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Reviews

Barack Obama

Mike Buckley

The making of the man
David Maraniss
Atlantic Books, 656pp

For a political biography, this is a strange but rather wonderful book. It reads like a family saga. The author delves into generations of Obamas and Dunhams, into personal triumphs and tragedies, twists, turns, and surprises. A reader hoping for a blow by blow account of Obama's presidency, his unforgettable 2008 campaign, or the route he took through the Chicago political scene to reach for the presidency will be disappointed. This huge book ends (rather randomly) with Obama leaving for Harvard Law School in 1988, not with a planned 2012 campaign for re-election or an inaugural address. This isn't about the President, but about the man, his roots, his childhood and his family, most notably his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, a woman of character whose life appears to have been an inspiration and a warning to the young Barack.

Maraniss has pedigree in writing this kind of biography. His widely respected biography of Bill Clinton, First in his Class, took a similar approach. Maraniss acknowledges this in his introduction, he clearly stating his perception of both men. If you note one thing from this book, note this: Clinton he describes as a man living a cycle of success and failure, the agent of his own undoing, and of his own recovery and ascendancy. For Obama, Maraniss highlights a different central theme - a determination to avoid life's traps. 'First he escaped the trap of his unusual family biography, with the challenges it presented in terms of stability and psychology. Then the trap of geography, being born and spending most of his childhood in Hawaii, farther from any continental landmass than anywhere in the world except Easter Island, along with four formative years on the other side of the world, in Indonesia. And finally the trap of race in America, with its likelihood of rejection and cynicism.' Is this the Obama we've come to know, some of us to be rather mystified by? The man who promised change and yet can seem cautious in delivering it? Is he still avoiding traps?

There is a strong theme of Obama's search to define himself - as black or white, as US or international - and a search for the source of his drive, determination and discipline. A friend remembers Obama carrying around a copy of Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man as he struggled with his own racial identity, the book becoming 'a prism for his self-reflection'. The same friend remembers Obama being 'the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity'. Old friends and girlfriends are quoted with their view of this process of building a unique identity, one that led to Obama pushing 'away enough to establish a clear and separate identity' from a group of friends with whom he had defined himself, and that led to him searching for the 'perfect ideal woman'. In many ways this part of the book reads like the story of any other man or woman facing the choice of who to be, yet it is granted greater resonance due to its subject's unique background, and his unique future.

Another explanation Maraniss offers is that Obama is a man 'one step removed from his life', an anthropologist's son who has inherited the mindset and lives as a participant observer, 'sitting on the edge of a culture and learning it well enough to understand it from the inside, yet never feeling fully part of it'. He both admired and emulated his mother, yet also to recognises her chosen role as outsider. He longs to move beyond that to belonging. From a man whose childhood and family history had seen such dramatic dislocations both relationally and geographically, a desire for stability of relationship, of place, and of identity would surely only be natural. This is how Maraniss describes Obama's eventual move to Chicago, his decision to root himself in the black, rather than the white, community, and his choice to embrace the Christian faith and embed himself in a church.

This book is not about Obama's faith, or the faiths of his fathers. His faith journey is described, briefly but I think honestly, towards the end of the book. Obama worked for a church-based community organising group, and worked with many local churches before being part of a church himself, and decided that he had to be part of a church to fulfil that role. A pastor he respected told him he 'should not join a church just simply to fulfil a requirement, that he had to get his relationship with God settled first, and then join the church he was comfortable with'. Obama himself later wrote that 'without a vessel for my beliefs, without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be consigned at some level to always remain apart, free in a way that my mother was free, but also alone in the same ways that she was ultimately alone'.

By the end of the book we are interacting with a community-organising adult who has decided to change the world. Maraniss is careful to point towards his unusual mix of caution and occasional, radical, risk taking. But 'his instinct was always toward caution'. In his boss's opinion, this had 'nothing to do with behaving a certain way as a black man in a white society', but rather it 'had more to do with growing up biracial…and figuring out how best to make his way through many different worlds'. Even more, it came from 'his innate assessment of how to avoid traps'. Is Obama's caution more strategic than it is passive, more the wisdom of a chess player than the prevarication of a man gripped by fear? There is also political struggle: perhaps unlike Clinton he is a man who has been 'rarely...right at the curve' with the exception of his presidential campaign. He has a 'perfectionist's drive for unity', uncomfortable with confrontation.

Ultimately this is a fascinating, at times beautifully written, book about a man and his extended family, about the chaos of a world of broken relationships and their consequences, and about the growing pains of a man who seeks to become himself when the answer to the question is perhaps a little less obvious than it is for many of us. Don't read this book to discover how to become like Obama the politician, it's not that sort of book. It's a book of relationships and identity. There are clues to the foundations of his politics, in his life choices and in his desire to live up to parental expectations, real or perceived, but only within the wider context.

By the end I'm honestly left liking this man and his choices, his struggles and his tenacity. He appears as a consistently good man, frustrated by circumstances that limit his effectiveness, yet patiently searching for a way around obstacles to get to where he wants to be. This is a story of hope; hope for personal change and growth, and hope that we need not be defined by our pasts. If I have a frustration at the end of the book its simply that I'd like to know Obama better. Despite all the research and historical detail there are questions that Maraniss cannot answer. Yet I do know him better, and respect him more fully, and that's no bad thing.

Mike Buckley