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David Garrow’s Rising Star

The Making of Barack Obama

“He was always happy.”

“He always had a big smile.”

“He always had a grin on his face.”

I’m trying to figure out what writer Garrow feels is so important about his interview subjects recalling Barack Obama as a young man with a constant smile on his face. On the one hand, it establishes him as a happy, cheerful individual. On the other, it makes the smile seem a mask adopted for public display. I’m still not one hundred percent confident which it is, or if it’s simply a fact of the transcription.

Given Garrow’s bona fides as a writer, though, it’s hard to believe he would do something so obvious accidentally.

This would be a good time to go into Garrow’s credentials, because it’s critical to his ultimate take on the subject of Barack Obama.

Garrow is a respected historian and NY Time best-selling author who has taken a particular interest in civil rights era and figures. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1986 “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”

What that all means is simple: Garrow is not a partisan hack.

Now, on my part, a reminder to my readers: way back in 2007, I read and reviewed the first Obama autobiography, written at the somewhat unsettling age of 33: “Dreams From My Father.” My conclusion in that reading was that Obama was even then calculating higher(est) political life, and had decided that his best option was to reflect back to each person what that person wanted to see in his friendly, affable face.

So when I began to read Garrow’s extensively researched, and perhaps over-documented book (it’s very long and more than a little difficult to plow through in places), and realized that his research turned up a similar conclusion, I have to admit feeling a bit smug.

Garrow, ever the historian, does not limit his story to Obama, but digs into the conditions, influences and theoretical background that created the candidate, then president, we know as Barack Obama.

David Garrow, ever the historian, does not limit his story to Obama, but digs into the conditions, influences and theoretical background that created the candidate, then president, we know as Barack Obama. 

He begins with an examination of the purpose of the state, socio-economic theory, and politico-economic theory. One telling observation is from the writings of John McKnight, who studied service economies, and how they reduce individuals to consumers –to “need” as opposed to people. Specifically concerned about Chicago in the mid 70s to early 80s, Garrow draws from McKnight: “By 1979, McKnight had honed his analysis further. ‘A service economy needs ‘deficiency,’ ‘human problems,’ and ‘needs,’ if it is to grow … This economic need for need creates a demand for redefining conditions as deficiencies” and “the power to label people deficient and declare them in need is the basic tool of control and oppression.”

With this in mind, Garrow launches into a deep examination of the forces behind Chicago’s extreme fall from grace as it lost industry and jobs, became increasingly segregated, and as the people were used by the various (if you’ll bear with the term) predators on their needs, from government agencies, to political organizations, to churches —particularly in the very hard-hit black community.

As the organizers struggle to find their feet, they seek a representative who can bring the people together. A forceful African American associate pastor from a Catholic Church finally enunciates the problem: “’The priest … said, ‘I don’t know where you’re looking, but there’s got to be somebody out there who looks like us and thinks like us and understands our needs. So wherever you’ve been looking, you go back and look again.’” (Emphasis added)

Having set the table, Garrow jumps back in time to Barack Obama, Senior, 25, a married man with a child and a baby on the way, embarking for the United States from Kenya. By 1960, the charming, forceful, flirtatious and apparently incipient alcoholic is making his presence known in Honolulu, HI, where he is studying. Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham’s, story is somewhat more ordinary, though by all accounts her father was somewhat unreliable and Stanley Ann seems to be a political romantic.

Now Garrow has set the stage for Stanley Ann and Obama, Sr., to meet, get pregnant, and ultimately, marry.

It’s about this point many readers will wonder “when are we going to get to Barack Obama?” While I wish Garrow had drawn his lines a bit more directly (you have to simply ride along and trust that he’s going somewhere with his exhaustive research and detail), when he finally begins to knit all the threads together, you understand the elements that contributed to the character —or perhaps, hidden character— of Obama.

David Garrow is a respected historian and NY Time best-selling author who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1986 “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” 

By the time the child Obama is on the scene, daddy is no longer a part of the little family; young Obama spends time in Indonesia raised by a step-father; his mother’s political leanings are clear. But before he leaves this part of the story, Garrow thoroughly dismisses the myth of Obama, Senior: according the evidence, he was not only an active alcoholic and (by American standards) a bigamist, but he also lied officially about his degrees and other academic achievements and was ultimately dismissed from Harvard – and sent home in disgrace.

When we really get to know Obama, Jr., he is living with his mother and more or less adoptive father, “Lolo” Soetoro. “His first grade teacher there,” writes Garrow, “Israella Darmawan, decades later told credulous reporters, ‘He wrote an essay titled I Want to Become President, during that spring of 1968, prior to his seventh birthday. She also told journalists that Barry Soetoro (as he was known) struggled greatly to learn Indonesian; in contrast, Obama later boasted that ‘it had taken me less than six months to learn Indonesia’s language, its customs, and its legends.’”

Again, Garrow is setting a stage, this time for discrepancies: “Obama’s recollection of his realization that he is black, as he, as he tells it, at eight, sees an article in LOOK Magazine that mark “a turning point, “a transformation in the life story that marks a considerable shift in self-understanding” and in “his racial identity development.” The article was about a black person who has undergone a series of skin-bleaching treatments to try to have white skin. The problem is, the article did not exist in that, or any magazine that could be found from that era.

Next, we get a very detailed account of Barack Obama’s years at Punahou, in Hawaii (the now famous private school his grandparents sent him to), Occidental (Oxy) College in California, Columbia, and Harvard. Here the big news is his friendship with the man identified as Frank Marshall, an older black man who deeply influences young Barry’s politics (Marshall was a Communist), his hard-partying ways (with marijuana and cocaine), and an account of his friendship with political radical student Hasan Chandoo that Hasan’s girlfriend at the time describes as “an affectionate friendship,” one that “wasn’t hampered by masculinity issues. They were open with each other, affectionate with each other.” His teacher’s remember him as not very much into reading, well-spoken, but “not a very committed student.”

Reaction to the book were, predictably, mixed: it was both praised and damned. If you were on the fence, you walk away with a portrait of a modern day president: complex, driven, charming, and ultimately unknowable. 

Finally, we wrap back around to the first chapter —the lead up to Obama getting the community organizing gig in Chicago— but the book doesn’t end there. It now heads off into the political career of the man who would become the 44th President of the US.

Reaction to the book were, predictably, mixed: it was both praised and damned. For the reader, if you loved Obama going in, you were likely offended by Garrow’s inclusion of anything less than hagiographic. If you disliked him, there was much to pounce upon with that “aha!” reaction, while still having to sniff at the man’s obvious charisma and sheer clear-sighted ambition. If you were on the fence, you walk away with a portrait of a modern day president: complex, driven, charming, and ultimately unknowable.

I think I said something similar after reading his autobiography.

 

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.