Obama Family May Come Out of Woodwork

Just days before the election, the media focused briefly on the news that Barack Obama's paternal aunt was living illegally in public housing in Boston.

While the story didn’t get much traction, it offered a glimpse of things to come: With the spotlight shining so hard on the next president, distant family members are likely to get caught up in the glare.

"Once you become president, you get surprised [at] how many relatives you have around the world," said Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary for President George W. Bush.

Fleischer and his boss had to deal with relatives in just one country—and at times had their hands full with that. The Obama family tree, by contrast, is a veritable ancestral Banyan, with roots and branches extending to four continents. There are many half-siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. That means there may be many stories to tell—but also many possible sources of heartburn.

Obama waxed philosophically about his background in his 1995 autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” and evoked it often during the campaign.

He introduced the country to his white grandmother in Hawaii, Madelyn Dunham, who died the day before the election. He introduced the country to his Indonesian-born half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who helped campaign for him. One of his favorite sources of podium humor in the early going was his distant cousinship with Vice President Dick Cheney — the "black sheep" of the family, as Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton joked.

Without prompting, the media took up its own fascinations with Auma Obama, the president-elect's Kenyan born half-sister, who is now a social worker in Britain, and George Hussein Onyango Obama, a half-brother who was discovered, by Italian Vanity Fair, to be living the hutted life on the edge of Nairobi. And it didn't stop there.

Earlier this month, Chinese television shined the bright lights onto Mark Ndesandjo, a half-brother of Obama's living in the city of Shenzhen and running an Internet business. Back in July, the Times of London described Ndesandjo as "helping to promote cheap Chinese exports in a low-profile business career."

Well, low-profile no more: He's now practically a Chinese celebrity.

Who will be next? And for what reason?

The presidential spotlight has traditionally been confined to immediate family members or in-laws. And over the years, this group has certainly produced sufficient fodder for political drama-seekers and the press.

There were the drinking problems of Lyndon Johnson's brother, Sam Houston Johnson, and Jimmy Carter's brother, Billy; there was the loan Richard Nixon's brother Donald took from Howard Hughes to keep his drive-in restaurant afloat; there was the rebellious behavior of Ronald Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis. Bill Clinton had his brother Roger (the Sibling Gone Wild, in excelsis), and the current president had his brother Neil Bush, whose divorce proceedings revealed that he’d had sex with women who knocked on his hotel room doors in Hong Kong and Thailand.

"I always felt the families of presidents get a pretty rough deal out of all of this," says Jody Powell, who served as press secretary in the Carter White House. "They get this rather intense scrutiny, and in most cases they are not prepared for it unless they've been in public life themselves. If they look like they are trying to make a buck out of it they get slammed. If they make mistakes, they end up hearing about it on the national news."

One place where the light probably won't be cast too intensely this time is on Obama's children, who at ages 10 (Malia) and eight (Sasha), fall under the cone of privacy that has traditionally been afforded pre-collegiate presidential kin.

That wasn't the case for the Bush daughters, whose collegiate hi-jinks became the source of tabloid stories.

The challenge for Obama and his press shop could, on the other hand, be presented from the farther-flung branches of the tree, from distant relatives who he might not know at all.

Says Powell: "I guarantee you're going to have, as other administrations have had, scumbags who try to become the best friend of somebody who is kin to the president and then try to exploit their relationship in an embarrassing way."

Fleischer concurs: "“I suspect we’re going to hear things -- of people claiming to be Barack Obama’s relatives, people who are relatives but are distant or only moderately close, who are going to try to take advantage of the president and seek publicity or business influence.”

Powell's advice to Obama: Stay out of it as best you can. But when it comes to family, that's often easier said than done.

The Obama transition team did not respond to queries about how the president-elect intends to handle this, or what his expectations are for the media scrutiny of his family. But Fleischer suggested that Obama might be best served by having a close family member or friend serve as an unofficial liaison to the broader clan.

"If you're not careful," Powell says, "people might resent or will resent people from the white house staff trying to tell them how they have to behave."

But Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks that the diffuse nature of Obama's family will inure him from the long hard look at his tree.

With past presidencies, she says, there was a distinct media fixation on evidence of familial influence peddling. Billy Carter, for example, caused more headaches with his connections to Libya, than he did with his drinking. Jamieson doesn't see those conflicts as likely to arise in the case of Obama's family.

"There may be a human interest story but I don't see it being a typical Washington story," Jamieson said.

Then again, that's sometimes a very fine line.

"The fascination with the office of the presidency in the mind of the media and the public is writ large," says Fleischer, "and it extends to the presidents' family and occasionally to his distant family, especially if they misbehave."

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