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Review: 'A Singular Woman' by Janny Scott portrays Barack Obama's mother as an independent thinker who valued education

Back when Barack Obama was first making his mark on the national stage, he mused that people tended to see him through the lens of their own hopes and fears. "I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views," Obama wrote in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope.

It's even more tempting to project ideas onto President Obama's unconventional mother, Ann Dunham. Her life is the subject of a major new biography, A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother, by former New York Times reporter Janny Scott. For people eager to learn more details about the president's background, Scott's book provides a readable narrative and rich detail, portraying Obama's mother as sophisticated world traveler with a zest for life. Obama detractors, on the other hand, will likely be disappointed that there are no bombshells to reflect poorly on him.

Obama's mother is typically described in press reports as a white woman from Kansas, but Scott begins her book by noting that that is about as illuminating as calling Obama a politician who likes to golf. Born Stanley Ann Dunham in 1942 in Kansas, she told people that the Stanley was because her father, Stanley, wanted a boy; Scott suspects it was also after a Bette Davis character in the movie In This Our Life.

Dunham grew up near Seattle during a time of "slumber parties, sock hops, ski trips, little drinking, no drugs, little dating, less sex," but she received an excellent education that emphasized philosophy and world issues. Indeed, the importance of education is a recurring theme throughout her life and those of her children.

She moved with her family to Hawaii and started college there in 1960, meeting an exchange student from Kenya. She became pregnant and married Barack Obama Sr. The marriage didn't last long. She soon married an Indonesian exchange student, Lolo Soetoro, and moved to Indonesia with him, becoming S. Ann Soetoro. She had a daughter there, Maya, and pursued a career in anthropology, writing a dissertation on the village blacksmiths of Java.

Ann, as she was most often called, was big-hearted and big-boned, with a big appetite for life and a sharp tongue. She didn't suffer fools, friends often said. Her professional career included pioneering work in the field of development aid and microcredit, working for the Ford Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development. She helped prepare major presentations on microcredit for the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the same conference where then first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a major address on human rights.

Dunham brought her young son, Barack, with her to Indonesia in 1967, but she tutored him regularly in English. Unsatisfied with the educational options in Indonesia, she sent him back to live with his grandparents in 1971 so he could attend the elite prep school Punahou in Honolulu. In press reports, it's sometimes said that the future president was "raised by his grandparents," but Scott's biography depicts mother and son regularly visiting each other and maintaining a link that was sometimes distant but still strong.

Dunham died of cancer just before her 53rd birthday in 1995, just as her son was embarking on his first run for elected office. At the time, of course, no one knew that Dunham would be a historically significant figure. Scott's ability to create such a detailed portrait years later is an impressive accomplishment. Her research is extensive, and she seems to have interviewed every person still living who knew Dunham well. The book includes many previously unpublished photos of Dunham and her family.

Scott leaves little doubt that Dunham's life has influenced her son's presidency. First, there are clear parallels between her professional development work and the bottom-up development philosophy he has promoted as president, as well as his early community organizing work in Chicago. Second, Obama has relied heavily on his personal biography to advance a portrait of himself as a bridge builder who accommodates different points of view to arrive at sound public policy. Scott offers full journalistic accounts of many biographical anecdotes Obama mentions in speeches and interviews.

At one point in the biography, Scott notes that the most frequent question she got while working on the biography was if she "liked" Ann Dunham, or if she thought she was "nice." Scott's portrayal depicts a woman who was sharp and sophisticated, happily defying convention to follow her own path, and with a fundamentally liberal world view that Obama himself called "naively optimistic." But that's meant as a compliment, he said.

He told Scott he thought of his mother on the night of the Iowa caucuses in 2008, seeing the varied faces of his supporters. It was his mother, he said, who had the sense that "beneath our surface differences, we're all the same, and that there's more good than bad in each of us. And that, you know, we can reach across the void and touch each other and believe in each other and work together."

Angie Drobnic Holan is a staff writer for PolitiFact. She can be reached at aholan@sptimes.com.

A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother

By Janny Scott, Riverhead, 384 pages, $26.95

Review: 'A Singular Woman' by Janny Scott portrays Barack Obama's mother as an independent thinker who valued education 05/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 3, 2011 1:38pm]

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