Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

4103 words

Winner take nothing

20 July 2012

Jill Kitson reviews a new account of Barack Obama’s formative years


Barack Obama with his father in Honolulu in 1971.

Barack Obama with his father in Honolulu in 1971.

Barack Obama: The Making of the Man
By David Maraniss | Atlantic Books | $32.95

BARACK Obama’s bestselling memoir, Dreams from My Father, ends in 1988, when he was an unknown twenty-seven-year-old community organiser about to leave his job on Chicago’s South Side to go to Harvard Law School. There he came briefly to national attention when he was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, prompting a publishing house to sign him up for a book on race relations. Having graduated magna cum laude, Obama was awarded a two-year fellowship at the University of Chicago to write his book. Straying from his publisher’s brief, he began to examine his own experience in the melting-pot that is America: born in Honolulu to a white American mother and a black Kenyan father, becoming part of his Indonesian stepfather’s family in Jakarta, going to an ethnically diverse elite school in Honolulu. The thread to his story was his search for identity as a black American, beginning in Honolulu, continuing through college in San Francisco and Columbia University in New York, and fulfilled in Chicago, where his job as a community organiser led him to a black church and his conversion.

Published in 1995 to favourable reviews, Dreams from My Father made little impact until Obama, by now a first-time Senate candidate for Illinois, gave the electrifying keynote address – on “the audacity of hope” – at the Democratic Party’s 2004 national convention. His publisher rushed out a new edition, and the book became the international bestseller that underpinned Obama’s decision to run for president in 2008. (The Audacity of Hope became the title of his second book, published in 2006.)

Now David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of First in His Class, an account of Bill Clinton’s formative years, has written Barack Obama: The Making of the Man. It covers the same ground as Dreams from My Father, but there the similarity ends. Much of the worldwide acclaim for Obama’s memoir was for its literary qualities; the same cannot be said of Maraniss’s book. A zealous researcher, the biographer tracked down everyone he could find with any connection to Obama, and undertook enough genealogical research in the United States and Kenya for a dozen episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Nevertheless, the morass of detail does expose the extent to which Obama’s memoir is factually unreliable, shaped to meet the demands of his story – his growing awareness of race and racism – and his literary ambitions.

Maraniss’s copious research also exposes the lack of political ambition, or potential, evident in Obama’s schooldays and college years. Perhaps wistfully, he recalls the subject of First in His Class:

When does political ambition first bloom? No one in Bill Clinton’s class at Hot Springs High in Arkansas doubted that he wanted to spend his life in politics. His aspirations were obvious. He ran for every student office he could until Johnnie Mae Mackey, the principal, had to tell him he was hogging the spotlight and could not run for class president as a senior but only class secretary, an election he lost. After his junior year, he travelled to Washington as a member of Boys Nation and manoeuvred his way into position to be the first in his group to shake the hand of President John F. Kennedy in the White House Rose Garden, coming home with a photograph that delighted his mother and symbolized his outsize hopes that he might someday stand there in JFK’s spot. There is nothing comparable in the early life of Barry Obama.

Bereft of any evidence of Obama’s youthful political ambitions, Maraniss is reduced to padding his biography. So even though Obama himself wrote frankly about his teenage pot-smoking while at Hawaii’s elite prep school, Punahou, Maraniss, digging deeper, is able to reveal that in his senior year, Obama was a member of “the Choom Gang,” pot-smokers who practised “TA,” or “total absorption,” by not exhaling (unlike Bill Clinton at Oxford, who “could not inhale”*). Further, Maraniss reports that most of the Choom Gang, like Obama, went on to lead respectable, law-abiding lives, though he learns from one that their “freakin’ scary” dealer died violently. Maraniss also investigates every (tedious) detail of Obama’s less-than-stellar basketball career at Punahou.

One can empathise, then, with the biographer’s excitement at his discovery that Obama’s great grandmother, Ruth Armour Dunham, the mother of his grandfather Stanley and great uncle Ralph Jr, committed suicide in Topeka, Kansas, when she was twenty-six, because her marriage was failing. As a result, her sons, aged ten and eight, were brought up by their mother’s parents in El Dorado, Kansas. This family tragedy is not mentioned in Dreams from My Father, but Maraniss makes it the opening and recurring drama of his book, the key to his claim that “leaving and being left” has been the theme of both sides of Obama’s family history. (He also makes much of the meaning of El dorado in myth, literature and history.)

On the plus side, Maraniss’s brief history of the struggle in Kansas between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces during the civil war, even his tracking down of the progressivist high school history curriculum that Obama’s grandmother Madelyn studied in Augusta, Kansas, goes some way to explaining why Madelyn and Stan were predisposed to support their daughter Stanley Ann in 1961 when, aged seventeen, a first-year University of Hawaii student, she became pregnant to Barack Hussein Obama, a Kenyan student in her Russian class, and married him. (He was already the father of a child, with another on the way, by his Kenyan wife Kezia.) Stanley Ann’s parents also stuck by her when she divorced Obama and, later, when she married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian post-graduate student, and left Hawaii with their five-year-old grandson Barry to live in Jakarta.

Obama’s mother Ann (she dropped “Stanley”) always talked up his father, describing him as outstandingly clever, idealistic and charismatic. Here Maraniss’s research also pays off: his interviews on both continents with those who knew Obama senior, coupled with his research into Kenya’s mid-twentieth-century history, have enabled him to produce a riveting account of the life of Obama’s father. On the eve of Kenya’s transition from British colony to independence, as a promising young member of the powerful Luo tribe, Obama senior caught the attention of the Luo leader, Tom Mboya, who became his mentor and helped to send the young man to study in the States. Impressed by what he knew of Hawaii’s ethnic diversity, Obama chose to go to the University of Hawaii. On arrival, this very black, very eloquent, formally dressed Kenyan was besieged for newspaper interviews about “the new Africa.” After his election as first president of the International Students’ Association (which he had formed), he became a popular speaker at business clubs and church and community organisations. His network of university friends remembered his powerful charisma, his “wonderful, wonderful” voice, and that he was “opinionated.” (Only one remembered meeting his wife Ann.)

When the new Republic of Kenya celebrated its independence on 12 December 1963, Obama senior was at Harvard but eager to return to Kenya, where president Jomo Kenyatta, the Kikuyu leader, had appointed Mboya as secretary of labour and assigned him the task of writing the new constitution. Meanwhile Obama senior’s personal life was in such disarray that Harvard wanted him to leave, his dissertation unfinished. In July 1964, the immigration authorities sent him home. Ruth Baker, who became his second (white) American wife, followed. Back in Nairobi, he embarked on a potentially brilliant career as a government economist. The assassination of his mentor, Mboya, in July 1969 was a serious blow, but Obama, with his drinking, abusiveness and repeated car accidents (in one of which his passenger died) was his own worst enemy. He was at the wheel when he died in November 1982 in a single-car accident. Maraniss devotes several pages to the Luo funeral in the family compound in western Kenya. But the relevance of this flawed Shakespearean character to President Obama’s formative years is not established: young Barry grew up ignorant of his father’s turbulent life.

Obama was also unaware that his mother had deserted her husband (not vice versa) when he was only a few weeks old. In the version Ann told Obama (and as he tells it in Dreams from My Father), when he was two years old his father took up a scholarship to study economics at Harvard – one that would not have supported his wife and child – rather than the one he was offered at Columbia, which would have. As his mother explained it, the pull of Harvard was irresistible. What Maraniss reveals is that, in late August 1961, when Obama was only a few weeks old, Ann fled to Seattle with her mother’s help, taking her baby son with her. For nearly a year she took courses towards her degree at Washington State University, returning to Honolulu only after Obama senior departed for Harvard in June 1962.

His mother’s fiction left the way open for father and son to keep in touch by letter, and for Obama senior to visit Honolulu to meet his eleven-year-old son a few months after his return from Indonesia to attend the prestigious Punahou School. Obama senior arrived from Kenya for a month-long visit in December 1971; it was their only meeting. A photo (shown at the top of this review) shows the smiling father enfolding Barry in his left arm. Beaming at the camera, Barry is pressing his father’s hand against his heart. In Dreams from My Father, the boy’s first, wary meeting with his father took place in the hallway of the apartment when he came home from school. Obama senior was wearing “a blue blazer, a white shirt and a scarlet ascot.” His mother was there, “her chin trembling as usual.” The gifts his father brought were disappointing: “three wooden figures – a lion, an elephant, and an ebony man in tribal dress beating a drum… My father and I looked down at the carvings, lifeless in my hands. He touched my shoulder. ‘They are only small things,’ he said softly.’” There was another disappointment to come: his father turned out to be annoyingly bossy about his TV viewing.

IF MARANISS fleshes out Obama’s sketchy account of his father, both do less than justice to his grandmother Madelyn, “Tut,” the rock of his American family. Two uncomfortable stories Obama tells help to define her: the first is when Barry overhears her telling his grandfather of her fear of a black “panhandler” she’s encountered on her early morning walk to the bus stop en route to work. The second, illustrating Stan and Tut’s deteriorating marriage, describes how, after work, his grandmother began to retreat to her bedroom where she drank too much. Obama also spoke of her alcoholism in an interview with Maraniss. Bette Davis’s portrayal of a sophisticated young woman named Stanley in the 1942 movie, In This Our Life, Maraniss insists (several times), was the real reason why her daughter was given her father’s name.

Both Obama and Maraniss acknowledge, almost in passing, that it was Madelyn, and her earnings, that held the family together. During the second world war, while Stan served in Europe, and with their baby daughter Stanley Ann to care for, Madelyn worked as an inspector on the B-29 bombers assembly line in Wichita, Kansas. After the war, Stan, who fancied himself a writer, gained entry as a returned serviceman to the University of California; Madelyn (said to have written his papers for him) took a job as a school admissions officer. When Stan’s failure to attend classes ended the dream, they moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma, where he took up a job as a furniture salesman, a career that was to take them on to Texas, Washington State and Hawaii. Through Barry’s teenage years, Stan struggled to sell life insurance. (Maraniss’s allusion to Willy Loman is apt.) Tut, meanwhile, starting as a teller in Wichita, Texas, made a career in downtown banking. When they moved to Honolulu in 1960, she joined the Bank of Hawaii and ten years later was appointed one of its first two female vice-presidents. After she retired in 1986, colleagues remembered her as a formidable executive. Obama’s memories are rather different. He acknowledges that his grandmother “had proved a trailblazer of sorts, the first woman vice-president of a local bank,” but there was a downside. Because she was out-earning his grandfather, “her job had become a source of delicacy and bitterness between them as his commissions paid fewer and fewer of the family’s bills.” It gets worse:

Without a college education, she had started out as a secretary to help defray the costs of my unexpected birth. But she had a quick mind and sound judgment and the capacity for sustained work. Slowly she had risen, playing by the rules, until she reached the threshold where competence didn’t suffice. There she would stay for twenty years, with scarcely a vacation, watching as her male counterparts kept moving up the corporate ladder…

No mention of the fact that while Obama was a student in San Francisco and New York, his grandmother was bankrolling his studies. His college education, writes Maraniss, “cost about fifty thousand dollars for the four years and was a family effort.” Of that, “About half came from scholarships and student loans, a bit from off-the-books part-time summer jobs, and most of the rest from his grandmother Tut, who had devoted part of her salary each year to his education.”

Maraniss’s book also spells out the sad truth that, until he moved to Chicago to become a community organiser, Barack – as he wanted to be known once he went to college – knew very few black Americans. Maraniss consulted the 1960 census to learn that blacks made up only 0.8 per cent of the Hawaiian population, most of them, he says, connected with the US military. “No ethnic group constituted a majority among native Hawaiians, Caucasians, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Portuguese, Samoans, Okinawans, and all of their various combinations, but blacks were a minority among minorities.” To other Hawaiians, Obama was hapa, bi-racial. But with most hapa, the ethnic mix was Polynesian–Asian; in particular, Polynesian–Japanese. In the elegantly posed photograph of his graduating class at Punahou, Obama appears to be the only African American. (He claims that he did get to know some older black men his grandfather played poker and bridge with, and an elderly black poet named Frank.)

When he moved to Occidental College in Los Angeles, Obama quickly fell in with a group of articulate, wealthy Pakistani students, not with African Americans. Basketball, the game most likely to give him entrée to black circles, did not. After two years at “Oxy,” Obama transferred to Columbia University in New York where, among black students and close to Harlem, he might have expected to find black friends. Instead, he stayed in his comfort zone, mixing with familiar West Coast white and Pakistani friends. In New York, as in Los Angeles, his steady girlfriend was white. Both young women had connections to Indonesia. Genevieve Cook, in New York, was an Australian. Frustrated by the “veil” that distanced him from her, she foresaw that his future lay with a “lithe, bubbly, strong black lady.”

In Obama’s account, the first black Americans to treat him as one of them – “as a son” – were the subversive black women of the secretarial pool, and the black security guard, at Business International Corporation where he was employed after graduating from Columbia. He was the only black member of the office staff. Perhaps to illustrate the worldly temptations he rejected, Obama described BIC as a Manhattan “consulting house to multinational corporations.” Maraniss interviewed his boss and some of his co-workers: BIC was “a small company that published newsletters on international business.” Hired as a research assistant, Obama says he rose swiftly: “The company promoted me to the position of financial writer. I had my own office, my own secretary, money in the bank. Sometimes coming out of an interview with Japanese financiers or German bond traders, I would catch my reflection in the elevator doors…” Keeping his distance from his white colleagues, he lunched with the black ladies of the secretarial pool. According to Obama’s office colleagues, the office was a cubicle, he didn’t wear a suit, and there was no secretary.

Once he arrived in Chicago as a skinny twenty-three-year-old community organiser, three black middle-aged single mothers he began to work with – Angela, Shirley and Mona – took him under their wing. (They have all the best lines in Dreams from My Father.) The novice community organiser soon realised that he could learn from the achievements of the black churches of Chicago’s South Side in running successful social programs. Seeking their help, he attracted the fatherly concern of several black ministers. “Had I heard the Good News? some of them would ask me. Do you know where it is that your faith is coming from?”

Obama had no religion. Nor did his mother or his grandparents. Readers of Dreams from My Father will be familiar with the story of his meeting first, with Reverend Phillips, and then with other pastors, all of whom urged him to visit Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ. At their initial meeting, Wright impressed Obama by telling him his life story and what Trinity was about. Even so, it took some time to dispel Obama’s scepticism about Trinity’s ambitious programs for the disadvantaged and its burgeoning membership of black middle-class professionals. Grappling with his own conflicting ambitions, Obama had applied to Harvard Law School, the pathway to professional and financial success. He was accepted, and at last decided to attend Sunday morning service at Trinity. Reverend Wright’s sermon was on “the audacity of hope.” It was Obama’s road-to-Damascus experience:

People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters…. And in that single note – hope! – I heard something else: at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope – became our story, my story…

Obama’s conversion to Christianity brought him into the black church; as a law intern, he met fellow lawyer Michelle Robinson, a black woman secure in her American identity as a descendant of African slaves, raised on the South Side that Obama had come to know so well. His search for identity as a black American was over, superseded by the vaulting political ambition that was to take him to the White House.

Obama certainly does not underplay the role of Reverend Jeremiah Wright in this climactic episode that occurred, in his account, on the eve of his going to Harvard. David Maraniss would have us believe that Obama’s conversion took place after he returned from Harvard. “It would take time,” he writes, “for Obama to join and become fully engaged in Wright’s church, a place where he would be baptised and married; that would not happen until later, during his second time round in Chicago, but the process started then in October 1987.”

Maraniss reserves his praise for Reverend Alvin Love, a Baptist minister only seven years older than Obama who became like a brother to him, and who was, says Maraniss, a more valuable source of insights and advice on social networking at a local level than Reverend Wright. Curiously, Obama airbrushed Reverend Love from Dreams from My Father, just as Maraniss has all but airbrushed Reverend Wright from his biography.

Left untold is the Jeremiah Wright story that almost torpedoed Obama’s presidential campaign. The Obama family worshipped at Trinity until, in March 2008, inflammatory anti-American excerpts from Wright’s sermons were broadcast on YouTube. Obama felt compelled to distance himself from his pastor. In a speech entitled “A More Perfect Union,” he quoted the passage about his conversion from his autobiography, and went on to speak of the diversity of worshippers and forms of worship at Trinity. Of Reverend Wright, he said:

As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me…. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

No one knows what Obama’s grandmother Madelyn thought of this unexpected serve. Widowed, and still living in Honolulu, she watched him campaigning each day on CNN until her death, two days before he was elected president. Friends in Hawaii were reported as saying that “she had never made a racist remark in her life.”

Barack Hussein Obama junior’s journey away from his white family began in Honolulu, with the pain of separation from his mother and from the father who had reappeared so briefly. Just as painful was his long journey into a black identity, symbolised by the dog-eared copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that Mahmood, his Pakistani friend at Columbia, remembers that he “carried and at every opportunity read and re-read.”

“There was a riff in that book,” writes Maraniss, “that Mahmood thought struck close to the bone with Obama. The narrator, an intelligent black man whose skills were invisible to white society, wrote, ‘America is woven of many strands; I would recognise them and let it so remain. It’s “winner take nothing” that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat.’ His friend Barack, Mahmood thought, ‘took very, very seriously the lifelong challenge of continuing to play in the face of certain defeat.’ So when Obama asked him: ‘Do you think I will be president of the United States?’ Mahmood remembered answering: ‘If America is ready for a black president, you can make it.’”•

* In First in His Class, Maraniss asked two of Bill Clinton’s friends from his Oxford days, the novelist Sara Maitland and the foreign correspondent Martin Walker, whether Clinton’s claim that he had smoked marijuana overseas but did not inhale was true: “We spent enormous amounts of time trying to teach him to inhale,” Maitland recalled. “He absolutely could not inhale.” The problem with Clinton was that he did not know how to smoke and could not take the tobacco, according to Walker, whose lasting image of Clinton at those parties is of the big southerner leaning his head out an open window, gasping for fresh air. “He was technically correct to say that he did not inhale.”


Read next

2610 words

Reconciling rights and sovereignty

19 July 2012

Andy Lamey’s book, Frontier Justice, would make useful reading for the prime minister’s expert panel on asylum seekers, writes Klaus Neumann


The International Refugee Organization, with the cooperation of countries including Australia, managed refugee resettlement from Europe between 1946 and 1952. These refugees from camps in Germany, Austria and Italy (above) are boarding an IRO-chartered ship at Bremerhaven for the United States. UN Photo

The International Refugee Organization, with the cooperation of countries including Australia, managed refugee resettlement from Europe between 1946 and 1952. These refugees from camps in Germany, Austria and Italy (above) are boarding an IRO-chartered ship at Bremerhaven for the United States. UN Photo