Maraniss: Finding New Insights in the Personal Roots of President Obama

There were points in researching his new biography, Barack Obama: The Story, when David Maraniss says he was struck by the obvious but profound thought of how amazing the personal story of the current President of the United States is.

In an “On the Issues” session Wednesday with Mike Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, Maraniss discussed his extraordinarily deep research into the family roots and early life of Obama, touching upon episodes and influences that would not conventionally be associated with a path to the presidency. The suicide of a great-grandmother. An absent father with alcohol problems who abused wives. Several years as a child in Indonesia, living in modest circumstances. A period in Obama’s youth where his two major interests were basketball and marijuana.

Maraniss contrasted the two presidents who have been the subject of high critically-acclaimed biographies that he wrote: Bill Clinton, “who was running for president from the day he was born basically,” and Obama, who “showed no inclination to what he was to become.” Maraniss said he stood in the neighborhood where the elementary-school age Obama lived in Jakarta, Indonesia, and was hit by the thought of “that incredible journey” from there to the White House. 

Maraniss, a Madison native who is an associate editor of the Washington Post, has won the Pulitzer Prize and many other major awards for his work. He is the author of several highly praised books (around Wisconsin, his biography of Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered, is particularly popular). The new book on Obama is the product of research that took Maraniss to Uganda, Indonesia, many points in the United States and led him to unearth previously unpublished insights into Obama’s background. The book goes back several generations in Obama’s family and ends as Obama heads to law school at Harvard.

Maraniss (the name is pronounced with the accent on the first syllable, MARE-a-nis) described to Gousha and more than 200 people in the Appellate Courtroom the personalities of Obama’s parents: a mother who was smart, independent, sardonic, and unconventional and a father who came from Kenya, who was brilliant but highly flawed, and who had a brief, failed marriage to Obama’s mother before almost fully disappearing from his son’s life. “President Obama was lucky that he never lived with his father,” Maraniss said. “His father was very abusive” to several wives and had other problems, including alcoholism.

Maraniss described Obama’s journey through college (at Occidental College in Los Angeles and Columbia University in New York) and through periods of personal searching. After a brief period working in the private sector, Obama moved to Chicago to work as a community organizer. It was there that he found a sense of home and of mission that had been missing for him, Maraniss said. Maraniss said that within several months in late 1985, three people arrived in Chicago: Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, and Obama. Two became world famous in short order. The third was a total unknown who blossomed into an historic American figure.

The Maraniss interview with Gousha will be shown by Milwaukee Public Television at 3 p.m. Sept. 2 on MPTV-HD 36.1 and 10 p.m. on MPTV-HD 10.1. And it may be viewed by clicking here.

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