A flawed “pointillist picture” is how Michiko Kakutani described Rising Star, David J. Garrow’s massive (1,460 pages) new biography of Barack Obama, and she’s right. A barrage of minute details greets the reader, only the distinct dots aren’t permitted to arrange themselves into a picture. No sooner does an adumbration materialize than the author leaves off and pursues an excursus into some detail of minor significance, and the sense of the portrait dissipates.
Nevertheless, out of the sheer mass of detail, patterns do emerge. Yet, because the author shuns both analysis and a narrative, readers won’t necessarily agree about what the picture means. For this reason, the book should be viewed as a resource, a starting place for further investigations into the formative factors in Obama’s rise to the highest office in the most powerful country in the world.
One detail comes from Obama’s short tenure as a student at Occidental College, where the 18-year-old contributed two poems to the school’s literary magazine. “Underground” is a twelve-line composition, along the lines of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” that’s embarrassingly incomprehensible and devoid of any artistic merit. The other is a very accomplished and powerful poem called “Pop,” and it’s impossible to believe that the same person wrote both.
Garrow briefly alludes, without discussion, to the fact that some commentators have argued that “Pop” referred to Frank Marshall Davis rather than to Obama’s maternal grandfather. Based on stylistic comparisons between the “Pop” and Davis’ own published poems, some have argued that Davis was the actual author.
Regardless of these controversies, however, the fact that the young Obama chose to claim the poem as his own is stunningly revealing, for it’s about the sexual abuse of a boy by a much older man. The narrative is compelling. The scene unfolds as an act of fellatio that the boy has performed on the man, and the consequent feeling of objectification as the boy sees his face “framed within Pop’s black-framed glasses.” There’s also psychological abuse, as the man asks, “What to do with me, a green young man/Who fails to consider the/Flim and flam of the world, since/Things have been easy for me.”
Compare the stylistic elements of this poem to Obama’s stilted and puerile avowal of love in a letter to girlfriend Alex McNear: “I trust you know that I miss you, that my concern for you is as wide as the air, my confidence in you is as deep as the sea, my love rich and plentiful.” Garrow doesn’t make the connection.
In another letter to Alex, Obama, after questioning his masculinity, expresses confusion about his sexual identity: “I see that I have been made a man, and physically, in life, I choose to accept that contingency.” This is extraordinary. As far back as 1981, Obama appears to have formulated and accepted the idea of gender fluidity. Yet Garrow doesn’t follow up.
The book is filled with observations about Obama’s aloofness and detachment, the way he compartmentalizes his life and emotions. These traits take on a greater salience when considered in the context of his possible sexual abuse by a father figure. How this might have affected his actions as President is a not unreasonable question, but it’s one Garrow doesn’t ask.
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. during the Obama years, writes about Obama’s inability to criticize any leader who was rooted in his Islamic tradition: Not Recep Erdogan, who imprisoned Turkish journalists, not Mohamed Morsi who tried to force an Islamist constitution on the Egyptian people, and not Hassan Rouhani whose country has the world’s highest per-capita execution rate.
Obama had no problem going after secular leaders like Qaddafi, Assad, and Mubarak. Neither did he have a problem with dropping drones onto Muslim populations, killing untold numbers of civilians along with the terrorists he was targeting. He could easily detach himself from impersonal massive casualties.
Obama’s outreach to Iran, and his determination to give Iran the means with which it could destroy its neighbors, is still incomprehensible to most of us. It survived overt threats to annihilate America and Israel, and it survived numerous insults to America and to Obama personally. Oren speculates that having been abandoned as a child by two Muslim fathers, might have led Obama “many years later, to seek acceptance by [his] co-religionists.”
Indeed. And if one throws child abuse by a father figure into the mix, the speculation becomes even more interesting. In reaching out to Ayatollah Khameini, the “Supreme Leader” as John Kerry insisted on calling him, Barack Obama became once again the little boy seeking his fathers’ approval. And in being rebuffed, he continued to experience the pain of rejection that was part of the pattern established in his childhood.
I’ve commented here on but one pattern that emerged out of the “pointillist picture” of Barack Obama painted by David Garrow in Rising Star. There are many more awaiting the patient and inquiring reader, and they are all fascinating. And when you look for a pattern, it’s a darkly, disturbing one that emerges.