“Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—T. S. Eliot is of this type.” President Obama wrote these words as a twenty-two-year-old student, but Edward Mendelson argues that Obama’s words as a literary critic reveal his tendencies as a politician. Check out our own Michael Bourne’s review of Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss, where Obama’s letter was originally published.
Early in Barack Obama: The Story, David Maraniss defines an African word, jadak, that will weave its way through his biography of our 44th president. “Pronounced juh-DAK,” Maraniss writes, “it meant ‘foreigner,’ ‘immigrant,’ ‘alien,’ and was delivered and received as an insult.” The word is first applied to the president’s paternal grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, whose family only went back four generations in Luoland, a region of western Kenya bordering Lake Victoria, and thus were still considered outsiders.
This outsider status applies to nearly every major figure in the biography, including Hussein Obama’s grandson, Barack Hussein Obama II. As Maraniss details in this exhaustive, and at times exhausting, biography, Obama has been an outsider – a jadak – in every world he has ever entered. With his dark skin and kinky hair, he looks black to most Americans, but having been raised in Hawaii by his white grandparents, he wasn’t fully accepted by the black community until well into adulthood. In college, some of his closest friends were Pakistani and Indian, and until he met his wife, Michelle, he mostly dated white women. Even after he took a job as a community organizer on Chicago’s desperately poor, black South Side, he lived and socialized during his non-work hours in the racially diverse Hyde Park area around the University of Chicago.
There is no precedent for a figure like Barack Obama in mainstream American politics. While we have had presidents who raised themselves up from poverty and more than a few raised amid great inherited wealth, for more than two centuries our leaders have been primarily card-carrying members of the white, Protestant, upper-middle class. Then, in 2008, we elected a half-white, half-Kenyan president, who was born in Hawaii a year after it was made a state, and spent years of his childhood in Indonesia.
These facts may help explain the right wing’s obsessive belief in the myth of Obama’s foreign birth. The birthers, as they are called, cannot be dissuaded by the undeniable fact of Obama’s American birth certificate because they aren’t really talking about facts. Nor are they being racist, at least not in the classic American sense. After all, black people have been a part of this country’s fabric since the first African slaves stepped off a Dutch ship in 1619. But Obama isn’t that kind of black. None of his forebears were American slaves. He is a wholly new kind of American president, part white, part African, who wears sarongs and is fluent in Hawaiian pidgin. He is, in a word, a jadak.
Until now, those who have written about Obama, including Obama himself in his memoirs Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, have viewed the president primarily through the narrow prism of race. Dreams from My Father, written in the early 1990s before Obama embarked on his political career, is a tale of the author’s search for an authentic self, which he quite plainly discovers on the black streets of South Side Chicago and in the African villages of his Kenyan father.
Obama’s best known previous biographer, New Yorker editor David Remnick, also places him firmly within the African-American tradition, titling his 2010 biography The Bridge to signify Obama’s place as a human bridge between the Civil Rights generation of black leaders and a presumably post-racial American society to come. Remnick’s book, which is excellent, is nevertheless a product of the euphoric early days of the Obama presidency when Americans of all races cried along with Jesse Jackson at the thought that we as a nation had finally overcome our racial differences. Three and a half years into the Obama presidency, after the bruising partisan battles over health care and the budget deficit and the public outrage over the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, few Americans still believe Obama can heal our differences, much less lead us into anything approaching a post-racial future.
Thus, Barack Obama: The Story is perfectly poised for its political moment. Where Remnick seemed to place the president many Americans thought they had elected as the latest in a line of charismatic black leaders who inspire through eloquent speeches and moral integrity, Maraniss captures the president Americans have actually come to know: the inveterate outsider capable of seeing all sides of any question, but emotionally aloof, cool in all senses of the word, almost to a fault.
In Maraniss’ telling, the teenage Obama yearned for the stable identity being a member of the black community could have offered him, but in fact was a product of a mélange of cultures, white and Asian, Polynesian and American, Kenyan and Kansan. Barack Obama, Sr., a Kenyan foreign exchange student, sired the president during a brief affair with seventeen-year-old University of Hawaii freshman, Stanley Ann Dunham, and then promptly left for graduate school at Harvard a few months after his son’s birth. He only reappeared in young Barack’s life once, when he visited Hawaii for a month during his son’s fifth grade year, by which time the elder Obama was a broken man, an alcoholic who had already burned through three marriages and drank himself out of the kinds of leadership positions his intelligence and education entitled him to.
Without a father, Obama lived a lonely and peripatetic childhood, bouncing between Jakarta, where his mother moved to live with her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, and Honolulu, where he lived with his grandparents after that marriage broke up and his mother remained in Indonesia. In Hawaii, where Obama attended the academically rigorous Punahou School along with the island’s mostly white elite, he joined the self-styled Choom Gang (“Choom is a verb,” Maraniss explains, “meaning ‘to smoke marijuana.’”) and spent his teen years getting high and trying to make the school’s varsity basketball team.
Still, for all the work Maraniss does to place Obama in America’s cultural tapestry, his book is a chore to read. Maraniss, author of an excellent biography of Bill Clinton, First in His Class, is a first-rate reporter, but here he seems incapable of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Barack Obama: The Story spends its first 160 pages telling the stories of Obama’s ancestors in Kansas and in Kenya before the future president is even born. Even after Obama appears, Maraniss keeps getting sidetracked by digressions into the later careers of Obama’s relatives and laboriously detailed descriptions of people Obama knew and places he lived. Take this description of a dormitory, the Haines Hall Annex, where Obama lived while he attended Occidental College in California:
Seventy feet from back to front, with six rooms down the left, four down the right. Three students to a room, rectangles that were more deep than wide, but designed for two, and without partitions, making for a more barrackslike atmosphere. Beige and blue-gray checkered linoleum floors. Three desks, Smith Corona and IBM Selectric typewriters from home, carbon paper, and Wite-Out; three beds, some rooms with bunks, others with twins.
It is a weird fact, but true, that I attended Occidental College two years after Obama was there (like the president, I found the place way too full of sheltered suburban white kids and finished my education in New York). I lived in Haines Hall, and spent hours in the Annex, and I can attest that Maraniss’ description of Occidental, both physically and culturally, is dead on. But, really, who cares what color the tiles were? What more do I understand about Obama’s life if I know that for a year in college he had to live in a triple?
In some ways worse than this obvious padding, which one can simply skip, is the skewed time frame of the book, which begins decades before Obama’s birth and ends just as he is about to begin at Harvard Law School. Maraniss digs up a few worthwhile nuggets in the previously untilled soil of Obama’s family history, but not near enough to justify the seven long chapters he spends excavating them. More importantly, by skipping Obama’s rise in Chicago politics, which Remnick covers in fascinating detail in The Bridge, Maraniss misses a key element of the political phenomenon that is Barack Obama.
What is most interesting, and most admirable, about our current president is not the hand he was dealt at birth, but how he played that hand. Obama not only raised himself; he invented himself. He took this mishmash of cultural influences, this big bag of differentiated Othernesses, and through deep reading and thought, along with some daring grassroots work in one of America’s most impoverished ghettos, he created himself as something Americans could understand: a moderate black politician with crossover appeal to white voters.
In this way, Obama is a kind of Elvis Presley of politics. Elvis changed American popular culture by being a handsome white guy who sounded black. Obama has tried to change American political culture by being a handsome white guy who looks black. Of course, it is far more complicated than that. Obama is white by virtue of his white mother and his upbringing by his white grandparents. He is also Kenyan, through his sad, smart, destructive father, and Asian by virtue of his years in Indonesia and his chosen circle of college friends. He has a laid-back Western outlook, thanks to his formative years in Hawaii and California, and East Coast intellectual rigor, due to his years at Columbia University and Harvard Law. The one thing he isn’t is a black guy from Chicago, and yet when he appeared before the cheering, sobbing crowd in Lincoln Park to celebrate his victory over John McCain, that’s exactly who we thought we had elected.
“No life could have been more the product of randomness than his,” Maraniss writes on the final page of Barack Obama: The Story, and at the moment in Obama’s life where Maraniss leaves him this could fairly be said. The circumstances of his birth were a fluke of the Cold War politics that brought his father to an American university, and the youthful naivete that led his seventeen-year-old mother to sleep with him without birth control. Obama’s youth was a jumble of hastily improvised cultural influences. But what Obama made of all that wasn’t random. At some point between the time he left Hawaii as a mixed up half-white kid who looked black and the night twenty-five years later when he gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention that launched his national career, he positioned himself both as an inheritor of a recognizable political and cultural tradition and also as an avatar of new, blended America – a nation of jadaks.
Some day, perhaps, a biographer – perhaps even Obama himself – will explain how he pulled off this complex, history-making transformation. For now we can only watch… and wonder.
Dave Eggers’ latest, A Hologram for the King, is out today. Also out this week is an under-the-radar, new effort from Richard Russo, Interventions, a collection that’s a collaboration with his artist daughter Kate Russo. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is out (Don’t miss our illuminating interview). And Michael Frayn has a new novel, Skios. More new fiction: Don Winslow’s The Kings of Cool (a prequel to Savages), Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You, and Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home. In non-fiction, There’s David Maraniss’ Barack Obama: The Story.