As an editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Washington Post, David Maraniss gets sent on a most unusual and intriguing assignment every four years: Spend a year trying to figure out—and then write about—someone who might be the next president of the United States.
So when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, many of Maraniss’ colleagues and friends presumed that he would end up writing a biography of Obama, as he had done with Bill Clinton before.
Surprisingly, however, the prospect of writing a biography of America’s first nonwhite president proved to be one of the more difficult decisions for Maraniss in his 35-year career at the Post. And it had nothing to do with Barack Obama. Rather, the decision was tied to what Maraniss views as the increasingly toxic nature of American political culture dating back at least to the Clinton presidency.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to throw myself back into that culture, trying to write a serious, fact-based, historical book at a time when anything could be manipulated for various political purposes,” Maraniss told a packed audience last Monday at Occidental College, where he gave a talk about the latest of his 10 books, Barack Obama: The Story, published in June 2012.
But in the end, the story of Obama’s life “overwhelmed that concern and I realized that it was important for me to do it for that reason,” Maraniss said, adding: “So on election night I decided I would do this book.”
The decision took Maraniss half way around the world—to Kenya, where Obama’s paternal ancestors lived, and to Indonesia, where he spent three years with his mother as an adolescent. Maraniss went to Hawaii as well, where Obama was born and initially raised.
Part of what Maraniss said he tries to do as an author is to strip away the mystique surrounding his subjects. “I don’t know of a single American politician who has been subjected to more mythology,” Maraniss said of Obama. Although some of the mythmaking was the president’s own doing, it was “more of the doing of people who are afraid of him, who hate him and try to demonize him and make him seem like another,” the author added. “I’ve never encountered more of that than with President Obama.”
Two Sides of Obama’s Story—Kenya and America
There are many aspects of the mythology surrounding Obama, but one of them is probably the most important, according to Maraniss: That the president is somehow a “secret Muslim of some sort.” The truth of the story, as he reported it in Kenya, is that it was conservative Evangelical Christians who were responsible for the rise of the Obama clan in that African nation—“Muslims had nothing to do with it.”
Even though Obama’s grandfather converted to Islam, said Maraniss in his fast-paced, largely anecdotal and information-filled half-hour talk, that same grandfather was Westernized and learned English from Seventh Day Adventists. The president’s father, Barack Obama Sr., was also trained in a missionary school and was mentored by an American woman.
The American side of Obama’s story is what Maraniss described as “a classic case of American searching.” It began with the suicide of Obama’s great-grandmother (she killed herself on Thanksgiving Day in 1946 largely because her husband was unfaithful) and followed Obama not just during the two years he spent at Occidental College but all the way until he became a community organizer in Chicago in 1985, two years after graduating from Columbia University with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Formative Years at Oxy
Obama’s two years at Occidental College were seminal for him. They marked “the beginning of the ark of his professional life, his intellectual life and his personal life toward finding a place and a home,” Maraniss said, explaining that it was at Oxy that Obama was exposed for the first time to more African Americans than he had ever seen or been with before.
Oxy also reinforced Obama’s international sensibility, which he had acquired in Indonesia and Hawaii. “Many of his friends at Occidental were Pakistani and French and Indian, and he felt comfortable among the various subcultures of the [Oxy] community,” Maraniss said.
It was also at Oxy that Obama’s intellectual curiosity was awakened in one very important way: “He started to feel not only a sense of purpose but of destiny,” Maraniss said. And the probable reason why Obama left the college for Columbia was because the ambience at Oxy was too similar to the one Obama encountered at his high school, Punahou, in Hawaii—“too comfortable, beautiful and easy, not close enough to what he considered the grid of American life,” Maraniss said. “That, more than anything else, as he started to search for his identity, propelled him to Columbia.”
At Columbia, however, Obama receded into himself. “He was trying to find himself, and the intellectual curiosity that had been awakened at Occidental took on a different form in New York,” Maraniss said. “He was walking the city, taking the subways, carrying a dog-eared copy of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s book, and in a sense he was an invisible man. He could see the world but it couldn’t see him.”
During the eight and a half years that it took Obama to go from Oxy to Harvard Law School, he was trying to “figure himself out, racially, intellectually, culturally, and he succeeded at it to an extent that’s quite remarkable—he was able to become an integrated personality,” Maraniss said.
Obama’s self-confidence, built on an understanding of his own identity and his role in the world, propelled him toward the White House. “And that, to some degree, got him into trouble in the White House because he was thinking, Well, if I can resolve the contradictions within me, why can’t the rest of the world—why can’t Congress,” Maraniss said.
The essence of Obama is probably best captured in a letter he wrote during his New York days. In the missive, Obama mentions “all of his different friends—from Occidental, Punahou, New York and elsewhere, who were finding comfortable niches in their lives,” Maraniss said.
“He wrote that in some sense he was envious of them,” said the author. “But that couldn’t be him—that for him to feel a sense of self, he’d have to try to embrace it all.”
Obama conveyed the same idea during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when “we all got to know him, when he was invoking that transcendent commonality of human experience that he hoped to represent,” Maraniss explained.
In response to a question, Maraniss denied that his hefty, 672-page book wasn’t inadvertently promoting what some critics of Obama say is the cultivation of a personality cult surrounding the president. If anything, the book’s publication in an election year “creates some difficulty” for him as an author,” Maraniss said. Most Americans are so polarized in their political opinions that “they’re looking for something that completely adheres to what they want to believe,” he added.
“There are a lot of people on the right who try to dismiss the book as hagiography, while at the same time cherry-picking any negative thing in the book,” Maraniss said. At the same time, there are people on the left who think that “maybe I was being too hard on Obama.”