Someone — and it may have been Ken Burns himself — talked about the fact that it took longer to make his Civil War documentary series than it did to fight the Civil War. You started researching your book on Barack Obama before Barack Obama was even president.
Yes, I first started reading about Barack and taking notes when he won the Iowa caucuses in January 2008, because I was embarrassed that at that point I knew virtually nothing about hm. And for the balance of the election year, I read all the biographical journalism about Barack and was consistently disappointed with how uncurious journalists were about his full life story.
What in those early days of 2008 were you looking for? At that point, there were no presidential biographies because he was not yet president; there was his own book.
I was mainly just reading newspapers and magazine coverage at that time. His book “Dreams from My Father” is in many ways more a novel than a history. It moves events around in time, it changes everyone’s names so it’s a resource but it’s by no means a 100% dependable account of anything.
Did you start your work as a blank slate, as someone who thought, who is this guy?
I didn’t have any particularly strong partisan or emotional feelings about him at any point during 2008. I viewed it as more of a sort of historical, professional challenge, that journalism was doing such a weak and incomplete job of describing just what his pre-Washington life had involved.
Given your research, a lot of the book is devoted to Obama’s early history and the people he knew long before his political career was evolving.
I made the decision very early on that I would not go into the presidency much at all. But the real centerpiece of this book is, No. 1, those first three years in Chicago when he was a community organizer, which I think is without question the most formative period in his life.
Then, secondly, the following three years, 1988 to 1991, when he goes to Harvard Law School and impresses literally everyone on campus as being a complete all-star student.
And then in the late 1990s, early 2000s, the eight almost anonymous years that he spends as an Illinois state legislator in Springfield, the state capital. Those are deeply formative for him as a politician.
There’s a lot of what young people — young men and women — may do in their early lives, about sex, about drugs. If you were writing this about George W. Bush, it would be about drinking and carousing. A lot of these people knew him well then but did not know him well in his later life.
Correct. Barack’s cocaine usage up through 1985, when he leaves New York, was probably a little bit extensive even by the standards of the mid-1980s, but I don’t think it should surprise anyone that someone during their 20s has a succession of close girlfriends. Nowadays the media, unfortunately, is more interested in focusing on relationships and sex than anything else, but the real centerpiece of this book is an intellectual portrait of who Barack became.
Before he immerses himself in the almost all-black South Side of Chicago in 1985, Barack has lived a much more international multiethnic life.— David Garrow
One thing that has been remarked on consistently is the nature of Barack Obama’s temperament, that he could compartmentalize.
I think you’ve articulated the most important word of all in understanding Barack, and that is “compartmentalize.” Many people who’ve known him over the years, including Michelle, his wife, have remarked about how central that ability to compartmentalize is for him.
And I think ever since he came into the public eye, running that successful U.S. Senate race in 2003, 2004, his focus on rigidly compartmentalizing between his private life and his public life is the defining element of who he’s been this last 10 or 12 years.
One of the qualities of the community organizing world that he became immersed in from ’85 to ’88 was the maxim that an organizer [separates] his personal life from his professional life. And I think that that was a principle that Barack very easily took to heart.
We’ve had presidents who’ve had their own origin stories, whether it’s log cabins or you name it. This is a man who, at a very young age, as a boy, was traveling the world, and growing up in Hawaii, a place which was as free of racism as any you would find in the United States — all of which were very formative to a character that was singular if not unique for an American president.
I think Hawaii, much more so than Indonesia, is deeply formative, especially with regard to emotional temperament and especially with regard to the fluidity or indeed indeterminacy of race and ethnicity. Hawaii is such a complete ethnic mixing pot, or polyglot, and the very elite, superb prep school that Barack went to, the Punahou School, had very few African American or even part African American students.
And so Barack, as a fairly light brown-complected, half-black, half-white young man, didn’t particularly stand out in color terms whatsoever. In the Hawaii of the 1970s, the only really classically African American population [was composed of] people who were in the U.S. military, assigned to one or another of the military bases around Pearl Harbor.
When Barack goes to start college, at Occidental College, Oxy had several dozen black students from South Central L.A., but also a number of ethnically black or partially African American students like Barack who had grown up in majority white settings, elite prep schools. The students Barack was closest to and spent all his time with at Oxy were very much international students, often Pakistani, Indian. Barack did not much at all hang out with the Los Angeles South Central black students.
People who spoke to you who said that he seemed white — whether they thought this was something to admire or not — their attitudes seemed more about them and their expectations of what an African American should be.
Yes, but also that Barack, before he gets to Chicago in 1985, is not himself really identifying with or seeking out a majority-black cultural experience. When he’s traveling with friends during those years, it’s to Singapore, it’s to Pakistan, it’s to the south of France; another of his good friends at Oxy was a French national.
So before he immerses himself in the almost all-black South Side of Chicago in 1985, Barack has lived a much more international, multiethnic life than a black one.
In nine years of research, did it change your thinking about Barack Obama?
Yes. The Barack Obama we have seen these last eight or nine years, 10 years, when he starts running for president, is a very, very different person than who he was when he first went into the
In Barack’s first four or five years in Springfield, he’s a very outspoken, very principled state legislator, speaking very powerfully about the need for single-payer universal healthcare coverage. But he’s in a heavily Republican-controlled state Legislature, not getting very far.
And after an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2000, he really begins to change his attitude toward politics, and becomes much more focused on the need to win, to strategize towards doing what is required to win.
Maybe this is when he learned that there are some uses to bipartisanship?
In Springfield, Barack was extremely bipartisan, had good working relationships even with extremely conservative Republican state legislators, individuals who are much more conservative than some of the relevant leaders in the U.S. Congress during Barack’s presidency.
So to me it was very surprising, very disappointing that Barack as president did not do the sort of sustained outreach across the aisle that he did so productively, so successfully years earlier in Springfield.
You got eight hours of off-the-record conversations with President Obama. How did that shape your book?
I made the decision in the summer of 2016 to let President Obama read the whole first 10 chapters of the book. He went through it, marked it up a fair amount. We sat there for hours on end — no bathroom breaks — going through the manuscript.
I changed a number of relatively small little things where he had something to say or something he objected to, but those conversations did not, other than at the margins, change the shape or the tone of the book really at all.
Did Obama object to your rather critical conclusions? One line says, “In spite of his ironclad will, the vessel was hollow at the core”?
That’s in the epilogue. That epilogue is not something that he saw last year.
Did he have objections to your conclusions, or was he looking for factual matters?
A mixture of the two. Since they were off-the-record conversations, I’m not in a position to directly quote him or describe what he said. One thing that can be quite accurately said is that whenever anyone has told their own life story before — one sees this even with civil rights veterans who’ve been interviewed again and again over the years — once people have told their story, oftentimes as a historian you find they’re very attached to what they have written, what they have said. That’s what they’re remembering, as distinct from what they actually lived.
One of the great challenges of being a modern historian is interviewing multiple people who were all there for something, some event. No one’s version matches up 100% with other people’s, even if it’s three or four people on a conference call.
So it’s an inescapable challenge to put those accounts together and end up with what one believes is overall the most accurate portrayal of what took place.
Your epilogue is titled, “The president did not attend, as he was golfing.” Don’t you find that a bit of a paradox when we have a president now who has golfed more in three months than Barack Obama did, I think, in a year?
I have not been following
With President Obama, as the record is quite clear, he was spending really almost 100% of his recreational time with staff assistants or old friends, so I think there’s some measurable degree of difference there.
Already a subscriber? Thank you for your support. If you are not, please consider subscribing today. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.
MORE PATT MORRISON ASKS