Mrs. Jellyby goes to Java

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Afew pages into for­mer New York Times re­porter Janny Scott’s im­pres­sively re­searched but some­times plod­ding bi­og­ra­phy of our 44th pres­i­dent’s mother, I was re­minded of Mrs. Jellyby, one of nov­el­ist Charles Dick­ens’ bet­ter sec­ondary cre­ations. An in­tel­li­gent, well-in­tended but more than a lit­tle ridicu­lous do-gooder, Mrs. Jellyby is a col­or­ful sup­port­ing char­ac­ter in that late Dick­en­sian mas­ter­piece “Bleak House.”

De­scribed by her cre­ator as a “tele­scopic phi­lan­thropist,” Mrs. Jellyby is “a lady of very re­mark­able strength of char­ac­ter, who de­votes her­self en­tirely to the pub­lic” — of­ten at the ex­pense of her own fam­ily’s well-be­ing — and her eyes have “a cu­ri­ous habit of seem­ing to look a long way off . . . as if they could see noth­ing nearer than Africa!”

Wor­thy and ab­surd, en­dear­ing and in­fu­ri­at­ing, Stan­ley Ann Dun­ham — Pres­i­dent Obama’s mother — was a true 20th-cen­tury Mrs. Jellyby. In love with ab­stract hu­man­ity and all things far and for­eign, she was never re­ally com­fort­able in her own home­land. The bulk of her ac­tive adult life was spent over­seas, de­voted to her slow-mo­tion pur­suit of a doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion on the ru­ral black­smiths of Java, In­done­sia, and to the wor­thy goal of en­cour­ag­ing small-scale “mi­cro­cre­dit” eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment at the vil­lage level, even while she hope­lessly ne­glected her own fi­nan­cial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

When she fi­nally came back to the States to die, she hadn’t put in enough home­time work to qual­ify for So­cial Se­cu­rity or Medi­care — no­body’s fault but her own. A brave, stub­born woman, she al­ways wanted to do things her way and sel­dom seems to have thought about the con­se­quences to her­self or oth­ers.

Many of us went to school with some­one like that: the bright but plain wallflower who was both scorn­ful of and ig­nored by most of her more pop­u­lar, con­ven­tional class­mates. “[She] felt that she could never have been one of them even if she had wanted to be,” a con­tem­po­rary of Dun­ham’s tells the au­thor. So she moved in a small cir­cle of fel­low mid­dle-class out­siders who liked to think of them­selves as su­pe­rior, cre­ative types, al­though most of them would soon fall back into con­ven­tional grooves.

Ann Dun­ham was made of sterner — or at least more stub­born — stuff. Thanks to her partly self-im­posed “out­sider” sta­tus, she had lit­tle or no ro­man­tic life in high school. But things changed dra­mat­i­cally when she went off to col­lege. There, as a 17-year-old Univer­sity of Hawaii fresh­man, Dun­ham met and, ac­cord­ing to Ms. Scott, was sum­mar­ily se­duced by a dash­ingly ex­otic Third World stu­dent seven years older than her­self. She be­came preg­nant and was mar­ried in a small, pri­vate cer­e­mony.

As of­ten hap­pens in such sce­nar­ios, her for­eign se­ducer was quick to aban­don his WASP tro­phy wife once the nov­elty of the ar­range­ment wore off and op­por­tu­nity beck­oned else­where. Be­sides, in this case, Barack Obama Sr. al­ready had a wife and chil­dren back home in Kenya.

While young “Barry” Obama, whose Kenyan fa­ther de­camped when he was just 10 months old, would be haunted into early adult­hood by “Dreams From My Fa­ther” (the ti­tle of his first book), his mother con­tin­ued her love af­fair with the Third World by mar­ry­ing a sec­ond ex­otic for­eigner, this time one Lolo Soe­toro, an af­fa­ble, well-con­nected In­done­sian grad stu­dent who liked to party.

Which is how lit­tle Barr y came to spend sev­eral early child­hood years in ru­ral In­done­sia with a na­tive step­fa­ther, na­tive ser­vants and early-morn­ing home­work ses­sions with his mother, a per­son who was very, very good when she clearly rec­og­nized her re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, but was very, very scat­ter­brained when she lost sight of them.

As it usu­ally does in such cases, life be­came more com­pli­cated for both young Barry and his mother. Af­ter hav­ing a daugh­ter by her sec­ond hus­band, Dun­ham even­tu­ally split again. Mean­while, Barry was sent back to his Amer­i­can grand­par­ents in Hawaii to at­tend an pres­ti­gious prep school that would set a bright kid like him on the track to a priv­i­leged univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion and greater things be­yond.

For the rest of her rel­a­tively short life, his mother flut­tered about, gam­ing the com­plex sys­tem of grants, con­sul­tan­cies and fel­low­ship pro­grams so beloved by peren­nial grad stu­dents un­will­ing or un­able to find a real, last­ing job.

Be­fore you know it, she is dy­ing of cancer and her son Barry is about to be­come a sen­a­tor.

Aram Bak­shian Jr. served as an aide to Pres­i­dents Nixon, Ford and Rea­gan.

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