As far as childhoods go, Barack Obama's was far from ordinary. Born to a teenage mother and an absent Kenyan father, Barry Obama, as he was known then, spent much of his youth in Indonesia before living with his grandparents to attend prep school in Hawaii. In Barack Obama: The Story, associate editor David Maraniss of the Washington Post looks at Obama's roots, tracing back generations on both his mother's and father's sides, and examines Obama's childhood, education, and path to politics. Maraniss recently spoke with U.S. News about what kind of student Obama was and his experience as a community organizer. Excerpts:
Why is it important to understand Barack Obama's ancestry?
All of us are shaped by our ancestors and by the geography and sociology and history of our forebearers. In this particular case, because Obama is a creation of the world in a sense, that makes what came before all the more important. It also gave me the opportunity to write about the modern world through the sort of Roots-like story of his family.
What qualities did Obama inherit from his father?
In terms of the nature of Obama, I think two key things he inherited from his father that he never knew were, one, his deep voice, which sounds superficial but I doubt he would be president today if he didn't have that sort of authoritative voice, and second, a sort of inherent self-confidence. The most important thing, of course, is that he inherited the color of his skin from his father, which has sort of been at the center of his life ever since.
And his mother?
She was his conscience; she was the one who believed in him and kept driving him to achieve something in his life. He also inherited some of her personality. She was an anthropologist and they're participant-observers, and I think her son has that same sensibility—participating but observing the passing scene, the political scene as he is being right in the middle of it. And further than that, she was at her essence a community organizer in Indonesia, and he certainly picked up that desire from her.
How did Obama's childhood in Indonesia shape him?
He saw the vastness of the world there, in a way that most American kids would never see. He wasn't like a typical diplomat's child thrown into the international school in that sort of protective cocoon of expatriates, but was really just another neighborhood kid in Jakarta having to learn the native language, and going to a neighborhood school, and playing with the neighborhood kids. I think that had a really profound effect on him.
What was Obama like as a student?
For high school and most of college he was a good student but wasn't particularly pushing it. He had a natural quickness to his studies, so he wasn't a grind at all. He wasn't in the National Honor Society; he never pursued any student leadership positions. You wouldn't see anything in him as a student that would say, "This person is destined for greatness." He was a regular kid. In high school, he loved basketball and hanging out, smoking marijuana with his buddies. In college he started to get the first intellectual inklings. He started keeping a journal and writing a lot and thinking about what his place was in the world.
What were some of the lessons Obama learned working as a community organizer?
He came into that job as a community organizer wanting to effect change and help people's lives, and I think he learned all about power from those three years: How one gets it, what the limits of certain types of power are, electoral politics versus social action politics. He learned from his many, many forays into the subculture of the black church. He got lessons in oratory and sociology and politics from the black church. I think those three years were really crucial to sort of helping him make the turn toward his political future.
There are places in Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father , where he diverged from what actually happened, as you point out. Why?
I think it was done to advance the themes of his book, which had to do with finding his identity in terms of race, so many of the compressions and composite figures are contrived because of that, because of the specific story he wanted to tell. My responsibility as a historian is not, in the superficial sense, to be the fact checker of his book, but to try to find the truth. That sounds like a subtle distinction, but it's an important one.
What do you think of Republicans using your book against the president?
They're at once dismissing my book as hagiography, saying I am backing away from my own findings, and then plucking it, cherry-picking every single thing that's critical of the president in the book to pound away at him. And I knew that would happen, I predicted it. All I can do is try to write the truth and deal with that and not with the craziness around it.
- Obama Launches Midwest Bus Tour
- Read Peter Fenn: Healthcare Will Be Obama's D-Day, Not His Waterloo
- Check out U.S. News Weekly : an insider's guide to politics and policy.