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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.
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on July 15, 2011
Earlier this year I read Janny Scott's newly published biography of President Obama's mother, Stanley Annn Dunham, titled "A Singular Woman." So I was delighted when, on NPR recently, I heard Sally H. Jacobs talking about her recently published book about the senior Barack Hussein Obama--the President's father.
When you read this book, you know the author is a highly skilled journalist, one who has done a lot of research including several trips to Kenya and dozens and dozens of interviews with people who knew the President's charismatic--this the two share although little else--father.
I am one of those people who know so little about the history of Kenya during the years of colonization. And it is against that backdrop that the senior Barack Obama led his life, including one that was, at times, political although not at all similar to his son's. For, like our President, his father was also a very driven man.
Everyone knows that the President wrote about his father--but not his mother, an irony in my opinion since he knew her so well and knew so little about his father. Of course the President's book is not meant to be a serious biography. But this one by Ms. Jacobs definitely is. It is so well done. And includes hundreds of citations.
"Obama...paid little mind to rules or social niceties..." (page 78) may be a way to summarize this man who, in so many ways, seems to be the antithesis of his son. The father is fiery, quick to make judgments, irrational at time--although very, very bright and eager to learn which he shares with his son--and a womanizer which I believe our President--this one!--is not.
At the time of the first Barack's youth, a majority of native Kenyans were illiterate. There were very few schools. But the President's father showed early on a great desire to learn albeit not in a traditional sit-down-and-be-quiet type of classroom. He obtained an education almost in spite of a system that had little toleration for this student's often times outrageous, self-centered behaviors. But, on the other hand, he was so charismatic that when, in the late 50s, arrangements were made for black Kenyans to study abroad, the first Barack was among them. And that, of course, is how he came to meet Ann Dunham. Oh, yes, and when he left Kenya to study in Hawaii, he was married and had two children. (At the time, Kenya had only two institutions of higher learning, each of which essentially offered a basic high school-type curriculum.) So this young father--absentee father--was eager to be among the first Kenyans to board the first airline to take the brightest and best applicants to various colleges and universities in the United States. His past behaviors as well as the lies he told caught up with him. The director of the project rejected him. But then his guardian angel of sorts, Miss Mooney, came to his rescue: she got him academically "certifiable" and then provided money he needed for his tuition. She knew him well and had a lot of faith in his ability. I won't tell what happened. But you, of course, know that the President's father made it to America as a student. And made it to Harvard later one, only to be rejected once he got there.
This is a book packed with historical information about the era in which Kenya inches its way toward independence, something I found personally enriching. And the author wove in how the original Barack Obama found himself both part of it and influenced by it.
Reading the book, one realizes how little twists and turns of "fate" created the opportunity for the first Barack Obama to meet and impregnate 17-year-old Ann Dunham, herself a student at the University of Hawaii. He flew out of Kenya on August 4th. That is exactly, to the day, two years before the birth of President Obama! His arrival occurred the same year Hawaii became a state. And he spoke nothing about the wife and children he left behind unless it served some selfish purpose. "In his recasting of himself...he would marry one white woman, propose to another, and seduce many more." (page 99) After all, he came from a country where polygamy was the norm.
The senior Barack was a man who was driven to be the best, to be the greatest, who was unconcerned about leaving his new wife and baby when Harvard accepted him.
This has been a fascinating reading experience for me as I juxtaposed the two Barack Hussein Obamas because I think that is what a reader who knows anything at all out this President would find herself/himself doing.
I highly recommend this well-researched and well written book to you.
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on July 30, 2011
Sally Jacobs did a wonderful job researching and writing this book. It is definitely a worthwhile read. What little I know about Kenya is limited to "The Flame Trees of Thika" series and a little reading about Jomo Kenyatta.

The book starts out with the extensive family history of the Obamas, members of the Luo tribe. The President's grandfather is the first person protrayed and what a character he is-abusive and arrogant and that's saying a lot in this tribal polygamous patriarchal society where men definitely rule the roost. Grandpa Obama berates and belittles his son, Barak Sr. The male children are treated the worst, with higher expectations.

I am not a psychologist and do not know the source of Barack Sr's problems, but having a father like Husein surely didn't help.

Barak Sr. is sent to the equivalent of a high school (a huge step forward for his family academically) and does well academically only to shoot himself in the foot by writing an "anonymous" (but easily identifiable) diatribe about the school, its masters, food, groundskeeping, etc. to the head of the school just when final evaluations are handed out. The head instantly determines who the author is and refuses to recommend him for a higher level of schooling in Kenya.

And so begins the first in a series of incidents in Barack Sr's life in which his intellectual brilliance is sabotaged by his own arrogance, selfishness and indifference to other peoples' opinions/feelings/rights. In addition, he was a pathological liar and an alcoholic.

Of course to Americans the most interesting aspect of Barack Sr is his interaction with Anne Dunham at the University of HI and the resulting birth of Barack Jr. Barack Sr. was a womanizer from the get go at the U of H and went after a lot of women. I don't know whether this was a product of Luo culture or a personality flaw. In any event, Stanley Anne Dunham met BO Sr. in her Russian class and apparently fell for him, hook, line and sinker. They were married in a private ceremony in HI when Anne was already pregnant with Barack Jr. Barack Sr. never told Anne that he had a wife and two children in Kenya.

The book implies that Anne Dunham was sincerely and deeply in love with Barack Sr. They really never lived together as a family. Anne's parents did not like him. Soon, Barack Sr. left HI for Harvard. Anne Dunham initially believed she would join him in his pursuit of an economics PhD at Harvard and then move to Kenya to fight for independence. He had different ideas. It's painful to see how she ultimately realizes that not only is he fooling around with women in Boston but has no intention of having anything to do with either her or his son, financially or otherwise.

Barack Sr has problems with telling the truth to the INS. At times he's married with two kids in Kenya (the truth) and at times he's divorced (not true). When his visa came up for renewal while he was still in Hawaii he admitted he had married Anne but apparently told the INS that Anne Dunham was going to give their child up for adoption to the Salvation Army. The INS grants an extension but with reservations.

Barack Sr's womanizing continues at Harvard. He once again pursues a white woman. Harvard learns he may in fact be a bigamist and with the collusion of the INS decides to effectively drop Barackk Sr. from its PhD program. Reading these memos so many years later, it's hard to determine whether the bigamy was a problem or whether the pursuit of white women was a problem. In any event, Harvard dumps him without warning, unfairly without giving him any chance to redeem himself. He has 30 days to move back to Kenya. He leaves the US with an MA in Economics from Harvard but not his longed for PhD. I believe but am not certain that all he needed to do to get his PhD was to get his PhD dissertation written, defended and approved, but there may have been more course work or oral exams the author glosses over. In any even, the PhD thesis is mysteriously stolen.....

And so begins the downward spiral of Barack Sr. The rest of his life involves a series of jobs in which he does everything he can to alienate and abuse his colleagues and bosses. His behavior as an employee is simply incredible. He would not last a minute in an American company, insulting his bosses to their faces, constantly asking for advances on his salary, "doing things" for which he had no authority. Even impersonating his bosses on foreign trips. It's truly mindboggling. He cannot stop lying. Another white woman follows him to Kenya and he abuses her and his children by her terribly. She finally leaves him. The boozing continues and worsens. The firings continue.

A very flawed man who hurt many of his family and friends. Not a very sympathetic person. In fact, you read the book and you wonder what relevance this man has to Pres. Obama other than genetic. Notwithstanding whatever Pres. Obama wrote in his book about his father (I never read it), the only real contact was for several months when Obama was around 10 in HI. The book states that Pres. Obama didn't like his father, a stranger who was disruptive, demanding and rude and was glad to see him go.
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on September 3, 2011
Sally Jacob's prodigious research and impeccable writing are on full display in this extraordinarily poignant biography of Barack Obama, Sr. She portrays a brilliant yet insecure man driven by inner demons which compel him to waste his talents by chasing women and abusing alcohol. Particularly noteworthy is the way the author overlays Obama's life story with a riveting narrative of Kenya's turbulent colonial and post-independence history.

For readers who have an interest in the President's family background and his intriguing father, I recommend this book highly.
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on September 24, 2011
I was deeply moved by Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, however I realise we all create myths about ourselves and our pasts (even more so if your narrative is positioning you for high political office) so I was curious to get a more objective view of Obama's father.

Sally Jacobs offers this in a well researched book, though the result is rather depressing.

The (current) President's book ended by showing his father as an alcoholic and failure. Here he emerges as even worse: a serial philanderer, bigamist, liar, sponger, wife beater and a man so devoid of empathy it's shocking. Obama Junior probably had a lucky escape with him not being around.

The book's great strength, alongside the readable prose, is the quality of the research. The author interviewed hundreds of people and tracked down every conceivable record of Obama's father. In places this over complicates things. Too many people and relations flit in and out of the narrative, until I struggled to keep track of them all. I was also uncomfortable with Jacobs's patronising (possibly even racist) justification of Obama Senior's behaviour because he was African.

In short, I finished the book with mixed feelings; ideally I'd give it 3.5 stars. I was impressed by the research, but its end was to portray a deeply flawed and sordid man. It's all a bit grim. If you enjoyed DREAMS FROM MY FATHER, approach this with caution.
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on October 3, 2011
"The Other Barack" is a fascinating biography of the absentee father whom the President rhapsodized in Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. While the President romanticized his distant, absent father, Sally Jacobs investigates his complicated, dramatic life. Barack Obama Sr. dreamt of bettering Kenya-he got a Western education at the University of Hawaii and Harvard- but sabotaged himself with alcohol and women. It's mainly a life of squandered potential. When Barack Obama Sr. could have been bringing a better life to Kenyans, he was wasting it in drink and having his wives fight over him.

This is a strong, no holds barred bio, with the exception of the fact that Jacobs rationalizes Barack Sr's behavior as traditional African polygamy. Among traditional polygamists, they are open and honest about it. If a man takes another wife, he is open about having a primary wife and other women. Barack Sr wasn't. He didn't tell Ann Dunham, when they eloped in Hawaii, that he already had a wife and children in Kenya. Ann Dunham reverently called him "the African." She looked forward to saving Kenya with him, to being with him at Harvard... and she found out too late.

Barack Obama Sr. wasn't so much bold as reckless. His numerous abandonments of wives&children, his running away from marital&paternal duties hardly describe boldness. However, he was reckless, be it with drink or women. "The Other Obama" is an amazing biography, it's a perfect companion to A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother. Reading this, one can see how the President came to be as a person.
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I wanted to learn the story of how Barack Obama was delivered to our country to become President of the United States. This historical account of his biological father, Barack Obama, Sr. gives the reader more information than came out about the life of the man who married his fellow student, started a family and left for his home in Kenya and leave them to be raised by the Mother and Grandparents of the children. Not a good ending story other than one of the Children he left, becomes President of the United States, the most acclaimed and powerful persons on Earth and the 42 president of America. Sally Jacobs tells the story, from many interviews of those who knew the family and or were friends with those concerned. This fills in the gaps concerning the beginnings and helps the reader to understand how it came to be that we were allowed the privilege to have voted for, or against, Barak Obama to be President. This is a good read.
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This is an interesting portrain of our president's father, Barack Obama Sr, a Kenyan leftist and alcoholic who was a pathological liar and womanizer. It mentions that his son's mother was Alice Dewey, the daughter of the famous John Dewey. It turns out that Alice was Dewey's adopted daughter, now the emeritua professor of anthropology of the University of Hawaii who oversaw Ann's book about entrepreneurship in Indonesia. Alice's book was also discussed on BookTV, and it's next on my reading list. "Dreams from My Father", written by the president is also mentioned a number of times.

All in all, this is a valuable book to read.
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on October 19, 2011
Barack Obama's father was not a nice man. That's the main thing I took away from reading this book. He was a womanizer, a polygamist and an alcoholic. He was not only a misogynist, he was also a misanthrope. He had tremendous intelligence and talent which he allowed to go completely to waste. Stanley Ann Durham was just a casualty along the way, and the President himself was just one of a total of eight children that Barack Obama Sr. fathered but took no part in raising. The President has expressed regret that the first book he wrote was a memoir of the parent who abandoned him and not a celebration of the parent who raised him. This makes sense.
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on December 15, 2012
After reading "A Singular Woman" it was my pleasure to read this in-depth account of the life of the Father of our President. It's the sad tale of a brilliant man waylaid by his characteristics of undisciplined self-absorption, alcohol and womanizing. Reading both books gives one a fuller picture of the heritage that demonstrats in our President. It is fortunate that President Obama received the brilliance, and not the weaknesses,of his father and the fortitude,courage and perserverance of his mother.
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