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A young Barack Obama, exuding confidence, poses with his maternal grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham. (HO/Reuters)
A young Barack Obama, exuding confidence, poses with his maternal grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham. (HO/Reuters)

REVIEW: BIOGRAPHY

Portrait of the President as a young activist Add to ...

  • Title Barack Obama
  • Author David Maraniss
  • Genre biography
  • Publisher Simon & Schuster
  • Pages 672
  • Price $34.99

There is a telling scene late in this expansive biography of the young Barack Obama. He is being interviewed in 1985 for work with a Catholic-backed group in Chicago reaching out in community organizing to African-American Protestant churches. Typical of David Maraniss in his blending of sources, the scene comes from the Chicago activist doing the hiring, Jerry Kellman, and Obama’s later version in his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, the latter characteristically more flattering to its author, though each account is memorable.

Kellman is pressed to fill the vexing, low-paying job on Chicago’s blighted South Side. A veteran of community organizing, he probes to see if the applicant is smart and tough enough, without illusion or ideological blinders navigating the black ghetto politics of church and city. But it is 24-year-old Obama, two years out of Columbia, who commands the interview, saying what the 10-year-older Kellman wants to hear while intent on his own interest. “This wasn’t some far-left enterprise, was it? He had moved beyond that,” Maraniss paraphrases what he tells the duly gratified organizer. Obama goes on politely, subtly, to his own probe, of the city, the job’s potential, how it fits. On display is some of what hurtles him to the White House hardly two decades later. As Maraniss makes abundantly plain, it was already in 1985 part of a well-practised, rewarding method.

A prize-winning author and Washington Post associate editor, Maraniss has written a pixel biography of myriad details. We know names, addresses, clothes, furniture, make, year and colour of cars, drinking and driving habits, landscapes in capsule, states of weather and mind (presumed at least) – that and more in impressive mass. He draws on years of interviews, a trove of letters, some of them Obama’s and never before seen, and engrossing diary entries by the future president’s first lover.

The book also benefits from Janny Scott’s A Singular Woman, on Obama’s Caucasian mother and The Other Barack, Sally Jacobs’s study of his Kenyan father. The amazing rise of this biracial politician fascinates, provokes, puzzles. It’s a richly layered saga – psychologically, culturally, socially – and the first postmodern presidential provenance of any shade. From the 2008 election to remnant racism among his opposition, no American leader has been more affected by the politics of identity.

Yet pixels form less than the moment deserves. It is about 200 pages before the star appears, and by Page 571, he is only 27, heading to Harvard Law, ending where much of the story begins.

It is a stunning truncation. Early years tell for Obama, but only in part. Not simply an intriguing personage but a mentality of worldwide consequence, he is that intricate compound of private and public, compulsions of politics as well as persona.

Barack Obama: The Story portrays decided talents, influences, reactions and even the early goal of the presidency. But it is well before the sum of shaping, before marriages personal and political, before his return from Harvard, another man to another world, from which means were cast as surely as from earlier years. It is like claiming to encompass Lyndon Johnson before his New Deal chrysalis or “Landslide Lyndon’s” theft of a Senate seat prefiguring power; Richard Nixon before the California races for Congress and the Senate with shadowy interests and methods that forged the man. As if other strains do not blend with the personal, as if the interplay of culture and character could not go otherwise.

Maraniss is best sketching the supporting cast, from Kansas to Kenya, Honolulu to Manhattan, evoking They Marched into Sunlight, his book on the Vietnam War. As with his less impressive Clinton work, however, he stays to the shallows of political context, even with the rich venues of Chicago and Hawaii, depths not lost on the young Obama, albeit absorbed by self-searching. It is that ceaseless quest for identity – Obama is much less uncertain about his destined greatness – that wins Maraniss, even if empathy occasionally battles distaste. Yet the result, intentional or not, is a withering portrait.

Beyond high intelligence, an aesthetic sense and plucky self-reliance, beyond idealism real and imagined, is the inescapable life of the instrumental, not simply the search for self-discovery, but how it can be used to satisfy quietly grandiose ambition. At work are the politics of self, with no end more compelling than advance, the audacity of assimilation and accommodation to power. We are watching the confection of one of the more paradoxical politicians, wisely self-aware yet myopically self-involved, at once advertised and covert.

At 27, Maraniss’s Obama remains an enigma, though there are clues to posterity in the early lover’s diary. As she journals their ever-examined affair, there are foreshadows of political denial and blame, arrogance and insensibility, and in his studied hardness a consonance with the man who, 25 years later, dwells personally on drone strikes, confident of his moral mastery in killing for reasons of politics as well as state. Not least, there is the silhouette of his rationalized betrayal of constituencies, “this cutting-off thing he does,” she puts it simply, historically.

Some will think this gifted, flawed president faces in 2012 an opposition so atavistic that the psychology in all this, his and the nation’s, is irrelevant. Maraniss shows otherwise. Barack Obama might have seen the death of his nation’s democracy more clearly, dealt with its pallbearers and his own complicity more effectively, had he not been looking so long and intently at himself.

Roger Morris, who served on the National Security Council staffs under presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, is an award-winning historian and the author of biographies of Nixon and Clinton. His new book is Between the Graves: America, Afghanistan and the Wages of Intervention.

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