Deferential New Bio of Obama’s Mother Fills Gaps

By Andrew Kreig / Project Director

Janny Scott, an award-winning New York Times reporter, took a leave of absence in 2008 to research and write A Singular Woman, the recently published biography of President Obama’s late mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. Based on the author’s nearly 200 interviews and unique access to many personal records held by Dunham-Obama friends and family, the book fills in many gaps of what is popularly known. Dunham died at age 52 after marriage to Barack Obama, Sr., of Kenya and Lolo Soetoro of Indonesia, each of whom she met as fellow students at the University of Hawaii’s East-West Center.

The author, at left, clearly has made vital contributions towards greater understanding of the president’s family. This is a first-of its kind book that doubtless will be much-cited and otherwise of historical importance. But in the end, A Singular Woman is a flawed and highly deferential account that leaves many mysteries remaining. Also, the book illustrates the limitations of biography that is based in significant part on the author’s currying access to the powerful.

I’ve often criticized President Obama in this space because of his dismaying record on justice reform issues that are central to our Project’s mission. His shabby record on civil liberties contrasts sharply with his soaring campaign rhetoric and his image as a so-called “constitutional law professor” teaching at the University of Chicago, where he became a lecturer shortly after my graduation in 1990 from there. But in an ongoing effort to achieve balance and new insights, I read reviews of Scott’s book (listed here on Amazon.com) and attended the author’s lecture May 9 at a Washington bookstore. Then I read much of the biography, which is 357 pages, not counting end-notes. The book does not include an index or references to the critical literature springing up about the president’s family. These omissions limit the book’s usefulness despite its strengths, and also raise a question about the author’s range of vision.

In her book lecture this week, Scott displayed great enthusiasm for her subject, Dunham, a strong-willed, free-spirit who bravely succumbed to cancer at such an early age. Dunham, a widow in modest financial circumstances living in Indonesia, had to battle her disability insurer (CIGNA, in her case) during her illness. That's like many others must do when least able to fight for compensation, and doubtless played a role in the president's push for wider health care coverage. Scott obtained such details about Dunham by diligently reading letters, computer files and other documents made available by Dunham’s friends and family. The book benefits also from a half-hour interview that Scott obtained with President Obama last July. Scott said this week at her lecture that she was grateful to obtain so much time with him, and focused "laser-like” on using the moments efficiently to obtain his responses to the most necessary questions for her book research. “After all,” she said, “he’s President of the United States.”

But the process also raises questions. When a major New York Times author writing such a sympathetic book must be grateful for a half hour with the President what about lesser lights, particularly those who have more deeply probing questions?  The answer is readily apparent from this White House, which is like its recent predecessors in our nation's increasingly “Imperial Presidency.” Such a reporter will be lucky to get something between a nada and nyet, even when a question is addressed to a low-ranking funcionary. The same mind-set surely goes for friends and relatives in control of vital personal papers. It fosters a go-along, get-along attitude in the mainstream news media, where lack of access would ultimately be a firing offense.

Either an anthropoligist or a newscaster might say, "That’s the way it is" in the much-studied Washington “Village.”

In sum, Scott's book is valuable, but is just a step in a larger process of ferretting out the facts. This became clearer when I inquired during her Q&A about the circumstances of a photo including Dunham’s father and Barack Obama Senior. The author was unaware of the photo despite her voluminous research. This underscores the scope of the work still needed. Even our greatest modern Presidential biographer, Robert Caro, is still working on his fourth volume of his series on President Lyndon Johnson. That’s nine years after publication of Caro’s, Master of the Senate, which is essential reading for anyone working in United States public policy.

These days, presidential decision-making has portentious consequences rare in our modern history. Therefore, we need authoritative information about our presidents and their circles of influence all the more.

Below is a sample of recent news coverage on legal reform from our News Reports archive on our homepage:

Wall Street Journal, Stevens Urges Congress to Crack Down on Prosecutorial Misconduct, Jess Bravin, May 3, 2011.  Retired Justice John Paul Stevens said Supreme Court decisions have given local prosecutors impunity for violating constitutional rights, and urged Congress to respond by authorizing victims of misconduct to sue.  In a speech Monday night to the Equal Justice Initiative, which advocates for indigent defendants,  Justice Stevens criticized the court’s March decision overturning a jury’s $14 million award to an innocent man who spent 14 years on death row after prosecutors concealed evidence that could have cleared him. (Click here to see the full text of Stevens’ speech.)