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Obama Overstates Kennedys' Role in Helping His Father

Then-Sen. John F. Kennedy met with Kenya's Tom Mboya in July 1960 to discuss funding for the second African student airlift.
Then-Sen. John F. Kennedy met with Kenya's Tom Mboya in July 1960 to discuss funding for the second African student airlift. (Courtesy Of Susan Mboya -- Zawadi Africa Educational Program)
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There was enormous excitement when the Britannia aircraft took off for New York with the future Kenyan elite on board. After a few weeks of orientation, the students were dispatched to universities across the United States to study subjects that would help them govern Kenya after the departure of the British. Obama Sr. was interested in economics and was sent to Hawaii, where he met, and later married, a Kansas native named Ann Dunham. Barack Jr. was born in August 1961.

Among the other students on the first airlift was Philip Ochieng, who went on to become a prominent Kenyan journalist. In a 2004 article for the Nation, Kenya's leading newspaper, Ochieng remembered Obama Sr. as "charming, generous and extraordinarily clever," but also "imperious, cruel and given to boasting about his brain and his wealth." Obama Jr. paints a similar portrait in his best-selling 1995 autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," describing his father as exceptionally gifted but also "wild," "boastful" and "stubborn."

After the success of the first student airlift, Mboya decided to expand the program in 1960 and to include students from neighboring African countries. This time, he raised $250,000 for 256 students. Universities and colleges promised scholarships worth $1,600,000, but Mboya still needed money for the airlift itself. His American friends suggested that he approach Sen. John F. Kennedy, who had just launched his presidential campaign. In addition to chairing a Senate subcommittee on Africa, Kennedy controlled the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, named after his older brother who was killed in World War II.

The two men met at the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port, Mass., on July 26, 1960. Kennedy later said that the family was initially "reluctant" to support the program because of other commitments but eventually agreed to provide $100,000 because it was impossible to raise the funds elsewhere.

Stephen Plotkin, an archivist at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, said a search of the records did not turn up any evidence that the Kennedy family supported the 1959 airlift.

Vice President Richard M. Nixon, determined not to be outdone by his Democratic rival for the White House, persuaded the State Department to drop its long-standing refusal to fund the program. The head of the Nixon campaign "truth squad," Sen. Hugh Scott, accused Kennedy of attempting to "outbid the U.S. government" in a "misuse of tax-exempt foundation money for blatant political purposes." Kennedy responded by accusing the Nixon campaign of "the most unfair, distorted and malignant attack that I have heard in 14 years in politics."

The former executive director of the African-American Students Foundation, Cora Weiss, said some of the money provided by the Kennedys was used to pay off old debts and subsidize student stipends. Even though Obama Sr. arrived the previous year, he and other members of the 1959 cohort benefited indirectly from Kennedy family support.

According to a letter on file in the Mboya papers at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, "most" of Obama Sr.'s early expenses in the United States were covered by an international literacy expert named Elizabeth Mooney Kirk, who had traveled widely in Kenya. Kirk wrote to Mboya in May 1962 to request additional funds to "sponsor Barack Obama for graduate study, preferably at Harvard." She said she would "like to do more" to assist the young man but had two stepchildren ready for college.

Susan Mboya credits the student airlifts with helping to make Kenya "an island of stability in a region rocked by turmoil" until very recently. "We were fortunate in having a lot of highly educated people who were able to come back and take over the government after the British left," she said. Products of the airlift project included Africa's first female Nobel Peace Prize winner, the environmentalist Wangari Maathai.

Obama's Selma speech offers a very confused chronology of both the Kenya student program and the civil rights movement. Relating the story of how his parents met, Obama said: "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 Junior was born. So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama."

After bloggers pointed out that the Selma bridge protest occurred four years after Obama's birth, a spokesman explained that the senator was referring to the civil rights movement in general, rather than any one event.

Obama Sr. never quite lived up to his enormous potential. He achieved his dream of studying at Harvard after graduating from the University of Hawaii. He divorced Dunham in 1963 and married another woman.

He returned to Kenya and became a close aide to Mboya, a fellow Luo tribesman, at the Ministry of Economic Development. According to his old "drinking buddy" Ochieng, he antagonized other officials with his "boasting," was "excessively fond of Scotch" and ended up in poverty "without a job." He got into frequent car accidents, one of which led to the amputation of both his legs. He was killed in another car accident, in 1982, at the age of 46.

Special correspondent Michael Zielenziger in Stanford, Calif., contributed to this report.

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