New Biography Punctures The Myths Surrounding Barack Obama

New Biography Punctures The Myths Surrounding Barack Obama

In 'Rising Star,' historian David Garrow's mammoth new biography, we finally get a detailed portrait of Barack Obama as a young man—and the picture that emerges isn't always flattering.
Kyle Sammin
By

Barack Obama’s presidency has just ended, but books about him already proliferate. Some are written by historians, but most are not.

Some are from the Left, some from the Right, but few if any have combined meticulous historical research with a truly broad-minded attempt to present a neutral, fact-based portrait of the 44th president of the United States. In Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow has written the first of what will, one hopes, be many such works of careful painstaking scholarship on the man who dominated the American political scene for the last decade.

Comprehensive

Rising Star is comprehensive, to say the least. Garrow talked to everyone in Obama’s past, some who have been quoted before in other works, but also many others who were reluctant to speak on the record to previous authors of Obamanalia. Reviews of the book vary between those that condemn Garrow as an Obama apologist and those that revile him as a slanderer of the man’s reputation. For the most part, neither is correct. Garrow takes a neutral tone throughout, letting the facts speak for themselves.

There are a lot of facts. The first thing a reader will notice about the book is its heft. At 1,472 pages, the hardback volume weighs nearly five pounds. The unabridged audiobook is more than 56 hours long. This would be a more devastating critique if the book came out 30 years from now, but in 2017 much of the information here is the product of original interviews and research. There is nowhere else it has been published and, having gathered it all, it would be a disservice to future historians to let it go unpublished.

That said, the book is unwieldy. The chapters themselves are immense, providing readers no respite from the waves of information with which they are deluged. There are, for example, 108 pages on Obama’s time at the Harvard Law Review, a subject esoteric enough to be of interest only to other one-time law review members—a fairly small group. If your level of interest in Obama was such that you planned to write a book about him, this level of granularity would be a tremendous boon. To most everyone else, it is a slog.

Garrow might have been better off taking a page from Robert Caro’s book and publishing this work as two separate volumes. The reduced size of each volume would have made the material more readable (physically as well as mentally) and have given the author more room for the analysis that, having digested more information about Obama than anyone but the ex-president himself, he is uniquely qualified to dispense.

Lost Boy

Length concerns aside, the book contains many insights to Obama’s life and character. The story of Obama’s birth and early life are those of a lost boy, a young man looking for a place of belonging, a community of which he could truly become a part. For most of us, the first place (often the only place) we belong is our own family. For Obama, that homeplace was shattered from the beginning by a father more concerned with his own political and educational advancement than with providing a stable home for his son.

Although Obama’s parents, Barack Obama Sr and Stanley Ann Dunham (she went by her middle name) were married by the time of his birth, they appear never to have lived together. Even before Obama senior abandoned the family to attend Harvard University, Ann left Hawaii with little Barack in tow to attend school in the state of Washington. Before she returned to Honolulu, her husband had left for Massachusetts. Garrow’s interviews with people who knew Obama’s parents give us the facts, but not the reasons for their separate peregrinations. One contemporary of Barack senior described the man’s life as “a series of compartments.” It is a theme we will see repeated in his son.

Obama’s first autobiography, Dreams From My Father, focuses on that abandonment and his search for understanding of his absent progenitor. But his childhood is also deeply marked by a mother who behaved in much the same way toward her unintended offspring. Ann remarried to Soetoro Mangunharjo (known as “Lolo,”) a man Obama would later speak highly of in his book and elsewhere. They relocated to Lolo’s native Indonesia in 1967, where Obama’s half-sister Maya was born. Obama later returned to Hawaii, where his mother left him in the care of his grandparents from 1971 on.

Island of Stability

Beginning that year, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham constituted an island of stability in an otherwise turbulent childhood. Family dynamics aside, Obama’s upbringing was conventionally middle-class. While the lives of many mixed-race children can be a tug-of-war between two cultures, Hawaii was, even then, far more of an ethnic and racial melting pot than any other part of the United States. Many of the friends and classmates Garrow interviews were themselves of mixed racial heritage. Obama’s background was, to them, unremarkable, although in other places it would have been unusual. (At the time they entered into it, Obama’s parents’ marriage would have been illegal in 16states.)

One friend Garrow interviewed, Keith Kakugawa, saw the tumult in his friend’s life. “Kakugawa knew that Barry ‘was going through a tough time’ that spring and was experiencing a lot of ‘inner turmoil’ but ‘it wasn’t a race thing…Barry’s biggest struggles were missing his parents.’” Obama grew up, like many late Baby Boomers and Generation X kids, in the golden age of divorce, a time of trendy self-actualization when parents all told themselves divorce had no effect on the children.

In Obama’s case, at least, it did have an impact. The abandonment he felt first by his father and then by his mother probably led to the drug use that, as Garrow documents, was far more extensive than Obama or his previous biographers had indicated. The reader can hardly avoid feeling sympathy for young Obama, and must imagine how much worse his life might have turned out without the steady influence of his grandparents, the only permanent parental figures in his life.

Journey Into Inscrutability

Through high school and his initial university years at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Obama’s life was, like that of many aimless young people, focused on smoking weed and shooting the breeze with his friends. Garrow’s documentation of this is somewhat at odds with the previous portrayal of Obama as having led an uncontroversial, ready-made-for-politics life from an early age. Instead, we see that his youth was far more typical and blemished than ever reported. The problem was that, until now, no one bothered to investigate.

Something changed in Obama at Occidental. He dialed back the drug use, worked harder in class, and transferred to Columbia University. Perhaps it was just the onset of maturity, but whatever the reason, Obama became a model student of whom any parent would be proud. At the same time, he seems to have become imbued with a preternatural belief in his own greatness. From this point in his biography, people who knew Obama speak often about his poorly concealed ambition.

After he settled in Chicago to work in community organizing, friends and co-workers began suggest that he should run for office, characterizing him as a future mayor, governor, or even president. Obama never downplays this praise. He clearly believes he deserves high office, and in each job he has early in his life, he spends much of his time focusing on the next step. Even as he achieves a professional goal, Obama remains a man without a tribe, wandering from job to job in search of a position worthy of his skills.

A Compartmentalized Life

He also became more guarded in his speech. Like his father, Obama kept his life compartmentalized. This is especially true with his romantic life. “No one really knew we were having a relationship,” one ex-girlfriend told Garrow. Obama, she said, “seemed to be incapable of bringing a relationship into the rest of his world.” Whatever you think of ex-girlfriends as reliable sources, they all tell the same tale of a man who kept his love life and work life separate to the point of complete exclusion.

That separation of his feelings from his work typifies Obama’s adult life.

Much of this stems from race. As Obama became more a part of the black community of the South Side of Chicago, he considered public association with his girlfriends—none of whom, before his future wife, were black—to hinder a future political career. Obama seemed to have believed, not without some justification, that being a leader in a black community would be perceived as incompatible with dating non-black women.

That separation of his feelings from his work typifies Obama’s adult life. Many of the friendships and working relationships Garrow details are transactional at their core, whether or not they eventually develop into true amity. As Obama developed the talent for speechmaking that would propel him, eventually, into elected office, he remained introverted on an individual basis. Like many politicians, he was more comfortable with “the people” than he was with any individual person.

The only person who truly appears to know what makes Barack Obama tick is Michelle Obama, with whom he formed the deepest and most enduring relationship of any Garrow details. That speaks well to the strength of the Obamas’ marriage, but it makes for a difficult subject for a biography. As time progresses, we find diminishing insights from people who knew Obama. It’s understandable: People who worked with Obama when he was a senator from 2005 to 2009 still have careers in politics, and are not likely to be forthcoming in the way that ex-girlfriends and high school buddies are. It is an unavoidable weakness in the book that makes the ending feel rushed.

It’s Not a Beach Read

Most of the book’s “bombshells” are of a personal nature, especially with regard to Obama’s girlfriends, and even these are not too eye-opening. Passages from his letters to them are cringe-inducing, but the same could be said of most of what twenty-somethings write to their significant others.

As far as politics goes, his close association with Pakistanis in college and a few of his remarks about Middle East conflict will cement what many observers already suspected: Obama has long held a deeply jaundiced view of Israel and its place in the world. (It also explains Obama’s verbal eccentricity in pronouncing Pakistan with a strange accent, but not doing the same for Afghanistan or any other -stan nation.)

All in all, Garrow’s book shows the results of years of research and will be the defining work Obama’s early life for years to come. For future scholars, it is a must-read. If you’re looking for pleasure reading, however, this tome may be a bit much to handle.

Kyle Sammin is a lawyer and writer from Pennsylvania. Read some of his other writing at kylesammin.com, or follow him on Twitter @KyleSammin.

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