Barack Obama: The Story, Part 1

The much-anticipated book, Barack Obama: The Story, is a 641-page volume written by Pulitzer Prize winning author-journalist David Maraniss. I got more insight from this lengthy book into the early life, development and personality of our forty-fourth president than through anything that I have previously read. If you want a political study of the man, pro or con, then you should look elsewhere. If you want a “puff piece” aimed at re-electing the president then you should look somewhere else too. And if you are looking for ammunition to attack Obama then you must also look elsewhere. There is hardly a single syllable in this massive book about politics, at least in the normal way that we speak and write about politics and political ideology. This is a deeply studied, and yet masterfully written, generational biography. It shows how Barack Obama developed intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. It addresses the classic nature/nurture debate about shows well how we are shaped as living, breathing individuals.

David Maraniss was born in 1949 (my birth year). He is a journalist and author, currently serving as an associate-editor for the Washington Post.  He received a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1993 for his coverage of then-candidate Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential election. He is a fellow of the Society of American Historians and has authored critically acclaimed bestselling studies of Bill Clinton, Vince Lombardi, Vietnam and the sixties, Roberto Clemente and the 1960 Rome Olympics. He won another Pulitzer Prize in 2007 as part of the Washington Post team for their coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting tragedy. He currently resides with his wife in Washington, D.C. and Madison, Wisconsin.

Before I review this Barack Obama biography I want to comment on First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton. This book, which the esteemed Gary Wills called “The best biography ever written about a president in office” was exactly that. It was riveting and insightful beyond anything I can add to the praise it was rightly given by serious critics. It is, by far, the best book that I ever read about the person and character of our forty-second president. It gives the reader a vivid human portrait and shows the complexity of President Clinton’s emotional and spiritual life. It was researched with great integrity and careful documentation is the result. In my view it was imminently fair and brought Bill Clinton to life, not as a political stick figure but as a complex and interesting person. I expected the same when I began reading this new Obama biography. I was not disappointed.

Throughout Barack Obama: The Story (BOTS) David Maraniss seeks for clues that might help us understand this man, Barack Obama. He makes it abundantly clear that no one should be judged for the behavior of others in their family line nor held responsible as an adult for their youthful behavior. He writes in an Introduction that sets the direction of the book, “that [this] should never be the function nor the intention of a biographer.” Yet this book digs deeply into the family history of the Obamas and the Dunhams. My guess is that if the President reads this book he will learn things about his own family that even he did not know. It is likely that he could not have known some of his family story if someone had not done the careful research of David Maraniss.

In the Introduction Maraniss says: “There is an important difference between laying blame and searching for clues to a life, and many important clues come in the early years. Some people grow and change, some never change and only become more so, and most people (Obama fits in this category) change in some ways and not in others” (xxiii). I was instantly hooked by this human insight into how we grow and change and why. Frankly, I needed to be “hooked” because the first 163 pages of this book were very difficult to read and, at times, extremely hard to follow. (A “family tree” chart would have helped me immensely!) In a few places I confess to skimming some of the developed family history material. One important reason for this difficulty is that Obama’s father came from a line of polygamous relationships, which made it hard to keep the “who was/is who” clearly straight as I read. Another was my almost complete ignorance of Kenyan culture and tribalism. But these insights, explained very cogently by the author, made the book even more valuable in an unexpected way. They gave me a deeper understanding of African culture and the changes that came in the 1960s as nations and governments in Africa embraced and developed their independence. Obama’s story, and thus his view of the world, was deeply affected by this African history, thus his personal and intellectual relationship with it remains important to his story. Anyone who has read Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father, understands this well. Maraniss develops this theme wisely. He corrects some of Obama’s mis-statements about his own heritage that will surely create some debate among scholars.

What Maraniss is doing here is “exploring [the] territory [of Obama’s life story] in search of understanding, not retroactive condemnation. It seems obvious, but it demands explanation in the modern American political culture, where facts are so easily twisted for political purposes and where strange armies of ideological pseudo-historians roam the biographical fields in search of stray ammunition” (xxiii). That expresses my view of what happens to public figures who become presidents as well as any sentence I think I’e read.

One cannot help but think of the “birth-certificate movement” here, as well as of those who insist that Obama is a nothing more than a deeply radicalized individual, perhaps a closet Communist. (He is most certainly a radical socialist and the person who disagrees is labeled as ignorant of facts!) For these, and other reasons, anyone who begins a study of President Obama with a premise to prove will likely pick and choose their “evidence” but the results will be deeply flawed hagiography. (There are several kinds of biographies written about the president and some are pretty good but a number fit this “spin” approach.) This book is not hagiography. And it is not campaign material, pro or con. It is what it is–a first-rate analysis of the first twenty-seven years of Barack Obama’s life.

BOTS ends with Obama leaving his days of community organizing on the South Side of Chicago and driving off to Harvard Law School as a single young man who is still searching for personal direction in his life. As for his politics the young Obama was not deeply political at all, even after his stay on Chicago’s South Side. He admired Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first and only African-American mayor. He had more than his fair share of disagreements with Harold Washington over how he used, or in many cases did not use, his mayoral power to effect important community change. It appears that when Obama left Chicago to go to Harvard Law the most ambition that he might have had about a political future was to return to Chicago and run for mayor. In contrast to Obama, Bill Clinton talked about his political ambitions and future before his twelfth birthday. He was the epitome of a young man who knew he wanted to run for office and, at times, clearly seemed to think that he would/could become the president. In Obama’s case there is one passing reference to “someday being the president.” This was made in his youth and was one of those “throw away” lines that many kids make in their youthfulness. He never, ever seriously talked about this as his personal ambition and no one that Maraniss met actually imagined Barry Obama (this was his name until some years later) becoming the president. So much for a drive for the White House formed in his early thought process.

David Maraniss give the reader his own perspective in the final paragraph of the Introduction:

My perspective in researching and writing this book, and my broader philosophy, is shaped by a contradiction that I cannot and never intend to resolve. I believe life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet I also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder. I find these connections in story, in history, threading together individual lives as well as disparate societies–and they were everywhere I looked in the story of Barack Obama. In that sense, I reject the idea that every detail in a book must provide a direct and obvious lesson or revelation to be praised or damned. I believe the human condition is more ineffable than that, and it is by following the connections wherever they lead that the story of a life takes shape and meaning (xiii).

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