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Into the Story

From Bill Clinton to Vince Lombardi, a collection of the best from journalist David Maraniss.

By Erik Spanberg / January 13, 2010

Into the Story: A Writer’s Journey through Life, Politics, Sports and Loss By David Maraniss Simon & Schuster 320 pp., $26


Biographer and historian David Maraniss made his reputation following Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign. Since then, his subjects have ranged from nightmare attacks in the Vietnam War to Wilma Rudolph, Rafer Johnson, and the other central characters in the 1960 Olympic Games.

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His latest book, Into the Story, samples and chronicles the major subjects of Maraniss’s career. Most come from his two main occupations as a roving editor at The Washington Post and as a bestselling author.

Maraniss bills these pieces as stories of life, politics, sports, and loss. The more personal pieces – the unexpected death of a sibling, his brother’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera – are heartfelt.

A few shorter sketches in this collection fail to connect with the same force as his conventional subjects, but, overall, Maraniss is a master of his craft.

This book is a sampler of his work, filled with many outstanding portraits, starting with Clinton and extending to Roberto Clemente as Maraniss flip-flops between politics and sports. When Maraniss slips, it’s either because he’s dashing off a shorter piece – his writing gains momentum when he can pile up the details and insight, but he often struggles with limited scope – or because he falls for childhood and baby boomer tropes (as with a clichéd profile of Muhammad Ali that sheds little new light on his persona).

One of the few missteps is an early story included in this collection to illustrate the wisdom of following an unexpected journey by riding “A Bus Named Desire” in New Orleans. By the end, Maraniss has tromped to the house Stanley Kowalski lived in, and discovered no one is home. It does allow him to make mention of his writing philosophy, through Tennessee Williams of all people: It is that misunderstanding, not malice, which explains much of the conflict in the world. Seeing nuance is one of Maraniss’s best traits.

Now at work on a multigenerational history of Barack Obama’s family, Maraniss includes an insightful 2008 profile of the president’s mother written for the Post. It represents what he does best: digging beyond the shorthand bio for more detail and, in turn, greater meaning. While most of the media spent the 2008 race discussing the absence of Obama’s father and how that shaped him, Maraniss went back and explored how his mother’s blend of pragmatism and idealism was perceived by young Barry Obama.

Like Clinton, Maraniss writes, “Obama grew up surrounded by strong women, the male figures either weak or absent.” It’s something Clinton himself picked up on as his wife battled Obama for the Democratic nomination. “As different as their backgrounds and families were,” Maraniss notes, “it was no doubt this strong female-weak male similarity that [Clinton] had in mind.”


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