The Magazine

Of Siblings and Sycophants

From the Scrapbook.

Apr 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 31 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook confesses to a certain fascination with presidential siblings. In recent decades, some have been prominent figures in their own right​—​Dwight Eisenhower’s five brothers, the Bush and Kennedy clans​—​or solid citizens content to sit quietly backstage (Neil Reagan, Edward Nixon). But more than a few presidential siblings have earned the dreaded “colorful” sobriquet​—​evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton, rock ’n’ roller Roger Clinton​—​and there is also what might be called a dishonor roll of siblings who have proved embarrassing to their brothers (Donald Nixon, Billy Carter). 

Ladder to the Moon

Barack Obama Sr. seems to have sired eight children by way of four different women, and his son the president’s six surviving half-siblings have flown largely below the radar​—​assisted, no doubt, by the fact that most don’t live in the United States. But that may soon change. The only one with anything approaching a public profile in America​—​maternal half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, who teaches in Hawaii​—​has just published a children’s book (Ladder to the Moon, Candlewick, 48 pages, $16.99), based loosely on childhood experiences with Ann Dunham, the mother she shares with President Obama. Two other presidential half-siblings​—​Mark Obama Ndesandjo, who lives in China, and George Obama, who lives in Kenya​—​have lately published books as well (one novel, one memoir), although neither made much of a splash here.

Maya Soetoro-Ng seems a little more ambitious, however, than the president’s far-flung half-brothers, and according to the New York Times, her publisher has printed a first run of 200,000 copies of Ladder to the Moon​—​not bad for a debut children’s book​—​and has budgeted a quarter-million dollars for publicity. Soetoro-Ng is already under contract to write “a novel for young adults.”

Well, The Scrapbook has some words of advice for President Obama: Hold on tight. It is possible that Ladder to the Moon will do well and afford Maya Soetoro-Ng a promising new career as an author of children’s books. But let’s not kid ourselves: It is not the quality of her work that has attracted the attention of publishers. And if Ladder doesn’t do as well as expected, chances are better than even that its author might be gently persuaded​—​seven-figure advance, anyone?​—​to embark on a more viable commercial venture, such as a painfully honest personal memoir of the Obama family.

In that respect, The Scrapbook is reminded of our favorite presidential sibling of modern times, Sam Houston Johnson (1914-1978), Lyndon Johnson’s younger brother, whose persistent drunkenness and public misbehavior in Washington prompted President Johnson to move him into the White House, where he could keep an eye on him. 

Lyndon’s defensive patronage was rewarded, however, the year after he left office, when Sam Houston published a ghostwritten tell-all memoir, My Brother Lyndon, to the ex-president’s intense mortification. Interviewed on television one evening by the oleaginous David Frost, Sam Houston was asked to expand on a passage in the book where he complained about his inability to penetrate his brother’s protective ring of “sycophants.” 

In a scene that must always serve as a cautionary tale for people whose names are put on books they haven’t written, Sam Houston Johnson allowed that he couldn’t readily answer Frost’s question because he didn’t know the meaning of the word “sycophant.”

The Obama Reviews

Not for the first time, The Scrapbook has suffered through an Obama speech (his discourse on the budget last week), read the press notices, and concluded that the mainstream media watch our president’s orations through special “hope and change” 3-D glasses that we weren’t wearing. What we saw was Obama grimacing his way through a petulant and demagogic attack on Paul Ryan’s budget plan, looking like he had lunched on some rhubarb from the first lady’s vegetable garden without putting enough sugar on it. The applause was infrequent, but it was tepid.

The New York Times, however, saw a “reinvigorated” Obama. “The man America elected president has re-emerged,” according to the Times. And the previously critical Washington Post editorialists described the speech as “an important and welcome contribution to the debate over deficit reduction. .  .  . Sorely needed presidential engagement on the nation’s fiscal crisis has arrived at last.”

As we say, they must have tuned in to the speech on a special, reality-distorting Obamavision channel, which The Scrapbook does not receive as part of its basic cable package.

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