There was of course his brief stay in Seattle. He was an infant then and so does not remember the Capitol Hill apartment, its cramped space, the three windows overlooking leafy 13th Avenue, or his single mother as a harried 19-year-old history student at the University of Washington.
It’s his time on the island of Oahu, after that inchoate year in our city, at the dawn of the 1960s, that we really think of when we think of our 44th president’s youth.
That history is but one of the many connections to be drawn between Seattle and Hawaii. That we send more tourists to the islands every year than does any other state save for California is another—and the launching point for this month’s cover story. Without the Seattle/Hawaii connection, the world would be quite different. Locally, there would be no Canlis restaurant, for example. And, zooming further out, there would be no president Barack Obama.
Consider the remarkable adolescence and teenage years of his mother, Ann Dunham—born Stanley Ann Dunham because her father reportedly wanted a son—who, shortly after she and her parents moved to Seattle from Kansas in the mid-1950s, attended Mercer Island High School. “If you were concerned about something going wrong in the world, Stanley would know about it first,” a classmate told a Chicago Tribune reporter in 2007. “We were liberals before we knew what liberals were.”
Imagine if Dunham had raised her son without the progressive values she acquired in Seattle, instilling in him the open-minded, multicultural tenets of the islands but none of the Emerald City’s fierce mix of social justice, intellectual curiosity, and outsize ambition. In this scenario he never leaves. He is still charismatic. He is still well liked. But maybe he is a lawyer in Honolulu. Or a beloved teacher.
In this scenario he also still likes to swim. In Kaneohe Bay the tide rocks him back and forth, and he feels the motion when he drifts off to sleep at night. He has the same dream again and again. It always ends with tens of thousands of people. The crowd hangs on his every word and repeats some of those words in unison, words of hope.
In the silence that follows he perceives the same thing each time, a feeling he can never put his finger on: a dreaded essence lingering in the wings, something malformed that grows louder and cruder with each breath, ready to take the stage as soon as he wakes.