It's a nice little rivalry in our town on the Potomac between bestselling authors David Maraniss and Bob Woodward. Both are associate editors at The Washington Post. Both work with the legendary book editor Alice Mayhew at Simon & Schuster. They both gave talks under the same tent at the National Book Festival Sunday, the day of the autumnal equinox in an election season. And finally, Maraniss and Woodward, who are good friends, have just published revealing books about President Barack Obama.
But you might not know they are writing about the same person. Really. What follows is not a book review so much as a reflection of how these two views might be reconciled.
In Barack Obama: The Story, Maraniss has written a voluminous, rich family history as well as a singular biography that stretches from El Dorado, Kan., to the Luo people of Kenya. How those two worlds could be joined in one complex man is the voyage of this book. Maraniss went to these places. He went to Occidental College in California, where Obama studied for two years before transferring to Columbia College. He and his wife Linda went to Indonesia to investigate Obama's origins and, of course, Hawaii and Chicago. Maraniss found Obama's once-girlfriend in New York, a white Swarthmore alumna named Genevieve Cook, who gave him a perfect-pitch diary portrait about who the president was as a young man. He was on a classic identity quest—talk to Telemachus on his way home. Earlier, as a child and youth, Maraniss tells us, Obama was bright, confident, engaged and engaging, with plenty of friends, a basketball team player, eager to be the first one to answer questions in class. His mother Stanley made him do the hard homework of the Calvert School (of Baltimore) at dawn in Indonesia, which probably paved the way for his future scholastic success. He was known for "main thing, cool head," an Indonesian expression.
The Story ends for now, when Obama is 27, baptized a Chicagoan the hard way—by community organizing—and about to cross over into the elite precinct of Harvard Law School. He has come of age, meaning he has integrated the disparate parts of his past. That is what Maraniss does as well, finding the connections "that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder...they were everywhere I looked in the story of Barack Obama," as he put it. His understanding of Kansas goes so deep, for example, that he caught the way to say the word "wash"—warsh, bringing on a lush rush of memories of my Kansas-born grandmother, Eleanor. Maraniss goes to the well, sometimes of tears, to gain a nuanced understanding of the members of Obama's family, including the brilliant, temperamental, and violent father that young Barack was lucky not to have known well, he says, despite the title of Obama's memoir, Dreams of my Father.
Woodward, on the other hand, does not call upon the muse of history to tell his tale in The Price of Politics. It is located in the fast-moving (almost) here and now, centered in the roiling summer 2011 drama of the debt ceiling limit. It's a drama that Woodward, the best in the business of political backstory, knows will turn into a crisis of Shakespearean proportions: the young king being tested by wily Senate and House courtiers at cross-purposes, daggers in their smiles, or some such. The author, in his familiar staccato rhythm, shows that crisis developing in every step. Was it the equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as Bruce Reed, Vice President Joe Biden's top aide, said? Pretty darn close. But President Obama did not handle this first serious crisis as adeptly as President John F. Kennedy when he faced the Cold War close to our shores.
Woodward's reliance on interviewing the principals in every room works every time to illustrate how high the stakes are. Given a global financial meltdown was hovering over the meetings, some in them seemed remarkably casual and even petty. The unanswered phone calls from a president to the Republican House Speaker John Boehner (for 24 hours) stands in nicely for the disrespect an unruly House Republican majority felt for Obama. This was the result of the 2010 Tea Party election, which brought no less than 87 Republican newcomers to the House in January 2011. They were—and are—a tough crowd, not promoting legislation, but rather a pitching fit at the president. It was hard to get them to think in national terms, let alone global ones. Woodward's inside-the-room focus doesn't tell the reader what the president was up against in the House. The heavy reliance on Boehner's account does disclose that the speaker was not sure he could control his own caucus. That's scary, for Boehner was even newer to his job, finding his way in a changed political climate. He did not have the 2010 class loyalty the way former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ruled the class of 1994.
The inexperienced Obama failed to "work his will," in Woodward's words, using poor judgment by relying on the phone at critical junctures. And he gave away the store by agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Had they "sunsetted" instead, it would have been worth about $800 billion in revenue. Going back to the Clinton rate would have sent a strong signal about fairness to the people. The president would have found his footing again with his own party sooner. Nobody walked away happy, least of all the shaken young king. It was a damn near thing.
This may be the connection to the charming child: Obama came in overconfident that reason would prevail over political hatred. Used to negotiating new cultures, he thought he could talk his enemies down. He was seriously mistaken and it almost cost him his presidency and, if Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is to be believed, a second depression. He also ended up paying more mind to the Republican congressional leaders than his own people in the House and Senate, leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. And by the way, he never made his case to the country. His signature persuasion failed him at this brink—or, it was not enough. His enemies never feared him.
Maraniss wrote his prose for the ages. Woodward wrote for the Washington record, though there is always a sense that "history will be the judge" in his work. He gives invaluable insight into how a young president was tested—and we can see now how he's grown since, going gray and getting tougher with the times.
How lucky our town is to have these two authors in residence.
Corrected on 9/28/2012: A previous version of this post misstated the amount of experience President Kennedy had when facing the Cuban Missile Crisis.