Election 2008: Obama's Lasting Influences

David Maraniss
Washington Post Associate Editor
Friday, August 22, 2008 2:00 PM

Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss was online Friday, Aug. 22 at 2 p.m. ET to take questions about his in-depth profile of Barack Obama.

The transcript follows.


David Maraniss: Hello anyone and everyone, this is David Maraniss, writing by remote from Madison, Wis., my hometown. I leave for Denver tomorrow. My piece on the forces that shaped Barack Obama went up on the web an hour or so ago and will appear in the newspaper on Sunday. The Web is a strange new world for me, but not for any of you ... so I'll try to answer your questions as best I can. Thanks for your interest...


Palo Alto, Calif.: In 1988, Bill Clinton was picked by the powers that be in the Democratic Party to be the Keynote Speaker at the convention. Four years later, he was the Democratic nominee. Similarly, Obama gave the 2004 keynote. Who are the people who select the keynote speaker? Who would you say are the powerful Democrats that supported Obama's candidacy from the beginning? What kind of influence do they have on him?

David Maraniss: That is an interesting point that is so obvious I hadn't even thought of it. There is no conspiracy involved, however. A keynote speaker is chosen by the party nominee. Michael Dukakis chose Bill Clinton, and John Kerry chose Barack Obama. It is worth noting that the two speeches had diametrically different effects. As you might remember, Bill Clinton droned on and on until some in the audience started mumbling "get the hook," and when he came to the line "in conclusion" he got the biggest applause of the speech. Clinton had to overcome his performance at that 1988 convention in Atlanta. Obama, on the other hand, got mostly rave reviews for his keynote speech in Boston.

As to the second part of your question, I don't feel qualified yet to answer that intelligently. There are other political reporters at The Post who certainly can. Thanks...


Dunn Loring, Va.: In his famous speech on race relations, Obama equates his grandmother's attitudes to those of Rev. Wright. Did you find any evidence that his grandmother spoke as disparaging about black people as Rev. Wright has spoken about whites and other ethnic groups?

David Maraniss: My take is that Obama was mistaken, or foolish, to try to draw that parallel between Rev. Wright and his grandmother. He probably realized after the fact that he should not have brought his grandmother into it that way. He was trying to make a subtle point, but did it in a very unsubtle way. I think every human being is prejudiced to one degree or another, if we are honest about it, but I saw no evidence that Obama's grandparents, Madelyn and Stanley Dunham, were openly disparaging of any other race.


theartbrifl785: Poor "Barry" -- having to live in a very upscale section of Honolulu, South Beretania, in a 12-story high-rise a mile from Waikiki. Worse, he had to attend the best private school in Hawaii, Punahou. Hard to get into then and very expensive as well. You can verify that online.

"Those who come from islands are inevitably shaped by the experience. For Obama, the experience was all contradiction and contrast." I am sure it was very tough in that neighborhood. The reason he struggled to find his place in multiracial Hawaii was because he was living in a very exclusive part of Honolulu and attended a very exclusive school. He did not live in the truly multiracial Hawaii, the one outside South Beretania, Waikiki and Punahou.

I read this story twice and am not sure what the author is trying to tell me. It is like he is trying to portray Sen. Obama as having a struggle while he lived in Honolulu near Waikiki ... and the reader is supposed to feel sorry for the senator's tough life on South Beretania. Having been born in and having lived in Hawaii, with nowhere near the poshness that Obama had, I would not trade my upbringing with the senator. He did not experience the real Aloha spirit. What you see is what you get. That is the elitist, better-than-thou, I'm-your-savior attitude that he learned from his posh upbringing on South Beretania.

David Maraniss: Okay, the first critical comment. Nothing unexpected. Haul out the old elitist charge. My sense is you were trying to read some political slant into the story that is not there. The apartment on South Beretania is anything but posh. Obama was a scholarship student at Punahou. The surrounding neighborhood is very multiracial.


beth8: We lived in Hawaii for a couple of years when I was a child, among people of many races; this background has helped me understand and get along with people from other races and cultures. Sen. Obama's background will help him bring together the many different people who are citizens of this country, and it also will help America get along much better with other countries.

David Maraniss: I think it is true that the notion of what Hawaii represents is what has made it possible for Obama to come as far as he has. Whether he can pull different people together if he is elected president is still to be determined.


Port Orchard, Wash.: What is the predominant characteristic that drives Obama?

David Maraniss: What drives him?

He is competitive, and he believes in himself. Like most people, he is propelled by some combination of idealism and self-interest.


Virginia City, Va.: Senator Obama has a tremendous story to tell in rising from humble beginnings and the chaos of family moves to his current stature in national politics. He is true American lift-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps individual who has excelled in every setting he has tried. I am amazed the more I learn. Despite this, the media has been prone to present him as an elite relative to the admiral's son, John McCain, who left his wife to marry and heiress and live in real wealth in Phoenix, with seven homes and a private jet. ... What do you make of this?

David Maraniss: Here is the other side of the earlier elitist critique. When you say the media has been prone to present Obama as an elite relative to the admiral's son, John McCain ... I am always a bit uncomfortable with the generic use of the term "media." If you are talking about the yakking heads on TV, which seems to be what most people think of when they refer to "the media" these days, you might be right. I only can speak for myself. I think the entire argument on both sides of the elitist argument are counterproductive. Was Franklin Delano Roosevelt elitist because he came from wealth? Or John F. Kennedy? Unfortunately, modern campaigns get fought on the side squabbles. ... In any case, I think it is disingenuous to portray Obama as an elitist.


mandrake: I would take issue with the headline -- McCain has traveled further than Obama has. He wasn't even born in the United States.

David Maraniss: John McCain was born in Panama and his family lived in the Panama Canal Zone. In miles, it is not as far from the mainland as Hawaii. The story implies no more than that...


Philadelphia: Why does Obama seldom if ever mention that he was raised by a single mother. It seems to me that this fact helped make Bill Clinton more real and acceptable to voters in 1992. I believe even more people today understand the challenges that such an upbringing comes with, and empathize with that. I should think that mentioning this would deflate the impressions that he had an elitist upbringing.

David Maraniss: I wish I knew the answer to your question. When I was researching my piece, the first thing I did was read "Dreams From My Father" thoroughly. His mother is in the book, but he doesn't really give her her due, in part because when he wrote it he was absorbed totally by the missing father. Perhaps he will talk more about his mother in his acceptance speech, or during the general election.


Chicago: Ryan Lizza's New Yorker piece on Obama looked at him as a more "ordinary" politician with lots of pragmatism in his time running for offices in Illinois. What did you find earlier in his life that you think led to and educated that?

David Maraniss: I found Lizza's piece very illuminating and I could see the connections between his upbringing and his later evolution as a pragmatic politician. From a very early age, Obama took on a persona as the realist in his family. In "Dreams From My Father" he sometimes seemed to be using his mother as a foil, by portraying her as a somewhat naive idealist while he was the practical one who understood life's harsh realities.


angrycrat: Yeech. It's like you constructed this story out of pure sugar cane syrup.

David Maraniss: Giving my critics their say...

I try to find the humanity in people, not the superficial blather...


Reading, Pa.: Do you think the recent revelations about Obama half-brother living in poverty in Kenya will influence voters in any way?

David Maraniss: I doubt it, unless Obama tries to ignore it or reacts in some foolish way. He has spoken of this brother in the past and I would not be surprised if he takes some action to help the young man. If he doesn't, that might create some ill feelings.


Oviedo, Fla.: You are brilliant. In your Bill Clinton bio you mentioned that readers looking for an in-depth, er, blow-by-blow of the Monica deal would be disappointed. Fair enough, the book still rocked. Does the John Edwards imbroglio make you wish you'd delved deeper into sexual and moral issues at the top levels of politics?

David Maraniss: Not really. In the Clinton book, I tried to explain the characteristics that made him vulnerable to that kind of behavior. It was apparent enough that he messed around. Why he did it, and why he thought he might get away with, and how he responded to it -- those are always the questions that interest me.


Chicago: I have heard the media and voters alike indicate that they don't really know Barack Obama. What type of information do you feel that people are searching for to help them feel that they know him? And likewise, do people really know John McCain just because he has been around so long? Do we have comparable information about him as we do about Obama?

David Maraniss: I only can hope that my article and others like it will start to answer those questions ... and that similar in-depth stories about John McCain will as well. Certainly people think they know more about McCain because he has been in the public eye longer, but there are still many, many things about him that still need to be examined. But there is a difference between transitory "gotcha" stories and ones that truly try to understand people and the forces that shaped them.


Seattle: Can't resist a veep question: Obama is portrayed as "pragmatic." Wouldn't it be most pragmatic to select Hillary, given her depth of support among Democrats? If so, how would you see him managing the Bill factor?

David Maraniss: Your second question partially answers your first: I'm not sure anyone can "manage" Bill Clinton. If Hillary can't do it, why would Obama be able to?

As for the pragmatism of picking her, I'm an agnostic on that question in a purely technical sense. It is all relative to the alternatives.


Arlington, Va.: David, books on Roberto and Vince were dealing with icons of the past. Here you deal with someone right at the height of his popularity and in the middle of the race of his life. Did that pose any limitations on what you felt you could cover?

David Maraniss: You are right, there are advantages to writing about people who are already dead. But remember, I wrote my biography of Bill Clinton not only when he was alive but when he was struggling through his first term. The book came out at his nadir, in February 1995, when Newt Gingrich and the Republicans were ascendant. People thought he would be a one-term president.

My study of him led me to conclude that he would find his way back, and then get in trouble again, then find his way back again, and get in trouble again. The repetitive cycle of his life. And in truth I tried to examine him as though he already were gone -- it is not entirely possible, but that is the technique I try to use, to avoid the headaches of a moving target. I've done that with Obama, too.


Honolulu: Watching Obama on his recent visit to Honolulu, you could see how he was reinvigorating himself by returning to his familial, cultural and geographical roots. He always will be a keiki o ka aina, a child of this land. (One always reads articles about Hawaii with a keen eye for mistaken details, and I only could find one: The trees Obama walked under on his way to school were monkey pods, not banyans.)

David Maraniss: Thanks for that great catch. Monkey pods. I will check and try to correct it. In any case, the notion that Obama was being "elitist" by taking a vacation in Hawaii, where he was born and grew up, seems utterly vacuous.


Washington: What are your thoughts on why the campaign has not emphasized Obama's Hawaiian roots? Maybe they feel that average Americans look at Hawaii as exotic and foreign?

David Maraniss: I think that's exactly right -- they haven't quite figured out how to do it. But as I say in the piece, there is an irony there because I think Hawaii is precisely what makes Obama possible.


Anonymous: Does Obama stay in touch with many friends from his younger days? Does anyone still call him Barry?

David Maraniss: Yes, and yes. He still plays basketball with many of his friends from high school. Some call him Barry, though I'm not sure that's to his face -- they probably call him Barack when they are with him.


Lyme, Conn.: Has Obama ever explained how he developed and continued to maintain a friendship with Rezko, and when he finally realized his friend was leading him astray?

David Maraniss: This is a valid question that I cannot answer ... yet.


Washington: David, I loved your article, and found the story of Stanley especially compelling. If you could compare Sen. Obama's extraordinary background to any other U.S. president or candidate, who would come closest?

David Maraniss: His background is unlike any other, but there are a few similarities with Bill Clinton -- coming out of nowhere, with a strong mother and no strong father figure. Actually, that last is a fairly common theme among presidents: Reagan, Nixon, and to some extent Johnson also come to mind.


kenbleile: How very, very disappointing! The title and first page is so promising, touching on an issue much-discussed in Hawaii but seldom realized in the mainland -- how Barack Obama's attitudes and beliefs reflect important aspects of the islands' culture. After the first page, though, the author veered off course, back toward life in Seattle and Obama's grandparents. Sadly, the story promised in the headline -- the story of the impact of Hawaiian culture and beliefs on Obama -- once again remains untold.

David Maraniss: Sorry if the headline threw you off. The story is about the forces that shaped Obama, Hawaii being one.


Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: David, your article is excellent in giving context to our mystery candidate. As a Democrat, I worry that older women voters here feel disconnected from Obama because of their lack of experience with African Americans. There seems to be little attention to his Caucasian upbringing, no attention given to his mother's academic pursuits and worldliness and his grandmother's successful career. As for questions about his religious practices, it is more important to discuss his circle of friends, their diversity and practice of respect for others.

David Maraniss: I hear this lament quite often. Only from white people, of course. It is a fact of life in America that a person with black skin is identified by most of society as a black person. Barack Obama came to realize this as a teenager and struggled openly and honestly in trying to deal with it without rejecting his white mother and grandparents. In Hawaii it was easier, and in his family it is easier. His closest sister, Maya, who shares the same mother but has an Indonesian father, is married to a Canadian Asian man.

The extended family is truly multiracial, which is what the future is. Perhaps a generation from now Obama would not have felt forced to define himself the way he did, but it is totally understandable, and now he has to figure out how to honor his white relatives and that side of him without in any way turning away from his blackness. Race always has been the most difficult issue in this country, and he is navigating it, as far as I can see, as best he can.


Chicago: In your writing about Barack and analysis of his relationships, I know there is a lot of reference to his multiracial background. Did you look at how his self-identification of being African-American impacted how his choices were made? For example, African-Americans have many acquaintances from both sides of the tracks (i.e., Rezko and Rev. Wright) but they don't necessarily influence them personally. African-Americans know how to accept people without being too judgmental about them, but keep their distance. It is a very different perspective.

David Maraniss: Very true. I agree.


Arlington, Va.: David: Great article! I was fascinated by the Neil Abercrombie connection. I have seen him a couple of times on C-SPAN and really like him. I did not know that he knew Obama Sr. years ago. Is Obama Jr. close to him now?

David Maraniss: Obama Jr. is not really that close to Neil Abercrombie. As a matter of fact, when I interviewed Neil at his office in Washington, he paused for a full minute when I asked him about his relationship with Barack, and then he said it was virtually nonexistent. No animosity, nothing like that, but Obama has mostly identified himself politically as a Chicago guy, not a Hawaii person. Abercrombie and his wife are, though, close to Barack's sister Maya, who lives in Honolulu.


Haole girl: More a comment than a question -- I grew up in Honolulu in the '70s, and you perfectly evoked the place and the time, from University of Hawaii and the East-West Center (where my father was on the faculty) to Punahou and the overpass over the H-1. I spent some time hanging out on the Punahou campus and environs while I was in high school, and you nailed it perfectly. Congratulations on a well-written piece.

David Maraniss: Thank you...


Arlington, Va.: Obama's campaign is the best run this election year and probably one of the best ever. Shouldn't people make the connection that his well-run campaign and thought-out answers most likely will morph into a well-run cabinet and presidency when he becomes president?

David Maraniss: That is a fascinating question for political scientists to study. Certainly some of the dysfunction of the Clinton campaign was evident in the organization of his White House, so it often does show something. But in the end, I think most people would agree that organization is simply a neutral tool to be used for better and worse. Policy is at the heart of what matters.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I have been seeing a lot of ads on both sides here in Pennsylvania. Maybe it is just the limited ads I have seen, but I observe a distinct lack of ads responding to charges made by the other side. It seems as if Obama is letting himself be defined as an elitist, yet there is no mention that it is the McCains who are far wealthier, and that Obama is being presented a tax-raising Democrat, yet there is no response on how much the Iraq War supported by McCain is really going to drive up taxes. If Obama lets McCain define who he is, he then should not be surprised as I see in today's newspapers that the ads appear to be working and Obama's lead in Pennsylvania is slipping. Is there a reason why Obama appears, from what I have observed, to be lying back and not effectively responding?

David Maraniss: This is beyond my expertise, but as I see it Obama did indeed learn the lessons of the Kerry campaign and will not be so slow to respond. I would look for a very different sort of campaign after the conventions. McCain has spent an awful lot of money very early.


San Francisco, CA: David, I'm a big fan of your work, especially the Clemente and 1960 Olympics books. One note, though -- I have heard you refer to the 1960 Rome Games as being the first ones televised. Actually, the 1960 Squaw Valley Games earn that distinction. CBS even sent Walter Cronkite to Squaw Valley to report/broadcast on the action. Thanks for your contributions to the discourse!

David Maraniss: This one doesn't really belong, but what the heck. You are of course right. The book is accurate. It says the Rome Olympics were the first commercially broadcast summer games. The first televised Olympics in fact were in Berlin in 1936, on a very limited basis.


abcd3: If family and culture are what go to form the character of the adult, the adult Obama would bear little resemblance to a black man having grown up in black America. He grew up in a white American culture in a white family. His "blackness" is limited to the color of his skin. I think it's important to bear this in mind.

David Maraniss: One can see Obama struggling with these questions at a fairly early age...


Seattle: Thank you for the added background on the amazing story of Sen. Obama. His experience living in various environments and around the world will prepare him well to lead our country in this century of increasing global trade. There is a great need for extraordinary sensitivity to the interconnectedness of all global problems: hunger, environmental degradation, energy, poverty, disease, pollution, slavery, human trafficking, etc.

David Maraniss: We're nearing the end. .. I'm gonna publish a few without much comment. Thanks...


St. Paul, Minn.: Mr. Maraniss, thank you for taking questions today. Even though all the winds should point to an Obama victory in November (desire for change, the current administration's low standing, economic difficulties, etc.), we keep hearing that he's not in a more commanding position because people don't "know enough" about him. In your view, what is it that people want to know that they don't already? I know that you generally don't advise campaigns, but what could he be doing to address this problem?

David Maraniss: I think he has plenty of time still on that front. People always get nervous about things in midsummer, and then the landscape changes after the conventions...


Burke, Va.: From the '60s through the early '80s, Hawaiian politics were led primarily by World War II veterans who were able to package a multiethnic, multi-socioeconomic-status coalition. The predominantly white, wealthy GOP went from territorial power to an afterthought during this period. Has Obama indicated that his political education was influenced by local Hawaiian politics, or did his political roots come from Cook County?

David Maraniss: My sense is it was far more Chicago -- though he knows the history of politics in Hawaii, he never has been part of it. He left the island when he was 18, and unlike Bill Clinton he had no real interest in politics before that.


David Maraniss: Thank you very much everyone. I enjoyed hearing from all of you, no matter what your take.


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