An exhaustive epic of Barack Obama’s trajectory to the presidency.
Yes, Obama was born in Hawaii, in the United States, just as his birth certificate says. Yes, he smoked marijuana. Yes, he has been a person of overarching ambition with a coolness that often shades into iciness, an island of unnerving calm in the stormy sea of electoral politics. As he has demonstrated in previous books, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Garrow (Law and History/Univ. of Pittsburgh School of Law; Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade, 1994, etc.) is a demon for research. The present volume, which weighs in at more than 1,400 pages (including nearly 275 pages of notes), is based on more than 1,000 interviews and consultations, it seems, with every known document to deal with the matter of the 44th president. Sometimes the book feels like too much of a good thing. While it is useful to know that Michelle Obama has a strong personality, it’s not necessary to have repeated demonstrations of that strength—though it did afford columnists the wherewithal to accuse her of emasculating her husband, who in turn has seemed relatively emotionless. It is not entirely clear how Garrow feels about his subject except that his own overarching thesis would seem to rest on the idea that Obama—Garrow calls him “Barack,” familiarly, throughout—was an efficient creator of himself, having gone from sometimes-frivolous youth to preternaturally serious adult with a clear vision of his path to success. Yet, as the author writes in closing, “while the crucible of self-creation had produced an ironclad will, the vessel was hollow at its core.” Leaving aside the psychobiographical speculations, however, the core of this book is eminently solid, a thorough turning over of just about every stone, from the poor behavior of Obama’s father in the U.S. to the sound and fury of Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers.
Too long by half but consistently readable—an impressive work that will provide grist for the former president’s detractors and admirers alike.