The Real Obama: An Interview with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Biographer David J. Garrow

The author offers insights into the 44th President of the United States after interviewing over 1,000 people for Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama.

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | May 2017 | 12 minutes (3,333 words)


There are few subjects in contemporary history who deserve a 1,400-page biography, but Barack Obama’s ascendance to the presidency merits every word. Deeply researched over nine years — with over a thousand interviews and many never-before-seen documents — David J. Garrow’s Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama covers 44’s life to date: his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia, community organizing in Illinois, his impressive work as a Harvard Law student, and his pursuit of politics as a profession in Chicago. All the while, Garrow shows, Obama was both being shaped and thoughtfully crafting himself, turning himself from the bright, jocular kid at Punahou School in Hawaii into one of the most revolutionary, exciting presidents of the modern era.

Garrow is a Professor of Law and History, and a Distinguished Faculty Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Ph.D. from Duke University, and has written several nonfiction books, including Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for Bearing the Cross.

His latest book has already been compared to Robert Caro’s history of Lyndon Johnson, but Garrow’s Obama biography seems to go even further: two hundred pages of footnotes, conversations with seemingly every vital person in Obama’s life, and a nonpartisan perspective that will no doubt open the floodgates of interpretation.

I spoke with Garrow recently, and it’s clear he’s a born interviewer; he began asking me questions about my own life, until, finally, I steered us toward a wide-ranging, exceptionally in-depth conversation in which we discussed Obama’s coming-of-age, influences, formative experiences, shifting personality, the significance of friends and family, and how he eventually understood his own legacy and the arc of his grand personality.

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What catalyzed this huge, 1,400-page project?

When Obama first won the Iowa caucuses in early ’08, I was embarrassed that I knew nothing about him, so I bought a cheap U.K. paperback copy of Dreams from My Father and read it. Throughout 2008, I kept reading the campaign biographical journalism and was consistently underwhelmed, but only after he was inaugurated did I go to Chicago to see the community organizing mentors. At that point, I was still thinking just about the community organizer period. But the first of those folks I saw, Greg Galluzzo, said off the cuff to me, “Oh, you should go see Mary-Ann Wilson, who is a tax lawyer who did the pro bono 501C3 incorporations for all their community groups.” I went to see her. She’s got this manila folder of all these documents that Barack typed up in 1986, including a list of every one who was in his community group.

All of a sudden I had 40 people, 36 of whom no one had ever gone looking for before. The lesson I’ve learned again and again and again — and this goes way back to my early work on Bearing the Cross — is that when you see folks in person, they’re motivated to look for and pull out old things, and that doesn’t happen when you simply call them on the phone. I can remember going to see the Montgomery County district attorney in Alabama. This is 1982 or so, who pulled out the old prosecution file from when they indicted all the bus boycott activities. That’s the experience I had again and again with this, and it led to over a thousand interviews — over 1,400 pages.

What were some of your standout findings?

I believe Barack’s time in Springfield, essentially eight years as a state legislator, is phenomenally important and absolutely essential to understanding the sort of politician he became. I put weeks of time into being there at the right time during legislative sessions, and to seeing scores of people, senators, staffers, lobbyists. I spoke with almost everyone who served with him in the state senate. Those may not be the sexiest chapters in the book — and it’s hard to make the Illinois State Senate Health and Human Services Committee seem exciting — but it’s what he spent a significant proportion of his adult political life doing.

He is, early on in Springfield, a measurably more principled political voice than he is once he becomes president. When he’s in Springfield, he’s very insistently supporting single payer universal health care coverage. He also — after he loses the congressional primary race that he entered in 2000 — becomes much more focused on winning, upon assembling a political record of prevailing. There’s one instance in particular, where the two major public employee unions in Illinois — SEIU, the service employees, and AFSCME, the American Federation of State County Municipal Employees — are engaged in a turf war over who has jurisdiction to organize home health care workers, and Barack desperately wants to avoid offending either union, and he ends up essentially voting against a bill of which he is one of the lead sponsors. It’s a complicated story, but it’s a great insight into the compromises that he’s willing to engage in.

Did Obama have to dilute his politics when he made his presidential bid?

I think it goes beyond being palatable to the electorate. When he’s in Illinois, right through his successful 2004 senate race and his first few years as a US Senator, he is a harshly outspoken critic of the Patriot Act, the surveillance anti-terror policies that were enacted after 9-11. Once he’s president, as I think many people are fully aware, he is vastly more supportive of the intelligence community and the CIA in particular, than his very critical forceful comments pre-presidency would lead anybody to expect. We see this sort of change again and again.

When did he begin thinking about the presidency?

Barack begins thinking about and talking about the possibility of becoming president even in 1987, 1988, before he starts law school. With most acquaintances, he would talk about becoming mayor of Chicago, and people would tease him about becoming governor or becoming a US senator. I think that the evidence is clear that he has the idea of the presidency in his mind from when he’s essentially 26, 27 years old. He’s very careful and cautious about saying much about that. I think that the example of Harold Washington (who went from the state legislator to congress to becoming mayor) is always in Barack’s mind.

Was there a key experience that put the presidency in his head?

The conversation that he has with Bob Ilia, the motel owner in Northwestern Pennsylvania in the summer if 1985, is vital. It’s a conversation that Barack himself remembers and goes back and retells and recounts multiple times, even 20-plus years later in commencement speeches when he’s a U.S. senator. Right after that conversation, Barack had described it all in a letter to his girlfriend, Genevieve, who had stayed in New York and had declined to go to Chicago with him. I knew — thanks to that contemporaneous letter to Genevieve — the name and location of the motel. Thanks to my great librarian here [at the University of Pittsburg Law School], Mark Silverman, who checked Pennsylvania state property records to identify who owned the motel in 1985, I was able to look for present day phone listings for a Robert Ilia. I left two voicemail messages, and, a day or so later, Bob called me, and we discussed that moment. He basically told Obama that he should be on television, that power is derived from money, and that although it’s great he was community organizing, he’d have to do more than that to make a real difference.

I think even more so than that though, moving from New York to Chicago — that trip, that drive — is the turning point in Barack’s life. He’s committing himself in a very serious way to something that is literally a great unknown.

Once he’s on the south side of Chicago, he becomes immersed for the first time in his life in a majority African-American community. It’s really the first time that as a person of color, he’s exposed to and immersed in an African-American world with church ladies, pastors, and working-class people. I think he develops, as he himself has acknowledged multiple times, over the course of ’85, ’86 a very deep emotional attachment to those people and that world, but he also is a very perceptive young man and he realizes the limits of what can be achieved at a neighborhood level by someone like himself. It’s pretty minuscule, compared to the sort of power that Harold Washington, the African-American mayor of Chicago at that time, appeared to wield. Harold Washington died very suddenly of a heart attack in late 1987, just at the time when Barack is making the decision to apply to law schools and leave Chicago. But Washington and the prospect of political office and attaining political office as a way to achieve far more significant power to change people’s lives — that’s what leads Barack to seek a political future.

But (Harold) Washington and the prospect of political office and attaining political office as a way to achieve far more significant power to change people’s lives — that’s what leads Barack to seek a political future.

What’s the significance of Obama’s relationship with his father, who you depict as an alcoholic, an abuser, with sexual proclivities that probably got him kicked out of Harvard?

I’ve come to believe pretty strongly that Barack, over the course of his life — and this continued very much past the mid-1980’s — realized that although his biological father was potentially a tremendously talented man, that his personal weaknesses and failings had completely derailed not just his professional hopes, but again and again his personal life.

I believe that the story of his father is, for Barack, a lesson — a very deep profound lesson — about how not to waste your gifts because of personal indiscipline. What we see previously in Barack’s life — in Hawaii and when he’s in New York after college — the drug use and the aimlessness that characterized Barack’s life before Chicago. That vanishes in toto.

Besides his father, who else fundamentally shaped Obama’s life?

I think Rob Fischer is a very important intellectual, analytical friend, and companion for Barack. John McKnight — still alive and a professor at Northwestern — was a social policy, intellectual figure within the community-organizing world. His emphasis on the strength of communities and the assets and strengths of poor people rather than their weaknesses had a very deep impact on Barack, more so than the other Saul Alinsky-styled community-organizing people who had a much more cynical view.

Additionally, I think there is no understating what a tremendously important figure Reverend Jeremiah Wright is in Barack’s life. Jeremiah is someone Barack starts talking to, starts going out of his way to talk to repeatedly in 1987, 1988. People in black Chicago — who I have tremendous respect for, who are very savvy observers — really do believe that Jeremiah, to a significant degree, was a substitute father figure in a way for Barack. Jeremiah’s very deep grounding in Christian faith and in a Christian faith that is socially aware and politically informed was a very great influence on Barack, even if the later controversies about stupid things that Jeremiah said led Barack himself, understandably, to distance himself and downplay that relationship.

Tell me about Rob Fischer.

Literally scores of people — in fact probably several hundred — who were at Harvard during Obama’s three years — ’88 to ’91 — all know that Rob Fischer was far and away Barack’s closest friend, but no one had really gone to meet Rob and talk with him. Rob found the first chunk of that unpublished book manuscript soon after I first visited him, but then only last summer did Rob’s mother, who still lives at the family farm in Southern Maryland, find the other half of the unpublished book manuscript.

This was also one of your bigger findings. What did this unpublished book manuscript unlock about Obama? Who wrote it?

The first half of it, which is about the economics of plant closings — which is really what was happening in Chicago when Barack got there and even before Barack got there — is in part a reflection on the lessons he learned in Chicago before he got to Harvard. Then, the second half of it, which I think is largely if not entirely drafted by Barack rather than Rob, is about the politics and policy of race. It gives wonderful insights into Barack’s early thinking, often in ways that could have been easily used against him in campaign ads if the wrong people had gotten their hands on this in 2008 or 2012. He makes critical remarks that could be made to seem “controversial,” in the way that campaign advertising does, like referring to America as a “racist society.”

To what extent did Obama recreate himself, from his youth to his presidency?

I think “self-creation” is the most excellent phrase. I’m someone who is very deeply impressed with the late Manning Marable’s phenomenal biography of Malcolm X, who uses the phrase “a life of re-invention,” for how Malcolm several times reinvented himself. With Barack, even though his memory’s sometimes a little off target, I think what I’ve discovered affirms the essence of what Barack remembers experiencing as a child.

But with Dreams from My Father — especially in its self portrayal of himself as a high school student at the Punahou school in Hawaii — he is without question burlesquing, if I can use that verb, his self portrayal and making himself out to have been a dramatically more unhappy, alienated young man than anyone among his many classmates and teachers and school officials remembers him. Having spoken with scores of people, without exception, the Barack Obama they remember from high school was a very happy, friendly, outgoing, social, relaxed young man.

Has he been realistically characterized in the media? Jeff Goldberg’s big piece in The Atlantic, all of David Remnick’s work on him — have they understood the essential Obama?

I think David Remnick’s book in 2010 (The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama) was super solid for when it was done, especially given that the author had a full-time day job on top of it. I think the great failing in all the journalism from 2007 right on up through 2012 though was folks just didn’t do enough legwork. They’re not energetic enough, curious enough. I think there’s a journalistic default that once you’ve interviewed three or four people who, for example, were at Harvard Law School, you’ve covered the turf. For example, when Barack was elected the president of the law review, there were roughly 70 people in the room that night. I’ve spoken with almost 60 of the people in the room that night. That to me is the difference between history and journalism. Nothing can ever be 100% precisely comprehensive, but there’s no getting around the fact that the more people you talk to, the more accurate and the richer the history becomes.

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What then differentiates your characterization of Obama?

Number one, this is someone who is a product of Chicago and Illinois state politics. Without understanding the world of the Illinois state capital, you cannot appreciate his political grounding, his political instincts. Number two, I think one cannot fully appreciate how bright, how analytical he is without really knowing just how rich and sophisticated his education at Harvard was.

You met with Obama on a few occasions, right?

Yes. I met him three times for a total of eight hours in 2016, although in the ways of Washington — and I laugh as I say this — those were officially off the record. I’m not quoting him either in the book or now, from those conversations.

What did he think about you writing his biography?

I think Barack believes in a very strong, complete compartmentalization between public life and private life. That might strike a lot of us as surprising, for someone who sought the presidency and to become such a public figure. But I think there’s no question that Barack all along wanted to compartmentalize his public and his private life.

Did he raise any objections to the biography?

How far can I go on this without violating the rules? I’m trying to abide by the spirit of things…. [long pause]. Having carefully read all of chapters one through ten, there were many particulars that he raised that we talked about. I think what I can rightly say is that with a book like this — with anything where you’re dealing with people who are still alive, where you’ve interviewed, as I have with this, literally 1,000-plus people — no two people ever remember events exactly the same. Anyone like Barack is going to have some instances where he remembers things differently than all the other people who were present.

What parts of his life did you spend most of your time discussing?

We spent more time on his life up through 1985 than we did on, say, his years in Springfield. The reason for that is, I think, when someone has written an account of their own life as Barack did in Dreams from My Father, one remembers and becomes attached to the version they have written rather than any direct, fresh, actual memories. I’ve seen this in civil rights historiography. Once someone gets interviewed multiple times, they tend to repeat again and again what they said in prior interviews. When someone has put together a written account of their life, they really latch onto that.

Tell me about his experience teaching at University of Chicago Law — the conservative viewpoints he began to learn.

Just as with his eight years as a state senator in Springfield and how essential an appreciation that is to an understanding of his development in life, appreciating his more than a decade as a law professor at the University of Chicago is essential to understanding who he was before he became president. Drawing out opposing viewpoints is something we first see in him as a law student, but that becomes even more developed at the U of C, and it’s worth stressing that during his years at the U of C, it was a very heavily white, male institution with astonishingly few students of color. It was a predominantly white, male institution and was quite conservative in its intellectual and academic style.

I think the number one impact that teaching at the U of C law school had on Barack is that it exposed him to a student body that was often times much more conservative than he was. He developed a comfort level with conservatives and conservative viewpoints, just as he did in Springfield. During his first six years in Springfield, he’s in the minority in a not just Republican controlled, but very conservatively Republican controlled legislative body. I would say that, given his experiences in Springfield and given his experiences at the U of C, he was very well prepared to deal with conservative Republicans.

From what you know of his experiences, his politics, his personality, would he have been contented with his presidency?

I believe that privately he is measurably disappointed, but I don’t believe he would ever say that. If we think back to the atmosphere of November 2008, the night he was elected, I think most everyone can appreciate how, especially in a foreign policy realm, Barack’s presidency turned out to be so underwhelming, so disappointing, compared to what people hoped for at its outset.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Cody Delistraty is a writer based in Paris. Follow him on Twitter: @delistraty.