by Eric Shierman
During this time of alleged poverty, Obama was enrolled in Punahou, the most elite school in the State of Hawaii, whose tuition, Maraniss points out, was ten times than what his mother was paying at the University of Hawaii. Since Obama was awarded no scholarships, it boggles the mind how one could qualify for food stamps and pay tuition of this kind.
Without a doubt, the most accomplished print journalists have a liberal bias. Hardly a conspiracy of some powerful puppet master of the main stream media, this is likely simply the result of self selection, but I have long recognized it to be a blessing not a curse. With their biases well known, when the likes of Bob Woodward, John Meacham, and Ron Suskind all pen devastating accounts of Obama’s presidency, they produce for the public sphere facts of the highest credibility. In Confidence Men for example, seen as a sympathetic writer likely to favorably portray the Obama White House, Suskind was given full access to this administration, but the quality of his original research produced a scathing account of a president that time and again blew off the advice of his own economic advisors in favor of his political advisors’ desire to exploit the economic crisis, using the Democratic majority in Congress to pass a long wish list of legislative goals that were peripheral to and often at odds with economic recovery. I broke down several of these accounts for the Oregon Catalyst which you can read here, here, and here.
Now David Maraniss, who as the author of First in his Class wrote the most acclaimed book on Bill Clinton establishing himself as the best political biographer of his generation, has done the same in Barak Obama: the Story. Maraniss has exposed Obama as a composer of symbolic myths and intentionally constructed falsehoods of his own life story, essentially eroding the very foundation of Obama’s original appeal, his authenticity. It was first David Meacham who famously began to question the truth behind Obama’s self narrative, when on the Charlie Rose show he pointed out that we know surprisingly very little about Obama which he noted is remarkable for a guy that has written two autobiographies.
Maraniss has employed his considerable research skills to tell Obama’s true story, about a real person named Barry, not a fictionally constructed character named Barack. While “birthers” were making fools of themselves trying to question the obvious fact Obama was indeed born in Hawaii, Maraniss has been busy interviewing nearly every person who ever knew Barry Obama personally. Most of this book goes way back in history, perhaps simply falsifying family lore that Obama himself could be forgiven for passing on despite his claims to have exhaustively researched these matters for his first book Dreams from my Father: a Story of Race and Inheritance. It is in the latter half of Maraniss’ 700+ page book that we start to find an Obama that intentionally spins a fictional yarn about himself to poetically position himself into America’s identity politics.
For example, Obama claims that the moment of awakening for his racial identity came from a Life Magazine issue he read in the library of the US embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia about a black man who had used chemicals to bleach his skin. Oops, it turns out Life never ran such a story. No doubt this anecdote would be a touching account of Obama as a young black man coming of age in a racially prejudiced world if it were true, but Obama did not grow up in Chicago like his wife did. To connect with his future political audience, Obama has had to make this kind of stuff up, because he grew up wrapped in a safety blanket of privilege in the very diverse and color-blind worlds of Indonesia and Hawaii.
Most of the stuff Obama has made up seems simply silly on an individual basis, but together weaves a pattern. In his official account of himself, Obama includes the seemingly acceptable childhood boast to his elementary school friends that he was the son of an African prince. This makes a lot of intuitive sense in two ways. First, since Obama’s father was indeed a government official in Kenya, there would seem to be ample opportunity for a childhood embrace of that fact to the point of exaggeration. Second, this story no doubt connects well to African American readers of Obama’s first memoir who like everyone else do a little bit of heritage romantization of their own. Through Maraniss’ extensive interviews of Obama’s classmates, it turns out Obama in fact did not claim to be the son of an African prince. He was consistently claiming descent from a Polynesian prince. Spreading exaggerated stories about himself has not just been a childhood indulgence for Obama. As an adult he engages in meta-fibs about his childhood fibs, molding them into a form that he calculates will give him the most identity political capital.
This is particularly salient to Obama’s stump speech that consistently tries to deceptively portray his upbringing as humble, even impoverished. Whenever in front of the right audience, Obama can be rather proud to boast that his mother received food stamps. Maraniss points out there is no documentation to back that up, but there is a rather obvious fact to challenge it. During this time of alleged poverty, Obama was enrolled in Punahou, the most elite school in the State of Hawaii, whose tuition, Maraniss points out, was ten times than what his mother was paying at the University of Hawaii. Since Obama was awarded no scholarships, it boggles the mind how one could qualify for food stamps and pay tuition of this kind.
Obama was not really raised by his mother; he was raised by his affluent grandparents. His grandmother was an executive at the Bank of Hawaii. While Obama speaks in his memoir of how much it troubled his grandfather that his grandmother made so much more than he did as an insurance salesman, Maraniss has been able to uncover what a top producer Stanley Dunham was. They were not hurting for cash in the least.
Another stark piece of evidence revealing an above average affluence Maraniss uncovered was how big a role marijuana played in young Barry’s life. The name his clique in high school coined for themselves was the Choom Gang. “Choom,” in local Hawaiian slang, is a verb meaning “to smoke marijuana.” This was a “gang” only in the sense of hanging out with friends. They did not need to steal to pay for their pot, and they smoked a fortune’s worth of it. The Choom Gang of privileged students at Punahou had plenty of discretionary spending money from their parents to cover their expensive habit. There is of course nothing wrong with being rich; what’s wrong here is being a candidate that campaigns against the rich to such an extent as to compel him to lie about his own upbringing.
Barry did have problems growing up, but they were not the problems of poverty. Obama experienced the loneliness and rejection that many rich kids feel when their ambitious parents have no time for them. In the case of his father that is obvious, but in the case of his mother, she cared more about traveling to exotic places in pursuit of a career in anthropology than raising her children, often dumping them on her parents to take care of. Maraniss identifies a disturbing primary source of evidence for this:
In another section of the yearbook, students were given a block of space to express thanks and define their high school experience. Barry’s display included one photograph of him playing pickup basketball, shirtless, with the caption “We go play hoop,” and another that showed him in the white disco suit again, with a more colorful shirt and an even wider collar. Nestled below the photographs was one odd line of gratitude: “Thanks Tut, Gramps, Choom Gang, and Ray for all the good times.” Ray was the older guy who hung around the Choom Gang, selling them pot. A hippie drug dealer made his acknowledgments; his own mother did not.
Maraniss pursues this further, concluding:
The young mother and her son, separated by only eighteen years, grew up together, in a sense, but made their way alone and apart. While Barry Obama attended Punahou School in Hawaii, biding his time, playing basketball and hanging out with the Choom Gang, Ann Dunham Soetoro reached a point of clarity in her career. After two failed marriages, two children, and two college degrees, she found her passion as an anthropologist surveying the life and work of villagers on the island of Java, looking for ways to help the peasants and their handicrafts survive in the modern world.
Leaving Barry behind when Ann and her daughter, Maya, returned to Indonesia was partly his choice. No way was he going to drop his buddies and his American existence to live in that strange country again. But perhaps the critical choice was not his. Ann could have chosen to be with him in Honolulu rather than pursue her interests in a distant land during the final years of the 1970s. When she did not, the son struggled to reconcile her contradictions. She exuded goodness and unconditional love, she would do anything for her family—except sublimate her will and sacrifice her career.
Obama tries so hard to paint his life like it was the struggle of an inner city black kid when in reality he merely suffered from the existential angst more common to a swanky suburban neighborhood.
Obama left remarkably little trace of his college career at Occidental College and later as a transfer student at Columbia University where he really went off the grid. Since Obama himself has said and written little about his college experience, there has been all kind of speculation as to what he might be hiding. Maraniss does some speculation of his own, suggesting that Obama was probably just a loner that did not fit in to any particular group. I find Maraniss’ prosaic interpretation much more compelling than the wild birther like nonsense that is starting to emerge claiming Obama is hiding something.
It is in the more verifiable act of entering the labor force that true inferences about Obama can be made with real facts, and once again, Obama’s narrative of those years stands in stark variance with those facts. Upon graduation, he was in little immediate need of a job, choosing to spend quite some time traveling abroad rather than filling out job applications. When it came time to do so, he wanted to be a community organizer from the beginning or at least work for the newly elected first black mayor of Chicago Harold Washington. None would take him, considering Obama to be too out of touch with Chicago’s urban black community to be effective. So Obama looked for work in the last place he wanted to be, the private sector.
Obama’s short unhappy employment with a firm called Business International reveals a great deal about him, even though Maraniss has definitively confirmed Obama has exaggerated and misrepresented nearly everything about this first job. It was not a consulting firm, not even close. The kind of work they did at BI no longer exists. They were google before there was such a thing. Before the internet, research firms did fact verification work for clients. BI was also a private, low tech Wikipedia, writing reports on specific topics that summarized published research.
The colorful claims Obama has made of this job are easily falsifiable. He wrote about what he claimed to be a pivotal moment in his life, when Obama saw his reflection on the shiny door of their elevator wearing a suit, and didn’t like what he saw – turns out they did not have a shiny elevator door nor did they wear suits. Here is the famous paragraph from Dreams from my Father in full:
I had my own office, my own secretary, money in the bank. Sometimes, coming out of an interview with Japanese financiers or German bond traders, I would catch my reflection in the elevator doors—see myself in a suit and tie, a briefcase in my hand—and for a split second, I would imagine myself as a captain of industry, barking out orders, closing the deal, before I remembered who it was that I wanted to be and felt pangs of guilt for my lack of resolve.
This is not exaggeration; this is old fashioned lying about one’s resume. Obama never had his own office; he never had his own secretary. He did not even talk to “Japanese financiers” or “German bond traders.” Obama, as the copy editor of Business International Money Report helped craft a product that perhaps bankers read, but none ever came to visit his tiny cubicle.
The actual truth in Obama’s self narrative is more disturbing than his deception. Regardless of how much Obama exaggerates the magnitude of the work he performed, he is quite sincere in conveying how much he loathed the business world. Obama uses embellishment not to boast about how important a job he had landed; he embellishes to brag about how he rejected it. Obama crafts a false Faustian narrative where he was on the fast track in the corporate world only to give it all away to do good rather than evil. He was serving the gods of money. He was a rising star, but then he realized how wrong this all was and wisely abandoned a career in the private sector. As one of Obama’s former coworkers told Maraniss: “He retells the story as the temptation of Christ, the young idealistic would-be community organizer who gets a nice suit and barely escapes moving into the big mansion.”
For Obama, holding a job in the private sector amounted to consorting with the enemy. He described feeling like a “spy behind enemy lines” at Business International. Obama abruptly quit not long after being hired. His former boss Lou Celi remembers it well:
Celi found their conversation confusing at first. He expected that Obama would tell him that he was leaving for another job, or that there would be an offer and a counteroffer, but instead Obama told him calmly that he had no other job lined up. “He just said he wanted to do something else,” Celi recalled. “I told him—like I told many young people then—it’s important to have a plan. He just seemed not exactly clear of what he wanted to do. I told him he might be making a mistake, leaving a job when he did not have any plans except a vague notion that he maybe would do some public sector work.
Leaving New York also meant eventually breaking up with his girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, an Australian woman he met at a party six months after graduating from Columbia. Central to Obama’s autobiography is the reason they broke up, racial tension. Obama cites the boiling point in their troubled relationship emerging from a fight that followed their viewing a stage play in Harlem:
One night I took her to see a play by a black playwright. It was a very angry play, but very funny. Typical black American humor. The audience was mostly black, and everybody was laughing and clapping and hollering like they were in church. After the play was over, my friend started talking about why black people were so angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering—nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said—and she said that’s different, and I said it wasn’t, and she said that anger was just a dead end. We had a big fight, right in front of the theater. When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough.
What a compelling story that is for a guy trying to surf the waves of racial identity politics! Trouble is, it never happened. Obama made it up; imagine that. All their mutual friends and Genevieve herself told Maraniss that the two did not go to Harlem to see angry plays, indeed they and their circle of friends ignored the whole New York black cultural scene entirely. She did go with him to see a play only once, as Maraniss reports:
They saw the British actress Billie Whitelaw perform monologues from two plays, Rockaby and Footfalls, written for her by Samuel Beckett. The one time they were in the midst of an entirely black audience there was nothing angry about the scene. They went to the Fulton Street Cinema in downtown Brooklyn to watch Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop. Genevieve recalled: “We were surrounded by this black audience watching a black movie. I was the only white person in the audience” Genevieve recalled. “It was such a wonderful, uplifting, mind-blowing experience… one of the most deliciously culturally immersed, free-hearted, group one-mind experiences I have ever been part of. I think we laughed so hard our bellies hurt. We came out of there so high.”
There was no fight, no crying in the car (neither of them had a car in New York), and no scene where she questioned why black people were so angry. She identified with African Americans, she said: “My feelings about being white were extremely ambivalent.”
The real reason for their breakup is less dramatic. Obama quit his job and mooched off her for quite some time before finally getting an offer from NYPIRG. She got tired of it.
There is a little myth busting in this book for everyone. Perhaps our progressive friends would be most interested in what REALLY happened during Obama’s short tenure as a community organizer in Chicago. Let’s just say that the reservations that the man who reluctantly hired him, Jerry Kellman, were proven true as were the concerns of the local black pastors who reluctantly gave Obama their trust, but I suggest you all read this masterful work of detailed research yourself to see how the true story of Obama’s life actually unfolded in a less glamorous way than his carefully constructed rock star image was portrayed in 2008.
Maraniss has once again written the book on an American president. This incredible book exposes the mythopoetic autobiography Obama has composed of his past in a way that actually reveals many true things about the real Obama in the present. Obama is a big believer in the power of identity politics and he loathes the private sector. The scope of Maraniss’ book ends when Obama is accepted to Harvard Law School. One can only wonder if the presence of talented reporters like Maraniss will compel Obama to write a more truth-based narrative when he eventually pens this third autobiography.
Eric Shierman lives in southwest Portland and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change. He also writes for the Oregonian’s My Oregon blog.