26 June 2012

Barack Obama: The Story

Barack Obama: The Story
Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss, is a biography of Obama's heritage and youth, covering roughly the same period as Obama's autobiography Dreams From My Father. It was published in the UK with a different subtitle: The Making Of The Man.

The book is over 600 pages long, and involved research trips to Kenya and Indonesia. It's hard to imagine a more thorough account of Obama's formative years. The level of background detail is sometimes excessive, with the first 200 pages devoted to Obama's parents and grandparents. Obama is not even born until page 165, and he starts university at the book's midpoint.

Maraniss characterises the young Obama as a man struggling with his sense of identity, growing up as a mixed-race child and viewed as an Oreo (black on the outside; white on the inside) by some of his college peers. Embracing his black identity became more of a conscious calculation that a natural progression: Maraniss quotes one friend's description of Obama as "the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity".

The narrative of Obama's memoir Dreams From My Father was central to this identity-construction. In his introduction (which Obama read before publication), Maraniss says that Obama's book "falls into the realm of literature": it presents autobiographical events, though each account is selected "to advance a theme, another thread in his musings about race". In his book, Obama admitted that "some of the characters that appear are composites of people I've known, and some events appear out of precise chronology", though Maraniss reveals the full extent of this artistic licence.

Genevieve Cook, a former girlfriend of Obama's, is one of Maraniss's most revealing sources, and Maraniss quotes extensively from her diary. Genevieve dismisses several of the anecdotes in Obama's book, and Maraniss later discussed the discrepancies with Obama himself: "Obama acknowledged that the scene did not happen with Genevieve. "It is an incident that happened," he said. But not with her". (Obama gave Maraniss an interview at the White House, as he had done for Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars and Ron Suskind's Confidence Men.)

Alongside the issue of racial identity, Maraniss portrays cool detachment as Obama's defining characteristic. He quotes one of Obama's former colleagues describing "that calm, rational, let's think this through demeanor, let's find a common ground. He's had that all along and that's helped shape him. Sometimes I wish he would pound his fists on the table".

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