Sounds about right.
Of the books that journalists and historians have written on the life of Barack Obama, three stand out so far. In “Barack Obama: The Story,” David Maraniss shows us who Obama is. In “Reading Obama,” James T. Kloppenberg explains how Obama thinks. In “The Bridge,” David Remnick tells us what Obama means.
Now, in a probing new biography, “Rising Star,” David J. Garrow attempts to do all that, but also something more: He tells us how Obama lived, and explores the calculations he made in the decades leading up to his winning the presidency. Garrow portrays Obama as a man who ruthlessly compartmentalized his existence; who believed early on that he was fated for greatness; and who made emotional sacrifices in the pursuit of a goal that must have seemed unlikely to everyone but him. Every step — whether his foray into community organizing, Harvard Law School, even the choice of whom to love — was not just about living a life but about fulfilling a destiny.
It is in the personal realm that Garrow’s account is particularly revealing. He shares for the first time the story of a woman Obama lived with and loved in Chicago, in the years before he met Michelle, and whom he asked to marry him. Sheila Miyoshi Jager, now a professor at Oberlin College, is a recurring presence in “Rising Star,” and her pained, drawn-out relationship with Obama informs both his will to rise in politics and the trade-offs he deems necessary to do so. Garrow, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Martin Luther King Jr., concludes this massive new work with a damning verdict on Obama’s determination: “While the crucible of self-creation had produced an ironclad will, the vessel was hollow at its core.” […]
Maraniss’s 2012 biography deftly describes Obama’s conscious evolution from a multicultural, internationalist self-perception toward a distinctly African American one, and Garrow puts this transition into an explicitly political context. For black politicians in Chicago, he writes, a non-African-American spouse could be a liability. He cites the example of Richard H. Newhouse Jr., a legendary African American state senator in Illinois, who was married to a white woman and endured whispers that he “talks black but sleeps white.” And Carol Moseley Braun, who during the 1990s served Illinois as the first female African American U.S. senator and whose ex-husband was white, admitted that “an interracial marriage really restricts your political options.”
Discussions of race and politics suddenly overwhelmed Sheila and Barack’s relationship. “The marriage discussions dragged on and on,” but now they were clouded by Obama’s “torment over this central issue of his life . . . race and identity,” Sheila recalls. The “resolution of his black identity was directly linked to his decision to pursue a political career,” she said.
In Garrow’s telling, Obama made emotional judgments on political grounds. A close mutual friend of the couple recalls Obama explaining that “the lines are very clearly drawn. . . . If I am going out with a white woman, I have no standing here.” And friends remember an awkward gathering at a summer house, where Obama and Jager engaged in a loud, messy fight on the subject for an entire afternoon. (“That’s wrong! That’s wrong! That’s not a reason,” they heard Sheila yell from their guest room, their arguments punctuated by bouts of makeup sex.) Obama cared for her, Garrow writes, “yet he felt trapped between the woman he loved and the destiny he knew was his.”