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Sun June 17, 2012
Author Interviews

A Future President Finds Himself In New Obama Bio

Originally published on Thu June 21, 2012 8:10 am

In the years since he took office, there has been no shortage of coverage of Barack Obama's presidency and politics. But for journalist David Maraniss, it is the president's personal history that remains intriguing.

Maraniss, an associate editor at The Washington Post, has written a new biography of the 44th president: Barack Obama: The Story. The book delves into Obama's family history and his pre-political years. Maraniss says that the president's young life was defined by his struggle as an outsider: He grew up in Indonesia, where he had to learn a new language, and Hawaii, where his race made him stand out. His father was almost entirely absent, and his mother lived abroad for much of Obama's life.

"Two things obsessed me," Maraniss told NPR's Rachel Martin. "One was the randomness of his very being, the world that created him. ... The other was how he remade himself, how this person, this character — this hapa as they say in Hawaii, half-white and half-black — found his own identity."


Interview Highlights

On the 'Choom Gang,' Obama's clique at the prestigious Punahou School in Honolulu

"The Choom Gang were his buddies and 'choom' is a Hawaiian term that basically means 'to smoke marijuana.' And Barack in his own memoir writes pretty openly and freely about his drug use during high school and college. You know, these were not ne'er-do-well kids, they were his buddies who liked to smoke dope and play basketball ... and hang out.

"He wasn't part of the elite, but he wasn't a totally disillusioned, disconnected kid, either; he was somewhere in the middle, as were all of his friends. So the Choom Gang was basically a family, and it was a place he felt he belonged, as was basketball."

On the students he befriended during his time at Occidental College

"He was starting to think about the larger world and he had basically the sensibility of an internationalist. He lived in Indonesia as a kid, his mother was still in Indonesia. He didn't feel comfortable yet connecting particularly with some of the inner-city black students at Occidental. He could actually deal with anybody, but the people he felt most comfortable with were some of the foreign students, many of whom were rather wealthy Pakistanis. ... And I don't want to make too much of that, but he was half-white half-black himself, they were neither black nor white, plus they had this international sensibility, I just think he felt very comfortable with them."

On Obama's decision to leave Occidental after two years

"He left, I think, primarily because Occidental was too much like Punahou: Nice weather all the time, very comfortable, beautiful campus, a little bit confined and isolated. He wanted to get into the world. So, ironically, he goes to New York, he goes there because he wants to be near Harlem and find some more of his black identity and yet that doesn't happen there. He makes no black friends, lasting friends, during his entire period in New York."

On his 'lost period' in New York

"He felt uncomfortable around the black student organization. He would go to some of the meetings, but he never became part of it. Dozens of African-American students that we interviewed there did not remember him. So he basically found that same set he did at Occidental — some of his Pakistani friends moved there.

"He found a few girlfriends who happened to be white. And he just went into this deeply introspective period ... working out his identity. And to a large degree he figured it out, he found himself. And part of that was this period in New York that they call the 'lost period' but it was really just, he was working out in his head, very, very deeply."

On Obama's cultural 'homecoming' in Chicago

"What he's looking for is home and he finds it in Chicago. Michelle is not even in my book: Michelle Robinson, his future wife. But she is in a sense the 'hero' of the book because you see this long arc toward home — 'Who am I? Where do I belong?' — and he figures it out during that introspective period in New York and then he finds it on the south side of Chicago, where he is embraced for the first time by a black community and interacts with it every day. And he sort of knows that that's where he belongs and he sees how he can rise from there, but always be part of that. So, I consider this entire book sort of a very classic search for home, which all stories are in a way."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After more than three years in the White House, multiple biographies and a memoir, President Obama the politician has become a known quantity at home and abroad. But for journalist David Maraniss, the president's personal history long before Obama set foot in Washington remains fascinating.

DAVID MARANISS: Two things obsessed me. One was the randomness of his very being, the world that created him. I really wanted to tell that story from all sides. And the other was how he remade himself, how this person, this character - this hapa as they say in Hawaii, half-white and half-black - found his own identity.

MARTIN: Maraniss is an associate editor at The Washington Post and he's written a biography of the president, "Barack Obama: The Story." The book delves deeply into Mr. Obama's family history and years before he got involved in politics. Maraniss says that Barack Obama's young life was defined by his struggle as an outsider.

Obama grew up in Indonesia, where he had to learn a new language, and Hawaii, where blacks were a small minority. His father was almost entirely absent and his mother lived abroad for much of his life. But Maraniss says that Obama started to set his own path at the prestigious Punahou School in Honolulu, where he ran with a group of friends who call themselves The Choom Gang.

MARANISS: The Choom Gang were his buddies and choom is a Hawaiian term that basically means to smoke marijuana. And, you know, Barack in his own memoir writes pretty openly and freely about his drug use during high school and college. You know, these were not ne'er-do-well kids, they were his buddies who liked to smoke dope and play basketball, basically, and hang out.

He wasn't part of the elite but he wasn't a totally disillusioned, disconnected kid, either. He was somewhere in the middle, as were all of his friends. So the Choom Gang was basically a family, and it was a place he felt he belonged.

MARTIN: He leaves high school. He goes off to Occidental College in L.A. He's only there a couple years. But it's interesting, you write about who he decides to befriend and he feels this connection with a very international set of people - in particular a lot of Pakistani students. And that then follows him to Columbia University where he transfers two years later.

(LAUGHTER)

MARANISS: His sensibility when he got to Occidental, first of all, he was coming out of that Choom Gang period. He was starting to think about the larger world and he had basically the sensibility of an internationalist. You know, he lived in Indonesia as a kid, his mother was still in Indonesia. He didn't feel comfortable yet connecting particularly with some of the inner-city black students at Occidental.

He could actually deal with anybody, but the people he felt most comfortable with were some of the foreign students, many of whom were rather wealthy Pakistanis who found their way to Occidental. And I don't want to make too much of that, but he was half-white, half-black himself; they were neither black nor white, plus they had this international sensibility. I just think he felt very comfortable with them.

MARTIN: But he clearly felt at home with people who identified as outsiders.

MARANISS: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you write about that. In New York, he actually intentionally kind of shuts himself off during that chapter.

MARANISS: Yes, after leaving Occidental after two years, and he left I think primarily because Occidental was too much like Punahou. You know, it was nice weather all the time, very comfortable, beautiful campus, a little bit confined and isolated. And he wanted to get into the world. So, ironically, he goes to New York; he goes there because he wants to be near Harlem and find some more of his black identity - and yet, that doesn't happen there. He makes no black friends, lasting friends, during his entire period in New York.

MARTIN: Because he doesn't try, or why does that happen?

MARANISS: He's searching in a different way. He felt uncomfortable around the black student organization. He would go to some of the meetings but he never became part of it. Dozens of African-American students that we interviewed there did not remember him. So he basically found that same set he did at Occidental; some of his Pakistani friends moved there.

He found a few girlfriends who happened to be white. And he just went into this deeply introspective period working out his identity. And to a large degree he figured it out, he found himself.

MARTIN: You chronicled the relationships that he has with at least a couple of girlfriends. We talked about young, educated women who happened to be a white. One of them predicts that he will be happiest with a black woman. And it's at this time, he was in his early 20s when he is clearly starting to cleave more closely with the black part of his identity. What is he looking for and where does he find it?

MARANISS: What he's looking for is home, and he finds it in Chicago. Michelle is not even in my book - Michelle Robinson, his future wife. But she is in a sense the hero of the book because you see this long arc toward home - who am I, where do I belong. And he figures it out during that introspective period in New York and then he finds it on the south side of Chicago, where he is embraced for the first time by a black community and interacts with it every day. And he sort of knows that that's where he belongs, and he sees how he can rise from there, but always be part of that.

So, I consider this entire book sort of a very classic search for home, which all stories are in a way.

MARTIN: David Maraniss is an associate editor at The Washington Post. His newest book is called "Barack Obama: The Story." David Maraniss joined us in our studio in Washington.

Thanks so much for coming in.

MARANISS: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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