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David Maraniss on the Unlikely Odyssey of Barack Obama

Historians/History




10-22-12

Robin Lindley is a Seattle attorney and writer. He is features editor at the History News Network and his articles—often interviews of historians and other writers—appear on the HNN site and Crosscut, and as well as in Real Change and other publications.


Senator Barack Obama in Fayetteville, North Carolina in 2008. Credit: Flickr/Wondermonkey2k.

I believe that life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions,
misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended
consequences, yet I also believe that there are connections that illuminate
our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder. I find these connections
in story, in history, threading together individual lives as well as disparate
societies—and they were everywhere I looked in the story of Barack Obama.

--David Maraniss, “Introduction”, Barack Obama: The Story (2012)

The unlikely journey of President Barack Obama began when his father and mother met in an introductory Russian class at the University of Hawaii in 1960. Their paths crossed improbably because Barack Obama Sr., a bright student from Nairobi, Kenya, enrolled in the university after reading a story in the Saturday Evening Post that extolled the school (and its alluring coeds), and because Ann Dunham attended UH after following her parents from Mercer Island in Washington State to Honolulu where her father had secured a job in furniture sales.

The outlines of President Obama’s life are familiar to many from his memoir Dreams From My Father, the affecting tale of his rootless early life and of growing up biracial with a white mother and grandparents and an absent Kenyan father. He vividly described the challenges of navigating the ever changing worlds of his childhood and youth in Indonesia and Hawaii, his college years in Los Angeles and New York, and then his community organizing in Chicago, where he finally found a home.

Obama’s account ends as he prepared to enter Harvard Law School in the autumn of 1988.

Acclaimed journalist David Maraniss fleshes out the same period of the president’s early life in his massive new multigenerational biography Barack Obama: The Story (Simon and Schuster). The book details not only the first twenty-seven years of the president’s life, but also weaves together the history of intelligent and restless families back to Obama’s maternal and paternal great-grandparents and step-grandparents. The birth of Barack Obama doesn’t occur until about one quarter of the way through the 571-page text.

Maraniss bases his meticulous biography on more than three years of research drawing on his travel to Indonesia, Kenya, and Hawaii and many sites in the continental United States; on hundreds of interviews; and on letters, diaries, journals and other documents from family members, friends, associates and others, including the president.

Critics have praised Maraniss’s sweeping biography for its extensive research, gripping detail, and compelling storytelling. Booklist gave the book a starred review: “This is a highly textured and intimate look at the family stories behind Obama, the social, economic, and cultural forces that influenced the fateful decisions they made. Maraniss examines the best-laid plans and serendipity of life, how by a twist or turn in numerous decisions along the way, history might have been very different.” And from Time: “Maraniss captures Obama’s search for purpose and the kindling of his ambition with an intimacy unlike that of other biographers -- including Obama ... [The book] offers the rawest account of his early life and a deeper understanding of his origins. Three and a half years and countless publications after Obama’s Inauguration, that is a remarkable feat.”

David Maraniss is currently associate editor at the Washington Post. He has written several other critically acclaimed books, including When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi; First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton; They Marched Into Sunlight -- War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967; and Clemente -- The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. He is also a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and won the Pulitzer for national reporting in 1993 for his newspaper coverage of then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton. His awards for his writing include the George Polk Award, the Dirksen Prize for Congressional Reporting, the Anthony Lukas Book Prize, the Frankfort Book Prize, the Eagleton Book Prize, the Ambassador Book Prize, and Latino Book Prize, among others. Maraniss plans to write a second book on President Obama’s political life.

Maraniss talked by telephone about his new book two days after the first presidential debate in October 2012.

What prompted you to write this sweeping multigenerational biography of Barack Obama?

Two things drove me into the book. First was the utter randomness of Barack Obama’s existence. We’re all random creatures of course, but the nature of how he was created seemed more unlikely and offered me an opportunity, through that family story, to write about the modern world in so many places and in so many ways. The second thing that drew me into it was, given the contradictions that he was born into, how he recreated himself. How did he figure himself out?

Those are the two elements of this book: the world that created him and how he recreated himself.

In your multigenerational story, you don’t even get to the birth of Barack Obama until about a quarter of the way through the book and you detail not only with his parents and stepfather but also his grandparents and great grandparents in far-flung places. Can you talk about your extensive travel and research for the book?

In terms of travel, my mantra is go there. I went to Kenya for several weeks and to Indonesia and to Hawaii several times and to Kansas where his white grandparents came from, and then Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago for the arc of Barack Obama’s young life. So that’s all the places of the story.

To get to Indonesia requires the longest nonstop flight you can take in the world from Newark to Singapore, then down. Traveling in Kenya was an unforgettable experience for me. All of that was very important me to feel the geography and the sociology of the places I write about.

I also did archival research in about sixteen libraries and archives ranging from Syracuse University, an unlikely place that has the entire Kenyan National Archives on microfilm, to the National Archives to the libraries in Hawaii, New York and Kansas.

I then interviewed three hundred fifty people along the way. My philosophy is using direct observation, then documents and then doing interviews.

Are there other historians who influence your approach to your work?

I’ve been influenced by a lot of historians. Robert Caro is a great hero of mine. I have great respect for Taylor Branch and Doris Kearns Goodwin and my colleague Rich Atkinson who has done great nonfiction narrative writing on World War II and is brilliant at organization. I take something from everybody I respect, and I think Caro is the one I model after the most.

Did Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father serve as a template of sorts for your book?

No, not quite. I consider Dreams from My Father a very insightful look into the interior of Barack Obama’s struggle on the issue of race. I didn’t look at it as a rigorous, factual autobiography, and he didn’t pretend that it was. It was one of many, many documents that I used and to some degree, my book tracks those years, but that isn’t why that happened. I didn’t use it as a template.

You describe Dreams from My Father as literature, and you uncover new information and dispel some of the mythology about President Obama’s early life.

Yes. I try to do that while placing it in the context of the difference between biography and memoir. I wasn’t approaching this as an exercise in terms of Obama’s own book, but I have a different responsibility as an historian than he does as a memoirist.

There were two forms of mythology I tried to deal with. One was from what he propagated in his memoir, and the other was from his opponents who have tried to disparage him with a venal mythology. I deal with them both and try to do it in a straightforward way.

The mythology he puts forward is the sort where all of us hear stories from our parents or grandparents or uncles that might not be true, but we don’t have a historian coming along to check them out either. The story that his Kenyan grandfather was imprisoned and tortured by the British, from my research, probably didn’t happen. The story was that his step-grandfather in Indonesia was killed as a martyr fighting the Dutch in the revolution, but I discovered that he died of a heart attack changing the drapes in his living room.

Then there’s the other mythology propagated by the birthers and others who want to call him a secret Muslim, and I pretty thoroughly devastate those myths as well.

Isn’t it interesting that the birthers say Obama was born in Kenya, yet his mother was never in Kenya?

Yes, they like to put him in Mombasa, Kenya, and his mother never was in Kenya. If his father had been there during that period, I document that the Immigration and Naturalization Service never would have let him back into Hawaii because they didn’t like him, and eventually got him out of the country anyway, and at that point he couldn’t have left and come back.

The story of both of his parents is fascinating. During her high school years, his mother lived with her parents on Mercer Island, a suburb of Seattle. Mercer Island is an affluent, upper middle class, virtually all white suburb, and it is surprising that his grandparents chose to live there given their modest financial situation.

They lived in a rented apartment and they weren’t upper middle class themselves. It was a little bit different [on Mercer Island] than it is now. That was before the Microsoft boom, but nevertheless you’re right about the sociology of the place. They went there primarily for the schools, and Mercer Island High School was an excellent school, so her parents moved there so she could attend high school there.

As you detail in your book, Obama’s mom wasn’t around much in his childhood and youth, and his grandparents became very important influences for him.

Very much so. His mother was only 18 when he was born, and she had her own life to live. She was developing and growing along with him. She made some difficult choices. She stayed in Indonesia and sent him back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents. As much as he loved his mother, he was angry about it at various points. But she wanted him to get the best schooling, and she gave him the opportunity to go to the elite prep school at Punahou.

So he lived with his grandparents, who did the best they could. His grandmother in particular was the rock of the family providing most of the income. But he was pretty much on his own. He was a kid who had to figure out things on his own in so many ways. From the day he was born obviously he had to deal with race because of the color of his skin, but in terms of culture, he had to learn for himself what it meant to be African American and that was a long process.

He came to grips with race in Dreams from My Father but, as you indicate, that’s only part of the story when he was dealing with so many cultures -- it’s much more than an African American story.

Absolutely, and that’s at the core of Obama’s self-definition. I would say that, for his personal comfort, he had to figure his way to an eventual home that identified itself as African American. But his larger sense of self in the world goes to that notion that he can transcend the divisions of race and language and culture and even ideology -- and that’s at the core of what he thought he represented when got into politics.

Obama’s father left his family shortly after Obama was born and Obama met him only once when his father spent a few weeks in Hawaii -- when Obama was ten.

He really didn’t know his father. My research indicated that both he and his mother took him back to the Seattle area and she enrolled at the University of Washington not long after he was born.

The story of how the father got an offer to go to Harvard and couldn’t afford to bring the family along was basically concocted to try protect young Barack Obama from the harsh realities of life, which is understandable for a mother. But I don’t think they were really together. And you’re right. The only time he met his father was for a brief time when he was ten years old.

How did Obama react to his father when they met in Hawaii?

He also writes about this in his book. He was nervous about it , especially when he found out his dad was going to speak at his school. He thought his father was harsh and bossy and not wanting him to watch television. He was also much frailer than Obama expected. He had these visions of a very strong leader of the new Kenya and, even though he was ten years old, he was disabused of that notion by his father’s frail appearance. He seemed a stranger, which he was and always would be.

I was surprised that Obama’s mother didn’t know that his father was married and had other children when she married him.

Obama’s dad led a different sort of life, and my largest conclusion is that his dad was a brilliant but incredibly troubled man and that President Obama was lucky that he never lived with him. When I interviewed the third wife [of Barack Obama, Sr.], the other American, Ruth Baker Obama Ndesandjo, she [spoke of] Obama Senior’s abuse, and that would be difficult for anybody to live with. The combination of alcoholism and physical abuse makes it such that, even though his father was a hole in his life, Obama was lucky that he never lived with him.

And his father goes onto a life in Kenya of career setbacks, drunkenness, and car accidents when drinking. He seemed about to turn his career around when he was killed in a car wreck in 1982.

Yes. He died at an early age. A lot of hope and promise was lost to alcohol and frustration and reckless driving.

President Obama has a superior education at exclusive and academically superior schools from Punahou High School to Occidental College to Columbia University. Was he considered an affirmative action student at the time he attended these schools?

I’m sure that the fact that he was African American did not work against him at any point, but he didn’t need help.

Punahou had been a one-dimensional, upper-class, Anglo institution, and it was trying to change at about the time when he came along. The fact that he had a diverse background didn’t hurt him, and they were looking for people like him. He still had to qualify to get in, and he did, and the same holds true at Occidental and Columbia and later Harvard [Law School].

He wasn’t an affirmative action baby -- whatever that means 00 and he held his own academically, although I wish had his transcripts, and I don’t. As the best approximation of how he did, his Harvard Law professors were incredibly high on him. He told me he had a 3.7 grade point average for his college career. At Punahou, he was a B or B-plus student. His teachers there said he was very smart but didn’t apply himself.

Was he particularly interested in history? How do you think his knowledge of history helped shape his thought and beliefs?

He was very interested in history and he was a reader from an early age. Because of the circumstances of his life, he was particularly interested in reading about the black experience, which he really didn’t live, so he had to learn to some degree. To that extent, the combination of his international background and his interest in history shaped his sensibility about how lives are shaped and the better part of his nature which is to be empathetic to people of different histories and places.

And he didn’t have contact with many African Americans in his formative years.

He didn’t. There were one or two African Americans at Punahou in high school. At Occidental, he encountered his first cohort of African Americans, several dozen, but he was apart from most of them in terms of his own cultural experiences. He was actually more comfortable with the international set of his classmates including some Pakistanis and a kid from France and some others. He had more of an international sensibility than a classic African American sense.

At Columbia, he transferred there ostensibly to be closer to the grid of black America, but my interviews with many of his classmates [revealed] that he didn’t make a mark in the Black Student Organization. When I interviewed him in the Oval Office, he said he made no lasting friends there. It was all an internal search. As you mentioned, he was carrying that dog-eared copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and he was a kind of invisible man. He was seeing the rest of society but it wasn’t seeing him.

He’s also compared to the main character in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.

Yes. He was observing more than participating. He kept a journal and wrote a lot of letters, and was working things out internally during that period.

Can you talk about your interview with President Obama in the Oval Office? I imagine you tried to correct the record to some extent since you found new information or facts at variance with some of the material in his memoir.

It was the last interview I did. This was purposeful. I wanted to know as much as I could about his family history before that interview on the notion that the more you know, the more your subject will tell you.

I let him read the introduction to the book before I went in there because I wanted him to understand all the places I’d been and the work I’d done and also give a sense of my conclusions including discrepancies between his memoir and what I had found -- always in the context of the differences between biography and memoir.

Early in the interview, he said, “David, I’ve read your introduction. It’s really interesting that you call my book fiction.” I said something like, “Mr. President, I complimented it by calling it literature.” We went over most of those episodes, and he essentially acknowledged that I probably had it right. There were a couple points when he was defensive, but it wasn’t a major dispute.

I found him to be very forthcoming in answering to my questions. An interview that was scheduled to go for 45 minutes went for an hour and a half.

Have you heard anything from President Obama or the White House since the book came out?

No, I haven’t and I wouldn’t expect to. He’s got a lot of other things on his mind right now. My sense was that they respected my seriousness as a historian who was trying to get the story right.

Historian Ian Reifowitz, in his new book Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity, discusses Obama’s communitarian view of national identity and the values of inclusion and unity. According to Reifowitz, President Obama sees hyperindividualism, laissez faire capitalism and Ayn Rand libertarianism as not only unpatriotic, but as un-American. Doesn’t his philosophy come out of his background in dealing with so many different cultures?

That’s absolutely true. A lot of that comes from his mother who had that same sensibility and it comes from his own experience both as a kid in Hawaii and Indonesia, and even more so in those years on the South Side of Chicago. All of those were major influences.

Some people try to portray him as a closet socialist or leftist. He’s not that, but he has a strong communitarian sense. It’s the notion that there’s more to this country than just rugged individualism and people need each other to find there way up and out.

And it seems he rejects radical multiculturalism or separatism of some ethnic groups.

Very much so. He could never get to that place. He told me in the interview that the only way he can justify his own existence is to represent the commonality of the human experience.

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