Stanley Armour Dunham was named for Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh explorer who spent the latter half of the 19th century probing the forests and rivers of central Africa. His daughter, Stanley Ann, was apparently named for a character played by Bette Davis, the petulant star of 1930s American cinema and favored actress of her mother, Madelyn Dunham. In his new biography, David Maraniss tries to make sense of this and other riddles linking Africa, America, and the man both Stanleys raised: Barack Hussein Obama.
“Barack Obama: The Story,’’ like its subject, is ambitious and cautious. Wary of retreading the political ascension we know all too well, Maraniss’s narrative begins decades prior to Obama’s birth and ends in 1988, long before Obama would take the oath of office. He opts to tell an astonishing backstory we think we already know — about the mother from Kansas and the father from Kenya — and manages to illuminate an impressive collection of details about the president’s modern family.
Like an epic novel, the book reaches back more than 80 years, providing a sustained gloss of the president’s bloodlines, from the Thanksgiving suicide of his great-grandmother Ruth, to the world war that propelled his grandmother into the workforce, to the swirl of global politics and personal passions that led Obama’s mother and father to the University of Hawaii’s first session of Russian 101. Maraniss’s approach embraces all the meandering and randomness of Obama’s life, making his achievements seem unlikely yet somehow not entirely incomprehensible.
Obama’s family, colleagues, and friends lack claim to historical relevance, but empathetic prose endows them with a sense of mattering. Much has been made of the sex-tinged journaling of Obama’s New York City girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, and tales of his marijuana use as a member of the “Choom Gang” at Hawaii’s prestigious Punahou School. But I found myself more taken with Obama’s tale-telling grandfather — the Willy Loman of Hawaii — and the struggle of his father’s American third wife, who took the path to Kenya that Stanley Ann Dunham would and could not.
Maraniss emphasizes any similarities he can find. On both his Kenyan and Kansan sides, Obama is descended from farmers who grew up without indoor plumbing. His Kansan ancestors “planted potatoes by the dark of the moon” — as did his Kenyan clan, 8,500 miles away. But he tells these stories because there isn’t always much else to go on; the coincidences of Obama’s path to power often resist coherence. By contrast, in his biography of Bill Clinton, “First in His Class,’’ Maraniss describes a bawdy, natural politician who made himself known from a relatively early age — a high-school achiever known for pressing the flesh, someone who ran for every student office at Georgetown. I was startled by the sheer number of people Maraniss talks to who do not remember young Barack Obama at all.
Barack Obama Sr., however, is impossible to forget. Like his son, he redefines ambition and magnetism. Like his son, he rose from disadvantage and a splintered home to achieve far beyond conventional expectations — but still has his critics. And unlike his son, the critics are more than justified.
The elder Barack was brilliant by any estimation. He graduated from Hawaii in three years (it would take Stanley six), with honors from Phi Beta Kappa. Then and during a graduate fellowship at Harvard, he became a political junkie. As a low-level bureaucrat in Kenya, he wrote polemics pointing out the disproportionate number of foreign-owned businesses. He was friendly with Tom Mboya, the forward-thinking young hero of mid-century Kenyan politics, and was the final witness at the 1969 trial of Mboya’s assassin. Just so, his life hovers on the edges of Kenya’s national story.
But the elder Obama is a patently unlikeable character — all ego and swagger, womanizing, terrorizing, arrogant, and alcoholic. Neil Abercrombie, a longtime Hawaiian congressman who knew Obama during his college years, says, “[H]e never hesitated to tell you what he thought, whether the moment was politic or not, even to the point where he might seem a bit discourteous. But his view was, well, if you’re not smart enough to know what you’re talking about and you’re talking about it, then you don’t deserve much in the way of mercy.” Though he held a senior position by his 40s, his vices — more than the tribal glass ceiling he bemoaned — kept him from rising in Kenyan government. At one point, Maraniss likens him to Kenneth Grahame’s reckless Mr. Toad from “The Wind in the Willows,’’ yukking and racing his car around the Nairobi streets, a predilection that killed him in 1982.
The canny and thwarted economist is and is not like the Barack Hussein Obama we already know. Where his son battled the contradictions of his darker color and lighter upbringing, Obama père coolly navigated worlds “high and low; bars where he wanted to be known and bars where he wanted to disappear . . . bars that carried him back to where he had come from and bars where he could preen about what he had become.’’ Throughout, Obama senior wields an obvious charm, reflected in the repeated, fateful attractions of others — perhaps the same charm that his son broadcasts to campaign well-wishers: “I love you back!”
But it’s telling that Obama senior was once fired for insubordination, while the president quit his first jobs quietly. The younger Obama is presented as an even-keeled compromiser (“Cool head, main thing,” goes the refrain from Hawaii), eager to please but also to choose wisely. Loretta Augustine-Heron recalled his approach to an interview with a room full of skeptical black community leaders in Chicago: “He was honest about his knowledge of the area, his knowledge about the situations. He would give us examples of things he could do, things he wouldn’t do. He would say, ‘I’m not familiar with that, but things like that are things we will learn together.’ ” Over many similar meetings, Obama became the master of the “one-on-one,” a staple of organizing that relies on the implied intimacy that has characterized much of Obama’s political life.
Maraniss’s reporting performs a tertiary function: of fact-checking Obama’s first book, “Dreams from My Father.’’ As others have done, he pokes holes in the neat narrative Obama constructed about his childhood, his racial consciousness, and his professional aspirations. One revealing embellishment involves his first job after graduating from Columbia University. “In Dreams,’’ Obama portrays the job as sellout work in suits and boardrooms — in reality, Obama’s low-level research post demanded only business casual.
The book finally confirms that Obama may be the most coincidental president of our times. But the coincidence is part of the Obama magic — proof that a random family can still tell a good story.Dayo Olopade is a journalist covering global politics and development policy. She is writing a book about innovation in Africa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.