A cal­cu­lated life

A new bi­og­ra­phy says Obama sac­ri­ficed much, even love, to am­bi­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - CAR­LOS LOZADA Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP

RIS­ING STAR: The Mak­ing of Barack Obama By David J. Gar­row. Wil­liam Mor­row. 1,472 pp. $45.

Of the books that jour­nal­ists and his­to­ri­ans have writ­ten on the life of Barack Obama, three stand out so far. In “Barack Obama: The Story,” David Maraniss shows us who Obama is. In “Read­ing Obama,” James T. Klop­pen­berg ex­plains how Obama thinks. In “The Bridge,” David Rem­nick tells us what Obama means.

Now, in a prob­ing new bi­og­ra­phy, “Ris­ing Star,” David J. Gar­row at­tempts to do all that but also some­thing more: He tells us how Obama lived and ex­plores the cal­cu­la­tions he made in the decades lead­ing up to his pres­i­dency. Gar­row por­trays Obama as a man who ruth­lessly com­part­men­tal­ized his ex­is­tence, who be­lieved early on that he was fated for great­ness and who made emo­tional sac­ri­fices in the pur­suit of a goal that must have seemed un­likely to every­one but him. Ev­ery step — whether his foray into com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ing, Har­vard Law School, even his choice of whom to love — was not just about liv­ing a life but about ful­fill­ing a des­tiny.

It is in the per­sonal realm that Gar­row’s ac­count is par­tic­u­larly re­veal­ing. He shares for the first time the story of a woman Obama lived with and loved in Chicago, in the years be­fore he met Michelle, and whom he asked to marry him. Sheila Miyoshi Jager, now a pro­fes­sor at Ober­lin Col­lege, is a re­cur­ring pres­ence in “Ris­ing Star,” and her pained, drawn-out re­la­tion­ship with Obama in­forms both his will to rise in pol­i­tics and the trade­offs he deems nec­es­sary to do so. Gar­row, who re­ceived a Pulitzer Prize for his bi­og­ra­phy of Martin Luther King Jr., con­cludes this mas­sive new work with a damning ver­dict on Obama’s de­ter­mi­na­tion: “While the cru­cible of self­cre­ation had pro­duced an iron­clad will, the ves­sel was hol­low at its core.”

By now the broad con­tours of the Obama story are well known, not least be­cause Obama has re­peated them so of­ten. With Kansas and Kenya in his veins, he car­ries In­done­sia in his mem­ory, Hawaii in his smile, Har­vard in his brain and, most of all, Chicago in his soul. “It wasn’t un­til I moved to Chicago and be­came a com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer that I think I really grew into my­self in terms of my iden­tity,” he said in an in­ter­view about “Dreams From My Fa­ther,” his 1995 mem­oir. “I con­nected in a very di­rect way with the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity in Chicago” and was able to “walk away with a sense of sel­f­un­der­stand­ing and em­pow­er­ment.”

Note how it was as much about Obama him­self as any suc­cess he had in his or­ga­niz­ing work. In­spired by Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, Obama be­gan to dis­cuss his po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions with a few col­leagues and friends dur­ing his early time in the city. He wanted to be mayor of Chicago. Or a U.S. sen­a­tor. Or gov­er­nor of Illi­nois. Or per­haps he would en­ter the min­istry. Or, as he con­fided to very few, in­clud­ing Jager, he would be­come president of the United States. Lofty stuff for a 20-some­thing com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer who strug­gled to write fic­tion on the side.

Jager, who in “Dreams From My Fa­ther” was vir­tu­ally writ­ten out, com­pressed into a sin­gle char­ac­ter along with two prior Obama girl­friends, may have evoked some­thing of Obama’s dis­tant mother, Stan­ley Ann Dun­ham. Like Dun­ham, Jager stud­ied an­thro­pol­ogy, and while Dun­ham fo­cused on In­done­sia, Jager de­vel­oped a deep ex­per­tise in the Korean Penin­sula. She was of Dutch and Ja­panese an­ces­try, fit­ting the mul­ti­cul­tural world Obama was only start­ing to leave be­hind. They were a nat­u­ral pair. Jager soon came to real­ize, she told Gar­row, that Obama had “a deep-seated need to be loved and ad­mired.”

She de­scribes their time to­gether as an iso­lat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, “an is­land unto our­selves” in which Obama would “com­part­men­tal­ize his work and home life.” She did not meet Jeremiah Wright, the pas­tor with a grow­ing in­flu­ence on Obama, and they rarely saw his pro­fes­sional col­leagues so­cially. The friends they saw were of­ten grad­u­ate stu­dents at the Univer­sity of Chicago, where Jager was pur­su­ing her doc­tor­ate. They trav­eled to­gether to meet her fam­ily, as well as his. Soon they be­gan speak­ing of mar­riage.

“In the win­ter of ’86, when we vis­ited my par­ents, he asked me to marry him,” she told Gar­row. Her par­ents were op­posed, less for any racial rea­sons (Obama came across to them like “a white, mid­dle-class kid,” a close fam­ily friend said) than out of con­cern about Obama’s pro­fes­sional prospects, and be­cause her mother thought Jager, two years Obama’s ju­nior, was too young. “Not yet,” Sheila told Barack. But they stayed to­gether.

In early 1987, when Obama was 25, she sensed a change. “He be­came . . . so very am­bi­tious” quite sud­denly, she told Gar­row. “I re­mem­ber very clearly when this trans­for­ma­tion hap­pened, and I re­mem­ber very specif­i­cally that by 1987, about a year into our re­la­tion­ship, he al­ready had his sights on be­com­ing president.”

The sense of des­tiny is not un­usual among those who be­come president. (See Clin­ton, Bill.) But it cre­ated com­pli­ca­tions. Obama be­lieved that he had a “call­ing,” Gar­row writes, and in his case it was “cou­pled with a height­ened aware­ness that to pur­sue it he had to fully iden­tify as African Amer­i­can.”

Maraniss’s 2012 bi­og­ra­phy deftly de­scribes Obama’s con­scious evo­lu­tion from a mul­ti­cul­tural, in­ter­na­tion­al­ist self-per­cep­tion to­ward a dis­tinctly African Amer­i­can one, and Gar­row puts this tran­si­tion into an ex­plic­itly po­lit­i­cal con­text. For black politi­cians in Chicago, he writes, a non-African-Amer­i­can spouse could be a li­a­bil­ity. He cites the ex­am­ple of the late Richard H. Ne­w­house Jr., a leg­endary African Amer­i­can state sen­a­tor in Illi­nois, who was mar­ried to a white woman and en­dured whis­pers that he “talks black but sleeps white.” And Carol Mose­ley Braun, who dur­ing the 1990s served Illi­nois as the first fe­male African Amer­i­can U.S. sen­a­tor and whose ex-hus­band was white, ad­mit­ted that “an in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage really re­stricts your po­lit­i­cal op­tions.”

Dis­cus­sions of race and pol­i­tics sud­denly over­whelmed Sheila and Barack’s re­la­tion­ship. “The mar­riage dis­cus­sions dragged on and on,” but now they were clouded by Obama’s “tor­ment over this cen­tral is­sue of his life . . . race and iden­tity,” Jager re­calls. The “res­o­lu­tion of his black iden­tity was di­rectly linked to his de­ci­sion to pur­sue a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer,” she said.

In Gar­row’s telling, Obama made emo­tional judg­ments on po­lit­i­cal grounds. A close mu­tual friend of the cou­ple re­calls Obama ex­plain­ing that “the lines are very clearly drawn . . . . If I am go­ing out with a white woman, I have no stand­ing here.” And friends re­mem­ber an awk­ward gath­er­ing at a sum­mer house, where Obama and Jager en­gaged in a loud, messy fight on the sub­ject for an en­tire af­ter­noon. (“That’s wrong! That’s wrong! That’s not a rea­son,” they heard Jager yell from their guest room, their ar­gu­ments punc­tu­ated by bouts of makeup sex.) Obama cared for her, Gar­row writes, “yet he felt trapped be­tween the woman he loved and the des­tiny he knew was his.”

Just days be­fore he would de­part for Har­vard Law School — and when the re­la­tion­ship was al­ready com­ing apart — Obama asked her to come with him and get mar­ried, “mostly, I think, out of a sense of des­per­a­tion over our even­tual part­ing and not in any real faith in our fu­ture,” Jager ex­plained to Gar­row. At the time, she was head­ing to Seoul for dis­ser­ta­tion re­search, and she re­sented his as­sump­tion that she would au­to­mat­i­cally post­pone her ca­reer for his. More ar­gu­ments en­sued, and each went their way, al­though not for good.

At Har­vard, the Obama the world has come to know took clearer form. In his late 20s now and slightly older than most class­mates, he had a com­pul­sion to orate in class and sum­ma­rize other peo­ple’s ar­gu­ments for them. “In law school the only thing I would have voted for Obama to do would have been to shut up,” one for­mer stu­dent told Gar­row. Class­mates cre­ated a Oba­manome­ter, rank­ing “how pre­ten­tious some­one’s re­marks are in class.”

Such com­plaints aside, he was gen­er­ally ad­mired, in­clud­ing by his pro­fes­sors, one of whom wrote a fi­nal exam ques­tion around com­ments Obama had made in class. And his elec­tion to the pres­i­dency of the Har­vard Law Re­view, the first time for an African Amer­i­can, sig­naled the re­spect the school’s elite stu­dents had for him — even if some lib­eral class­mates later re­gret­ted the choice, find­ing Obama too con­cil­ia­tory to­ward con­ser­va­tives in their midst. Gar­row re-cre­ates the drama around the elec­tion, with Law Re­view col­leagues de­bat­ing the can­di­dates’ le­gal acu­men and lead­er­ship skills, as well as the pos­si­ble his­tory-mak­ing as­pect of the se­lec­tion. It is an un­ex­pect­edly riv­et­ing part of the book. The black ed­i­tors on the staff be­gan “cry­ing and run­ning and hug­ging” when the fi­nal choice was made — and with the na­tional news cov­er­age that fol­lowed, Obama’s star was on the rise.

Law school also pro­vided Obama one of his most im­por­tant in­tel­lec­tual in­ter­locu­tors: class­mate and econ­o­mist Rob Fisher. They took mul­ti­ple classes to­gether and co-wrote a never-pub­lished book on pub­lic pol­icy, ti­tled “Trans­for­ma­tive Pol­i­tics” or “Promises of Democ­racy: Hope­ful Cri­tiques of Amer­i­can Ide­ol­ogy.” The man­u­script ex­plored the po­lit­i­cal fail­ures of the left and the right and ex­pounded on mar­kets, race and demo­cratic di­a­logue, show­ing glim­mers of the po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy and rhetoric that Obama would come to em­brace. A few years later, Fisher helped Obama re­think “Dreams From My Fa­ther” (orig­i­nally ti­tled “Jour­neys in Black and White”), mak­ing it less a pol­icy book and more a per­sonal one.

Obama met Michelle Robin­son at the Chicago law firm where she worked — and where he was a sum­mer as­so­ciate — after his first year of law school, and the cou­ple quickly be­came se­ri­ous. How­ever, Jager, who soon ar­rived at Har­vard on a teach­ing fel­low­ship, was not en­tirely out of his life.

“Barack and Sheila had con­tin­ued to see each other ir­reg­u­larly through­out the 1990-91 aca­demic year, not­with­stand­ing the deep­en­ing of Barack’s re­la­tion­ship with Michelle Robin­son,” Gar­row writes. (“I al­ways felt bad about it,” Jager told the au­thor more than two decades later.) Once Barack and Michelle were mar­ried, his per­sonal ties to Sheila were re­duced to the oc­ca­sional let­ter (such as after the 9/11 at­tacks) and phone call (when he reached out to ask whether a bi­og­ra­pher had con­tacted her).

If Gar­row is cor­rect in con­clud­ing that Obama’s ro­man­tic choices were in­flu­enced by his po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions, it is no small irony that Michelle Obama be­came one of those most skep­ti­cal about his po­lit­i­cal prospects and most du­bi­ous about his will to rise. She con­stantly dis­cour­aged his ef­forts to­ward elec­tive of­fice and re­sented the time he spent away from her and their two young daugh­ters. Barack vented to a friend about how of­ten Michelle would talk about money. “Why don’t you go out and get a good job? You’re a lawyer — you can make all the money we need,” she would tell him, as the cou­ple strug­gled with stu­dent loans and the de­mands of fam­ily and po­lit­i­cal life. (Gar­row sides with Michelle, high­light­ing how, on the day after Sasha was born, Barack went down­town for a meet­ing.)

As he con­sid­ered a U.S. Se­nate bid, Obama’s team com­mis­sioned a poll that cov­ered, among other ques­tions, his name. “Barry,” as he was known from child­hood into his early col­lege years, polled bet­ter than “Barack,” but Obama never con­sid­ered res­ur­rect­ing the old name. He had made his choice, of iden­tity and im­age, long ago. Jager re­calls that one of the few times Obama be­came gen­uinely an­gry with her was in Hawaii, when she heard rel­a­tives call­ing him Barry, and she did so as well, just for fun. He be­came “ir­ra­tionally fu­ri­ous,” she said. “He told me that un­der no cir­cum­stances was I ever to use that name with him.”

There was no go­ing back.

‘Ris­ing Star” is ex­haus­tive, but only oc­ca­sion­ally ex­haust­ing. Gar­row zooms his lens out far — for in­stance, when he re­counts the evis­cer­a­tion of Chicago’s steel in­dus­try in the early 1980s, pro­vid­ing use­ful con­text for Obama’s sub­se­quent work. And he goes de­li­ciously small-bore, too, delv­ing into the cul­ture of the Illi­nois state­house, where poker was in­tense and in­fi­delity was ram­pant. “There’s a lot of peo­ple who f---ed in Spring­field,” a fe­male lob­by­ist tells Gar­row. “What else is there to do?” Obama, how­ever, did not. “Michelle would kick my butt,” he told a col­league there. At times Gar­row de­liv­ers in­for­ma­tion sim­ply be­cause he has it; I did not need a de­tailed read­out of all of Obama’s course eval­u­a­tions from his years teach­ing at the Univer­sity of Chicago Law School. (Turns out his stu­dents liked him.)

The book’s ti­tle seems cho­sen with a sense of irony. Gar­row shows how media or­ga­ni­za­tions in­vari­ably de­scribed Obama as a “ris­ing star,” in al­most self-ful­fill­ing fash­ion. Yet, after nine years of re­search and re­port­ing, Gar­row does not ap­pear too im­pressed by his sub­ject, even if he rec­og­nizes Obama’s his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance.

The au­thor is harsh but per­sua­sive in his read­ing of “Dreams From My Fa­ther,” for in­stance, call­ing it not a mem­oir but a work of “his­tor­i­cal fic­tion,” in which the “most im­por­tant com­pos­ite char­ac­ter was the nar­ra­tor him­self.” (Re­view­ers were im­pressed by it, but few who knew Obama well seemed to rec­og­nize the man in its pages.) He points out that Obama’s co­caine use ex­tended into his post-col­lege years, longer than he had ac­knowl­edged. And he sug­gests that Obama de­ployed reli­gion for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses; while cam­paign­ing for the U.S. Se­nate, Gar­row notes, Obama be­gan tot­ing around a Bi­ble and ex­hib­ited “a greater re­li­gious faith than close ac­quain­tances had ever pre­vi­ously sensed.”

Through­out the book, Obama dis­plays an al­most petu­lant dis­sat­is­fac­tion with each step he takes to reach the Oval Of­fice. Com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ing is not am­bi­tious enough, he de­cides, so he goes to law school. But then he moves into pol­i­tics be­cause “I saw the law as be­ing in­ad­e­quate to the task” of achiev­ing so­cial change, Obama ex­plains. In Spring­field, he is again dis­il­lu­sioned by “the re­al­iza­tion that pol­i­tics is a busi­ness . . . an ac­tiv­ity that’s de­signed to ad­vance one’s ca­reer, ac­cu­mu­late re­sources and help one’s friends,” as “op­posed to a mis­sion. ”And upon reach­ing the Se­nate, he tells Na­tional Jour­nal that he is “sur­prised by the lack of de­lib­er­a­tion in the world’s great­est de­lib­er­a­tive body.” Noth­ing mea­sures up.

“Ris­ing Star” con­cludes with Obama an­nounc­ing his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, and Gar­row speeds through his pres­i­dency in a clunky and tacky epi­logue, in which he re­caps the grow­ing media dis­en­chant­ment with Obama and goes out of his way to cite un­fa­vor­able re­views of ear­lier bi­ogra­phies. (Come on, David. Other books can be good.) In his ac­knowl­edg­ments, Gar­row says Obama granted him eight hours of off-the-record con­ver­sa­tions and even read the bulk of the man­u­script. “His un­der­stand­able re­main­ing dis­agree­ments — some strong in­deed — with mul­ti­ple char­ac­ter­i­za­tions and in­ter­pre­ta­tions con­tained herein do not lessen my deep thank­ful­ness for his ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the schol­arly se­ri­ous­ness with which I have pur­sued this project,” Gar­row writes.

That is Obama now: a schol­arly project, a fig­ure of his­tory. After the eight years of his pres­i­dency, it is odd to con­sider him in the past tense. Yes, he re­mains a pub­lic fig­ure, as the mini-con­tro­versy over his speak­ing fees shows, and he is not go­ing away, cer­tainly not with a post-pres­i­den­tial mem­oir still com­ing. But now he is fight­ing for his­tory and legacy, and one of those bat­tles is against an­other fig­ure whose as­cent is even more bizarre, yet per­haps no less per­son­ally pre­or­dained.

Obama had con­sid­ered Don­ald Trump long be­fore ei­ther man won the pres­i­dency, and brushed off his ex­is­tence as a mis­guided na­tional fan­tasy. Amer­i­cans have a “con­tin­u­ing nor­ma­tive com­mit­ment to the ideals of in­di­vid­ual free­dom and mo­bil­ity,” Obama wrote in the Har­vard book man­u­script, now more than 25 years old. “The depth of this com­mit­ment may be sum­mar­ily dis­missed as the un­founded op­ti­mism of the av­er­age Amer­i­can — I may not be Don­ald Trump now, but just you wait; if I don’t make it, my chil­dren will.” Car­los Lozada is the nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post.

JOE WRINN/HAR­VARD UNIVER­SITY/COR­BIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

Barack Obama in 1990, after be­com­ing the first African Amer­i­can elected president of the Har­vard Law Re­view. The his­toric se­lec­tion brought him na­tional at­ten­tion.

Car­los Lozada

MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASHINGTON POST

Barack and Michelle Obama dance at an in­au­gu­ral ball in 2013, above. Be­fore meet­ing Michelle, Barack had a re­la­tion­ship with Sheila Miyoshi Jager, be­low. But he wor­ried that a non-black wife might hin­der him in pol­i­tics.

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