Thursday 26 April 2018

Review: Biography: Barack Obama – The Making of a Man by David Maraniss

Atlantic Books, €24.30, pbk, 656 pages
Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

At first glance, the note in "Barry" Obama's 1979 high-school yearbook seems innocent enough. "Thanks Tut, Gramps, Choom Gang, and Ray for all the good times," it reads, under a black and white photograph of Obama, then just 18, playing basketball with a friend.

To those familiar with the early life of the 44th US president, "Tut and Gramps" are an obvious reference to Obama's maternal grandparents. He'd gone to live with them at the age of 10 because his mother had taken a job in Indonesia and his father had disappeared when he was still a toddler.

But what of the "Choom Gang" and "Ray"? Not even in Dreams from My Father, Obama's detailed and unflinching memoir, is any explanation given.

When the yearbook first surfaced during the 2008 presidential campaign, it was thought that the Choom Gang was simply a mischievous term for Obama's fellow pot-smoking basketball players at Honolulu's Punahou prep school (to "choom" meant to drag on a spliff in late-1970s Hawaiian vernacular).

As for Ray, journalists concluded this must have been Obama's childhood friend of the same name, described in Dreams from My Father as two years older than the future president, but a close friend due to the blackness of his skin.

But those charmingly naive assumptions may have turned out to be misconceived.

This 656-page biography of Obama by David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has made extraordinary claims regarding the back story to that high-school yearbook entry.

Needless to say, it probably wouldn't have gone down very well in 2008, when Obama was still a largely untested first-term senator from Illinois.

The book alleges, for example, the Choom Gang was not just a cheeky name for a few basketball players who'd once tried a joint. No, the members of this group -- not all of them sportsmen -- dedicated most of their spare time to getting baked in a variety of ever more imaginative ways, often while crammed in the back of their "Choomwagon" -- an old VW bus.

And Ray? Not the same Ray from Dreams from My Father. Oh, no. Maraniss alleges that he was "a long-haired hippy who worked at the Mama Mia pizza parlour, not far from Punahou, and lived in a dilapidated bus in an abandoned warehouse".

More to the point, Ray was a "freakin' scary" dope dealer, supplying the young Obama with such exquisite mind-altering herbs as Maui Wowie, Kauai Electric and Kona Gold.

That's right: Maraniss makes the remarkable claim that Obama wasn't just a pot head as a teenager, he was a pot head of such dedication he went so far as to thank his dealer in his high-school yearbook -- while forgetting to mention his absent mother.

Stranger still -- especially for anyone who remembers Bill Clinton's tortured admission that he experimented with marijuana but "didn't inhale" -- the American public and news media doesn't seem to give a hoot.

Obama has never denied smoking pot. When asked by The Tonight Show host Jay Leno if he ever inhaled, he gave the least Clintonian answer imaginable: "That was the point, wasn't it?" he guffawed (before the obligatory caveats and remorse).

According to Maraniss, when a joint was making the rounds from choomster to choomster, Obama would sometimes jump the queue while shouting, "Intercepted!" Thus, he would get more than his fair share.

Yes, life was pretty good in the Choom Gang, if you believe the story. When they weren't in class, Obama and co would play rough games of basketball or go bodysurfing at some of Hawaii's most dangerous beaches.

But were the Choom Gang years really the period of tortured self-abuse described in Dreams from My Father? "Junkie. Pothead," Obama writes ominously, near the start of chapter five. "That's where I'd been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man."

Far from being losers and drop-outs, the new book claims that the majority of the gang were actually "decent students and athletes, who went on to successful and productive lives as lawyers, writers, and businessmen". And the job of president of the United States, too.

There's an obvious explanation for this disparity, of course. In 1995, when Obama wrote Dreams from My Father, the nature of the confessions within it might very well have sunk a presidential career. So why not overegg the drama a little; make it sound as though his total absorptions and interceptions were all part of a larger, troubled quest for identity?

If that was the plan, it worked brilliantly. After all, the real Ray wasn't around to object: he was murdered years ago in a bizarre hammer attack.

Which brings us to the great irony of the Choom Gang allegations. In the years since Dreams from My Father was first published, America's attitude towards marijuana has changed beyond any recognition.

In many parts of the US, the drug is openly available without fear of prosecution; a recent poll suggests that 56pc of people would like to see it legalised and taxed.

In that context, Obama's apparently highly selective and overwrought confessions from 17 years ago now seem a lot less daringly honest than they must have done at the time.

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