DC at Night

DC at Night

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Barack by the Book

While many were shocked by President Barack Obama's performance in his 1st debate with his GOP challenger Mitt Romney, Obama biographer David Maraniss believes the outcome was "thoroughly predictable".

Speaking at the Newseum yesterday about the 1st of his 2-volume biography entitled Barack Obama: The Story, Maraniss said he believes there were both political and personal reasons for the president's lackluster debate presentation.

"Politically, the Obama team was playing defense. They didn't want to make any mistakes," Maraniss said. "And Obama has a natural inclination not to be confrontational. He has a certain ambivalence about (parts of) politics like sound bites. All of that didn't play that well in the 1st debate"

But Obama is also incredibly competitive. That's why Maraniss knew that Obama would be in a feisty, combative mood for the 2nd debate, which most believe he won. "So I guess the 3rd debate is the big question," Maraniss told the crowd that filled the Knight Studio to learn more about the 44th president.

Maraniss said at first he hesitated to write the Obama story. His role at the Washington Post has been to write major profiles about candidates and he had already written an acclaimed biography about former President Bill Clinton. "But the modern American political climate has become particularly toxic. I knew people would manipulate whatever I found," he said.

However, his curiosity about the private, introspective man that is Barack Obama eventually won out. "I had 2 obsessions. There was the complete randomness of Barack Obama's existence. And, given the contradictions of the world he was born into, it made it harder for him to figure himself out," Maraniss said.

Maraniss traveled more than 60,000 miles for his research, visiting and revisiting Kenya, Indonesia, Hawaii, California, New York, and Chicago, all areas that helped shape the man that Obama would become. "It was really trying to find the right people to help me get beyond the superficial and know the real story," he said.

A central theme in Obama's life was his search for personal and racial identity. In fact, Obama originally planned to call one of the 2 books he wrote Journeys in Black and White. "He was dealing with issues of race from the day he was born," Maraniss said of Obama, who had a white mother and a Kenyan father who was never part of his life. "The second half of my book deals with his search for racial identity."

Maraniss waited until he had completed all the research for his 1st volume before formally interviewing the president himself. "I always feel the more I know, the more productive an interview will be," he said.

"I knew Obama was a sports guy and I'm a sports guy," Maraniss, who has written biographies of legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi and Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente, said. So after an icebreaker about the Bears/Packers rivalry ("Man, those Packers were rough on me," Obama told Maraniss), the interview began. The talk came to books. "You called my book fiction," Obama said. "Actually, Mr. President, I complimented you. I called it literature," Maraniss responded.

The interview was scheduled for 45 minutes. Actually, it lasted 90 minutes. Obama appeared interested in what Maraniss had uncovered. "He'd leave periodically and say he had to check on the situation room. Then he would come back, say 'everything's cool' and we would continue," the author said.

Maraniss was asked what he thought Obama would do when his presidency ended. "I always said Bill Clinton, he'll keep running for president. And then he would try to out-Carter Jimmy Carter," Maraniss said, provoking laughter from the crowd. "With Obama, his first sensibility is as a writer. I think he will write. And I think he will teach. I talked to his (former) students and they said he was a good law teacher. He was not an ideological pedagogue."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Obviously, as someone who has spent years studying and writing about Clinton and Obama, Maraniss is considered an expert on the lives and careers of both men. He said that both embodied the American ideal of being able to overcome humble beginnings and rise to great success. "They both started in a provincial environment, Clinton in Arkansas and Obama in Hawaii. They both grew up without fathers. They both had dysfunction in their families," Maraniss noted. But each man chose to deal with his assent in very different ways. Clinton knew early on he wanted to be president. He began seeking top offices in high school. He was outgoing and loquacious. "Clinton believed in just plowing forward. He is an incredible survivor. He gets in and out of trouble. Right now, he is the most popular politician on the planet. So watch out, something will happen. You see none of that in Obama. Obama is much more introspective. He spent a lot of time trying to work himself out as a person. I think he somewhat naively thought "if I can figure out the contradictions in my life, why can't Congress."

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