Books

The Long Birth of a Man’s Ambition: 'Barack Obama: The Story'

David Lauter
Photo from the Obama Campaign archives.
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

In relatively few cases has biography become so central to both a president’s admirers and despisers as it has for Barack Obama.


Barack Obama: The Story

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Price: $32.50
Author: David Maraniss
Length: 672 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-06
Amazon

Abnormal men become presidents of the United States.

The overweening self-confidence required to reach for the office, the preternatural discipline and effort of will needed to grasp it — in another setting, these traits might be called pathological. Tracing the roots of abnormality becomes a recurring motif in presidential biographies: polio’s impact on Franklin D. Roosevelt, the death of John F. Kennedy’s eldest brother, the absent or dysfunctional fathers of Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton.

In relatively few cases, however, has biography become so central to both a president’s admirers and despisers as it has for Barack Obama. Clinton, for example, made much of his “Man from Hope” persona but mostly to counteract suspicions raised by his Ivy League law degree, his Rhodes scholarship and his well-publicized efforts to stay out of the Vietnam-era draft. His campaign biographies focused on more standard adult fare — terms as governor, education reforms, economic development.

Not so Obama. When he ran for president, the then-senator from Illinois had little experience to tout. Biography formed the core of his appeal.

“I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible,” Obama proclaimed in the 2004 Democratic convention keynote address, which brought him to the attention of a national audience. Four years later, in a country strongly turning against the Texas swagger and go-it-alone hubris of George W. Bush, Obama’s multiracial parentage and cross-cultural background was powerfully appealing — the perennial hope of a chance to start anew.

The counter-narrative began in the shadows and reached full, public flower only after Obama’s election. Whether in the seemingly irrepressible theories about his birthplace or the endless speculation about the ideological legacy he might have garnered from the Kenyan father he barely ever met, Obama’s exotic parentage and unusual background stoked the anxieties of his enemies — the perennial fear of otherness and subversion.

In Barack Obama: The Story, David Maraniss seeks to transcend the myth-making of both sides and tackle two major issues: the legacy of family history and the values that shaped Obama and the internal forces that set him on his rapid, unlikely climb to the White House.

The legacy occupies the first third of the book as well as several subsequent chapters. Maraniss backs up to the fourth generation, giving readers a deeply researched tour that begins in colonial Kenya and '20s Kansas. (Obama himself isn’t born until 165 pages into the text.) These chapters, particularly the detailed story of Obama’s brilliant but deeply irresponsible, alcoholic and self-destructive father, provide some of the book’s most fascinating passages. Particularly revealing is just how fleeting was the relationship between Obama’s parents — a marriage that lasted barely longer than Stanley Ann Dunham’s pregnancy — and how carefully his mother sheltered him from the harsh reality of paternal abandonment.

Yet it is the book’s other narrative — the description of the kindling of Obama’s ambition — that will almost certainly attract the greatest readership even though it is also the most elusive of the book’s themes.

Maraniss has plowed the ground of ambitious young men before. Almost two decades ago, his first book dived deeply into the early life of Bill Clinton. But the 42nd president was in some ways a less complex subject. Clinton, as Maraniss described in that volume, began running for office in grade school and kept at it so relentlessly that his high school principal barred him from running for senior class president because he was hogging the offices.

From Hot Springs, Ark., to Georgetown to Oxford to Yale Law School and beyond, Clinton never stopped running — and never took time to confront the internal demons that drove him. He arrived at the White House with the finest political skills of a generation and personal flaws capable of causing disaster.

Obama, by contrast, for all his exotic background, lived a prosaic adolescence. From age ten, when he returned from Indonesia to Hawaii to live with his grandparents, he had a life that would be hard to distinguish from that of millions of other teenage American boys — basketball playing, smart but somewhat unfocused.

From Hawaii to Occidental College the story was much the same. And when he arrived at Columbia University after two years at Occidental, the character trait that most stood out was Obama’s introversion.

By necessity, the story Maraniss tells becomes an interior one. Obama related his version of that interior journey in his memoir, Dreams From My Father. But, as with many memoirs, Obama’s was a work of imagination — not fiction but a deeply subjective telling.

Maraniss supplements and corrects Obama’s account at several key points. As he does, we begin to see many of the traits that would come to mark Obama as president — the aloofness, the desire to avoid traps, the dislike of confrontation, the belief in his ability to persuade adversaries to see things his way.

For several formative years, Obama approached life as his mother, the anthropologist, was trained to do: as a participant observer. He watched, he studied and — in sharp contrast to Clinton — he learned about himself. In those New York years, Maraniss writes, Obama was “conducting an intense debate with himself over his past, present, and future, an internal struggle that he shared with only a few close friends.”

Luckily for the biographer and the reader, Maraniss located three of those friends — two former girlfriends and a roommate — who were not only perceptive and kept letters and a diary but were willing to allow him to use that material in his book. Maraniss’ footnotes contain the names of 230 individuals he interviewed and 18 library archives he mined on three continents, but without those three, the story of Obama in New York — a tale with so much of the action taking place inside the subject’s mind — would have been all but impossible to tell.

It was in this period, 1981-85, in his early 20s, that Obama appears to have developed the belief that he could take a leadership role in society and that doing so would require him to become more than an observer.

And yet, readers in search of an “aha” moment will come away disappointed. In this volume, at least — Maraniss already has begun work on the next — there is no single spark, no switch that suddenly turned on Obama’s driving ambition. Instead, a more useful metaphor might be the tumblers of a lock falling into place, one by one.

As the book closes, Obama is headed for law school. After years of interior monologue, he was about to discover his public voice.

6

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image