The Barack Obama book industry is a growing one. Disregarding the cut-and-paste jobs and a rake of nutty conspiracy efforts, (look for ‘must read books about Barack Obama’ in Amazon and you’ll get a taste) the serious Obama literature includes two by the man himself, the obligatory Bob Woodward anonymous source-heavy inside job ‘Obama’s Wars’, Ron Suskind’s ‘Confidence Men’ a 2008 how-we-did-it guide by David Plouffe, David Remnick’s ‘The Bridge’ and now ‘Barack Obama – The Making of the Man’ by David Maraniss.
Pulitzer-wining Maraniss is no stranger to political biography having written ‘First in his Class’, the go-to book on the young Bill Clinton. His technique is to delve deep, really deep. Let’s put it this way; you would probably never want Maraniss or his team deciding to do a biography on your life. Not that he’s digging for dirt; far from it. But such is his attention to detail when piecing together someone’s life story, that he probably knows as much about that person’s outer life and perhaps a significant amount of the inner life as the person themselves. Maraniss picks up on inconsistencies in ‘Dreams of my Father’ but never highlights them as misleading, seeing them as elisions, different memories, oversights and slight exaggeration; ‘Dreams’ still holds up as truthful.
To put the Birther nonsense to rest, Maraniss can confirm that yes, the 44th President of the United States is actually an American. But what a fascinating life story he and his parents have. His father, also Barack Obama, a brilliant economist, from Kenya, studies in Hawaii and nearly completes a PhD in Harvard; he was also a chronic alcoholic. In the meantime, he meets and marries Stanley Ann Dunham (despite being already married in Kenya) and fathers the future President. Obama and Dunham’s separation and divorce was in many ways a lucky escape for Barack Jnr; the father went on to be violent with his second wife and may have been with the Ann too (this is left as an open question). He died in a drink driving accident in 1982 (although there is still a claim by some Kenyan Obamas that the car crash was set-up by his political enemies).
Maraniss focuses on Ann Dunham’s life and background with the same forensic detail he displayed when writing about the father. A teenage mother with Barack, possessing a generous, kind nature, Ann was a, that word coming again, brilliant, anthropologist who was as happy exploring the world of blacksmiths in Indonesia as she was in entertaining. She was a rock of sense, encouragement and love when bringing up her kids. Without Ann’s values and strength, it’s hard to know what the world would have had in store for young Barack.
Much of which we know; the Obama life is not that hidden. But the sheer amount of people and material covered by Maraniss means that we learn ‘new’ stuff and can see how the journey to the White House was never predestined. ‘Barry’s’ teenage years make for often fascinating reading. His grandparents, Madelyn and Stanley, fostered Obama during his High School years in Hawaii. ‘Barry’, as he was known, smoked a lot of weed; so much so, he was part of the ‘Choom’ Gang, a dedicated, teenage group devoted to pot-smoking. It does not seem to have done him any harm. His grandparents proved to be loving and tolerant, firm but fair. A casual, passing, racist remark by his Grandmother leads the young Barack to reflect on what it means to be Black and Mixed Race in America. It would be a recurring and formative question for him as he sought to define who he was.
‘Barack Obama – The Making of the Man’ becomes even more interesting when covering Obama’s late teens and early twenties. These are the years in Occidental College in LA, Columbia University (including a year long relationship) and community organising in Chicago. Maraniss writes of Obama as ‘moviegoer’ (observing the scene more than participant). While Obama chilled in Occidental’s laidback but intellectually stimulating atmosphere, he became less the centre of attention and more introspective during his time in New York. His initial fish out of water experiences in Chicago are described with great skill and sensitivity; Maraniss writes so well he is almost channelling Obama. The book ends before Harvard as the young community activist contemplates his future career direction and life ahead of him.
What can we learn about Obama from his early friendships and relationships? The constant travelling, new surroundings and homes gave the young man a resilience and adaptability that would be of value in his later career. He made friends reasonably easily but, according to most of those interviewed, lacked the insincerity of a glad handler, a clue as to his future reputation as a cerebral politician. He grew to be career minded but not in, and Maraniss draws the comparison, a Bill Clinton ‘I want to be President’ kind of way which, in Clinton’s case, could be as alienating for some as it was charismatic for others.
While Maraniss provides way too much information on Obama’s grandparents and before, this is a narrative that provides a compassionate and authoritative account of the journey from Barry, to Barack, to the potential President Obama. Luck plays a huge role in all our lives; nobody could say that a young Barack Obama was destined to be President. Maraniss writes of his subject [when entering Harvard] that ‘an unpredictable jumble of happenstance, skill, propitious timing, uncommon will, and sheer luck would carry him forward from there, but the basic design had been set for his future. He knew, at last, who he was, and had a sense of what he wanted to be’. A master biographer at the top of his craft, David Maraniss meets and exceeds all expectations in this valuable addition to the Obama biographical canon.
‘Barack Obama – The Making of the Man’- David Maraniss, Atlantic Books, pp641, £16.99