Barack Obama first made national news when, in 1990, he was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. He was 28, and lengthy feature articles offered the initial draft of the personal history Americans would come to know well: His life as “a street kid” in Indonesia exposed him to the cruel gap between rich and poor; his correspondence in high school with his economist father in Kenya awakened him to a proud African heritage that “was to be a major influence on his life, ideals and priorities.”
The articles did not name his mother. She was but a passing reference, “a white American from Wichita, Kan.,” and an “anthropologist now doing fieldwork in Indonesia.” Stanley Ann Dunham was thrilled with her son’s accomplishment — and crushed by the omissions. “I was mentioned in one sentence,” she told a friend in Jakarta.
Yet the key to understanding the disciplined and often impassive 44th president is his mother, as Janny Scott, a reporter for the New York Times, decisively demonstrates in her new biography, “A Singular Woman.”
The solicitousness that can anger liberals, the deliberativeness that can infuriate conservatives, the unusual belief in both empirical research and human goodness, the wicked cutting humor — all of it comes from a woman who broke gender conventions by happenstance rather than design.
A bookish outsider and only child, she was plunked down in Hawaii the year after it became a state by her restless father and her resolute mother. In her first months as a college freshman, at 17 years old, she got pregnant by her first boyfriend, an older student from Kenya named Barack Hussein Obama, who married her but left her when the baby was 11 months old. Twice, she married men from different cultures and races, then divorced them. With the help of her parents, she raised two biracial children as a single mother on the Pacific islands of two nations, got degrees in math and anthropology, spent years in peasant villages studying Javanese cottage industries, and pieced together grants and development work to make money and provide for her children’s education. Colleagues credit her with helping pioneer microcredit as a tool for lifting women out of poverty.
As a journalist who has explored how women compose an authentic life for themselves as the partners and confidants of powerful male politicians, I have often been irritated by Obama’s reductive descriptions of his mother, who died in 1995 in Honolulu as he began his run for state Senate in Chicago. “She was just the sweetest woman that I knew and really a wonderful spirit,” he told Larry King in 2006.
Scott pointedly notes: “The president’s mother has served as any of a number of useful oversimplifications. In the capsule version of Obama’s life story, she is the white woman from Kansas coupled alliteratively with the black father from Kenya. She is corn-fed, white-bread, whatever Kenya is not. In ‘Dreams from My Father,’ the memoir that helped power Obama’s ascent, she is the shy, small-town girl who falls head over heels for the brilliant, charismatic African who steals the show. In the next chapter, she is the naive idealist, the innocent abroad. In Obama’s presidential campaign, she was the struggling single mother, the food stamp recipient, the victim of a health-care system gone awry, pleading with her insurance company for coverage as her life slipped away.”
Scott smashes through all of that, using meticulous reporting, archival research and extensive interviews with Dunham’s colleagues, friends and family, including the president and his sister. What emerges is a portrait of a woman who is both disciplined and disorganized, blunt-spoken and empathetic, driven and devoted to her children, even as she ruefully admits her failings and frets over her distance from them. “One of the areas where I failed as a mother was that I couldn’t get my children to floss their teeth,” she wrote to a friend.
She could be easily moved to tears when talking about her son and daughter, and sending her son at age 10 from Indonesia back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents and attend the prestigious Punahou School was one of the most wrenching decisions she ever made, her daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, recalled.
Dunham’s choices and character were not without family precedent. Education was both goal and structure for her Kansan forbears, who were farmers, teachers and ministers; both of her paternal grandparents attended college, and two of her mother’s siblings earned graduate degrees.
Her mother, though, the oldest, saw her own plans for college cut down by the Depression and looming war. Madelyn Payne escaped the boredom of sturdily simple Augusta, Kan., by slipping away from her prom at 17 and marrying the dashing Stanley Dunham, much to the dismay of her parents. Their marriage was stormy and long-lasting. Madelyn worked her way up to be the first female vice president of the Bank of Hawaii, outearning her husband. When her only child announced that she intended to marry the charismatic Kenyan, Madelyn surely would have remembered “her youthful romantic rebellion, her secret marriage and her parents’ reaction.”
Resilience mattered. When Stanley decided that the family would move, for the eighth time, and settle in Hawaii, Madelyn remarked to one of Ann’s friends, “We Dunhams usually bob to the surface.” Ann coped by alertly observing each new setting while remaining a bit detached, and she taught her son to do the same. She grew to relish moving through different worlds that way. She was always “dislocating the center,” as a friend put it. Her son would come to yearn for stability, a sense of self and place.
“She was a very strong person in her own way,” the president told Scott, “able to bounce back from setbacks, persistent — the fact that she ended up finishing her dissertation. But despite all those strengths, she was not a well-organized person. And that disorganization, you know, spilled over.” He said she took too much for granted that everything would just work out, and that had it not been for his grandparents, particularly the more conventional Madelyn, “there to provide that floor, I think our young lives could have been much more chaotic than they were.”
The same global upbringing that lent Barack an Indonesian calm and an outsider’s curiosityalso led him to seek a more traditional family life. And so he chose Michelle Robinson, a woman who had returned to the South Side of Chicago after Princeton and Harvard, whose mother had stayed home when her children were young, whose father never missed a day of work at the city’s water-filtration plant. “She moved systematically through her life, making sensible, considered decisions, each building to the next,” Scott writes.
Michelle was more like Madelyn, Soetoro-Ng told Scott. “And I would say that my mother and my grandmother really were also opposites.”
Ann Dunham said of Michelle, in a letter to a friend, “She is intelligent, very tall (6’1”), not beautiful but quite attractive.” She noted her Ivy League degrees and added: “But she has spent most of her life in Chicago” and was “a little provincial and not as international as Barry.” Dunham wanted to attend her son’s law school graduation, “but both Barry and his girlfriend recommended that the family skip it,” she wrote to another friend. “Apparently hotels are a problem and the law school graduates with everyone else so you can hardly find your kid.”
“She felt a little bit wistful or sad that Barack had essentially moved to Chicago and chosen to take on a really strongly identified black identity,” recalled Don Johnston, Dunham’s colleague at Bank Rakyat Indonesia. That identity, she felt, “had not really been part of who he was when he was growing up.” Dunham thought he was making what Johnston called “a professional choice” to strongly identify as black. “It would be too strong to say that she felt rejection,” he said. But she felt “that he was distancing himself from her.”
Given the breadth of her reporting, Scott at times seems too tentative in her conclusions. She too often introduces her certainly valid observations with “it seems reasonable to imagine” or “it is tempting to conclude.”
At times, the book’s accounts conflict with recollections Obama has related in his memoirs and public anecdotes. For instance, a servant who lived with Dunham and her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, and the two children in Jakarta has no memory of her waking her son at 5 a.m. to attack his English-language workbooks, as he often has recounted.
“I’ll never forget watching my own mother, as she fought cancer in her final days, spending time worrying about whether her insurer would claim her illness was a preexisting condition so it could get out of providing coverage,” Obama told the American Medical Association in June 2009, a story he repeated often during the push to change the health-care system.Scott, however, uncovers correspondence that indicates Dunham’s fight with her insurance carrier, Cigna, was over disability payments, not coverage. And if her son “watched,” it appears to have been in his mind’s eye, since there is no record presented that he interrupted his state Senate campaign to go to her side.
Then again, as Madelyn Dunham’s brother Charles Payne takes pains to tell Scott, family history is recalled in fragments, reassembled and turned this way and that, distorted and reimagined depending on the narrator. He offers examples, then looks at her evenly:
“All of this is just to tell you: Don’t trust memory.”
Better to follow the guidance of Stanley Ann Dunham Obama Soetoro, who instructed her young research assistants, and her children, to emphasize “accuracy, rigor, patience, fairness, and not judging by appearances. ‘Don’t conclude before you understand,’ ” a friend from the Ford Foundation recalled her saying. “ ‘After you understand, don’t judge.’ ”
Ann Gerhart, deputy editor of Outlook, is the author of “The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush.”
A SINGULAR WOMAN
The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother
By Janny Scott
Riverhead. 376 pp. $26.95