Dreams From His Stepfather

How Indonesia taught Obama to be tough.


Is Barack Obama weak? That’s the question hanging over the U.S. president as he struggles to make progress on a growing list of thorny challenges — whether it’s the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Arab-Israeli peace, North Korean aggression, Iranian nuclear ambitions, or any of the dozens of other issues both large and small that have tripped up Obama in his year and a half in office. The poll numbers are down, party fundraisers are getting anxious, and a legion of pundits are offering sage advice on everything from how to crack down on terrorists to what’s the best way to plug a gushing leak on the ocean floor. But maybe the most helpful answers to what ails his presidency lie in Obama’s own unresolved past.

In Dreams From My Father, his surprisingly detailed autobiography, Obama devotes nearly an entire chapter to Lolo Soetero, his mother’s second husband, who clearly exerted a powerful influence on young "Barry" during his four formative years in Indonesia, where he has just postponed a visit for the second time so that he can show he’s focused on the oil spill above all else.

Putting aside the question of what, exactly, the U.S. president is supposed to do about the gulf oil disaster (Dive to the seabed and plug the hole himself? Challenge BP CEO Tony Hayward to a cage match?), the canceled Indonesia trip is a missed opportunity for spiritual renewal, an aborted chance to reconnect with his stepfather’s harsh view of the world.

Lolo, a geologist for the Indonesian army and later a consultant for a Western oil company, was Obama’s first real father figure, as his birth father, Barack Sr., left his mother, Ann Dunham, when Barack was only two years old. Dunham met Lolo as a student at the University of Hawaii, married him after two years of courtship, and followed him to Jakarta some months later.

Obama describes his stepfather as "short and brown, handsome, with thick black hair and features that could have as easily been Mexican or Samoan as Indonesian; his tennis game was good, his smile uncommonly even, and his temperament imperturbable."

But Lolo’s signature characteristic is his toughness. He sleeps with a pistol under his pillow, keeps a pair of baby crocodiles in his backyard, and hunts a third one that escaped "by torchlight." On Obama’s first night in Jakarta, Lolo insists that Barry watch a domestic helper slay a chicken for supper, overcoming his mother’s squeamishness by telling her, "The boy should know where his dinner is coming from."

Obama describes the moment in gruesome detail. "I watched the man set the bird down, pinning it gently under one knee and pulling its neck out across a narrow gutter. For a moment the bird struggled, beating is wings hard against the ground, a few feathers dancing up with the wind. Then it grew completely sill. The man pulled the blade across the bird’s neck in a single smooth motion. Blood shot out in a long, crimson ribbon. The man stood up, holding the bird far away from his body, and suddenly tossed it high into the air. It landed with a thud, then struggled to his feet, its head lolling grotesquely against its side, its legs pumping wildly in a wide, wobbly circle. I watched as the circle grew smaller, he blood trickling down to a gurgle, until finally the bird collapsed, lifeless on the grass."

The lessons don’t end there. When Obama gets hit on the head with a rock by an older boy from the neighborhood, returning home to complain that the boy’s tactic "wasn’t fair," Lolo tells Barry: "The first thing to remember is how to protect yourself." The next day, he brings home two pairs of boxing gloves, and gives the young Hawaiian a sparring lesson. "I took a step back, wound up, and delivered my best shot," Obama writes. "His hand barely wobbled."

More manly skills follow. Lolo teaches Obama how to eat raw green chili pepper and choke down dog, tiger, and snake meat, as well as roasted grasshopper ("crunchy," Obama says). There are nostrums on how to deal with beggars ("Better to save your money and make sure you don’t end up on the street yourself") and how to handle servants (Lolo would fire them, Obama writes, "if they were clumsy, forgetful, or otherwise cost him money").

"Your mother has a soft heart," Lolo says, defending the firings. "That’s a good thing in a woman. But you will be a man someday, and a man needs to have more sense."

The young Obama is fascinated by the deep scars on Lolo’s legs, leech marks from his stepfather’s time as a conscript in the revolutionary army in New Guinea. "They crawl inside your army boots while you’re hiking through the swamps" Lolo explains. "At night, when you take off your socks, they’re stuck there, fat with blood. You sprinkle salt on them and they die, but you still have to dig them out with a hot knife." Did it hurt? You bet. But it doesn’t matter. "Sometimes you can’t worry about hurt," says Lolo. "Sometimes you worry only about getting where you have to go."

The defining moment in the chapter, and perhaps in Obama’s time in Indonesia, comes next. Obama asks Lolo if he’s "ever seen a man killed." Awkward silence. Asked a second time, Lolo says yes. "Why was the man killed?," Obama then queries. Answer: "Because he was weak."

"That’s all?" Obama wonders.

"That’s usually enough," Lolo responds. "Men take advantage of weakness in other men. They’re just like countries in that way. The strong man takes the weak man’s land. He makes the weak man work in his fields. If the weak man’s woman is pretty, the strong man will take her." Dramatic pause. "Which would you rather be?"

Obama doesn’t answer.

"Better to be strong," Lolo advises. "If you can’t be strong, be clever and make peace with someone who’s strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always."

Obama is obviously impressed, but not completely swayed by Lolo’s Darwinian worldview. He sees his stepfather as a man who has "made his peace with power, learned the wisdom of forgetting" the hardships and inequities of life. As his career prospects improve, Lolo slips easily into Indonesia’s pervasive corruption, developing close ties to unscrupulous Western businessmen and doing things like hiding a refrigerator from inquiring tax collectors.

Seeing how her son idolizes Lolo and begins to adopt his worldly cynicism clearly jolts Dunham, and she eventually sends him back to Hawaii to get a good education amid healthier influences. "They are not my people," she shouts at Lolo, distancing herself from the white businessmen he assumes are her natural milieu. "If you want to grow into a human being," she tells Barry," you’re going to need some values."

Obama’s Kenyan father serves as a handy foil. "Increasingly, she would remind me of his story, how he had grown up poor, in a poor country, in a poor continent; how his life had been hard, as hard as anything that Lolo might have known. He hadn’t cut corners, though, or played all the angles. He was diligent and honest, no matter what it cost him. He had led his life according to principles that demanded a different kind of toughness, principles that promised a higher form of power. I would follow his example, my mother decided. I had no choice. It was in the genes."

What’s fascinating about the influence these two men have on Obama is that it is never clear which father figure — Lolo the cold, cynical realist, or Barack, Sr. the principled but tragic hero — ultimately prevailed. Later in the book we get a tantalizing hint, as Obama learns that "most black folks weren’t like the father of my dreams, the man in my mother’s stories, full of high-blown ideals and quick to pass judgment. They were more like my stepfather, Lolo, practical people who knew life was too hard to judge each other’s choices, too messy to live according to abstract ideals." But the future president resists making firm pronouncements about how he thinks a man ought to see the world.

It’s been a decade and a half since Obama published Dreams From My Father, and even longer since he first wrote it. No doubt he has changed much in the intervening years. But Obama’s time in Indonesia clearly left a lasting impression, and his book strongly suggests that the "conflicting impulses" that historian Walter Russell Mead warns "threaten to tear his presidency apart" — the soaring dreams of changing the world, vs. the pragmatic need to scale back America’s commitments abroad — have deep roots in the president’s own life experiences.

Many saw in Obama’s hawkish Nobel lecture a wartime leader openly grappling with the disjuncture between his decision to escalate in Afghanistan and the dovish heritage of the peace prize. "To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism," Obama declared. "It is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."

It was hard to miss the contrast between that speech’s sober realism and the vastly more idealistic June 4 address in Cairo, when Obama said of America and the Muslim world, "So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity."

What happened? A few extra months in office and a wrenching decision to put more young Americans in harm’s way were surely major factors in the shift. But in acknowledging the inevitability of war, Obama wasn’t just following the trajectory of most other U.S. presidents before him. He was also coming closer to accepting an uncomfortable feeling that had gnawed at him ever since those early days in Jakarta: that maybe Lolo was right.

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