The Fourth Mystery of Barack Obama

by Richard Kostelanetz (May 2014)

A Russian-born friend of mine surnamed Telepneva inadvertently reminds literate Russians of the surname of the putative father of Ivan the Terrible, whose official father, the king, was, according to Russian legend, probably too old to conceive children. Indeed, anyone’s recognizing her name became a measure of Russian cultural sophistication. When I first heard this charming story I replied that one quality different about American history is that it lacks putative hypotheses of putative fathers.

Or did, until I read Paul Kengor’s book The Communist about Frank Marshall Davis. His previously unfamiliar suggestion holds that our President’s blood father was not the Kenyan commonly cited and featured in Obama’s most familiar book but an African-American who was a Communist intellectual. This is not incredible, because when Ann Dunham got to Hawaii with her parents around 1960 she was clearly predisposed to sleeping with black men, as some other white upper-teenaged women I knew about that time also were. No matter that Marshall was more than three generations her senior, he appears to have been, as a published pornographer, sexually experienced and thus probably more adept than Ann Dunham’s younger university classmates. Even older single women appreciate superior competence. A second factor to consider is that Davis was her father’s friend and thus a sexual substitute. What’s missing from Kengor’s hypothesis is the DNA evidence that is apparently unavailable.

In the Hawaii sections of his autobiographical Dreams of My Father Obama acknowledges a father figure named “Frank,” by default implicitly admitting a reluctance to identify the full name of someone summoned to appear before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Kengor claims that contact with Frank Marshall Davis made Obama the Marxist he was known to be on his first college campus, Occidental, around 1980, when more students than before or since readily identified themselves as Marxist.

(Otherwise, Kengor’s book disappoints, devoting too much to the detail of Davis’s sad career without identifying the most important truth about whatever faith that African-Americans Communists had in the Soviet Union. About Russian putative lack of racial prejudice, which Paul Robeson so prominently claimed, they were clearly conned. Anyone who has known many Russians immigrants in New York can testify that even those more culturally sophisticated are negatively prejudiced, initially toward Asians whose representatives are so visible in the Duma, somewhat still to Jews, but particularly toward African-Americans. When David Dinkins ran for mayor in 1989, I doubted whether more than one dozen Russian immigrants to New York voted for him—yep, twelve, tops.)

On one level, my response to Kengor’s belabored book is: So what? On another, this hypothesis reminds us of how much we still don’t know about our current president. Even before he was elected I identified three mysteries that still haven’t been fully explained. The first and most blatant is what did he do at Columbia College between 1981 and 1983, when he took his B.A. degree? In 2008 some Fox network gumshoes reportedly interviewed not a few but dozens of his contemporaneous alumni, none of whom remembered Obama. I once met a Barnard alumnae, likewise of color, as we say, who recalls routinely nodding at someone perhaps Obama as she walked cross the Columbia campus without ever speaking with him. Remember that he went not to Columbia University, which has thousands of students (including me some five decades ago), but the highly selective undergraduate College, which has only a few thousand students, then all male, who offered its undergraduates participatory seminars more attractive than snoozing in lecture halls. The subsequent Obama biographies don’t reveal much more about these two years, while both Team Obama and Columbia College has refused to release his transcript. Likewise refusing has been Harvard Law School, which must have accepted the transcript in admitting Obama. Though I’ve no clues about what secrets might be buried there, secrets aren’t kept secret for nothing.

Kengor briefly concentrates upon my second mystery of where Obama developed his political skills. From the time Bill Clinton shook JFK’s hand he wanted to be President and so got himself elected to top positions through high school and college into his adult years. Senator William Fulbright further mentored Clinton about negotiating Washington. Dubya learned from his father, Reagan from Hollywood politics and then from being a state governor, as was Clinton, and so on. Admirably sensitive to the importance of a mentor in a politician’s career, Kengor wants to credit Davis as a comparable guide, though acknowledging that the skills learned from a lefty agitator wouldn’t get anyone elected president. (The writer Eric Laursen suggests that Obama learned at Harvard Law School much as Bill and Hillary learned at Yale Law, but a few years for Obama are less than decades, at least for Bill.)

My third mystery was why an under-experienced young man would want to become President at a time when the United States was embroiled in hopeless wars oversees and blighted by an economic crisis at home. As the first African-American he had to establish credibility for later African-Americans, much as, say, the first Jew in the US Supreme Court did, Jackie Robinson did in professional baseball, or the first women in Congress did. Whenever disadvantaged minorities are excluded from certain emoluments they must demonstrate that, when given the opportunity, they can do the job better than better if others are to follow. While the fumblings of Alberto Gonzalez as Dubya’s attorney general probably jeopardized the careers of younger Chicano lawyers, the principal minority beneficiaries of affirmative action in institutions have been women.

To my mind, the greatest miracle of Obama’s presidency was that he was reelected over growing national indebtedness caused by the dumb wars and continuing unacceptable levels of unemployment. What made his reelection possible was an opposition candidate who, notwithstanding previous successes, turned out to be unelectable and, separately, the perfect hoax in claiming to eliminate Osama bin Laden, who had probably disappeared a decade before. (For more about this hoax, see me in New English Review on line [May, 2012].)

The most curious truth about Obama’s years is that, the influence of Frank Marshall notwithstanding, he’s been a conservatives’ dream. His promise to increase government transparency has been a complete fake; likewise to close the embarrassing off-shore prison in Guantanamo. Though gladly accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, he has continued the unnecessary wars benefitting the military-industrial complex, incidentally accepting deficits that will plague his grandkids. While the prison population has increased, the monstrous wife-collar crooks have walked free. Thanks to Obamacare, the stocks of the mammoth insurance companies have gone up. He disregarded civil liberties not only in trying to rid Americans of their personal defense weapons but in permitting his shameless attorney general to prosecute whistle-blowers and hackers, most visibly with Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden. (For chutzpah, few can match his attorney general’s “promise” not to kill Snowden if he’s extradited to America to stand trial. You betcha!) The further truth of Obama’s watch is that rich Americans have gotten much richer, while the poor have spun their wheels. Is any other public official more responsible than Obama for the income and wealth gaps that Democrats expect to exploit in forthcoming elections?

His greatest failings have come from inexperience. For all his skill at winning elections, Obama doesn’t know how to lead, beginning with working with Congress, setting aside the schemes of billionaires, or feinting off the military-industrial complex that President Ike warned more than sixty years was a major internal threat. Obama’s glib confidence in talking himself out of problems of his own creation has tried the patience of the American public. He has disappointed, because in too many respects he has been scarcely different from his immediate predecessor, who incidentally resembles Obama in his physical frame. Those most disadvantaged by Obama’s failure are those other than state governors aspiring to the presidency, beginning with senator Rand Paul, whom I regard as a very attractive candidate (much as his father was, if only to force consideration of issues otherwise smothered).

While some doubt whether America will elect another black president in my lifetime (much as New York City hasn’t elected another black mayor in the wake of David Dinkins more than two decades ago), more crucial will be the reluctance to support another president so young with so little administrative experience, especially if slightly over six feet tall. (One of the hidden truths of the past half century is that women have disappointed less often in holding positions previously denied them, such as a university presidency, say, than African-Americans and Latinos.) Having suffered low approval ratings, Obama is stuck with limping to the end in 2016 unless he can revive public sympathy.

Rather than allow himself to be stuck with continuing failure to find Osama bin Laden, he could now claim success, even if skeptics such as myself doubt if the guy killed by the Navy Seals was actually OBL, whom I suggested years ago had disappeared yet years before, only to have his name revived by Western intelligence agencies unable to identify any verifiable evildoer. And then even if the chump massacred in Pakistan was really OBL, the purported removal changed nothing significant other than Obama’s approval rating.

What he needs now is a similarly distracting stunt, such as, let’s consider, surreptitious inviting others investigate his putative parentage. How exactly Team Obama does this I cannot predict, but I know for sure that this subject would, like the Bin Laden hoax, give even critical journalists something other than Presidential failures to write about, perhaps incidentally identifying other putative fathers in American history. If definitive DNA evidence remains as unavailable as his Columbia College transcripts, may I suggest that persiflage about this fourth mystery could carry Obama past 2016?




Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art,,, and, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.


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