Many authors of newly-published books are eager to discuss their work, especially if the book has made news. But Janny Scott, author of A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother, doesn't want to talk about what has become the most newsworthy part of her generally well-received new biography.
Scott, a former New York Times reporter, deserves praise for discovering that President Obama repeatedly misled voters during the 2008 campaign, and also during the 2009 health care debate, when he said that his mother, Ann Dunham, spent her final days fighting an insurance company that sought to deny payment for cancer treatment. Scott, who had access to many of Dunham's personal papers, discovered that Dunham, an anthropologist who spent most of her career in Indonesia, had health coverage that paid for her treatment for uterine and ovarian cancer, from which she died in 1995. "Ann's compensation for her job in Jakarta had included health insurance, which covered most of the costs of her medical treatment," Scott wrote. "Once she was back in Hawaii, the hospital billed her insurance company directly, leaving Ann to pay only the deductible and any uncovered expenses, which, she said, came to several hundred dollars a month."
Dunham did have a dispute with another insurance company, CIGNA, over a disability policy, which she want to pay her living expenses and other costs. It was that coverage that was denied on the grounds of a pre-existing condition. "Though [Obama] often suggested that she was denied health coverage because of a pre-existing condition," Scott wrote, "it appears from her correspondence that she was only denied disability coverage." The facts of the matter, it turns out, are quite different from what the president said.
I wrote a column about Scott's revelation last week. For that piece, I tried to talk to Scott. Perhaps there was more she could add to the story; in some media appearances, Scott hinted that she had quite a bit of information about the insurance issue. "I had some old computer disks that no one had been able to penetrate," Scott said on "The Charlie Rose Show" June 7, "and they gave me the whole history of her medical crisis in the last year of her life."
I sent a note to Scott's publicist at Penguin Group publishers. After several days, the publicist told me the answer was no. "Janny has let us know that she has made all the key points known regarding this issue and she doesn't have anything new to add to the story," the publicist said.
I went ahead and wrote the column without Scott's input. A few days after it appeared, the New York Times followed up with its own account of the story, and Scott, a Times veteran, did speak to reporter Kevin Sack. But she didn't say much; Sack quoted from the book, and from a White House spokesman, and from a health policy expert at Harvard, but he didn't quote from his talk with Scott. The article referred to the Scott interview twice:
Ms. Scott said in an interview that her reporting relied on copies of letters from Ms. Dunham to Cigna that were made available by friends….
Ms. Scott said in the interview that she did not turn up documents to suggest that Ms. Dunham had a similar dispute with her health insurer, which she did not name. She said she could not determine from the documents she viewed whether Mr. Obama, then a lawyer in Chicago, had in fact petitioned Cigna on his mother's behalf.
That does not read like an interview in which the author was willing to engage the subject deeply or divulge any information beyond what was in the book. For example, A Singular Woman did not name the health insurer that covered Dunham, and the Times pointedly says Scott did not reveal the name of the company in the interview, either.
Nevertheless, after the Times story appeared, I got back in touch with the Penguin publicist. Since Scott had overcome her reluctance to talk, at least to the Times, perhaps she would be willing to talk now. "Thank you for contacting us again regarding Janny Scott," the publicist replied. "The author does not have any new information to add to the story."
Authors often know more than they include in books. They've done a lot of research, and the process of writing a book, even a long one, usually means leaving some things out. A Singular Woman is about Ann Dunham's entire life, and Dunham's dealings with insurance companies is just one small episode. Since Scott had correspondence outlining "the whole history of her medical crisis in the last year of her life," it seems likely there is more information about the insurance matter than the brief version that appears in the book. It might even be newsworthy, given that the president has talked about the issue in personal terms many, many times. But don't look to Janny Scott for any insights. She's not talking.