‘The Story’ Explains Who Obama Is

I’ve written and read too much about Barack Obama, and I am of an age that hefting a 571-page door-stopper of a book, not to mention reading one, is enough to make me pause. Thus I paused at the prospect of David Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story (Simon Schuster, 2012). But heft and read I did, and The Story explains our often elusive 45th president of the United States better than anything out there.

Explaining a sitting American president isn’t easy. The problem is the problem of all biography: finding what the great literary biographer Leon Edel called “the pattern beneath the carpet” that determines the appearance of the rug. The problem is compounded by researching and writing in the heat of partisan political warfare.

“…The Story explains our often elusive 45th president of the United States better than anything out there.”

But I think Maraniss has found it. He posits that Obama developed a determination “to avoid life’s traps. First he escaped the trap of his unusual family biography, with challenges it presented in terms of stability and psychology. Then the trap of geography, being born and spending his childhood in Hawaii, farther from any continental landmass than anywhere in the world except Easter Island, along with four formative years on the other side of the world, in Indonesia. And finally the trap of race in America, with its likelihood of rejection and cynicism.”

In order to distance himself from the political partisanship that surrounds the president, Maraniss’s limits The Story to the same 27 years Obama himself described in his 1996 memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. But unlike the memoirist, Maraniss writes a life of more complexity even than that of a search for racial identity.

It includes a Kansas suicide, that of Ruth Armour Dunham, Obama’s maternal great-grandmother; a sometimes dreamy salesman but first-rate grandfather, Stanley Dunham; a rock-solid grandmother, Madelyn Payne Dunham, upon whom both a fatherless grandson and the Bank of Hawaii could depend; and a brilliant single mother, Ann, who believed in her children and their futures.

Then there’s Obama’s paternal origins. Barack Obama came from Kenya’s Luo tribe. “They supplied the labor force,” writes Maraniss, “the cities had the white people with money who demanded help, and Luo custom accepted the disappearance of men for long stretches of time, with no thought that wives and children would follow.”

When Obama Sr. arrived in Honolulu to study economics at the University of Hawaii, a wife and child remained behind in Kenya. Also in Luo custom, “a man could end a marriage simply by saying so, or leaving.” So Obama Sr. would marry a pregnant Stanley Ann Dunham, then leave less than a year later for graduate school at Harvard. There he would meet and marry another young American woman.

The geography that “trapped” Barry Obama Jr., in Maraniss’s telling, liberated more than it trapped. Hawaii softened the racial rage suffered by ghettoized African-Americans on the Mainland, and Indonesia gave him another language and the sense of a world much wider than island Hawaii.

Maraniss’s The Story overflows with detail – six long chapters on Obama’s Kenya and Kansas roots before the baby Obama ever takes a breath. It’s that detail throughout, however, that provides the pattern beneath the carpet and compels even an Obama-sated reader to turn the page.