Reporters seek Obama's past in Jakarta

January 13, 2008|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun reporter

There was little reason to pay a visit to Barack Obama's primary school in a shady Jakarta neighborhood. But a stop at the Basuki School, built in the Menteng district by the Dutch in 1932, had been scheduled during a journalism fellowship last May sponsored by the East-West Center. The visit was optional, but no one declined the opportunity.

As long as we were in the area, we reporters ostensibly wanted to check allegations that Obama had attended a madrassa. In reality, we were curious about a chapter his life and origins.

We met with Headmaster Kuwadiyanto and another administrator who were happy to show us around their public school, attended by Muslims, Christians and Buddhists. Inspirational signs hung in the open-air corridors. One read: "Seeing is believing." Students practiced a form of martial art on a tiled floor.

Surrounded by reporters with pads and pens, the headmaster and his colleague tried to be as helpful as possible. But they had not known Obama, who was called Barry Soetero while a student at the school four decades ago.

We admired Obama's former homeroom with its chalk boards, scuffed wooden chairs and children's drawings. Then, the administrator produced a black-and-white photograph of Obama's class. He stood in the back, one of the tallest of more than three dozen students. His head was circled in yellow to single him out for reporters trooping through the school.

We took photos of the photo. Then we took photos of others taking photos of the photo. Some of us were then photographed with the photo.

It was a moment when the absurdities of journalism conspired with the cult of personality to expose our true intentions. We had come to Barack Obama's school not to investigate a rumor, but to be able to say we had come to Barack Obama's school. And to store an amusing brush with Obama's past for future retelling should he become president.

stephanie.shapiro.@baltsun.com

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