As closely scrutinised as the rise of Barack Hussein Obama has been, there has always been one chapter in his life around which mystery has hung: his late teens and early twenties, which he entered as a fairly carefree lad who dreamed of basketball stardom and had a yen for good marijuana and exited as a dead-serious young man with an ascetic inclination and a churning political and racial consciousness propelling him into the public sphere. Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father, published when he was 34, skips past this period, which encompassed two years at Occidental College in Los Angeles, two years at Columbia University and two years of work in New York, prior to his pivotal decision, at 24, to become a community organiser in Chicago.
That gap is now filled for us, thanks to David Maraniss’s biography of Obama up to the age of 27, when he left Chicago for Harvard Law School. This carefully reported book offers revelations extending far into Obama’s disparate family past but its value lies above all in helping us to understand how it was that a sense of destiny awoke in a young man who, just a few years earlier, was being chided by his mother for suggesting that he might stay in Hawaii after high school: “Damn it, Bar, you can’t just sit around like some good-time Charlie.” The moniker was apt. Despite the dislocations of his childhood, what Maraniss describes as a “cycle of leaving and being left”, Barry had grown into a likeable and slightly aimless boy, who embodied the Hawaii imperative: “Cool head, main thing.” He showed few outward signs of struggle with his biracial identity, a reflection surely of both Hawaii’s relatively tolerant, multi-hued atmosphere and the acceptance of his grandparents, who’d long since overcome the shock of their teenaged daughter’s seduction by an older Kenyan man.
Maraniss, author of a 1995 biography of Bill Clinton, takes us forward as good-time Barry transforms into on-the-move Barack. We see him after a big high school basketball game when, despite being a second stringer, he finagles his way into the newspaper account with some finely honed quotes for the reporter. We see him at Occidental, where he gives his first political speech – an impromptu but well- received anti-apartheid riff – and discovers a worldly, intellectual bent in wide-ranging, substance-fuelled bull sessions with a bunch of classmates that includes several close Pakistani friends. We see him at Columbia, where, as he put it in an interview with Maraniss, he plunged “deep inside my own head . . . in a way that in retrospect I don’t think was real healthy”. Or, as Maraniss summarises it: “[He] conduct[ed] an intense debate with himself over his past, present and future, an internal struggle that he shared with only a few close friends, including his girlfriends Alex and Genevieve . . .”
The girlfriends! Obama had alluded vaguely in his memoir to a few white women he had dated prior to meeting Michelle Robinson; Maraniss not only fills in the picture for two of them, he has also got hold of their letters and journals. There are chuckles to be had at Obama’s pretentious letters to Alex McNear, in which he flits from Eliot to Yeats to Pound: “You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?”
There is a more affecting story in the jour-nals of Genevieve Cook, the hyper-perceptive daughter of an Australian diplomat whom Obama met after college. Cook captured her lover in terms that ring awfully familiar today. In their second month together: “His warmth can be deceptive. Tho’ he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness . . .” A month later: “I feel that you carefully filter everything in your mind and heart – legitimate, admirable, really – a strength, a necessity in terms of some kind of integrity. But there’s something also there of smoothed veneer, of guardedness . . . but I’m still left with this feeling of . . . a bit of a wall – the veil.”
Behind the veil, the transformation was taking another turn. Obama was moving toward a deeper grounding in black American identity, despite having for years made only fitful gestures in this direction. One of his Pakistani friends recalled the switch: “Barack was the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity and his achievement was really an achievement of identity in the modern world. That was an important period for him, first the shift from not international but American, number one, and then not white, but black.” Obama drifted from Cook, who documented the demise of the relationship in a remarkably prescient journal entry: “That lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere.”
Where does Maraniss leave us? With even greater appreciation for the tensions at work beneath Obama’s equanimity; also with greater scepticism for Obama the author, as Maraniss reveals just how much Obama had contorted his (admittedly embellished) story in Dreams From My Father to dramatise his search for racial identity. Above all, one is left with a deeper understanding of why Obama, as president, continued to press his conciliatory line until long after it was apparent to all others that his opposition was set on ruining him. As Maraniss describes it, drawing connections, knitting things together, was for Obama no mere campaign trope but a matter of existential salvation. As he wrote to McNear at the age of 22: “Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me . . . The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and all the classes]; make them mine, me theirs.” Obama affirmed this in an interview with Maraniss: “The only way my life makes sense is if regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality, these essential human truths and passions and hope and moral precepts that are universal . . . If that is not the case then it is pretty hard for me to make sense of my life.”
We are now watching as Obama grapples with adapting this mindset to today’s political reality. But thanks to Maraniss, we have a better sense than before of how he came to it in the first place.
Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at the New Republic