NYT Critic Bashes Critical Obama Bio From Pulitzer Winner as 'Unworthy of Serious Historian'

May 2nd, 2017 3:00 PM

New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani made the front of the Arts section Tuesday with her disgusted take on a 1,460-page biography of Barack Obama by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow, “On Obama; And On, And On, And ON -- A biography takes a long, long look at the former president’s early years.”

Kakutani, the paper’s senior book reviewer, is a big fan of Barack Obama and Democrats in general (she praised his reading habits upon entering and leaving the White House) and she used her perch to defend him fiercely against a book that didn’t share her laudatory view of the 44th president.

“Rising Star,” the voluminous 1,460-page biography of Barack Obama by David J. Garrow, is a dreary slog of a read: a bloated, tedious and -- given its highly intemperate epilogue -- ill-considered book that is in desperate need of editing, and way more exhausting than exhaustive.

Many of the more revealing moments in this volume will be familiar to readers of Obama’s own memoir, “Dreams From My Father”; a host of earlier books about Obama and his family; and myriad profiles of the former president that have appeared in newspapers and magazines over the years. Garrow has turned up little that’s substantially new -- save for identifying and interviewing an old girlfriend from Obama’s early Chicago years, who claims that by 1987, “he already had his sights on becoming president.”

In the absence of thoughtful analysis or a powerful narrative through line, Garrow’s book settles for barraging the reader with a cascade of details....

This paragraph didn’t sound like the legitimate complaint of a seasoned, serious book critic. Wasn't the title "Rising Star" kind of a giveaway that the book would focus on Obama's early years?

Perhaps, as the title “Rising Star” indicates, this book is meant to focus only on Obama’s early years, but in that case, the epilogue -- with the snarky title of “The President Did Not Attend, as He Was Golfing” -- seems even more inexplicable.

Journalist Michael Dougherty noted on Twitter of that line: “The review spends so many sentences complaining that it isn't about something else.”

Kakutani hit the Pulitzer Prize-winning Garrow where it hurt – why, he sounds like a Republican!

Whereas the rest of the book is written in dry, largely uninflected prose, the epilogue -- which almost reads like a Republican attack ad -- devolves into a condescending diatribe unworthy of a serious historian. It consists mainly of a string of negative quotations about Obama’s presidency and temperament, many plucked out of context from articles and books by journalists and commentators, or extracted from disillusioned former friends or supporters....

Instead, Garrow’s epilogue delivers a crude screed against Obama the president and Obama the man, filled with bald assertions and coy half-truths...

Kakutani refought the partisan wars of the Obama administration with her thumb on the left hand of the scale, reacting in horror to a garden-variety partisan crack by Sen. Mitch McConnell hoping Obama would be a one-term president (meanwhile, impeachment-hungry Democrats want Donald Trump to be a no-term president).

Garrow takes Obama to task for his lack of “bipartisan outreach” with Republican members of Congress, but doesn’t tell the other side of the story -- namely, the Republicans’ deliberate strategy of obstructionism throughout Obama’s tenure in office. (The Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell famously declared, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”) And, as the chapter title indicates, Garrow even mocks Obama, repeatedly, for spending too much time on the golf course. (What, one wonders, would he make of Donald J. Trump?)

Clearly hurt on behalf of the former liberal president, Kakutani went on:

It’s odd that Garrow should seize on one former lover’s anger and hurt, and try to turn them into a Rosebud-like key to the former president’s life, referring to her repeatedly in his epilogue. He even tries to turn her perception -- about Obama’s having willed himself into being -- into a pejorative, when the act of self-invention, as other biographers have noted, was the enterprising and existential act of a young man who essentially had been abandoned by both his black father and white mother, and who found himself caught between cultures and trying, as he wrote in “Dreams,” “to raise myself to be a black man in America.”

At the end she suggested go straight to Obama’s autobiography, where evidently you will find the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the former president (and forget the fact that it was heavily fictionalized).

The reader interested in Barack Obama’s life would do well to turn to those books, and not Garrow’s overstuffed and ultimately unfair work here. Or, go back to Obama’s own eloquent memoir.