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Young Barry Wins

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Lisa Jack/Contour by Getty Images
Barack Obama posing for the camera during his freshman year at Occidental College, Los Angeles, 1980

A white friend told me recently that he heard someone complain that he’d voted for the black guy last time around, did he have to do it again—as if Obama’s election had been a noble experiment we weren’t ready for. Only the big boys can deal with the global economy, so hand the keypad to the White House back to its rightful class of occupants, those big boys who helped to make the mess in the first place. President Obama got little credit from Wall Street for bailing out the financial system. Imagine the criticism had he not or had he tried to institute even more reform at that moment. It was an early display of his administration’s hope to lead by consensus.

Obama’s hold on the middle ground frustrates old liberals and engaged youth. But it remains one of his great assets that the Republicans can’t shove or provoke him from the middle ground. His entrenchment is perhaps why his opponents cannot make him lose his cool, his own understated black swagger. Think of the fierce need among Republican congressmen to try to insult him as chief executive. More so than his record, the accomplishments of his first term, his cool is his campaign’s best remedy for the negative messages that will get under the floorboards of the nation’s consciousness, placed there by Citizens United, the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott.

No matter what, the Republicans are promising to bring Obama’s first term to a close with another budget crisis. The first term is becoming the story, the referendum. Meanwhile, Obama’s fight for a second term has had the curious effect of making books about his rise somewhat passé. We are familiar with the exoticism of his story: the absent African father; the young white anthropologist mother in Indonesia; the basketball team in Hawaii. We know about Chicago, the discovery of the black community and the future First Lady. YouTube has him when at Harvard. And then that Speech. Moreover, we know much of this from Obama himself. Dreams from My Father is justly famous.

Yet David Maraniss in his proudly sprawling Barack Obama: The Story presents a biography of the president that he is determined goes deeper than anything else out there. He is clearly pleased to have reached previously untapped sources. Barack Obama: The Story is well over five hundred pages and at its end the future president is just twenty-seven years old, on his way to Harvard Law School. Many share his subject, but Maraniss is the large beast come to the watering hole.

As with men of destiny, Obama’s story begins long before he was born, and so Maraniss opens with the suicide of the president’s maternal great-grandmother in Topeka, Kansas, on Thanksgiving Day, in 1926. Great-grandfather Dunham was a philanderer; his wife took strychnine in despair, providing Maraniss with the first of many extended scenes in which he enlarges upon relevant facts by infusing tangential, atmospheric facts into the telling. “The most recent census noted that the coal furnace needed repair.” The president’s grandfather and his older brother were brought up by their maternal grandparents—“a generational pattern,” one of several such generational patterns that Maraniss believes he has identified in Obama’s story. Moreover, this upbringing was in El Dorado, Kansas, and Maraniss digresses into what Milton, Voltaire, and Edgar Allan Poe have to say about the legend of El Dorado in order to score the irony of a brave town on the dusty Plains named for a city of gold. Maraniss finds little ironies everywhere, like the car crash on Highway 54 outside Eureka at 8:30 pm on November 4, 1935, that killed four friends of Stanley Dunham’s who’d wanted him to come out with them that night. “The genealogy of any family involves countless what-if moments.”

Their great-grandfather told the two Dunham brothers yarns about his time in the Union Army during the Civil War and Maraniss portrays Stanley Dunham as another storyteller, a “dreamer, schemer, and misfit.” It would appear that Maraniss has exposed every lie poor Stanley Dunham ever told in high school. His vagueness of character, his failure to realize a career, had a great deal to do with what the president’s mother and the president himself would look for in their lives, according to Maraniss’s schedule of human causes and effects. Maraniss informs us—because he can—that the summer of 1936 when Dunham graduated from high school was the hottest ever on record in Kansas, and then launches into the formative years of Obama’s maternal grandmother, Madelyn Payne, by then a smart girl hoping for a life beyond the farm.

Maraniss does not forget the history of Kansas as a Free State. El Dorado had been founded by settlers who opposed slavery. Because it will matter, he has researched the racial climate Obama’s grandparents experienced when growing up. Violently segregated Oklahoma was only an hour’s drive away from Madelyn Payne and the Klan had marched in Augusta, Kansas, her hometown, in 1925, but the prevailing sentiment in Kansas was paternalistic, Maraniss concludes. An interviewee back in Augusta remembered for him the town’s two black families when Payne was a teen and that they were real nice. In addition, Payne’s high school history teacher was an Abraham Lincoln buff. “They listened to ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ by Gershwin” as well.

Southeast Kansas was oil and kafir corn (cattle feed) country, boom and bust territory, until rescued by war industries. While Obama’s grandfather was in England and France during World War II in an ordnance supply company, his grandmother, already a mother, was an assembly inspector at Boeing in Wichita. Peace put her out of work and on the road to California, not for the first time, not for the last time, as Stanley Dunham searched for himself and for a living. The president’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, named for a Bette Davis character, not her father, was a sensitive girl who by the time she was fourteen had lived in “nine different houses in Kansas, California, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas again, and finally Washington State. Her parents never owned their own place.” Through connections, her father found yet another new job selling furniture in Hawaii.

Obama’s Luo family originated in northwestern Kenya, but migrated to Kanyadhiang in western Kenya, near Lake Victoria, in the 1820s. Because his family had been in the village only four generations, Obama’s paternal grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was sometimes referred to as jadak, meaning foreigner, immigrant, or alien, we’re told. He was a Muslim convert, yet he drank. He could read and write in English and had acted as an interpreter for the British and their African porters, cooks, and laborers during World War I. For a while he had a license to carry a rifle, a rarity for a black man under colonial rule. After a confrontation with a rival chief, he took his radio, bicycle, two of his five wives, and three children off to his ancestral home.

The president’s grandmother, Habiba Akumu Obama, the fourth wife, fled her husband’s violence. “The story line in Kenya had parallels to the one in Kansas: a mother removing herself from the scene, leaving young children behind.” She returned to her own family, while he lived mostly in Nairobi, far from his homestead, working as a supervisor of domestic staff for colonial officials, but in touch with the nascent anticolonialist movement:

What is most striking in retrospect about Hussein Onyango is the way he straddled different worlds, black and white, rudimentary and modern, superstitious and rational. He was Eastern in religion, Western in dress and demeanor, African in political sensibility. Here again was a variation of a characteristic passed down from generation to generation and across the world: an Obama who could operate in distinct cultures but was not wholly absorbed by any. There were times, foreshadowing the circumstances of his American grandson, when he was dismissed by some of his own people for acting white, or not seeming black enough, in his case rejecting too many totems of Luo heritage.

In The Path to Power (1982), the first volume of Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, LBJ’s father got the arrogant “Bunton strain,” not the softness of his Johnson forbears. Maraniss also works with the silver threads of family temperament. Former neighbors recall the Obama men as arrogant. Maraniss claims to be writing the story of an uncommon family and that President Obama can best be understood not only by how family and environment shaped him, but also by how he reacted to them.

Not many Kenyans attended Anglican mission schools, but Barack Obama Sr. was suspended from high school during the emergency of 1952, because authorities feared that a student protest he headed had links to the Mau Mau insurgency. He worked mostly as a clerk in Nairobi until 1959, when he met an American Christian missionary who was setting up a literacy campaign. Obama eventually worked as her assistant in the program office. The US had become the place to go for the generation of young Kenyans who wanted to help to build the nation after the independence they expected (and that finally came in 1963). In the meantime, Maraniss has given us lots of side trips, into Jackie Robinson’s story, because he was one of the sponsors of an airlift of Kenyan scholarship students to the US, into the missionary’s story, as well as the story of Obama Sr.’s friendship and rivalry with Tom Mboya, a rising star of the independence movement.

Maraniss goes so far as to summarize in detail the article about the University of Hawaii in The Saturday Evening Post that first got Obama Sr. interested in the island. He has even tracked down how much the magazine paid for the piece:

The generational progression of every family is the product of chaos, of countless chance encounters and unlikely occurrences, some more apparent than others. It is easy to see the direct role that Tom Mboya and Betty Mooney played in turning Barack Obama toward higher education and America, but who would expect that a magazine writer from California named Frank J. Taylor, someone Obama never met, would be the one to direct his journey toward a specific location and school?

Here is a biographer with a calm faith in his synoptic method of composition:

My perspective in researching and writing this book, and my broader philosophy, is shaped by a contradiction that I cannot and never intend to resolve. I believe that life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet I also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder. I find these connections in story, in history, threading together individual lives as well as disparate societies—and they were everywhere I looked in the story of Barack Obama. In that sense, I reject the idea that every detail in a book must provide a direct and obvious lesson or revelation to be praised or damned. I believe the human condition is more ineffable than that, and it is by following the connections wherever they lead that the story of a life takes shape and meaning.

For all his respect for the part that chaos plays in our lives, Maraniss, the author of several books, is a great believer in synchronicity. In Barack Obama: The Story, he interweaves the American family beginnings with the African family beginnings, then Barack Hussein Obama’s story with that of Stanley Ann Dunham, up to their meeting in 1960. “Here is when, where, and how the two unlikely family stories of this chronicle weave into the same cloth.” The president’s parents were both enrolled in Elementary Russian 101. “There is no record of what attracted them to each other.” Yet he surmises that they’d become lovers within weeks of their having met, because she discovered herself pregnant sometime before Christmas. She was a freshman and didn’t know he was married and had two children in Kenya.

The Luo would say that he was not Kenyan, but all Luo, “despite the fact that Barry Obama’s Luo father was never part of his life. The son would later write that he was separated from his father when he was two, but that is received myth, not the truth. For these Obamas—Ann, Barack, and Barry—the Hawaiian word for family, ohana, did not apply.” The divorce was made final in 1964.

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