David Maraniss, author of Barack Obama: The Story.
Barack Obama is different than any politician David Maraniss has ever written about.
The book traces Obama’s ancestry and childhood to up the point he attends Harvard Law School in 1988. Maraniss didn’t interview the president himself for the book until the very end.
“Thank God. I don’t want to deal with my main subject until I know as much, sometimes in this case more about his family than he did,” he said.
Beyond health care and immigration policies, Barack Obama is still human. He has character. Writers and biographers are the often the ones to expose the humanity of a president to the public.
At a recent book talk hosted by the New America Foundation, a panel of Maraniss, The New Republic senior editor Noam Scheiber and New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor described their experiences writing about Obama.
Writing about Obama may be more challenging than writing about other presidents and politicians. He has a unique personality, but he is also a storyteller himself and author of two bestsellers – Dreams from My Father (2004) and The Audacity of Hope (2006).
Scheiber, author of The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery (2011), asked Obama in 2004 to sign his copy of Dreams from My Father. He signed what he signs to all journalists – “To Noam, a fellow storyteller.”
Obama’s memoirs and popularity have inspired many books and articles that seek to tell his story. They include A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother by Janny Scott, The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father (2011) by Sally Jacobs and The Amateur by Edward Klein.
But it is his own propensity for storytelling that makes writing about him different, the panel said. He is a president that carries around a greater degree of self-awareness and is very attuned to everything written about him.
“A lot of his qualities are not natural politician qualities … Obama is a participant but also watching himself participate,” Maraniss said.
As president, it is much more difficult for Obama to continue telling his story in a compelling way, according to Kantor, author of The Obamas (2012).
“Everything about politics inhibits storytelling and authenticity,” she said.
Some critics and the media have called Obama an introvert.
There’s not a whole lot of him to go around. He’s put up barriers and is much less open than before. Kantor said this is partly due to his overnight rise to stardom.
“The ratio of people who wanted a piece of him in some way to what he could provide was as extreme as we’ve ever seen,” she said.
But what remains to be seen is how he will write his own presidential memoirs.
“Does he write an honest reckoning with his experience or does he write a political memoir? Almost everyone writes the latter — a diplomatic memoir that secures your legacy,” Kantor said.
When the panel members were asked whether they have come out liking the president better after writing him, they didn’t give a straight answer.
“The guy’s my character. Whether he’s doing something good or bad, he’s my character,” Maraniss said.
Scheiber said he could relate to Obama like he couldn’t with any other politician.
“I really connected with him sociologically,” he said, adding that the president reminded him of people he knew.
Maraniss has also written extensively on former president Bill Clinton. “[Obama] was slightly defensive, but he wasn’t like Clinton, where if he didn’t like what you were asking, he could filibuster for an hour.”
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