David Maraniss’s new biography of Barack Obama is the first sustained challenge to Obama’s control over his own story, a firm and occasionally brutal debunking of Obama’s bestselling 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father.
Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story punctures two sets of falsehoods: The family tales Obama passed on, unknowing; and the stories Obama made up. The 672-page book closes before Obama enters law school, and Maraniss has promised another volume, but by its conclusion I counted 38 instances in which the biographer convincingly disputes significant elements of Obama’s own story of his life and his family history.
The two strands of falsehood run together, in that they often serve the same narrative goal: To tell a familiar, simple, and ultimately optimistic story about race and identity in the 20th Century. The false notes in Obama’s family lore include his mother’s claimed experience of racism in Kansas, and incidents of colonial brutality toward his Kenyan grandfather and Indonesian step-grandfather. Obama’s deliberate distortions more clearly serve a single narrative: Race. Obama presents himself through the book as “blacker and more disaffected” than he really was, Maraniss writes, and the narrative “accentuates characters drawn from black acquaintances who played lesser roles his real life but could be used to advance a line of thought, while leaving out or distorting the actions of friends who happened to be white.”
That the core narrative of Dreams could have survived this long into Obama’s public life is the product in part of an inadvertent conspiracy between the president and his enemies. His memoir evokes an angry, misspent youth; a deep and lifelong obsession with race; foreign and strongly Muslim heritage; and roots in the 20th Century’s self-consciously leftist anti-colonial struggle. Obama’s conservative critics have, since the beginnings of his time on the national scene, taken the self-portrait at face value, and sought to deepen it to portray him as a leftist and a foreigner.
Reporters who have sought to chase some of the memoir’s tantalizing yarns have, however, long suspected that Obama might not be as interesting as his fictional doppelganger. “Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs…significantly differs from the recollections of others who do not recall his drug use,” the New York Times’s Serge Kovaleski reported dryly in February of 2008, speculating that Obama had “added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic.” (In one of the stranger entries in the annals of political spin, Obama’s spokesman defended his boss’s claim to have sampled cocaine, calling the book “candid.”)
Maraniss’s deep and entertaining biography will serve as a corrective both to Obama’s mythmaking and his enemies’. Maraniss finds that Obama’s young life was basically conventional, his personal struggles prosaic and later exaggerated. He finds that race, central to Obama’s later thought and included in the subtitle of his memoir, wasn’t a central factor in his Hawaii youth or the existential struggles of his young adulthood. And he concludes that attempts, which Obama encouraged in his memoir, to view him through the prism of race “can lead to a misinterpretation” of the sense of “outsiderness” that Maraniss puts at the core of Obama’s identity and ambition.
Maraniss opens with a warning: Among the falsehoods in Dreams is the caveat in the preface that “for the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.”
“The character creations and rearrangements of the book are not merely a matter of style, devices of compression, but are also substantive,” Maraniss responds in his own introduction. The book belongs in the category of “literature and memoir, not history and autobiography,” he writes, and “the themes of the book control character and chronology.”
Maraniss, a veteran Washington Post reporter whose biography of Bill Clinton, First in His Class, helped explain one complicated president to America, dove deep and missed deadlines for this biography. And the book’s many fact-checks are rich and, at times, comical.
In Dreams, for instance, Obama writes of a friend named “Regina,” a symbol of the authentic African-American experience that Obama hungers for (and which he would later find in Michelle Robinson). Maraniss discovers, however, that Regina was based on a student leader at Occidental College, Caroline Boss, who was white. Regina was the name of her working-class Swiss grandmother, who also seems to make a cameo in Dreams.
Maraniss also notices that Obama also entirely cut two white roommates, in Los Angeles and New York, from the narrative, and projected a racial incident onto a New York girlfriend that he later told Maraniss had happened in Chicago.
Some of Maraniss’s most surprising debunking, though, comes in the area of family lore, where he disputes a long string of stories on three continents, though perhaps no more than most of us have picked up from garrulous grandparents and great uncles. And his corrections are, at times, a bit harsh.
Obama grandfather “Stanley [Dunham]’s two defining stories were that he found his mother after her suicide and that he punched his principal and got expelled from El Dorado High. That second story seems to be in the same fictitious realm as the first,” Maraniss writes. As for Dunham’s tale of a 1935 car ride with Herbert Hoover, it’s a “preposterous…fabrication.”
As for a legacy of racism in his mother’s Kansas childhood, “Stanley was a teller of tales, and it appears that his grandson got these stories mostly from him,” Maraniss writes.
Across the ocean, the family story that Hussein Onyango, Obama’s paternal grandfather, had been whipped and tortured by the British is “unlikely”: “five people who had close connections to Hussein Onyango said they doubted the story or were certain that it did not happen,” Maraniss writes. The memory that the father of his Indonesian stepfather, Soewarno Martodihardjo, was killed by Dutch soldiers in the fight for independence is “a concocted myth in almost all respects.” In fact, Martodihardjo “fell off a chair at his home while trying to hang drapes, presumably suffering a heart attack.”
Most families exaggerate ancestors’ deeds. A more difficult category of correction comes in Maraniss’s treatment of Obama’s father and namesake. Barack Obama Sr., in this telling, quickly sheds whatever sympathy his intelligence and squandered promise should carry. He’s the son of a man, one relative told Maraniss, who is required to pay an extra dowry for one wife “because he was a bad person.”
He was also a domestic abuser.
“His father Hussein Onyango, was a man who hit women, and it turned out that Obama was no different,” Maraniss writes. “I thought he would kill me,” one ex-wife tells him; he also gave her sexually-transmitted diseases from extramarital relationships.
It’s in that context that Maraniss corrects a central element of Obama’s own biography, debunking a story that Obama’s mother may well have invented: That she and her son were abandoned in Hawaii in 1963.
“It was his mother who left Hawaii first, a year earlier than his father,” Maraniss writes, confirming a story that had first surfaced in the conservative blogosphere. He suggests that “spousal abuse” prompted her flight back to Seattle.
Obama’s own fairy-tales, meanwhile, run toward Amercan racial cliché. “Ray,” who is in the book “a symbol of young blackness,” is based on a character whose complex racial identity — half Japanese, part native American, and part black — was more like Obama’s, and who wasn’t a close friend.
“In the memoir Barry and Ray, could be heard complaining about how rich white haole girls would never date them,” Maraniss writes, referring to Hawaii’s upper class, and to a composite character whose blackness is. “In fact, neither had much trouble in that regard.”
As Obama’s Chicago mentor Jerry Kellman tells Maraniss in a different context, “Everything didn’t revolve around race.”
Those are just a few examples in biography whose insistence on accuracy will not be mistaken for pedantry. Maraniss is a master storyteller, and his interest in revising Obama’s history is in part an interest in why and how stories are told, a theme that recurs in the memoir. Obama himself, he notes, saw affectionately through his grandfather Stanley’s fabulizing,” describing the older man’s tendency to rewrite “history to conform with the image he wished for himself.” Indeed, Obama comes from a long line of storytellers, and at times fabulists, on both sides.
Dick Opar, a distant Obama relative who served as a senior Kenyan police official, and who was among the sources dismissing legends of anti-colonial heroism, put it more bluntly.
“People make up stories,” he told Maraniss.