June 22, 2012 4:52 pm

In search of Obama

Even the most successful attempts to shed light on the US president are unlikely to eclipse his own memoirs
Cool: Barack Obama in 1980 when he was a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California©Lisa Jack/Contour by Getty Images

Cool: Barack Obama in 1980 when he was a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California

Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss, Simon & Schuster, RRP$32.50, 672 pages, published in the UK as ‘Barack Obama: The Making of the Man’ (Atlantic, RRP£25)

The Obamas, by Jodi Kantor, Little, Brown, RRP$29.99, 368 pages, published in the UK as ‘The Obamas: A Mission, A Marriage’ (Allen Lane, RRP£14.99)

And Then Life Happens: A Memoir, by Auma Obama, St Martin’s Press, RRP$25.99/RRP£17.99, 352 pages

At the start of his much-awaited biography of Barack Obama, David Maraniss quotes William Faulkner: “The past is not dead. In fact, it is not even past.” He takes another 167 pages to arrive at Obama’s birth. Family trees are essential to any biography and with Maraniss, the roots go particularly deep. In Barack Obama, the author includes often moving portraits of both Obama’s parents, Barack Obama Sr and Ann Dunham, and of their parents, and theirs before them – a prolonged overture to the brief marriage between a Kenyan man and a woman from Kansas that began the life of America’s 44th president. But in closing with the 27-year-old Obama heading for Harvard Law School, Maraniss may leave many readers feeling prematurely abandoned.

It would have been nice to get to the point where Obama was elected as the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review – the feat that originally won him national attention. But that is not the Maraniss way. Where he triumphed with First in His Class, his 1995 biography of Bill Clinton, the author strikes a less vivid chord with Obama. The difference is largely one of material. By the time we close the Clinton book, “Slick Willie” is three times governor of Arkansas and declaring his candidacy for the White House (an ambition that Maraniss traced to Clinton’s torrid youth in Hope). Clinton was practically born running for office and left a trail of relationships and records wherever he went. By contrast, Obama keeps his heart well away from his sleeve. Clinton was needy and ill-disciplined. Obama is iron-willed. In addition, he had already written his own memoir, Dreams from My Father (1995), which pretty much covers the same years as Maraniss.

Within these constraints, Maraniss still pulls off an impressive book. The reader is never in doubt about the importance of Obama’s biracial identity to the making of the man and his political persona. Nor is there any question that Obama agrees. “The only way my life makes sense is if, regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality ... [and] that we can each reach out beyond our differences,” Obama tells Maraniss. “If that is not the case, then it is pretty hard for me to make sense of my life. So that is at the core of who I am.”

 

Some of the most telling passages are where Maraniss finds fault with Obama’s autobiographical memory, as he frequently does. Composite people populate Obama’s memoir, from his best friend at high school in Hawaii, who was an amalgam of several characters, to his girlfriends in New York and in Chicago (ditto) before he met Michelle. Maraniss gently debunks one scene in which Obama catches his besuited reflection in the elevator doors of his employer’s office and sees a future on Wall Street stretch out before him. In overcoming his own “temptation of Christ”, Obama spurns wealth for principle. Maraniss quotes Obama’s sceptical former colleagues to conclude that he never wore a suit. Nor did the elevator offer any reflection.

With the same light touch, Maraniss punctures the notion that a three-and-a-half-year-old Obama could have advised his mother on her second marriage (to Lolo Soetoro, Obama’s Indonesian stepfather). “I asked her [Obama’s mother] if she loved him,” Obama wrote. “I had been round long enough to know such things were important.” In which case, Maraniss writes, Obama was an “extraordinarily experienced child with perceptive skills and conversational powers well beyond his years”.

Maraniss is too subtle a writer to make more of these discrepancies than they deserve. He describes Dreams from My Father as “literature” rather than “fiction”. Moreover, in terms of the spirit of what Obama wrote – if not always the letter – Maraniss is largely in sympathy. The only progeny of a brief Hawaiian marriage between a teenage white girl and a volatile but charismatic older man, Obama was delivered into a biracial puzzle. At a stage where miscegenation was still illegal in many American states, and where in Hawaii almost all mixed marriages were between whites and Asians, Barry stuck out wherever he lived – from Honolulu to Jakarta. It is only when he reached Occidental College in Los Angeles at 18 that the young Obama starts to crystallise. Until then Maraniss continually threads in and out of the tragically short lives of Obama’s mostly absent biological parents.

 

At Occidental, Obama led a part-earnest, part-bohemian life that melded a Left Bank reading list with his love of running and basketball. In a foretaste, perhaps, of the age in which he would govern, Obama joined a society describing itself as a group of “apathetic half-intellectual sports fans”. At another point Obama is described as having “gripped the bong [for smoking pot] with practiced coolness”. Race, and Obama’s identity struggle, are never far away. It is at Occidental where the Hawaiian “Barry” turns into “Barack” even though some of his African-American peers still viewed him as an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside). That took many years to overcome. The original title for Dreams from My Father was “Journeys in Black and White”.

By the time Barack has traded LA for New York, we learn how introspective he has become. We also get a foretaste of the intensely private man who would enter the White House. Obama was often a loner. Many contemporaries at Columbia University have no memory of him. The contrast with Clinton at Yale or Georgetown could not be greater. “His warmth can be deceptive,” wrote Genevieve, Obama’s Australian girlfriend, in her diary. “Though he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness ... ” Perhaps “The Cool President” could work as a title for any future biographer. According to friends, Obama had a habit of concluding arguments by observing that “the truth is usually somewhere in between”. From New York to Chicago, Maraniss ends the book with Obama’s stint as a community organiser in a mid-1980s South Side blighted by the closure of the steel mills. It was here, as one interviewee states, that Obama took the necessary step of “credentialing himself in the black world as he made his way to a political future”.

It would be hard to imagine a book more different from Barack Obama than The Obamas, Jodi Kantor’s lively account of the first couple’s time in the White House. Where Maraniss is punctilious in sourcing and questioning his own observations, Kantor is sometimes tendentious. But her book has the virtue of brevity. And it is recognisably the same Obama who emerges.

 

There are also new traits, such as Obama’s impatience with criticism. Shortly after Obama appointed the ebullient Rahm Emanuel as his White House chief of staff, he received a call from Christopher Edley, dean of the Berkeley law school. Edley thought the president-elect had made an unwise decision and should rethink. Obama was irritated. “The old friends never spoke again,” Kantor writes (“have not spoken since” might have made better wording). Here, also, the difference with Clinton is telling.

Most evenings Obama dines upstairs with his family in the White House private apartment. Then he usually works alone and often scans the internet for news (another first for an American president). He rarely picks up the phone to chat with advisers or allies. Whenever the Obamas host larger events, “there is no mistaking when the party is over”, one visitor tells Kantor. The Obamas spend almost all of their purely social time with Valerie Jarrett, the ubiquitous senior adviser and original Chicago mentor, or with the Whitakers and the Nesbitts – also from Chicago.

Kantor does a good job of describing how quickly the bubble formed around the Obama White House – and how easily it is to get accustomed to what comes with it. Early in his presidency, Obama took the first lady on Air Force One to New York on a dinner date and a visit to Broadway. In spite of having created a massive traffic jam, the president was astounded at the criticisms of his evening out.

Michelle is the hero of Kantor’s book. Having made an awkward start, her role has steadily grown alongside her national popularity. One retail analyst estimates that the first lady boosts sales of any item she is seen wearing by an average of $14m. This is star power indeed – more Duchess of Cambridge than, say, Laura Bush. Michelle’s aides used to refer to the White House’s East Wing as “Guam”: pleasant and powerless. But Michelle’s touch has grown steadily more sure. Once pliable, she nowadays holds back from agreeing to campaign appearances unless advisers give her a say in the strategy. Mostly she sticks to the safer territory of childhood learning and obesity.

According to Kantor, the Obamas have not made a single new friend in Washington. This should come as no surprise. After daughters Sasha and Malia quit their weekend soccer team, half the remaining players dropped out. Their parents apparently saw no further value in participating. Even the simple act of watching a school performance has to be re-staged in the White House. The First Couple have learnt how disruptive their attendance can be. Frustrated at the lack of good piano teachers, Michelle persuaded her daughter’s teacher to move to Washington from Chicago. A little worryingly, the president apparently views his first lady as his ultimate “reality check”. It is Michelle who tells Obama what the real America is thinking, according to Kantor. Let us hope there is another. Kantor is pretty confident that there isn’t. “The Obamas burrowed ever deeper into a tiny pre-existing circle,” she writes. “Their behaviour was on the far side of introverted.”

Those seeking glimpses of a president off his guard might be tempted to turn to And Then Life Happens, a memoir by his Kenyan half-sister, Auma Obama. But this is a book for certified Obamaniacs only. Originally written in German, in which Auma became fluent when she worked in Frankfurt, the book clearly rides on the family name. It tells us little about Obama, whom Auma has met on only a few occasions (although two of those were very intensive). It was she who introduced Obama to his paternal land. He is fond enough of Auma to have flown her family to his Senate and presidential inauguration at his own expense. She is his only constant link to Kenya.

Alas, though, Auma’s memoir sheds little light on her enigmatic American sibling. Understandably, she seems a bit overwhelmed by it all. “My little brother was now a big man, I thought. If only the old man were still alive to see all this!” Meanwhile, Obama remains as elusive as ever. Many more words are likely to be spilled on him. Few will be as absorbing as those by Maraniss, or as relentlessly prying as Kantor’s. But none – even the Maraniss opus – is likely to be as carefully worked over as the sequel Obama will surely one day produce. Writing, after all, is Obama’s first love. In the art of his own biography, this president retains the upper hand.

Edward Luce is the FT’s chief US commentator and author of ‘Time To Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline’ (Little, Brown)

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