Barack Obama’s life, says his latest biographer, David Maraniss, was to an astonishing extent “the product of randomness.” His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, the only child of a couple from Kansas, met his father, Barack Hussein Obama, a student from Kenya, in an elementary Russian language class at the University of Hawaii, and the young Barry Obama would grow up in Hawaii and Indonesia, taking an odd, zigzagging and totally improbable road to the White House. And yet, Mr. Maraniss makes clear, despite the bewildering role that chance played in Mr. Obama’s story, he has been very much the author of his own life — an outsider, who, in the very American tradition of literary heroes like Gatsby, “raised himself” and forged an identity through a series of self-conscious and deliberate choices.
Mr. Maraniss’s enterprising new book, “Barack Obama: The Story” — which ends with its hero heading off for Harvard Law School in 1988 — takes a meandering, “Tristram Shandy” approach to its subject’s life. The president-to-be does not even make an appearance until Chapter 7, and more than 150 pages are devoted to tracing his parents’ peregrinations and family roots. Though readers who care only whether Mr. Obama can fix the economy or win re-election may find the amount of detail lavished on his back story overwhelming, at times even tedious, those who persevere will find that the book has the cumulative impact of one of those coming-of-age novels that traces the remarkable ascent of a young man of humble origins to the uppermost reaches of power, complete with all the accidents of circumstance and the willed transcendence of those conditions.
Much of the material in this volume will be familiar to readers of earlier Obama biographies like “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama,” by David Remnick, and David Mendell’s “Obama: From Promise to Power.” The sections about Mr. Obama’s mother retrace a lot of ground covered in Janny Scott’s 2011 book, “A Singular Woman,” just as those about his father reverberate with echoes of Sally H. Jacobs’s 2011 book, “The Other Barack.”
Mr. Maraniss’s efforts to articulate an original, overarching thesis can feel forced. He argues that Mr. Obama was determined “to avoid life’s traps,” including “the trap of his unusual family biography” and the “trap of race in America, with its likelihood of rejection and cynicism.” As a result this book tends to be at its strongest when Mr. Maraniss uses his chops as a reporter to amplify what we already know from the president’s best-selling memoir (“Dreams From My Father”) and a host of earlier biographies and journalistic accounts. Once again we see a cool, calm, collected young man, his adaptability a product of growing up half-black, half-white in Hawaii and Indonesia. His detachment is at once a means of navigating those disparate worlds, “protective armor covering his determination to make a mark in the world,” and an emotional defense against growing up without a father and with a mother who parked him for years with her parents in Hawaii while she pursued a career as an anthropologist.
The young Obama is a methodical decision maker, deliberate when it comes to career or relationship issues. (One girlfriend wondered if “somehow splitting himself off from people is necessary to his feeling of following some chosen route.”) He’s also a self-conscious seeker with a penchant for quoting Nietzsche and T. S. Eliot in his love letters and, perhaps most of all, an observer and instinctive writer, given to standing apart from his surroundings, whether working in the corporate world, which he did briefly after graduating from Columbia University (and felt like “a spy behind enemy lines”) or community organizing in Chicago, where a mentor told him, “You can either change stuff or you can write about it.”
Through illuminating interviews with Mr. Obama’s former high school and college classmates, two girlfriends from his time in New York City in the early 1980s, and colleagues from his days as a community organizer in Chicago, Mr. Maraniss — an associate editor at The Washington Post — does an energetic job of filling in the outlines of the president’s formative years. But what is new is largely a matter of emphasis and detail. For instance, while Mr. Obama candidly acknowledged indulging in pot and booze and “maybe a little blow” in his memoir, this biography underscores just what an enthusiastic marijuana smoker he was as a teenager. According to Mr. Maraniss he belonged to a group of boys at the elite Punahou School in Honolulu who called themselves the Choom Gang (“Choom is a verb,” the author writes, “meaning ‘to smoke marijuana’ ”) and thanked his pot dealer in his high school yearbook.
The most revealing chapter (excerpted in Vanity Fair magazine) draws upon the insightful journals of a former girlfriend named Genevieve Cook, daughter of a prominent Australian diplomat, who was teaching at a New York private school in the early 1980s. Ms. Cook was a kind of kindred spirit who shared Mr. Obama’s sense of dislocation and passion for intellectual inquiry, but she wrote frequently in her journals about “the veil” hanging between Mr. Obama and the outside world. There was something guarded and filtered about him, she observed, and their relationship had “calculated boundaries” she was unable to breach. After their romance ended and he had moved to Chicago, she called him and, she said he did “this cutting off thing he does,” making it clear, as Mr. Maraniss puts it, “in his own gentle but cool way that he was not so eager to hear her voice.”
In “Dreams From My Father” the future president wrote about “a woman in New York that I loved.” But while the physical description of this character closely resembles Ms. Cook, Mr. Maraniss writes, Mr. Obama “distorted her attitudes and some of their experiences, emphasizing his sense that they came from different worlds.” Mr. Maraniss says the president told him in a recent interview that that the description of his New York girlfriend was actually a “compression” of several women.
In such respects Mr. Maraniss’s book serves as a forensic deconstruction — and explication — of Mr. Obama’s memoir, a work that its author noted in an introduction took a fair amount of poetic license, featuring characters that were “composites of people I’ve known” and events that appeared out of chronological order. Back in 2004, the Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet wrote about the difficulty of sorting out “who is real and who is not” in the book. And, in these pages, Mr. Maraniss performs a vigorous autopsy, using some 350 interviews to dissect the identity of various characters and situate Mr. Obama’s self-portrait in context with the kaleidoscopic memories of friends, relatives and colleagues.
In one chapter, for instance, Mr. Maraniss says that Mr. Obama’s account of being separated from his father when he was 2 was actually “received myth, not the truth”: Ann and baby Barack had left Hawaii and returned to the Seattle region, he writes, where she had gone to high school, within a month of his birth. Mr. Maraniss puts forth two hypotheses as to why: that Ann’s realization that her husband was a bigamist (with another wife back home in Kenya) “burdened the relationship so much that she had to flee from under its weight”; or that Barack Sr. physically abused Ann (though there is no evidence that he did), the way he would abuse his next wife, an American woman named Ruth Baker.
As for the self-dramatization in “Dreams,” Mr. Maraniss writes that because the memoir filtered things through a “racial lens,” Mr. Obama presented “himself as blacker and more disaffected than he was, if only slightly so,” unwittingly making “it easier for political critics decades later to portray him” as “a stranger in their midst, whose life was outside the American mainstream.” Ms. Cook said Mr. Obama once told her that he felt “like an impostor” because “he was so white.” She became convinced that “in his own quest to resolve his ambivalence about black and white,” his future “lay down the road with a black woman,” predicting that he would eventually end up with someone very much like Michelle Robinson, whom he would meet several years later.
Also interesting in this volume are Mr. Maraniss’s insights into temperamental proclivities that would affect Mr. Obama’s political career. He gained national prominence with his 2004 Democratic convention speech calling for a unified America (transcending red states and blue states, conservative and liberal thinking), and as president he has been criticized by some supporters for not being tough enough in dealing with obstructionist Republicans in Congress. This book contends that his multicultural upbringing left him with an urge “to rise above the divisions of culture and society, politics and economics,” and that he had trouble with confrontation because “to confront was to acknowledge division, rupturing, imperfection, the traps of life he so wanted to transcend.”
Mr. Obama’s mentor in community organizing in Chicago in the mid-1980s, Jerry Kellman, recalls that he “was one of the most cautious people I’ve ever met in my life,” reluctant to burn bridges or employ the sort of aggressive actions (like storming City Hall) that Mr. Kellman favored.“He was not unwilling to take risks,” Mr. Kellman said, “but was just this strange combination of someone who would have to weigh everything to death, and then take a dramatic risk at the end. He was reluctant to do confrontation, to push the other side because it might blow up — and it might.”
One reason Mr. Obama decided to get into community organizing, Mr. Maraniss suggests, had to do with a search for “moral purpose.” Though he regarded his mother as something of a naïve romantic, and often evinced a “low-level anger about her frequent absences,” she always remained, in Mr. Maraniss’s view, “the conscience of his inner life”: he would never shed the conviction, nourished by her, that he couldn’t “sit around like some good-time Charlie,” that he was expected to do good.
By David Maraniss
Illustrated. 641 pages. Simon & Schuster. $32.50.