Barack Obama’s life story is shrouded in mythology and anecdotes — some fabricated by his political adversaries, some crafted by the president himself through his memoir. In “Barack Obama: The Story,” journalist and biographer David Maraniss examines the true story of our 44th president. Kojo chats with Maraniss about the art of crafting a biography and the stories he unearthed about Obama.


  • David Maraniss Author "Barack Obama: The Story" (Simon & Schuster); also Associate Editor, The Washington Post

Read An Excerpt

Copyright © 2012 by David Maraniss. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.


  • 13:06:47

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It was only eight years ago that a relatively unknown Democratic candidate for the United States Senate entered the world's collective consciousness. During the keynote address of the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama told a worldwide audience that his story was part of the larger American story, a speech that ultimately slingshot him through America's hardest and highest racial barriers and into the White House just four years later.

  • 13:07:31

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIYou probably know parts of that story backwards and forwards by now, a narrative that will forever be framed as an only-in America kind of tale. But large parts of that improbable story are shrouded in mythology, perpetuated by both Obama himself and by his adversaries, which is why David Maraniss set out to unearth the history behind Obama the person, a generational journey that sent him from Kansas to Kenya to Hawaii to Indonesia, Los Angeles and New York and to the place that Obama ultimately found himself, Chicago.

  • 13:08:07

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIDavid Maraniss joins us now from studios in Madison, Wis. He is the author of "Barack Obama: The Story." He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and an associate editor of the Washington Post. David Maraniss, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:21

    MR. DAVID MARANISSKojo, it's great to be with you.

  • 13:08:23

    NNAMDII suspect there are others who will want to join this conversation. You can do so by calling 800-433-8850 or by going to our website, Join in the conversation there. David Maraniss, William Faulkner once wrote, as you note in the introduction to your book, that the past is never dead. It's not even past. This is the idea that you say you had in your head when you traveled thousands of miles around the world and generations into the past to learn more about the stories that shaped one Barack Obama. He doesn't even appear in this book for the first seven chapters.

  • 13:08:59

    NNAMDIWhy did you think that looking backward in this manner was the key to understanding someone like Obama better?

  • 13:09:07

    MARANISSYou know, the truth is that's only about two-thirds of the reason I pursued the book for that reason. Even aside from whether you understand Barack Obama better, I thought that the story of his family going back into both sides was so illuminating in terms of understanding the modern world and America and the forces that shape all of us. That I was interested even aside from the fact that it was a story about the president.

  • 13:09:38

    MARANISSBut in terms of understanding him, I think that all of us are shaped by our pasts and by our forbearers. And that's often forgotten in the heat of a political campaign, which is of interest to me as a citizen, but not as a historian, the campaign itself. And so, you know, I’m looking for things that last and endure and that help explain people. And I think the past and family relationships and the forces that shape people are the most enduring.

  • 13:10:10

    NNAMDIObama is one of the most famous people on the planet. There are bigger parts of his story that both his supporters and his enemies are intimately familiar with. But how well did you feel you knew him before you went down the rabbit hole of your research?

  • 13:10:25

    MARANISSIt is a rabbit hole. Well, in one sense I felt that -- I had read his memoire and I'd written a few profiles -- longer profiles of him for the Washington Post where I work. But when I start a book, Kojo, I try to tell myself I know nothing, that all the presuppositions, all the secondary sources, all of that is immaterial to what I'm pursuing now going for primary documents and traveling to the places of someone's life and interviewing as many people as I can. So I had to try as best I could to block all of what I thought I knew out and start from scratch.

  • 13:11:04

    NNAMDIYou've written about politicians before, but is Obama's story, his biography different as it relates to his political identity than the others you've studied?

  • 13:11:15

    MARANISSWell, it's different both in political identity and personal identity and the two are somewhat connected, you know. The final half of this book is really about his search for identity as a biracial kid and young man. And so in that sense, I think that some of that search on his part helps explain his politics as well. I did write a biography of Bill Clinton years ago and I found the comparisons and contrasts between the two of them absolutely fascinating. You know, they both came out of somewhat dysfunctional situations. Neither of them knew their father and yet from then on, they dealt with life and politics in utterly different ways.

  • 13:11:56

    NNAMDIWe're talking with David Maraniss. He is author of "Barack Obama: The Story." The book he mentioned earlier about former President Clinton is called "First in His Class." He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and an associate editor of the Washington Post. We're inviting your calls at 800-433--8850. Do you feel you know the president better in the fourth year of his term than you did when he was running for office? What are the pieces of his personal history you wish you knew better? 800-433-8850 or send us a Tweet at kojoshow.

  • 13:12:30

    NNAMDIYou say that you wanted to end this book before Obama entered politics so you end with Obama finding a home for himself in Chicago and then taking off for law school at Harvard on a new path for himself. Why were you drawn to this corner of his life and why did you decide this is where you wanted to end the story?

  • 13:12:48

    MARANISSWell, it's not the end of the story. There will be a second volume years later. But in terms of the obsessions that drove me to write this particular book, I think they're resolved by the time he leaves Chicago for Harvard Law School. And those two obsessions are one, the world that created him and then how he sort of refashioned himself, figured himself out, resolved the contradictions of his life to prepare for the political life that was to come. And I think that happens in Chicago during those three years -- well, he culminates in Chicago during those three years when he was a community organizer from 1985 to 1988.

  • 13:13:29

    MARANISSBy then he had found his home personally. He had resolved some of the difficulties, the problems that were thrown his way in terms of racial identity and personal identity. And in Chicago at the same time he'd figured out what he wanted to do with his life. And he'd studied the uses of power and what it meant during those three years in Chicago. And he was -- when he set off for Harvard, in essence he was going off not to become a lawyer or judge, but to get the training and bona fides he needed for a political life.

  • 13:14:02

    NNAMDIIndeed, you've described the story as Obama's search for a home. What was it that you feel he ultimately found in Chicago that made him either decide that this was home or simply made him feel like this was home?

  • 13:14:17

    MARANISSWell, I think he found quite a few things. And, you know, in one sense his whole life was a search for home because, you know, he didn't know his father. His mother was often gone. He lived with white grandparents. Of course, simply through the color of his skin, he dealt with the realities of race in America from the time he was born. But culturally he had to go on that learning search for what it meant to be an African American. And it was a long process, which I deal with through his own letters and journals of other people in many insights into his -- that search which began essentially when he left high school and started college through the time he left Chicago for Harvard.

  • 13:15:06

    MARANISSSo all of that he found in Chicago, the culmination. Both personally -- he found the embrace of the African American community really for the first time. For various reasons, he did not feel that when he was up in New York going to Columbia and afterwards. But he did in Chicago working with poor African Americans in the Roseland community of the south side of Chicago where he was sort of smothered in the embrace of middle aged and older black women who really took to him and embraced him in a way that he hadn't felt many times in his life.

  • 13:15:40

    MARANISSAnd he was -- he felt comfortable in the African American community for the first time during those years as a community organizer. And Chicago became his home. You know, it's perhaps coincidental, but within a six-month period in 1985, three famous African Americans arrived in Chicago. The first one's Oprah Winfrey, the second was Michael Jordan and the third was Barack Obama. The two became immediately world known and Obama arrived anonymously, but found his home there as well.

  • 13:16:11

    NNAMDIWe're talking with David Maraniss. He is the author of "Barack Obama: The Story." He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and an associate editor at the Washington Post. If you have questions or comments, do you feel the president's personal story is an asset or a detriment to his credentials as a candidate? Why or why not? 800-433-8850. David Maraniss, so much of what many of us know about these early parts of Obama's life comes from his own memoire "Dreams From My Father." To what extent do you think Obama has been able to define his own story to craft that history for himself? I'd just like to give a listen to a little bit of what he said when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

  • 13:16:53

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAI stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me. And that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.

  • 13:17:09

    NNAMDISo David, to what extent do you think he was able to define and craft his own story?

  • 13:17:15

    MARANISSWell, all politicians do that to one degree or another. Bill Clinton certainly tried to do it with his convention -- film "The Man From Hope," a place where he only lived for a few years. He was really more the man from Hot Springs, which is a very different place. But Barack Obama uniquely did it in that he really became famous for two things. One was that speech which really was in many ways a later iteration of what he had been thinking for the last 20 years. And you see it even in his early letters in his 20's making many of those same arguments and thoughts.

  • 13:17:54

    MARANISSAnd the second was his memoire. And it's very rare for someone who writes a very personal memoire in his early 30s to then sort of use that as the defining thing for a presidential run a decade-and-a-half later. So I think that he was basically known through those two events, which he defined.

  • 13:18:14

    NNAMDIObama told you that he watches Mad Men in the White House and that he sees his grandmother in one of the characters. But Don Draper, the main character, is one who takes the idea of self made to new heights. He's literally crafted a new biography for himself. How much of Obama do you see as self creation?

  • 13:18:33

    MARANISSYou know, that's an interesting subject which I've had to deal with a lot since my book came out. Largely because as I expected, and even write about in the introduction to my book, I knew that people would cherry pick parts of what I found and use it for their own ideological purposes. So, you know, my interest in reporting the biography was simply to find what I determined to be the best facts and the truth. It wasn't to sort of take apart his memoire and show where it was right or where it was wrong. But inevitably, of course, I have to point it out when there's differences between what I found and what's in his memoire.

  • 13:19:13

    MARANISSI think that memoires are very different genre from biography. I think that Barack Obama in his introduction to his memoire notes that some of his characters are composites and some of the time is compressed. It's up to each individual reader to determine whether that bothers them or not or whether they think that means that the entire book is therefore on shaky ground. I happen to think that the book is very revealing as an internal insight into his struggle and not to be taken as a serious historical biography.

  • 13:19:48

    MARANISSAnd some of the places where he takes liberties are simply passing along the mythologies that his family passed along to him without checking them thorough. And some are his own creation because his book was an effort to see his life through an entirely racial lens. And so every character and theme in it is drawn through that lens.

  • 13:20:11

    NNAMDIHere is Melissa on the eastern shore in Maryland. Melissa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:20:18

    MELISSAHi. Thank you. I was just wondering in light of the research that you've done and what seems to be a carefully crafted path to the presidency, could you discover -- did you discover at what point did Barack Obama decide that he wanted to be and intended to be president and do you know why in particular?

  • 13:20:39

    NNAMDIThat might have to be for a future book, but go ahead.

  • 13:20:41

    MARANISSYes. Well, no, the roots of it are in this book, but I should say, first of all, that it's completely unlike Bill Clinton, who you could see wanted to be president from his adolescence and someone who ran for every political office in high school and Hot Springs to the point where the principal eventually had to call him and tell him, Billy you can't run for class president as a senior 'cause you just -- people are sick of you. You've dominated everything. So he ran for class secretary and got beat.

  • 13:21:10

    MARANISSBut Obama's completely different. You see none of that in high school at the Punahou School in Honolulu where he basically played basketball and smoked dope and had a good time. It was not pursuing any organizational leadership of any sort. Nor do you -- you see the first inklings when he arrives at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He gave his first political speech there, an antiapartheid speech. But even there, he was sort of observing himself as he was participating. And afterwards sort of said, you know, that was a fine speech, but I don't think it makes any difference what we say.

  • 13:21:46

    MARANISSAt Columbia, he disappeared virtually from any organizations. He was not part of the black student organization there. He was not involved in politics in any way. And then -- but during that period when he was really working internally to resolve his contradictions and prepare himself for the future, he did mention to one of his close friends, Benu (sp?) Mahmoud, a Pakistani who was studying at New York University Law School. He did, for the first time say, do you think I could ever be President of the United States? That's the first time I saw any of that happen.

  • 13:22:23

    MARANISSWhen I asked President Obama about it during my interview in the oval office, he said, well, I don't quite remember it that way, but if Benu says it happened, it probably did. So it's somewhat of an acknowledgement.

  • 13:22:35

    NNAMDIMelissa, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:22:37

    MELISSAThank you.

  • 13:22:37

    NNAMDIHere's Ray in Kensington, Md. Ray, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:22:41

    RAYYes, Kojo. Very good show as usual. For Mr. Maraniss I wonder, I understand that Mr. Obama was known as Barry for a portion of his life.

  • 13:22:53


  • 13:22:55

    RAYCan he address the issue of when he changed from Barry to Barack?

  • 13:23:01

    NNAMDIThat issue is addressed in the book "Barack Obama: The Story." Here's David Maraniss.

  • 13:23:05

    MARANISSWell, let's start with his father, Barack Obama, Senior who actually pronounced his named Barack. The father was always Barack Obama. And when their son was born, they called him Bar. So from that, he became Barry through high school. Most of his classmates at Occidental College where he spent his first two years called him Barry. But there was one African student there Kofi Manu (sp?) from Ghana who called him Barack and another friend Eric Moore, an African American, who also started calling him Barack.

  • 13:23:44

    MARANISSBy the time he reached Columbia, he was more often Barack than Barry, but even there, he would go back and forth. So I would -- and his girlfriends in New York, one called him Barry and the other Barack. I would say that by the time he reached Chicago in 1985, he was thoroughly Barack. But it was a slow evolution from Barry to Barack.

  • 13:24:08

    NNAMDIRay, thank you for your call.

  • 13:24:09

    RAYThank you.

  • 13:24:10

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with David Maraniss. He is the author of "Barack Obama: The Story." You can call us at 800-433-8850. How much freedom do you think the president has been given to define his biography? How much of his personal story do you think has been defined by the media or by his adversaries? Call us with your thoughts at 800-433-8850 or go to our website Ask a question, make a comment there. You can send us a Tweet at kojoshow or email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:26:28

    NNAMDIOur guest is David Maraniss. He joins us from studios in Madison, Wis. His latest book is called "Barack Obama: The Story." David Maraniss is a Pulitzer Price-winning journalist. He's also associate editor at the Washington Post. You can call us at 800-433--8850 or send email to if you have questions or comments. David, let's talk a little bit about the geography. You spent a lot of time early in the book exploring colonial Kenya and early 20th century Kansas, the places that gave us Obama's father and mother. What did you find by going to those places and diving into primary sources, interviewing people that struck you?

  • 13:27:07

    MARANISSWell, let's start with Kenya. What I found, among many other things there, first of all was that the Obama family or clan out in western Kenya out near Lake Victoria for generations had been considered outsiders, to the extent that in the village where they lived in Kanyadhiang near Kendu Bay, they were called jadak (sp?) , which meant stranger or alien. And it was because they had come originally from another part of that area about 60 miles away. So there's this sort of generational sense of some people wanting to classify them as outsiders even if they were not.

  • 13:27:51

    MARANISSMore important in my story I think is the westernization of the Obamas and how it happened, which essentially flies in the face of some of the mythology about Obama being a secret Muslim because his Kenyan grandfather Hussein Onyango converted to Islam. That part is true. He did convert to Islam when he was in Zanzibar. He wasn't a particularly devout Muslim.

  • 13:28:19

    MARANISSBut the real story is that the Obamas arise in Kenya. Every step of the way was more the result of evangelical western Christians from the United States and Canada who came out there, starting with the Seventh Day Adventists who arrived in Kendu Bay at the turn of the century. And Hussein Onyango was in the first generation of Luo to learn English and be westernized by those missionaries out there.

  • 13:28:49

    MARANISSHis son, Barack Obama, Senior was educated by Anglicans but then really sort of mentored by another evangelical Christian named Betty Mooney who came to Kenya to spread the gospel and to teach literacy. And she hired Barack Obama, Senior to translate some of her literacy books into Luo, books which I have read and had translated myself. And then she sponsored him to come to the United States and told him about the University of Hawaii. So in essence, President Obama would not exist without the role of the evangelical Christians in Kenya.

  • 13:29:31

    NNAMDIYou know, how did you go about unearthing some of that history in Kenya? Excuse me. I'm assuming that's a little different from digging through newspapers in Kansas.

  • 13:29:41

    MARANISSWell, it is. I should say that even before I went to Kenya I went up to the Syracuse University, which by some happenstance has the entire national -- Kenyan national archive on microfilm there. So I did a lot of studying about Nyanza Province, also called Luo Land out in Western Kenya, the area from which the Obamas came. So I arrived in Kenya with a certain amount of knowledge. I also had a wonderful fearless young Nairobi journalist, Kenethy Opala, who was of great help to me in researching and paving the way for me when I got there.

  • 13:30:23

    MARANISSBut, you know, I did my research when I got to Kenya the way I do everywhere, which is to go to all of the places, find as many people as I can, talk to them, try to unearth documents as they're available. I have to say that in Kenya it was probably more difficult than most other places I've done my research over the decades. But nonetheless through hard work it's possible. And so that's how I went about doing it.

  • 13:30:51

    NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned the kind of randomness and happenstance that brought Barack Obama, Senior to America where he was to meet Obama's mother. But you also write that it might be the luckiest thing in Obama's life that he saw almost nothing of his father later in life. Why?

  • 13:31:11

    MARANISSWell, you know, I feel a little uncomfortable saying that about any -- I mean, it's obviously for Barack Obama to make that call or not. But from an outsiders perspective it seemed to me that perhaps he was lucky that he didn't live with his dad because his father, though brilliant, was not only an alcoholic but physically abusive. And I really got the details of that physical abuse from another of his ex-wives, another American Ruth Ndesandjo who met him in Boston when he was at Harvard and married him and moved to Nairobi with him. And she's still in Nairobi as the -- she runs a kindergarten there.

  • 13:31:53

    MARANISSAnd I spent many hours with her as she detailed the physical abuse that she endured from Barack Obama, Senior. And it matched with what his other children had said, Auma and Malik and others about his sort of harsh nature. And so for Barack to have grown up with that would've been really problematic. And so he's probably lucky he didn't have to deal with it.

  • 13:32:20

    NNAMDIGot to get back to the phones but before we do that I want to talk a little bit more about Kenya because the story of Obama's father crisscrossed over the years. But one of the biggest figures in the history of modern Kenya, Tom Mboya. Please tell our listeners who Tom Mboya was and what the nature of their relationship was.

  • 13:32:37

    MARANISSYeah, Tom Mboya was another Luo so they came from the same tribe, which was a minority tribe the second or third largest tribe in Kenya, the Kikuyu or the dominant tribe starting with Jomo Kenyatta who was Kikuyu...

  • 13:32:51

    NNAMDIYeah, you know, as a matter of fact this book that you wrote had me harkening back to Kenyatta's book "Facing Mount Kenya" which you probably also used in your research.

  • 13:32:57

    MARANISSYes. Oh, yes.

  • 13:33:00

    NNAMDIThe 1939 book.

  • 13:33:02

    MARANISSRight, exactly. So Tom Mboya was in some ways sort of a Martin Luther King type figure in Kenya, although the tribal politics make it more difficult to say that. But he was the leader of the Luo but beyond that he was a nationalist and trying to overcome the tribal divisions of that country. And he was a very strong figure who organized -- among many other things, he sort of wrote the constitution for the independent Kenya. He was in the Kenyatta Administration.

  • 13:33:44

    MARANISSAnd -- but before that he had been very, very involved in trying to bring young smart Kenyans to the United States for training in preparation for independence. And Barack Obama, Senior was one of those people. He was a fellow Luo. He was smart enough to get into college in the United States. And he had worked sort of informally for Tom Mboya before he came to the U.S. And then when he returned to Kenya in the mid 1960s he worked in the finance department there and was under Tom Mboya's wing to some extent until sadly Tom Mboya was assassinated in 1969...

  • 13:34:29

    NNAMDI...when he was just 39 years old.

  • 13:34:31

    MARANISS...when he was just 39 years old. You know, in that awful period when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed here just shortly after that Tom Mboya was killed in Kenya. And really, you know, someone was prosecuted and hanged for that assassination but the suspicion was always that it involved higher ups who were jealous of him and didn't want him to become the president of Kenya. And sort of probably Kikuyu were involved in that murder. And Kenya sadly lost one of the great figures of its first modern era. And who knows how life would've been different there had he lived and become president.

  • 13:35:14

    NNAMDIYeah, I was just playing around with the idea of all of the hopes and aspirations that were projected onto Tom Mboya before he was killed as a potentially transformational politician in many ways just as hopes have been projected onto the younger Obama so many years later.

  • 13:35:33

    MARANISSYeah, that's true. Obviously they're different cultures and political situations but young Obama definitely when he rose and became president, you know, there are a lot of hopes projected onto him. Not necessarily, you know, the reality of who he was but I've found with people who love President Obama and people who hate him equally in different -- very different ways project sort of things onto him that aren't the real Obama.

  • 13:36:11

    NNAMDIHere is Paul in Arlington, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:36:15

    PAULHi. I Have two short questions for the author. First of all, how do you feel about the hypothesis that Barack Obama's actual biological father is Frank Marshall Davis. And second of all, if Frank Marshall Davis is in fact Barack Obama's biological father and Barack Obama basically realizes that, what effect do you think that might have had on his life and thinking?

  • 13:36:37

    MARANISSI find absolutely no evidence that Frank Marshall Davis was his biological father. And so the second part of the question is answered from that. Frank Marshall Davis, for those who don't know, was an old black poet and political leftist who lived in Honolulu during that period and had befriended Barack Obama's grandfather Stanley Dunham to some extent. And Barry Obama knew him and spent some time, you know, and met him maybe ten times during his life.

  • 13:37:14

    MARANISSTo believe that Frank Marshall Davis was his father, one, would have to sort of deny all of the other evidence, including immigration and naturalization service documents of that period which were tracking Barack Obama, Senior and very definitively prove both that Obama was -- that Obama, Junior was born in Honolulu and that Barack, Senior was his father.

  • 13:37:41

    NNAMDIPaul, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:37:42

    PAULYou're welcome.

  • 13:37:43

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Suzanne in Bethesda who says, "Where did Obama find male role models when he was growing up? It seemed like he was around a lot of women in his life."

  • 13:37:53

    MARANISSHe didn't find many male role models and he was around very strong women, including his mother. Although she was only 17 when she met Barack Obama, Senior and 18 when Barry was born and was sort of learning and growing as the son was and spent much of his adolescence and teenage years in Indonesia while he was in Honolulu living with his grandparents. His grandmother -- you know, Kojo, you had mentioned Mad Men earlier. Barack Obama -- President Obama compared his grandmother Madeline Dunham to Peggy in Mad Men, you know, someone who started as a secretary and moved her way up.

  • 13:38:36

    MARANISSAnd he also -- so in that sense she was a very strong pragmatic woman who had -- probably was the rock in young Barry's life. In terms of male role model, his grandfather wasn't one. He was more of a combination of Walter Mitty and just sort of a -- you know, someone who fabricated his life -- not fabricated his life, but always had larger dreams than the reality was about who he was and what he would do with his life. So, you know, the grandfather was very loving, a salesman. I was trying to think of Willy Loman and Walter Mitty was what he was a combination of.

  • 13:39:15

    MARANISSAnd not someone that -- someone who loved Barack and accepted him when some -- you know, at a time when that wasn't necessarily what a grandparent would do with a biracial grandchild. So, you know, give him credit for loving and embracing the boy but he wasn't a male role model. He really didn't have any to speak of. You know, he had a basketball coach in high school who he didn't get along with that well. So he couldn't even call the coach a male role model. I think he found his own way and was shaped more by strong women.

  • 13:39:51

    NNAMDIWhere do you see his mother's influence in the person that Barack Obama is now?

  • 13:39:56

    MARANISSI see it pretty deeply and mostly in his political conscience. You know, whatever drive there is to do good in the world in Barack Obama comes from his mother who inculcated that into him. She was very accepting of different cultures and peoples and tried to teach him to put himself in other people's shoes and, you know, he thought she was a little bit naïve, or more than a little bit. He sort of described her as naive in terms of not understanding the practicalities of the world.

  • 13:40:29

    MARANISSIn fact, I dismiss much of that perception as merely a mother trying to protect her son which is any mother's natural instinct. I think he underestimated his mother's acuity in terms of the powers in the world, but I think that most of what is the better side of Barack Obama comes from his mother.

  • 13:40:50

    NNAMDIHere's Gary in Paris, Illinois. Gary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:40:55

    GARYI'd like to say that I've known Barack Obama since he was state senator, and my family comes from the El Dorado, Leon, Kansas area and homesteaders there in the 1870s.

  • 13:41:11


  • 13:41:13

    GARYSo the situation is, I know those people, and he and I discussed once upon a time, you know, that his grandparents came from there, and the think that struck me about Barack is the fact that he was in the same frame of mind as far as being down to earth, and had a certain common sense in the way that he approached things. And I don't care how much you have an education, that's most important.

  • 13:41:43

    NNAMDIAnd you feel that comes from Kansas?

  • 13:41:45

    GARYI think it comes from the people that I grew up with in Kansas. They had it, and they weren't particularly well educated. But they did have a compassion and a common sense.

  • 13:41:58

    NNAMDIWhat do you say, David Maraniss?

  • 13:42:00

    MARANISSWell, first of all, this is not relevant to Barack Obama, but my grandmother was born in Leon, Kansas, which I only realized where it was when I was down there investigating the Dunham family or looking into that life in Kansas. Leon, which the caller mentioned, is sort of between El Dorado and Augusta, and Stanley Dunham came from El Dorado and Madelyn Payne Dunham came from Augusta.

  • 13:42:27

    MARANISSI did find in that culture a lot of common sense and practicality, and down-to-earthness, all of those characteristics, and I think that you can see those evident in the president, and that is a direct tie to his Kansas roots.

  • 13:42:45

    NNAMDIGary, thank you for your call. We're gonna have to take a short break. When we come back, we'll get back to you if you called. The number is 800-433-8850. What insight do you think there is to be learned from diving into a presidential candidate's past as far back at his or her high school days. Has your opinion of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney as a candidate changed after you've learned more about who they were say at teenagers. 800-433-8850, or go to our website and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:45:04

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with David Maraniss. He is the author of "Barack Obama: The Story." He joins us from studios in Madison, Wisconsin. David Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and an associate editor at The Washington Post. David, I was struck by your argument that Obama's life has been a continual effort to avoid the traps laid before him. What would you say were the traps he ultimately avoided?

  • 13:45:29

    MARANISSWell, Kojo, I mean, you start with the trap of being born on an island, Hawaii, a paradise island, but an island nonetheless, thousands of miles away from the mainland and the action. The trap of being born biracial, even in Hawaii which was maybe the luckiest place he could have been born because of all of the hapas there (word?) , but very few African-Americans, and the trap of being born without a father and having to deal with that and with living with white grandparents who were loving but nonetheless could not help him sort of find his self-identity.

  • 13:46:13

    MARANISSLater, the traps of being a lawyer or a judge which were the expectations of his mother and grandmother. When he didn't want that, the trap of Chicago politics where the racial politics of that city can limit people. He had to find his way around that. All along the way I would say that he was sort of either consciously or -- subconsciously first, and then consciously thinking about -- or dealing with where the traps were and finding his way around them, and I think that that has shaped his political personality as well.

  • 13:46:47

    MARANISSI think that when you look at him in the Oval Office, it's wise to keep in mind that when he appears to be perhaps a little bit slow or behind the times, if you're a supporter of Obama and you want him to clarify things and be stronger, he's probably taken that into account and is trying to figure out where the traps are and find his way around it.

  • 13:47:08

    NNAMDIHere's Monique in Arlington, Va. Monique, your turn.

  • 13:47:12

    MONIQUEHi. I just had a question about, you know, I know the process of discovering one's cultural history can be really important, and I'm curious as to how much of the history that you uncovered is Barack Obama aware of, and if he's not, how do you think that process goes when your history is uncovered by someone else?

  • 13:47:35


  • 13:47:36

    MARANISSSome of it -- some of the mythology of the family had been passed along to him, and he didn't really learn the truth until we met in the Oval Office. You know, instances like his two -- his Kenyan grandfather and his Indonesian step-grandfather and stories that the family had passed along about them. They Kenyan grandfather was, in the family legend, imprisoned by the British during an early stage of the Mau Mau Rebellion, and tortured by the Brits, and, you know, that's still -- I have to say that I don't want to say it's impossible that it happened because certainly things like that happened to a lot of Kenyans during that period, but when I went to Kenya and found a lot of people who knew the grandfather, all of them said that it did not happen and they would know and they cited reasons why they don't it happened.

  • 13:48:35

    MARANISSSo that was part of the mythology. Similarly, the Indonesian step-grandfather, his stepfather was Lolo Soetoro, and it was said in the family that the grandfather was killed fighting the Dutch in the revolution to fight for independence in Indonesia. And what I discovered was that in fact the grandfather had did changing the drapes in his living room, falling off a stool. So there's that sort of mythology that Barack Obama really was learning from my study. And, you know, when I told him these stories, he said, well, David, you're probably right, you know. I didn't fact check of all that. I was just passing along the family stories.

  • 13:49:17

    NNAMDILike so many of us do also. Here is...

  • 13:49:19


  • 13:49:20

    NNAMDIMonique, thank you very much for your call. With the excerpt about Obama's early girlfriends appearing in Vanity Fair prior to the book's release, that component of your biography has gained a lot of attention. What significance did you see in those relationships for exploring Obama's development?

  • 13:49:37

    MARANISSWell, one of the girlfriends, Alex McNear, had letters that Barack Obama had written during the period when he was at Columbia University, and was a young man trying to figure himself out. And there's some very revelatory letters, including one in which he describes sort of how all his friends from high school and college are finding their own niches and places where they feel comfortable in life, and he says that, you know, he -- none of that is satisfactory to him and that for him to feel comfortable about himself, he has to try to embrace it all.

  • 13:50:15

    MARANISSAnd I thought that sort of was an early iteration of that 2004 convention speech, you know, of sort of the universality of Barack Obama. He was feeling that at an early age. The second girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, an Australian, kept a journal during that period, and, you know, I don't find it salacious at all. I find it fairly perceptive about young Obama trying to find his racial identity. And she writes in her journal, very perceptively, that, you now, she understands that she's not the one for him and that there's a strong black woman out there for him somewhere, and she's really seeing him very intensely trying to work his way into a comfort level in the African-American community.

  • 13:51:02

    NNAMDIIt seems a lot of the context of these relationships involves Obama's own desire for self-discovery, his struggles with his own identity when it comes to race, but those struggles never seem to drift too far into either bitterness or anger. How would you explain that?

  • 13:51:19

    MARANISSYou know, I think that's true of his life. He's not a particularly -- he's not a bitter person, and he, you know, I mean, like everyone he has a -- he has, you know, a temper, but it's not -- it doesn't carry a deep anger with him, and, you know, some of that I think comes from nurture from the way he was raised by his mother who was not an angry woman in any way, but always looking for the better part of other people's human natures. Part of it comes from Hawaii, where, you know, the native Hawaiian saying of his teenage years was cool head main thing, meaning just be cool, man, don't get too excited about anything.

  • 13:52:06

    MARANISSAnd I think he has part of that. Also, you know, formative years in Indonesia where the whole culture is to withhold a little bit and not show anger. So how much is burning inside him only he knows, but you don't see it, and you don't see it in his letters either.

  • 13:52:23

    NNAMDIHere is Keely in New Carrollton, Md. Hi, Keely. You're on the air.

  • 13:52:30

    KEELYHello. Can I -- how you doing?

  • 13:52:32

    NNAMDII'm doing well. Go right ahead.

  • 13:52:34

    KEELYOkay. I'd like you to ask your guest, now a lot -- there are a lot of good things that have been said about the mother's influence and what have you, and agree, he -- Obama didn't live with his father and all that, but in his research, the writer's research, did he find anything good at all, you know, some influence one might look at and say well, this thing might have come from his father, or something of that sort?

  • 13:53:06

    MARANISSOh, absolutely.

  • 13:53:07

    KEELYWas his father that bad?

  • 13:53:09

    NNAMDIHis father was clearly a very smart man.

  • 13:53:11

    MARANISSYeah. No. No. His father -- his father was troubled. You know, I don't look -- my view of human nature is that we're all a combination of good and bad, and his father was haunted by alcoholism, and was abusive, but he had some attributes that his son inherited. One was self-confidence. I think you can see somehow that coming out of his father. His father was an incredibly self-confident human being. One more superficial in one sense would be his deep voice. His father had a voice that people described as a rumbling Paul Robison bass voice, and, you know, as superficial as that might sound, you know, when you think about Barack Obama, if he had a high squeaky voice would be president of the United States?

  • 13:54:01

    MARANISSYou know, little things like that can make a difference. He had his father's intelligence. I mean, both of his parents were very smart, and so were many people on both sides of the family going back, but his father was truly a brilliant man who unfortunately had these other troubles that were haunting him. But even as he was moving in and out of government positions in Kenya in his later years, you know, he would lose his job because of alcoholism or his casual use of expense accounts on the job, and they'd bring him back because he was so smart in his study of macroeconomics.

  • 13:54:40

    NNAMDIKeely, thank you very much for your call. Here is Susan in Springfield, Va. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:54:48

    SUSANHello. I was just wondering what the author's take is on Barack Obama seeming to be looking for his father's approval in that he dedicated his book "Dreams of My Father," or named that book from the, you know, his father, and why he doesn't seem to give more credit to his mother, his influence, his success to Stanley Dunham. I'm intrigued by that.

  • 13:55:22

    NNAMDIDavid Maraniss?

  • 13:55:22

    MARANISSYeah. I am too, and I think, you know, the memoir "Dreams From My Father" came out just before his mother died, and I think one of the great regrets of his life, and a sense of guilt that he has, is that he didn't give his mother enough due in that book, and that's how people know him. The book was originally entitled "Journeys in Black and White" in the proposal, and it as meant to be his study through the racial landscape of America. And so in that sense, his father took on a larger symbolic importance, and that's where the title came from, and of course, anyone who's read the book knows the final third of the book is about his trip to Kenya, and -- but, you know, he never knew his father, and his father was not a major influence on his life in any away, and his mother was an enormous influence, and, you know, when I interviewed him, and if anyone were to ask him now, he would acknowledge that.

  • 13:56:21

    MARANISSThank you very much for your call, Susan. We got an email from a Punahou grad about the effect of the Punahou School who says, "How does the number one prep school in the Pacific Rim affect your view of the U.S. role in the world?

  • 13:56:36

    MARANISSIt's pronounced Punahou, Kojo.

  • 13:56:38

    NNAMDIPunahou. Punahou, I'm sorry.

  • 13:56:39

    MARANISSAnd -- that's all right. Punahou Prep School, and it's -- by the way, it's the equal of any of the eastern prep school in terms of the intellectual content and in every aspect. It's a beautiful campus out there in Honolulu, and it was -- by the time Barry Obama got there, it was very diverse place. It had been founded by the missionaries, and was a very houli -- houli is a native Hawaiian word for a white -- an anglo. It was very houli and sort of upper-crust oriented place in its earlier iterations.

  • 13:57:19

    MARANISSBut by the time Barry got there, it was full of hapas as I said, you know. One of his friends in high school was Tom Topolinski who sounds Polish. He was Chinese. You know, everybody had some Portuguese, Okinawa, Japanese, Chinese. It was a wonderful mix, and so that certainly would affect one's view of the world to see so many different peoples coming together there.

  • 13:57:45

    NNAMDIDavid Maraniss, we're out of time, but thank you so much for your time. David Maraniss is the author of "Barack Obama: The Story." He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and an associate editor at the Washington Post. David, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:57:57

    MARANISSThank you, Kojo. I appreciate it.

  • 13:57:59

    NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney, with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. The engineer is Kellan Quigly. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, We encourage you to share questions or comments with us by emailing us, by joining us on Facebook, or by tweeting @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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