Obama’s plane lands today in his father’s homeland, his first trip to Kenya as leader of the free world. He’s opening an entrepreneurship summit and dining with bigwigs. But here’s what president is not going to do: spend quality time with his half brother, Malik.
Once upon a time, Obama and Malik served as best men at each other’s weddings. But then Obama became president of the United States. And Malik became — how do I put this? — a hot mess.
Where to begin? Malik ran for governor of his home province, claiming to have “a direct line” to the White House. His slogan? “Obama here, Obama there.” He lost in a landslide. Malik set up the Barack H. Obama Foundation — named after their father, he insists — and posted pictures of a mosque he’d built with funds from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. (Hear that sound? That’s the far-right conspiracy theorists swooning.) And, oh yes. There was also that business of Malik selling letters Obama had written him 20 years ago for $15,000 each.
Perhaps we should take comfort from the fact that presidents have embarrassing siblings, like the rest of us. Bill Clinton’s half brother Roger had a second-rate rock band that went on tour in North Korea, not to mention a cocaine conviction. Jimmy Carter’s brother Billy promoted an awful brand of beer and urinated on an airport runway in front of dignitaries.
These men were cursed by their brothers’ fame, even as they tried to capitalize on it. Inadequacy tends to get magnified when your brother’s the most powerful man on earth. At least Billy and Roger were younger brothers. Malik’s the oldest — a point he makes constantly, to whoever will listen.
But it’s one thing to grow up with a sibling who’s destined for the tabloids. It’s another to welcome one into your life at age 25, as Obama did when he began his search for the Kenyan family members he’d never met. In his autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,’’ Obama portrays Malik as a dogmatic but essentially good-hearted person who converted to Islam two years prior. He’s “prone to make lengthy pronouncements on the need for the black man to liberate himself from the poisoning influence of European culture,” Obama wrote of Malik, who was called Roy at the time.
I met Malik in 2009, when I was trying to interview Obama’s step-grandmother in the sleepy Kenyan town of Kogelo. Malik, who lived across the street, flagged down my taxi and invited me inside. We chatted about Washington, D.C., where he’d briefly lived. He complained that journalists seeking information about his family failed to donate to his foundation. But it was a nice conversation. So imagine my surprise when he sent me an e-mail afterward accusing me of being a Republican operative out to destroy Obama’s presidency.
I asked him why he believed such baseless lies. He called me an arrogant white person.
Actually, my mother is African-American, I replied.
That’s when Aunt Zeituni — Obama’s aunt, who lived in Boston at the time — chimed in with an e-mail: Ha ha, she wrote. Your ancestors were slaves.
I asked myself: Is this really happening?
Since then, I’ve wondered whether Obama ever regretted finding his Kenyan relatives. The story that launched his political career could have just as easily tanked it. (It should be noted that Obama’s half sister, Auma, is lovely and sensible.)
I have always suspected that Malik fanned the flames of birthers on purpose, out of jealousy.
Finally, I’ve got proof. A few months ago, Malik gave an interview over Skype to Joel Gilbert, the maker of a 2012 Obama-bashing Swift Boat-style film. Malik complained that the president turned his back on his family, and failed to cough up $20,000 for Aunt Zeituni’s funeral — the opposite of what he’d said in the past.
“He’s not an honest man,” Malik said.
Then it got even crazier: Malik speculated that Obama’s real father is actually a communist named Frank Marshall Davis, indulging the wild theory that Gilbert had put forth in his “documentary” Dreams of My Real Father.
After years of serving as fodder for the far right, Obama’s brother has officially joined them. Then he had the gall to lament that he hasn’t been invited to the bigwig dinner during the presidential visit.
“It’s a big humiliation,” Malik said. “He doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore.”
Gee. I can’t imagine why.
Farah Stockman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.