Tuesday, June 06, 2017

David Garrow's RISING STAR: The Making of Barack Obama is a Great Political Biography

David J. Garrow's Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama (William Morrow, 2017) is a fascinating book. Although exceedingly long, over 1000 pages of text plus hundreds of pages of footnotes, filled with numerous details of names, places and events, I never felt that the author had provided TMI (Too Much Information). After reading Rising Star, for the first time, I felt that I finally understood how and why Barack Obama became President of the United States, who he was, and why things subsequently turned out the way that they did.

Although in some respects the biography reads like a phone book, it is a fascinating phone book--full of the kind of details that had been pretty much denied to all but the closest insiders in the Obama Administration.

It seemed strange, living in Washington, that one read so little about President Obama's inner circle, while he was in power. Garrow makes clear that this was by design, that the construction and preservation of "The Narrative" by Obama and his team was of the utmost importance. The messy details of Obama's life would not help in his quest to become the first African-American President of the United States of America, and so would be replaced by a Parson Weems-like story that seemed too good to be true--because it was. This was the "fairy-tale" to which President William Jefferson Clinton referred in 2008...a dream which came true because Americans wanted to believe in the angels of  our better nature.

In the end, Rising Star is a deeply reassuring book. Running as an outsider, indeed striking many of the same themes Trump used in 2016, Barack Obama claimed to want to bring American's together, to heal divisions, to oppose tribalism and racial strife, thereby to patriotically lead the country to "a more perfect Union" because there were no "red states, or blue states" just the United States of America. He claimed to want to bring back jobs, to have been against the war in Iraq, to disarm Iran, even to support a united Jerusalem under Israeli control.

If these seem to be the road not taken in the end, other concerns dating from his first run for Illinois State Senate made their way with him to the White House--support for universal health care became law as Obamacare; drug penalties were reduced; police were reined in (Obama had received a number of speeding tickets and was particularly sensitive to the issue of "Driving While Black"); attempts at gun control were made; troops were withdrawn from Iraq; and money flowed to non-profit organizations such as the ones which launched his political career.

Most importantly, Obama's sense of destiny was clearly fulfilled in his behavior as a husband and father while serving as U.S. President. Unlike Bill Clinton, he did nothing in his marriage to publicly embarrass his wife, children, or the nation. Garrow's book makes it perfectly clear that this was in reaction to his own father's lack of personal responsibility and also to serve as a conscious role model for other African-Americans. If nothing else, one can say that President Obama succeeded as a family  man in ways that Bill Clinton could not.

Perhaps most striking is Garrow's contention that Obama chose to self-identify as Black when he could have chosen another path due to his elite status and multi-racial heritage. On one level, Garrow seems to argue that this was a matter of political calculation--concluding that had Obama married his Asian-American girlfriend, he could not have been elected President, because African-American voters would have disapproved of the marriage. Although hypothetical, thus impossible to prove or disprove, it is clear from Garrow's biography that Michelle Obama was perhaps even more popular than Barack, although he continually states that she hated politics and just wanted him to take a high-paying job. Michelle also had strong personal ties to Chicago's African-American community, and at one point Garrow says she "almost grew up in Jesse Jackson's house."

There are so many intricate details in the book that one really has to read it for oneself, but among the many explanations, the map of African-American Chicago politics is particularly compelling...especially the focus on what many felt was Obama's betrayal of Alice Palmer, a move which began Obama's rise through the ranks. Like a character in Shakespearean drama, that first act of treachery demonstrated that Obama possessed the ruthlessness and determination which would take him to the White House, leaving others in his dust.

Garrow's depiction of the world of Cong. Bobby Rush, Jesse Jackson, Cong. Jesse Jackson, Jr. Rev. Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Carol Moseley Braun, and Mayor Harold Washington, among others, is perhaps the definitive portrait of Chicago's African-American Establishment.  I had no idea that Tony Rezko was in business with Rev. Farrakhan until reading this book. All that one can say is: "So, that's how it works!"

Springfield, Illinois is in fact as dreary as Garrow says. I've been there.

Likewise, he illuminates Chicago Hyde Park progressives and a complementary universe centered around the dinner table of Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, where Barack and Michelle oft supped and plotted. The Bard of Avon himself could not dream up the world of intrigue surrounding the  non-profit foundations, charities, universities involved in what come across as self-dealing schemes of personal enrichment and power concentration involving moguls, millionaires, corporations and foundations.  Particularly compelling are Garrow's discussion of Obama's partnership with Ayers in a $49 million Annenberg Foundation grant to improve education which produced no measurable results, as well as an attempted $25 million Waste Management Incorporated scheme to pave the way for a toxic waste dump that grew so complicated that it fell apart from its own intrigue. In addition, Garrow details how Obama's experience with Project VOTE informed the use of voter registration regulations as a technique to eliminate opponents such as Alice Palmer.

He puts the lie to right-wing sneers that Obama had done nothing as a community organizer that would prepare him for the Presidency. Rather, Garrow shows that Obama's experience among the non-profiteers, beginning as a PIRG organizer at the City University of New York, was central to his ability to win the White House--because the money and personnel in the world of NGOs fueled his career as much as Boss Pendergast's Kansas City Machine did Harry S. Truman's.

Which brings us to Mayor Daley. I had forgotten that Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod both worked for Mayor Daley... The Daley Machine, according to Garrow, early on feared that Obama was so formidable that he might run for Mayor. So, Daley encouraged him to run for Senate and eventually President--to get him out of town... So connected is Obama to the machine that no Illinois Republican would run against him for US Senate after Jack Ryan dropped out following release of embarrassing divorce documents. The Illinois GOP brought in Alan Keyes from out-of-state, a carpetbagger candidate who had lost twice running in Maryland. Keyes then lost a bitter and personal campaign to Obama, getting into a shouting match at an Indian-American parade ("No-Drama Obama" completely lost his cool according to Garrow), then bitterly refused to concede on election night.

In addition, Garrow's discussion of Harvard Law School is just fascinating. After reading about the Harvard Law Review, one gets the impression that there is no law at Harvard. He quotes Obama, as editor, telling his subordinates not to worry about the articles, because "nobody reads it." The internal struggles over affirmative action are shocking to read about, and one eventually comes to the conclusion that conservatives have become just another special-interest group looking for a minority set-aside on the Law Review. There is almost no discussion of legal substance, at least reported by Garrow. I almost laughed out loud at Garrow's account of Lawrence Tribe's article on the physics of law (at least I think that was his topic). The great legal minds of Harvard look like mental midgets after Garrow gets through with them. Rather than providing a legal education, Garrow's Harvard teaches mafia tactics of self-advancement. Surely there is more to it than that, but anyone wondering about the identity politics destroying universities, if not the country, today can find plenty of the same at the Harvard Law Review during Obama's tenure as editor in Garrow's account.

What's past was truly prologue...

I used to live on W. 110th Street, one block from Obama's New York City apartment on W. 109th Street, so enjoyed Garrow's description of life in the neighborhood of Columbia University. Most notable was the jet-set lifestyle Obama seemed to enjoy, flying to Hawaii, Europe, and Pakistan among other places. Garrow's point is that Obama could have continued in this vein, becoming an international type working at the UN or similar organization...but he made a choice, a choice to move to Chicago and the African-American experience.

In exchange, he gave up his girlfriends, his lifestyle, and his literary pretentions--Garrow says the young Obama said he wanted to be a "writer." The road not taken would have been a very different one, though Garrow's Obama is so driven that there can be no doubt that he would succeed at anything he tried. But to become Ta-Nahesi Coates was not Barack Obama's destiny.

Strikingly, despite a critical attitude towards Obama's ruthlessness, Garrow makes clear that Obama had a keen sense of destiny from an early age. To illustrate this, he focuses on Obama's breakup with Sheila Miyoshi Jager, his girlfriend before he married Michelle Robinson. In contrast to what he describes as an almost arranged marriage with Michelle, Garrow portrays Obama's relationship with Jager as a passionate and tempestuous romance, in defiance of both his and her families. She even followed him to Harvard Law School. But Obama chose his deeply felt destiny over the pleasures of romantic love, at least in Garrow's version, and so dropped her.

In conclusion, I was struck by some parallels to Trump. Like Trump, Obama took on the party favorite, Hillary Clinton, and won the Presidency. Like Trump, he ran as an outsider. Like Trump, he promised to change the way Washington worked. But unlike Trump, Obama received support from the Establishment at every step of the way. From the Punahou School to Columbia to Harvard to the University of Chicago to the Board of the Woods Foundation to the Illinois Senate to the US Senate to the White House, Obama played an "inside-outside" game dependent on the support of the powers-that-be. In the end, Obama is a surfer who rode the waves of history to achieve his destiny.

Rising Star makes clear that Obama never had a serious opponent in any political race until he ran for President, because he knew how to work the system to his advantage. Hillary and Obama were two Establishmentarians, one fresh-faced and the other old and tired. Youth won the day.

In fact, like his predecessor George W. Bush, Barack Obama was a Legacy admission to an Ivy League School -- he told his friends at the time he applied that he would go to Harvard Law School despite scholarship offers from Northwestern because his father went to Harvard. He was editor of the Harvard Law Review and a professor at the University of Chicago. He was a published author. He served on boards and was a member of Harvard's Suguaro Seminar (apparently some sort of domestic Son of the Trilateral Commission to develop leaders).

After reading Garrow's account, the meaning of President Obama's July 13th, 2012 campaign speech became crystal clear--he was talking about himself, and describing the arc of his career:

...look, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something – there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.)
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business – you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.
David J. Garrow's Rising Star tells us the names of the somebodies who made it happen for Barack Obama, how and why they did it, and what was in it for them.  So, add Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama to the list of great political biographies, alongside works like Robert Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York-- according to Garrow, one of President Obama's favorite books.