The XX Factor

Obama’s Mother

The New York Times Magazine has a beautifully written and meticulously reported excerpt of the biography of Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, by Janny Scott. The piece focuses on Obama’s years, age 6 through 10, in Indonesia with her and her second husband, before she sends him on a plane alone to return to Hawaii and live with his grandparents.  It is a Freudian treasure chest for keys to our elusive commander-in-chief. We can see the origins of his style, particularly the cool, unruffled campaigner of 2008. In one key scene Dunham is having lunch with another American woman and their children. Scott describes what happened when they went outside:

A  flock of Indonesian children began lobbing rocks in [Obama’s] direction. They ducked behind a wall and shouted racial epithets. He seemed unfazed, dancing around as though playing dodge ball “with unseen players,” Bryant said. Ann did not react. Assuming she must not have understood the words, Bryant offered to intervene. “No, he’s O.K.,” Ann said. “He’s used to it.” “We were floored that she’d bring a half-black child to Indonesia, knowing the disrespect they have for blacks,” Bryant said. At the same time, she admired Ann for teaching her boy to be fearless.

Here’s another enlightening paragraph:

“You demonstrate an inner strength [in Indonesia] by not betraying emotion, not speaking loudly, not moving jerkily,” [said a friend of Ann’s]. Self-control is inculcated through a culture of teasing, Kay Ikrana?gara told me. Her husband, known only as Ikrana?gara, said, “People tease about skin color all the time.” If a child allows the teasing to bother him, he is teased more. If he ignores it, it stops. “Our ambassador said this was where Barack learned to be cool,” Kay told me. “If you get mad and react, you lose. If you learn to laugh and take it without any reaction, you win.”

Remember during the presidential debates many people wanted Obama to be more assertive, to show more anger against John McCain? I thought Obama’s preternatural calm, his ability to acknowledge McCain’s point then turn it to his advantage was something rare in American political style. This perhaps is why his testy, angry, churlishness now seems so unnatural and unpleasant coming from him. It’s hard to tell if it’s a pose – he’s been advised to be stronger and more “passionate” – or true outrage that the Republicans have not come under the spell of his composure and charm. What Scott has written also helps explain the strange pattern of Obama’s deference toward our enemies (his treatment of Iran and Syria at the start of his presidency, for example) because always, in his past, he won over the rock throwers by not taking offense, by pretending their taunts were play.

Scott quotes Obama’s half-sister about the values that their mother inculcated in them daily. “We were not permitted to be rude, we were not permitted to be mean, we were not permitted to be arrogant,” Maya told me. “We had to have a certain humility and broad-mindedness.” This helps explain Obama’s unease with the concept of “American exceptionalism.” It’s easy to see that to him it must feel like crude jingoism to constantly say your country is the best.

In an interview with Scott, Obama reflected on what it felt like to be sent away from his mother at age 10; he only lived with her erratically after that. In an act of emotional distance, he talks about himself in the third person. “I think that was harder on a 10-year-old boy than he’d care to admit at the time. … But being a parent now and looking back at that, I could see - you know what? - that would be hard on a kid.” But that kid wasn’t crushed by the abandonment, he went on to thrive. So one emotional key for Obama’s re-election may be his ability to understand voters’ seeming rejection of him (his low poll numbers) and come out again on top.