I feel sorry for David Maraniss. Not because his new biography, “Barack Obama,”will fail — it will probably become a bestseller, and deservedly so — but because too many will misconstrue it without turning a page.
A certain segment of the public will assume it is propaganda in favor of President Obama’s reelection. After all, Maraniss belongs to the “media elite.” An editor at The Washington Post, he is a Pulitzer-winning journalist and a Pulitzer finalist in his career as an author. His previous works include “First in his Class,” a highly regarded biography of Bill Clinton.
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.
Here we see a young man who is cautious and reserved, but who also won’t let important things go unsaid. He sometimes recoiled from passion (he once responded to Cook’s declaration of love with a mere “thank you”), yet he could also insist on the emotional truth of a moment. That is complexity.
Despite the obvious relevance of this material, “Barack Obama” does not read like an attempt to explain the president. The title and subtitle could be reversed, for the story itself is the central concern. Obama’s father and grandfather in Kenya did not influence him directly (unless by their absence), but Maraniss weaves their lives into the narrative, providing some of his most gripping passages.
He follows the domineering grandfather, Hussein Onyango, who left Luoland on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria to fight for the British, convert to Islam, and serve in the houses of his colonial overlords. He tracks the president’s father, Barack Obama Sr., from Christian mission schools to the University of Hawaii, Harvard, and posts in the new Kenyan national government. Islam played no role in his life, but alcohol did. Brilliant, abrasive, insufferably arrogant, he infuriated superiors, deserted wives and children, and drunkenly hurtled his cars into accident after accident until the one that killed him.
Maraniss finds a theme here. It is the life between cultures, between nations — the outsider, the “jadak,” to use the term the Luo spat at Hussein Onyango when he returned home. The author later strains it into a conceit by using “jadak” to describe young Barry (as Barack junior was called in his native Hawaii), who knew nothing of the word, let alone Luoland. Yet this theme connects the story of a family who were always a them, never part of an us.
The theme ties together Obama’s American family as well. His maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham, swept his bride away from El Dorado, Kan., to California, Washington state and finally Hawaii. Big-talking, underachieving, he began as a pretend writer and ended as a furniture salesman, telling fantastic stories all the way. His main legacy was dreaming.
Madelyn Payne secretly married him in high school, in her own search for the golden city. She became “the rock of the family, as solid as Stan was soft,” Maraniss writes, as she rose to a bank vice presidency, but grew “tightly wound” and alcoholic, in the president’s words.
Their daughter, also named Stanley, fell in love with Obama Sr. at a time when an African student attending an American university was newsworthy. Maraniss’s account, incidentally, makes the fringe skepticism of Obama’s birthplace seem even more ridiculous, if possible; his mother delivered her son in Honolulu, never went anywhere near Kenya, and divorced Obama Sr. when he deserted her (and Oahu) for Harvard Yard, not Nairobi. Yet she never spoke ill of her ex-husband to her son. An anthropologist, she lived in Indonesia during Barry’s childhood, sending him back to Hawaii to be raised largely by his grandparents.
The core of the story, of course, is the youth of half-black Obama, always shadowed by the sense of betweenness. “Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me,” he wrote in college, “in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me. . . . The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and all the] classes; make them mine, me theirs.” Ironically, nothing is more American than this past-destroying hybridization. Surely it’s no coincidence that this perpetual outsider, this keen observer, became a successful politician.
Again, no review can convey this book’s breadth and depth. Luoland, Hawaii, and Chicago’s South Side are vivid characters in their own right. Obama’s transition from member of the “Choom Gang” of pot-smoking high-school friends to driven activist seeking to root himself in the black community is fascinating. Maraniss smoothly engages Obama’s memoir, reinflating compressed episodes, pulling apart composite characters, and filling in omissions without descending into mere fact-checking. By the end, I no longer cared that the narrative halted before Obama’s political career began; it is complete in itself.
By David Maraniss
Simon & Schuster. 641 pp. $32.50