Even in Death, Barack Obama's Aunt Zeituni Is a Talking Point

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One detail in an article about President Obama's complex and faltering relationship with his family energized conservatives on Wednesday: Obama missed his aunt's funeral because he was playing golf. It could have been predicted. That aunt, Zeituni Onyango, has been a point of criticism against Obama since she first appeared, a week before the 2008 election.

Zeituni died earlier this month from longstanding health issues. As the Times' Jason Horowitz reports, "Mr. Obama helped pay funeral expenses and sent a condolence note, Ms. Onyango’s family members said, but the president did not attend, as he was golfing."

Zeituni, circled, with Obama. (Wikipedia)

Golfing is something of a trigger word for the president's opponents; pairing it with the suggestion that Obama ignored family was too much to resist. The Drudge Report linked Horowitz's story ("Obama Skips Aunt's Funeral; Goes Golfing Instead…"), and it quickly echoed across social media. A scan of Twitter turns up a lot of reactions, most simply reiterating Drudge's headline or going a bit further (e.g., "President Selfie went all the way to Mandela's funeral but not his own aunt's, because golfing," from hale_razor; "Heart of stone," from Brian_Sussman).

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Obama was similarly criticized by conservatives when Zeituni first became a public figure. It appears that someone leaked to the Associated Press that Zeituni was living in public housing in Boston while appealing an immigration decision that seemed likely to end with her deportation. (Update: The Huffington Post dug into the leak last year. The source is still a mystery.) Obama indicated that he wasn't aware of her presence, which his opponents — like the then-conservative site Little Green Footballs — found hard to believe. Others, like conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, focused on small contributions Zeituni made to Obama's campaign, which were illegal since she was not a citizen.

Malkin also used Zeituni's example to criticize both Obama and President Bush on immigration. She argued that the image of Obama's aunt living in substandard housing while Obama endorsed wealth redistribution on the campaign trail (as was the meme at the time) was hypocritical. Rush Limbaugh went further, as he does, calling Obama's aunt "an 'exemplary' slum resident."

For what it's worth, Zeituni was not Obama's aunt directly. The (very oversimplified) chart below shows the relationship between the two. She was the president's father's father's third wife's daughter, mentioned briefly in Obama's autobiography, Dreams from My Father.

As is the case with many of the people in Horowitz's Times story, Obama's large and complicated family meant he had a wide-ranging history of relationships with them all. But Zeituni, even in death, continues to provide his opponents with a number of lines of attack against the president. "Obama's Aunt: An Illegal Alien, Getting Government Benefits, Who Donated to Barry's Campaign," the site Ace of Spades wrote in 2008. "Sort of sums up his entire candidacy, doesn't it?"

In a sort of backhanded eulogy to Zeituni, Malkin wrote a column earlier this month that provided a neat encapsulation of the ways in which Obama's aunt had become a pawn. "Auntie Zeituni is an enduring symbol of all that is wrong with this country's immigration 'policy' — or rather, its complete lack of a coherent, enforceable system of laws and rules that puts the national interest first," Malkin wrote. "She was a beneficiary of the welfare state run amok, enabled by bipartisan fecklessness." And so on.

And that was before the world learned about the golfing.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.