Experience in Washington is not knowledge of the world. This I know. When Senator Clinton brags 'I've met leaders from eighty countries'--I know what those trips are like! I've been on them. You go from the airport to the embassy. There's a group of children who do native dance. You meet with the CIA station chief and the embassy and they give you a briefing. You go take a tour of a plant that [with] the assistance of USAID has started something. And then--you go.
You do that in eighty countries--you don't know those eighty countries. So when I speak about having lived in Indonesia for four years, having family that is impoverished in small villages in Africa--knowing the leaders is not important--what I know is the people...
I think Obama makes a good point. The airport-embassy-native-dance circuit has something to recommend it, but it's obviously a little limiting. One of the drawbacks of life in the bubble.
Anyway, as Amanda Ripley notes in this week's Time cover story, this turns out to be one of the views Obama inherited from his anthropologist mother, Stanley Ann Soetoro:
After her divorce, Ann started using the more modern spelling of her name, Sutoro. She took a big job as the program officer for women and employment at the Ford Foundation, and she spoke up forcefully at staff meetings. Unlike many other expats, she had spent a lot of time with villagers, learning their priorities and problems, with a special focus on women's work. "She was influenced by hanging out in the Javanese marketplace," Zurbuchen says, "where she would see women with heavy baskets on their backs who got up at 3 in the morning to walk to the market and sell their produce." Ann thought the Ford Foundation should get closer to the people and further from the government, just as she had.
Her home became a gathering spot for the powerful and the marginalized: politicians, filmmakers, musicians and labor organizers. "She had, compared with other foundation colleagues, a much more eclectic circle," Zurbuchen says. "She brought unlikely conversation partners together."
Like mother, like son.