Half-sister recalls Obama as father figure

Big bro took sis salsa dancing

By Chris Bragg

Presidential scholars have long contended that presidential campaigns rely on myth-making — the creation of a hero, tempered by some great trial.

“Politicians’ life stories are played out on a stage that contains the same kinds of characters that populate great works of fiction and drama,” writes political historian Evan Cornog, in The Power and the Story (Penguin, 2004).

There’s certainly a coming-of-age story in Sen. Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, (Times Books, 1995) but there’s something deeper in it, too.

Obama’s younger half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, believes the fact the memoir was written long before her brother ran for president gives it greater authenticity than the standard biographies written by politicians on the campaign trail.

Dreams from My Father was a book written a full decade before his presidential aspirations, and that means you learn a lot about the man. There’s a transparency we’ve never had,” said Soetoro-Ng, 37, during a Tuesday campaign stop at Denver’s Rude Park Recreation Center. She spoke to 140 “Obama fellows” who are working in Colorado for the Obama presidential campaign.

In the book, Obama candidly admits to cocaine use and acknowledges that the now-denounced Rev. Jeremiah Wright was central in bringing him to Christianity. After becoming the first black editor of Harvard Law Review, Obama was given an advance to write a book. The memoir was written before Obama won his first political office in 1996, a seat in the Illinois Legislature.

“Certain passages have proven to be inconvenient politically, the grist for pundit commentary and opposition research,” Obama writes in a preface to the book’s 2004 edition.

If Dreams from My Father offers a few details about Obama’s life that he might now like to erase, his sister also offered up a few less-than-favorable insights into the candidate on Tuesday.

Nothing, however, that’s likely to be used against Obama in campaign rhetoric anytime soon.

“He leaves his socks everywhere,” Soetoro-Ng noted.

“He’s cute,” she added, “but he has those ears.”

But although even a candid 442-page memoir invariably will miss some details, one major detail is skimmed over in Obama’s book: his sister.

Why? For one, Dreams from My Father focuses on Obama’s search for the truth about a father he had hardly known. Soetoro-Ng, however, had a different father than Obama, and thus had no father lore to share. She also is nine years younger than her brother.

Soetoro-Ng said she’s sometimes asked whether she’s “the older sister or the younger one” on the campaign trail.

“Can you believe that?” asked Soetoro-Ng, who is nine years younger than Obama, as she feigned anger.

She then quickly added, “It’s OK. I will harness my brother’s tranquility. His coolness.”

As Obama often states in speeches, he was born in Hawaii to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya. When Obama was a baby, his father left. Obama’s mother remarried to Lolo Soetoro, an exchange student from Indonesia.

When Obama was 6, his mother and Soetoro uprooted the young family and moved to Indonesia, where Obama would attend school in Jakarta for four years and where his half-sister would be born. Obama’s mother and Soetoro eventually separated, and she took the children back to a cramped apartment in Honolulu.

Those facts are well-known from Dreams from My Father. But there was something new to the Obama narrative in Soetoro-Ng’s speech Tuesday. The book’s central theme was not fatherhood, but its absence. Soetoro-Ng’s story, on the other hand, is about how Barack served as her father figure when she was growing up.

“He really became the man in our lives,” she said. “He certainly was the man in my mind.”

Soetoro-Ng recalled this beginning in Barack’s teenage years, remembering how he encouraged her to exercise and to study math. He introduced her to literature and poetry. And later, when Obama was in college in New York City, he took Soetoro-Ng salsa dancing, to her first jazz club and on college visits around the country.

Former Denver Mayor Federico Peña, who was standing behind Soetoro-Ng during the speech, was so touched that at one point a tear rolled down his cheek.

If they’re connected by nurture, one element of nature clearly differentiates the half-siblings: height. And that’s why Soetoro-Ng was wearing black 6-inch high-heels.

“I think people think I’m taller than I am because my brother is such a towering figure,” she said. “I have to explain to people that I wear high-heels to get out of my brother’s armpits.”

Though she may not be as famous as her brother, Soetoro-Ng has done pretty well in her own right. She attended Barnard University, got a master’s in secondary education at New York University and a P.h.D. at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She is now a high school teacher in Honolulu, teaching classes on world cultures, U.S. history and the Constitution.

Soetoro-Ng spoke Tuesday of their grandparents on her mother’s side who helped raise her and Obama. They are known in the memoir simply as “Gramps” and “Toot.” The couple didn’t have much money, she said, noting that they lived in a rented 450-square-foot apartment in Honolulu. But they were the people who instilled a lifelong love of learning in her and her brother.

“What we did have, and they did offer, is the gift of high expectations,” she said. “This idea that we were going to keep growing throughout our lives.”

And Soetoro-Ng says she had a big brother who was always there to push her along, too.

“Not only does he nurture,” she said. “He pushes — in the best sense of the word.”