February 7, 2010
Another Look at Obama's Origins
The murky circumstances of Obama's birth invite attempts to make the known facts fit together. This article was prompted by two e-mails. The first asked me why I had never weighed in on the birth certificate controversy surrounding President Barack Obama.
I responded that although I was troubled by the lack of documentation regarding all phases of Obama's history -- I'd be content with his SAT scores -- I could not understand why any pregnant American woman would go anywhere near Kenya.
The second e-mail was more interesting. It came from a Michigan entrepreneur named Don Wilkie, with whom I had not previously communicated. Knowing my interest in the authorship questions surrounding Obama's writing, he presumed that I was intrigued as he was by a cryptic poem the nineteen-year old Obama wrote called "Pop," the best thing that Obama himself has actually written. He was right.
"Pop" relates an encounter between Obama and a man most reviewers presume to be Obama's maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham. Dunham would have been in his early sixties at the time. In the poem, Obama has "Pop" wondering drunkenly about the boy, "What to do with me, a green young man."
The Obama of the poem is cynical, even a little bitter. He makes several allusions to the fact that he and the old man look and even smell alike, a fact that strikes Obama as more ironic than reassuring. The poem ends, however, with reconciliation when Pop stands and asks for a hug. Writes Obama:
I see my face, framed within
Pop's black-framed glasses
And know he's laughing too.
Wilkie offers a novel interpretation of "Pop." Says Wilkie, "I think the poem zeros in on that poignant moment when Obama was told that his grandfather was in reality his father."
Wilkie concedes his theory is "off-the-wall," but he also offers photographic evidence to show that Obama much more closely resembles Dunham -- especially by the telltale ears -- than he does Barack Obama, Sr.
Intriguing as the theory is, I thought it would be easy to disprove. I was wrong. For starters, in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, Obama refers to his grandfather not as "Pop," but as "Gramps." If he were writing about his grandfather in this poem, the title "Pop" may very well be suggestive of a more direct kinship.
For another, there is little known about the marriage between Stanley Ann Dunham, Obama's presumed mother, and Barack Obama, Sr. According to most accounts, Dunham and Barack Sr. were married on the Hawaiian island of Maui -- in some reports on February 2, 1961, and in others, on February 21.
Obama knows little about the wedding. He writes in Dreams, "In fact, how and when the marriage occurred remains a bit murky, a bill of particulars that I've never quite had the courage to explore. There's no record of a real wedding, a cake, a ring, a giving away of the bride."
In his fair-minded biography, Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage, Christopher Andersen concedes, "There were certainly no witnesses -- no family members were present; and none of their friends at the university had the slightest inkling they were even engaged."
Another conflicting bit of evidence is that at the time of his alleged marriage to Ann Dunham, Barack Sr. had a pregnant wife and a son back in Kenya. There is more. In July 2008, speaking at a university roundtable, Michelle Obama said of Barack's mother that she was "very young and very single when she had him." This could well have been a slip of the tongue, but it may not have been.
Obama was reportedly born roughly six months after the February wedding date on August 4, 1961. Andersen reports that Barack Sr. drove Ann to Honolulu's Kapiloani Hospital for Women and Children to have the baby.
Andersen's account, however, suffers from chronology problems. He relates that Ann told the Dunhams of her pregnancy in "late October." Even if she had she been impregnated in early October -- it probably would have been earlier -- Obama's official birth date came ten months later.
In any scenario, Obama had at least one black parent, and if it is not Obama Sr., who then is it? Obama offers a possible clue in Dreams:
I was intrigued by old Frank, with his books and whiskey breath and the hint of hard-earned knowledge behind the hooded eyes. The visits to his house always left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable, though, as if I were witnessing some complicated, unspoken transaction between the two men, a transaction I couldn't fully understand. The same thing I felt whenever Gramps took me downtown to one of his favorite bars, in Honolulu's red-light district.
The "Frank" in question is Frank Marshall Davis, a black communist, pornographer, and poet who had abandoned Chicago for Hawaii. In "Pop," it should be noted, the Pop character "recites an old poem" just before the reconciliation and reeks of whiskey. Davis would have been in his mid-seventies at the time. Some have theorized that Davis, in fact, is Obama's father and the "Pop" of the poem. This theory, though tenuous, cannot be ruled out. A grandson can look more like his maternal grandfather than his father. That happens. And then, too, there is Davis's Chicago connection.
The "Frank" passage and the ones that follow, however, tell us something suggestive about Stanley Dunham, namely that he frequented otherwise all-black bars in an area rife with prostitution. That a black woman -- perhaps a friend of Davis's -- gave birth to a child of Dunham's may explain "the complicated, unspoken transaction between the two men." If this were the case, it would have caused far less societal stress for Ann Dunham to assume maternity of her little brother than for Stanley Dunham to assume paternity of his son.
We also know that Stanley Dunham so desperately wanted a boy that he named his only child "Stanley Ann." That he chose to raise the young Barack would not have been out of character.
Is it possible that Barack Sr. obliged the Dunhams and went along with the charade? If so, as Andrew Young attests in The Politician, he would not have been the last good friend to claim false paternity for a larger cause.
As a Kenyan, Barack Sr. would have given the boy more than a name. He would give him a distinctive identity as an "African," a more respected ethnicity in the America of the 1960s than "Negro." Indeed, Obama has built his career around his exotic identity. Were he named after an American father -- say "Darnell Johnson" -- he may never have been elected president.
This hypothetical extended charade would help explain why Barack Sr. blithely blew off his new family when he headed for Harvard a year later, rejecting a reported opportunity to take both wife and child to New York, and began dating as soon as he arrived at Harvard. It would explain too why Ann Dunham felt free to leave young Barack with her parents for years at a time when her career beckoned.
Barack Sr.'s cooperation would also put Stanley Dunham's fondness for him in perspective. In Dreams, Gramps speaks so respectfully of his prodigal son-in-law that the whole opening sequence rings false to anyone who knows the larger story. A man, and a black man at that, has knocked up Dunham's daughter. Ann and Barack Sr. marry despite reported opposition from both families. The man then abandons wife and child, and the grandfather can only sing his praises to the man's son. This makes no sense at all and would have made even less sense in the racially charged 1960s.
Jerome Corsi of WorldNetDaily has found additional evidence that argues against Obama's birth to Ann Dunham in August 1961. As the records clearly show, "Stanley Ann Dunham" enrolled for classes at the University of Washington at Seattle on August 19, 1961, fifteen days after Obama's presumed birth. It defies all logic -- and logistics as well -- that Dunham would have flown her newborn across the Pacific, found an apartment and a job, and enrolled at school all within two weeks of the birth.
Most accounts put young Barack with Dunham in Seattle when she was attending college, but the sourcing on these accounts is suspect. One person cited often is Dunham's good childhood friend, Maxine Box. In February 2008, Box told the Seattle Times that the last time she saw Dunham was "in 1961," when, says Times reporter Nicole Brodeur, "[Dunham] visited Seattle on her way from Honolulu to Massachusetts, where her then-husband was attending Harvard."
"She seemed very happy and very proud," Box tells the Times of Dunham. "She had this beautiful, healthy baby. I can see them right now."
There are any number of problems with this account, beginning with the fact that Barack Sr. did not attend Harvard until the fall of 1962. Box also gives no sense that Dunham lived in Seattle or attended classes there through the winter and spring sessions of 1962, as records show she did. Whether Dunham was actually heading for Harvard, we have no real way of knowing.
A seeming hole in Andersen's account is that he missed the Washington adventure and has Ann remaining in Hawaii through Obama's first few years. He makes no mention of any trip to Harvard by Ann.
One other scenario makes sense out of a falsely assumed paternity by Barack Sr. This begins with the abrupt departure of the Dunham family from the Seattle area in the late summer of 1960. In Dreams, Obama tells how pleased the senior Dunhams were with the success of Ann in high school, but Stanley forbade her to go to the University of Chicago, "deciding that she was still too young to be living on her own."
Soon thereafter, however, the family decamped for Hawaii.
"Something must have still been gnawing at my grandfather's heart," writes Obama. He attributes the move to his wanderlust and the "limitless" prospects offered by a new furniture store in Honolulu. Adds Obama, "He would rush home that same day and talk my grandmother into selling their house and packing up yet again."
What Obama does not mention is that even at this time, his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, likely earned more than her furniture salesman husband. To move, she had to give up her job as a bank officer in Seattle. Arriving in Honolulu, she worked as a by-the-hour bank teller. This job would, however, have given her the opportunity to tend to the young Barack.
It seems altogether possible that the progressive and adventurous seventeen-year-old Dunham was impregnated by a black man while the family was still living in the Seattle area. If so, this pregnancy could have prompted the family to uproot to Hawaii, where no one knew them and where mixed-race babies were more accepted. According to the Andersen account, whose source was Maxine Box, "There were loud arguments between father and daughter -- fights that sometimes turned violent." Ann did not want to go.
Both the "Dunham as father" and the "anonymous black father" scenarios would make the Obama camp wary of sharing Obama's actual birth certificate, either because Dunham was not Obama's mother, or, if she were, because Obama was born much earlier than August 4, 1961.
If Obama were born, say, in February or March 1961, it would clarify why, as documented, Dunham attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the fall semester of 1960, but not in the spring semester of 1961. This timetable would have also allowed Dunham enough time to recover and prepare for a return to college in Seattle in August with or without the baby. Dunham would not return to the University of Hawaii until 1963. She filed for divorce in 1964, and little was heard from Barack Sr. ever again.
Scientists use the phrase "inference to the best explanation" to illuminate an unproven phenomenon. Given the available evidence, including the fact that some evidence has been strategically withheld, one can infer that Obama likely was born in Hawaii but that Ann Dunham did not give birth to Barack Obama, Sr.'s child on August 4, 1961.
So much depends on Obama's fabled "story," however, that the mainstream media have chosen not to investigate. When Christopher Andersen tried, he found himself immersed in a swamp of conflicting and concocted stories that tested the savvy of even a veteran biographer.
And so Obama's birth remains a mystery a year after his inauguration. The mainstream media, meanwhile, have paid more attention to the origins of Trig Palin than to those of the president, and they have spent their excess energy mocking those who do the reporting they once did.
If my humble efforts to clarify matters make me a "birther," then so be it.