TOPICS > Politics

Obama’s Search for Himself: ‘A Classic Odyssey’

July 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Judy Woodruff speaks with author and journalist David Maraniss about his new book, "Barack Obama: The Story", which describes President Obama's earlier years and how he tried to find his own way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a new book chronicles President Obama’s family roots and early years.

Its author, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss, won accolades for his biography of former President Bill Clinton.

I sat down with him recently to talk about his latest endeavor, a close study of the current president.

“Barack Obama: The Story” takes readers to Kansas, Kenya, Hawaii, Indonesia, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, ending as Mr. Obama heads to Harvard Law School.

David Maraniss joins us now.

And thank you for being with us.

DAVID MARANISS, author, “Barack Obama: The Story”: Thank you, Judy. Great to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you didn’t just dash this book off. You went all over the world. You went through reams of documents, interviewed all those people.

How was this different than preparing for the biography of President Clinton?

DAVID MARANISS: Well, that biography was centered in Arkansas, which is, you know, another place of someone coming out of nowhere.

But to tell the story of Barack Obama, it really is a global story in so many ways. And that’s what fascinated me in the beginning, sort of the unlikeliness of this character coming from so many different places and weaving it together into someone who became president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were saying you decided to write it on the night of the election. You had been thinking about it, but the night of — the night he became. . .

DAVID MARANISS: Yes. It overwhelmed me that night. Before that, I have to confess that, over the years before that, I had been a little bit dispirited by the modern American political culture, and wasn’t sure that I wanted to throw myself back into that with a biography of a sitting president.

But the story in itself became so powerful, I wanted to write it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You open — there’s so much in here about his ancestors. You open with a story about his great-grandmother Ruth in Kansas. There are stories about his great-great-great-grandfathers in Kenya going back to the 1800s.

Why — why were those generations so important to telling his story?

DAVID MARANISS: Well, I think they’re important to telling a story, and his story is the culmination of it.

We tend to look at anything that’s about a sitting president or a modern politician as all having to be about him. And, in fact, it was the larger story that brought me into it in the first place. But I think that in this case, you can see so much about the president from his past.

You know, when you go back into Kenya, you see that, for several generations, Obamas were considered outsiders, just because they came from a different village than where they ended up. Also, you see in the history of the Obamas that it wasn’t Muslims that affected them in any way, although the grandfather did convert to Islam.

But at every step in the rise of the Obamas, you see that it was evangelical Christians from America who made their rise possible. And I just thought that was fascinating as a way of explaining the unwitting consequences of history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you do get to — I guess it’s, what, 150 pages in before you talk about his parents. . .


JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . meeting each other in a classroom at the University of Hawaii.

But so much of the book, David Maraniss, is about his search for himself, for his identity, of course.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And a lot of that is race. But that’s not the whole thing, is it?

DAVID MARANISS: No, it’s not.

His story is sort of a classic odyssey, an arc towards home. He starts really without a sense of home, because he never knew his father. And his mother, as loving as she was and as much as she inculcated her philosophy of life into him, was also not there for large stretches of his adolescence and teenage years.

And so you see him not only trying to figure himself out as a biracial kid from Hawaii, but also trying to find his place personally in the world. And it takes him from the island of Hawaii to Los Angeles to New York, and finally he finds himself personally in Chicago on the South Side, and so that Michelle Robinson, who is not even in this book, is kind of the magnet that you see drawing him all the way along.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you also write about there’s this recurring theme of avoiding life’s traps, even when he was a young child.

DAVID MARANISS: Well, that’s part of being a biracial kid, I think, is trying to figure out how to negotiate different worlds and not get trapped in some way.

But you look at his life, and you see the trap of being born on an island, further from any land mass than any place in the world, except Easter Island. You see the trap of being biracial and trying to figure out the different racial subtleties and not-so-subtle parts of being that in America today, of being defined by society as black, and trying to figure that out and find his own way to an African-American life, the trap of possibly getting struck in Chicago politics, with all of its elements that can be dangerous.

All along the way, you see him trying to avoid the traps. And that I think helps explain his presidency, too. That’s so much a part of his character and personality that there are times in his presidency where even his supporters think, what is he doing? Why is he moving so slowly on something?

And usually, it’s because he’s calculating ahead, trying to figure out where the trap is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the things in here, David Maraniss, is you point out at a number of points throughout the book what he wrote in his own memoir, ‘Dreams of My Father,” were really different from the facts that you uncovered when you went digging and asking a lot of questions.

How did you ultimately explain that? You talked to the president about that.

DAVID MARANISS: I did talk to the president about that. And he had read the introduction to my book before we did our interview. I wanted him to understand where I was — what I had found and where I had gone.

And it was an interesting conversation. He said, “David, it’s a really interesting introduction, but you call my book fiction.”

And I said: “No, Mr. President, actually, I call it literature.”

And there’s a difference. There’s a difference between serious, rigorous factual biography and a memoir. When he began his memoir, the original title on his proposal was “Journeys in Black and White.” And the entire book is shaped through the lens of race. And so he distorts some characters, compresses some, makes some composites.

And it’s all with the goal of trying to make different points about his perspectives on race. And that’s where that comes from.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you say to those critics who say he changed the facts in order to fit a narrative that he wanted to write about himself?

DAVID MARANISS: My perspective on his memoir is that it’s a fascinating look inside of his head. And it accurately reflects his sort of — how he dealt with issues of race. But it’s not to be judged as a serious biographical history of his life. And that’s the way I look at it.

And so each person can determine for themselves how much leeway you give someone who is writing a memoir. For me, it got me inside his head. And that was the most valuable part of it.

And so when I found something that didn’t jibe with the way he presented it in the memoir, it wasn’t that I was trying to catch him on all of these things. I was just trying to get the history right, which is different from memoir.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You talk about the light that this sheds to some extent on his presidency. What did you learn about him — I mean, you learned so many things about him — but that would help people, voters who look at him, who try to size up the kind of leader he is?

DAVID MARANISS: Well, you know, I can do some of that by comparing him with President Clinton, the other person I have studied.

And, essentially, Barack Obama did come out of dysfunction, did have a lot of contradictions to work out in his life. And he spent 10 years of his life — really, the last third of my book reveals this in letters and journals and so much else — really trying to resolve those contradictions, dealing with them seriously in terms of sociology and race and spirituality, almost in every respect.

He did a pretty good job of that. He worked harder at it than most anybody else I have ever studied. And he came out of that. And it really made him what I would call — in quotes — “an integrated personality.”

And that got him to the White House, that sort of self-confidence that he had after he found himself. It also would get him in trouble in the White House, because he’s thinking, well, if I can resolve these contradictions, why can’t Congress, why can’t the country?

So he wasn’t as prepared in transactional politics as Bill Clinton was, who came out of dysfunction the same way, dealt with it completely differently, just plowing forward every move, forgiving himself every day, learning how to survive so well. That got him to the White House and got him in trouble in the White House.

And then he was such a great survivor, he got out of trouble. So, you see these two different personalities reaching the same goal in such different ways.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this whole book, what is it, 571 pages before you get to the footnotes.


JUDY WOODRUFF: He’s 27 years old. He’s headed off to Harvard Law School. And so you’re thinking about a sequel.


I think, by the time he leaves for Harvard, he’s figured things out. He’s found his home in Chicago. And he’s studied power for three years on the South Side of Chicago and understood that he needed electoral power to get where he wanted to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did you stop there in this book?

DAVID MARANISS: Because the next book will be all about his political life. And this one is the preparation for it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Maraniss, the book is “Barack Obama: The Story.”

Thank you very much.

DAVID MARANISS: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On our Web site, you can watch the personal footage Maraniss shot as he reported in Kenya and see more photos of President Obama’s family tree.

Tomorrow, we interview author David Brody about his new book, “The Teavangelicals: The Inside Story of How the Evangelicals and the Tea Party are Taking Back America.”