Review: Biography: The Other Barack by Sally H Jacobs
Public Affairs, £20
Published 20/08/2011 | 05:00
When he was 33 years old, Barack Obama wrote Dreams From My Father, a haunting rumination on race and identity. The book helped craft the narrative of his life which helped him to win the presidency in 2009.
The central figure in that narrative was his father, Barack Hussein Obama Snr, a member of the Luo tribe from Kenya who had married a white Kansas girl, Ann Dunham, who was already pregnant with his child, when they were studying at the University of Hawaii at the start of the '60s
In Obama's memoir, his father is a ghostly figure. After casually abandoning his (second) family when the future president was two, father and son spent only a month together, when Barry Obama, as he was then known, was 10.
His father in Africa was a figure of fascination to the little boy as he grew up in Honolulu and Jakarta. At school he told his friends that his father's tribe was "full of warriors". His father, he insisted, needed to settle tribal feuds before he would be able to receive his son as a visitor.
Ultimately, Obama concluded that even in his absence his father's strong image had given him "some bulwark with which to grow up, an image to live up to or disappoint". His memoir ends with a trip to Kenya that dispels many illusions, revealing Obama Snr as a drunkard and a professional failure.
The full truth, as this almost unremittingly depressing book outlines, was much worse. Obama Snr turns out to have been little short of a monster. He sired at least five, possibly seven, children by four wives. He beat one wife (Ruth Baker, number three) viciously, and ordered her out of the marital bed to make way for a woman he had met out drinking.
As portrayed here, he was an inveterate liar, a sponger and a braggart obsessed with the sexual conquest of women. He drank heavily (he was nicknamed 'Double Double' after the way he drank his preferred Johnnie Walker Black Label) and died when he slammed his truck into a tree.
Sally H Jacobs, a long-time Boston Globe reporter, has amassed much damning evidence, but she shies away from its almost inevitable conclusions. She seems to feel it is her duty to defend Obama Snr even while presenting the case against him. Thus she takes issue with Harvard for kicking Obama Snr out, and the United States for expelling him. By then, however, Obama Snr was a bigamist who had deserted two wives and three children and was engaged in a "relentless pursuit of women" on campus and in bars. He had serious financial problems and constantly lied to officials.
Jacobs partly explains away the womanising with the eyebrow-raising statement that her subject was "a man of Africa". She insists he worked hard, and often refers to his "obvious intellectual gifts", though his academic grades were generally modest and he never achieved his PhD despite styling himself "Dr".
At one point Jacobs describes him, without apparent irony, as "a manifestation of the uprising of oppressed peoples around the world".
The book's power to bewilder is enhanced by a huge cast of characters, and by the lack of a family tree.
But there is much here that is new and startling. Jacobs builds a strong case that a 21-year-old Obama Snr seduced Elizabeth Mooney, a white American spinster, aged 43, who was teaching him English, and who later helped fund his studies in America; she has also uncovered files stating that President Obama's mother, Ann, considered giving him up for adoption; and there is a strong suggestion that Obama Snr's death, at 46, was suicide: three days before the crash that killed him he had talked to his fourth wife about financial arrangements if he died.
One problem Jacobs has encountered is that many of the Kenyan Obamas have previously offered divergent accounts of key facts. President Obama's grandfather, it now appears, was never imprisoned or tortured by the British, as his grandmother claimed in 2008.
Obama Snr was not a member of the famous first student airlift from Kenya to the US in 1959, as his son has repeatedly (and doubtless in good faith) stated -- in fact, he was rejected for that scheme.
Obama Snr's first wife, Kezia, claims he fathered four rather than two of her children, but Jacobs is sceptical. Four of Obama Snr's five confirmed children have written books, and there is a strong sense that the African relatives are cashing in on the president's fame.
Summing up, Jacobs declares that Obama Snr "achieved ambitions that many Kenyans of his generation could not have begun to fathom", that he "spoke truth to power" and that he was a bird who "had flown high and far".
In reality, however, he achieved almost nothing. He would never have merited such attention if the son he never really knew (and who grew up to be everything he was not) had not attained the American presidency.
Every boy, most would feel, should have a father in his life. On this evidence, however, President Barack Obama was fortunate his was elsewhere. And while Jacobs is doubtless correct that Obama Snr would have been proud of Obama Jnr, he did little to deserve such a son, or such a legacy.