The Luncheon Society-NY/Pulitzer Prize Winning Author David Maraniss and Barack Obama’s early years/ PrimeHouse Restaurant/June 19, 2012

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17maraniss</p> <p>"Barack Obama" by David MaranissMost presidential biographies have arc upwards over several generations. They combine parental ambition, native drive, and glorious luck; and we have also seen this dream play out over and over again.

After Joe Kennedy’s presidential aspirations went up in flames, he transferred his ambition to the next generation, first to his son Joe and later to John.  Some say Jeb and George W. Bush entered politics to avenge their father’s loss, after he was soundly beaten by Bill Clinton.  Nobody entered the White House with more Brahmin entitlement than Franklin Roosevelt, back when old wealth, old-boy connections, and family lineage really mattered.  For these families, rising to the Oval Office remained a birthright, even long after it became elusive dream for successive generations.

Some Presidents like Richard Nixon or Harry Truman began with hardscrabble origins but Barack Obama’s story takes the cake.

Eight years before he was accepted the nomination in Denver and four years before he electrified the delegates at the 2004 Boston Convention, an unknown Illinois State Senator named Barack Obama was stuck at the Hertz counter at Los Angeles International Airport trying to rent a car because his American Express Card was denied.

How could somebody rise so fast?  In David Maraniss’s new book, “Barack Obama:  The Story,” we get to the heart of his early influences.  We were very fortunate that our old friend Stephen Schlesinger was able to moderate a delightful discussion at Prime House in Manhattan. This is David Maraniss’s third gathering with the Luncheon Society.

Barack Obama presents the most improbable presidential biography of all. How did a young biracial politician whose name mirrored the most hated terrorist emerge at the top of American politics?  How could a guy who travelled to Chicago after finishing up his undergraduate studies in Columbia University find a way to connect in a city where you’re still considered the new kid 20 years after working the neighborhoods?

David Maraniss is the first writer to take us through the early years of Barack Obama.  Many others, like Richard Wolffe and Jonathan Alter, have written compelling books about the presidential campaign or his first year in office and their conversations with The Luncheon Society have been memorable.  Obama took a tremendous gamble when he ran for the Senate in 2004, but soon better funded and higher profile primary candidates fell away or chose not to run.  The victory became inevitable as the Republican nominee’s campaign completely fell apart after allegations of spousal abuses emerged from sealed divorce records.

Yet when it comes to his Obama, Maraniss goes back even further. The dominant narrative of Barack Obama’s early years comes from his autobiography, “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” which was published in 1995 with good reviews but poor sales.  Maraniss gets the reader past the narrative not unlike his first book about Bill Clinton’s early years, “First in His Class.”

The bulk of Barack Obama narrative is a story of active and absent parents, a global setting where great distance separates the major characters, and a biracial child who straddled white and black culture until he found his way.  His grandparents, the Dunhams, were restless and over the course of several generations, moved to Hawaii.  Barack’s mother had several marriages that ended in abuse and divorce.  Barack, then Barry, was shuttled between his mother’s home and his Grandparent’s apartment.

Maraniss’s book looks at Obama’s high school years, which included equal helpings of academia, basketball, and aimlessness.  His mother raved about her son but was often separated by a distance of thousands of miles, years before the Internet could breach the gap. Young Barry even mentioned a shout out to his dealer in his high school yearbook.

At Columbia, Obama lived a monastic life and remained emotionally elusive from a variety of women he dated throughout the 1980’s, as highlighted by correspondence serialized in Vanity Fair.  Perhaps the time alone allowed him to figure out his path because normal route to the White House does not go through Jakarta and the good people of Manchester and Des Moines often think that even a Hawaiian upbringing is too exotic for anybody’s own good.

In fact, Maraniss makes the case that this solitude allowed Obama to figure out who he was on his own terms and not the product the tug and pull of family dynamics. Growing up biracial in a Hawaii allowed Obama to work out who he was through adult eyes, something which might not have happened had he was raised in Chicago, Manhattan, or rural Alabama.

For the Hard Right, Obama’s quick rise foreshadowed the Tea Party crowd’s to create a conspiratorial narrative to question his citizenship, his birth certificate, and his patriotism.  For them, the President represented the perfect storm of everything they felt wrong with the demographic shifts within our country.   His seeming rise out of nowhere only confirmed the worst paranoia from those who felt that Black Helicopters were hovering out over the horizon while the UN was plotting to take away everybody’s guns.

On the other hand, people like Ronald Reagan and Ted Kennedy had been thoroughly seasoned in the public eye for several decades each ran for the Presidency.  Reagan won on his third attempt for the job but Obama went from a sitting state Senator to a US President before the end of his first term in the Senate.

What Maraniss does–and does well–is that he gets under the gloss of Obama’s autobiography to begin to flesh out the central and surrounding characters who shaped him. Composite characters from Obama’s autobiography are unbundled and better understood while personal relationships are captured through a series of tightly written letters. Obama emerges in Chicago with little more than an introduction from Newt Minnow and ends up in The White House two decades later.

Maraniss’s book concludes with Obama heading off to Harvard Law School once he concluded that a law degree would be needed to really change society.  We know the rest.  He became the first African American at the top of the masthead of Harvard’s Law Review.  He returned to Chicago and entered, elective politics and after a decade in Springfield and an abortive attempt to enter Congress sn 2000, Obama became President of the United States in 2008.

luncheon-logo-fcThe Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

One response to “The Luncheon Society-NY/Pulitzer Prize Winning Author David Maraniss and Barack Obama’s early years/ PrimeHouse Restaurant/June 19, 2012

  1. Hi Bob

    If we find a corporate sponsor its very possible we can broadcast TLS lunches to a large audience. We reach 80 million homes, 9 million viewers. Just a thought for us to consider.


    From: The Luncheon Society Reply-To: The Luncheon Society Date: Sunday, February 24, 2013 12:37 PM To: Heidi Nietert Subject: [New post] The Luncheon Society-NY/Pulitzer Prize Winning Author David Maraniss and Barack Obamas early years/ PrimeHouse Restaurant/June 19, 2012 theluncheonsociety posted: “Editors Note: We are catching up on our narratives after a long absence. Over the next few weeks we will have updates from our past Luncheon Society gatherings. Most presidential biographies have arc upwards over several generations. They combine pa”

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