Most of what we know about President Barack Obama's father comes from a portrait painted by the president in Dreams From My Father, and it's mostly of a father he knew briefly. In a Los Angeles Times piece from 2008, Barack Obama Sr. is portrayed as a cocky man with a deep baritone who was considered intelligent and successful.
In new immigration records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the weekly Arizona Independent, immigration officials paint a very different picture.
When Obama Sr. applied for an extension of his student visa, immigration asked Harvard if he was still a student. Harvard responded that they were not "impressed" with Obama. David Henry, director of Harvard's International Office, told immigration that Obama Sr. had passed his general exams, so he was entitled to work on his Ph.D. thesis. "However," wrote M.F. Mckeon, an immigration investigator, "they are going to cook something up to ease him out."
That was on May 19, 1964. On May 27, Obama received a letter from Henry telling him Harvard would no longer provide financial assistance and that he should return to Kenya to complete the research and writing of his thesis.
The documents reveal that immigration and Harvard knew Obama had two wives. The Independent reports:
The documents also show that the CIS investigated the elder Obama as a polygamist, having a wife in Kenya and a "wife and child in Honolulu." [A] memo adds that "Polygamy is not an excludable or deportation charge as Subject is a non-immigrant."
The records also include correspondence between immigration officials and University of Hawaii, who call him "intelligent."
Back in 2008, Newsweek wrote that Obama Sr. could have accepted a generous scholarship from New York University that would have supported the whole family, instead he chose Harvard.
The Times article reports that despite Obama Sr.'s inability to complete a Ph.D., he still referred to himself as Doctor.
Update at 10:28 p.m. ET. A Different Reading Of The Files:
Andrew Rice, a New York Times Magazine contributing writer and author of The Teeth May Smile But The Heart Does Not Forget, offers a fascinating interpretation of the documents over at Capital.
Rice reads deep into the files — including the hard-to-read, hand-written notes — and points out that Immigration and Naturalization Service agents seemed obsessed with Obama Sr.'s relationships with white women. The whole piece is worth a read: It challenges the assumption that Obama's father gave up on his studies. It challenges the assumptions made by the Times article we mention above.
And perhaps most importantly, it places what happened to Obama Sr. at Harvard as a pivotal moment in what shaped our current president. Here's a short excerpt, but I encourage you to read the whole piece:
It's clear that Obama Sr. marked himself as an undesirable from the very moment he married a white woman, and the racist subtext is pretty overwhelming throughout the documents. Sure, he seems to have behaved like a cad. But ask yourself this: if the male student involved was, say, French, is it conceivable that the U.S. government would have spent so much time investigating his romantic entanglements with various Americans? And, it seems clear, not-so-subtly nudging the Harvard authorities to cut off his scholarship? The answer to these questions is self-evident.
We know that Barack Obama Sr. died young, disappointed about many things. One of them, I have to imagine, was that his education at Harvard was cut short. Until now, it has typically been said that he "gave up" his doctoral studies, but this file makes it clear that he was never given a choice about leaving Cambridge. Who knows how his life might have turned out if he had been allowed to stay? Maybe he would have become an economics professor at some Northeastern liberal arts college, maybe he would have played a little more of a role in his son's life, and maybe his son would have never written Dreams From My Father, which would have been too bad, because it is a fantastic book and an unparalleled source of insight into the president's personal history and character.