Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Exquisite profile of young Obama as revolutionary figure Early Obama
This story of U.S. President Barack Obama may not be the one readers expect.
It starts decades before his birth and finishes before he enters politics. Michelle and family make no appearance, and Barack himself doesn't arrive until Chapter 7. As biographies go, this one is unusual.
It's also fascinating, presenting the story of Barack Obama, the first black to hold the highest office in the U.S., as one of history, race relations and identity.
American journalist David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and associate editor of the Washington Post, has penned biographies of several major political figures including Al Gore, Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton. His 11th book, this one is written in his typical style: engaging and novel-like, his subjects presented as historical characters enfolding in an intricate tale.
Maraniss is a master biographer. Researching this book must have been gruelling -- two years of research, trips to Kenya, Hawaii, and Indonesia to retrace Obama's (and his ancestors') steps, and interviews with all the principal players -- friends, family, colleagues and Obama himself.
He gets his facts straight, and even settles the mistakes and "writer's prerogatives" Obama made in his 1995 autobiography Dreams From My Father.
Despite November 2012 looming, this book likely won't be used by Obama's supporters or detractors. Maraniss presents an exquisite profile of a revolutionary figure in American politics and society. "The past is never dead," he writes, showing the connections that make Obama's story.
The Obama family makes up the first third of the book, from Kansas to Kenya, California, Hawaii and Indonesia. Parents Barack Sr. and Stanley Ann Dunham were so unalike, but were both strong willed and independent.
Barack Sr., with whom Obama never had a relationship, was a polygamist and reckless alcoholic, eventually dying in a car crash. Barack and Ann were close until she died in 1995.
Obama was born in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 1961. In his Hawaiian youth, Obama was "hapa," half and half, which was closer to the norm there. (In fact, he has at least eight bloodlines.)
He learned to be both black and white but is seen as black -- not by his design, but due to a society where, despite myths of the U.S. melting pot, people must fit a label.
Throughout his upbringing, Obama struggled to dodge the "traps" of life, including labels. He never fit in effortlessly, however.
Maraniss says he was "one step removed" from his life, observing while participating. In Kenya, Obama's grandfather Hussein Onyango was called a "jadak" (outsider). Obama is likewise portrayed.
Known as "Barry Obama" in Hawaii, and in Indonesia "Barry Soetoro" (his stepfather's name), when he was called Barack, it was often "BARE-ick" not "buh-ROCK."
His brief dalliance with pot smoking (with his "Choom Gang") in high school aside, there's not much controversy. There were some partying and girlfriends, but he and his "gang" were good students, responsible and polite ("they even cleaned up their beer bottles," Marannis notes).
From Occidental College to Columbia University, then his first unsatisfying job in New York City: through it all Obama is solid, and -- surprisingly -- often not remembered by those around him. Few foresaw his destination in those early days.
"He didn't stand out," said one schoolmate. Unlike predecessors like Bill Clinton or Lyndon Johnson, who were unmistakably headed to big things, Obama was more of a mystery, "searching for a home."
When did he get the political bug? At age five in Indonesia, he wrote "someday I want to be president," and some college friends say it came up in conversation. But there is nothing here -- not at least in his young life -- that suggested this was in the offing.
His youth was not unremarkable, but the extraordinary features of a life headed for greatness just don't appear. In his own story, Obama emerged in slow focus: a solid student, well-liked by buddies and girlfriends, loyal to family.
Then, Obama moved to Chicago in 1985. His time in the South Side as a community organizer was his epiphany moment (though, true to his character, it took some time to become clear).
He met Jeremiah Wright, whose controversial statements would later haunt him. Working with others, he began to organize and push for change. Obama's calling was sparked, and he was no longer just above average. He was "finding and being found" in Chicago, and his natural leadership shone.
As a biography told through the memories of so many people -- extended family, acquaintances, friends and associates -- this life's account is the sum of parts.
Obama's story is a search for identity and place. By 1988, he was off to Harvard and headed toward an "unimaginable destination."
It appears he found what he was looking for. It's a pity, though, that the book ends there. The next act of this truly remarkable story awaits.
George A. MacLean is associate dean in the faculty of graduate studies and professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
By David Maraniss
Simon & Schuster, 672 pages, $32.50
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 J4