Book review: 'Barack Obama: The Story' gets as far as 1988 and whets appetite for more

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In one of MSNBC's more memorable promos, "Hardball" host Chris Matthews turns a favorite mantra of the right-wing American foreign policy establishment into an advertisement for President Obama.

After quickly sketching a portrait of the 44th president as a man "of mixed background," Mr. Matthews paraphrases Mr. Obama saying that his unlikely story is only possible in this country.

Hunching his shoulder toward the White House in the background shot, Mr. Matthews then delivers his famous line about the current occupant: "Look where [Obama] is -- American Exceptionalism."

In many ways, that promo could serve as a blurb for Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss' long-awaited biography "Barack Obama: The Story."

In a literary season that has seen two important presidential biographies -- Robert Caro's "The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson" being the other -- reading the meticulously reconstructed inner lives of Democratic presidents is the latest Washington obsession.

There's obviously a difference in scale between LBJ and Mr. Obama, given the scope of their respective legislative accomplishments and their length of time in Washington. Mr. Caro's book is his fourth installment chronicling an endlessly complex and maddening political figure.

Not to be outdone in excavating his subject's complexity, Mr. Maraniss has devoted 574 pages to Mr. Obama -- 641 including the index. The book only gets as far as Mr. Obama leaving Chicago, where he has spent a few years as a frustrated community organizer before decamping for Harvard Law in 1988. The White House is an unimaginable prize two decades away.

"Barack Obama: The Story"
By David Maraniss
Simon & Schuster ($32.50).

The level of Mr. Maraniss' research is so exhaustive that he's able to nail down the details of the president's conception by Page 159. Mr. Obama puts in his first appearance a few pages later, born an American in a Hawaiian hospital under circumstances that won't make the army of "birthers" who doubt his constitutional legitimacy happy.

Mr. Maraniss begins his deeply researched and immensely shapely narrative in El Dorado, Kan., in 1926 with Mr. Obama's matrilineal line, a hard-luck clan of Irish-American Midwesterners called the Dunhams.

Because their story is one colored by quiet desperation, suicide, alcoholism and every manner of family dysfunction, Mr. Maraniss is able to avoid the tedium that should accompany any extended narrative rooted in the small-town minutiae of Kansas life.

The story becomes considerably more exotic once it veers to British-occupied Kenya in the 1950s, where the Obamas of the Luo tribe are unwittingly laying the groundwork for thousands of conspiracy theories decades later.

We meet the president's father, Barack Hussein Obama, a clerk at an Indian law firm in Nairobi. The elder Obama's high self-regard is out of proportion to his actual accomplishments at that point in his life, though he is considered by all to be a brilliant conversationalist and a snappy dresser. He is also a cad given his propensity to marry in the West multiple times despite having a wife and children tucked away in Kenya.

Chris Matthews' point about Barack Hussein Obama II being "American exceptionalism" personified is vindicated in the chapter in which Mr. Maraniss details the courtship of Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack H. Obama after meeting in a Russian studies class.

The eventual convergence of the two family lines is as remarkable as it is unlikely given the odds against it at the time. That it could produce a child who would eventually ascend to the presidency of the United States is so bewildering that one is tempted to agree that the birthers must have a point.

Fortunately, the groundwork Mr. Maraniss put into documenting the intersection of these two families provides the most reliable narrative to date explaining how Barack Obama came into the world.

In doing so, Mr. Maraniss contradicts not only the pernicious fantasies of the "birthers" but, to some extent, the self-mythologizing of the president in his autobiography "Dreams From My Father."

Many of the more sensationalist elements of Mr. Maraniss' book -- Mr. Obama's drug use, the testimony of ex-girlfriends who appear as composites in Mr. Obama's book, his struggles with racial identity, his resentment of his mother's absence from his life -- have been commented on extensively.

The problem with reading excerpts from the book in the pages of publications like Vanity Fair is that separated from the rest of Mr. Maraniss' meticulous storytelling, the anecdotes cast a superficial light on a very complex subject.

The political press is titillated by the interracial sex and the clouds of marijuana smoke on the pages of this book, but less engaged by accounts of Mr. Obama's religious existentialism and periods of asceticism in Harlem because most journalists can't relate to such things.

Mr. Maraniss is at his absolute best when he is correcting the record Mr. Obama himself has obscured in his own highly poetic account of his life. The author interviewed hundreds of people, including Mr. Obama, and has pieced together what is without a doubt the most reliable and comprehensive account to date of our 44th president's formative years.

In doing so, Mr. Maraniss has given a disproportionate amount of ink to minor characters and their history that, in retrospect, aren't necessary for understanding Mr. Obama. He could have easily shaved 150 pages from the narrative and not lost the forward momentum.

The next volume should be a doozy now that Mr. Maraniss has established the ground work that helps us understand who and what kind of man the president is. When the sequel emerges sometime in the middle of Mr. Obama's second term (or in Mitt Romney's first), it will either confirm the wisdom of the American people for re-electing him or make us wistful for a time when presidents were audacious enough to have truly interesting biographies.


Tony Norman is a Post-Gazette columnist: or 412-263-1631.


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