Barack Obama’s soulful rendition of an Al Green classic had them swooning at the Apollo, but after reading David Maraniss’ new biography one longs to hear his Mick Jagger impression. College classmates recall his “wicked” send-up of Jagger’s plea for calm at the riotous Altamont concert. That this moment in rock history should appeal to Obama isn’t surprising; keeping things on an even keel has always been his trademark. Although he is dealing largely with a self-made man, Maraniss examines the fortuitous cultural convergence that helped shape the president’s serene character.
No current events are discussed. The book comes to a halt in 1989, after Obama quits his job as a Chicago community organizer to attend Harvard Law School. Maraniss focuses on the personal, not the political. He spends a lot of time on Obama’s family tree. Obama doesn’t emerge from the womb until page 167 (yes, birthers — in Hawaii).
Before then we travel back and forth between two continents. The chapters on Kansas are not as engrossing as the ones on Kenya. A journalist with an anthropological eye, Maraniss presents an informative overview of Obama’s African roots. His paternal grandfather was a belligerent nonconformist. He was considered a “jadak,” a foreigner, by his tribe. A nominal Muslim, he embraced the West. He had his brightest boy, Barack, educated by Christian missionaries, in hopes that they would turn him into a proper English gentleman. But Barack’s sights were on America. When given the chance to study here, he picked the University of Hawaii. The recently admitted 50th state seemed more welcoming, with its ethnically diverse population, than the segregated mainland.
At the time, Barack had a promising future. Sadly, he would spiral downward into self-destruction. Among his sins: bigamy, alcoholism, chronic infidelity and domestic violence. But in the fall of 1960 he was a catch, oh so very different, especially to an underage freshman named Ann Durham. The restless child of a mediocre furniture salesman, she met Barack in a Russian language class. By the holidays she was, as our erstwhile Cold War foes say, “beremenna,” knocked up.
One can imagine the Drudge headline: Soviets brought them together! It was part of the Islamo-Marxist plot to install a sleeper agent in the White House. The racist demagogues who spread this sort of garbage will not be swayed by Maraniss’ exhaustive research, which confirms what sane, decent people know: Obama is not and never has been a Muslim.
In fact, religion played no real role in his early life. Both his parents were atheists, and his secular-minded Indonesian stepfather let the Quran gather dust in their Jakarta home. Obama’s white Protestant grandparents never took him to church or preached the Word. His commitment to Jesus is entirely volitional. The same can be said of everything else about him. Like Bellow’s Augie March, another Chicagoan, he goes at things as he has taught himself, free-style.
Fox News will find little ammo here. Obama has already admitted to past drug use, but Maraniss interviews former members of the Choom Gang, the pot-smoking posse at his Honolulu prep school. According to them, there was nothing casual about Obama’s joint rolling; he was a functional stoner. In light of this, his crackdown on marijuana growers is utterly hypocritical.
He may also take a minor hit for abusing literary license. After graduating from Columbia University with a 3.75 GPA (so much for the sinister doubts cast on his academic performance), he briefly worked at a trade journal, an experience he exaggerated in his memoir. Maraniss exposes several such discrepancies in Dreams from My Father, an otherwise well-written book. (The president calls these discrepancies “examples of compression.”)
Excerpts from Maraniss’ biography on Obama’s pre-Michelle romances caused a stir when they appeared in Vanity Fair. Two ex-lovers shared their letters and journals with the author. Nothing salacious is revealed. Young Obama turns out to have been a good boyfriend, aloof yet faithful, a witty charmer with impressive intellectual curiosity (his remarks on T.S. Eliot’s fatalistic conservatism are particularly astute and germane).
Maraniss notes that Obama was often seen carrying Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, around the Columbia campus. How apt, for he has been, in a sense, the Invisible President, his identity distorted, his actions misinterpreted. The absorbent of our improbable hopes and irrational fears, who knows but that, on the higher frequencies, he speaks for us?
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.