The New York Times Magazine has published a 6,000-word profile of President Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, the woman he calls "the single constant" in his life. It's an excerpt from reporter Janny Scott's upcoming book, A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother. Scott spent more than two years, and nearly 200 interviews, compiling information about the woman who, Scott says, is often portrayed as a "corn-fed, white-bread" Kansan. But the magazine story focuses mostly on Dunham's experiences, and Obama's upbringing, in Indonesia. In 1967, at age 24, Dunham followed her second husband to Jakarta, and she brought 6-year-old Barack with her. The four years that followed were "formative" for both mother and son, Scott writes. Here, six key takeaways:
1. Obama wanted to be prime minister... of Indonesia
Dunham believed her son was "unusually gifted," and would boast about his abilities to friends, says Scott. She would even tell friends and acquaintances that little Barry, not even 10 years old, could someday be president of the United States. The boy himself had similarly lofty aspirations, but when asked by his stepfather what he wanted to be when he grew up, Barry said, "Oh, prime minister." Apparently, "at that point in his childhood, Obama assumed his stay in Indonesia was permanent and envisioned his future there," says Dan Amira at New York. But that anecdote is sure to "bring a wry smile to the faces of 'birthers,'" says David Gardner in the Daily Mail.
2. Obama shrugged off racism
Barry was subjected to teasing about his skin color, from both adults and children. One day, as he ran ahead of his mother and a group of friends, Indonesian kids began to throw rocks and shout racial epithets at him, Scott says. But Barry "seemed unfazed," and his mother did not react. When a friend offered to step in, Dunham declined. "No, he's O.K.," she said. "He's used to it."
3. The president may have been spanked as a child
Dunham spoke about disciplining young Barry, "including spanking him for things where he richly deserved a spanking,” according to a colleague quoted by Scott. A man who says he worked as a houseboy for Dunham and her husband in the 1970s also says that if Obama did not finish his homework, his mother "would call him into his room and would spank him with his father’s military belt." Obama denies that such spankings took place.
4. Dunham had a real independent streak
Dunham "had strong opinions — and rarely softened them to please others." When her husband took a job that required "socializing with oil-company executives and their wives," Dunham balked at country-clubbing — and told friends that the middle-aged Americans she was supposed to be chummy with droned on about silly things. Her husband, she complained to a friend, "was becoming more American all the time." At the same time, her husband's success meant that Dunham had a staff of domestic servants that freed her from housework and allowed her to pursue her own interests.
5. Her marriage may have had an episode of violence
In one instance, when Dunham returned home late from work, her husband, Lolo Soetoro, got upset, according to a servant, and an argument ensued. Afterward, the servant recalls that Dunham "appeared in the house with a towel pressed to her face and blood running from her nose." But no one else "suggested there was ever violence between Ann and Lolo, a man many people described as patient and sweet-tempered."
6. Obama remembers her as strong... but disorganized
The president offered Scott some "surprisingly candid reflections on his mother's parenting flaws," says Kevin Spak at Newser. Dunham "was a very strong person in her own way," the president says. But "she was not a well-organized person. And that disorganization, you know, spilled over. Had it not been for my grandparents, I think, providing some sort of safety net financially, being able to take me and my sister on … I think my mother would have had to make some different decisions."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why torture doesn't work: A definitive guide
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Hey, bosses: Stop giving bonuses to your employees
- You should be furious about Hollywood's gutless retreat on The Interview
- Why the Sony hack changes everything
- One girl's extraordinarily wild world
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
Subscribe to the Week