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Sun., May 1, 2011, midnight

Birther issue in mom’s eyes

Stanley Ann Dunham once resembled a young Judy Garland on the set of “The Wizard of Oz.” A Kansas girl with an upturned nose and a face of optimism, President Barack Obama’s mother might have been a real-life Dorothy.

She traveled to lands nearly as exotic as Oz, spending her adult life in Hawaii and Indonesia. According to a new book coming out this week, “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother,” by Janny Scott, she dreamed of and helped create a world that valued public service, education and multicultural understanding, not fear or intolerance.

If Dunham had been alive last week, her presence in her son’s life might well have altered the controversy surrounding his birthplace. It’s clear, in a book excerpt printed in the New York Times, that she would have been a proud, passionate defender of her son.

Certainly she would be indignant in the face of Donald Trump’s accusations about the president’s birth certificate. In fact, she’d have squashed those rumors during the 2008 campaign. She would now be 68 years old, and she’d be challenging the way we think of her son and of race in this country.

Writes Scott, “She had strong opinions and rarely softened them to please anyone.”

Her son has joked that she raised him to be a combination of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and Harry Belafonte.

Scott quotes a friend of Dunham’s from Hawaii, who said, “Sometimes when she talked about Barack, she’d say, ‘Well, my son is so bright, he can do anything he ever wants in the world, even be president of the United States.’ ”

The physical presence of this white woman with Midwestern roots would have changed the images of the Obama campaign and now the presidency. Silent, she would have been a constant reminder that the president’s background is simply not black or white.

If Scott’s book is to be believed, she was rarely silent. She’d have found articulate ways to affirm her son’s legitimacy as a president. Were she alive today, she’d have defied anyone to tell her otherwise.

Perhaps because she’s not, we have illogical voices expressing a deeply unfair message about this president.

Dr. C. Richard King, chairman of the comparative ethnic, women’s and American studies department at Washington State University, describes a pattern of scrutiny surrounding Obama. Whether it’s a claim that he’s a Muslim, a terrorist or a foreign-born citizen, the message, King says, is the same: “You’re not really an American.”

And underlying that message is this even darker one, that being an American, to many in this country, means being white. That’s why, King says, Obama’s been pressed for birth documents when no white president ever has. While Sen. John McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone, isn’t seen by a significant percent of the population as ineligible for the presidency, U.S.-born Obama is.

The story about Obama’s birth certificate, King says, gives voice to Americans who fear the diminishment of their own sense of demographic, political and economic power.

“He’s a deep reservoir that allows people to talk about a lot of stuff in both a hopeful and a hateful way,” King says.

If Dunham were here, her face lighting up like that of her son, the similarities of their personalities and features as obvious as those of Barbara Bush and President George W. Bush, the discussion would shift. Americans would be forced to think more critically about whom Obama represents.

King believes these controversies won’t end until Americans not only embrace the historical issues of race in this country but also the set of privileges that has been granted to citizens simply because they are white.

If Dunham were alive, she might be agreeing with Dr. John Shuford, director of Gonzaga University’s Institute of Hate Studies, that it’s time to examine the requirement that U.S. presidents be natural-born citizens. In a global economy, does it make sense to rule out U.S. citizens who happen to be born elsewhere?

As more information about Dunham’s life emerges, we’ll get to know the president’s mother even better. She earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Hawaii, worked as a program manager for the Ford Foundation and helped build Indonesia’s microfinance program. Her most similar counterpart might be the Peace Corps-serving Lillian Carter.

Dunham left Kansas as a girl. She apparently never yearned to tap her ruby red slippers and go home. The ugly birther debate helps explain why.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, is an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is

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