Young Barry Wins

Young Barry Wins

The New York Review of Books

Darryl Pinckney

Barack Obama: The Story. By David Maraniss. Simon and Schuster, 641 pp.

A white friend told me recently that he heard someone complain that he’d voted for the black guy last time around, did he have to do it again—as if Obama’s election had been a noble experiment we weren’t ready for. Only the big boys can deal with the global economy, so hand the keypad to the White House back to its rightful class of occupants, those big boys who helped to make the mess in the first place. President Obama got little credit from Wall Street for bailing out the financial system. Imagine the criticism had he not or had he tried to institute even more reform at that moment. It was an early display of his administration’s hope to lead by consensus.

Obama’s hold on the middle ground frustrates old liberals and engaged youth. But it remains one of his great assets that the Republicans can’t shove or provoke him from the middle ground. His entrenchment is perhaps why his opponents cannot make him lose his cool, his own understated black swagger. Think of the fierce need among Republican congressmen to try to insult him as chief executive. More so than his record, the accomplishments of his first term, his cool is his campaign’s best remedy for the negative messages that will get under the floorboards of the nation’s consciousness, placed there by Citizens United, the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott.

No matter what, the Republicans are promising to bring Obama’s first term to a close with another budget crisis. The first term is becoming the story, the referendum. Meanwhile, Obama’s fight for a second term has had the curious effect of making books about his rise somewhat passé. We are familiar with the exoticism of his story: the absent African father; the young white anthropologist mother in Indonesia; the basketball team in Hawaii. We know about Chicago, the discovery of the black community and the future First Lady. YouTube has him when at Harvard. And then that Speech. Moreover, we know much of this from Obama himself. Dreams from My Father is justly famous.

Yet David Maraniss in his proudly sprawling Barack Obama: The Story presents a biography of the president that he is determined goes deeper than anything else out there. He is clearly pleased to have reached previously untapped sources. Barack Obama: The Story is well over five hundred pages and at its end the future president is just twenty-seven years old, on his way to Harvard Law School. Many share his subject, but Maraniss is the large beast come to the watering hole…

…Occasionally, Maraniss compares the young Obama to the young Bill Clinton, whose biography he has also written. He has evidence of ambition in Clinton’s vow to his mother that he was going to be president someday, and in his thirst for student offices. Robert Caro says he could identify early on LBJ’s hunger for power and follow it throughout his career. But Maraniss can’t find in Obama’s story the scene when he revealed to someone that he possessed a sense of having an extraordinary destiny. He can’t find it, though it is in his hands: Dreams from My Father is that moment. He does see Obama’s memoir, with its admission that he experimented with drugs while in college, as a subtle maneuvering into position for a run for office. However, because Dreams from My Father is the text in his way, so to speak, Maraniss takes it on, attempts to take it down, and in doing so diminishes the importance of the story Obama tells in his book: how he became a black American…

Read the entire review here.

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