By JAMES FALLOWS
During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama so often stressed the improbability of his story that we have grown inured to how unlikely it really is. Everyone knows that his name, along with his inexperience, was an electoral handicap; that his mixed-race background made his victory historic; and that his transformation within five years from local Illinois politician to the most famous person on earth (and first incumbent president since Woodrow Wilson to win the Nobel Peace Prize) has no obvious parallel. The great virtue of David Maraniss’s huge and absorbing new biography is to demonstrate that Obama’s saga in its full and previously unexplored detail is more surprising and gripping than the version the world is familiar with.
Photograph from “Barack Obama: The Story”
Obama and his girlfriend Genevieve Cook, circa 1984.
The engrossing parts of “Barack Obama: The Story” are not the ones that created the most pre-publication buzz: the diary entries from one of Obama’s girlfriends in his New York days in the early 1980s. This was Genevieve Cook, a white Australian, who let Maraniss quote the notes she made during her infatuation with Obama and eventual estrangement — including the judgment that for all his initial charm, he proved to be too cool and distant. In the context of current politics, that may seem a relevant insight. But in the context of this book, those entries are almost ho-hum, precisely because they could have come from any troubled “it’s not about you . . . ” relationship. The rest of Maraniss’s chronicle, which very minutely traces the president’s African and American lineages back for more than a century, is far more unusual.
Maraniss, a Washington Post veteran and author of a celebrated biography of Bill Clinton and other works, has (with assistants whom he credits) applied a version of the Robert Caro treatment to a politician who, unlike Caro’s Lyndon Johnson, is still in his functioning prime. The book begins with people Barack Obama never met and certainly knows less about than Maraniss does, his great-grandparents on both sides. Nearly 600 pages later it ends with the current president, at age 27, driving a used yellow Datsun away from Chicago, where he had been a community organizer, to Harvard Law School and what Maraniss presents as the end of his search for identity and the beginning of a purposeful political career.
To my taste the book has two imperfections. First, details pile up in encyclopedic volume sometimes unrelated to their significance. One example, of a large number I noted: It is important to know what Obama’s American grandfather and great-uncle did in combat during World War II, less so to see a list of people from the same Kansas county who were killed. Perhaps Maraniss wanted to leave no doubt about the thoroughness of his research, but even at half the book’s length that would have been clear. Also, when Maraniss departs from narrative and steps in to “tell” rather than “show,” his presentation of themes can sound balder than the subtle complexities evident from the tale itself. For instance, about Obama’s Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama: “There were times, foreshadowing the circumstances of his American grandson, when he was dismissed by some of his own people for acting white, or not seeming black enough.” The “foreshadowing” part is evident without belaboring.
Obama and grandparents
Nonetheless, this is a revelatory book, which anyone interested in modern politics will want to read, and which will certainly shape our understanding of President Obama’s strengths, weaknesses and inscrutabilities. Every few pages Maraniss offers a factual nugget that changes or enlarges the prevailing lore. For example: Obama’s Kenyan grandfather, who had five wives, was apparently not involved in Kenyan insurgencies or ever tortured by British colonialists during the Mau Mau era. (Indeed, he remained a trusted figure among white Kenyans — and although himself a convert to Islam, he sent his son to a Christian school.) Similarly: Obama’s mother was named Stanley Ann Dunham not at the perverse insistence of her father, Stanley, but because her mother was taken by the sophistication of a Bette Davis character, a woman named Stanley, in the movie “In This Our Life,” which she saw while pregnant.
The entire tale is too vast to summarize, but four narratives dominate. The most tragically self-destructive is that of Obama’s own father, who dazzled people in Africa and America with his intelligence and eloquence but ruined other lives and finally his own with his irresponsibility. He had a wife in Kenya, with two children, when at the University of Hawaii he met, romanced and impregnated the 17-year-old Stanley Ann Dunham in 1960. They married, but she went home to Seattle a month after the birth of “Barry” in 1961. (The book’s details about a doctor who remembered the case would change the minds of any “birthers” open to factual evidence.) Maraniss says that “perhaps the luckiest thing” in young Obama’s life was that afterward he saw almost nothing of his father, “sparing his mother and him years of unpredictability and potential domestic violence.” On his return to Kenya, the senior Barack Obama went into a debauched alcoholic spiral and was involved in countless car crashes before the one that killed him in 1982, when he was 48 and his son was 21.
Obama& Mother – Anne Dunham
Obama’s two American grandparents, Madelyn Payne and Stanley Dunham, are also compelling figures. On the surface they are Greatest Generation stalwarts: he a combat veteran, she a bomber-plant worker, young sweethearts from small-town Kansas secretly married on the night of a high school banquet. (Grandfather Stanley, with his long face and big ears, is also the forebear with the most striking physical resemblance to Barack Obama; the president looks almost nothing like his African father.) Under the surface, the Dunhams’ life was tense. Stanley’s childhood had been shattered when his mother killed herself. As an adult, he was increasingly a big-talking but disappointed salesman, while his wife, who became a bank official, took responsibility for the family and for the grandson who came to live with them rather than his mother.
Maraniss’s portrayal of Obama’s mother, which complements that of Janny Scott in her 2011 book “A Singular Woman,” makes clear that even for her time Stanley Ann Dunham was a romantic and a risk taker. She sought adventure and was “afraid of smallness.” She married a Kenyan at 18 and an Indonesian at 22. She placed her son in elementary school in Jakarta — a school for the country’s academic elite, Maraniss shows, not an Islamic madrassa — and then sent him away, to her parents, as she delved deeper into Javanese culture. I will not be the only reader to finish this book feeling acute loss that Stanley Ann Dunham, who died of cancer at 52 before her son’s first run for any office, is not around to behold and explain the man he has become.
And the narrative of her son: The evidence Maraniss has collected about this pre-law-school stage in Barack Obama’s life suggests a richer view of the man we have become familiar with, without really knowing. The years as a boy in Indonesia, where chubby Barry Soetoro (his stepfather’s last name) with his curly hair was assumed to be from Ambon or some other nearby island of darker-skinned people. Adolescence in Hawaii, where he was thought of as one of many hapa, or multiracial, people rather than placed on the unavoidable black-white grid of mainland America. Maraniss explains how Obama entered Occidental College as Barry and left as Barack, having decided on his first exposure to mainland culture that he must be black rather than white, a decision ratified through his time at Columbia and in Chicago. And yet, as Maraniss says, a “recurring theme is his determination to avoid life’s traps.” These include “the trap of his unusual family biography . . . in terms of stability and psychology. Then the trap of geography,” from being raised in Hawaii, and “finally the trap of race in America, with its likelihood of rejection and cynicism.” Anything that might have seemed odd in Barack Obama’s demeanor, from his studied unflappability to his sometimes unappealing coldness, seems instead a miracle of normality and adjustment after the story recounted here.
We never fully know public figures, least of all one whose identity so much involves cool, deliberate reserve. But after this book we know one public figure much better.