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Rising Star reveals a young Barack Obama who’s all too human

A new biography complicates the former president’s political mythology.

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Barack Obama as a student at Harvard University Law School in 1990 - JOE WRINN / AP PHOTO / HARVARD UNIVERSITY
  • Joe Wrinn / AP Photo / Harvard University
  • Barack Obama as a student at Harvard University Law School in 1990

As President Donald Trump came before the White House press corps last week to swear up and down that he hadn't colluded with the Russians to sway the U.S. presidential election, I finished plowing through Rising Star, David Garrow's massive new biography of Barack Obama.

What a dangerous, dishonest doofus—Trump, that is, not Obama or Garrow. Here's an idea: How about flip-flopping things? Put Obama back in charge, and make Trump the subject of a massive biography.

I'm not kidding when I say Garrow's book is voluminous, by the way—it's more than 1,400 pages if you include the notes and index, which are treasure troves of information in and of themselves.

The book's heft has made it an object of scorn for some. Garrow, a historian and law professor, won a 1987 Pulitzer Prize for his biography Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But Michiko Kakutani, the lead book reviewer for the New York Times, called Rising Star a "dreary slog of a read."

I have a different perspective. Yes, I know the book could have used a tighter edit, and chunks of it—especially the final chapter about the Obama White House years—could have been left out altogether.

But this is an invaluable source of information about recent Chicago history. Much of the book has to do with the 20 or so years (from 1985 to 2004) Obama lived here. During that time he crossed paths with dozens of people I knew, worked with, wrote about, or even went to junior high school with. For me, reading the Chicago sections of Rising Star is like paging through my high school yearbook.

In writing a history of Obama's rise to power, Garrow's also telling the story of how this working-class city—the birthplace of Saul Alinsky-style community organizers—allowed itself to be led by a Democratic corporatist whose policies favored downtown over the outlying neighborhoods.

And how elected officials—like a certain state senator named Barack Obama—mastered the art of talking like progressives while making sure they didn't do anything that might piss off the boss. A juggling game that continues to this day under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Another reason Garrow's book has been criticized is that it delves into Obama's past to tell tales about reported cocaine use and his apparently rather prolific sex life. "Y'all, they trying to tear Barry down," reads the headline from one post on the Root.

Please, people, the man's not a saint—he's a flesh-and-blood human being.

As Garrow tells it, Obama adopted the persona that would best help him achieve his goal of becoming president. Much of Obama's story is pretty familiar—the myth of Obama as the young community organizer in Roseland is almost the stuff of George Washington and the cherry tree. But Garrow digs deeper to describe in exhausting detail how Obama transformed himself from a secular, biracial law school student from Hawaii into a churchgoing, Bible-quoting black man from the south side.

Some of my favorite passages describe Obama's days in the late 1980s when he was hanging with a crowd of feverishly intellectual U. of C. grad school students, including Sheila Miyoshi Jager, his then girlfriend.

Obama doesn't mention Jager in Dreams From My Father, his 1995 autobiography (which Garrow describes as "historical fiction"). Instead, he creates a composite character from Jager and two other girlfriends. It's like she didn't exist at all—even as he quotes many of the letters she wrote to him.

Jager and Obama lived together for three years in an apartment at 5429 S. Harper. They had, to put it mildly, a tempestuous relationship. He reportedly proposed to her twice, and both times she rebuffed him. But Garrow also tells one story about a trip Obama and Jager took to a summer house in Wisconsin. It was hot and the windows were open, and everyone could hear what everyone else was doing—if you get my drift. OK, so it's not Lady Chatterley's Lover. But my guess is this will wind up as the most widely read page in Garrow's book.



Garrow also recounts many scenes from Obama's days as a state senator, including the relatively well-known tale about the time Obama and fellow lawmaker Rickey Hendon almost came to blows on the senate floor.

A west-sider, Hendon used to relentlessly tease Obama, calling him "Yo Mama." During one senate debate, "Obama completely fucking lost it," Garrow writes. "He walked to Hendon's seat, placed a hand on Hendon's shoulder and as Hendon remembered it, 'leaned over' and said, 'You embarrassed me on the senate floor, and if you ever do it again, I will kick your ass!' "

To which Hendon said, "I stacked my few papers quietly on my desk in front of me and said, 'Okay, motherfucker, let's go!' "

Ah, the good old days of Illinois politics. Maybe this is how Governor Rauner and house speaker Michael Madigan should settle their differences.

Garrow didn't formally interview Obama for the book. But after it was written, the president read the first few chapters and sat with Garrow for several off-the-record interviews.

According to Garrow, the only part that Obama really took issue with was, of all things, Hendon's contention that he would've whupped Obama's ass. "Obama pointed out that he was taller than Hendon, so he'd have an advantage in a fight," Garrow says.

This reminds me of the time in the 1960s when Muhammad Ali almost had a boxing match with Wilt Chamberlain, the towering basketball player. When told about Chamberlain's longer reach, Ali said he'd hit the basketball player with a flurry of punches and then jump back and say, "Timber!"

I have a feeling it would have been much the same if Hendon and Obama had gone at it.

No matter. Obama will have a chance to settle old scores in the book he'll likely soon be writing.

In the meantime, I hope the city landmarks, like that old apartment on Harper that Obama and Jager once shared, will be protected. Like a national health-care plan, they're a part of Obama's legacy that needs to be preserved so they don't get lost forever.   v


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