Young Obama Cheerfully Scarfed Burgers, Smoked Pot: Book Review

Young Obama Cheerfully Scarfed Burgers, Smoked Pot
A young Barack Obama and his mother Ann Dunham in Hawaii. Source: Family photo via Bloomberg News

It’s charming to read about a friendly, chubby six-year-old named Barack Obama, whose mother married an Indonesian and whisked the boy from his native Honolulu to a four-room house on a dirt road in a quarter of Jakarta without sewers or gutters. He adapted easily.

And it’s amusing to learn about the cheerful pothead jock who, back in Honolulu, graduated from the distinguished Punahou School with no awards and no record of leadership:

“To the vast majority of his Punahou friends and classmates, Barry did not seem destined to make history in politics or anything else.”

David Maraniss’s “Barack Obama: The Story” takes the president through the age of 26, when he left his job as a community organizer in Chicago to enter Harvard Law School.

But it starts in 1926 -- 35 years before Obama’s birth -- with the suicide of his great-grandmother in Kansas.

Maraniss, an editor at the Washington Post, takes the strictly chronological approach you would expect of a biographer, but it doesn’t serve him all that well. Obama isn’t born until Chapter 7 (of 18).

I advise readers to start there, read to the end, and then return to the chapters about his grandparents and his parents.

The Dunhams

His mother’s parents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, were probably as important in forming him as she was. His grandfather, a small-potatoes salesman (furniture, then insurance) who seldom held a job for long, gave him the cautionary example of an unfulfilled life. But his love (and love of fun) provided the boy with bedrock confidence.

His grandmother, who rose from escrow officer to vice president at the Bank of Hawaii, had a more recessive personality -- Obama may have inherited her reserve -- and a more dependable income. She gave him stability.

Maraniss is damning on the subject of Obama’s father, a Kenyan economist who made a number of women unhappy before he destroyed himself with a combination of heavy drinking and psychotic driving.

“Barry could not know,” he writes, “that perhaps the luckiest thing that happened to him in his young life was that his father had left.”

Black Identity

He attended Punahou on a scholarship he received on the strength of his grandparents’ connections.

One consequence of being raised by his white mother and grandparents was that he knew few black people until he went to college (two years at Occidental, in Los Angeles, and then two at Columbia, in New York City). His search for his black identity became the theme of his 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father.”

Maraniss spends a lot of time showing where and how the memoir embellished or compressed or otherwise reconfigured the events of Obama’s life.

He is thorough to a fault. This is probably the first book about Obama to reveal that the burgers his high-school basketball team scarfed on the day of their final game contained carrots, celery, onions, teriyaki sauce and wheat germ.

Although that tidbit, and hundreds like it, will doubtless be of interest to future scholars, the general reader may find this book, as I did, a slog.

Maraniss’s writing is clean and straightforward, his analysis of personality astute and his subject obviously important. I wish I could call his book exciting.

“Barack Obama: The Story” is published by Simon & Schuster (641 pages, $32.50). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and James Pressley on business books.

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