Q. What compelled you to write this book on President Obama?
A. I had written several long profiles of Barack Obama for The Washington Post during the 2008 campaign, but had not committed to writing a book about him because of my dismay over the modern American political culture, which I felt made it increasingly problematic for serious political historians to pursue fact and truth amid the ideological rubble and rabble of the moment. But the morning after Obama’s election, I woke up realizing that his was a great story in and of itself and I wanted to go after it. I would not write a book unless the subject obsessed me in some fashion, and I thought I could add to the understanding of the subject. In the end, the Obama story more than met those requirements, and from that point I devoted years to figuring out his story — the real story, not the myths.
Q. Why did you choose to write what you call a “generational biography” as opposed to a more traditional biography of President Obama??
A. I chose to write a generational biography because the part of the story that first captured my interest was the world that created him. His very being seemed so unlikely, so against the odds. And the melding of so many different cultures in his creation offered me a large canvas, the sort I love to work on. In the making of Barack Obama I could write about much of the world: the colonial and postcolonial struggles of Kenya and Africa, the polyglot culture of Hawaii, the Asian perspective from Indonesia, the middle American culture of Kansas; and then follow Obama on his way through the major American cities of Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.
Q.What are the central themes of this book?
A. There are several themes that thread through this book. But first of all, it is simply a powerful story, which is why we chose the simple subtitle, The Story. It is a story of the world that created Barack Obama and then how he made himself. As I say in the introduction, I believe deeply that important clues to a person’s behavior can be found in his past. This book ends just as Obama is preparing for a political life, yet all the characteristics that are evident in his presidency are revealed and explained in a deep examination of his early years. From this meticulous examination of his past, one can see the roots of President Obama’s innate caution and occasional boldness, and his determination at every step along the way to avoid traps that might limit him and his future.
Q. You wrote a biography of another sitting president, Bill Clinton. What do you see as the major similarities and differences in the lives of these two presidents?
A. I found it fascinating to compare and contrast Clinton and Obama. Both came from largely dysfunctional families, without fathers, with doting mothers who were absent for important stretches. Both had an enormous amount to overcome in their lives. Clinton seemed to have his eye on politics from a very early age. In high school he ran for every office he could until by his senior year the principal had to tell him that he was grasping for too much and could not run for class president again. At Georgetown the same thing happened. He entered college running for office, was quickly elected freshman class president, and by his senior year his peers were sick of him. Obama had no such early ambitions and never ran for a class office until he was 28 years old and was elected president of the Harvard Law Review. It was only when he decided to go to Harvard that his political ambitions were clear.
But of more interest are the different approaches of the two. Clinton essentially made his way through life by plowing forward, pushing problems out of the way, moving past them but not resolving them. He got to the White House that way, but also brought many of his problems with him, and they hounded him once he had reached the top. Yet his lifelong ability to keep going, pushing past his problems, also served to his benefit once he was president. He was a master in the ability to block things out, to compartmentalize, to use what is now a political cliché, and also thoroughly trained in the art of political survival; he knew how to deal with enemies.
Obama, on the other hand, spent 10 crucial years of his life, from the time he left Hawaii at age 17 to start college at Occidental in L.A. to the time at age 27 that he drove up to Cambridge to start at Harvard Law, trying to sort out the problems that life presented him, to work out his identity and resolve the contradictions of growing up a hapa, a mixed and cross-cultural kid. He worked his way through his problems so thoroughly and effectively that it helped him reach the White House, and once there this fact both helped and hurt him. In some sense, he thought that if he could resolve the contradictions of his own life, people and factions should be able to figure out how to resolve their differences just as he did. This mentality, in the minds of his liberal supporters, at times made him seem too open to compromise, too slow to respond to his political opponents. In fact, he was often looking at the situation like a chess player, two or three moves ahead, trying to avoid the traps.
Q. You always believe it is important to “go there” – to visit the places your subjects have lived and worked. What did you learn in Kansas, Kenya, Hawaii and Indonesia that you found most interesting? How did each of these places shape Obama?
A. Going there is an essential aspect of my research. Part of the effect is obvious, part of it beneath the surface. It is obvious that a biographer would visit the places of the book in order to vividly describe the geography and culture and to interview people who knew the subject. Less obvious, but just as important, is the fact that visiting a place allows the writer to sense what is hard to describe. Being there brings an ineffable combination of sights, sounds, smells and feelings that can subtly influence how you think and write, and give you a confidence that comes no other way.
This book took me literally around the world. To get to Jakarta, where Obama lived from ages 6 through 10, I made the world’s longest nonstop flight, 19 and a half hours from Newark to Singapore, then down to Indonesia. That was the only major trip I took without my wife, Linda Maraniss, who is my photographer-videographer and world-class friend-maker. Together we went to Kenya, Kansas, Hawaii, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.
At every stop we found fabulous local people to guide us through the culture and, if necessary, the language. Walking in the precise footsteps of Obama’s forebears on both sides and of Obama himself helped shape almost every sentence I wrote. Of course there is crucial material that I obtained in other ways, through documents, journals, letters, electronic correspondence, telephone interviews — but none of it would have made much sense to me without seeing things with my own eyes.
Q. What are some of your favorite personal stories about visiting these places? Anything funny/bizarre happen?
A. In western Kenya, outside a hotel in Kisumu, we were blessed by a medicine man with a cow tail; in Nyang’oma Kogelo, we had to pass through gates and armed guards and were interrogated by a young factotem who would decide whether we could interview Mama Sarah, Obama’s paternal stepgrandmother, not even a blood relative. We found the true relatives living in mud huts, utterly ignored by history, 60 miles away.
To drive from Nairobi to Kisumu we went straight through a national park with baboons and zebra herds, we passed corrupt police officers who threw spiked boards on the roadway to try to stop vehicles and collect bribes (our driver was too smart for them); we looked out on the vast Rift Valley and drove around the Mau forest and across the oceans of tea plantations near Kericho — all unforgettable.
In central Kansas we discovered that the towns of Obama’s maternal grandparents, El Dorado and Augusta, were near the smaller town of Leon, where my own maternal grandmother was born. We were in El Dorado on Easter Sunday, when the only place open for food was the Wal-Mart.
In Hawaii we visited the apartment complex where Obama lived as a teenager, and the handsome prep school, Punahou, that he attended, and had a wise and colorful old guide who asked Linda if she would mind handing him a container in the back seat where he could put his teeth. In Kenya I ate ostrich, in Indonesia I’m not even sure what it was I was eating sometimes.
Q. You interviewed President Obama in the Oval Office. Tell us about that experience.
A. I first put in the request for an interview with President Obama two years ago, but did not interview him until November 2011. I was nearly done with the book by that point, but in reality that is the best time to do the interview, because by then I knew more about Obama’s family history than he did and was also extremely knowledgeable about his life, so that the questions could be more precise and there was less room for evasive answers.
I had provided the president with a copy of the introduction to the book, and the table of contents, to give him a feel for what I was writing. It was a rainy afternoon when I arrived at the White House, and after waiting in the West Wing foyer for a few minutes I was quickly ushered around a few hallways by Jay Carney, his press secretary, and Reggie Love, then his body man, and all of a sudden there was Barack Obama, standing in front of me at the entrance to a light room. It was the Oval Office, but I was so focused on my questions that I barely noticed where I was.
My opening to him was, “Charles Woodson got here long before I did but I’m glad we both finally made it.” “Yeah,” he said, “those Packers were a bit rough on me.” “Deservedly so,” I said. Obama is a Bears fan. I am a Packer fan. Last year, Obama had declared that if the Bears made it to the Super Bowl, he would go watch them. After the Packers defeated them in the NFC championship game, Woodson, the star defensive back, gathered the team around him and declared, “If the president won’t come to see us in the Super Bowl, we’re gonna go see him in the White House!” Glad to say it happened, though I wish it would have happened again for the Packers this year.
In any case, when we sat down for the interview, President Obama made it clear that he had read my introduction and table of contents. The session was scheduled for 45 minutes and went on for an hour and a half. The results are sprinkled through the book. I found him very forthcoming, only occasionally defensive, and very interested in knowing what I knew.
Q. There have been other books written about Obama since he took office. Why should someone read this one?
A. People often assume that they know a story because they have read a book or magazine piece, but then when they read my books they tend to realize how little they really knew. No other writer has visited all the places of Obama’s life, unearthed primary documents, journals and letters, interviewed hundreds of people, and put it all together in a seamless narrative. There have been some excellent books about parts of the story, but none so deep and comprehensive about both the world that created him and how he found his identity. No matter what the reader thinks about Obama, this book will change their understanding of him.
Q. You’ve written biographies about living and deceased subjects. What challenges must a biographer overcome when writing about a living public figure?
A. When I write about a living figure, to the best of my ability I have to think in the past tense, that the person is not around. It is especially important not to be moved one way or another by the conventional wisdom of the moment, which is transitory and meaningless in history. This is always a challenge, but one that I welcome. My goal is to write books that last rather than books that are simply trying to grab the zeitgeist of the moment.
Q. How does the Obama you discovered while researching this book differ from the picture he’s painted himself in his books, and from the image his opponents have tried to project?
A. The Obama story … like the Clinton story, or the Lombardi story, or the Clemente story … was shrouded in mythology. In pursuing the truth, I had to push away two sorts of myths. First there were the myths about his family passed along to Obama that he then passed along in his book. These myths were for the most part benign, but painted an inaccurate picture. As just a minor instance, Obama was told that his stepgrandfather in Indonesia, his stepfather Lolo Soetoro’s father, died heroically fighting the Dutch. The truth I found is that he died falling off a stool while changing drapes in his living room.
There was similar mythology about Obama’s Kenyan grandfather being imprisoned and tortured by the British during Mau Mau. The mythology of Obama’s opponents was often more malignant, and not only inaccurate but wildly off the mark.
The notion that Obama is a Muslim or was shaped by Muslims is a complete canard, for example. My research found, for example, that in the rise of the Obamas in Kenya, it was evangelical Christian missionaries who were crucial every step of the way, and Muslims had nothing to do with it.