The title of this review refers to the headline created by British Communist journalist Claud Cockburn: "Small Earthquake in Chile. Not Many Dead." This headline never made it to print, but it was heralded as the winner of a newsroom competition for the most accurate yet boring headline.
Accurate yet unexciting. That's a perfect description for David Maraniss' new biography, Barack Obama: The Story. When the book came out this summer, it was greeted by outraged cries of treason from the Left. Maraniss, a Washington Post associate editor and noted liberal writer, was accused of having betrayed The Cause by showing Obama in a less-than-stellar light. Were the clamors justified? Curious minds wanted to know. That, and flattery from a Liberty editor, got me to review the book.
Let's immediately say that people looking for damning evidence of a shady past will be disappointed by the book. At most, Maraniss conscientiously depicts Obama and his family. Inevitably, a detailed Obama biography cannot live up to the holy legend manufactured by his fawning sycophants. But these adulators would also find outrage at the revelation that no, Obama doesn't walk on water or raise the dead. It's no surprise that they were infuriated by Maraniss' mildly halo-tarnishing revelations. On the other hand, this biography is hardly impeachment material.
As I started reading the biography, I had just finished a book on North Korea. So when Maraniss, in his introduction, started retracing the steps of Obama through Kenya and Indonesia, marveling at his humble beginnings in hushed awe, I had flashbacks to the official North Korean legends surrounding the cult of the Dear Leader. Were readers going to be treated to a double rainbow that heralded Obama's birth?
Fortunately, Maraniss never descends into hagiography, although he sometimes throws a veil on some uncomfortable truths. He's not writing a legend, but a detailed biography. A very, very detailed biography. He goes back five generations on Obama's maternal side, and three on his dad's side. The pace of the book isn't epic. To the contrary, it evokes one of these Martian robots — meandering in an alien yet strangely familiar landscape, deliberately picking a target, yet at random intervals stopping dead in its tracks to examine a seemingly random piece of dirt in excruciating detail.
When Maraniss started retracing the steps of Obama through Kenya and Indonesia, marveling at his humble beginnings in hushed awe, I had flashbacks to the official North Korean legends surrounding the cult of the Dear Leader.
It doesn't take long to understand why leftist howls saluted the book. Right in the introduction, Maraniss says that he found many contradictions and inconsistencies in Obama's own books, which are evidently so full of inventions that they are actually an impediment to a biographer's work. The characters, the places, the chronology, the events, the conversations in Obama's books were "rearranged" to fit his political narrative. All across his book, in many places, Maraniss pinpoints contradictions between actual events he reconstituted and Obama's own books (which, after Maraniss' work, cannot be called "biographies" by any stretch of the imagination).
Maraniss had access to the original draft of Obama's book, written several years before the book was published. There are large discrepancies of events and chronologies between the book and its draft, which adds credit to the hypothesis that Obama heavily modified the book to fit a politically charged, race-baiting narrative. By comparing the two versions and with the help of his very extensive research, Maraniss was able to pinpoint the lies and embellishments of the published book. For this, he got called a traitor.
Of Kenya and Kansas
The story starts in Kansas, where Obama's mother's family, the Dunhams, had its roots.
A dominant theme appears early: secrecy and dissimulation, at least within the family of Obama's mother, Ann Dunham. Her grandparents married secretly, and so did her parents. This troubled approach to love and relationships might have tainted Ann's views of a normal marriage.
Maraniss interleaves the lives of Ann Dunham and Barack Hussein Obama, Sr,, who had a short-lived union. The author immerses the reader in the daily lives and times of the characters, and shows the contrast between these two lives.
Ann Dunham was born in California in 1942. She was born Stanley Ann and predictably had to endure mocking in school for her masculine name. Her father Stanley was a somewhat unstable man with a bragging habit bordering on mythomania. Stanley habitually lost his money in poker games and had trouble keeping a job — he was in sales but hated it. Her mother Madelyn, on the other hand, was a competent, dependable woman. During her third grade year, Stanley Ann and her family moved to segregated Vernon, Texas. Obama's book contains anecdotes depicting life in the segregated South. White kids couldn't play with blacks, black customers couldn't be served during regular business hours. Tellingly, Maraniss explains that there is no reason to doubt such things happened, which says volumes about how reliable he thinks Obama's "memoirs" are.
Obama says that his grandfather Onyango was jailed and tortured for his rebellion against British rule. Maraniss interviewed relatives in Kenya and dispels this fiction.
Obama's father, the first Barack Hussein Obama, was born in colonial Kenya in a small branch of the Luo minority tribe. The name Obama means "curved spine" in the tribe's Dholuo language. Obama Sr.'s family were considered outsiders and didn't have particularly deep Luo roots. His own father, Hussein Onyango, worked as a chef and head servant for several important British people in Nairobi. In Dreams from my Father, Obama Jr. says that his grandfather Onyango was jailed and tortured for his rebellion against British rule. Maraniss interviewed relatives in Kenya and dispels this fiction. No relative ever heard of an arrest. Besides, if Onyango had been jailed, he wouldn't have been able to occupy the trusted positions he held. This would be insignificant if not for the fact that Obama paraded his oppressed grandfather as a title of glory in an imaginary struggle against white oppression. It's only the first of many inventions and boasts revealed by Maraniss.
Obama Sr., nominally a Muslim, received an excellent education in an Anglican school, doing various jobs and chores to help pay the expensive tuition. The dominant Kikuyu tribe launched the famous Mau Mau rebellion against the British while he was in school. The British administration let students arm themselves with machetes to prepare against any invasion, but the school was never attacked. Obama Sr. came out as smart but very arrogant. In particular, he thought it beneath him to clean his room. In 1953, he staged a student protest and sent a list of petty grievances to the principal. He was expelled without passing the final exams, so he found a job in the capital, Nairobi. His father had friends who would later play a big role in the newly independent Kenya. One of them, Tom Mboya — also a Luo — would later be imprisoned by the British for his role as a spokesman for Kenyan independence movements.
Obama Sr. started attending political meetings with Mboya and served as a volunteer in his movement. On Christmas 1956, during a dance in his home village, Obama Sr. met 16-year old Kezia, with whom he would elope to Nairobi a week later. Hussein Onyango assuaged the girl's outraged father by giving him sixteen cows. Obama Sr. and Kezia were married in 1957.
In 1959, Mboya toured the USA and cleverly played Democrats against Republicans to secure founding for the Airlift Africa project, which flew in 81 selected Kenyan students to study in US colleges. Among these students was Obama Sr., who didn't have a high school degree but was supported by Mboya. The chosen destination was the University of Hawaii, which Obama selected because of an article in a back issue of the Saturday Evening Post that favorably depicted the university and the island as a multiracial environment.
Now, consider this simple fact about the Post article influencing Obama Sr.'s choice of university. Biographers would consider a job well done if they had dug out this obscure factoid. Not Maraniss. Oh no. Like a Mars rover finding a shiny rock, he breaks out the laser spectrometer and treats us to a deep background on the article's author, the circumstances of his writing, and even the expenses he submitted. One cannot but admire his exhaustiveness, useless though this is.
The important thing is that in 1959, Obama Sr. left behind his child and his young wife, who was pregnant again, to go study in the USA. Since his savings didn’t amount to much, he was financially supported by American donors. Very quickly, he came to the attention of immigration authorities for his behavior as a womanizer. He was charming and bright, partied a lot, and was successful with the ladies, never mentioning his Kenyan family. He wrote an article denouncing the stereotype of Africans abusing or abandoning wives, although his own father had so done many times, and he couldn't ignore it.But getting the right message out was politically important. Obama Sr. talked a lot about politics. He associated with radicals whom Maraniss calls "establishment outsiders," and who probably didn't include many libertarians.
Obama Sr. was known as a proponent of socialism in the future independent Kenya, and hoped that the yet-to-be country would aligned with the Eastern Bloc. He wasn't alone: a lot of Kenyan activists had been trained in Moscow. He saw the Soviets as liberators. That's most likely why he decided to take Russian classes.
Meanwhile, Ann Dunham was growing up in the US, disquieted by the frequent moves and uprooting of her family, which were prompted by her father's inability to keep a job. A furniture salesman, Ann's father moved his family ten times, spending a few months or years in as many towns, before settling in Mercer Island in 1956. Mercer is a five-by-three-mile island in the middle of Lake Washington, east of Seattle. The book interviews several of Ann's friends from that era. The portrait that emerges is one of a smart adolescent lacking family stability and with a low self-esteem.
The local high school was noted for its progressive teachers. While the school's humanities program drew vigorous protests from some parents, Maraniss doesn't report that the Dunhams were among the discontented. Did these teachers influence young Ann, or does she owe her political orientation to her parents? The fact is that she emerged from her high school years as a lifelong leftist.
In 1960, Ann's father was hired by a Hawaiian furniture store whose owner knew him. The whole family moved to Oahu after Ann's graduation. Ann registered at the University of Hawaii. She took Russian as a foreign language, and that's how she met Obama Sr. They quickly started dating, but they kept their relationship a secret. Yet biracial couples were nothing extraordinary in Hawaii: about half of Hawaiian black grooms had a bride from another race.
One wonders when Obama Sr. managed to convey these dreams after which his son's book "Dreams from My Father" is titled.
She found she was pregnant in November, around her birthday. She announced it to her parents, telling them she was in love and thought about marriage. They didn't take it well, but they finally conceded. Obama Sr.'s father was furious when he got a letter from Hawaii. He didn't want his bloodline to be "sullied by a white" — at least according to the Dunhams.
Ann's grades fell catastrophically after Thanksgiving. She and Obama Sr. got married in February '61. The Immigration Service found out that Obama Sr. had a wife in Kenya and didn't view the marriage too kindly. The fresh groom told them he gave his first wife a Muslim divorce — that is, he ordered her to pack. This was apparently sufficient to alleviate the accusation of bigamy.
Accidental baby, accident-prone father
Barack Hussein Obama II (his full name) was born in August 1961. The author could have used this book to dispel the myths and disinformation surrounding his birthplace. He could have explained why Obama chose to put online his birth certificate not as a simple image, but as a heavily processed layered PDF that is indistinguishable from the crudest fake, thus fueling all kind of hypotheses. Maraniss doesn't bother, and it's too bad.
Ann left for the mainland US barely a month after her son's birth and enrolled in the University of Washington in Seattle. Did Obama Sr. confess his bigamy? Maraniss doesn't know. Even before she left, Obama Sr. was rarely seen in public with his wife. His drinking got heavier, but even drunk, he never talked about his life. The author does mention the possibility of abuse: Obama Sr. later remarried another American white girl who followed him to Kenya, and he beat and publicly humiliated her.
Maraniss follows the vagaries of Obama Sr.'s life. He returned to Kenya in the summer of 1962 — it turns out he was kicked out by the Immigration Service. He found a government job, sired another son, and managed to exasperate his whole entourage with his drinking, gambling, bragging, disregard for other people's property and feelings, and especially his insufferable arrogance (he wrote an article criticizing his bosses' economic planification for not being socialist enough). He saw young Barack only once, for a week, in 1971, and the son wasn't much impressed by the father. One wonders when Obama Sr. managed to convey these dreams after which his son's book "Dreams from My Father" is titled. He was a drunk prone to car accidents. He killed one passenger in an accident, lost both legs in other crashes, and ended up losing his life in an accident in 1982.
Ann returned to Hawaii in the fall of 1962. There, she met another man, an Indonesian named Lolo Soetoro Martodihardjo. She filed for divorce in 1964, without asking Obama Sr. for child support. She and Lolo married in 1965. In June ’66, Lolo had to fly back to Indonesia, his visa having run out. Ann and son joined him in Jakarta 16 months later. Lolo would act as young Barry's father for the next several years.
Not a Muslim
Our future President was registered as a Muslim in a Catholic school under the name Barry Soetoro. The author notes that Obama lied about the school in his book, inventing a "parched old nun" to play on the anti-Catholic cliche, whereas his teachers were actually young married women. He learned the local language and was noted for craving attention. He was an ordinary kid. Ikes, an Indonesian classmate interviewed by the author, tells the following story: he drove a bike while carrying Barry on the back saddle. Barry started distracting the driver and ultimately made him fall. Barry was uninjured, but Ikes got an open fracture to the arm. Seeing this, Barry abandoned Ikes and fled home. Was this a harbinger of his future tendency to avoid blame?
Maraniss painstakingly explains that Barry wasn't raised as a Muslim during his three-year stay in Indonesia. However, since he was registered as a Muslim, he received a basic Islamic education: he attended the Friday prayer and learned to read from the Koran in Arabic.
Maraniss accuses Obama of having heavily fictionalized this period in Dreams from My Father. For example, Lolo's father did not die fighting the Dutch during the independence war. He died a very pedestrian death, from a heart attack while he was hanging drapes. Lolo's eldest brother didn't die in the war either: he succumbed to cancer years after the hostilities. When Obama invented grandfathers oppressed by the evil whites, was he simply parroting family legends, or was he trying to promote black victimhood and white guilt? His book contains more race-baiting lies, such as his shock at reading an article in Life about a black man who wanted to lighten his skin. Maraniss checked: there was no such article in Life.
Obama’s racial sensitivity might have been raised by his mother. Far from disregarding race, Ann gave Barry a heavily racialist education in black American history, with emphasis on white-on-black oppression. Was she trying to make him hate America?
Lolo changed quickly. He started drinking more. Soon he started bringing other women to his house. One cannot but pity Ann for her poor discernment in picking men. However, Lolo was a good provider. Thanks to the support of wealthy relatives, he got a good job. Ann tried to immerse herself in the local culture and refused to socialize with Americans, while Lolo was paradoxically more westernized. Lest we draw the wrong conclusion, this might have been related to the crumbling marriage more than to the cliche of the self-hating white liberal.
Obama writes of his shock at reading an article in Life about a black man who wanted to lighten his skin. Maraniss checked: there was no such article.
Ann nevertheless got pregnant again and gave Obama a half-sister. She sent Barry away to her parents in Hawaii, first in the summer of 1970 for a few weeks, then permanently in the fall on 1971. Barry, now again under the last name Obama, entered fifth grade in the elite Punahou high school, the oldest and most prestigious private school in Hawaii. A fifth-grade tuition was $1,165 then, equivalent to $6,600 in 2012 currency. Maraniss says that Obama wouldn't have been admitted solely on his merits. He owed his admission to the work of his grandparents, who knew influential, wealthy alumni. He also got a full scholarship because of his "diverse background" — in other words, racial discrimination in his favor.
Slack and pot
While Obama was in Hawaii, the most influential person around him was, by all accounts, Frank Marshall Davis. Maraniss doesn't mention much of Davis’ extensive background on the Left, describing him as a poet and unconventional writer, merely conceding that he was a leftist under surveillance by the FBI because of "past associations with the Communist party."
According to his book, Obama met Davis, then almost 70, in one of the smoke-filled rooms where Ann's father played poker and bridge, dragging young Obama along (to teach him poker?). This is an unlikely story that Maraniss uncharacteristically accepts at face value. Is it because we're getting to close to the real Obama? It's the first of many veils that Maraniss refuses to lift, as if afraid of his audacity.
Obama admits meeting Davis "ten to fifteen times." This sounds low, considering that Obama devoted an adoring poem to "Pop" Davis. And considering that Obama saw his (official) father only once, during a short visit in Hawaii, one wonders whose "dreams" the future president wrote about. Maraniss points out that in Dreams, many of the traits that Obama attributes to his father are actually taken from Davis. For instance, Obama writes that his father gave him a taste for jazz. But Obama Sr. was never noted for his love of music, except maybe Luo dance music, while Davis was a noted jazz amateur.
During his eight years in Punahou (fifth grade to graduation), Obama was distraught by the absence of his mother, who came and went several times between Hawaii and Indonesia. When she was absent, Obama stayed with her parents and thus was probably given frequent news, but he obviously suffered from the absence of both parents.
Ann came back to Hawaii in fall ’72 and enrolled at University of Hawaii in anthropology. She got a full scholarship through the patronage of Alice Dewey, the niece of the "progressive educator" John Dewey. She spent many years in Indonesia documenting traditional craftsmen. Her daughter Maya, fathered by Lolo, would accompany her on these trips, but Barack stayed in Hawaii. She worked very hard at her anthropology thesis, yet kept it going for years because she was indecisive and didn't narrow it down to a specific subject.
Barack Obama's high school years are depicted by Maraniss in great detail. It is quite interesting to see the future president's personality slowly emerge, affirming the traits we can now see in the adult. Maraniss describes him as a slacker and details his marijuana habit. In short, Obama inhaled. A lot. All the potheads with whom he associated were sons of “good families” (as one would expect in such a prestigious school), but Obama lied about this entourage in his book, describing them as lowlife scum. Was this to establish street cred? Punahou can hardly be described as a tough neighborhood. Similarly, Barack paints himself as a bitter, alienated, resentful teenager, but in interviews with Maraniss, Barack's former pothead friends remember him as a cheerful, positive student. He is even described as a good high school debater. His style, however, was that of the "trick debater". He didn't bother with facts or refutations, only with destabilizing his adversary and controlling the debate. These are the kind of dialectic tricks that are taught and practiced by radicals. Did Davis coach him?
Barack started to play tennis but instead turned to basketball because it was a "black sport." He was an unremarkable player in the high school basketball team, which Obama explains in his book by playing the race card and claiming the white coach preferred white players. Not true, says Maraniss, who devotes nine pages to Obama's basketball team, contradicting this claim. One wishes the author had been so thorough in investigating some other, much more damning, of Obama's whoppers.
After graduating from Punahou, Barack attended Occidental College near Pasadena, California, from 1979 to 1981. It is not clear why he selected "Oxy," although Maraniss tells us it was notorious for being an easy liberal arts college with a drug, booze, and sex culture. Maraniss doesn't mention its leftwing faculty, probably another attractive factor for a politicized Obama.
At Oxy, Obama drank heavily and used drugs. A few anecdotes show him embarrassingly uninhibited at parties. He was already addicted to cigarettes. He tried unsuccessfully to enter the college's basketball team. His roommate and several of his friends were upper-crust Pakistanis. Among these Muslims, he apparently went by the name Hussein. These friends tell Maraniss they had, back at Oxy, a first glimpse of Obama's enormous ambition. Despite this, he grew even more of a slacker in his second year. He coasted through easy humanities classes and was able to get decent grades in spite of his drinking and drug use. He was an ordinary student, except maybe for his Afro.
Obama is described as a good high school debater. His style, however, was that of the "trick debater". He didn't bother with facts or refutations, only with destabilizing his adversary and controlling the debate.
Ann went back to Indonesia, working for USAID. She divorced Lolo, getting custody of daughter Maya. She had a comfortable life style: she lived in a four-bedroom house and was served by two full-time live-in domestics. (Isn't that capitalistic oppression of impoverished indigenes?) Her mother was by then a bank vice president in Hawaii and was providing some support for Obama. Ann was described as charming, compassionate, and understanding, but she didn't seem to extend her love of mankind to her own son. She never mentioned him to Indonesian friends and colleagues.
At the time, Obama was listening to Bob Marley. He was turning into a "Marleyxist"; that is, he adopted oversimplified, mass-marketed "messages" lamenting a black oppression that he had never experienced. Maraniss shows him searching for meaning, belonging, home, and above all, a family. He gravitated toward real Marxists on campus, such as those in the Democratic Socialistic Alliance, whose leader encouraged him to define himself primarily as black. (What is it with white Leftists and race?)
Alas, Obama wasn't acting like the typical disenfranchised black. For example, he was frequently hitting on women, and every one of them was white. In addition, because of his white mother and white maternal family, he was afraid to pass for a sellout. He overcompensated by always trying to be seen with "Marxist professors," "feminists," and "black activists" (as Maraniss describes the crowd he associated with.) He was hoping for blackness to rub off on him; he got redness instead. Some African Americans on campus called him "an Oreo."
He should have known that you cannot please extremists, so there is no point in trying. Unfortunately, that rejection only strengthened his resolve to affirm his blackness at all cost. And — at the time, at least — this meant separating himself from general American society, feeling alienated by it, and getting into fights against institutions not because they were hurtful, but simply because they were American institutions. This was probably one of the defining moments of young Obama.
Another revealing anecdote comes when Obama wrote a fiction story for the college's literary student magazine, and the editor came in person tell him the story had been rejected. Obama's reaction: "You don't get it. You're stupid." It was a condescending, thin-skinned attitude he would often display later in life.
In 1981, Obama applied for transfer to Columbia. He wrote that life on the Oxy campus was too easy, too isolated from the world. New York promised a hard, competitive life, closer to the "black experience."
That summer, before going to New York, he visited his mom in Indonesia (with a round-the-world, 16-stop ticket thanks to her contacts with the Ford Foundation). Obama admired his mother's work at USAID but, maybe because of his leftist alienation, despised US foreign aid and policies. (That didn't keep him from returning to the US.) After Indonesia, he visited Pakistani friends from Oxy, staying in upper-class families living in nice houses served by many domestics. His friend Chandoo, "still in his leftist period," made a point of making Obama meet very poor, black peasants, descendants of African slaves brought by the Arabs.
The Columbia dark years
Obama enrolled at Columbia in the fall as a political science major. Maraniss admits he doesn't have as much documentation on years 1981–1985 as on the previous period of Obama's life. Obama keeps most of this time under wraps. This doesn't prevent Maraniss from producing an impressively detailed account.
Rather than affirming his black identity, as he had planned, Obama didn't make a single African-American friend on campus or in New York City. He stayed with white and Pakistani roommates and dated white women. Maraniss explains away the paucity of people who can remember Obama at Columbia as follows: students hated the campus and avoided each other.
At the time, NYC was an especially dirty, crime-ridden city. The police didn't dare pursue criminals into Morningside Park, just north of Central Park and close to the Columbia campus. Obama, as a black, felt safe from the mostly African-American muggers. But he was now ashamed of his white background and was concealing the fact that his mother was white. Yet, when Maraniss interviewed Columbia students from that time, they didn't describe the campus atmosphere as sharply divided, racially. Obama did attend a Jesse Jackson rally in Harlem with a Pakistani roommate, and both left "unimpressed by Jackson." Obama, in essence, shunned black professors and black students.
Most people didn't know then, and still don't now, what “community organizating” means; after many pages, Maraniss finally admits that it means agitation and propaganda, the good old Leninist "agitprop."
In the summer of 1982, Ann flew in from Indonesia with Maya and visited Obama in New York, staying with a wealthy friend in a Park Avenue apartment. Obama scolded his mom for enjoying "petit bourgeois" tourism, such as visiting the Statue of Liberty and the Metropolitan Museum. He went so far as to write in his memoir that his mother, who one evening enjoyed a movie depicting poor black Brazilians, had fantasies of childlike blacks, fantasies she had inherited from her stultifying white childhood.
That summer, for a couple of months, Obama dated Alex, a (white) classmate from Oxy who was spending the summer in NYC. After she left, they exchanged passionate letters, in which Obama already showed a consummate art of literary malarkey. Of course, impressing girls with pseudo-cultural drivel is a time-honored masculine device. From an excerpt of one of his rambling letters, reproduced by Maraniss, readers can get a foretaste of the empty, bombastic speeches of the future president.
Interestingly, during this time at Columbia, Obama asked a Pakistani friend if he saw him as a future president. But in general, Obama was very reserved and secretive. For instance, when he got a phone call informing him that Obama Sr. had died in a car accident, he didn't talk about it with anyone, only mentioning it to Alex, months later.
Obama didn't leave a great impression at Columbia. Most of his professors don't remember him taking their class, with the exception of a discussion seminar in which he came out as a smooth talker. He did study hard and graduated after two years with a good GPA. His four years of college had cost about $50,000, half from scholarship, the rest mostly from his bank-VP grandmother.
Then he started looking for a job in . . . community organizing — not an ordinary route for a young graduate. Most people didn't know then, and still don't now, what the term means. Maraniss is slow at spilling the beans, but after many pages, he finally admits that it means agitation and propaganda, the good old Leninist "agitprop." It means enrolling people, often by deceiving them, into highly politicized campaigns for a certain result, while secretly using the campaign as a springboard for completely different purposes, such as conveying a certain message in the media or influencing wider policies. One common tool is arousing public feeling, stirring up discussion, and then controlling the debate. It is highly unlikely that Obama chose to apply for such a job without the advice of one of his far-Left mentors.
Agitprop is what you do to an enemy. It is a warfare tool, not a civilized political discussion. Using this technique against US citizens means that you consider them as fodder for an ideological battle. It shows a deep contempt for the citizens, who are mere pawns in a conflict that they aren't meant to understand. It is both telling and frightening that Obama's first foray into politics took this route.
Obama possessed the most important quality of an activist: anger and resentment against the American society, in spite of a cocooned life.
Good agitprop positions are hard to find. While looking for an "organizing" job, Obama survived with temp jobs in unrelated fields. He broke with Alex, whom he had seen only a few times in two years. At a 1983 Christmas party, he met Genevieve, a progressive liberal girl from Australia who had studied anthropology. Genevieve's stepfather was from a family of "establishment Democrats with deep liberal connections."
Meeting the enemy
In the summer of 1983, Obama found a job at a small Manhattan company called Business International — probably through Columbia's placement office, explains Maraniss. The company published reports about the business and financial climate of foreign countries to guide potential investors. As a copywriter and editor, Obama was an entry-level employee. Some coworkers saw him as "aloof, with an arrogance that bordered on condescension" — a trait that he never managed to get under control. He was less than enthusiastic about his position. To Genevieve, he described the job "as working for the enemy." In his memoirs, he called it being "[l]ike a spy behind enemy lines." Nevertheless, he greatly magnifies his own role: "I had my own office, my own secretary, money in the bank," he writes, adding that he was interviewing international financiers in a shiny office where he saw his reflection on polished doors. His former colleagues, interviewed by Maraniss, scoff at the notion. As a lowly backroom data clerk, the closest Obama got to wealthy financiers was calling foreign banks' information desks. The shiniest surface in the office was the screen of the Wang word processor. Yet, Maraniss diligently forgives Obama for adding "embellishments" to his supposedly truthful book.
The author tells us that Obama grew disillusioned with radical leftism. Maraniss goes so far as writing that he "turned away from the rhetoric of the left, doubting its practicality." Gasp, shock, horror! In order to turn away from it, Obama had to have embraced it in the first place, and we hadn't even been told! But who, oh, who could have indoctrinated him, one wonders? Surely not his leftist mother, his Marxist teachers, his communist mentor? We forgive Maraniss for withholding this critical piece of information, since by that point in his book, even the most gullible yokel has started reading between the lines.
But there is still a problem. While Maraniss affirms that Obama abandoned leftist rhetoric, our president gave us many outrageous examples of it in the last four years.So Maraniss' assertion is questionable. And worse, what is the author's motivation for such a bald-faced, er, statement? Is it because Maraniss is getting frightened by his own revelations? Is it an attempt to reassure the reader, who is shown a facet of Obama that his supporters would rather hide?
And what a facet it is: Business International was Obama's first permanent honest job in the private sector, and the ideological scales on his eyes are so thick that he sees his placid employer as an "enemy." This was truly a bad omen for America's small businesses. But readers probably thought it was just, I dunno . . . leftist rhetoric?
In 1984, Obama started coldly distancing himself from his Pakistani friends. Another interesting aspect of Obama shows up when Maraniss describes his relationship with Genevieve: Obama craved love, affection, attention, but didn't return it. Narcissism again.
That fall, Genevieve took a teaching job at a New York public school. Quite unsurprisingly, she started drinking a lot — alas, many a public school teacher career turns into a race between retirement and liver damage. In December, Obama left B.I. without admitting to his boss that he was looking to go into agitprop. This and many other details reveal a long-anchored habit of dissimulation, an attention to secrecy about his personal life, that remains to this day a troubling trait of his personality.
The Chicago debutante
In January 1985, Obama joined the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit devoted to "community organizing." His turf was the Harlem campus of the City University. His girlfriend grew irritated with his coldness, his reserve, and his lack of empathy — readers who know narcissists will instantly relate. She left him in May. Obama, meanwhile, had sent a resume to a small Chicago-based "organizing" outfit called Development Communities Project (DCP), which needed someone — a black man — to work the Chicago South Side. Chicago looked like a place of opportunity to Obama, given the election of its first black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983.
The founder of DCP, one Jerry Kellman, was an adept of Saul Alinsky. Kellman interviewed Obama very deeply and recognized that this candidate possessed the most important quality of an activist: anger and resentment against the American society, in spite of a cocooned life. Kellman thought him naive and politically unsophisticated, and expected Chicago to beat it out of him. Obama joined DCP and Kellman became his mentor.
While many think of Alinsky as a master of lies and duplicity, Kellman found him too direct. Kellman was apparently an advocate of entryism, a political tactic mostly employed by Troskyites. Entryism favors flexibility, dissimulation, fake agreement, and placement of secret accomplices in important positions.
When he describes Obama moving to Chicago, Maraniss finally admits that community organizing is agitprop. The basic technique is the deep one-to-one interview in which the agitator, I mean organizer, gets a more or less random person to talk about his life, his community, his concerns, his interests. The organizer listens, but filters, retaining mostly the parts that can be attached to the narrative and support the cause du jour. He then writes a summary report. Not coincidentally, this technique is also used by handling officers of a foreign intelligence service who want to recruit an asset, that is, a willing or unwilling citizen whom the handler will use and then often abandon.
Obama didn't mince words about the "hypocritical aspects of prevalent black attitudes." He thought that the black community neglected education, needed more accountability, and was too prompt to victimhood.
Obama interviewed many people and wrote many reports, mastering the asset interview technique. He also cultivated the art of pleasing people. Nevertheless, his street cred left a lot to be desired. He and Kellman sometimes faced outright racism from the South Side black activists. When Obama tried to ally with activist preachers, he got rejected as an outsider, a pawn of the Jews and the Catholics. Kellman felt Obama was hampered by his hesitant attitude, his refusal of confrontation. Later, in conversations with other DCP agitators, Obama didn't mince words about the "hypocritical aspects of prevalent black attitudes." He thought that the black community neglected education, needed more accountability, and was too prompt to victimhood. This is a paradox, because a lot of agitprop slogans unleashed in the South Side revolved around black exploitation and hardship at the hands of a racist society.
To his credit, Obama didn't adhere to the black victim credo. It is a tragedy that he decided to toe the victimhood line after his election: he could have made a huge difference in the life of millions of blacks. Was he afraid of being rejected by African-Americans, and being called an Oreo again?
In Dreams from My Father, Obama magnifies his role at DCP and gives himself credit for getting the Chicago Housing Authority to remove asbestos from certain buildings. Maraniss writes that "at the least, [Obama's] memoirs did not tell the complete story." In other words, yet another embellishment. In 1986, Obama started dating a (white) graduate student at the University of Chicago who had majored in anthropology. Maraniss calls our attention on the pattern here, suggesting that the string of girlfriends versed in anthropology acted as mother substitutes.
On one of the boundaries of Obama's assigned district lay the Trinity United Church of Christ, led by Jeremiah Wright. Obama joined in October 1987, when Wright was already famous. Nowhere does Maraniss so much as suggest that Wright was inflammatory. As we know, Wright is such a country-hating, race-baiting embarrassment that Obama had to repudiate him, and the media immediately threw Wright into a memory hole, never to be mentioned again. It is sad to see Maraniss whitewash Wright's extremism and describe him merely as a colorful pastor.
After a few years, Obama was feeling the limits of his work. Seeing Chicago politicians in action had given him a glimpse of real power, prestige, and charisma. He realized that he couldn't satisfy his enormous ambition by being a mere agitator, especially when his hopes of ascension were being blocked by frustrating apathy and infighting. Politics was the drug, and the gateway was being a lawyer. Obama applied to law schools and was accepted at Harvard in 1988. He kept his plans secret for a while before announcing to DCP that he was leaving.
Maraniss doesn't shed any light on two critical questions: how was Obama admitted after a long academic hiatus? Or was the Harvard admission board simply chafing at the bit to admit a black activist? We know from his self-written biographical notices that at least until 2004, Obama presented himself as born in Kenya. Was "diversity" a factor in his admission? And how was the considerable tuition paid? We aren't told. Maraniss prefers to devote the last pages of the book to a vacation in Kenya that Obama took before starting law school. The book ends, disappointingly, before Obama’s law school years and career, and of course before his Senate election.
Turning the last page, the reader is left with a curious impression. One can almost picture an office full of archive boxes that the author painstakingly accumulated during his ample research. One can hear the shuffling noise of material being considered, then reluctantly rejected for space reasons. And in a corner, one can sense several boxes on which a tarp has been thrown, their contents never to be disclosed. The howls and the treason accusations were unfair, after all. Maraniss knows exactly how far he can go.