A Lesser-Known Influence in Obama’s Life

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


Question: Did you find anything in your reporting that contradicted Obama's autobiography?

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

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

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

Question: Was Obama’s family narrative part of a broader strategy?

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

Question: Whose perspectives on Obama were more salient to you?

David Remnick: I think Obama is somebody who has always benefited by his ability to attract mentors, and mentors were among the best sources for this book. For example, in Chicago, his great mentor, and he didn’t always get along with him at all moments, is a man named Jerry Kellman. Born Jewish from New Rochelle, New York, he gets to Chicago, he becomes very involved in Alinski-like community organizing and he converts to Catholicism, he’s working with a lot of Catholic Churches, black churches, he brings Obama to Chicago and this is a guy, older than Obama, who spent countless hours with him eating burgers at McDonald's and just talking about life. You know sitting in church basements and waiting for meetings to begin and talking about race, about politics, about Chicago, about people, about stuff. And somebody like that is enormously valuable because he talks to a Barack Obama and about a Barack Obama that we will never know again. Somebody that’s completely unguarded.

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