[Marxism] Review of new Obama biography

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jun 5 06:49:12 MDT 2012

(I doubt that I will read this but it is of some interest that 
T.J. Stiles speaks so highly of it. Stiles is the author of a 
biography of Jesse James that not only put the bushwhacker into 
perspective but cited E.J. Hobsbawm on banditry! In other words, 
Stiles is really sharp.)


A generational biography in “Barack Obama: The Story,” by David 
By T.J. Stiles, Published: June 4

I feel sorry for David Maraniss. Not because his new biography, 
“Barack Obama,”will fail — it will probably become a bestseller, 
and deservedly so — but because too many will misconstrue it 
without turning a page.

A certain segment of the public will assume it is propaganda in 
favor of President Obama’s reelection. After all, Maraniss belongs 
to the “media elite.” An editor at The Washington Post, he is a 
Pulitzer-winning journalist and a Pulitzer finalist in his career 
as an author. His previous works include “First in his Class,” a 
highly regarded biography of Bill Clinton.

The president’s admirers, too, might dismiss “Barack Obama” in 
advance. A recent excerpt in Vanity Fair quoted the diary of 
Obama’s girlfriend back when he was 22; the Daily Beast excerpted 
the excerpt, promising the “juiciest bits.” It could have created 
the impression that the book is salacious and unfair.

“Barack Obama” is not, in fact, an argument for or against the 
reelection of the president. It is an argument for the necessity 
of the book itself — the book as a medium. This biography 
possesses a richness and scope that cannot be captured in 
short-form journalism, magazine excerpts or a mere review. 
Maraniss has written a global, multigenerational saga that 
culminates in the emergence of a young man who is knowable, 
recognizable and real.

Every biographer knows how difficult it is to render an actual 
human being with the depth of a fictional character. Usually the 
evidence shows only the surface — and, as E.M. Forster said, “Each 
of us knows from his own experience that there is something beyond 
the evidence.” A convincing depiction of the inner self must 
capture contradictions yet integrate them into an organic whole. A 
character should be capable of surprises without seeming 
inauthentic or arbitrary. Maraniss approaches the task with deep 
research, crisp, clean writing and judicious reflection that never 
seems intrusive. He not only succeeds, he makes it look easy.

Take, for example, the much-ballyhooed diary of Genevieve Cook, 
the girlfriend Obama started seeing when he was 22. It appears 
toward the end of the book, which concludes before Obama’s 
enrollment at Harvard Law School. “So much going on beneath the 
surface, out of reach,” she wrote of him. “Guarded, controlled.” 
Later she added, “He feels all these people asking him to undo 
himself, be something he feels he’s not, show things to appease 
other people’s projections.”

It’s telling stuff, as if Cook were ghostwriting a Maureen Dowd 
column. “His warmth can be deceptive,” she noted. “Tho he speaks 
sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that 

Maraniss finds more, though, than the familiar story of no-drama 
Obama. He also quotes Cook’s observation that Obama “won’t let 
important things go unspoken.” When their relationship began to 
disintegrate, he paused as he was leaving her apartment, and “said 
he felt strained — and I must say I was, I felt at the time, 
dishonest in voicing the thought.” He remained, and the two had a 
revealing conversation.

Here we see a young man who is cautious and reserved, but who also 
won’t let important things go unsaid. He sometimes recoiled from 
passion (he once responded to Cook’s declaration of love with a 
mere “thank you”), yet he could also insist on the emotional truth 
of a moment. That is complexity.

Despite the obvious relevance of this material, “Barack Obama” 
does not read like an attempt to explain the president. The title 
and subtitle could be reversed, for the story itself is the 
central concern. Obama’s father and grandfather in Kenya did not 
influence him directly (unless by their absence), but Maraniss 
weaves their lives into the narrative, providing some of his most 
gripping passages.

He follows the domineering grandfather, Hussein Onyango, who left 
Luoland on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria to fight for the 
British, convert to Islam, and serve in the houses of his colonial 
overlords. He tracks the president’s father, Barack Obama Sr., 
from Christian mission schools to the University of Hawaii, 
Harvard, and posts in the new Kenyan national government. Islam 
played no role in his life, but alcohol did. Brilliant, abrasive, 
insufferably arrogant, he infuriated superiors, deserted wives and 
children, and drunkenly hurtled his cars into accident after 
accident until the one that killed him.

Maraniss finds a theme here. It is the life between cultures, 
between nations — the outsider, the “jadak,” to use the term the 
Luo spat at Hussein Onyango when he returned home. The author 
later strains it into a conceit by using “jadak” to describe young 
Barry (as Barack junior was called in his native Hawaii), who knew 
nothing of the word, let alone Luoland. Yet this theme connects 
the story of a family who were always a them, never part of an us.

The theme ties together Obama’s American family as well. His 
maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham, swept his bride away from El 
Dorado, Kan., to California, Washington state and finally Hawaii. 
Big-talking, underachieving, he began as a pretend writer and 
ended as a furniture salesman, telling fantastic stories all the 
way. His main legacy was dreaming.

Madelyn Payne secretly married him in high school, in her own 
search for the golden city. She became “the rock of the family, as 
solid as Stan was soft,” Maraniss writes, as she rose to a bank 
vice presidency, but grew “tightly wound” and alcoholic, in the 
president’s words.

Their daughter, also named Stanley, fell in love with Obama Sr. at 
a time when an African student attending an American university 
was newsworthy. Maraniss’s account, incidentally, makes the fringe 
skepticism of Obama’s birthplace seem even more ridiculous, if 
possible; his mother delivered her son in Honolulu, never went 
anywhere near Kenya, and divorced Obama Sr. when he deserted her 
(and Oahu) for Harvard Yard, not Nairobi. Yet she never spoke ill 
of her ex-husband to her son. An anthropologist, she lived in 
Indonesia during Barry’s childhood, sending him back to Hawaii to 
be raised largely by his grandparents.

The core of the story, of course, is the youth of half-black 
Obama, always shadowed by the sense of betweenness. “Caught 
without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me,” he 
wrote in college, “in a sense the choice to take a different path 
is made for me. . . . The only way to assuage my feelings of 
isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and all the] classes; 
make them mine, me theirs.” Ironically, nothing is more American 
than this past-destroying hybridization. Surely it’s no 
coincidence that this perpetual outsider, this keen observer, 
became a successful politician.

Again, no review can convey this book’s breadth and depth. 
Luoland, Hawaii, and Chicago’s South Side are vivid characters in 
their own right. Obama’s transition from member of the “Choom 
Gang” of pot-smoking high-school friends to driven activist 
seeking to root himself in the black community is fascinating. 
Maraniss smoothly engages Obama’s memoir, reinflating compressed 
episodes, pulling apart composite characters, and filling in 
omissions without descending into mere fact-checking. By the end, 
I no longer cared that the narrative halted before Obama’s 
political career began; it is complete in itself.

T.J. Stiles won the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for 
“The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.” He is 
writing a book about George Armstrong Custer and the 
transformation of the United States in the Civil War era.

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