Why Liberals Hate the New Obama Biography

Apart from journalists assigned to review it and a book editor who considered publishing it, I have yet to meet anyone who has read, or is reading, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, the phenomenal new biography of the former president by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David J. Garrow. Although the book made No. 14 on the New York Times best-seller list—no mean feat—it stayed there just one week. This is a little surprising, because Rising Star has got to be one of the most impressive and important books of the year. It’s a masterwork of historical and journalistic research, Robert Caro-like in its exhaustiveness, and easily the most authoritative account of Obama’s pre-presidential life we’ve seen or are likely ever to see. It’s also a terrific read.

Garrow’s research alone makes his book essential for anyone who wants to understand our recently departed president. Early headlines pounced on his discovery of, and interviews with, a previously unknown Obama girlfriend: Sheila Miyoshi Jager. Now a professor at Oberlin University, Jager was a graduate student in anthropology (just like Obama’s mother) when she lived with Obama in his community organizing days. He proposed marriage to her and even continued to see her a bit after he began dating Michelle.

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But the revelations about Jager are just the most sensational of innumerable new and often fascinating details Garrow reveals. He interviewed more than a thousand of Obama’s friends and colleagues, and Obama himself for eight hours, and unearthed documents from every stage of the president’s life: his undergraduate poetry and his law school exams, an unpublished policy manuscript he co-wrote, his evaluations as a professor at the University of Chicago, his annual tax payments to the IRS, an opposition-research dossier from his 2004 U.S. Senate primary campaign, letters he wrote to his most serious girlfriends and even the diaries they kept of their years with him, including frank (though not lurid) accounts of sex. What’s more, Garrow’s meticulous reconstructions of Obama’s formative years in Chicago organizing and of his political education as a state senator are unparalleled. It’s a stunning and indispensable work of history.

So why isn’t the book on everyone’s nightstand? No doubt some readers have been deterred by its formidable length; at 1,460 pages, 1,078 of them narrative text, it’s not so much a doorstop as a nightstand itself. But some would-be readers have mentioned to me a prominent pre-publication dismissal by the dean of book reviewers, the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, who trashed Rising Star (in her lead paragraph no less), as “a dreary slog of a read … bloated, tedious and—given its highly intemperate epilogue—ill-considered.” Four days later, a caustic viral tweet by the Washington Post’s David Maraniss (a Pulitzer-winner in his own right whose admirable—though briefer—Barack Obama: The Story Garrow’s volume effectively supersedes), probably scared off more readers: “Will say this once only. David Garrow, author of new Obama bio, was vile, undercutting, ignoble competitor unlike any I’ve encountered.” Maraniss, whom I know a bit, is a decent and generous man; he doesn’t lash out lightly.

No question, Garrow’s jabs at his rivals, especially the two other Davids who’ve authored major Obama biographies (Maraniss and Remnick), are unnecessarily sharp, and probably altogether unnecessary. Rising Star quotes from the negative or mixed reviews those writers’ books received and folds in some cutting asides for good measure: Jager tells Garrow she’s glad to hear from “a first-rate historian” (that would be Garrow) instead of a journalist; elsewhere, Garrow bemoans that “scores of journalists” looked into Obama’s high school years and yet “no more than two would take the trouble to even telephone, never mind visit, the only other black male student” at Punahou, the academy he attended. Garrow also subtly drops in mentions of his own previous books, touting their appearance, for example, in the footnotes of the never-published manuscript that Obama wrote with his law school friend Rob Fisher. This coy self-referencing is more wry than grandiose, but it surely didn’t charm adversely inclined reviewers. (Garrow, I hasten to add, is often magnanimous, too; throughout Rising Star he praises many writers whose books and articles he finds illuminating.)

More notable than the digs at his competitors are the gratuitous and even petty swipes at Obama himself. Garrow notes, for example, that while Obama was on his “modest” book tour for Dreams from My Father, his celebrated 1995 memoir, the future president “mispronounced W. E. B. DuBois’s surname, wrongly using a French enunciation” in one interview. He tells us, too, that the letters Obama sent as a state senator to Illinois housing officials on behalf of the shady real estate developer Tony Rezko were “grammatically incorrect.” But who among us hasn’t split the occasional infinitive? Even Rising Star—as fluidly, briskly and engagingly written as it is—contains in its pages a dangling modifier, a misplaced apostrophe and “impact” used as a verb.

The gotcha tone is most pronounced when Garrow compares his research to Obama’s recollections of his own life, which are continually exposed as incomplete, exaggerated or inaccurate. In Dreams and in other retrospective accounts of his past, Garrow finds, Obama overstated his facility in learning Indonesian, misrecalled a disturbing magazine article he read as a kid about a black man bleaching his skin, inflated his own importance to the Punahou basketball team, wrongly described himself as a bad boy during his teens, mischaracterized his post-collegiate work for the New York Public Interest Research Group and fudged or misstated the record in countless other ways.

Garrow seems to take pleasure in catching Obama in these mistakes, and I suspect that Rising Star’s critics were put off by his manifest skepticism about the Obama legend. Obama, after all, still has his cheering gallery. In the last year of his presidency, media coverage displayed much of the same solicitous protectiveness toward him that was rampant during the 2008 campaign and never quite disappeared, a sense that this phenom was somehow … different from all other politicians. Many of Obama’s long-standing admirers seemed during his valedictory months to want to restore the shining vision of him that reigned in 2008—the quasi-messianic figure, the rare authentic voice amid a fallen political world. This image was, of course, a carefully crafted illusion; Garrow quotes Bob Schieffer, the longtime CBS newsman, conceding, with understatement, that “maybe we were not skeptical enough” about Obama’s candidacy. But that sentiment, however common among workaday Washington journalists, was never widely shared among the literati and the intelligentsia.

If Rising Star comes off at times as captious, it’s because, I think, Garrow is so doggedly determined to get to the real Barack Obama, to peel away the layers of mythology—including self-mythologizing—that surround his now-familiar story. As Garrow shrewdly notes, there have been, at least since the uplifting 2004 Democratic convention address that catapulted him to stardom, two Obamas. “The public image of who he is is not who he actually is,” Fisher, the law school classmate, explained. Or, as Obama himself put it, “There’s me, and then there’s this character named ‘Barack Obama.’” Garrow’s remorselessness in deconstructing the character, the public persona—and in seeking instead to recover and present the real, lesser-known Obama—is what makes Rising Star such an unforgettable and valuable book. But it’s also what imbues the biography with its exacting, sometimes censorious tone.

A recurring theme of Rising Star is the discrepancy between Obama as he was and Obama as he portrayed himself to others—in love letters, in interviews, in Dreams from My Father. It’s no scandal that Obama should prettify his life story for public consumption, especially if, as Garrow persuasively argues, he was eyeing a political career when he wrote Dreams. We all chisel a little in our self-presentations, especially politicians. What gives Garrow’s exposure of Obama’s self-fashioning its special frisson is the prevailing image of the president as a squeaky clean, non-political truth-teller. You expect Bill Clinton’s My Life or George W. Bush’s Decision Points to be a self-serving political document. But a lot of people really thought Dreams was something different. When we read, toward the end of Rising Star, that Obama told Oprah Winfrey, “The biggest mistake politicians make is being inauthentic,” it’s hard not to appreciate Garrow’s irony.

Thus, in contrast to Obama’s image as a religious man, Garrow tells us that even in Hyde Park he visited Jeremiah Wright’s controversial Trinity Church irregularly and, as far as his Chicago friends could see, he “did not have a religious bone in his body.” Most of us think of Obama’s progressive bona fides on social issues like gay rights as beyond reproach, but Garrow documents ever-shifting stands on same-sex marriage, depending on the political moment. During the 2008 campaign, Obama famously defused questions about the domestic terrorist Bill Ayers by calling him “a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who’s a professor of English in Chicago, who I know,” but Garrow shows the relationship to have been closer than the candidate let on. (Obviously no one should hold Obama responsible for Ayers’ despicable deeds four decades earlier. The real outrage was what Chicago Magazine called the “widespread willingness” by Chicago intellectual society “to disregard” the violent pasts of Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, who was the more famous of the pair until 2008.)

Obama’s instinct for self-fashioning was evident early in his career. Garrow quotes a young Obama telling his ex-girlfriend, Alex McNear, in a letter that he was “one of the ‘promising young men’” at the financial data analysis firm where he worked after graduating Columbia University in 1983. “Without effort, I find I can perform with flawless grace,” he wrote to her, “patching up their insecurities, smoothing over ruffles among the co-workers.” But given his colleagues’ starkly different memories of him—“someone not interested in other people,” “really just kind of kept to himself,” “self-involved,” “somewhat withdrawn”—Garrow concludes that Obama’s self-rendering to Alex “beggared belief.”

Garrow likewise finds that Obama consistently denied “the strength of his addiction” to nicotine. Numerous acquaintances over the years volunteered to Garrow vivid memories of Obama’s compulsive smoking. In college, he was remembered as having burned through multiple packs a day, and he did so again in later years when under stress. In law school, he merrily puffed away out in front of Gannett House, home to the Harvard Law Review, because a city ordinance prohibited it inside. In Chicago, he savored a ritual smoke after a workout, a basketball game or a round of golf. He kept a pack in his bag as a law professor (when students saw it, “people were like, ‘Ugh!,’ shattered,” a student recalled). And he still enjoyed “a lot of cigarettes” later in life, until he gave up smoking altogether around 2011. Of course, Obama’s downplaying of his smoking is hardly grounds for consternation, and perhaps little different from Franklin Roosevelt’s attempts to minimize the effects of his polio. But it’s one more discrepancy between the public and private Obamas, and a symbolic one.

Notwithstanding its persistent skepticism toward Obama’s self-portraiture, Garrow’s book is far from unrelievedly negative. He also fact-checks right-wing biographies like Stanley Kurtz’s Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism, dispensing with their caricature of Obama as a flaming socialist, and, as a political liberal Garrow seems to have no ideological quarrel per se with his subject. In some instances, his research shows Obama in a decidedly favorable light. He makes clear for the first time just how absent Obama was from his daughters’ upbringing—stuck down in Springfield or on the campaign trail or in Washington—and how deeply this absence saddened him. A man named Allison Davis, a Chicago mentor of Obama’s, remembered his friend weeping after Malia displayed her new ballet steps. “I’m never at home,” Obama lamented. “They’re growing up and I’m missing out.”

Garrow’s debunking goes into high gear when he gets to Dreams from My Father. That book, whose lyrical style and affecting narrative seduced many voters after its 2004 reissue, still furnishes the version of Obama’s early life that most people subscribe to. Even though Obama was candid about having altered key details of his life in Dreams, including creating composite characters, the book was nonetheless marketed as a “memoir” and “autobiography” and taken by readers to be a reliable account of his life. Garrow, however, dwells on the substantial amount of invented material in Dreams and ultimately pronounces it, maybe too severely, “historical fiction.” He also discloses that Fisher, Obama’s Harvard Law School buddy and frequent collaborator, was considerably more involved in conceiving and shaping the book than has been previously known. As Brent Staples remarked in his Sunday New York Times review, Rising Star “is clearly intended to break the 44th president’s monopoly on his personal narrative” that he established with Dreams. It certainly does so.

The unreliability of Dreams is of more than passing interest to Garrow. According to Jager, Obama crossed a line in how he portrayed her, abusing his literary license. Along with his previous girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, and perhaps others, she was folded into a composite character, left unnamed. Dreams described the character as white even though, Jager told Garrow, “I don’t consider myself exclusively white, as I am half Asian.” As Jager saw it, theirs wasn’t a relationship between a black man and a white woman but one between two interracial Americans. “Barack is as white as I am,” she told Garrow.

Jager also told Garrow that the scene, in Dreams, that precipitated their breakup—a bitter row about race after they saw a play by an African-American playwright—misrepresented the issues that actually divided them. In Jager’s telling, the searing fight took place after they saw an exhibit at Chicago’s Spertus Institute about the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial, a very different context. Where Dreams portrayed the lovers’ rift as at bottom a function of racial difference, Jager, while acknowledging the racial component of their strains, insisted she was mainly upset that day that Obama, in her recollection, was less than unequivocal in condemning “black racism”; it was at a moment when the overt anti-Semitism of Steve Cokely, a black mayoral aide in Chicago, had become a cause célèbre in local politics. To Jager, what doomed their future together was Obama’s incorrigible “realism,” his perpetual readiness to accept and work within given realities—a trait she saw developing in the course of their relationship—while she wanted him to display moral courage.

The lovers’ disparate accounts may be attributable to differences in memory or even in contemporaneous perception. Still, Jager’s observation about Obama’s pragmatism—ratified by so many of Garrow’s brigades of interviewees—gives Rising Star its other abiding and unifying theme. Eventually, it leads Garrow to his damning judgment about Obama, much quoted, that “the vessel was hollow at its core.” That verdict is too harsh; indeed, some of those who were left cold by Obama’s often vapid hope-and-change rhetoric of 2008 later welcomed signs of his hardheadedness and calculation as proof that he knew how to play politics. But Garrow is persuasive in highlighting this pragmatism as a key element in Obama’s bildungsroman.

On the whole, Rising Star delivers what its subtitle promises: a new account of the “making” of Barack Obama—and in two senses of the word. As noted, Garrow unpacks the creation of Obama’s public image as we know it today. But he also helps us see the making of the other Obama, the forging of Obama’s inner character, and in particular the emergence of the will and drive that he developed in these years, mainly in his time as a community organizer. Obama in this period began to speak to Jager, and occasionally others, of his “destiny”—which was a reason he gave Jager as to why they couldn’t marry. (Jager never says that Obama concluded that he had to marry an African-American woman for his political advancement, but their mutual friend Asif Agha told Garrow, “He said that, exactly. That’s what he told me.”) What is clear is that around this time, Obama came to feel that he had a calling for greatness, and that sense of destiny transformed him, nourishing his pragmatism and fueling his ambition.

Garrow’s Obama may be less impeccable than the demigod of popular lore, but he is also more complex, more interesting and, finally, more human. Obama’s charisma and sense of destiny, recorded so carefully by Garrow through the words of his interviewees, were vital qualities in his sudden rise to the pinnacle of power, and to win the presidency next time, Democrats will need to find someone else with a touch of the magic he conjured in 2008. But Garrow is a historian, not a political consultant, the historian’s job isn’t to bask in the radiance of charismatic individuals. It is, rather, to limn the complexity that makes them mortal.

Interestingly, Obama himself once addressed the perils for a movement of pinning its political hopes on a single magnetic leader. After leaving Chicago for Harvard, he was invited back to reflect on his community organizing experiences in a roundtable discussion in September 1989. To the jeers of some of the assembled, he said that the election of Chicago’s mayor Harold Washington—still beloved in his circles—had raised hopes for grand changes. But in the end, he added ruefully, Washington was “an essentially charismatic leader” whose reforms hadn’t gone deep enough to leave a lasting tangible legacy after his untimely death or to hold together his political base once he was gone. Almost alone among the discussants, Obama seemed to understand that to succeed in politics—the art of who gets what, when and how—it was necessary to do more.

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