Interior journeys

President Barack Obama

BARACK OBAMA: The Story. By David Maraniss. Simon & Schuster. 672 pages. $32.50.

In relatively few cases has biography become so central to both a president’s admirers and despisers as it has for Barack Obama.

When Obama ran for president, the then-senator from Illinois had little experience to tout. Biography formed the core of his appeal.

In 2008, in a country strongly turning against the Texas swagger and go-it-alone hubris of George W. Bush, Obama’s multiracial parentage and cross-cultural background was powerfully appealing — the perennial hope of a chance to start anew.

The counternarrative began in the shadows and reached full, public flower only after Obama’s election. Whether in the seemingly irrepressible theories about his birthplace or the endless speculation about the ideological legacy he might have garnered from the Kenyan father he barely ever met, Obama’s exotic parentage and unusual background stoked the anxieties of his enemies — the perennial fear of otherness and subversion.

In “Barack Obama: The Story,” David Maraniss seeks to transcend the mythmaking of both sides and tackle two major issues: the legacy of family history and the values that shaped Obama and the internal forces that set him on his rapid, unlikely climb to the White House.

The legacy occupies the first third of the book as well as several subsequent chapters. These chapters, particularly the detailed story of Obama’s brilliant but deeply irresponsible, alcoholic and self-destructive father, provide some of the book’s most fascinating passages.

Yet it is the book’s other narrative — the description of the kindling of Obama’s ambition — that will almost certainly attract the greatest readership even though it is also the most elusive of the book’s themes.

By necessity, the story Maraniss tells becomes an interior one. Obama related his version of that interior journey in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” But as with many memoirs, Obama’s was a work of imagination — not fiction but a deeply subjective telling.

Maraniss supplements and corrects Obama’s account at several key points. As he does, we begin to see many of the traits that would come to mark Obama as president: the aloofness, the desire to avoid traps, the dislike of confrontation, the belief in his ability to persuade adversaries to see things his way.

It was in the period, 1981-85, in his early 20s, that Obama appears to have developed the belief that he could take a leadership role in society and that doing so would require him to become more than an observer.

And yet, readers in search of an “aha” moment will come away disappointed. In this volume, at least — Maraniss already has begun work on the next — there is no single spark, no switch that suddenly turned on Obama’s driving ambition. Instead, a more useful metaphor might be the tumblers of a lock falling into place, one by one.

As the book closes, Obama is headed for law school. After years of interior monologue, he was about to discover his public voice.

Reviewer David Lauter, a writer for The Los Angeles Times