Tracking the forces that shaped Barack Obama

bk1obama19z-a.jpg Barack Obama The Story By David Maraniss Simon & Schuster. 671 pp. $32.50
bk1obama19z-a.jpg Barack Obama The Story By David Maraniss Simon & Schuster. 671 pp. $32.50
Posted: June 20, 2012

Barack Obama The Story By David Maraniss Simon & Schuster. 671 pp. $32.50

Reviewed by Kenneth J. Cooper

Because of his place in history as the country's first black president, curiosity abounds about how Barack Obama navigated the uncharted journey to where he is and who he is.

David Maraniss, who chronicled Bill Clinton's rise in First in His Class (1996), takes a nontraditional approach in this biography of Obama. He probes Obama's family roots in Kansas and Kenya several generations back to find behavior patterns that may have shaped the president's character. The massively researched and gracefully written account, which is being published Tuesday, ends with Obama the community organizer about to depart Chicago for Harvard Law School, before he enters politics.

The Kansans and Kenyans, half a world apart, shared a social standing as outsiders who left behind familiar homes. Obama's white grandparents moved from Kansas to California, then to Oklahoma, Texas, Washington state, and Hawaii as Stanley Dunham searched for the right fit as a furniture salesman, which he never really found. On the African side, neighbors called a black grandfather "foreigner" because his subgroup of ethnic Luo traditionally lived elsewhere in western Kenya.

The two families' common habit of migrating, adjusting, and standing apart from society would be repeated in Obama's early years living in Hawaii and Indonesia and as a college student in California and New York. His father abandoned wife Stanley Ann Dunham and namesake son to go to Harvard and then return to Kenya. His mother stayed in Indonesia and sent Barry back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents.

"The adult that Barry Obama became was shaped by this cycle of leaving and being left," Maraniss concludes. Those family circumstances made him adaptable, craving "order and home" and developing "his sensibility as an outsider" whose apparent detachment as president has been much noted.

Maraniss cites Hawaii as another source of Obama's cool. A local saying holds "Cool head, main thing," a guideline for the right pose to strike in public. Obama, a high school friend says, fell on the right side of the "line between sophisticated detachment and just slacker or lazy."

The African American male tradition — Ebony magazine has dubbed Obama one of the "25 Coolest Brothers of All Time" — is a third possible source, which Maraniss leaves unexplored. Although Obama came of age distant from any African American community, he watched a lot of professional basketball, whose black players could have conveyed the cultural tendency, as well as actors in movies and television programs.

One lingering question about Obama is when presidential ambition took root. Maraniss offers no certain answer, but contrasts the early nakedness of Bill Clinton's high aim with the opaqueness of Obama's. Many friends, coworkers, and acquaintances interviewed say they had no idea or even a sense of his exceptional ability, given his lackadaisical performance as a student until he reached Columbia University.

A Pakistani friend Obama met in New York did have more than a clue because Obama once asked him: "Do you think I will be the president of the United States?" Mir Mahboob Mahmood replied, "If America is ready for a black president, you can make it."

Obama departed New York to become a community organizer in Chicago, where he canvassed a black neighborhood on the South Side. In retrospect, that job certainly looks like the first building block of his political career. But his exact motivation remains murky, except that he wanted to go to Chicago because Harold Washington had been elected the city's first black mayor.

The other question that endures is how Obama decided to define himself as black, an identity that not everyone accepts, even now. Maraniss pushes his account beyond Obama's own in Dreams From My Father, which, as a memoir, offers selective recollections and takes some literary license.

Maraniss interviews Obama's two serious girlfriends in New York, both white and well-bred. He handles the youthful relationships tastefully, leaving everything that might be salacious to the imagination.

The second one, Genevieve Cook, an Australian, figured out in the summer of 1984 that "in his own quest to resolve his ambivalence between black and white, it became very, very clear to me that he needed to go black." She also envisioned his ideal mate as a "very strong" black woman.

An inner journey like Obama's is hard to chart, even for the person who undergoes the transformation. Much happens on an unconscious level, despite Mahmood's description of Obama as "the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity."

Mahmood recalls Obama the Columbia student intensely reading and rereading for a few months a dog-eared copy of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's existential novel about being black. "It was a period during which Barack was struggling deeply within himself to attain his own racial identity, and Invisible Man became a prism for his self-reflection," Mahmood said.

Only Obama really knows what happened between him and the pages of the eminent novel. Its influence may have been considerable. Maraniss seems to think so; his unconventional biography begins with a quotation from Invisible Man: "The mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived."

Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism and former fellow at the Harvard University Institute of Politics, has been a newspaper reporter and editor for nearly 30 years.

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