President Obama ---The Man/The Icon
David J. Garrow's Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama (New York: William Morrow, 2017) is a big book. Its ten chapters of narrative occupy 1078 pages; the remaining 383 pages consist of the acknowledgement (1079-1084), the copious chapter notes (1085-1356), the bibliography (1357-1391), the index (1393-1460) and the "About the Author" page (1461). Are so many pages needed to cover the life of Barack Hussein Obama II from August 4, 1961 to January 19, 2017? Yes. Do so many pages adequately provide full disclosure of Obama's rise as our most noteworthy Kenyan American and 44th President? No. A single book can't possibly give us all the contextualized facts we either need to know or think we need. A trenchant analysis of anything in our everyday lives, especially of major figures and events in American politics, requires a crunching of big data and the writing of persuasive narratives. Rising Star is Garrow's effort to make a compelling statement about our rage for social, political, and cultural information. His success, however, compounds the difficulty of knowing what is truly necessary and sufficient.
Reading Rising Star cover to cover is probably not the path many readers will take. They will sample chapters and depend on the index to guide them to topics which seem to be of immediate relevance. Unlike their nineteenth-century ancestors, most contemporary readers lack the patience and discipline to engage a big book ---unless the book pertains directly to a job, career advancement or retrofitting, and a paycheck. Even for readers who work in the arena of politics, policy decisions may be of greater importance than expanding their sense of history. Rising Star will be relegated to a shelf of reference books and consulted only when a search engine doesn't provide immediate access to specialized information or "factoids" about President Obama and his eight years in office.
We can anticipate that Rising Star will eventually appear on the collateral reading lists for advanced graduate courses in American government, political theory, historiography, or the politics of race. Special, limited audiences of teachers and students will explore Garrow's artistry in aligning snapshots of Obama the man (organic human being) with formal photographs of Obama the president (the fashioned or constructed political being). They will be positioned to make sense of Garrow's pragmatic coup de grâce :
In Springfield too a perceptive woman understood how Barack "is an invention of himself." But it was essential to appreciate that while the crucible of self-creation had produced an ironclad will, the vessel was hollow at its core. "You didn't let anyone sneak up behind you to see emotions --like hurt or fear ---you didn't want them to see," Barack long ago had taught himself, yet hand in hand with that resolute self-discipline came a profound emptiness. (1078) [my italics]
Irony of irony that what is imagined to be hollow and empty will in time be seen to be solid and full. We shall need yet another 1461 pages to begin to understand the quintessential American irony that Garrow invites us to ponder.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. July 2, 2017