David Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story has made headlines for revealing that the 44th President fabricated significant parts of his first memoir, Dreams from My Father. Yet in correcting Obama’s myths, Maraniss indulges one of his own: that Obama’s fibs are to be understood as mere features of “literature and memoir,” and that his life still remains a heroic triumph of self-mastery, which only the hateful could fail to understand.
In Maraniss’s telling, Obama’s eventual political success is made possible by his early struggle to reconcile the various strands of his diverse past. The one common thread in the lives of Obama’s forebears is the sense of being an outsider–a jadak, as Obama’s Kenyan grandfather was once called. Obama triumphs by accepting, and overcoming, his outsider status–though his political enemies continue to consider him an alien today.
That is more useful as a description of how Obama is seen by the mainstream media and liberal gentry than as an account of Obama’s path to the presidency. It reflects an obsession with who Obama is rather than what he has done–which is why Maraniss mistakes opposition to Obama for prejudice. Maraniss shows scant interest in Obama’s political journey, and even leaves critical questions about his personal life unanswered.
What Barack Obama: The Story provides is not a portrait of a president in the making–indeed, aside from “composite girlfriends” and the marijuana-smoking “Choom Gang,” there is little of interest about Obama at all. Instead, it reveals, unwittingly, a persistent literary struggle between Obama and the journalistic establishment to write the story of Obama’s life–a story that in either telling is fictional, as well as intensely polemical.
The title of Maraniss’s book declares that his is to be “the” story, the definitive account of Obama’s life. Yet it does not reach past Obama’s decision, in early 1988, to leave his job as a community organizer in Chicago and to attend Harvard Law. In fact, most of the book is about Obama’s ancestors. Aside from Obama’s father, whose tragic life in the midst of Kenyan liberation deserves a book of its own, many of the details are tedious.
The minutiae of the lives of Obama’s distant relatives are only relevant to those who see Obama–as Maraniss clearly does–as somehow encompassing his relatives’ variations (or, less sympathetically, inheriting all of their faults). Maraniss’s choice to describe the story of Obama’s life in this way suggests that he is fully invested in the identity politics of the left–which Obama transcended, yet still manipulates to his political advantage.
Maraniss’s primary aim is to re-trace many of the paths Obama traveled in Dreams–and in certain areas, his research is impressive. Yet he leaves many stories untouched–the cocaine habit, the conversion with Jeremiah Wright (Wright’s role is minimized in favor of Rev. Alvin Love, with whom Obama organized on the South Side). Maraniss shows no interest in the authorship of Dreams itself, though he has access to Obama’s book proposal, and spoke to Obama’s second publisher (after he failed to deliver for the first).
Though Maraniss is an historian, he does not provide footnotes in the text, leaving the reader to hunt for references in the back, where there seem to be many gaps. There is much that is omitted from this purportedly authoritative biography, and it is evident that Maraniss’s corrective to Dreams is as poitical, in a quiet, earnest way, as the original.
Maraniss finds literally dozens of places in which Obama stretched the truth or simply made things up in Dreams. His grandfather in Kenya was not tortured by the British, nor was his stepfather’s family in Indonesia hunted down by Dutch colonial forces. His politically conscious friend “Regina,” who challenged Obama to sharpen his political sensibilities in college, was not an African-American woman but almost certainly a white female.
Some of the fabrications are possibly attributable to family lore–and many of Obama’s predecessors, on both sides, seem to have had a penchant for telling tall tales. But the bulk are Obama’s own. In places, Obama fibs while pretending to reveal something he is in fact concealing (such as his heavy marijuana habit). Generally, however, his myths have a common theme: they make him seem more exotic, and more authentically black.
Maraniss knows that much of Obama’s story, as presented in Dreams–is simply untrue. Yet he remains fascinated by the different parts of that story, the improbable lives that made Obama’s own life possible. “That is how history works,” he concludes at one point, amazed by how “random” relationships in remote places could one day yield the 44th President of the United States. He is a skeptic, but remains enchanted by Obama.
That is why, implausibly, the historian in Maraniss lets Obama off the hook so easily for distorting his past. Nowhere does Maraniss consider the context in which Dreams was published in 1995–namely, the fact that Obama was about to launch his political career, and likely hoped to use the book to create what he hoped would be a credible persona in his African-American district and among impressionable journalists and donors.
Obama was not creating “literature” in Dreams, though he may have believed he was doing so. His first memoir, like his second, is a work of agitprop, and his lies–for that is what many of them are–ought not be excused by the fact that he admitted openly that some of his characters were “compressed.” (Oprah Winfrey, who did so much to promote Obama’s presidential candidacy, has punished other authors for similar fabrications.)
The lies in Dreams cannot merely be dismissed–as Maraniss seems to do–as a once-off event, a sort of literary rite of passage for a young leader struggling with his identity. Obama lies habitually about his past–he is doing it still. Last week, for example, Obama told an audience in Parma, OH about his campaign for State Senate in 1996, casting it as a struggle against daunting odds: “we didn’t have a budget, we didn’t have TV ads.”
In reality, Obama ran unopposed–after knocking his Democratic rivals off the primary ballot, one of the few controversial episodes from Obama’s past (see video below) to which mainstream journalists paid (brief) attention in 2008. (Less well known is the fact that Obama was backed financially by fraudster Tony Rezko.) Obama is surely aware that the real story is known, but he cannot resist the urge to twist the facts, casting himself as a hero.
Maraniss spares Obama the wrath of his historian’s judgment in order to preserve an idealized image of his subject as the culmination of so many disparate, clashing forces, a living personification of racial and religious reconciliation. Conversely, Maraniss claims that Obama’s opponents–who reject and resist that reconciliation–cast him as a jadak, an outsider, raising questions about his birthplace, his religion, his race, and so on.
The use of xenophobia is, increasingly, a depressing fact of American political discourse today–in no small part because Obama himself uses it so often. In 2008, Obama called incumbent President George W. Bush “unpatriotic” for running up debts that Obama has now outspent. Last year, Obama cast serious Republican proposals for entitlement reform as un-American. Today, his reelection campaign is pressing the false charge that his rival, Mitt Romney, is chiefly responsible for American jobs going to foreigners.
What Maraniss–like many in the mainstream media–seems unable or unwilling to grasp is that Obama’s conservative opponents do not object to his origins, but his ideas, which are radically opposed to those at the core of the American tradition. The only objection regarding Obama’s origins is the fact that they remain shrouded in mystery, such that legitimate questions about Obama’s past are blithely dismissed as conspiracy theories.
For example, Maraniss criticizes Obama’s opponents for questioning his credentials, as if his success at each stage had been the result of racial deference–and yet he notes that Obama was a B-plus student at Occidental College–hardly Ivy League material. It is difficult to imagine any other reason Obama was accepted as a transfer at Columbia.
Because Maraniss neglects–or obscures–much of Obama’s political history (such as the socialist conferences he attended in New York), he emerges with a view of Obama as a symbolic culmination of world history, whose only weakness is his preference for reconciliation over confrontation. (Conservatives who are more worried about Obama’s agenda than his identity know how uniquely vicious, in fact, Obama is in its pursuit.)
The image Maraniss creates is much like the one that media-savvy political consultant David Axelrod fashioned after Obama’s disastrous primary loss to Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) in 2000. Obama had cast himself as a radical redeemer, but Axelrod re-cast Obama as a centrist unifier–an image with which Obama has never seemed entirely comfortable, musing in his second memoir that he had become a “blank slate” for others’ projections.
What Barack Obama: The Story reveals is the secret of the rivalry between Obama and his flatterers in the mainstream media–a tension that flares on occasion. Despite their mutual admiration and dependence, Obama and the media that love him are competing to write the fiction, the legend that both sides want Obama’s life to be: Obama wants to make himself more exotic, while the media wants to make him seem more familiar.
There are hints, in Maraniss’s book, of a real Obama who is more endearing than these mythological versions–and more culpable, because he has chosen a radical path that does not follow naturally from his experiences or his nature. Of course, if that true story had ever been told, Barack Obama–whatever his other gifts–would never have been President. “The” story of that Obama has still never been told, and may never be.