'Rising Star' offers a severe but insightful assessment of Barack Obama

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Garrow has written a meticulously researched but overly detailed biography of the 44th president.

Rising Star By David Garrow HarperCollins 1472 pp.

In David Garrow’s acknowledgments at the end of Rising Star, his mammoth biography of the 44th US president, he writes, “Barack Obama devoted dozens of hours to reading the first ten chapters of this manuscript and his understandable remaining disagreements – some strong indeed – with multiple characterizations and interpretations contained herein do not lessen my deep thankfulness for his appreciation of the scholarly seriousness with which I have pursued this project and for what became eight full hours of always-intense ‘off-the-record’ conversations.”

For Mr. Obama, known to be thin-skinned and prickly in the face of criticism, those disagreements and intense conversations will likely multiply once he has a chance to read the 50-page epilogue following the 10 chapters comprising the president’s life story and improbable journey to the White House. In those 50 pages, Garrow synthesizes his balanced and extensive research and interviews into a sharply critical and unsparing assessment of the Obama presidency.

Garrow nods to Mr. Obama’s “crucible of self-creation” and his “ironclad will” while concluding the resulting “vessel was hollow at its core.” He delineates the president’s worst impulses, from confiding in and trusting a tiny coterie of aides to abandoning any attempts at bipartisanship. Citing the conclusions of Washington operator Bob Gates, whose Pentagon leadership spanned parts of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, Garrow points to a foreign policy so dominated by a determination to avoid costly quagmires that it devolved into nothingness.

Many of Garrow’s assertions can and will be argued for years to come. What is sure to rankle Obama about the scathing assessments in “Rising Star” is the author’s pedigree and perspective. David Garrow won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Martin Luther King Jr., played a significant role in the landmark PBS documentary of the American Civil Rights Movement, “Eyes on the Prize,” and has written and edited other significant works documenting the struggle for racial equality.

For an author and scholar sympathetic to the persistent and pervasive struggles of minorities throughout American history to reach such a verdict regarding the nation’s first African American president serves as a harsh rebuke indeed. Garrow’s assessment is a meticulously assembled and vastly amplified version of liberal Democrats’ long-simmering frustrations over what they believe to be Obama’s fatal flaw: all but automatic policy concessions and compromises.

Digging deep

Garrow spent nine years researching and writing “Rising Star,” a process that included 1,000 interviews. The rigorous and protracted birth of this Obama biography cuts both ways: Assessments are grounded in fact and documented extensively, for the good, but the down side for the reader is that everything, no matter how trivial, is treated in this manner.

One of the accomplishments that eventually propelled Obama into politics was his election in 1990 as the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. The New York Times and other national media took note and Obama, who was 28 at the time and had already worked as a community organizer in Chicago, soon parlayed the attention into a publishing contract. The resulting autobiography, “Dreams from My Father,” arrived in 1995. It initially bombed, but became a best-seller and made Obama a millionaire soon after his unexpected triumph in the 2004 US Senate race in Illinois.

All of which is important to Obama’s story. Garrow carefully and convincingly reveals how Obama’s well-regarded memoir is much more a work of historical fiction than a true account of its author’s life, from exaggerations about his non-existent academic rebellion in high school to vast overstatements about his role in campus protests against apartheid and lack of campus diversity.

On the other hand, Garrow makes readers suffer through piffle such as controversies over free bagel breakfasts at the Harvard Law Review and tedium in the form of all-but-endless digressions on seemingly every single South Side mill closing and Chicago political machination of the 1980s and 1990s.

Examples abound of research that should have been shelved. To wit: “In the midst of the asbestos campaign, Obama bought his airplane ticket to Los Angeles for the IAF training in mid-July, with the Chicago archdiocese’s CHD staff reimbursing its $196 cost.” Then, too, there are endless paragraphs on the dates, times and turnouts of community meetings in Chicago, as well as an excruciating level of detail about grant applications, church politics and so on.

Garrow delves into Obama’s parking and speeding tickets, the ratings his Constitutional Law students gave him each semester at the University of Chicago, the date Obama registered to vote in the 1988 election, and on and on.

The romantics

For readers able to trudge those mundanities, “Rising Star” delivers insight and clarity on Obama’s enigmatic personality and his inner war between idealism and what one former intimate described as his ruthless ambition.

Three former girlfriends from his college and community-organizing days granted Garrow extensive interviews and access to correspondence from the future president. That all three of these women emerge as thoughtful and self-aware makes their perspectives even more valuable.

Two of the women spoke in lesser detail with Obama biographer David Maraniss for a biography published in 2012, but they are more forthcoming here. As for the third former girlfriend, Sheila Jager, who lived with Obama for two years in Chicago, her recollections emerge as some of the most interesting because she still admires and loves him – and because the relationship was previously undisclosed.

She recalls Obama’s relentless pragmatism on social and political issues as a source of constant contention in their relationship. “Courage was a big issue between us,” Jager tells Garrow. A mutual friend who knew Barack and Sheila when they were a couple tells Garrow that, as far back as the mid-1980s, part of Obama was calculating his political future.

Sheila Jager is biracial – half-Asian and half-white – and the biracial Obama had already discerned during his period of racial awakening on the South Side that winning over black voters would require a stronger embrace of his African American heritage.

“If I am going out with a white woman, I have no standing here,” Obama said to the friend, Asif Agha, according to Garrow’s interview with Agha years later.

Greg Galluzzo, a Jesuit who helped train Obama as a community organizer, described the future president as “immensely pragmatic” even in his mid-20s. Of the failed relationship with Jager, broken off by Obama, Galluzzo wondered aloud: “Did he leave her for pragmatic reasons?” Then, Galluzzo moved on to Obama’s decision to join Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s well-established, upwardly mobile African American congregation: “Did he go to Jeremiah’s church for pragmatic reasons? Did he go to Harvard for pragmatic reasons?”

Garrow then writes, “(Galluzzo) stopped before uttering the next, obvious question, remarking instead that (future wife) Michelle (Robinson) was ‘the ideal person’ with whom (Barack) could ‘start a base in the black community.’”

Most people familiar with Obama’s rise know, to some extent, how his early adulthood in Chicago made him much more familiar with black culture. Growing up in Hawaii, where he was mostly raised by his white grandparents and saw his Kenyan father on just one memorable occasion, “Barry” Obama struck his friends as multiethnic in a place where multiculturalism abounds.

Obama attended Occidental College in Los Angeles during his freshman and sophomore years. One classmate tells Garrow, “I did not think of Barack as black. I did think of him as the Hawaiian surfer guy.”

Without sensationalizing the details, Garrow shows how Obama went from a gifted but ambivalent student to Harvard Law and, eventually, political stardom. The future president dabbled heavily in marijuana and more than occasionally in cocaine in college, but surging idealism and ambition led to dedicated study and asceticism.

The one vice he couldn’t kick was smoking. Garrow shows Obama obsessing about his health and maintaining a workout regimen even during the busiest moments of his campaigns while demanding healthy food. All the while, he remained what some acquaintances called a “Smokestack,” chain-smoking Marlboro Reds whenever he got the chance. (One colleague remembered Obama as “preternaturally calm” but “always thought it odd that somebody with this level of control was smoking cigarettes.”) Only on the cusp of the presidency, armed with Nicorette and threatened by his wife’s ultimatums, did Obama at last wean himself from tobacco.

Thanks for nothing

Michelle Robinson was Barack Obama’s first African American girlfriend and, of course, eventually married him. The future First Lady loathed politics and thought her husband’s pursuit of elected office beneath his abilities and dignity. This isn’t news, but Garrow’s thorough account offers more detail and context as to how much Michelle Obama disliked her de facto role as a single mother throughout Barack’s eight years in the Illinois legislature.

That period included a humiliating failed Congressional campaign in 2000. When Obama launched a longshot US Senate bid in 2003, he convinced Michelle to go along by promising he would quit politics if he lost. Five years later, the Obamas were on their way to the White House.

Garrow details the intricate staging and negotiation leading up to Obama’s national breakthrough at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The soon-to-be US Senator snagged a coveted prime-time speaking slot through relentless networking. Then, he made good on the opportunity with an inspiring oratory that, combined with savvy stagecraft, made for perfect TV. “[T]here’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America,” Obama asserted, stirring the crowd to thunderous ovations.

His riveting speech took on additional power with a backdrop of cheering delegates hoisting newly printed Obama placards. Garrow offers a delightful nugget illustrating the fragile choreography of pulling off such rare, indelible moments. Campaign advisers debated whether to spend $20,000 for the signs and, after committing, endured the agony of learning that the 21-year-old intern entrusted with taking the signs from Chicago campaign headquarters to the convention in Boston barely made it in time because his rental truck broke down in Ohio. On such circumstances rest political fates.

The speech and the setting created a cascade of adoring attention among voters and reporters – and made Obama’s presidential run inevitable. It was a lovefest that spanned years rather than mere weeks or months. Garrow’s judgment of Obama as president echoes an internal campaign assessment included in “Rising Star” from Hillary Clinton consultant Mark Penn. Clinton was considered the front-runner heading into the Democratic primary and her campaign’s analysis of the growing Obama phenomenon summed up his potential candidacy this way: “No big original ideas. No incredible accomplishments for others, only himself.”

Echoing the ravages of “All the King’s Men” and millennia of real-life examples of the disillusioning costs of ambition, Garrow emphasizes Obama’s lack of gratitude to the numerous aides and volunteers who helped him on his rise. Before his first term ended, Obama dismissed the high-priced Washington veterans who had themselves displaced the jilted Illinois loyalists. Campaign strategist David Axelrod and communications adviser Robert Gibbs, who became Obama acolytes in 2004, were dispatched without ceremony.

Hypocrisy is often a matter of degree and setting. A family-values politician caught in marital infidelity can face a more intense backlash because of the greater perceived betrayal. In similar fashion, Obama’s hope-and-change promise of preventing moneyed influencers from eclipsing moral obligation to help the needy left some of his most ardent supporters bitterly disappointed.

Obama, by all accounts, never showed an interest in wooing what was an admittedly recalcitrant Congress, but, paradoxically, Democrats fumed that he too often folded at the first sign of dissent.

There is no argument Obama left his party’s political fortunes in tatters. Republicans made historic gains, and Democrats endured equally historic losses, in governorships, state legislatures, and Congress throughout Obama’s two terms. There was not, one might say, any trickle-down effect of good fortune from Obama’s victories for his fellow Democrats.

Examples of Obama’s policy backpedaling include a tepid push for universal health care quickly watered down to what became the Affordable Care Act. Then his administration undercut its (partial) legislative victory by creating a health-care website registration that crashed and failed so many times as to be brought to you by the Cleveland Browns.

Obama favored gay marriage early in his political career but reversed course along the way, then belatedly followed his vice president in publicly supporting same-sex marriage during the 2012 campaign. He vowed to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and failed to do so in eight years in office.

As others have noted and Garrow explains here, Obama attacked, prosecuted, and hampered whistleblowers and freedom of the press at near-Nixonian levels. Despite railing against Bush-era invasions of privacy and torture, Obama maintained and continued most Bush-Cheney anti-terror policies and, in the egregious case of drone warfare, amplified some tactics. And so on.

The former president’s many admirers will rightly note that Garrow gives short shrift to Obama’s inspirational, precedent-setting era in the White House. Flawed as Obamacare is, it has, in fact, slowed the rise of medical costs while also helping millions of people gain, or improve, their coverage. Late in his presidency, in 2015, median income gains and poverty declines improved by historic percentages, according to Census Bureau data.

Garrow’s portrait hammers at what could have been, both in tone and policy.

In March 2006, less than a year before he entered the presidential race, Obama told The New York Times he would no longer use private planes. “This is an example where appearances matter … very few of my constituents have a chance to travel on a corporate jet.”

Contrast that with Obama as president telling a friend he only wanted two things after leaving office: his own plane and a valet. The man who built his support on community outreach and taking back the country from well-heeled corporate interests would, Garrow writes, in the span of a few years go from boasting that 90% of his donations were for $100 or less to beaming alongside Beyoncé and Jay Z at a $40,000-per-person fund-raiser featuring $800 bottles of Champagne.

Since leaving office, the Obamas have frolicked with billionaire Richard Branson in the British Virgin Islands, hopped aboard David Geffen’s $600-million yacht to schmooze with Oprah Winfrey, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Hanks, and, most recently, traveled to a posh Tuscan enclave with six military jets escorting their private plane. Later this year, Obama has lined up a $400,000 speech courtesy of investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald. None of these post-presidential displays of opulence are in Garrow’s book, but they dovetail with the author’s conclusion that the Obamas gravitated toward fame and riches in garish fashion.

Garrow’s call-and-response for the Obamas goes like this: Live like the Vanderbilts? Yes, we can.

There are, of course, multiple interpretations and sides to any presidency. It will be intriguing to see whether and how any of the Obamas’ memoirs (which commanded a reported $65-million advance) delve into the critiques set forth in “Rising Star” and the numerous accounts to follow.

Then again, given the surreal misadventures of the current White House, Obama, Bill Clinton, and the Bushes might soon find themselves sitting atop a Mount Rushmore reboot as Americans yearn for a more familiar type of political dysfunction.

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