David Maraniss, an associate editor of The Post, is the author of “First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton” and the forthcoming “Barack Obama: The Story.” This is the fifth column in an occasional series on the 2012 presidential candidates’ political lives.
Barack Obama’s mother died on Nov. 7, 1995, a few weeks before her 53rd birthday. She was less than two years older than the president is now. Her death from uterine cancer came between two key events in her son’s life. Four months earlier “Dreams From My Father” had been published; it seemed destined to drown unnoticed in the deep ocean of books. One year later Obama won his first election, to the Illinois state Senate, the initial stop on his swift journey to the White House that, along the way, brought a mass audience to that forgotten memoir, which in its best-selling revival defined his political image and provided him with lifelong financial security.
The title of the book was at once understandable and misleading. Obama barely knew his father except in dreams, or nightmares. He spent time with the old man only once, when he was 10, for an unsatisfying month. It is harsh to say but nonetheless likely that Barack Obama II was lucky never to have lived with Barack Obama Sr., an abusive alcoholic. By far the most influential figures in Obama’s early life were his mother and grandmother. He has some of the demeanor of his grandmother and the will and much of the outlook of his mother. “Dreams From My Mother” better evokes his life’s story.
She was a woman of many names. Born Stanley Ann Dunham, she assumed, as most people did, that her unusual first name was imposed by her father. An uncle tells a different story, attributing the choice to Madelyn Dunham, Stanley Ann’s mother, who as a small-town Kansas girl yearned to emulate Bette Davis, the sophisticated actress she saw on the big screen at the air-conditioned Augusta Theater. While Madelyn was pregnant, Davis was starring in a movie in which she played a female character named Stanley. (As it happened, no two people could have been less alike than Madelyn’s daughter and this film character, who was cruel, cunning and racist.) Stanley Ann became Stannie Ann in grade school, Stanley in high school and, finally, Ann in adulthood. Her last name changed as often, from Dunham to Obama to Soetoro to a final spelling of Sutoro.
By any name, she was a searcher. She married a Kenyan and an Indonesian (both marriages collapsed; the first quickly, the second slowly) and spent most of her adult life overseas. She was constantly on the move. She earned a doctorate in anthropology and had an anthropologist’s nature as a participant observer, a character trait shared by her son. She was fascinated by other cultures and ways of living. A polyglot, she could speak Bahasa Indonesia fluently and had a working knowledge of Urdu, Hindi, Javanese, French and Latin. There was never a foreign film she did not want to see, a batik dress she did not want to wear, a mythology she did not wish to understand. In Indonesia, where she spent most of her adult life, she became obsessed with the work of rural blacksmiths, who were said to forge human souls. She devoted herself later to helping Javanese women maintain their handicraft livelihoods in a male-dominated society that practiced what she called “the gentle oppression” of women. She would wake up before dawn every morning and, in notebooks with the black-and-white speckled covers, record her travels, her encounters and her hopes for people, including her only son.
Barack Obama’s relationship with his mother was complicated. She called him Barry or Bar (sounds like bear). She pushed him to be serious and to look at people with empathy. He always felt protective of her, according to his memoir. He describes a scene in which she told him that she intended to marry Lolo Soetoro and that, after the marriage, they would all live in Indonesia. As Obama recalls it, he turned to her and asked, “But do you love him?” — a question that made her chin tremble. It was, at the least, precocious. At the time he was only 31 / 2. But it was also in keeping with one of the themes that weaves through his dealings with his mother over the years — that she was naive and idealistic, sometimes too good for her own good. In the journal that his New York girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, kept during their time together in the early 1980s, Cook wrote, “Told me the other night of having pushed his mother away over past 2 years in an effort to extract himself from the role of supporting man in her life — she feels rejected and has withdrawn somewhat.”
Ann once joked that she had children with a Kenyan and an Indonesian so that the kids would not have light skin and get sunburns. She herself looked like a Kansas schoolmarm, she noted, which made it easy for her to sail through Customs during her foreign comings and goings. Barry, the hapa Kenyan, and his little sister Maya, the hapa Indonesian, could never say the same. The mother and her two children struggled to find their identities, but in very different ways. Ann found hers through her work and travels, a lifestyle that, among other things, meant she and her son were apart for most of his adolescence, he in Honolulu with his grandparents, she in Indonesia. The search for identity was more psychological for her children, something that Maya said her mother must have understood but never fully acknowledged. In her career, Ann was idealistic but not naive. If she at times came across as naive to her children, it was in the role of a mother not wanting her children to suffer.
“She made sure that laughter was the prevailing form of communication and that nothing ever became acrimonious and that everything was pretty and everything was sacred,” Maya told me during an interview. “Maybe she didn’t want us to suffer with identity. She wanted us to think of it as a gift. The fact that we were multilayered and multidimensional and multiracial — it meant that she was perhaps unprepared when we did struggle with issues of identity. She was not really able to help us grapple with that in any nuanced way. Perhaps she felt that if she did acknowledge the difficulty of it, she would feel guilty.”
No guilt on Mother’s Day. Barack Obama’s mother, by any name, did not live to see her son’s rise, but she shaped the essence of this president.
Read more from David Maraniss’s Political Lives series: