At first glance, Barack Obama: The Story appears to be a vast heap of random details obsessively piled up by veteran Washington Post reporter David Maraniss. Maraniss hit pay dirt with bestselling biographies of Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, but his latest is an amazingly tedious read. His “frenzied fact-grubbing and fanatical boredom” (to quote Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim) is so thorough that Obama doesn’t even get born until after Maraniss has devoted 164 pages to his ancestors.
And, despite much pre-release publicity in WaPo, Maraniss’s book has laid an egg in the marketplace, selling only 1/7th as many copies as Edward Klein’s anti-Obama quickie The Amateur. Maraniss is not at all happy about the curious fact that Obama skeptics seem to like to read about Obama more than Obama supporters do. [What drives the Obama doubters and haters?, by David Maraniss, Washington Post, July 27, 2012].
But you have to sympathize with Obama fans who might have picked up this weighty tome in the bookstore, only to drop it and reel away on finding that its 641 pages merely see us through the 27-year-old heading off to Harvard Law School.
(In case you are wondering, Maraniss devotes pp. 536-546 to Obama’s chief triumph as a community organizer: helping to get some of the asbestos removed from a housing project. I must confess to having skimmed this section.)
The tedium of this doorstop biography raises three questions:
His sales record suggests not.
Possibly. Thus Maraniss interviewed hundreds of people (and got an Oval Office interview, in which Obama volunteered that he was a B+ student at Occidental and an A- student at Columbia). The one man Maraniss didn’t interview, however, is the single most unfailingly entertaining character in Obama’s life story: the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
In contrast, Edward Klein got an interview with Wright. And from it he got two scoops:
a) Wright told Klein that Obama knew more about Islam than about Christianity when they met.
This doesn’t mean that Obama is a secret Muslim. I’ve never seen much evidence for any religious feeling in Obama at all. But Obama having an intellectual understanding of Islam makes sense because most of his friends in college were rich leftist Pakistanis.
b) Wright told Klein that Obama's friend Eric Whittaker offered him $150,000 to shut up.
That strikes me as reassuring. All else being equal, I would rather have a President who, when confronted with a problem, tries to take action rather than simply drifts.
The third question:
Personally, I couldn’t recall Obama ever saying anything memorably insightful on any subject other than himself. And this immense book didn’t change that.
Obama possesses an impressive understanding of the conventional wisdom. But he seems averse to original thought.
So Barack Obama: The Story is a snooze. Yet, for the handful of readers well enough versed in the trivialities of Obama’s often trivial life, Maraniss reveals, no doubt inadvertantly. enough detail that this pro-Obama biography effectively becomes a subversive commentary on the supreme Obama puzzle: how this graceful nonentity ever achieved Presidential Timberhood.
Maraniss, having cut his teeth on Bill Clinton, a prodigious politician clearly destined from youth for a career in the public arena, intermittently reveals how baffling he finds the rise of Obama, whom he reports took up creative writing at Occidental to struggle against his basic nature as an “apathetic quasi-intellectual sports fan.”
In Maraniss's telling, our Chief Executive is essentially a passive observer of life, a “disconnected observer,” a man with the skill set of a respected but penurious writer of short stories for small literary magazines. “If he had not gone into politics, he would have been a writer …” concludes Maraniss.
Of course, the handful of articles Obama published in his twenties were poorly written, causing Jack Cashill to hypothesize in 2008 that the elegant prose of Obama’s Dreams from My Father must have been concocted ex nihilo by his ex-terrorist ghostwriter Bill Ayers. Maraniss, significantly, takes care to show that Obama was sending letters to friends a decade before Dreams that were written in the same Creative Writing 302-style prose-poetry:
Manhattan streets are broad and bumpy; the cool crisp grey of fall glows on the teeming faces of the midtown rush; the drunk slides back and forth on his subway seat under the gaze of the neat older woman knitting her mauve yarn; the pigeons comb the cobblestones on Riverside, white and grey and plump …
And so forth and so on.
This ability to conjure up mental imagery with words was once a crucial cultural skill, but it’s increasingly obsolete due to the technological progress that has made visual imagery superabundant. It mostly serves these days as a luxurious status marker: Few readers made it all the way through Dreams from My Father, but before it slipped from their sleepy fingers, they took away the lesson that Obama, despite his crass job as a Chicago politician, had Class.
Maraniss’s many quoted excerpts from Obama’s old letters are uniformly stylish—and deadly dull. Is Obama really this boring? Or did Maraniss censor everything of political interest? The biography skips over or massively summarizes almost all the ideologically intriguing content.
Time and again, Maraniss reassures us that Obama was never quite as leftist as all of his Marxist Muslim millionaire buddies from Pakistan. Well, okay …
Since Maraniss declines to pass on anything of what Obama wrote his friends on the political issues of the day, we are merely left with a self-portrait of Obama the Insufferable, self-absorbed and egotistical:
“Life rolls on, and I feel a growing competence and maturity while simultaneously noting that there isn’t much place for such qualities in this mediocre but occasionally lovable society.”
Another sub-current trickling throughout the book: Maraniss’ astonishment at how little of an impression Obama made upon his peers. Maraniss notes, for example, that among those at Columbia who had known both Obama and George Stephanopoulos, the future Clinton adviser and newscaster remains a vastly more vivid memory.
Outside of the “Pakistani mafia”—as Obama called his main social network from the time he started college at 18 in 1979 to leaving New York for Chicago in 1985—Obama’s closest friend was Phil Boerner, another cosmopolitan (the son of a U.S. diplomat, he’d grown up in a variety of countries). After meeting at Occidental College, they decided to transfer to Columbia, after which they sometimes roomed together in New York City.
After Obama moved to Chicago in 1985, he sent a draft of a short story he’d written to Boerner for criticism. Unfortunately, the manuscript has disappeared and Boerner can’t remember much about Obama’s fiction. And Maraniss explains that there is nothing suspicious about this blank spot in the historical record: after all, “there was no reason for any of his friends or colleagues to think that he would be a best-selling author someday, let alone president.”
Maraniss emphasizes how closely matched Obama and Boerner were in intellect, ideology, personality, and literary inclinations. That got me wondering about Boerner’s subsequent career. Perhaps it would help answer the question: “Besides being President and Nobel Laureate, what other kind of job was Obama cut out for?”
In 2009, Boerner penned a fond reminiscence for the Columbia College alumni magazine, “Barack Obama, ’83, My Columbia College Roommate.” The tagline at the bottom reads:
Phil Boerner ’84 was born in Washington, D.C., and lives with his wife and two children in Sacramento, Calif. He is communications and public relations manager at the California Veterinary Medical Association.
Judging from Maraniss’s book, few who knew them both back then would have been terribly shocked if Obama had ended up with Boerner’s job: PR manager for a respectable special interest group (veterinarians) in an important state capital (Sacramento).
Perhaps Maraniss’s most striking revelation: virtually nobody who knew Obama in the first quarter of a century of his life ever thought of him as their leader in anything. When he got to Harvard Law School at age 27, he was instantly proclaimed The First Black President. But before then, those who knew him found his passivity and disengagement frustrating.
Obama’s boss at Business International in New York, Lou Celi, told Maraniss that Obama “did not stand out in any material way.” Maraniss comments: “Celi could not see him as a leader.”
Ernie Cortes, a prominent leftist activist in Texas who got to know Obama well during his community organizing days, tells Maraniss:
“He thought by virtue of his intellect and personality he could bring people together. He never had an edge, what we call a bias toward action …”
Other examples are left merely implied. For example, Maraniss pads out his book with a lengthy account of how Punahou Prep’s basketball team came together over the course of the 1978-79 season to win the state championship.
You might think: this will show off Obama’s leadership skills—but, no, Obama started the season as the third, fourth, or fifth man off the bench, and got even less playing time as the year went on. The more insignificant Obama became, the better the team played.
By the way, Maraniss says that Obama’s story in his memoir of being discriminated against by the basketball coach because he played in a black playground style is bunk:
“The reality was that Barry, as skilled and intelligent a player as he was, could not stand out in this group.”
Or, consider Obama’s role in the “Choom Gang” of a dozen potheads at Punahou. You might think that a future Leader of the Free World would inevitably, through sheer force of charismatic personality, exert a disproportionate influence on his fellow teens in their debates over, say, which drug to take next. That’s a pretty low hurdle for leadership skills, right? However:
“There was not even a designated leader. …. The other members considered Mark Bendix the glue; he was funny, creative, and uninhibited with a penchant for Marvel Comics. … Without exerting himself in overt ways, Barry Obama held as much respect as anyone within the group.”
Got that? Our President was among the most respected dudes in the Bong Brothers.
Granted, Barry was not the glue in the Choom Gang like Mark Bendix. But he was right up there with any of the non-Bendixian Maui Wowie tokers!
By this point, you may be wondering: “Who was Mark Bendix? And what does this Bendix fellow’s penchant for Marvel Comics have to do with anything?”
Questions like this come up constantly when reading Maraniss’s biography. Mark Bendix is just one of the countless dramatis personae who provide the reporter with welcome diversions from the dull (but no doubt well-paid) slog through Obama-ness that he has signed on for.
The apparent randomness of Obama’s life story reinforces what Maraniss says is his deepest philosophical assumption: “I believe that life is chaotic …”
Yet, like the Sixties acid casualty in the “plate of shrimp” scene in the movie Repo Man, who sees everywhere an overlaid “lattice of coincidence,” Maraniss affirms, “I also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world … they were everywhere I looked in the story of Barack Obama.”
Maraniss dumps a load of pointillist detail on the bewildered reader and leaves him to connect the dots as best he can.
He’s not going to tell you what he thinks they mean (that could get him in trouble). But if you follow very carefully, you might be able to figure out a few things for yourself.
Thus, the mention of Mark Bendix’s Marvel Comics obsession isn’t quite as pointless as it first seems. One of Maraniss’s minor themes is Obama’s fascination with superheroes. For example, one of Obama’s white girlfriends in New York, Genevieve Cook, sensed that comic book characters might provide a key to understanding Obama’s opaque personality:
Genevieve knew that he harbored faintly articulated notions of future greatness, of gaining power to change things. Once, when they were in Prospect Park, they saw a young boy in costume playing out a superhero role. They started to talk about superheroes, the comics he enjoyed as an adolescent in Honolulu, and intimations of “playing out a superhero life.” She considered it “a very strong archetype in his personality,” but as soon as she tried to draw him out, he shut down “and didn’t want to talk about it further.”
This may offer an explanation of the resilience of Obama’s gigantic ego, “his irrepressible belief that he was the smartest person in the room,” his confidence that he would someday lead millions despite the relentless evidence that even his friends wouldn’t follow him around the corner to get a newspaper.
The comic books provide a whole mythos in which nobodies have fabulous secret identities: mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent is actually Superman, while shy student Peter Parker is Spider-Man.
The irony is striking. Obama opponents have frantically tried to piece together the secret identity of this seeming international man of mystery: Is he Muslim? Kenyan? Arab? Gay? Frank Davis’s son?
But, in contrast, Maraniss goes to great lengths to reassure Obama’s supporters: relax—there’s nothing interesting about Obama!
Yet, all the while, Obama himself was convinced that he wasn’t as boring as his friends assumed. Deep inside, he had a secret identity … President Man!
It’s also important to understand that the young Obama, despite his obscurity, was hardly a lowly outsider (as he has recently been portraying himself—in contrast to the conventionally well-heeled Mitt Romney).
The young Obama didn’t have a lot of money, but he traveled in elite international circles. Lots of people who knew him saw him as an elegant and exotic accouterment to their social scene. Thus, he got invited places, such as when he jet-setted to Singapore in 1981 to watch his Pakistani pals compete in an international polo match.
It’s just that none of these friends viewed him as a take-charge guy.
Perhaps Obama’s problem was that he hung out with members of various ruling castes, in which standards are high.
For example, one of Obama’s New York roommates, the drug addict waiter Sohale Siddiqi, sounds like a lowlife in Dreams. But he was actually from Pakistan’s crème de la crème. Maraniss reports Siddiqi and Obama being visited in New York by Siddiqi’s old friend from the top grammar school in Pakistan—Sanam Bhutto, daughter of the late president of Pakistan, Zulifkar Ali Bhutto, and sister of future president Benazir Bhutto.
Likewise, Obama’s girlfriend in New York, Genevieve Cook was the daughter of Michael J. Cook, whom Maraniss reports was then head of “the Australian equivalent of the intelligence assessment arm of the Central Intelligence Agency and, years later, would become ambassador to the United States.” Cook had previously been Australia’s “number two man in Indonesia.”
Genevieve’s mother was by then remarried to Philip C. Jessup Jr., a well-connected Democratic lawyer with homes on Park Avenue and in Georgetown. Jessup’s great-grandfather had founded the America University of Beirut. His diplomat father had flown in from Pakistan to defend himself before the Senate when Joe McCarthy accused him of “an unusual affinity … for Communist causes.” Harry Truman nominated Genevieve’s step-grandfather as American delegate to the United Nations, but McCarthy convinced the Senate to block his appointment.
The younger Jessup himself had
lived in Indonesia, where he was a top official at the International Nickel Company during a period when it was … benefiting from a lucrative, if politically and environmentally controversial, relationship with the Suharto regime.
During these years, Obama’s mother was working mostly in Indonesia (and sometimes in Pakistan) for the Ford Foundation, which has often been accused of serving as a front for American power abroad. She had started out at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta in 1967, where, according to Obama’s autobiography, CIA men had told her hair-raising stories about the Indonesian military’s vast slaughter of Communists in 1965. At this time, she was a good friend of Genevieve’s step-brother, anthropologist Tim Jessup. (It’s a small world, after all!)
Stanley Ann Obama Soetoro had gotten divorced in 1980 from her Indonesian second husband, Lolo Soetoro. One of Maraniss’s revelations is that Obama’s account in his memoir Dreams from My Father of the stories Lolo had wooed his impressionable mother with—thrilling accounts of how his family had been freedom fighters who had suffered horribly at the hands of the Dutch colonialists—had been “a concocted myth in almost all respects.” Instead, Lolo came from a family of wealthy collaborationists:
“Lolo’s father … had been a geologist, a prominent profession in an archipelago rich with minerals, natural gas, and oil. He had worked for a Dutch oil company … His expertise in mining was so extensive that he had written a book about it, in Dutch.”
Lolo was a geologist who worked in government relations for an American oil company. He had gotten the job through his brother-in-law, a heavyweight in mineral extraction for the Suharto government.
Are you noticing a “lattice of coincidence”?
By the way, remember the story in Dreams about how Obama’s African grandfather had been tortured by the British colonialists during the Mau-Mau uprising? Maraniss says that probably is just made up, too, although he’s less certain than he is about the Indonesian tale. Obama’s Kenyan grandfather was a collaborationist also. That’s how his father could afford to attend an expensive private high school that made him eligible for the Tom Mboya Airlift to the U.S.
Mboya, a Luo like Obama Sr., was America’s man in Kenya. But Maraniss points out that Obama Sr. was closer ideologically to Mboya’s fellow-Luo archrival, Oginga Odinga, who sent his son, Raila Odinga, to East Germany for college. (He’s now prime minister of Kenya). But Obama Sr. had many tribal ties to Mboya. Indeed, Obama Sr. was one of the last people to see Mboya alive before his conspiratorial assassination in 1969, and served as the anchor witness in the trial of the Kikuyu hitman who shot Mboya.
While dating Genevieve in New York, Obama was himself perfunctorily working for Business International, which he famously described as feeling “like a spy behind enemy lines.” Obama’s mother wrote, in a letter to a friend, that
He calls it working for the enemy because some of the reports are written for commercial firms that want to invest in [Third World] countries.
Maraniss explains that Business International was just a dreary newsletter company, not the glamorous corporate consultancy fictionalized in Dreams. And yet...
“[T]here were suggestions of derring-do in the early days of the enterprise, intimations of spookdom, always denied, of nondescript men in seemingly bland jobs who had worked around the world for the CIA. Not that the place itself was a front, just that it might have been a convenient cover for a few agency types.”
Obama didn’t work hard at B.I., but one time he showed energy:
“… Dan Armstrong, who considered Obama a friend...remembered seeing Obama get into a ‘huge argument’ with an older colleague named Dan Kobal. The subject was the CIA. ‘It was heated and brief. … I don’t think it was discreet at all. It touched on some deeply held belief of Barack’s. … Barack was attacking it.’ … [Kobal] postulated that he and Obama might have been talking about Africa. Obama, he said, ‘may well have been’ anti-CIA then, which Kobal was not.”
I’ve been writing about the remarkable number of “Cold War” coincidences in Obama’s background since 2009. Maraniss seems to have been reading my stuff (although I don’t see my name anywhere in his citations).
My suggestion is not that Obama is some kind of Manchurian Candidate of the CIA, but that the CIA and other players in American influence abroad tend to work more like the “municipal favor banks” described in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and David Simon’s The Wire. Perhaps Obama’s mom made a few phone calls to old acquaintances and helped get the ball rolling for his newsletter gig at this Company-affiliated firm.
Maraniss, however, takes extraordinary pains to point out that Obama could have wound up at Business International through random luck and normal bureaucratic channels:
“His resume likely was sent to Business International from the placement office at Columbia’s School for International Affairs, which had a long-standing relationship with B.I. … Obama had taken the mandatory copyediting test and performed well …”
Now, that information is interesting…but only to me. It looks like Maraniss wrote it in response to my “favor bank” theory. But if you are some poor Obama fan who voted for him to bring “hope” and “change” and has never allowed yourself to read anything heretical about your hero, these kinds of passages must be baffling in their boringness. Who cares about how his resume got there? What’s the point?
This is a pattern. Barack Obama; The Story is an odd book that often appears intended to answer sophisticated questions about Obama, but without ever mentioning what those questions are.
Here’s where I think Obama is coming from: he’s an offshoot of the American Cold War’s political (and thus leftist) wing.
When I first began to notice Obama’s family ties to the CIA and its counterparts and accessories, I asked myself if my family had similar connections. At first, I said, “Of course not!” But the more I thought things over, the more I noticed that, yes, actually, I do.
For example, my mother’s best friend’s husband went on to be Lockheed’s chief designer of the CIA’s SR-71 spy plane. My wife’s late uncle, an Air Force colonel with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, spied behind the Berlin Wall, debriefing dissident Soviet scientists in parked cars on the back streets of East Berlin. My wife has other relatives with vague jobs in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, except when they move to Alice Springs in the center of the Australian Outback, presumably to work at the Pine Gap satellite tracking station. (You’re never supposed to ask them what they do).
Now, my family connections are mostly to the “technical” wing of American intelligence. I’m an offshoot of the Cold War military-industrial complex (engineering division). And, from that, my basic loyalties are pretty predictable. American engineers don’t do complicated when it comes to national loyalties.
Obama, in contrast, appears have had numerous personal connections to the “political” wing of the Cold War “twilight struggle.” The strategy was to outfox the Communists in the struggle for the hearts and minds of Third Worlders by recruiting people who were almost, but not quite, Communists themselves. It was the international intrigue version of the Median Voter theory: sign up everybody to the right of the KGB.
This makes Obama’s inherited loyalties much more, well, interesting. But the appeal of power, acclaim, and money crosses many borders and ideologies. Obama originated in a segment of the global elite resentful of their dependence upon American domination. But, bygones can be bygones in a 21st Century where the global elites’ vast enthusiasm for Obama’s run for President presumably mollified any ideological hard feelings he might still have been inclined to nurse toward them.
All this raises the question of how Obama ever attained Presidential Timberhood in the national MSM in the mid-2000s, despite his long track record of not having much of a track record. Perhaps Maraniss will explain this in Volume II. But it would be understandable if he gave up this monumental project in disgust at Obama supporters’ lack of interest in learning the mundane realities behind their cherished fantasies.
My last word: it’s easy to overthink Obama. Don’t overlook the largest element in his make-up—the “apathetic quasi-intellectual sports fan.”
Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative and writes regularly for Takimag. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His book, AMERICA’S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA’S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here and here (Kindle)