Columnist

After nearly four years as president, Barack Obama remains a mystery. Supporters and detractors alike ask: Who is this guy? Where did he come from? A new book by our colleague David Maraniss explains the latter question and, in so doing, helps very much to explain the former.

“Barack Obama: The Story” is your typical Maraniss book: beautifully written, meticulously researched, a serious effort to understand a complex character.

The goofy political canards of the “Muslim Kenyan” — so much fun for the fringe for a while — melt away as Maraniss talks to a teacher at the Catholic elementary school that Obama attended in Indonesia. The “birther” silliness evaporates as he talks to folks who were in Honolulu when Obama was born.

But the book also corrects many tales in the president’s best-selling memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” including the story Obama heard from his mother about the circumstances of their being abandoned by Obama Sr. (Understandable that she would want to give a certain spin to it.)

Then there’s the family lore about his stepfather’s dad being killed fighting the Dutch in Indonesia. He wasn’t, Maraniss writes. “He fell off a chair while trying to hang drapes, presumably suffering a heart attack.”

Malia Obama joined her father for a bike ride on Martha’s Vineyard last summer. This year, the family vacation locale is likely to be more downscale. (Jim Watson/Getty Images)

And Obama’s grandfather was never tortured and imprisoned by the British in Kenya.

We heard (not from Maraniss) that Obama said during an interview that Maraniss was saying “Dreams” was fiction.

No, Maraniss responded: Literature.

Obama’s dope-smoking days, the constant search for where he fit in, the aloofness, the wariness — all are explored. His years in school in Hawaii, it would appear, may be the most useful for understanding Obama’s approach to dealing with people and situations.

One curiosity: It turns out that many of Obama’s closest pals during and after his student years in New York were Pakistanis. (Makes you wonder, when Obama was contemplating ordering the SEALs into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, whether he recalled those friends.)

The White House has not reacted to the book, and it is unclear whether either the president or Michelle Obama has read it. They should. They should take it with them on a summer vacation.

It’s an excellent read.

Destination unknown

Speaking of vacation . . .

Suggestions have been pouring in for the Loop’s contest to help the first family decide where to spend their summer break this year.

The White House is mum on the matter, but there are indications the Obamas won’t be headed back to tony Martha’s Vineyard in the midst of a nasty recession. The optics would be just wrong.

If they go anywhere, it’s most likely to happen during the Republican National Convention, in the last week of August. (It’s traditional for the incumbent not to intrude on the challenger’s convention, and Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush vacated Washington accordingly.)

Many entries, mindful of swing-state voters, have suggested real American vacation spots in the Midwest, such as fun-filled Cedar Point on Lake Erie. Not so many entries so far for spots in Colorado and Nevada.

The five best entries will get one of those coveted Loop T-shirts. But don’t dally. The contest deadline is Friday, June 29.

You can leave your entry as a comment on the blog, or e-mail us at intheloop@washpost.com. (Make sure to include a phone number so we can contact you.)

That lively lineup

Spectators at last week’s Congressional Women’s Softball Game might have been too distracted by the action on the field to catch one of the game’s highlights.

Players were asked to provide “fun facts” about themselves that the game’s announcers, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), read as each woman came to bat. We didn’t catch all the trivia, but the lawmakers’ team kindly offered up the list, post-game, for our perusal.

We posted the full list at wapo.st/loopfacts, and here are some of our favorites:

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.)

●Survived a 7.3-magnitude earthquake in the Philippines in a papaya tree.

●“Some people leave their heart in San Francisco. I left my appendix in Salamanca, Spain.”

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.)

●Checks baseball scores between meetings. (Okay, sometimes during the meeting.)

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)

●Ran the New York City Marathon twice.

●Tap-danced as a young girl and performed a solo routine to “Ain’t She Sweet.”

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.)

●Can slalom water-ski.

●Was a Capitol elevator operator.

Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.)

●Played fastpitch softball in the 1950s.

Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.)

●Tried out for the 1980 Olympic women’s basketball team.

●Sings karaoke at the Democratic Club. (No. 1 song: “I Will Survive.”)

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)

●A cafecito Cubano with a lot of sugar gives her energy for the day.

Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio)

●Worked on an Indy race-car team in the 1970s.

●Completed 95 marathons.

●Bakes cakes and pies from scratch for every staff member’s birthday.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.)

●Got stuck in Iceland on a congressional delegation and had to be flown back to Washington in a C-5 cargo plane.

●Grew up living next door to basketball legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.