tv Meet the Presss Press Pass NBC June 24, 2012 11:30am-11:45am EDT
"barack obama: the story." here is our conversation. >> it's such an interesting book. you've written about president clinton. you took about this project. what did you hear about barack obama along the way? >> well you know, i approach a book like everything is a surprise. even though you know, i've written about him in 2008 and read his memoir already. my approach as a biographer is i don't know anything. so i try to learn everything. and this book took me 50,000 miles around the world. he's a global figure. and an american. you know, so i went to kenya to find the roots of his father's family there. and discovered among other things that the character that barack writes about, his mother sara, she now has this huge compound where there's satellite dishes and guards. she's not even a real blood
relative. i found the real blood relatives, living around lake victoria, in mud huts. so it's really surprising. >> now he's a writer. >> yes. >> one of the things you do in this book, is point out where in his own autobiography, things weren't right. things were not accurate. how did he react to that? >> well, i let him read the introduction before i interviewsed him. in the introduction i point out that even though in his memoir, he says, he acknowledges that he compresses time and uses composite figures. he says he just did it to streamline the story. and i point out it's a little more than that. that it's really a way for him to advance the themes he wants to in the book. so he read the introduction, he said david, you know it's an interesting introduction, but you call my book fiction. i said no, mr. president, i complimented it, i called it literature. we went through various of the points in his book where he took some liberties. and he acknowledged all of them
in the end. >> he comfortable with this project, with this expectation? >> you know, he was more comfortable than president clinton was, i think partly because he is a writer and perhaps also because even though his life, his family's life is full of these fascinating dysfunctions. his own life is a little less so. so perhaps the least comfortable parts of it to him were old girlfriends, and his marijuana smoking in high school. even though he wrote about that in his own book. >> a lot of this is your own interest in sort of getting, getting to the story of his struggle with his own identity. which is a very involved story. one of the things you write is quoting him. the only way i could have a sturdy sense of identity of who i was depended on digging beneath the surface differences of people. the only way my life makes sense is if regardless of culture,
race, religion, tribe, there is commonality. the essential human truths and hopes and moral precepts that are universal. is that him speaking? >> in a letter to one of his old girlfriends. in many ways, david, it's a precursor to the 2004 address at the democratic national committee, not red states, or blue states, but the united states. he has, because his father was never around, because his mother, as much as she sort of incull indicated her conscience into him, she was not around a lot, either. particularly in his formative high school years, she was working in indonesia, and he was in honolulu. he really had to find his own way. he's half one race, half another, ha of black, half white. all of these contradictions in his own life, he had to figure out, he couldn't really choose. that doesn't always -- it helped him get elected. it helps him possibly become great but it's very difficult when you can't just focus on one
sort of way of being. he has to be it all. that's sort of the represents both the promise and the struggle of barack obama. >> yet so much dysfunction in his young life. you talk about the importance of women in his life. strong women in his life. and yet here he gross up, he's president of the united states. he's got by all appearances, incredibly stable family life. he seems to have resolved a lot of the difficulties in his life. >> i did. all narrative stories in a sense are a journey. in this one, it's the arc towards home. he starts in honolulu without a father, with his mother gone. in this place that's further than any land mass than anywhere in the world. then he goes to los angeles, to start college. it's not quite right for him. new york, he doesn't quite find it. the arc leads him to chicago. there he's finally embraced. personally he finds comfort in the black community for the first time.
and inevitably, michelle is enter as well. it's all that arc towards chicago and home. >> he's a politician. he's the president. >> very much so. >> no question, an ambitious figure. anybody wants to be president is. is that as central to who he is, as say another figure you wrote about, bill clinton? >> in a very difficult way. i mean clinton needed people more than anything in the world. clinton would invite friends over to his house in hot springs, just to watch him do a crossword puzzle. obama can exist on his own. clinton is hot, obama is cool. in hawaii there's a saying, cool head, main thing. that's obama. clinton needed the affirmation of other people and the world and that's what made him such a bril yat politician. obama of is a very different sort. the one thing he shares is enormous willpower and the will to get where he wants to go. and that's obvious, you can't be president without that. >> it's interesting, without the sort of background he had where
his identity is something that he had to resolve, had he resolved it earlier, had he not grown up in hawaii and spent time overseas in indonesia, would he have been president? do you think? >> i think not. i think hawaii in particular was crucial to him. you know, and this is only viewing it through a racial lens. if he had grown up in camden or philadelphia or los angeles or some other place, he would have had to made that racial choice early and definitively. not just personally, but politically, probably, to succeed. because he came out of hawaii, which shall such a multi-glmpb lot place. everybody there is a hoppa. not that many african-americans. but when you look at the high school class, it was just obama, it was chinese, japanese. one of the guys in high school was tom topolinski, he was chinese, that made it easy for
him to be that multiracial figure. >> his grandmother was so important. >> very important. >> what did you discover about her. >> madelyn dunham was pragmatic. kept the family together. his grandfather, stanley, was a dreamer, i call him a sort of willie loman man, a salesman. the grandmother kept him rooted. she was also very interestingly, a closet alcoholic. she had a lot of stress on her. when i interviewed the president, i found it fascinating. he said he watches "mad men" all the time in the white house. and he thought of his grandmother as peggy, the secretary who rises up in the firm ands had grandmother started as a secretary in a bank and became a vice president. >> what did you learn out of this period in his life that tells us about the president that he is. how he governs, how he leads. how he interacts in
relationships. >> i think you can learn so much about somebody's present and future from their past. his desire to always avoid the trap. he's always looking a couple of steps ahead. he didn't want to get trapped in honolulu. he didn't want to get trapped as a lawyer or judge or in business. he always, he was looking, he didn't want to get trapped in racial politics of chicago. that's why he went to springfield instead of getting into the city council in chicago, which would have just trapped him there. he's always looking for ways to avoid the traps. it gets him to where he wants to go. along the way it makes him seem very cautious and that has certainly played out in his presidency. >> we'll take a break here and be back with more. ♪ [ male announcer ] for our families... our neighbors... and our communities... america's beverage companies have created a wide range of new choices. developing smaller portion sizes and more low- & no-calorie beverages... adding clear calorie labels
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we're back with more of our "press pass" conversation with the author of "barack obama: the story." this book ends, he's driving off to harvard to law school. more to come here, another volume? >> there will be a second volume. i ended where i saw he figured it all out in terms of where he wanted to go. in chicago he had found his home. inevitably he would find michelle there and he also found sort of his study of power. as a community organizer in chicago he realized there were limits to what he could do to that sort of power. studying there, washington, the mayor of chicago, he saw the charisma of elected power. you had to go to harvard to get his bona fides and then his political career begins.
>> what has captured you about this subject that you have devoted so much time and will devote so much more time? >> you know, it's funny that there's all of these questions about whether, where obama was born by certain right wingers and so on. he's such a classic american story. it brings the whole world, which is what america is. it's not juch him and his own search, but everything that encompasses the barack obama story that captured me and that's why i got into it. >> all this birther controversy, you have facts in the book here that really blow this out, right? >> the interesting thing is, among many other facts, the immigration and naturalization service was tailing obama's dad the whole period that he was in honolulu. there's no way he could have left anywhere. were trying to kick him out. so the idea that he went to kenya, they went to kenya to have the baby and came back is just preposterous when you look at the ins documents.