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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 03/31/2008

Obama's 'Camelot connection'

By Michael Dobbs

Barack Obama, aged 10, with his father.

"What happened in Selma, Alabama and Birmingham also stirred the conscience of the nation. It worried folks in the White House who said, "You know, we're battling Communism. How are we going to win hearts and minds all across the world? If right here in our own country, John, we're not observing the ideals set fort in our Constitution, we might be accused of being hypocrites." So the Kennedys decided we're going to do an air lift. 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 got one of those tickets and came over to this country. He met this woman whose great great-great-great-grandfather had owned slaves; but she had a good idea there was some craziness going on because they looked at each other and they decided that we know that the world as it has been it might not be possible for us to get together and have a child. There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don't tell me I'm not coming home to Selma, Alabama."

--Barack Obama, 40th anniversary of Selma civil rights march, March 4, 2007.

A reader, Gregory Gelembiuk of the University of Wisconsin, thought there was something strange about the story told by Barack Obama in his Selma speech last year, and asked me to look into it. Obama made similar comments at American University in January when he was endorsed by Ted and Caroline Kennedy.

Gelembiuk pointed out that the senator's father, Barack Obama Sr., came to the United States to attend the University of Hawaii in 1959. But a Kennedy memo available on the Internet appears to show that the Kennedy family only became involved in the program in July 1960. So how could Obama credit the Kennedy family for bringing his father over to America?

The Facts

The chronology outlined by Obama in his Selma speech is extremely confused. The airlifts of African students to the United States were organized not by the Kennedy family, but by a charismatic Kenyan politician named Tom Mboya. In an attempt to answer Gelembiuk's question, I looked into the matter with the help of researchers at the John F. Kennedy library in Boston and the Hoover Institute at the University of Stanford, where Mboya's papers are located. I also talked to people who remembered the original airlift, and their descendants.

In an article in Sunday's Washington Post, which you can read here, I concluded that Obama was wrong. The Kennedy family had nothing to do with his father's arrival in the United States, but Barack Obama Sr might have benefited indirectly from their later support for the African student program. (That part is difficult to prove or disprove.)

Obama's Selma speech is misleading in a number of ways:

  • It implies that the airlifts of Kenyan students in 1959 and 1960 were somehow a response by the Kennedys to the bad image that America was getting around the world as a result of the civil rights protests in places like Selma and Birmingham. That is not the case. Mboya organized the airlifts as part of an effort to prepare his country for independence. Nearly 8,000 Americans had contributed money to the program by the time the Kennedys got involved.

  • Obama credits the Kennedys with bringing his father to America. The Kennedys did not fund the 1959 airlift.

  • Obama implies that he is somehow the product of the Selma events. As other bloggers have pointed out, the Selma march took place in 1965, four years after Obama's birth. (The Obama campaign now says that he was referring to the civil rights movement in general, rather than the Selma protest in particular.)
  • A casual listener to Obama's Selma speech could come away with the impression that he is the offspring of a mythical union between the Kennedys and the civil rights movement.

    The Pinocchio Test

    I awarded Hillary Clinton the maximum four Pinocchios for her incredible (literally) story about coming under sniper fire in Bosnia. The Clinton campaign compounded the original error by refusing to acknowledge it for several days. See Frank Rich's take on this here. The Obama camp has conceded that their man was mistaken about the Kennedy connection.

    The Obama "misstatements" do not rise to the level of Clinton's, but they are nevertheless a gross over-simplification and distortion of history.

    (About our rating scale.)

    Readers, keep those tips and suggestions coming! As you can see from this example, I will follow up on clear evidence of political "misstatements." Use the "Contact the Fact Checker" tool below to send tips/documents/misleading political literature or rhetoric.

    By Michael Dobbs  | March 31, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
    Categories:  Barack Obama, Candidate Record, Candidate Watch, History  
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