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Review: From many voices, one portrait in 'Barack Obama: The Story' by David Maraniss

Like most Americans' stories, President Barack Obama's has roots in faraway places, and its story lines cross in ways both improbable and inevitable. • In Barack Obama: The Story, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss brings together known facts and new revelations to draw a compelling, sometimes surprising and balanced portrait of the 44th president. • If you are looking for a quick-fix book that will convince you that Obama will (or won't) fix the economy/kick loose the political logjam/be re-elected, this book isn't it. In fact, it covers the future president only through his college and community organizing years, leaving him as he enters Harvard Law School, his academic and political careers still ahead of him (and suggesting the possibility of a Robert Caro-style multivolume biography in the future). • But if you seek a deeper understanding of the man, or if you simply enjoy a vividly detailed, beautifully written, fascinating biography that places its subject in a larger social and historical context, Barack Obama: The Story will fill the order.

This is the second presidential biography from Maraniss, after First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton. The author, an associate editor at the Washington Post, bases this deeply researched biography on more than 350 interviews, whose subjects include Obama himself and many of his family members and friends, and on thousands of documents and letters.

To give you an idea of how wide-ranging a story this is, to research the book Maraniss traveled to Hawaii, Kansas, California, New York, Illinois and Washington state, as well as Kenya and Indonesia.

There have already been several biographies of Obama, notably The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick, and David Mendell's Obama: From Promise to Power. There also is one of his mother (Janny Scott's A Singular Woman) and another of his father (Sally H. Jacobs' The Other Barack). Also, of course, Obama has written about his own life in the bestselling 2007 memoir Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.

What Maraniss does in this book is gather all those strands together and follow them back even farther, recounting the histories, in the Midwestern United States and in Kenya, of Obama's grandparents and great-grandparents. In fact, the future president doesn't even appear until Chapter 7.

What Maraniss is after, then, are the forces that shaped Obama, in youth and childhood and even before his birth. Long before a baby named Barack Obama II was born in 1961 in a Honolulu hospital to a white mother and a black father, race was part of that story.

Obama's maternal grandparents, Stan and Madelyn Dunham, grew up in Kansas, which was founded by Free Staters as a rejection of slavery. But in the 1920s, when Stan and Madelyn were youngsters, a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan swept across the state. In their little town of El Dorado, a 1924 Klan rally drew 3,000 people.

Across the world in Kenya, the whole arc of colonialism would affect Obama's paternal ancestors in the course of three generations: His great-grandfather saw the first white Christian missionaries come to the western part of that nation; his grandfather was educated in mission schools; and his father witnessed the end of Kenya's colonial status in 1963.

But race never plays out in stereotypical ways in Obama's story, and it is never the whole story.

His parents' marriage, for example, was not a brave social experiment; it was scarcely a marriage at all. Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Hawaii when she met Barack Obama, a brilliant and seductive student from Kenya who was nine years her senior. Maraniss notes that no letters or other personal records are known to document their relationship, but it was clearly a lightning strike — she was pregnant within weeks, and they married on Feb. 2, 1961. (At the time, he notes, interracial marriage was legal in Hawaii, but in 21 other states, including Florida, the couple would not have been allowed to marry.)

The duration of their union is one of several points on which Maraniss differs with Obama's own accounts. Obama has written that his father was gone from the family before he was 2 years old; Maraniss finds records that show Dunham left Hawaii less than a month after the birth in August and returned with the baby to her former home in Seattle.

The author also finds that none of the senior Obama's friends in Hawaii knew about the marriage (though some of them knew he already had a wife and two children in Kenya), and that he left the island less than a year after his son was born. He would only see the boy one more time, during a brief Christmastime visit to Hawaii when Barry, as the son was called, was in fifth grade.

Although that family unit was ephemeral, Maraniss follows the lives of both of Obama's parents, documenting his father's rise and, despite his brilliant intellect, fall after his return to Kenya (providing as well a minicourse on Kenyan politics); destroyed by alcoholism and rage, he died at 46 in a car crash. Maraniss also describes Ann Dunham's passionate career as an anthropologist and her second marriage to Lolo Soetoro; that one didn't last, either, but it gave her a daughter, Maya, and inspired a lifelong love for Soetoro's native land, Indonesia.

Although Obama never lived with his father and, after his childhood, spent limited time with his mother, Maraniss explores both parents' deep influence on him, as well as that of his Kansas-raised grandparents, who brought him up in Honolulu through his high school days at the prestigious Punahou School. (And yes, Maraniss documents that in those days Obama most definitely inhaled.)

The author expands his story with the memories of dozens of Obama's friends, teachers and girlfriends at Occidental College in California, which he attended for two years, and at Columbia, where he completed his degree.

It's a richly nuanced picture of a young man who was charming but in many ways wary and guarded — his college girlfriend Genevieve Cook describes a "relationship founded on calculated boundaries" — yet increasingly passionate about politics (his father's obsession) and social justice (his mother's). That in turn leads him to the hard and complex work of community organizing in Chicago that would change his life.

Maraniss is conscious that his book is in a way a critique of and commentary on Obama's memoir, and he offers measured analysis of why they sometimes differ. In some cases, like the story of how long his parents were together, Maraniss calls it the "mythology of the family," what a kind mother would say to a fatherless boy. In other cases he credits such things as composite characters to Obama's skill as a writer and concern with narrative flow and emphasis.

The two books are also an object lesson in the difference between memoir and biography. The first genre is entirely personal, an act of many-layered memory, a single individual's unique take on his own life — and, as we all know, memory is not history.

Biography strives to be, and Barack Obama: The Story, with its solid research and cogent analysis, achieves that historical status. When it comes to understanding people who have as much impact upon our nation as presidents do, we need both memoir and biography.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.

Barack Obama:

The Story

By David


Simon &


641 pages,


Review: From many voices, one portrait in 'Barack Obama: The Story' by David Maraniss 06/16/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 16, 2012 4:31am]
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