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Myth and Reality in the Life of Obama

David Maraniss, associate editor at the Washington Post and author of Barack Obama: The Story, spoke to a standing-room only crowd at the Miller Center’s Forum this morning. Maraniss explored some of the myth’s surrounding Barack Obama, the roots of who he is as a person and implications of his biography for his governing style.

Maraniss exposed two particular myths that have been exploited for political purposes. First, according to Maranniss’ research on the ground in Kenya, it was evangelical Christians that made the rise of the Obamas possible. Barack Obama, Sr. was trained in Anglican school. Furthermore, Obama Sr.’s mentor, Betty Mooney, was an evangelical Christian who was part of a faith-based literacy movement and whose grandfather was one of the founders of Texas Christian University. Muslims have nothing to with Mr. Obama’s existence.  The revelation of the family’s relationship to the evangelical Christian movement undermines the credibility of those who employ the claim that the President is a Muslim as a political scare tactic.

The story that Obama’s grandfather was tortured by the British is another myth the president himself innocently perpetrates in his own book, Dreams of My Father. There’s a sliver of possibility that it happened. However, there are no documents to prove it and Maraniss interviewed six people who said it didn’t happen.  Maraniss referred to a “sick American culture” that has exploited this myth as means to portray the president as basing policies and governance on an anti-colonialist victimhood worldview.

More broadly on the point of Obama’s book, Maraniss made the distinction between memoire and biography conducted by a Historian looking at primary documents and interviewing many sources. The stories Obama tells in his memoire are reiterations of what he learned from his family. The characters are composites of people Obama has known in life and some characters were emphasized in the book to make it more edgy.

Maraniss also spoke about who influenced Barack Obama and from whom he inherited certain characteristics and traits. From his grandfather Stanley Dunham, Obama inherited his physical characteristics and features – the same big ears, long face and physique. Maraniss joked it might have been his grandfather from whom Obama also inherited his cigarette and pot smoking habits. Barack Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, was the rock of the family – very pragmatic and steady. In an interview with Maraniss, Obama compared his grandmother to the character Peggy on Mad Men (apparently one of the president’s fav tv shows). Madelyn Dunham started as a secretary and rose to vice president of a bank in Honolulu. She was not necessarily extroverted or emotional, but very pragmatic. She was also largely responsible for getting Obama into elite prep school in Hawaii and helped to pay his college tuition. Barack Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham was a sardonic, independent young woman who didn’t want to be trapped in smallness, but instead wanted to be open to the world. From his mother, Obama inherited his internationalist, idealistic side. Maraniss noted that, if you study presidents, almost all of them were shaped more by strong women than by their fathers.

President Obama is a figure defined visibly by race. Yet, Maraniss noted that there are so many factors other than race that went into how Obama figured out who he is. The arc of second half of Maraniss’ book is about Barack Obama’s search for home. Part of his search for home is driven by race. In one sense, Hawaii was a great place for Obama to grow up because it is such a diverse place, but it in no way acclimated him to being an African American. His search for home was also driven by the fact that he never knew his father and his mother wasn’t around all the time. It was his search for home that led him to Chicago and to Michelle.

Unlike President Bill Clinton who wanted to be president from the moment he was born and who was constantly running for office from high school onwards, President Obama was a good student, but didn’t do anything more active. He got his first seed of purpose when he started college at Occidental and then at Columbia University in New York. Chicago was the really pivotal point in which Obama found himself personally and professionally. He felt a sense of home he never felt before. Professionally, he wasn’t a classic community organizer; he wasn’t confrontational. However, from this standpoint, he was able to study power very astutely and it was from here he made the decision to go into electoral politics.

When asked whether the president was sufficiently vetted in 2008, Maraniss said, “Probably not,” but “I don’t think that the public can know too much about someone who is going to be president.” We should try to understand the substance of what candidates have done and who they are to the deepest extent possible. Events candidates face in their lives and careers are almost completely different than what they face in government, so we almost can’t do enough beforehand to know how they will act as president.

When asked whether he will be a different kind of president in his second term, Maraniss answered:

Yes, I think that Presidnet Obama has a certain contradiction in him. He has an outward appearance of being cool. He keeps that appearance on the outside, but he is fiercely competitive on the inside. As a campaigner you won’t see it. But if you study his history, he’s not a closet socialist, but exactly the opposite. He will go for what he really is, which is someone who tries to embrace a lot.

Watch the full video of the forum here.

 

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