, "although my sense that I didn’t belong continued to grow."

"When Obama was in high school he was one of a handful of black students," said Wright, who was six grades above Obama at Punahou. "He had no connection to the elite culture, and I am sure he felt even more like an outsider because of that."

Others scoff at any suggestion that Obama had an elitist upbringing at Punahou. "Obama was far from being an elitist," said Chris McLaughlin, Obama’s varsity basketball coach at Punahou. "He was very humble and his basketball was his best friend. That whole elitist charge has really been blown out of context. When he graduated from Harvard Law School, where he was the editor of the Law Review, he could have gone, in a heartbeat, to any big time firm and made $300,000 every year. Instead he goes into politics where the pay is bad and there is a strain on your family. How can anyone call that elitist?"

Image has not been found. URL: /files/washingtonindependent/obamas-high-school/Obama_basketball.jpg Yet, Clinton’s elitist charge has gained traction because Obama hasn’t been able to effectively communicate this dichotomy between to make inroads into Clinton’s base of white working-class voters. Despite a background that is far from modest, Clinton has mastered how to communicate with these voters, focusing her stump speech on social policies that benefit them and even throwing back the occasional shot of whiskey.

Part of the problem may be that Obama’s story of a negotiated life is nuanced and relatively

But some political scientists say that the elitist argument might well be a red herring for a deeper problem with working-class voters. Racism, some experts say, may be the root of these voters’ disaffection for Obama — but they won’t say that publicly or in an exit poll. The elitist charge "gives voters another reason to vote against him," said Nolan McCarty, a political scientist at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. "In this case, the fear isn’t so much that voters will vote against him because of his elitism but that the charge of elitism gives them cover to vote against him for other reasons such as race."

In any case, Obama’s inability to connect with these voters surprises McLaughlin, the Punahou coach, who remembers Obama as humble and able to get along with everyone. Obama, whom McLaughlin still calls "Barry," was a reserve forward on his talented senior year varsity basketball team — which won the state championship that year.

About half-way through the year, McLaughlin said, Obama wasn’t happy with the amount of playing time he was getting. Instead of griping, Obama got all the second-string players together and arranged a meeting with McLaughlin to air their grievances. McLaughlin recalled that there was nothing confrontational or angry about the meeting, but Obama and the other players lobbied for more playing time in a constructive way.

"That meeting is one of the reasons I think he’ll be able to bring both side of the aisle together," McLaughlin said. "He wasn’t concerned with his own ego; he just wanted to get the job done."

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