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Good history and a good read
on July 11, 2011
"The morning had been golden; the noontide was bronze; and the evening lead. But all were polished till it shone after its fashion." Winston Churchill about Lord Curzon
"Obama is considered ... to be a slippery fellow" - notation in Barack Obama Sr. US Immigration file
This book invites immediate comparison to Janny Scott's "A Singular Woman" about Ann Dunham. Both are biographies of the President's parents done by a newspaper reporter and both were based on extensive travel, interviews and original research by the authors. Both serve as both history and a personal narrative.
Sally Jacobs has done a excellent job in plumping her subject- she traveled to Kenya, and its backroads and villages, and to Hawaii. She has interviewed many primary sources. She has contemporaneous correspondence about Obama mentioned in letters of US literary workers back to relatives. She has looked into Kenya's archives, tribal memories, recollections of village neighbors and has a number of revelations from FOIA requests of the government. Jacobs even cites internal meeting minutes from Kenya's Tourist Development Trust from 1967.
Where Janny Scott's book is guilty of covering up facts to protect the reputation of her subject (and her son), Jacobs gives a well researched factual history that doesnt seem to have a spin to it. Scott's book looks all the worse in the comparison: Jacobs talked to many of the same people as Scott (such as Neil Abercromie and Dunham friend Susan Botkin Blake) and yet uncovers a wealth more information. In fact its almost impossible not to come away with the impression that Janny Scott must have learned the same things but censored the unflattering details.
Barack Obama Sr. life story is essentially one of a very talent person striving to be a Big Man and the collateral damage to all of his personal relationships. In Kenya in the 1950's the best way to become a Big Man was to get a foreign education and be part of the new generation of leaders who would take over in post colonial Kenya. All of the women, the marriages and the scattered children were an after thought to that goal.
Jacobs clears up much about the Obama/Dunham marriage: for instance why there were no witnesses- it took place on an elopement to Maui. It also is now clear that Obama and Dunham never lived together after they married in February. Some news stories try to claim there is a cottage where Obama/Dunham lived together in the first year, but it is clear that Dunham never left her parents' home. Prior to meeting Dunham, Obama had been warned by the University over his assertive pursuit of women on campus. Dunham comes off as extremely gullible- she told a friend after she was at the University of Washington that Obama was going to graduate, go to Harvard and when he was accepted she was supposed to go ahead to Massachusetts and prepare a home for them. That obviously never happened, in fact she would not see Barack Sr. for almost another 10 years. The only time she wised up that she was being played was when he mentioned in his letters his dating life at Harvard while she was left waiting for some form of financial support.
The book also provide some context for the Obama/Dunham relationship. Contrary reports that Obama was part of the JFK airlift, Jacobs demonstrates in detail that he was not and how it was he came to be excluded. Obama then went to great effort to arrange for his own foreign student program which ultimately concluded with him entering the University of Hawaii. Part of that process lead university and Immigration officials to watch him closely. He had to be politic in his behavior or he could be deported at the drop of a hat. He was extremely cagey about whether he was already married- telling different stories at different time in a way that exasperated school officials. In the case of Dunham, whom he met in Russian language class and got pregnant within a month, the picture emerges that he would have been in a very uncomfortable position if he had refused to marry the girl. The university was already on him about his womanizing- abandoning a knocked up newly arrived 18yo would probably be the last straw. Jacob's FOIA reveals Obama told the university he was going to marry Dunham but the baby up for adoption with the Salvation Army. The 'A' file notation indicates that Obama should be investigated "if he tries claim US citizenship".
Ultimately Harvard and US Immigration officials put end to Obama's trajectory when he gets to Harvard. There is more womanizing, an abandoned wife and son in Hawaii, and ,it become evident, bigamy. Too much of an unsavory character they conclude. Harvard administrators agreed to a plan to "to ease him out". They put an end to Obama's US stay and tell him he must return to Kenya- he could submit his dissertation from there. On the way out the door he makes a half-hearted offer to Ruth Baker to follow him, and he must have been substantially surprised when she did show up in Kenya, eventually becoming his third wife. The proposal took place while he already had two wives.
Harvard terminating his Phd program and that represented the end of the upward trajectory of Obama Sr.'s life. He never did get the dissertation filed or obtain his doctorate, despite styling himself Dr. Obama back in Kenya.
The reader maybe familiar with Obama's academic paper "Problems Facing Our Socialism" but it has never been really clear, given his British writing style and habit of rhetorical phrasing, if he was advocating for socialism or critiquing the extent of an existing socialist plan. It becomes clear from Jacob's research of university debating days that Obama was an advocate for Communism, albeit with a decided African communitarian twist. The background makes clear that Kenya's first post independence government took a far more pragmatic approach and essentially embarked on a master plan of a basically capitalist expansion, but with increasing 'Africanization' of the powerful posts. Obama sought to pull the government Leftward. This essentially put him on the outs with the ruling party in a time when, as one peer recounted, the government was so desperate for Kenyans with overseas training "it was largely a matter of showing up; you could literally choose chose what job you wanted."
Eventually, envy of his peers he considered less able, heavy drinking, and a series of drunk driving accidents continued his downward spiral until he was a shell of his former promise and virtually unemployable. He would die in yet another drunk driving accident.
As personal narrative, Barack Obama Sr. life story is fascinating. Like George Curzon he was a highly intelligent man with a great capacity for work, and excellent speaking voice and a dapper personal style. Improbably, he was also a sensational dancer- still remember today for the dance contests he won in Happy Valley resorts back in the '50's. He was remembered as always being the best boy in class, despite not studying. He was clearly marked for greatness.
Like Curzon, he was also a womanize and a man of great personal vanity. The first blot on his record was getting kicked out of the elite Maseno boarding school despite his excellent grades, because of his oppositional nature. He would lecture the prefects on their grades; he felt that minor rules like staying off the grass shouldn't apply to him; he snuck off campus and got drunk. And the end of the term he sent a anonymous letter to the headmaster critiquing all the things he felt were wrong with the school- poor food, bad uniforms, second rate faculty- in a very bumptious way for a mid-teen. The headmaster expelled Obama and put a "not recommended" in his file. This ultimately prevented him from being considered as part of the Kenyan brain trust airlift and almost blocked his education for good. It was the first of the many incidents of self sabotage. Indeed he knew as a foreign student he was on thin ice in the US, but yet continued behaviors he had been warned about. At the Tourism Department he was on a one year probation based on their doubts about his character but he continue his heavy drinking, including on the job.
Obama Sr. was a man of great ability, but also of egotism, vanity and snobbery. Anyone inferior to himself he resented if they were in a position of superior authority. He wasnt afraid to critique during class what he took to be (and probably were) loose academic standards at the University of Hawaii. And he felt free to upbraid anyone he felt was of low class or poorly dressed.
Obama was gifted; he was the best man in all of his environments (at least until he got to Harvard); he was motivated to be the best; he was an attractive and magnetic man. And yet professionally he never achieved what he should of. Personally, he had many broken marriages to women he beat and sired children scatter across the globe who are still scared by his abandonment (he spawned a minor publishing industry in his children writing ruminating memoirs about his absence in their lives).
It would be easy to hang it on his drinking, but that seems much to pat to me, and probably more of a result than a cause. Whatever it was in Barack Obama Sr. that lead him to be the best and be recognized as the best, probably also ate him alive as he realized he wasnt going to make it.
Jacobs talk to former MP and former schoolmate Wilson Ayah who sums up "Barack was a very upsetting case. He didn't commit a crime. He didn't do something wrong particularly. He just didn't finish the race. As schoolboys you were always taught that you must finish the race no matter what. But he didn't. He just collapsed."
I'd rate this as a 4.5 star book. As a history of a the father of the President it is excellent and well researched and clears up a number of mistakes in the public record. Its also commendable that Jacobs, while involved in her subject, does not appear to have a hagiographic bias.
As the story of a bright young achiever trying to make his mark on the world it is also quite compelling and readable. However the reader would probably need to have an interest in either the people or the time period in order to keep their interest as a biography. There is probably too much exactitude on historical detail for a purely recreational reader.