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Review: David Maraniss' 'Barack Obama' is a biography of ambition

The author follows the president's tale from generations before his birth through his New York years as he decides who to be.

June 17, 2012|By David Lauter | Los Angeles Times
  • Image from the book 'Barack Obama: The Story' by David Maraniss. Pictured is Barack Obama (C) with his maternal grandparents Stanley Armour Dunham, left and Madelyn Dunham in New York City in the 1980s.
Image from the book 'Barack Obama: The Story' by David Maraniss.… (Obama for America, Getty…)

Barack Obama

The Story

David Maraniss

Simon & Schuster: 643 pp., $32.50

Abnormal men become presidents of the United States.

The overweening self-confidence required to reach for the office, the preternatural discipline and effort of will needed to grasp it — in another setting, these traits might be called pathological. Tracing the roots of abnormality becomes a recurring motif in presidential biographies: polio's impact on Franklin D. Roosevelt, the death of John F. Kennedy's eldest brother, the absent or dysfunctional fathers of Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton.

In relatively few cases, however, has biography become so central to both a president's admirers and despisers as it has for Barack Obama. Clinton, for example, made much of his "Man from Hope" persona but mostly to counteract suspicions raised by his Ivy League law degree, his Rhodes scholarship and his well-publicized efforts to stay out of the Vietnam-era draft. His campaign biographies focused on more standard adult fare — terms as governor, education reforms, economic development.

Not so Obama. When he ran for president, the then senator from Illinois had little experience to tout. Biography formed the core of his appeal.

"I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible," Obama proclaimed in the 2004 Democratic convention keynote address, which brought him to the attention of a national audience. Four years later, in a country strongly turning against the Texas swagger and go-it-alone hubris ofGeorge W. Bush, Obama's multiracial parentage and cross-cultural background was powerfully appealing — the perennial hope of a chance to start anew.

The counter-narrative began in the shadows and reached full, public flower only after Obama's election. Whether in the seemingly irrepressible theories about his birthplace or the endless speculation about the ideological legacy he might have garnered from the Kenyan father he barely ever met, Obama's exotic parentage and unusual background stoked the anxieties of his enemies — the perennial fear of otherness and subversion.

In "Barack Obama: The Story," David Maraniss seeks to transcend the myth-making of both sides and tackle two major issues: the legacy of family history and the values that shaped Obama and the internal forces which set him on his rapid, unlikely climb to the White House.

The legacy occupies the first third of the book as well as several subsequent chapters. Maraniss backs up to the fourth generation, giving readers a deeply researched tour that begins in colonial Kenya and 1920s Kansas. (Obama himself isn't born until 165 pages into the text.) These chapters, particularly the detailed story of Obama's brilliant but deeply irresponsible, alcoholic and self-destructive father, provide some of the book's most fascinating passages. Particularly revealing is just how fleeting was the relationship between Obama's parents — a marriage that lasted barely longer than Stanley Ann Dunham's pregnancy — and how carefully his mother sheltered him from the harsh reality of paternal abandonment.

Yet it is the book's other narrative — the description of the kindling of Obama's ambition — that will almost certainly attract the greatest readership even though it is also the most elusive of the book's themes.

Maraniss has plowed the ground of ambitious young men before. Almost two decades ago, his first book dived deeply into the early life of Bill Clinton. But the 42nd president was in some ways a less complex subject. Clinton, as Maraniss described in that volume, began running for office in grade school and kept at it so relentlessly that his high school principal barred him from running for senior class president because he was hogging the offices.

From Hot Springs, Ark., to Georgetown to Oxford to Yale Law School and beyond, Clinton never stopped running — and never took time to confront the internal demons that drove him. He arrived at the White House with the finest political skills of a generation and personal flaws capable of causing disaster.

Obama, by contrast, for all his exotic background, lived a prosaic adolescence. From age 10, when he returned from Indonesia to Hawaii to live with his grandparents, he had a life that would be hard to distinguish from that of millions of other teenage American boys — basketball playing, smart but somewhat unfocused.

From Hawaii to Occidental College the story was much the same. And when he arrived at Columbia University after two years at Occidental, the character trait that most stood out was Obama's introversion.

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