Review

Dreams from David Maraniss

What does the new Obama bio tell us about the president's view of the world?

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David Maraniss’s Barack Obama is an engrossing and thorough (sometimes exhaustingly thorough) account of the U.S. president’s early life and family background. The book has already made headlines for its revelations about the young Obama’s early girlfriends and enthusiastic high-school pot use, and by pointing out some of the inaccuracies and fudged details in the president’s memoir Dreams from My Father — which Obama himself has acknowledged contained several composite characters and a rearranged timeline.

But even as the book punctures some of the mythology built up by the official campaign version of Obama, it doesn’t really contain many scandalous revelations for his detractors, either. (That said, Maraniss’s portrayal of Barack Obama Sr. as an abusive, womanizing, alcoholic is very much at odds with the flawed but largely sympathetic character in Dreams.)

Although the book ends before Obama enters politics, it does contain some interesting moments for those interested in the president’s view of the world and how it evolved.

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Anti-colonialist? Not so much.

Some critics have attributed Obama’s worldview to his Kenyan background and the “anti-colonialist” sympathies of his family — particularly his grandfather Hussein Onyango. Onyango’s surviving fifth wife, Sarah Ogwel (Called “Granny Sarah” in Dreams though she’s not a blood relative of the president), has told the story of how her husband, while working as a cook for British families in Nairobi, was secretly helping anticolonial insurgents and was captured and brutally tortured by British authorities.

Maraniss makes a compelling case that the tale — which no one else seems to remember — is false:

Several pieces of logic contradict the story. First, if Hussein Onyango had been imprisoned, even if one were to further accept that he was eventually cleared of whatever charges were against him, he likely would have had difficulty… securing employment in the homes of security-conscious white officials in the following years, when the country was in turmoil and there were increasing concerns about the motives and loyalties of Kenyan workers. Yet he continued to be hired throughout the next decade and became especially popular with foreign officers at the American embassy in Nairobi. Second, it is also unlikely that his son would have been accepted into the most prestigious boarding school in western Kenya within a year of his father’s imprisonment, or that after many months without a salary the family would have been able to afford to the tuition.

Another frequently repeated story that appears in Dreams from My Father holds that the father of Obama’s Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, had been killed while fighting the Dutch during Indonesia’s independence struggle. According to Maraniss, however, the story is “a concocted myth in almost all respects.” He goes on: “Not only did Martodihardjo die two years after the struggle had ended, but he died a most domestic death far from any battlefield. He fell off a chair at his home while trying to hang drapes, presumably suffering a heart attack.”

As for Barack Obama, Sr., he was certainly an “anti-colonialist” with communist sympathies. Maraniss digs up a fascinating article penned by him in the days following independence in which he argues for the nationalization of business and industries — particularly those owned by Europeans — and argues that it is the duty of government when considering the “good of society” to “force people to do things they would not otherwise do.”

But the elder Obama was more of an intellectual -turned-bureaucrat than a revolutionary. He was still in high school during the most violent years of the Mau Mau uprising against British rule, worked for a literacy program supported by the colonial authorities, traveled to the United States to study thanks to an “airlift” of Kenyan students sponsored by baseball star Jackie Robinson with the blessing of Vice President Richard Nixon, and was doing graduate work at Harvard when his country finally became independent. He was not exactly the Kenyan Che Guevara.

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The Kibaki connection

Obama has disappointed many in his father’s homeland by not visiting Kenya as president, though Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have made the trip. Nor has President Mwai Kibaki visited the White House, as he did when George W. Bush was president. The last one-on-one meeting between the two leaders was in 2006, when Obama was a senator.

This may be because of the high levels of corruption and ethnic conflict in Kenyan politics — Obama pointedly opted for relatively stable Ghana for his first Africa trip in 2009 — but there’s also an interesting family backstory between the two men.

Kibaki was largely responsible for Barack Obama, Sr.’s political comeback when the onetime rising political star had hit a rough patch in his career in the mid 1970s. Obama père had lost an influential job in the country’s tourism ministry — partly because of the assassination of his political patron, Tom Mboya, one of the leaders of Kenya’s independence movement and the most prominent politician from Obama’s Luo tribe — and partly because of his heavy drinking. That’s where Kibaki — a member of the politically dominant Kikuyu tribe — stepped in:

As [Obama] told the story, he was walking in downtown Nairobi one day when a prominent Kikuyu, Mwai Kibaki, minister of finance and planning in the Kenyatta administration, stopped his car and gave him a ride. Kibaki had studied at the London School of Economics, but the Harvard-trained Obama considered himself the better economist and was not intimidated. Whatever conversation transpired during the car ride, it ended, or so Obama said, with Kibaki offering him a job. Variations of that story were told by Obama’s associates. One version had Obama and Kibaki enjoying drinks at the Inter-Continental Hotel, where they were both frequent patrons, and after downing several “double-doubles” between them (Obama’s favorite: double the whiskey), Kibaki agreed to hire him.

That drinking bout between a future president and the father of a future president led to Obama Sr.’s political second act as a fairly influential trade official.

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Visa troubles

Given the current controversy over the White House’s shift on immigration policy, it’s interesting to note that visa problems were very much an issue for both of Obama’s father figures. Obama Sr. was questioned by INS officials following his marriage to Stanley Ann Dunham over the question of whether he was legally divorced from his first wife in Kenya. (As it turns out, he probably actually wasn’t.) The prevailing attitudes of the time toward interracial couples probably also played a factor, Maraniss notes, and the INS decided that while it didn’t have grounds to deport him, he should be “closely questioned” before being granted a visa extension. Several years later, after separating from Dunham, he was forced to leave Harvard before completing his doctorate when the INS denied him a visa extension.

Lolo Soetoro, the younger Obama’s stepfather, also faced visa trouble when his student visa ran out in 1964. Although the Indonesian government expected him to return to serve in the army, he was by then involved with Dunham and took a $2-an-hour surveying job just so he could stay in Hawaii for another year. As much as they were in love, the timing of his marriage to Dunham in 1965 may also have been motivated by visa considerations — Indonesia was in the midst of political turmoil at the time and Soetoro worried he would be targeted for persecution for having studied in the United States. He eventually returned, with his wife and stepson, in 1966 after the Sukarno government had fallen — but only once he had completely run out of visa extension options.

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Peace-process critic

Maraniss shares a paper Obama wrote at Occidental College, where he studied for the first two years of his college career before transferring to Columbia University, as part of a class debate on the recently signed Camp David accords. As he was representing the position of a group in the exercise rather than giving his own opinion, it’s hard to read too much into it, but there may be some early hints of “leading from behind” in Obama’s critique of American power:

“In conclusion, we feel that the [other] group’s paper proceeds from the faulty premise that Egypt and Israel can solve the delicate problem of the Palestinians, with the U.S. overseeing and insuring the whole process. This takes a naïve faith in American ability to control the world according to its whims. In actuality, this has not been the case for some time — the U.S. today has limited influence in the Middle East, and must be viewed as a participant rather than a controller of the world system….

Camp David was definitely a step in the right direction but only by transcending its context and allowing the Palestinians and Arab nations to participate in the settlement can the problem be solved.”

Reading the excerpt, it’s tempting to wonder how college student Obama would have critiqued President Obama’s frustrated efforts at Mideast peacemaking.

Maraniss notes that while studying at Columbia, Obama took a class with the literary theorist and Palestinian activist Edward Said, but the only reaction the biographer found from the class was a letter complaining about Said’s habit of handing back papers later and arguing that that he “should feel justified in labeling him a flake.”

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The first foreign-policy speech

Barack Obama’s first ever political speech was at a Feb. 18, 1981, rally pushing for Occidental to divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. Maraniss quotes the opening:

“There’s a struggle going on… I say there’s a struggle going on… It’s happening an ocean away. But it’s a struggle that touches each and every one of us, whether we know it or not. A struggle that demands we choose sides. It’s a choice between dignity and servitude, between fairness and injustice.”

The speech was actually part of a bit of guerrilla theater in which Obama was interrupted by other activists pretending to be police officers who “arrested” him before he could finish. People present remember being impressed with his speech, but in Dreams from my Father, he recalls telling his friends, “I don’t believe we made any difference by what we did today.”

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Travel notes

Interestingly, the future community organizer was critical of the role of international NGOs when he went to visit his mother in Indonesia after college. His mother, at this time, was researching the conditions of rural women on behalf of the Ford Foundation. Maraniss writes, “His perspective had been shaped in part by the opinions of the international friends he had made at Occidental, including Hasan Chandoo, who had often criticized the notion of American benevolence, arguing that, in supporting military dictatorships, it had done as much harm as good in the developing world.”

Visiting his friend Chandoo — a Pakistani from a wealthy shipping family — in Singapore, where he was living at the time, Obama wasn’t particularly impressed, as he wrote in a letter to a friend:

“An incongruous place, Singapore, slick and modern and ordered, one vast supermarket surrounded by ocean and forest and the poverty of ages … Mostly peopled with businessmen from the States, Japan, Hong Kong, as well as various family elites of Southeast Asia. Everything is bought and sold, with unconscious satisfaction.”

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The Pakistani connection

Relations with Pakistan have been one of Obama’s biggest headaches as president, but the country also played a formative role in developing his worldview. Many of his best friends at Occidental and later Columbia were Pakistanis with whom he frequently debated politics. (Chandoo, as it happens, was mentored during a brief stint at the now-defunct Windham College in Vermont by a young professor named Peter Galbraith, who helped get the young man admitted to Occidental and decades later played a pivotal role in Obama’s Afghan policy as U.N. Special Representative.)

“The Pakistanis at Oxy,” Maraniss writes, “wealthy, intellectual, and intensely opinionated, with their worldly presentation of political theories and capitalist panache — brought urgency to these discussions of foreign affairs, while the American students seemed to have less at stake.”

In 1981, Obama visited his Pakistani friends in Karachi. At the time, the country was under martial law under the rule of the Islamist dictator Zia ul-Haq. Though Obama again mocked his friend Chandoo for espousing leftist politics while living in luxury, Maraniss argues that the trip was an eye-opener for the future president. “Every evening at dinner, often at the homes of various relatives of Chandoo’s or Hamid’s, he listened to intense discussions about politics and religion. Chandoo was Shia, Hamid [another friend] was Sunni, but both were heavily Weternized and not dogmatic.” Chandoo also remembers Obama taking note of the African sharecroppers who worked the fields in Sindh province.

Much has been made — by allies and enemies alike — of Obama’s complicated relationship with Islam. As he himself has said, “I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims.” But Maraniss makes a compelling case that these Muslim roots have been overstated. Hussein Onyango, the grandfather Obama never met, may have converted to Islam but was never particularly religious, and was equally influenced by the Christian missionaries in his region. Barack Obama, Sr. was an atheist and Lolo Soetoro was almost entirely unobservant.

To the extent that Obama gained insights on Islam and Muslims early in life, Maraniss suggests, his wealthy, liberal, Pakistani college buddies were probably more influential than his own family.

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