In search of Obama

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In search of Obama

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A new biography of Barack Obama focuses on all the wrong milestones of an unusual life. Above, Barack Obama (right) with his grandfather, mother and half sister in Hawaii, 1970s. © Obama for America

Barack Obama: The Making of the Man
by David Maraniss (Atlantic, £25)

David Maraniss’s biography of Barack Obama ends just as the story is about to get interesting, with the 27 year old community organiser leaving Chicago in his beat-up yellow Datsun to enrol at Harvard Law School. We don’t get to see him meet his future wife, we don’t get to see him become the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review, we don’t get to see him running for Congress against a former Black Panther, we certainly don’t get to see him appoint Larry Summers and Tim Geithner to head his economic team in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning associate editor at the Washington Post, made his reputation with First in His Class, his 1995 biography of Bill Clinton that still shapes our understanding of America’s 42nd president. I suspect he figured that young Obama, with his roots in Kenya, Kansas, Hawaii, and Indonesia would make an even better story. Unfortunately, the childhood of eminent men only intrigues us if it either foreshadows their future greatness (Hercules killing the snakes in his crib or Washington chopping down the tree) or if it explains their actions once in power (Ivan the Terrible’s isolated and precarious youth).

Maraniss’s Clinton, with his desperate desire to be liked, running for office from a very early age, fit both of those bills. Obama does not. He was a reserved boy and little in his youth suggests political ambitions. Most politicians seem driven early on by a lust for power and glory. Obama’s life story is a search for identity. That may make him more well-adjusted than most statesmen but unfortunately diminishes the drama of his early years.

Maraniss meanders all the way up to page 155 before his subject is born. We hear of a 17-year-old Ann Dunham meeting a 26-year-old married Kenyan student at the University of Hawaii. Within two months, she is pregnant. It wasn’t a lasting passion, it was barely a relationship, and within a month of Barack Obama’s birth, his mother leaves his father. Obama’s parents never cohabitated. Maraniss suggests, but cannot prove, that physical abuse might have driven Ann away.

Barack Obama Senior was charismatic, brilliant, and deeply flawed. Escaping rural poverty in the tribal Luo homelands of western Kenya required good luck and a number of coincidences but it also took massive brains and talent. Unfortunately, a love of drink and a profound arrogance marred his promise. He married four times, had eight children, and died at the wheel of a car after an all-night bender. He was only 46. Obama met the man only once, when he was ten years old, yet he is more of presence in this book than he ever was in his son’s life.

Obama’s Kansas roots are less dramatic, more typically American, but his mother was also an unusual woman. Twice married, twice divorced, neither time to an American, she lived much of her life in Indonesia, where after earning a PhD in anthropology she worked for the Ford Foundation as an expert in Javanese crafts.   She too, was often absent from her son’s life.

Rootlessness and change seem to be the only constants in Obama’s childhood. He is born in Hawaii, moves to Seattle a month later, returns to Hawaii so his mother can attend university, then, at six, is uprooted to Indonesia with his mother and her new partner.

When Barack was ten and Ann’s marriage to her second husband was beginning to fracture, she sends him to live with his maternal grandparents in Hawaii. This is a crucial moment in the making of the future president. Not only did it confirm his American identity, it also gave him the beginnings of a great education. Although his grandparents were not at all rich or particularly well connected, they manage to get their talented boy a scholarship to Hawaii’s top private school where he studies, plays basketball, and smokes pot and with the children of the state’s oligarchic elite.

Maraniss makes much of Obama’s struggle to reconcile his African-American appearance with his limited experience with black people. Obama, strictly speaking, is not black, he is hapa, the Hawaiian term for mixed race, and although Hawaii has a small black population, it is much more accustomed than the rest of America to racial ambiguity. In Hawaii, Obama’s racial background was not particularly unusual or problematic, but upon his return to the mainland to attend university (first at Occidental near LA, then at Columbia right by Harlem) he becomes more consumed by his search for his racial identity.

And that may be why Obama is more interesting than most politicians and, unfortunately, why this book never takes off. Most men driven to seek power are defined by that quest. The young lives of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton are all about their need for fame and glory. Barack Obama’s need was to find himself. His parents were absent, his upbringing was peripatetic, his appearance was different to his identity and at a certain point, probably when he was in university, he decided he needed to reconcile how strangers saw him (as a black man) with his real self. Obama may look like an African American but he was not born one, nor raised one. His posse in university was, of all things, mostly composed of well-to-do children of Pakistani businessmen. They, like Obama, were cosmopolitan and well-read, accustomed to and comfortable with not fitting in.

His move to Chicago in 1985 to take a job as a community organiser marks the beginning of his commitment to becoming an African American. Finally he lives in a mostly black world, begins to attend black churches but his first Chicago girlfriend (like all his previous girlfriends) is a white woman. I suspect the key moment in his transformation is his relationship with Michelle Robinson, a lawyer, a Princeton graduate, and a woman with deep and stable roots in Chicago’s black community. Their first date is to see Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing and they married four years later. By marrying her, the rootless cosmopolitan finally finds his identity as a black American. Unfortunately, Maraniss’ biography ends a year before they first meet.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Right before starting Barack Obama, the Making of the Man, I finished reading the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s magisterial biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and there is no comparison. If you need to read a biography of an American President this year, skip Maraniss and read Caro. If you have the time, start with volume one. Like Maraniss, Caro has us at page 100 before his protagonist is born. Like Maraniss, his research is dogged and encyclopaedic. But Caro manages to make his story literary and full of pathos while Maraniss’ book feels more like an incredibly long magazine feature article.

Caro’s LBJ is larger than life, desperate to achieve greatness, torn between a desire to make a difference in the lives of the poorest of his fellow citizens and tormented by the fear of the spectacular failure that destroyed his father’s life. At least in Caro’s telling, the collapse of his father’s dreams eats at LBJ, whether he is slaving to build a road under the brutal Texas sun as a teenager or stealing elections and achieving unprecedented dominance in the US Senate as a middle aged man or enduring cruel humiliations as Kennedy’s vice president. It makes his story unforgettable, almost Shakespearian.

Maraniss’s Obama, on the other hand, seems like someone who noticed that he happened to be the smartest man in the room and figured he might as well see where his talent would take him. It is the smaller, more familiar tale of a young man’s search to find himself. Unfortunately, reading this book does little to explain what I want to know about Obama: why the brilliant politician of 2008 wasn’t able to take advantage of the financial crisis to transform his country and now looks like he has a struggle on his hands to beat even a tired, bland, and divisive Mitt Romney this November. The childhood of the great man gives us little insight; to understand that paradox we would be better off examining American sociology and constitutional arrangements.

Click here to read Sam Tanenhaus’s review of Robert Caro’s epic LBJ biography


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Tom Streithorst

Tom Streithorst
Tom Streithorst is a cameraman and journalist 

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