Monday, August 18, 2014

Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss

I read Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss, because I was interested into some insight into the man who is our president. However, my first thought upon beginning the biography was to ask myself, “Who cares?” Why does this guy even care about where Barack Obama comes from? We already know who he is. Then I had to remind myself, “Well, he IS the president of the United States, and only a handful of people can say that. I suppose he’s worthy of a biography.”

Unfortunately, I came away with even less of an understanding of who Barack Obama is than when I started reading the book.

Maraniss scrupulously researches his subject. In fact, the amount of hard work he put into finding the details of Barack Obama’s life is quite impressive. He starts with the great grandparents on both Obama’s mother and father’s side. Therefore his journey begins in remote parts of both Kenya and Kansas. 

While these stories are interesting, in the way I suppose everyone’s story is interesting, what struck me is how normal their lives were. Of course, living in Kenya is not “normal” for me, but quite “normal” for a Kenyan. Barack Obama’s ancestors lived, married, divorced, moved, had tragedy befall them, watched children grow up to either make them proud but also disappoint in some ways, and generally had the kind of lives you would expect to hear about if you dug deep enough into your own history.

Of course, Barack Obama Sr. live a bit of an extraordinary life. Tapped early as a hope for a free Kenya, he was educated in America. But like many “gifted” people, he wasted his opportunities and didn’t end up amounting to much. He died while married to his fourth wife in a drunk driving accident. The tryst for which he became famous, with Stanley Ann Dunham, was nothing more than a blip in an otherwise narcissistic life.

He and (Stanley) Ann met at the University of Hawaii when she was, maybe, barely 18 and he several  years older. She became pregnant within weeks of meeting him. Since she didn’t know he was already married and had two children back in Kenya, she agreed to marry him in Hawaii. The “marriage” was over by the time Barack II was born. There’s little evidence they ever even lived together. He was as absent from Barack Obama’s life as an absent father can be.

Later, Ann met and married an Indonesian man who was in a similar situation as Barack Sr. He was sent to America to be educated and return to Indonesia to further the success of his nation. After trying to stay in America, he and Ann finally realized that time was up and they had to move back to the island nation. “Barry” was then about 5 and enrolled in the Indonesian school and took on his stepfather’s last name. 

As that marriage broke up, Barry was sent back to Hawaii to be raised by his grandparents and sent to an elite prep school, Punahou, on scholarship. Although he has a group of pot-smoking friends, called the Choom Gang, the author reinforces the idea again and again that Barry never felt that he belonged anywhere. 

Barry, changing his name to Barack, goes off to Occidental in Los Angeles, where once again, he hangs with his pot-smoking roommates. He prefers basketball to politics and never leads anything. Two years later, he transfers to Columbia in New York. There he remains off campus, making little impression on either students or professors. Those who remember him, remember him as smart, a good conversationalist, always listening, always talking about his Kenyan dad. He sticks with the international students. Once again, this seems to be a sign that he doesn’t feel he belongs.

With his New York girlfriend, Genevieve, an Australian, we start to get glimpses into who Obama is. The truth is, it appears to me at least, that there is not a lot of “there, there.” He writes her obtuse letters, trying yet failing, to reveal himself, “I don’t distinguish between struggling with the world and struggling with myself... I enter a pact with other people, in other forces in the world, that their problems are mine and mine theirs, and the contradictions within us are between us and to be found in the movement of the sea, or the tears of a child or the New York Post sports page. The minute others imprint my senses, they become me and I must deal with them or else close part of myself or make myself and the world smaller, lukewarm. And the helpful part of this is to populate both my nightmares and my visions, and gives me the necessary illusion that my struggles are the struggles of the first man, the river is the original river, and that my brief interludes outside the limits of the human construct are still connected to what’s going on within.”

Huh? I consider myself smart and well-read, but I have never read anything as insipid as this. What does this even mean?

Even though Genevieve was very similar to Barack in many ways, after a year of being together, even living together, she still could not say she knew who he was. He never really let her inside. I would say, that there was not that much to reveal. He seems like he’s simply acting a role, this is what a deep and thoughtful human would be like, if I was one. 

He tires of her, and after graduation, he moves to Chicago. Even though he struggles with his “white vs. black” identity, he didn’t really connect with any black people at Occidental or Columbia. So he heads to Chicago, the epicenter of black political life. 

He takes a job as “community organizer.” Even his uncle, who also lives in Chicago, doesn’t know what that means. Basically, he heads door-to-door in the South Chicago neighborhood he is assigned to, talking with the people, identifying and training leaders, and listening to complaints. After a year, the big success results in getting an aldermen to attend a meeting about getting asbestos removed at one of the housing projects he represents. He spend the next year training his replacement before heading off to Harvard. He knows he’ll need more on his resumé if he’s ever to enter into politics, which seems, in some remote, far-off way, where he’s headed. 

The book ends here. 

It explains so little of who Barack Obama is or what he’s accomplished. But the part about what he did as a community organizer really stuck with me. It’s not clear what he did after Harvard, during which time he met and married his wife. Four years after graduation, he’s elected to the State Senate. He loses his race for US House, four years later. Is nominated in the primary for US Senate two years after that, gives a speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, and two years later starts his run for the Presidency. Was he doing more organizing or teaching or brushing up his resume in the four years before becoming a state senator? I don’t know. What I do know is that the Presidency is the longest job he’s ever had.

But now when I watch him speak, something clicks. He is still that "out of power, wishes he had power", community organizer. His job then was to get people riled up so that those in power would make the changes they desire. He’s still doing that. Except that he’s in power. Every once in a while he remembers that and then acts unilaterally as he assumed those he petitioned would do if they cared at all. Here is where his perception and reality clash. He would assume that the powerful didn’t act because... fill in the blank. But it was never a legitimate reason. He just had to get enough people fired up that the powerful would have to give in. Consequences didn’t matter. 

Watch his speeches. See him try to rally us vs. them. We are the community. He is the organizer. If we get angry enough and off our butts enough and DEMAND action, action will happen. And it will be good. And he can move on, checking off that box. He doesn’t want and has never wanted compromise. He didn’t compromise with the alderman. He wants action. He demands action. We are the masses who must rally behind him as he guides and directs us. “They” are the evil other side who must be forced to capitulate. 

He is leader the way a mob has a leader. He is not thoughtful. He speaks in platitudes like a true mob leader does. He rallies his base. He yells talking points. He makes inane statements with no ability to hear or compromise with the other side. He exercises power the way he assumes “they” would do it. It’s not so much that he’s a leftist/socialist, although no one denies he leans that way, it’s that he’s a cheerleading victocrat. And victocrats are not leaders, they are fascistic ideologues. 

I am not a community. I don’t want to be organized. I want to be left alone. 

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