David Maraniss on Barack Obama: The Story, Birthers, and Writing History in the Time of Twitter

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Maranis reporting in Kenya. Photo: Linda Maraniss

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist David Maraniss will release his tome Barack Obama: The Story tomorrow, but the book is already famous for its revelations about Barack the Boyfriend and Barack the Stoner, thanks to early excerpts. Maraniss isn't used to trading in such gossipy tidbits: His biographies of Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi are, like the Obama book, the product of endless reporting and research, leaving James Fallows to complain in his Times review that "details pile up in encyclopedic volume."

But Maraniss is nothing if not exhaustive, tracking the president's ancestry from Africa to Kansas and Indonesia, logging tens of thousands of air miles and yielding "5,000 notecards and 15 huge tubs of documents." The result, Maraniss hopes, is "serious history" that can exist outside of the 2012 horserace. Ahead of the book's release, Daily Intel talked to the author about watching his work become blog posts, Obama's reelection campaign, and his own sit-down with the president.

You wrote a thorough portrait not only of Barack Obama, but his lineage, and yet in the run-up to the book's release, most talk about it has centered around details of Obama's pot smoking, basketball prowess, and dating life. On one hand, that's a good press strategy, but is it hard to see your work boiled down to arguably superficial nuggets and attention-grabbing headlines?
It's a real lesson in the new world. It's the first of my books that have come out with the social media of Twittering and everybody looking for the juiciest thing that will get the most hits. I understand that new world and I don't necessarily like it, but I don't want to whine about it. I can't complain, but nonetheless, it's been very weird.

Since [the Vanity Fair selection] everybody is cherry-picking whatever they want from the book. The right-wing is at once dismissing it as hagiography and then drawing from it whatever they can. That's been kind of agonizing.

Around the same time as excerpts from your book came the Washington Post story about Mitt Romney's prep school bullying. What do you say to skeptics who claim these anecdotes from decades ago have no bearing on the people these men are today, and more importantly, on their politics?
As I say in the introduction to my book, I think there's a big difference between judging people and trying to understand them. Anybody who argues that the past is not an important part of understanding anybody is not being realistic. Everyone of us, deep down, knows that our formative years have an enormous bearing on everything we do for the rest of our lives. I think it's important in that sense, but to hold someone responsible now for what they did then is also unrealistic because it doesn't take into account that people can grow and change in some ways. There has to be a balance there and that's what I try to do in my books. But it's hard to maintain that balance in the modern American political culture.

I was reluctant to do this book because I knew it would be thrown into the maw of today. I wasn't writing for that purpose. I was trying to write something that would hold up for history. When I'm writing about a figure who's still alive, I have to almost take them out of the equation and pretend that they're not around. I have to do that with the culture too, and just try to tell the story, then deal with the consequences. Some days I feel like getting in the fray and some days I feel like fleeing.

What do you think can be gleaned from Barack Obama's athletic career or drug use?
The basketball is a really fascinating way to look into his search for identity. It's the first thruway in the long arc of his life towards personally feeling at home in the black community and with Michelle. It started with basketball. On a smaller scale, it's interesting to look at the reality of his basketball career versus the way he portrayed it in his memoir — whether he was too black for his coach or not, which I deal with in an interesting way. It's also the first time he was part of a winning operation and adored. In all those ways I think it's a pathway to his future.

His dope smoking, he writes about in his own memoir. It's part of his story so I wanted to find out what really happened. In Hawaii, that time and place, what he did was not that much out of the ordinary. It's all part of the larger narrative, and when you pick it out it can be exaggerated, but nonetheless, all of it adds up to something larger.

In the case of his girlfriend in New York, were you surprised that this woman had not been tracked down before?
I wasn't surprised because it was so hard for us to find her. All we had to start with was a first name, in the vast wide world. It took two years to actually find her and where she was. When I called, it just turned out she was ready to talk to me.

You ended up speaking with President Obama for an hour and a half in the Oval Office, and wrote that he was only "occasionally defensive." At what questions did he bristle the most?
When the interview started, he said, "You call my book fiction," and I said, "No, Mr. President, in fact, I called it literature." It had to do with the composites and chronology changes, which he talks about in the introduction to his memoir. In my book, I try to get the right story. That's what he was defensive about, but as we went through them, there was never a case where he said, "No, that's not the way it happened."

What books about Obama have you read, either in preparation or since finishing your own?
The three major books were Janny Scott's on Obama's mother, Sally Jacobs on his father, and David Remnick's The Bridge. I found all of them interesting in different ways.

What about Ed Klein's controversial The Amateur?
I have not read it, nor do I ever intend to.

As someone who followed Obama throughout the 2008 campaign, what are your impressions of his reelection bid so far? How has he changed?
I think that the world has changed around him more than he's necessarily changed. It's obvious on its face that there are a lot of factors that he can't control in this election, and some that he maybe could've controlled but hasn't, and he's held responsible for things now and he wasn't when he ran. It's harder for him to offer the ethereal notions of hope and dreams when there's a reality that he has to deal with. That creates a completely different reality for him, but I don't think that fundamentally he's changed, although he's going to have to in some ways to get reelected. Or he's going to have to learn to deal more in transactional politics than he likes to.

In the book, you contrast Clinton and Obama. Now Clinton, as a surrogate, has made a few waves by veering off script. As an expert on both men, what do you think of their personal and professional relationship? Are their clashes real or a figment of the media's imagination?
That's just classic Clinton. I think it's exacerbated by the media, but there's some element of reality to it. I think the president needs Clinton and understands that he comes with the whole package: sometimes helping enormously and sometimes not. Clinton has always been an exaggeration of all of us, good and bad, and why would he be any different now than ever?

Some of it inevitably goes back to the fact that Obama cut short the Clinton legacy by defeating Hillary. And some of has to do with Clinton's particular attachment to and feelings of self-worth because of his historical relationship with African-Americans. And here comes a real African-American president. I think in a subtle way that has something to do with all of this too.

Your reporting, in addition to past accounts and Obama's own birth certificate, pretty forcefully counters any birther conspiracies, and yet the talk persists, even among someone as high-profile as Donald Trump, who's campaigning with Romney. What do you make of the perseverance of that counterfactual narrative?
I have no clue. I don't really have any interest in debating any of the birthers, but I'd be fascinated in a study of why they want to believe this preposterous notion when every fact and document leads in another direction.

Racists are one part of it. Anger and resentment about the way the world is changing around people is part of it. There was a lot of animosity and venom directed toward Clinton too, but technology has made it easier for people to express themselves and find conspiracy theories to latch onto. Human nature is the same, but all of that has really exponentially intensified the anger.

How many trips did you make in the process of reporting the book? And where did you run into problems when it came to asking about the president?
It was over four years, and somebody figured out I traveled 50,000 or 60,000 miles. To Hawaii twice, to Chicago many, many times, to Kenya and Indonesia, each for one long trip. Kansas, New York, L.A. — I went to all the places of his life. I did many interviews at every place, but to have the feel of something you have to be there.

The later one goes in a politician's life, the more resistance there is. I didn't really have to go near the White House except to interview the president himself because nobody else knows the story this particular book is about, so that was lucky. I didn't have to deal with politicians much. But I've done quite a bit of reporting for what will eventually be a second volume, and there was more resistance starting then.

When can we expect the second volume?
I've always had an intention of doing a second book, but I don't want it to be a quick hit and then be superseded by a billion documents and things. I also don't want to get committed to 40 years like Robert Caro, who I admire terrifically and have learned so much from. But I don't want to get stuck in that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.