New bio peers behind Obama’s veil

In the heat of a presidential election year, just about anything can get used as ammunition for negative attacks. 

The new book by The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning associate editor David Maraniss is at risk of suffering that fate, which would be reductive and disappointing given that it is such a richly textured piece of work.

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Considerable news coverage has already been devoted to the inconsistencies Maraniss has revealed between real-life events and the version of those events presented in President Obama’s 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father. 

Most notable among these is the way Obama’s own book compresses experiences from other relationships into his account of a single love affair with an unnamed woman, whom Maraniss reveals to be Genevieve Cook, the daughter of an Australian diplomat.

In truth, there is no scandal here — every edition of Dreams From My Father acknowledged the use of composites and the fact that some events were presented out of chronological order. 

Maraniss is careful to note in his introduction that “the point of my book is not to keep a scorecard recording the differences between the memoir and the way things were remembered by others; that would distort the meaning and intent of his book, and of mine.”

The author has bigger fish to fry. Barack Obama: The Story goes further than any previous work in mapping the contours of Obama’s character and in puncturing the curious phenomenon by which perhaps the most famous man in the world has remained unknowable at a certain level.

Maraniss’s approach here shares something with his earlier — and equally impressive — biography of Bill Clinton, First in His Class.

The Clinton book concentrated on the future president’s early life and ended on the day in late 1991 when he announced his bid for the presidency. 

Six chapters of Barack Obama: The Story pass before we reach Obama’s birth, and it ends with his departure from Chicago to Harvard Law School.

The choice of endpoint eliminates two crucial phases of Obama’s life: his first steps in electoral politics and his courtship of, and eventual marriage to, the then-Michelle Robinson. 

But the book suffers little from these exclusions for several reasons.

First, Obama’s public life has been examined so closely that at this point there might be little new to tell. 

Second, the sheer depth of Maraniss’s reporting delivers insights both fundamental and entertainingly frivolous. (In the latter category: The future president, as a student, was known for his impressive impersonation of Mick Jagger in which “he could do the walk, the strut, the face.”) 

Third, in concentrating on the early life, Maraniss reveals a great deal about Obama’s unusually conscious construction of his own identity. 

Whereas most people’s personalities evolve, for good or ill, without much deliberate thought on their part, this was not the case with Obama. Biracial, separated from his mother for long stretches and effectively fatherless, Obama had to grapple with myriad knotty questions of identity on his own. 

One of the book’s most understated yet intriguing threads is the degree to which the young Obama latched onto basketball as a way to affirm his black identity. “Basketball marked the beginning of his long arc toward feeling home in black America,” the author writes.

Yet, at the same time, Maraniss notes that a constant imperative for Obama was to avoid being pigeonholed, racially or otherwise.

In a November 2011 interview for the book, Obama acknowledged this effort in striking terms.

“The only way my life makes sense is if regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality, these essential human truths and passions and hopes and moral precepts that are universal. And that we can reach out beyond our differences. If that is not the case, then it is pretty hard for me to make sense of my life,” he said.

It would be overstating things to say that Maraniss had resolved every element of intrigue about Obama’s character. Genevieve Cook, the early girlfriend, tells the author how she felt Obama protected himself behind a metaphorical veil.

“It felt like he had a veil hanging down between himself and the outside world,” she said. “And nothing got past that veil without double-checking, inwards and outwards. Mentally observing character, dispassionate, balancing one thing against the other ... that was just so essentially him.”

There is no evidence that the veil hides the kind of dank secret that Obama’s most implacable critics imagine. But Cook’s description, of watchfulness and caution, still applies to the president today.

Here, Maraniss offers not just a beautifully written book, but a real insight into what goes on behind the veil. 

It is more than any Obama biographer has achieved before.