A Lesser-Known Influence in Obama’s Life

Question:\r\n Did you find anything in your reporting that contradicted Obama's \r\nautobiography?

David Remnick: Remember, Obama \r\npublished his autobiography at a time during a memoir craze in this \r\ncountry. The ‘90’s was wall-to-wall memoirs. There were so many best \r\nselling memoirs and some very fine memoirs, his was just one of them. \r\nAnd it was the theme of his was racial identity and that pursuit. And it\r\n was a young man’s book, and a very accomplished book for a young man, \r\nsometimes a little purple, sometimes a little overwrought, but I think \r\nultimately honest. In other words he tells you: "Here’s where I’m going \r\nto shape things a little bit beyond reality, here’s where I’m going to \r\nplay with dialogue." He doesn’t lie. And we know in recent years from a \r\nlot of controversies about memoir that writers can sometimes go too far \r\nand they are essentially writing fiction. He did not do that. But it is \r\nalso a book that is bereft of politics. There is no political formation \r\nin that book except in the most elemental sense in terms of idealism.

And\r\n\r\n also, the greatest presence in that book is the pursuit of an absence, \r\nthe pursuit of this father, who is really in Obama’s life in infancy, \r\nwhich he can’t remember, and for a 10-day trip when he was a kid. That’s\r\n it. Obama knows his father through stories people tell, through his \r\nmother telling him idealized versions of his father, and then finally \r\nmeeting African relatives who tell him a much tougher version of \r\nreality. In fact, his father was enormously and deeply intelligent, \r\nthought he was going to be in the leadership of post-colonial Kenya, and\r\n in fact he fell out, he failed. He became a big drinker. He was a \r\nmiserable husband and father. Probably beat one of those wives, \r\naccording to one of the kids, who now lives in China, and this was \r\ndevastating to Obama to come up against this reality, and Obama’s father\r\n becomes not an example for him, but a counter-example; something not to\r\n do, a path to not take, an emotionalism not to follow, a level of \r\nerratic behavior to avoid. So, not to get too psychoanalytic about this \r\nbecause Obama talks about it himself, he becomes a much more controlled \r\nfigure; somebody who keeps his cool, somebody who tried to conciliate \r\nrather than to upset groups of people. That becomes very much his \r\npersonality.

And the figure in his own book who was the most \r\npowerfully influential, who’s kind of an absence and I think sketched in\r\n rather lightly, is his mother. His mother is a fascinating figure. An \r\nintellectual, somebody who pursues an anthropological career in, for the\r\n most part, Indonesia, who leaves him in Honolulu all throughout high \r\nschool while she is pursuing her career in Indonesia. He adores her, \r\nhe’s confused by her, he’s bemused by her because she tries to in a very\r\n white, liberal, old-fashioned way help him with his search for a black \r\nidentity by giving him Mahalia Jackson records and tapes of Martin \r\nLuther King’s speeches, and he’s kind of eye-rolling about this. So, \r\nObama’s kind of got a rough time, an unusual time. He can’t just learn \r\nto be himself ethnically speaking, by sitting down at the kitchen table.\r\n He’s got to go out and find his way.

Question: Was \r\nObama’s family narrative part of a broader strategy?

David\r\n\r\n Remnick: A book is a book, and a life is a life, and in the writing\r\n of a memoir inevitably there is going to be some shaping, some \r\nsimplification, some rounding of the edges, some providing of structure \r\nto life. Life is a mess. Books can’t afford to be a mess. And they can \r\nbe messy in spots, they can be complicated and they ought to be \r\ncomplicated, but Obama’s memoir is a highly shaped thing. It’s three big\r\n parts. At the end of each one, Obama is in tears. He’s in tears in the \r\nchurch where he comes to accept Jesus Christ and his place in Jeremiah \r\nWright’s church. He’s in tears at his father’s grave as he comes to \r\nfinally reconcile himself to that search, etc., etc. It is life is not \r\npurely like that obviously. Life is one damned thing after another. \r\nBooks can’t be that.

Question: Whose perspectives on \r\nObama were more salient to you?

David Remnick: I \r\nthink Obama is somebody who has always benefited by his ability to \r\nattract mentors, and mentors were among the best sources for this book. \r\nFor example, in Chicago, his great mentor, and he didn’t always get \r\nalong with him at all moments, is a man named Jerry Kellman. Born Jewish\r\n from New Rochelle, New York, he gets to Chicago, he becomes very \r\ninvolved in Alinski-like community organizing and he converts to \r\nCatholicism, he’s working with a lot of Catholic Churches, black \r\nchurches, he brings Obama to Chicago and this is a guy, older than \r\nObama, who spent countless hours with him eating burgers at McDonald's \r\nand just talking about life. You know sitting in church basements and \r\nwaiting for meetings to begin and talking about race, about politics, \r\nabout Chicago, about people, about stuff. And somebody like that is \r\nenormously valuable because he talks to a Barack Obama and about a \r\nBarack Obama that we will never know again. Somebody that’s completely \r\nunguarded.

Or somebody at law school, like Lawrence Tribe, who \r\nwas his mentor. A great Constitutional lawyer, new Obama in a very \r\nprofound and for me, very striking and interesting way. There are all \r\nkinds of people like that. Obama attracted mentors. That’s a certain \r\nkind of young man or young woman’s talent.

Jerry Kellman spent countless hours with the President eating at McDonald's and talking about life.

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