President Obama wrote a full-length memoir to explore his relationship with the father who was absent for much of his life. What little he has revealed about his relationship with his mother has come in brief, rare interviews and anecdotes in campaign ads and speeches.
In these accounts, Stanley Ann Dunham, who died at 52, was “the white woman from Kansas,” a “single mother on food stamps” and, most wrenchingly, a motivation for Obama’s drive to overhaul health care.
From his presidential quest in 2007 through the law’s passage in 2010, Obama often shared how his mother spent her last months: trying to get her health insurer to pay for her treatment for uterine and ovarian cancer, which the insurer, said the president, refused to cover because it ruled that her cancer was a preexisting condition.
But Obama’s mother had full coverage for the disease — her battle was to get disability insurance payments for her out-of-pocket expenses — according to “A Singular Woman,” a biography of Dunham by Janny Scott, who covered the campaign as a reporter for the New York Times.
The White House did not dispute the book’s account, and a spokesman said Scott’s reporting makes clear the president’s mother incurred several hundred dollars of unreimbursed health-care costs each month. “She first could not get a response from the insurance company, then was refused coverage,” spokesman Nicholas Papas said. “This personal history of the president’s speaks powerfully to the impact of preexisting condition limits on insurance protection from health-care costs.”
Scott based her account on correspondence between Dunham and Cigna, the disability insurance carrier, that Dunham’s friends shared with her.
Obama also often spoke as if he had been at his mother’s side, “watching . . . as she fought cancer in her final days, spending time worrying whether her insurer would claim her illness was a pre-existing condition,” as he said in a 2009 speech to the American Medical Association. “I remember just being heartbroken,” he said in a 2007 campaign appearance, “seeing her struggle.”
But Obama had not seen his mother for some months when she died in a Honolulu hospital in 1995, according to Scott’s book and to friends whom The Washington Post interviewed in 2009. Dunham had returned to Hawaii early that year for treatment of the cancer, which was first misdiagnosed as indigestion in Indonesia, where she had completed field work for her doctoral dissertation in anthropology and had worked for the Ford Foundation in development.
She flew to Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York for a second opinion and learned her cancer had advanced rapidly. Her son was in Chicago, planning a run for an Illinois state Senate seat.
His mother died Nov. 7, a day before her son arrived.