The president’s admirers, too, might dismiss “Barack Obama” in advance. A recent excerpt in Vanity Fair quoted the diary of Obama’s girlfriend back when he was 22; the Daily Beast excerpted the excerpt, promising the “juiciest bits.” It could have created the impression that the book is salacious and unfair.
“Barack Obama” is not, in fact, an argument for or against the reelection of the president. It is an argument for the necessity of the book itself — the book as a medium. This biography possesses a richness and scope that cannot be captured in short-form journalism, magazine excerpts or a mere review. Maraniss has written a global, multigenerational saga that culminates in the emergence of a young man who is knowable, recognizable and real.
Every biographer knows how difficult it is to render an actual human being with the depth of a fictional character. Usually the evidence shows only the surface — and, as E.M. Forster said, “Each of us knows from his own experience that there is something beyond the evidence.” A convincing depiction of the inner self must capture contradictions yet integrate them into an organic whole. A character should be capable of surprises without seeming inauthentic or arbitrary. Maraniss approaches the task with deep research, crisp, clean writing and judicious reflection that never seems intrusive. He not only succeeds, he makes it look easy.
Take, for example, the much-ballyhooed diary of Genevieve Cook, the girlfriend Obama started seeing when he was 22. It appears toward the end of the book, which concludes before Obama’s enrollment at Harvard Law School. “So much going on beneath the surface, out of reach,” she wrote of him. “Guarded, controlled.” Later she added, “He feels all these people asking him to undo himself, be something he feels he’s not, show things to appease other people’s projections.”
It’s telling stuff, as if Cook were ghostwriting a Maureen Dowd column. “His warmth can be deceptive,” she noted. “Tho he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness.”
Maraniss finds more, though, than the familiar story of no-drama Obama. He also quotes Cook’s observation that Obama “won’t let important things go unspoken.” When their relationship began to disintegrate, he paused as he was leaving her apartment, and “said he felt strained — and I must say I was, I felt at the time, dishonest in voicing the thought.” He remained, and the two had a revealing conversation.