David Maraniss, a longtime journalist with The Washington Post, wrote “First In His Class,” a seminal biography of former President Bill Clinton, after winning the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting for his newspaper stories on Clinton. He also has written acclaimed biographies of football coach Vince Lombardi and baseball player Roberto Clemente as well as “They Marched Into Sunlight,” a Vietnam-era history that was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He spoke to Tribune Nation & World editor Kerry Luft about his new book, “Barack Obama: The Story.” An edited transcript follows.
Q: This is not a typical biography. Barack Obama doesn't appear until the seventh chapter, and it's quite a while until we get a sense of him.
A: I don't look at a book as trying to address the transient interests of the political world at this moment. I was writing a book that would address the issues that I was interested in and the themes that I was interested in. So I didn't start from the perspective that this would be a biography that will play into the 2012 presidential campaign or even his presidency, but it would be a biography that will explain the forces that shaped him.
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Q: One of the things that keep popping up in the book is the collisions of history that combined to make Barack Obama. I suppose you could do this with any life, but this one is truly extraordinary.
A: All life is random, in my opinion. … But I think Barack Obama truly represents the diversity and randomness of our world, and so all of the factors that got his parents to Hawaii in 1960 to meet and all of the world forces that came together to create that became a global roots story that I wanted to pursue.
The other thing that really struck me was the whole bogus argument about Obama being a Muslim. Myth versus reality is always something I'm interested in. And the myth of his Muslim roots versus the reality that every step along the way, it was fundamentalist Christian missionaries who made the rise of the Kenyan Obamas possible.
Q: He's pretty areligious until he gets to Chicago.
A: His arc toward religion is part of the larger arc toward home, which he found in Chicago. Both as a place in finding the comfort of his own racial identity, emotional identity and spiritual and religious one, which he all found there. So in that sense, even though Michelle isn't in my book, I think in some ways she's the hero of the book. She's the inevitable result of everything that comes before.
Q: There's a beautiful presaging of that in the part about Genevieve Cook, his New York girlfriend, that says she pictures him with a black woman someday. She almost draws a portrait of Michelle in some ways.
A: I think in three different notations in her diary, (Cook) writes that he'll need a strong black woman at some point and comes pretty close to predicting Michelle.
Q: You wrote "First in His Class" and then you write "Barack Obama, The Story," and at several points you contrast Obama's arc with Clinton's. There's a passage where you talk about how no one ever doubted where Clinton's ambition lay. Barack Obama, for a certain stretch of his life, very much so.
A: Obama in high school, no one saw it. I don't think he did, either. Whereas Clinton ran for office so much in high school the principal eventually had to tell him to stop running. In college, Clinton ran so much his peers got sick of him. I think Clinton was motivated in part out of his deep need for affirmation, and Obama was probably keyed to be motivated out of a sense of destiny. You see the first glimmers of that at Occidental (College), and then he is sort of trying to find himself in the New York years, and then in Chicago he finally figures it out and then he's ready.
So it's a much slower progression. But I think that just as important is the fact that they both came out of dysfunction, dysfunctional families and situations, and Clinton proceeded basically by just plowing forward, pushing things out of the way, not dealing with them but surviving, and figuring out a way for the next thing. And he became an expert at strategy and tactics and getting where he wanted to go without really dealing with his own internal demons and dysfunctions. That got him to the White House, and it got him into trouble in the White House. It also helped him get out of trouble in the White House because he was such a good survivor.
And Obama, on the other hand, really spent those 10 years from the time he got off the island to Occidental to the time he went off to Harvard trying to figure himself out, really deeply, intellectually, emotionally, racially, spiritually and politically. And to the extent that anyone can, he sort of did it. I think he became a fairly integrated character who didn't need other people and their affirmation in the same way that Clinton did.
That got him a long ways to the White House, and also in some ways got him into trouble in the White House, because he wasn't as good as Clinton in dealing with the give and rough and tumble of life in the White House. But it also gives him larger opportunities, I think, in some sense than Clinton, because Obama is not just focused on the daily survival but something larger.
Q. One of the things that comes out in good biography are harbingers of what lies ahead. The character of him sitting back and observing in college is something we hear about all the time. Events play out, he encourages debate, he likes to listen to everybody and then he comes in with his opinion.A: And that's what I was hoping the book would do. Even in Chicago as a community organizer, as some of his bosses and colleagues would say, he appeared to be confrontation averse to some extent and then occasionally would make this huge leap, and I think that's sort of indicative of his presidency.
Q: There's a tendency for him to weigh everything and then to take a dramatic risk. Of course the thing that pops out of that is the Osama bin Laden raid.
A: Right. What I'm always trying to do, to the extent that I can, is see the characteristics that are permanent, that last and can help explain somebody no matter what they're doing later. And that's what I'm looking for, and I think you can find a lot of clues of that in somebody's biography.
Q. Your book also allows for a more critical reading of "Dreams From My Father." You really parse out where he's taking license and where he's writing fact.
A: I tried to do that without playing gotcha with him. In other words, because he wrote this book when he was in his 30s and he wrote it, in my opinion, with a central theme in mind, which was race. So he filtered everything through that. And the one disagreement that he and I had over it was when I interviewed him. The first thing he said after reading my introduction was, "David, you're calling my book fiction." And I said, "No, Mr. President, in fact I called it literature." I was just saying that it shouldn't be regarded as rigorous factual history, which it is not. … So at those points where he was sort of compressing or making composites or changing the chronology, I thought for history's sake it was important to try to present the story the way I found it as opposed to the way he wrote it.
Q: You're tracking him along in his early years. Clearly he's bright, going to this elite school in Hawaii. But except for the fact that he's an African-American in that school, he's pretty ordinary. Where does the switch get flipped?
A: I think it was always there, deep inside him, and I think it was implanted from his mother, mostly. ... He was both trying to figure himself out and waiting for the right time. I think he started to see it at Oxy, and definitely had that sense of something important coming during those New York years. You can see it in Genevieve's diary. And then I think he started to feel at home in Chicago. … He had to find himself, he had to find his home, and then with that comfort level he was ready to go.
Q: Did you have a moment when you just said "Wow, this changes the way I look at Obama"?
A: It was a little thing. And I remember it exactly. I was walking through the little alleyways of Menteng Dalam in Indonesia. And of course it's obvious, we knew he lived there and he writes about it, but it wasn't until I actually walked there and thought about 7-year-old Barry Soetoro sort of surviving there, just sort of thrown in, immersed in this incredibly vibrant and different culture where he didn't know the language or anything … and within a year was considered just another neighborhood kid. Just walking there and sort of feeling that, it just struck me what an incredible journey his life was.
Kerry Luft was Tribune Company's Washington bureau chief for the first two years of the Obama administration.
Barack Obama: The Story
By David Maraniss
Simon & Schuster, 672 pages, $32.50Copyright © 2015, RedEye