David Maraniss reminds us that there is no substitute for primary-source reporting in his new book, Barack Obama: The Story. Last week, Maraniss told me that he spent nearly four years researching and writing the book, during which time he logged 50,000 miles, conducted close to 400 interviews, and searched libraries on three continents. The result is a biography of more than 600 pages that ends with Obama's acceptance to Harvard Law School.
While Maraniss told me that his goal was not to vet the president's own memoir, many readers will be tempted to focus on the contradictions between The Story and Dreams From My Father. The bigger story is what Maraniss' revelations say about what others missed or did not seek.
"As a journalist for 35 years, and now author for 20, I've learned that there's always more," he told me. "There always is. And the first thing that I have to overcome with most of my books is, ‘Don't we already know this?' Well, no. ... If you start with the mind-set that you know nothing, you will learn a lot that nobody knew before."
In the introduction, Maraniss writes: "I believe that life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet I also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder."
He justifies that with details of the president's youth and his ancestors. One example is Obama's great-great-grandmother Gabriella Clark Armour, who cared for Obama's grandfather (Stanley Dunham) after Stanley's mother committed suicide in 1926. Had she not decided to keep Stanley home on a Monday night in 1935, he would have been in a car with friends that swerved to miss a cow on a Kansas road, thereby driving into the lane of an oil-transport truck. He would have been among the four dead and, presumably, Obama would never have been born.
Then there is Obama's Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango, often the subject of speculation that he participated in the Mau Mau revolt against the British in Kenya. Maraniss doesn't buy that conclusion, nor the president's contention that his grandfather was tortured by the British. Onyango has also been viewed as an important link between Obama and Islam, but again, Maraniss documents a different conclusion. He argues that Onyango was a Muslim who did not follow all its precepts. "His life was more directly shaped by Christian missionaries, and he had no qualms sending his own son, Barack Obama [Sr.], to Christian schools. Moreover, Barry never met Hussein Onyango, but spent most of his childhood with his white grandfather, Stan Dunham, who was raised a Baptist and became a Methodist in Vernon, Texas. Barack Obama, the father of the future president, was not a Muslim but an atheist," Maraniss writes. He concludes the same about Obama's mother.
Time and again, Maraniss uncovers never-before-revealed information, including the case of the president's birth. Not long after Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, delivered the future president, Maraniss writes, an obstetrician-gynecologist named Rodney T. West dined with a friend who asked, "Well, Dr. West, tell me something interesting that happened to you this week." West was a colleague of David A. Sinclair, who delivered Barack Obama. In response to the question, he responded: "Stanley had a baby. Now that's something to write about." Writes Maraniss: "He went on to explain that Stanley in this instance was a young woman, of course, no miracle birth. Stanley was white. The baby was black. The father was an African with an interesting name too." The friend at lunch was Barbara Czurles, then a journalist at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, who shared the funny story in a letter she sent to her own father.
Yes, the president told us himself in Dreams that he'd smoked pot, but there had been no airing of stories such as Maraniss tells about the Choom Gang, complete with a photograph of this informal club of pot smokers. Who, outside his tight-knit circle, knew that young Barry Obama started the "total absorption" method, which held that "if you exhaled precious pakololo ... instead of absorbing it fully into your lungs you were assessed a penalty and your turn was skipped next time the joint came around."
We also learned from Obama himself that he had a white girlfriend while living in Manhattan during his Columbia years, but he referred to her only as "a woman" or "my friend." Maraniss not only found Genevieve Cook, but enticed her to share diary entries she wrote about their relationship, many of which are prescient and some of which are borderline salacious.
In our polarized world, many will parse the vignettes and reaffirm their admiration or antipathy for the president. Some will say it confirms a lack of vetting in 2008. But the takeaway on which all should agree is that the volume of coverage of our modern political debate should not be mistaken for quality. If the two were synonymous, Maraniss would not have had so much to write about, with a second volume in the works. We are all paying a price for eviscerated newsrooms.