Myths from His Father
Dreams from My Father contains composite characters and other fictionalized elements -- not exactly a portrait of sterling honesty or authenticity.
-- Sean Wilentz, The New Republic, December 19, 20071
If Obama will lie about his parents, what won't he lie about?
-- Andy Martin, ContrarianCommentary.com, March 20082
In Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama paints a heroic picture of his father as a simple goatherd who emerged from a poor Kenyan village to become a Harvard-educated economist and then returned to Africa to fulfill his destiny. Unfortunately, the reality is much bleaker than the tall tale Obama spins in his book.
Since Barack Obama introduced himself to the American public with a book about his father, we will begin our inquiry there as well. Who was Obama's father and what was Obama's relationship with him? What life lessons did Obama learn from his father and what impact did those lessons have on his public career in politics? We will also test Obama's story of his roots, not only to see how it informs us about who Obama is and what type of president he might be, but also to see exactly just how accurate the story he told us truly is.
Obama's Father, an Alcoholic Polygamist
Barack Obama Senior, Obama's father, was a polygamist who had already abandoned one wife and child in Africa when he met Obama's mother in Hawaii.
After being educated at Harvard, Obama Senior returned to Africa, abandoning Barack and his mother, to live the life of a chronic alcoholic. He ultimately killed himself in a drink-induced car accident, tragically driving drunk on the streets of Nairobi.
The truth was first disclosed by London's Daily Mail in a January 2007 exposé titled "A drunk and a bigot -- what the U.S. Presidential hopeful HASN'T said about his father," the details of which remain unchallenged.3 Sharon Churcher, the author of the piece, confirmed in a telephone interview from London that, as far as she knows, her original report remains accurate.4 Rob Crilly, the freelance journalist in Africa who did much of the on-site, firsthand interviews with Obama Senior's family and acquaintances in Kenya, also said in a telephone interview from Nairobi that he has learned of nothing since 2007 that would contradict the Daily Mail story.
Obama begins his Dreams from My Father with a scene from 1982, when Obama, having just turned twenty-one a few months earlier, is shaken, in his New York apartment, by a phone call from Africa telling him his father has been killed in a car accident. The narrative omits that Obama Senior killed himself driving drunk.
A few pages later, Obama traces his father's history in Kenya back to the time his father herded goats while attending the local "British colonial school." Obama claims his father showed such "great promise" that he won a scholarship to study in Nairobi and then, "on the eve of Kenyan independence, he had been selected by Kenyan leaders and American sponsors to attend a university in the United States." Obama proudly tells the reader his father joined "the first large wave of Africans to be sent forth to master Western technology and bring it back to forge a new, modern Africa."
Again, Obama carefully omits the underside of the story, that when his father headed off at age twenty-three to a university education in Hawaii, he was abandoning an African girl named Kezia, whom he had married at age eighteen. Nor does Obama mention that Kezia was then pregnant with his father's first child.
Obama magnifies his father's time in Hawaii, claiming he arrived at the University of Hawaii as the institution's first African student. Obama then boasts that his father "studied econometrics, worked with unsurpassed concentration, and graduated in three years at the top of his class." Obama further notes his father's friends "were legion, and he helped organize the International Students Association, of which he became the first president."
He omits any mention of his father's continued success with women.
The Daily Mail, on the other hand, reports that Obama Senior was a "slick womanizer" who persuaded Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, a "naïve 18-year-old white girl, to marry him, without disclosing to her that he had left behind in Africa a wife he had not divorced." Obama presents a more dramatic version of his parents' romance, claiming his father met his mother in a Russian language course at the university, "an awkward, shy American girl, only eighteen, and they fell in love.
"The girl's parents, wary at first, were won over by his [Obama Senior's] charm and intellect," Obama continues in his narrative; "the young couple married, and she bore them a son, to whom he bequeathed his name."
Obama Junior was born on August 4, 1961.
In the next sentence, Obama intentionally skips over several more key details. After noting his father's decision to leave Hawaii for Cambridge, Massachusetts, Obama explains, "A separation occurred, and he returned to Africa to fulfill his promise to the continent. The mother and child stayed behind, but the bond of love survived the distances..." The ellipsis that ends the sentence in the book omits the fact that Obama's mother divorced his father when she discovered "his bigamous double life," as the Daily Mail disclosed.
Two years later, Obama Senior won another scholarship, this time to pursue a Ph.D. at Harvard. Obama explains his father's decision to abandon his mother and him in Hawaii by saying that the scholarship from Harvard did not include "the money to take his new family with him."
Yet even here we find Obama caught up in half-truths. Before Obama Senior accepted Harvard's limited scholarship, the New School for Social Research in New York City had offered him a generous scholarship that would have paid for his family to accompany him.
In typical fashion, Obama does not make this important point chronologically, as he could have in the opening pages of the autobiography when he describes a central family drama that shaped his life. Exactly why did his father abandon the family to go to Harvard? At the beginning we are led to believe that Obama Senior had no choice -- Harvard was his only option, or so we think, and the Harvard scholarship did not provide enough funds.
Instead Obama provides the true explanation some hundred pages later, and only in passing, as part of a conversation with his mother when she visits him at Columbia University in New York City: "The New School agreed to pay for everything -- room and board, a job on campus, enough to pay for all three of us," she tells her son, after they go together to see the art film Black Orpheus. But in that conversation Obama focuses our attention on how going to the movie with his mother made him aware for the first time of the sexual excitement that she, "a white middle-class girl," felt for "the promise of another life: warm, sexual, exotic, different," one inhabited by vibrant black men. Finally, Obama's mother explains why his father abandoned them to go to Harvard: "Harvard just agreed to pay tuition. But Barack [Senior] was such a stubborn bastard, he had to go to Harvard. How can I refuse the best education? He told me. That's all he could think about, proving that he was the best..."
Again the narrative is scrambled. On a first reading, only the most aware readers -- or those who already know the truth -- will realize that the dialogue at Columbia refers back to the beginning of the book and explains how Ann Dunham Obama saw her husband's decision to go to Harvard, a key issue since the opening pages of the autobiography. Deciphering the truth takes much effort, almost requiring the reader to memorize the book as you go along, so you can unscramble where important discussions occur, put the parts together, and see some semblance of truth. The order of the book appears to be the chronology not of the events themselves, but the chronology of how Obama pieced together the truth about his father's failed life.
While at Harvard, Obama Senior had an affair with yet another woman, an American-born teacher named Ruth Nidesand; recall that he was still married to Obama's mother and to his abandoned wife in Africa. Then Obama Senior returned to Kenya and fathered two more children by Kezia. Somewhere during that period, he also married Ruth, after she followed him to Africa from Harvard.
The Daily Mail quoted a relative of Obama as saying, "We told him [Obama Junior] how his father would still go to Kezia and it was during these visits that she became pregnant with two more children. He also had two children with Ruth." The Daily Mail further reported that Ruth finally left Obama Senior "after he repeatedly flew into whiskey-fuelled rages, beating her brutally."
"Friends say drinking blighted his [Obama Senior's] life," the Daily Mail reported; "he lost both his legs while driving under the influence and also lost his job."
Drunken driving ended Obama Senior's "brilliant" civil service career as a top Harvard-trained econometrician in the newly independent government of Jomo Kenyatta, who was on a mission to bring his economically backward country into prosperity. According to the Daily Mail, even after losing both legs in the car accident, Obama Senior fathered yet another son, his eighth child, by yet another woman, and "continued to come home drunk." Then, shortly after Barack Obama Junior's twenty-first birthday, Obama Senior put an end to the sad drama by killing himself in yet another car crash, once again driving drunk.
The Daily Mail quoted Kenyan writer Philip Ochieng as saying, "He [Obama Senior] was excessively fond of Scotch. He had fallen into the habit of going home drunk every night. His boasting proved his undoing and left him without a job, plunged him into prolonged poverty and dangerously wounded his ego.
"He was a menace to life," Ochieng said. "He had many extremely serious accidents. Both his legs had to be amputated. T...