A new biography of Barack Obama focuses on all the wrong milestones of an unusual lifeby Tom Streithorst / June 21, 2012 / Leave a comment
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…