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Books and Culture

Charles C. Johnson
Six Hundred Pages in Search of an Insight
David Maraniss’s exhaustive, unilluminating Obama biography
10 August 2012

Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster, 672 pp., $32.50)

Barack Obama had the story; the media were just there to cover it. David Brooks praised his pleated pants, Chris Matthews got a “thrill up his leg”—and who could blame them? The story of the first black president was sure to sell. Jodi Kantor of the New York Times and David Remnick of the New Yorker both inked lucrative deals for books about Obama. Joe Biden famously said, “You’ve got the first sort of mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” Now, David Maraniss, an associate editor at the Washington Post, has attempted to write that storybook in his 600-page-plus Barack Obama: The Story.

Stories are important to Obama. “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on earth is my story even possible,” he told the nation as the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic convention. But apparently, the story wasn’t even possible in America, for we learn from Maraniss that much of Obama’s 1995 book, Dreams From My Father, was made up. Obama’s stepfather’s father, Soewarno Martodihardjo, wasn’t killed fighting Dutch colonialists but rather died from a heart attack while hanging drapes. Obama’s American grandfather didn’t march with Patton but pushed paper as a clerk in the rear echelon. Obama’s Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango, wasn’t tortured by the British. Obama’s black friend “Regina,” from Occidental College, wasn’t actually black and wasn’t named Regina; she was, in fact, Caroline Boss, a white socialist student who gave Obama his start as an activist.

Tall tales like these can get titles pulled from shelves, as they have in the cases of other books that Oprah Winfrey has endorsed. “Do you think it’s possible to maintain this authenticity in Washington? Can you stay real?” Winfrey asked Obama in January 2009, days before he took the oath of office. But Obama never was real; to the press, he was the second coming of Camelot. Those royal origins existed long before he was a senator or even a state senator. As Maraniss notes: “His grandfather . . . had told strangers that the boy was a descendant of ali ‘i, native Hawaiian royalty. In Obama’s later memoir, he recalled boasting at Punahou that his father was an African prince. Some classmates remembered it differently, that first he claimed his father was an Indonesian prince.” Small wonder, then, that the young Obama enjoyed reading Malcolm X, whose constant self-reinvention in his Autobiography “spoke” to him. Men without fathers often feel the need to make them up.

Autobiography may be the highest form of fiction, as the saying goes, but it is still fiction, not “literature,” as Maraniss would have it—unless he means campaign literature. Could Obama’s “tendency in [Dreams] to present himself as blacker and more disaffected than he was” have been designed to market him, as he ran for a state senate seat from Chicago, to his largely black would-be constituency? Maraniss doesn’t explore the question, perhaps because he expects dishonesty from politicians, even those supposedly above normal politics. Obama, after all, was a “Lightworker,” in the memorable words of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mark Morford.

Maraniss could have cast a bright light on Obama’s past. Instead, he serves up hundreds of pages on Obama’s distant family in Kenya and Kansas, as if they had any real bearing on who he might become. Obama himself doesn’t show up until the seventh chapter, long after we’ve heard all we ever wanted to know about small-town life in Kansas. Maraniss is certainly a masterly researcher. But without direction or context, much of his research is exhausting. Ultimately, most every researcher falls in love with his subject, but Maraniss’s prose is akin to that of a giddy teenage fan, enthralled by every detail. Are there no editors at Simon & Schuster?

Serious biography requires study of choices made and not made, not trivia masquerading as insight. Most readers don’t care to know how much weed Obama smoked with his buddies, how many soldiers from Obama’s grandfather’s hometown died in World War II, or how overwritten his love letters were. All of this could be forgiven if, at the end, we learned who Obama is. We don’t—because Maraniss doesn’t want us to. Take the first political speech Obama ever gave, at Occidental on February 18, 1981, at a protest in front of the Board of Trustees’ meeting. The protest, which Obama details extensively in Dreams, was about Occidental’s investments with apartheid South Africa, but student newspaper records—the same source that Maraniss uses elsewhere in the book—reveal that the rally was also about increasing racial quotas in the faculty and student body and that Obama’s friends and mentors were the ones calling for these quotas. It’s hard to understand how Maraniss could have missed that detail.

Maraniss focuses on Obama’s desire to “avoid life’s traps,” which he sees as “unusual family biography” and “the trap of race in America, with its likelihood of rejection and cynicism.” If there is a genius to Obama, it’s his ability to turn these traps into talking points for his supporters, a sort of multicultural build-your-own-adventure tale. But ultimately the story is less about what Obama thinks and more about what he represents; more about the hope of who Obama might be and less an examination of who he is. That’s why Maraniss must end his book in medias res, before Obama makes any major decisions—such as enrolling in Harvard Law School, making the law review, getting married, running for office, or writing a memoir at age 33. The drama that makes biographies exciting isn’t here, because the choices haven’t yet been made. It’s a strange way to conclude. After all, every storybook has an ending, usually a happy one.

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