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Ahmed Rashid: What Did Pakistan Know?

The Pakistani journalist, who has written extensively about the Taliban and al-Quaida, discusses what officials might have known about Osama bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad and what impact his death may have on the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations.


Other segments from the episode on May 3, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 3, 2011: Interview with Ahmed Rashid; Interview with Janny Scott.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Ahmed Rashid: What Did Pakistan Know?


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We've had a running conversation about terrorism on FRESH AIR with
Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid ever since 2000, when he wrote the
book "Taliban."

So we called him this morning to get his reaction to Osama bin Laden's
death. Rashid is a columnist for the Financial Times. His books include
"Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam" and "Descent into Chaos: The United
States and the Failure of Nation-Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and
Central Asia." Ahmed Rashid lives in Lahore, Pakistan, but we caught up
with him in Madrid.

Ahmed Rashid, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm so interested in hearing
what you have to say. Now, you've been following Pakistani intelligence
for years, and you know, a lot of people are saying - a lot of people
are setting it up like this: Bin Laden's compound was 35 miles away from
the capital city and right near Pakistan's equivalent of West Point. So
either Pakistani intelligence didn't know bin Laden was in that compound
in Abbottabad, which would make them kind of incompetent, or they did
know, and they've been deceptive to the U.S.

Another option I've heard is that Pakistan secretly turned in bin Laden
to the U.S. but doesn't want to say anything publicly about that.

I don't know if you agree with any of those points of view. I'm
wondering what your point of view is.

Mr. AHMED RASHID (Financial Times): Well, categorically, I have no idea
what the truth is. But, I mean, the facts are that, you know, I mean,
Pakistan has gone after al-Qaeda, both during the Bush era, right after
9/11; al-Qaeda threatened to kill President Musharraf, and in 2003 there
were two attempts against his life, and after that the army, the
intelligence, went after al-Qaeda in a very big way.

So that's one side of the picture, where even though the Pakistani
intelligence and military have not gone after some of the Afghan Taliban
groups and other groups which the Americans would like to see them go
after, they have gone after al-Qaeda.

On the other side of the picture is the picture that we had over the
last 48 hours, the fact that bin Laden was living in this house for five
or six years and, you know, somebody must have known about it.

And now, who exactly knew about it? You know, are we implicating here
the whole state structure of Pakistan and the whole army, intelligence,
government, et cetera? Or are we talking about a few people or retired
intelligence people?

You know, it's not a clear black and white sort of picture. But, you
know, I would suspect that certainly he had - bin Laden had protection
from somewhere and from some people in some kind of authority.

Now, that does not mean that he had protection from the ISI or from the
army or from the government. It could be a group within them. It could
be a group of retired officers who have a lot of clout in Pakistan. Or
it could be militant groups.

GROSS: Do you know the neighborhood that he was hiding in?

Mr. RASHID: No, I know Abbottabad very well, but I don't exactly know
the neighborhood that he was in.

GROSS: Is it likely a compound like the one that he was in would be
suspicious and stand out, or would something like that blend in?

Mr. RASHID: This is an area of the, you know, the former Northwest
Frontier Province where, you know, a lot of people do live in fortress-
type houses. This is a very traditional way of looking at things.

A lot of houses in cities in this area are also, you know, looking like
fortresses - very, very high walls and barbed wire and all the rest of

I mean, what I think would stand out is that this was a huge compound.
You know, for the neighbors it obviously belonged to somebody very rich
and wealthy. So it was not so much the walls and the height and the - it
was more, I think, the size and the fact that probably the people in
this compound kept very much to themselves.

GROSS: So with bin Laden dead, you say that, you know, he was an
inspirational figure even though he wasn't really a leader anymore. So
if you take away the inspirational part of bin Laden because he's dead,
is he still inspirational because a lot of people would now see him as a
martyr, or is he kind of, you know, more invisible now because he's
dead, less inspirational because he's - like, what kind of inspirational
power do you think he'll have in the near future?

Mr. RASHID: Well, you know, it's probably too early to speculate on
that. But I think a lot depends on what happens to al-Qaeda now. You
know, are the Americans going to be able to wrap up most of the leading
elements of al-Qaeda, given that they captured a whole heap of
information in this house with computer files and all the rest of it?

Or you know, is there going to be a very vicious, nasty power struggle
here for the leadership of al-Qaeda between various elements, various
factions? I think that is very possible, in which case al-Qaeda will
obviously then be very diminished as an inspiration to a younger
generation of extremists.

GROSS: So bin Laden's death is simultaneous with the Arab pro-democracy
uprisings. So does his elimination from the scene open up possibilities
for peace or for democracy in places where there has been neither?

Mr. RASHID: Well, you know, firstly, I think the Arab revolt has -
really came as a surprise to al-Qaeda. And it's very clear that, you
know, al-Qaeda had no angle to exploit. It was on the fringes.

It didn't know how to react to it. There was no element, or at least not
visibly, there was no strong element of Islamic extremism in this
revolt. It was not anti-American, anti-Western. In fact, a lot of this
revolt has been, if you like, pro-Western rather than anti-Western.

And of course, you know, we've been watching very closely as to what al-
Qaeda can do or will do in order to get back into the game of winning
hearts and minds in the Arab world.

Now, the first thing is that al-Qaeda has never tried to win the
majority of the Arab people on its side. What it always wanted is a
fringe group of supporters in every country. And it doesn't seem to even
have that at the moment.

I don't think al-Qaeda will be able to get back into the game.

GROSS: Really? You don't think al-Qaeda is going to get back into the

Mr. RASHID: No, I mean, you know, I'm sure they can set off, you know,
bombs, and there can be terrorist attacks against minorities like
Christians or Jews or, you know, other - the Druze or other kinds of

But you know, I don't think that they have - you know, with bin Laden's
death, they have – they will not find it easy at all to get support from
the bulk of the Arab population.

GROSS: In the short term, are you expecting retaliations, either in
Pakistan or in the United States?

Mr. RASHID: I think there will be retaliation almost anywhere, anywhere
al-Qaeda is. There will be people who will want to take revenge on the
Americans, on his death, avenge his death, and martyr themselves in the
same way that he was martyred.

Of course, there will be all sorts of myths that he fought back, and he
was, you know, shot dead by the Americans and how he was martyred, and
he fought like a lion, and all this kind of thing I'm sure will emerge
on al-Qaeda websites in the next few days and weeks.

And likewise, there will be people who will be very moved and inspired
by that and will want to copy him and copy his death and take as many,
you know, infidels, as they believe them to be, with them in that death.

I fear that there will be a wave of terrorism, and clearly we are seeing
already very severe security measures being taken by Western governments
and Western embassies and travel and all the rest of it. And this is
justified because I think there will be attacks.

GROSS: What impact do you think that the death of bin Laden might have
on the war in Afghanistan?

Mr. RASHID: Well, I'm hoping that it'll have a very positive effect
because, you know, the Afghan Taliban have been in talks with President
Karzai of Kabul. They have expressed a desire to talk to the Americans,
and they have now had several rounds of talks, very secret talks, but
they have had several rounds of talks with the Americans.

And of course, one of the stumbling blocks has been their old friendship
and linkages with al-Qaeda, and I think, you know, partly this is, of
course, historical in the sense that, you know, the Taliban, being
Pashtun tribesmen, they have given hospitality to al-Qaeda.

They can't suddenly now turn around, as the Americans want them to do,
turn around and say: Well, you know, we're dumping you now, and you're
no longer our friends, and in fact we'll come and hunt you down because
this is what, you know, will make us friends with America.

I think now, with the death of bin Laden, they can really take - follow
a new strand of thought in the sense that, you know, whatever debts that
they owed bin Laden personally, and Mullah Omar owed - Mullah Omar, the
leader of the Taliban, did owe him debts in the sense that bin Laden
gave him money and bailed him out in the '90s and gave him fighters and
all the rest of it - and that debt is now over.

I mean, the man is dead, and perhaps this would be a good moment for the
Americans and for NATO and for President Karzai and the regional
countries to really now push for negotiations with the Taliban, because
I think the Taliban can now emerge from al-Qaeda's shadow.

GROSS: So you have been a guest on our show many times in the past 11
years, talking about jihadi groups, talking about the Taliban, al-Qaeda,
jihadi groups in Central Asia. So how surprised were you at how U.S.
operatives actually killed bin Laden and where he turned out to be?

You know, I was surprised. I was not surprised - you know, after 10
years of sort of looking for him, you get a bit - there have been so
many false starts. And I was woken up at 4:00 in the morning by Al
Jazeera, and Al Jazeera, I mean, they're a very good TV station, but
they often get the story wrong.

And I thought: Well, this is probably another, you know, tip-off rather
than anything serious. And then like 15 minutes later, the BBC and CNN
phoned. And so then I got up, and I said: Well, this is obviously very
serious. And so I was very surprised. I mean, after 10 years you tend to
forget about, you know, whether bin Laden will be caught and killed or

I was not surprised as to where he was found. I've always maintained
that he would be found in Pakistan. The question was where. You know, he
would be found - and I knew for certain he was not in the mountains. He
was not in some cave. He was not hiding low. He was in a city somewhere.

I certainly hadn't thought of Abbottabad, which is a very small, very
sleepy, conservative, but a very beautiful small town, you know, just
north of Islamabad in the hills.

And - but now one thinks about it, this is an ideal place. It is close
to the mountains. It is, you know, it's a place, it's small enough for
you to make a quick getaway.

I'm sure we will probably discover that there were probably other safe
houses in Abbottabad or around there, where bin Laden could have escaped
to if there was suddenly suspicion that people were coming up to the
house. So yes, I mean, you know, I was surprised at the place.

GROSS: Ahmed Rashid, it's always a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you
so much for your time.

Mr. RASHID: Thank you.

GROSS: Ahmed Rashid, recorded this morning from Madrid. He's a columnist
for the Financial Times and author of the books "Taliban," "Jihad" and
"Descent into Chaos." He lives in Lahore, Pakistan.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
The 'Singular Woman' Who Raised Barack Obama


Last week, President Obama released his long-form birth certificate,
saying: We do not have time for this silliness, I've got better stuff to
do. Presumably, that included the secret operation targeting bin Laden.

Now Janny Scott has published a new book about President Obama's genuine
family history and how he was raised. The book is about his mother, Ann
Dunham. She died in 1995, the year President Obama's book "Dreams From
My Father" was published.

That book focused on how Obama's absent Kenyan father affected his life,
but in the preface to the 2004 edition, he wrote that had he known his
mother was going to die of cancer, he might have written a different
book, quote, "less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration
of the one who was the single constant in my life."

Janny Scott is a New York Times reporter currently on leave who wrote
several profiles of Obama during the presidential campaign and wrote a
profile of his mother that led to her new book, "A Singular Woman."

Janny Scott, welcome to FRESH AIR. As you were doing your research about
President Obama's mother, you watched the birther movement grow. What
did you make of that?

Mr. JANNY SCOTT (Author): Well, it's interesting. The birther movement
kind of began during the campaign, when I was actually writing a series
of biographical pieces for the New York Times on then-Senator Obama. And
then it kind of faded out a bit.

So during the period when I was doing the research, it wasn't something
I was thinking a whole lot about. It was sort of submerged during that
period and then was resuscitated by Donald Trump.

In the beginning, I really felt, partly because of having spoken to so
many people about the circumstances of President Obama's mother's life,
and of course that covered his birth, I really had no question where he
was born. He was clearly born in Hawaii.

When it became more and more pressing in recent months, I went back and,
you know, looked at everything I had ever gathered on that subject, and
as I say, it had not been a great preoccupation of mine. And it seemed
so clear.

So I came to the conclusion that many people have come to, that this is
a classic conspiracy theory, and it feeds on information that may well
be to the contrary but is all taken to be evidence of the conspiracy.

GROSS: In Obama's first memoir, "Dreams From My Father," it was focused
much more on his father than on his mother. And Obama later said he felt
kind of bad about that. Why do you think he focused that book more on
his father than his mother, considering what a really exceptional person
his mother was?

Ms. SCOTT: Well, I think you have to look at when that book came about.
He had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review,
and he was - in the media reaction to that, there were a number of
articles in which he spoke more and more about his life at the
instigation of reporters who came to write pieces about his election.

And he was approached by a literary agent who offered him - suggested to
him that he write a book about his life based on - sort of prompted by
all the attention that came out then and what an interesting life he'd
clearly had.

And so he embarked upon it then, I think. So it was partly that it came
out of this moment when he had been, you know, the first black president
of the Harvard Law Review, and then he also used it as a way to sort of
sort our his racial identity.

So I think his focus was really on that. And it's very striking, when
you look at the articles that were written after his election, how he
begins to talk more and more about his father, and his mother is really
referred to simply as a white anthropologist from Kansas, which is of
course the stereotype that kind of came to become what she was known as
in the public eye during the campaign and subsequently, the white woman
from Kansas. Maybe we knew she was an anthropologist but probably we
didn't, the single mother on food stamps, the woman who died of cancer
while fighting with her insurance company at the end of her life.

GROSS: Well, let's talk about her life. She was a nonconformist even
when she was in high school. You describe this road trip that she took
with some friends to San Francisco. This was when she was living in

Ms. SCOTT: That's right.

GROSS: The state of Washington, not Washington, D.C.

Ms. SCOTT: That's right, outside Seattle. She was living at the time in
Mercer Island, Washington. And she had been raised in kind of constant
motion. Her family had moved after her birth from Kansas to California,
back to Kansas, then to Oklahoma, to Texas, back to Kansas, and
eventually to Washington.

So she had a sort of outsider's sensibility of always being new to a
place. She was kind of the other. And so she had developed a sort of
observer's quality, standing a little bit outside the world in which she
operated and lived, but also she was kind of the original, you know,
participant observer, not unlike the anthropologist she became.

So the story you referred to, she was - it was in her senior year in
high school. She had a group of friends who were sort of unconventional
like her. They were bright. They were kind of insider outsiders in that
high school, kind of brainy, interested in being on the cultural cutting

And she had been out one night with a couple of guys who were close
friends of hers, and they were coming back from maybe a coffeehouse in
Seattle, and the conversation turned to maybe we should not go home. And
as you mentioned, they ended - two of them, Ann and one friend, ended up
just taking the car and driving to San Francisco, which was considered a
rather radical breakout for a kid from Mercer Island High School in
1959, '60.

GROSS: But they didn't stay long because their parents got them to come
back home.

Ms. SCOTT: Yes, they were busted. Ann's father ended up having to fly
down to San Francisco and get them out of juvenile detention and haul
them back up to Washington.

GROSS: Let's talk about how Ann, President Obama's mother, first met
President Obama's father. He was one of 80 young Kenyans who were flown
to the United States by a Kenyan nationalist who had raised money from
Americans to educate a new generation of leaders in anticipation of
Kenyan independence.

From what you found out from Ann Dunham's friends, Barack Obama, Sr. was
her first boyfriend.

Ms. SCOTT: It does seem that way. No one knew of her ever having a
boyfriend in high school. And she arrived - her parents moved to Hawaii
right after she graduated from high school. She did not want to go. She
wanted to stay and go to the University of Washington or possibly
University of Chicago.

But they - her father in particular apparently felt she was too young to
be on her own like that. So they hauled her off to Honolulu, and she
found herself on the campus of the University of Hawaii, which was a
rather quiet land-grant institution at that point, might have felt a bit
like a backwater even to a kid from a suburb of Seattle.

And she was somewhat out of place, and in her first few weeks on campus
she met Barack Obama, Sr., who is said to have been the first African at
the University of Hawaii. Whatever happened happened very fast, because
within a couple of months she was pregnant.

There are several stories about how they met. President Obama, in his
memoir, describes them meeting in a Russian language class. Others say
they met in the library or on a bench near the library. But it was
clearly a sort of cataclysmic collision for her.

GROSS: Janny Scott will be back in the second half of the show. Her new
book is called "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's
Mother." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Janny Scott, the author of
a new book about President Obama's mother, the late Ann Dunham. It's
called "A Singular Woman." When we left off, Scott was describing how
Dunham met Barack Obama Sr. at the University of Hawaii in the fall of
1960, when she was a 17-year-old freshman and he was 24. Within a couple
of months she was pregnant.

Well, they got married and he neglected to mention to her that he was
already married. He not only had a wife, he had a child and a second
child on the way. His Kenyan culture was traditionally a polygamous
culture. Did he think it was okay to have an American wife and a Kenyan
wife? What was the state of his marriage to the woman in Kenya?

Ms. STEINER: There are some accounts that suggest that he led Ann to
believe that he was separated, but that there was no legal document
suggesting there was any kind of divorce. I can't say exactly what was
in his mind. And it's quite conceivable she didn't intend to get
pregnant, but once she got pregnant the things she wanted to do, as it
was described to me by one friend, because she loved him and because she
was a good middle-class girl, was to get married. So they were married
very - they were married for awhile but apparently together very
briefly. He was gone within 10 months of President Obama's birth, and
she appears to have left with her baby and gone to Seattle not long
after that birth. So she may even have left before Barack Obama Sr.

GROSS: Their relationship, from how you describe it, changed once they
were married.

Ms. SCOTT: Yes. One close friend of hers from a later period but who had
heard the whole story from Ann said that Barack Obama Sr., once they
were married, really, his attitude changed. He took her for granted in
some way that he hadn't in the past, and that she described a scene in
which - which Ann had apparently described to her - in which Ann
provided, laid down some dinner for him on the table that she had made
and he looked at it and said, you expect me to eat this? Picked it up
and hurled it at the wall. And that Ann said to this friend Kaddy(ph)
Warner, that was the moment where I knew this wasn't going to work.

GROSS: So she went to Seattle briefly to be with her old friends, but
felt very separated from them because they were living the kind of
college sorority fraternity life and she was a single mother. She
returns to Hawaii and to the University of Hawaii. At the university she
meets her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, who was from Indonesia and was
at the University of Hawaii to study geography, and he was expected to
return, after college, to serve his country - not in the military,
necessarily, but to serve in some way.

So you say, in many ways, Lolo Soetoro was the opposite of Barack Obama
Sr. Described Lolo Soetoro.

Ms. SCOTT: As he's been described to me, he was physically smaller than
Barack Obama Sr. And he was also just a genial, delightful, charming guy
from Java. He was the youngest son in a family of many children and
therefore, had been adored and he was - other people who knew him at the
University of Hawaii said he loved to party. He was a very good tennis
player and later told her daughter Maya that she admired the way he
looked in his white tennis shorts. I think he was just a nice guy who
clearly took a real liking to Ann and she to him. And I think she saw in
him according to her friends, the possibility of a life that involved a
certain amount of excitement, perhaps returning to Indonesia, a country
that was coming into its own at that time after years of, centuries of
domination by the Dutch, returning to Indonesia but also with a man who
could - had the possibility to be a family man.

GROSS: So she thought it would be interesting to be with him when he
returned to Indonesia. So this is like the second time she married a man
from the culture of another country who changed after they got married.
How did Lolo Soetoro change?

Ms. SCOTT: Let me make one point about the place where these things
happened. The University of Hawaii was undergoing a very interesting
shift at the moment she got there. And it was beginning to attract a lot
of Asian students because of something called the East-West Center that
was built up and was started at that period. And some of the most
interesting things happening on the campus really involved foreign
students, so she kind of gravitated toward the center of activity that
was happening there. And so I think that helps explain a little bit why
she was first attracted to an African who was not part of the East-West
Center, and then to an Indonesian. They were part of a world that in
some ways was the most lively and exciting thing happening on that

So they did return. Lolo was forced to return to Indonesia ahead of Ann,
because of the upheaval that occurred there in 1965 with what is thought
to have been an attempted coup and then a countercoup and subsequent
killings of a lot of communists and suspected communists in Indonesia.
All the foreign students who were studying abroad were brought back, and
he was. And when he returned he was taken into the army and sent off to
- on a team that was mapping the border of what is now Papua, New
Guinea. So then Ann finished her undergraduate degree and then joined
him taking her six-year-old son with her. And when she got there, I
think she found that Lolo was really somewhat different from the Lolo
that she'd known in Hawaii.

As it's been explained to me, it's a challenging thing for a student who
is in a country like Indonesia to come back after a time in the West and
come back into a place where there are all sorts of cultural and family
expectations. And he was coming back with a Western wife. So there were
things that were expected of her that were unfamiliar, and he also was
feeling a lot of pressure, not just family and cultural, but also
political pressure because of the tense political situation, his
conscription into the army and all that. So he became a quieter, less
fun-loving, probably less party-going husband. And I think she found
herself lonely and baffled by what had become of him.

GROSS: So we're talking about what it was like for Obama's mother in
Indonesia when she arrived there, and it wasn't the kind of life that
she was expecting, at least her role as wife wasn't what she was
expecting. She separated from her husband, Lolo Soetoro, after how long?

Ms. SCOTT: Well, I'm not really sure. It's hard to tell. She stayed
there for four plus years with him and with Obama during his childhood.
Then she sent him back, at age 10, to Hawaii and she we joined him in
Hawaii with her second child who had been born then, Maya, Lolo's
daughter, the following year. And so she was then in Hawaii, mostly
without Lolo. He came with her at first but then he went back. So at
that point I think they were pretty clearly separated. So, if they had
been married in '64, as I believe, they were separated by, sort of, ‘72.
She then was in Hawaii for several years and then she went back to Java
and, with Maya, and was technically still married to him but the
marriage was not strong and they were living apart much of the time -
two different careers, very different lives and by 1979 they had decided
to divorce.

GROSS: I think this is a sign, probably, of my naivete, but it didn't
occur to me that the young Barack Obama, in Indonesia, would have faced
the discrimination he did because he was part African, because he was -
he had darker skin than the Indonesians. I didn't realize, in Indonesia,
that skin color and darkness was going to be an issue. What were some of
the things he had to deal with as a result of his skin color in

Ms. SCOTT: Well, I think as it's been explained to me, there's a lot of
teasing in the culture of Indonesians, particularly with children. It's
a way of inculcating strength and a certain self-confidence – oddly –
that if you can resist the teasing without showing that you are rattled
by it, then you have somehow come out on top. So his skin color was
clearly something he was teased about. I interviewed a woman who
recalled, in detail, having lunch in Jakarta with Ann and the young
Barry at age approximately nine, and going out on a walk with them after
lunch and how a group of Indonesian children began running along near
them taunting Barry, throwing rocks at him and making racial comments.
And the woman who I was talking to was Western said that she wondered
why Ann wasn't reacting to this because she wondered if she perhaps
didn't understand the words. But, in fact, Ann said no, no. It's fine.
He's used to it. And so I think he was. And even one of Ann's employers
told me that she would bring Barry into the office and the people in the
office would joke about him because of the way he looked. He was also
round and curly haired and those were also subjects of teasing. So he
doesn't emphasize this in his memoir, but the people who knew his mother
at the time remember this as a distinct factor of their life.

GROSS: I guess that was good training for being president.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCOTT: That's what some people think. There's a theory in Java, that
you encounter, that President Obama's remarkable cool and calm bearing
is somewhat a Javanese attribute, a quality that is known as the
adjective used in Java as haloes(ph), meaning kind of refined and
courteous. So there are people who feel that his experiences there had a
real influence on his demeanor.

GROSS: My guest is Janny Scott, author of the new book "A Singular
Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother."

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Janny Scott, the author of the new book "A Singular
Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother."

President Obama has told the story about how five days a week his mother
would wake him at four AM in Jakarta, force feed him breakfast and teach
him English for three hours before he left for school. And when he
resisted she'd say, this is no picnic for me either, buster. So why did
she need to do that, to wake him at four AM and teach him English?

Ms. SCOTT: Well, Ann Dunham came from a family with an enormous
commitment to and history of caring about education. Many of her
forebears had been teachers in Kansas, going back to the Oklahoma
territory, in some branches of her family every son went to college. In
her parent's generation, while they didn't go to college - didn't
graduate from college, their siblings, many of them went to graduate
school and ended up with PhDs. So they cared a lot about education and
she clearly did too. And they also - she cared a lot about hard work and
she spent a lot of time inculcating her values into her children.
Primary among those, were the importance of education and the importance
of really committing yourself to it. So she believes in that. But she
also believed that he deserved the kind of opportunities that she had
had - the opportunity to go to a great university and she believed that
he would never get that if he didn't have a strong English language
education. So at a certain point she just decided she wasn't serving his
interest while by keeping him in Indonesia and Indonesian schools, and
that he needed to go back to Hawaii and get an English language
education. And she began to really focus hard on preparing him for that,
and that is the period, I think, in which I think that happened - in
which she particularly drilled him in English language subjects and got
materials from her mother in Hawaii and tried to prepare him for his
return to Punaho in Hawaii.

GROSS: That's the school that he went to.

Ms. SCOTT: Yes, the prep school that he finally went to.

GROSS: So, you know, a lot of Americans pass judgment on President
Obama's mother and say how could she have done that? How could she have
sent her 10-year-old son back to Hawaii while she remained in Indonesia?
Why didn't he stay with her or why didn't she go with him? What did you
learn about the difficulty she had in making that decision and why she
made it?

Ms. SCOTT: I think that it was a much more complicated decision than
most people give her credit for. She was juggling a number of things.
She wanted her son to get a good English language education, which
wasn't available to her in Indonesia. She had an Indonesian and daughter
and an Indonesian husband at the time, so she wasn't free, necessarily,
to just leave. She also needed to work because she needed to be able to
pay for the education she wanted to have for her son and her daughter
coming up. And in order to work she was going to need to get some kind
of, eventually, an advanced degree.

So she was juggling a lot of things. Her solution was to send him back
to Hawaii to a school that was known to be quite extraordinary, where -
which was a couple of blocks from where her parents lived and he could
live with their parents doing that period. She then rejoined him and
stayed there for middle school, which some people don't realize, and
then she went back to Indonesia when he was - shortly before he entered
high school. He says that, at that point, the decision was his – that he
wanted to stay. He didn't want to go back to Indonesia.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about the work President Obama's mother did
in Indonesia and why it was so important to her.

Ms. SCOTT: Well, she went back to the University of Hawaii and became an
anthropologist. She became a graduate student in anthropology. And she
decided to do her field work on the subject of rural industries,
handicrafts industries in villages in Java. This was a particularly
interesting subject because Indonesia and Java has an extraordinary
tradition of handicrafts, batik and metal work and, you know, pottery
and all sorts of things that are used in daily life, even now. Whereas
in other developing countries the old handicraft industries had been
sort of swallowed up into tourist-based industries that were simply
churning out junk for the tourist market.

In Indonesia these things went on well into the time that Ann was there
and she was fascinated - she had always been fascinated by sort of
beautiful objects. And she got, her interest in beautiful textiles and
objects went to an interest then - turned into an interest in the lives
of the people who produced those. So she focused her research on these
village industries and ended up centering her what became a thousand-
page dissertation on a particular village called Kajar, which was a
blacksmithing village - that is, not that was shoeing horses but that
was making metal tools for agriculture and also gamelan gongs for
gamelan orchestras.

And so she spent an enormous amount of time in the late '70s in these
villages, and particularly in the village of Karjar, talking to the
blacksmiths. And blacksmithing was a male occupation. Traditionally
women had not been allowed to work in the forges. Only when it became
more and more - in that particular village - more and more important
economically as agriculture ceased to be important for that particular
place were women are allowed into the forges. But Ann for the most part
was the only woman hanging out in these places when she was doing this

So that was what she ended up writing her dissertation about, which took
many, many years. And in the meantime, she applied her skills to working
in international development, and that interest in village industry
turned into an interest in how to make it possible for women to work
their way out of poverty in handicraft industries, and eventually the
question of how to get more credit to women who wanted to start these
kinds of businesses. So she ended up being both an anthropologist, then
a development consultant, and then a person working in the field of

GROSS: So you found a list of her long-range goals. What year was this

Ms. SCOTT: That was written on January 1st, 1985. And yes, it's an
extraordinary list that I was stunned to see, because this was in a
moment, a sort of lull in her career. She's come back to Hawaii because
she wants to allow her daughter Maya to go to high school at Punajou
also. And she sits down and she's kind of trying to sort out various
things that she would like to get done presumably in the next five or 10
years - you know, finish her dissertation. One of the things is make a
salary of about - it just says 60k, make the salary of $60,000, I'm
assuming. Lose some weight. Raise Maya well. Remarry – that was a
surprise to me. And one of them is constructive dialogue with Barry.

GROSS: Yeah. I read that and I thought, constructive dialogue. What does
that mean? Were they having problems then?

Ms. SCOTT: I haven't gotten anyone to tell me that they knew of any such
problems. And Ann was the kind of person who would perhaps think about
her parental obligations in that way. You know, constantly thinking, how
can I do this better. Nevertheless, there are indications from some of
her friends that she did feel some sadness about the distance between
them at different times. There's obviously geographical distance and
then whatever distance that brought along emotionally.

So at different moments in her life she is upset and wanting - at one
point she goes back in his senior year in Hawaii just to be with them
because she realizes it's the last year of his childhood. Later, she's -
one friend describes her as wistful about his decision to kind of move
to Chicago and root himself in Chicago and emphasize the sort of black
part of himself. So I think there was a theme and this is just snippets
of little things that I stumbled upon that suggests she had a kind of
longing for a closer relationship with him.

GROSS: My guest is Janny Scott, author of the new book "A Singular
Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Janny Scott. She's a
former New York Times reporter who during the 2008 presidential campaign
wrote about then-candidate Barack Obama. One of her articles was about
his mother. She's expanded all that research into a new book called "A
Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother."

You interviewed President Obama for this book and you spoke with him in
the Oval Office for, what, a couple hours?

Ms. SCOTT: No, just half an hour.

GROSS: Half an hour.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay, well, you got what you could in that half-hour.

Ms. SCOTT: A half-hour's pretty good.

GROSS: So did you share with him research that you had? Was he curious
what you learned about his mother that maybe he didn't know?

Ms. SCOTT: We had a limited amount of time. He's a busy man. And I had
been told that I would have, you know, 20 minutes or so, and so I boiled
down my questions to the most crucial seven or so questions that I had.
And I ended up getting 50 percent more time than I thought. But I didn't
have time to take him back over everything that I'd learned. And no, he
didn't ask me because I think he probably had other things going too.

GROSS: So what did you learn from him that you thought was most

Ms. SCOTT: Well, several things. I asked him about the impression left
by his book that his mother was sort of a naïve idealist, something that
comes through in the way he talks and sometimes even the way other
family members talk about her, but is not at all the description that I
get from people who knew her as a colleague and close friends of hers.
No one has ever described her that way to me. And he said that he did
think of her as a bit that way but he didn't think of it as a
pejorative. He described her, those qualities, as a source of her
strength in many ways.

And he told me an extraordinary story about something that occurred
during the campaign on the night of the Iowa caucuses and how he was
reminded of her at a moment when he was confronted with the
extraordinary diversity, sort of improbable, surprising diversity at
this caucus site in Des Moines, and how that night, leaving, having just
occurred to him that they're actually going to win that night, he
thought about his mother and he kind of teared up. And he said it was
something about the mix of people there and the sense that we could
reach across our apparent differences and make contact and there was
more similarity than difference between us and more good than evil in
all of us. And he said I guess that really is the naive idealism I'm
talking about in her. And I think it's the naive idealism in me.

GROSS: President Obama also told you that despite all of her strengths,
she was in a well organized person and that disorganization spilled
over. So did that present problems for him?

Ms. SCOTT: I think he described it as sort of part of the slightly
chaotic quality of his childhood. And I said to him, well,
disorganization, that could be anything from a messy room to a messy
life, and he said: all of the above. So my sense is that it did spill
over. He didn't go into details about this, but you know, he tells the
story in the book of there not being that much food in the refrigerator
when he brought friends home from school, and he refers to the constant
motion of his childhood. So I think it is something particularly perhaps
in retrospect that he feels.

GROSS: What are your final impressions of Ann Dunham, President Obama's

Ms. SCOTT: Well, I find her absolutely fascinating. She was a thoroughly
unconventional person who dared to do things that many of us don't even
try to do now. She, at a time when, you know, there were laws against
interracial marriage in nearly two dozen states, she conceived a child
with an African and married him. She runs off to Indonesia at a time
when there's extraordinary political and social upheaval. She is a
graduate student raising two biracial children by herself at a time when
women in graduate schools rarely did anything like that.

She goes back and does this fascinating kind of ground-level research in
villages in Java, where Western women are rarely seen, working in a
specialty that is entirely male. She then becomes a pioneer in the field
of micro-finance 20 years before Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank in
Bangladesh won a Nobel Prize for it. She's just a forerunner in so many
ways and yet she's also thoroughly human.

She is not particularly a visionary. She's a kind of person who
improvised her life, making the best of sometimes out of not
particularly wise decisions and other times really making very smart
decisions under difficult circumstances. So I think there's a lot that
we can learn from her, not just about what it means to be a good mother,
or at least question our assumptions about that, but also we can get a
lot of insight into the president, who I think is a person who many
Americans still feel they don't fully understand.

GROSS: Don't you wish that she had lived to find out her son became

Ms. SCOTT: It does seem like a rotten – a rotten fate. She died just as
he was launching his first campaign for public office, so she never got
any glimpse of what was to come.

GROSS: Well, Janny Scott, I want to thank you so much for talking with

Ms. SCOTT: Thank you, Terry. It was wonderful to be here.

GROSS: Janny Scott is the author of the new book "A Singular Woman: The
Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother." You can read an excerpt on our
website,, where you can also download podcasts of our

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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