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.
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.”
Stanley Ann Dunham took her son from Hawaii to Indonesia and back, tutoring him in various topics and striving to instill a sense of racial unconsciousness. Those interesting, and integral, details are different from what most voters were bombarded with throughout 2008: a photo of the elder Barack Obama handing his son a basketball in 5th grade before once again disappearing from his life.
This lengthy profile of Obama and his mother, published early in 2008, holds up very well. The following selection, a shorter Post piece chronicling Inauguration Day, is far less interesting. Maraniss presents the material well enough, but his observations and interviews are the same as what everyone else served up. Not bad, but not memorable, either.
If the account of Obama’s mother is Maraniss’s “Anna Karenina,” then the selection from Maraniss’s 1995 Clinton biography, “First in His Class,” is his “War and Peace.” The chapter included here deconstructs the myth of Clinton roots in a place called Hope. William Jefferson Blythe may have been born in Hope, Ark., but he grew up – and became William Jefferson Clinton – in Hot Springs, Ark.
Hot Springs, Maraniss writes, was “only an hour up the road but an altogether different place, a city of secrets and vapors and ancient corruption and yet somehow purely American idealism. Hot Springs gets you somewhere.”
It was a place where gambling and prostitution flourished – and funded the city government, Maraniss reports. The mix of dilettantes, cosmopolitan socialites, and others amid the constant stream of well-heeled visitors to the spas and resorts created a place unlike the rest of Arkansas. Before leaving for Georgetown, Clinton steeped himself in Latin while attending a top-notch Hot Springs school. Think SATs, not Snopeses.
He avoided the typical Deep South tragedy of shoddy, underfunded schools. As one of Clinton’s classmates says, “We always felt different from the other people in Arkansas, who were hicky and redneck.”
While the rest of the national political writers dubbed Clinton “Bubba,” Maraniss illustrated why he wasn’t that at all.
Just as important, Maraniss shows how Hot Springs embodied and instilled Clinton’s saint-and-sinner personality. He concludes that the nation’s 42nd president came out of Arkansas as “part earnest preacher, part fast-talking gambler, with an urge to reform, yet also to accommodate.” Remember, this started with reporting done in 1992, well before Election Day, Travelgate, Monica, and all the rest.
Throughout this collection, Maraniss proves himself to be a relentless reporter and a solid writer, but nothing matches his pieces on Clinton. They are a perfect match of subject and writer.
A close second goes to his profile of NFL coach Vince Lombardi, who, unlike Maraniss’s version of Ali, comes in for sharp observation, revealing how the former Green Bay coach’s image has been distorted and what really drove him. In all, these are journalistic journeys well worth taking.
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.