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Barack Obama, Supportable and Inscrutable

Barack Obama: The Story
By David Maraniss
(Simon & Schuster, 641 pp., $32.50)

EVERYBODY THESE DAYS is always complaining about hyper-partisanship, but the truth is that a much older complaint about American politics still has a lot of validity: that it takes place within a very narrow range of acceptable views, compared with the politics of most other democracies. How many major elective offices could you have won, as recently as four years ago, if you openly supported gay marriage? How about if you believed that capital gains and earned income should be taxed at the same rate? Or that Social Security eligibility should begin at age seventy? Or that there should be a national health service and a state-supported broadcast network? Or that God does not exist?

If you belong to an extended family that gets together for holiday dinners, most of whose members are not active participants in the national political conversation, you surely can’t make it through a single gathering without some uncle or cousin saying something that, if it came out of the mouth of a member of Congress, would be treated as an instantly career-ending mistake. And if—less likely—you actually know a member of Congress well, you may have seen that even many of them, when feeling relaxed, haven’t fit the entirety of their views inside the acceptable range of the moment.

It isn’t so easy or natural to stay eternally within the white lines. Some people may be so naturally conventional that the project takes no effort. But what about the rest? Do they do it by calculation? By control? By willing themselves, like actors, into character? Questions like these come to mind especially in the case of Barack Obama, who spent his early life in circumstances where he was unlikely to imbibe and absorb standard-issue American politics from the people around him. “First black president” doesn’t begin to capture the improbability of Obama’s getting where he has gotten. The son of a teenage mother and an almost completely absent father, raised off the American mainland and in Indonesia, with relatives all over the cultural, geographic, and political map, wanting for any real homestead or hometown—and recently, he tells his latest biographer, David Maraniss, when he settled down in front of the television in the evening and watched an episode of Mad Men, he reflected on how it reminds him of the world he grew up in. How did that happen?

ANYBODY WRITING A BIOGRAPHY of Obama is necessarily competing with his subject, because Obama got there first, in the form of Dreams from My Father. It was probably the notoriety that came from being elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review that brought Obama the opportunity to write a memoir at such an early age. When Dreams from My Father was first published in 1995, it was received as an affecting literary debut, not a major literary event, but Obama’s astonishing political success has made it feel more important. By now every schoolchild in America must have read it.

Maraniss’s book sits mainly within the frame of Dreams from My Father: it ends where Obama’s book ends, with Obama back from his first trip to Kenya, and about to enroll at Harvard Law School and to begin the portion of his life when he started to be thought of as someone who was destined for greatness. Maraniss’s most similar previous book, First in His Class, about Bill Clinton, also covers the early portion of a new Democratic president’s life, but it ends at a later point in the subject’s journey, when Clinton is in his mid-forties. In Barack Obama: The Story, which has 571 pages of text, Obama isn’t even born until page 165, he doesn’t become the central character until about page 300, and he is still in his early twenties on page 500. The book has the feeling not of an explicit effort to re-report Dreams from My Father, but of a biographical project whose author became completely, uncontrollably obsessed with the complicated details of his subject’s past. Even Robert Caro, in the first volume of his still incomplete Lyndon Johnson biography (published thirty years ago), was able to get his main character up to his mid-thirties and into political office.

Maraniss has obviously spent quite a lot of time in rural Kansas, in Kenya, in Indonesia, in Hawaii, in New York, and in Chicago, and he has consistently found material that either isn’t in Dreams from My Father or is at variance with Obama’s own account. His book is an amazing feat of reporting, but it feels raw and under-processed; one wonders whether he really intended to end it so early in his subject’s life, or whether his publisher called time on him so that the book could be published in time for Obama’s reelection campaign. There could easily be a second volume of the same length covering just the period of Obama’s life from the point where this book ends to when he began running for president—or perhaps, if Maraniss were to stick to the level of detail he maintains here, two more volumes. We get lists of school friends—not just of Obama’s but also of his parents’ and other family members’—and his mother’s birth weight and his father’s passport number and the street address of every place everyone in the president’s immediate family ever lived. (I was interested to learn that if you go to the back window of the hallway outside my apartment and crane your neck, you can see into the back window of the apartment where Obama lived right after college.)

A noteworthy example of Maraniss’s tendency to go down rabbit holes comes when he tells us that the president’s father, Barack Obama, Sr., decided to apply to the University of Hawaii in the late 1950s because he had read an article about it in The Saturday Evening Post—and then digs up biographical information about the author of the article, and unearths and quotes from his correspondence with the Post’s editor, and finds out how much he was paid and which of his expenses he decided to submit and which not. Barack Obama: The Story is gracefully and fluidly written; what it isn’t is shaped. Caro turns each chapter into a little movie, with a beginning, a middle, an end, and a perfectly turned lesson at the end. Here, there’s a lot of information, but there aren’t a lot of conclusions. This quality of the book, along with where it stops telling its story, means that it enhances, as much as it dispels, the sense of mystery around Obama. Bill Clinton, as Maraniss demonstrated in his book about him, practically started electioneering with the doctors and nurses in the delivery room as he emerged from his mother’s womb. Obama didn’t start striking people as a future president until he was at Harvard Law School. Here he is a sensitive, searching, occasionally mesmerizing young man—as he was in Dreams from My Father. How and when did the big transition happen? We’ll have to wait for Maraniss’s next volume to find out. 

But Maraniss has enriched considerably the store of what we know about the young Obama. As a reporter, Maraniss is tireless, curious, and attuned, and sometimes more than that. His most amazing bits of new information come from Obama exes: Barack Sr.’s ex-wife Ruth, and Barack Jr.’s two most serious girlfriends from early adulthood, Alexandra McNear and Genevieve Cook. From the first of these Maraniss has gotten a frank, bitter account of the president’s father’s alcoholism and brutality (“Beat, beat, beat ... I thought he would kill me.”); from the second, a small trove of letters from Obama; from the third, a diary that goes into intimate detail about their relationship. Maraniss has a light touch: he insistently corrects the record established by Obama in Dreams from My Father, but he doesn’t use any piece of evidence of Obama’s shading of his own story (which Obama, in a vague way, indicated that he was doing) to proclaim him to be a liar or a hypocrite.

The many details that Maraniss has unearthed about Obama fall into two main categories: first, Obama’s childhood circumstances were more emotionally difficult than he has made them out to be; second, his narrative of finding a comfortable, lasting cultural identity by embracing his African Americanness seems too pat. Barack Obama, Sr., though brilliant and magnetic, comes across as a real horror-show in Maraniss’s account. Although he and the president’s mother were officially married for a few years, it sounds as if they never lived together as husband and wife. When Barack Sr. was still in Hawaii after his son was born, he didn’t even acknowledge to his friends that he had started a new family. (He already had a family back in Kenya, whom he hadn’t told his wife in Hawaii about.) He may have been unfaithful to and physically abusive of Stanley Ann Dunham, as he was with his next wife, Ruth. He made no effort to provide for his Hawaiian son in any way, and when he returned to Kenya his life was a series of disasters because he was a deeply unreliable alcoholic. The auto accident that killed him in 1982, at about the same age the president was when he was elected, was merely the last in a long string of drunk-driving incidents.

The grandparents who mainly raised Obama were drinkers—in his interview with Maraniss, Obama casually refers to the grandmother who was the rock of his childhood as an alcoholic. Stanley Dunham, his grandfather, whom he strikingly resembles physically, was a salesman who had gone from mainly ebullient to mainly defeated by the time Obama was a teenager. Obama’s mother was a remarkably determined and independent person who, under difficult circumstances, built a significant life for herself as an anthropologist in Indonesia, but Maraniss insistently points out what Obama himself was too diplomatic to say outright in Dreams from My Father: she consistently decided, from the time he was about ten, to structure her life so that she spent almost no time with him, and there is some evidence that he sensed this and resented it deeply. The current, therapeutically driven assumptions governing American upper-middle-class culture would surely lead to a prediction, from the evidence we have, that the adult Obama would be a complete basket case. He cannot possibly be as imperturbable as he appears to be, but it is still remarkable and unexplained how he wound up with both an unstoppable drive to power and complete self-control, a rare combination even in successful politicians.

MARANISS HAS carefully established the true identities of the pseudonymous composite characters in Dreams from My Father, and found, in a couple of cases, that people whom Obama presented as crucial guides on his journey to blackness were actually not black. One can’t gainsay the genuineness of the feeling of homecoming Obama got from finding his way into the heart of the African American experience, most notably through his marriage, from a point completely outside it. But it is also a sign of the weirdness of America’s racial customs—most whites assume that anybody who has dark skin also has a set of identical, deeply ingrained experiences and attitudes that just weren’t part of Obama’s life growing up—that Obama has been able to sell this version of himself so successfully. As Maraniss puts it, “It does not diminish the importance of race to note that the formation of his persona began not with the color of his skin but the circumstances of his family—all of his family, on both sides, not just the absent father, as the title of his memoir suggests. All of his family—leaving and being left.” Being black serves in part as an effective cover for something else that is as deeply, or perhaps more deeply, part of him—a fundamental guardedness and unknowability. 

Genevieve Cook’s diary brims over with frustration about her inability to breach the defenses Obama had erected around himself. “[A] wall—the veil,” she calls it at one point; “[b]ut he is so wary, wary ... resents extra weight,” she says at another. The material Maraniss has extracted from Alexandra McNear is even more interesting, because it’s in Obama’s own voice. There are hints of the presence, in early form, of one of the classic politician’s personality traits, a difficulty in defining oneself that leads to a tendency to define oneself through impact on others. “Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me....” he says in one letter. “The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and all the] classes; make them mine, me theirs.” In another letter, he says, “I don’t distinguish between struggling with the world and struggling with myself.... The minute others imprint my senses, they become me and I must deal with them or else close part of myself or make myself and the world smaller, lukewarm.” This sounds like the Obama we know, who is uncannily good at relating to a stadium full of strangers but not so good at schmoozing with chairs of congressional committees. In his resistance to being pinned down in any way, there is a lot of his mother. As Maraniss puts it: “Ann had the will to avoid the traps life set for her, and she infused that same will in her son.”

THIS CAMPAIGN hasn’t cleared up the fundamental mysteriousness of Obama very much. He has been uncannily successful at making Mitt Romney, not himself, the main subject of the campaign. Ask yourself: what portion of your personal campaign conversational time this season has been devoted to Romney, and what portion has been devoted to the man who is far more likely to be our president for the next four years? On Election Day 2008, would you have predicted that Obama would soon move his whole stack of chips onto the venerable liberal cause of universal health care? How clear a sense do you have now of what Obama’s second term will look like?

The portion of Obama’s life story we get here gives us full satisfaction if the question is how he was able to give his celebrated and career-launching keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in which he proposed that there could be a way of bridging all political and cultural divisions. Otherwise, Obama as president—what drives him, how he makes choices—is fundamentally mysterious, and neither Maraniss’s book nor this presidential campaign has done much to clear it up. If there is a politically applicable impression that emerges from the great mass of material, it is how much Obama is a child of the postcolonial era. Hawaii, Kenya, and Indonesia were all former colonies or possessions of the West, one of which was absorbed into a larger democratic nation, the other two of which became independent. The careers of Obama’s grandparents, his parents, and his stepfather all can be seen as workings out of the ways in which post-colonialism plays itself out in individual lives. And though the term “post-colonial” reads as “left,” both of Obama’s parents, though they probably would have been comfortable with that equation as applying to them politically, chose to work not as lifelong rebels but in the sorts of establishment roles that the end of colonialism opened up: his mother, in Indonesia, at the Ford Foundation; his father, in Kenya, at Shell Oil and then in a government bureau meant to promote the tourist business. 

Obama tells Maraniss that as a young man he dreamed of having a career like that of Bob Moses, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer who led voter-registration efforts in Mississippi during the civil-rights era. He has also said that he was inspired to apply to Harvard Law School because he heard a presentation by William Julius Wilson on the devastating effects of de-industrialization on poor urban blacks, and wanted to get himself into a position to do something about it. It’s safe to assume that these are names Mitt Romney could not identify—just as it’s safe to assume that Obama did not grow up admiring Alfred P. Sloan and J. Willard Marriott, as Romney did. 

It is interesting to think about Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s oddly similar careers as authors. Each has published two books, the first a partial autobiography, the second a pre-presidential policy blueprint. Obama’s memoir is a wistful, artfully crafted story of his quest for a cultural and ethnic identity, tinged with melancholy and regret. Romney’s (Turnaround, about the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics) is a rousing tale of organizational triumph that tells us nothing about him personally. Obama’s second book, starting with the title (The Audacity of Hope), is optimistic and cooperative. Romney’s, starting with its title (No Apology), is assertive and hyper-alert to peril and decline.

After the election, the chance that Obama will feel that he has finally been set free to let the world see who he really is and what he really believes is nil. But it’s also a safe bet that his core convictions are not those of the old Democratic Leadership Council. Romney palpably wishes to restore American hegemony in the world; Obama (drone attacks and dead Osama bin Laden or not) does not. Romney believes in business as the core institution in society in a way that Obama does not. We will surely find out something more about Obama’s convictions and his priorities in the six months after Election Day—not before. As to what that will be, it’s hard to think of any politician running for reelection about whom the question is more difficult to answer. 

Nicholas Lemann is dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and is the author, most recently, of Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This article appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline "The Cipher."