WASHINGTON -- A new biography that traces Barack Obama's path from birth – yes, in Hawaii – to Harvard Law School, sketches the pragmatism and politics of the future president's early choices, including his first connections to Jeremiah Wright, the inflammatory preacher whom Obama severed ties with during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Obama didn't land in Wright's church by happenstance, David Maraniss writes in "Barack Obama: The Story." As a young community organizer in Chicago, Obama needed the help of pastors from local churches, but wasn't himself a church member. Obama, "an inveterate doubter," by Maraniss' account, felt mounting pressure to join a church, and a growing desire to explore his relationship with God.
A pastor working with Obama in the Developing Communities Project advised him to find a church outside the project's boundaries to avoid alienating any of the other pastors, and sent him to meet a preacher outside the district. That pastor, in turn, referred Obama to Wright, whose Trinity United Church of Christ stood just across the street from the boundary.
"I used to tease Barack, `You joined a church as close to the boundaries as you could get,' " said the Rev. Alvin Love at Lilydale Baptist, who'd helped Obama find a church. Obama didn't become fully engaged in Wright's church until he returned to Chicago after his years at Harvard, "but the process started then, in October 1987," Maraniss writes.
Wright helped Obama embrace Christianity, officiated at his wedding and baptized Obama and his two daughters. Obama quit the church after the preacher's incendiary teachings became a political issue in 2008.
Maraniss' book, on sale June 19 by Simon & Schuster, fills in details on Obama's early years and family. A more nuanced portrait emerges of Obama's maternal grandparents, whom Obama lived with from 1971 to 1979, when he graduated from high school.
His grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, is widely remembered as a strong woman who worked her way up from secretary to become one of the state's first female bank vice presidents. Obama has painted his grandfather, Stanley Dunham, as a man with a wild streak early on who settled down to sell furniture and life insurance. Both are deceased.
In an interview with Maraniss, Obama said his grandmother, known as Toot, began drinking more and more as her responsibilities weighed her down.
"That's where you started noticing her alcoholism," Obama said. She would come home, "exhausted from work, tightly wound and go into her room. They (she and Stan) had become more isolated."
Obama likened his grandparents, with their heavy drinking, to characters on television's "Mad Men," about advertising executives and their families in the 1960s.
"It explains my grandparents, their tastes," he said. The character Peggy, who started as a secretary and rose in the firm, "That's my grandmother, you know, starting out with the low-level secretary job and working her way up. But that whole smokin' and drinkin' ..."
The book documents how little contact Obama had with his father even early on. Obama has written that he was separated from his father at age 2. But within a month of Obama's birth, his 18-year-old mother had taken him to Washington state, where she attended college for a year. They returned to Hawaii in early summer 1962, when Obama was a year old. His father left the island for good that June.