Just who and what is Barack Obama? If he “willed himself into being,” what did he will himself to be?…
Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama by David Garrow (1472 pages, HarperCollins, 2017)
Having read the entirety of this unnecessarily, even ridiculously, lengthy biography of Barack Obama, I trust that I am well-qualified to offer two words of advice that could save potential readers the cost of a good steak dinner: Don’t bother.
It’s not that there is nothing new to be learned about our former president. For example, if biographer David Garrow and the students he interviewed are right, Barack Obama was a fine law professor. More specifically, he was a fair-minded teacher, who hid his own biases and excelled at playing devil’s advocate. If only this “rising star” had carved out a full career as a professor of law.
Then again, we also learn that Barack Obama didn’t want to be a scholar of the law because he really didn’t want to do that kind of work. A young man of consuming ambition, he was meant for bigger things.
And yet, Barack Obama was—and remains—a man of mystery. He may even remain a mystery to himself. Both David Garrow and one Cindi Canary think so. A League of Women Voters lobbyist who knew state senator Barack Obama during his Springfield days, Ms. Canary is given almost the very last words in this book: Barack Obama “willed himself into being.”
Then David Garrow takes over for the finishing kick: “Eight years in the White House had revealed all too clearly that it is easy to forget who you once were if you have never really known who you are.”
Well, Professor Garrow has taken more than a stab at telling us who Barack Obama is. And yet the “rising star” remains a mystery. Then again, maybe he was just another ambitious politician. Okay, he was much more ambitious than the average politician. Certainly, he was luckier than all but a few. Is there a better example in recent political memory of the individual and the moment meeting?
The country was ready, nay thirsting, to elevate a person of color to the presidency—and to put the whole question of race to rest. And along came Barack Obama to satisfy that thirst. No matter the fairly minimal qualifications. No matter that he benefited from, rather than offered a challenge to, a corrupt Chicago political establishment. And no matter that, once in office, he managed to worsen race relations.
Then there was the voice and the good looks. Neither did anything to hurt his chances for greatness. Some 500 pages earlier Ms. Canary sings for the first time in the Obama story. Asked to account for the rising of this “rising star,” she doesn’t mess around: “Women thought Barack was hot.”
No mystery there. The real mystery in all of this is why David Garrow devoted nine years and countless hours to produce a biography that at once gives us so much and so little. Maybe the answer is that there was so little there.
There are chapters here that are longer than most books. The same might be said of the 271 pages of endnotes, each one of which includes a long list of citations, rather than the traditional—and more helpful—individual source references.
Along the way we do learn that all sorts of people, high, middling and low, came up with the same two words to capture Barack Obama: “rising star.” Eliminating them might have shaved at least a page from the final product. Then again, it’s possible that Dr. Garrow is trying to make a point, namely that all this adulation was undeserved. It’s possible, but not entirely clear.
In any case, there is at least one individual in these pages, an individual who has played a very significant role in Barack Obama’s life without ever quite seeing the future president as oh, so many others have. That would be one Michelle Robinson Obama. She may well be the person who knows Barack Obama best. She may also be the person he fears the most.
There are other women in Barack Obama’s life who figure prominently in David Garrow’s biography. One of them would not be Mr. Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, who always seemed to be preoccupied with her own pursuits, both personal and professional. The same cannot be said of his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who with her husband Stanley did the real raising of this not-yet-rising star.
Then there was Sheila Miyoshi Jager, with whom the future president lived during most of his New York City years and who may well have been the love of his life. She wisely tells Dr. Garrow that she wished Mr. Obama had read history rather than literature. If he had, she thinks he might have had “much less faith in the ‘arc of history’… and a better understanding that we lead blessed lives not because it is the natural order of things but precisely because it is so very unnatural, and that people have had to fight and die to maintain it. I think that history teaches us that evil is a much more prevalent force in the world than goodness and peace.”
Dr. Garrow also tells us that Mr. Obama preferred to write fiction rather than history. Exhibit A for this historian/biographer is Mr. Obama’s autobiographical Dreams From My Father, which Dr. Garrow categorizes as an exercise in “historical fiction.”
To be sure, David Garrow has given us real history. If only he had given us a good deal less of it in this book. There is much too much of much too little, whether it be Mr. Obama’s Punahou high school years, his education at Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard, his brief foray into the world of business (or at least writing about business), and his Illinois community-organizing and politicking.
And yet there is much too little about some things. Did he apply to Occidental for financial aid as foreign student Barry Soetoro? Why have the Occidental records remained sealed? The story of the Bill Ayers-Bernardine Dohrn-Barack Obama relationship remains shadowy and incomplete. And precisely what did he know of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s preaching and when did he know it?
There is also not enough David Garrow. Having done all this legwork, what does he really think about his subject? That query aside, one does get the sense that Dr. Garrow might actually agree with one of Mr. Obama’s Chicago detractors, who characterized the future president as a “vacuous opportunist.”
Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, Dr. Garrow dismisses the Obama presidency in an epilogue. Okay, this is an appropriately lengthy epilogue, titled “The President Did Not Attend As He Was Golfing.” There we learn that this president’s favorite television program was a Golf Channel reality program, Big Break, and that as of the fall of 2015 he had played 256 rounds of golf as president (which is actually not a lot for a real golfer).
Russell Kirk was once asked what he thought of Robert Welch’s insistence that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist. Kirk famously replied that Ike wasn’t a communist; he was a golfer. Well, David Garrow might say something similar about a more recent American president. Maybe it would go something like this: Some might think that this rising star was a committed and determined progressive reformer; instead, he turned out to be a trash-talking basketball junkie who morphed into a well-heeled golfer.
David Garrow does not shy away from his own attachment to the progressive left; hence his disappointment with the presidential performance of a fellow member of the progressive left. In fairness, it must also be noted that he did not shy away from borrowing from former Democratic senator Joe Lieberman, who was himself not reluctant to criticize President Obama’s reluctance to lead from ahead, rather than behind. In the fall of 2016, Lieberman disclosed that an unnamed European head of government told him that the United States needed to “elect a president who understands the importance of American leadership in the world.” Hmm…
Clearly, Barack Obama was not that kind of leader. But just who and what was he? If he “willed himself into being,” what did he will himself to be? After all these pages the mystery remains.
True, Obama claimed more than a few times that he was out to “transform” America. That claim, by the way, is never examined, much less criticized, by Dr. Garrow. In the end, we are left with two unanswered mysteries: Who is Barack Obama and just what does his biographer make of him? Was this “rising star” nothing more than just another shooting star, a shooting star who saw his opportunity and took it? Or was he something more—or less—than that. Maybe someday a biographer will answer these questions a little more succinctly.
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