Veteran presidential biographer David Maraniss—whose Clinton tome First In His Class is considered the definitive account of young Bubba—turns his eye to the current commander in chief in Barack Obama: The Story. And though the book—compiled through interviews with Obama’s old friends and lovers—won’t hit shelves for a few more weeks, juicy revelations about Barry Obama’s pot-smoking youth have been lighting up the blogosphere. But there’s more! A lengthy Vanity Fair excerpt has already detailed the collegiate future president’s love life. From the good times with the “Choom Gang” to his first visit to Kenya, take a look at other interesting tidbits much-anticipated book.
1. The Choom Gang
Maraniss’s book reveals that, as a high schooler, young Barry Obama was a trend-setting member of the Choom Gang, a group of basketball-playing stoners at Hawaii’s prestigious Punahou prep school. The future president apparently made his mark on this group by instituting several smoking styles, such as “total absorption,” or “TA,” which, Maraniss writes, “was the antithesis of Bill Clinton’s claim that as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford he smoked dope but never inhaled.”Another was “roof hits,” in which Barry and the gang would smoke in a car with all the windows up, not exiting until they’d inhaled every last bit of smoke. Barry was also known to penalize friends who wasted precioussmoke ( i.e. not performing TA) by denying them a hit. Perhaps the most noteworthy smoking habit of the future president, though, was his penchant for jumping in the circle out of turn, grabbing the joint that was being passed around, and yelling, “Intercepted!” Maraniss claims that “no one seemed to mind” when Barry took an extra hit, but we find that hard to believe.
2. Harlem Nights
Barry ultimately left the Choom Gang for Occidental College and then, in his junior year, transferred to Columbia in New York. Maraniss describes the young Obama huddling in a sleeping bag to keep warm in his heat-free 109th St. apartment and eating breakfast for $1.99 at the diner that would later become famous as the front for “Monk’s” on Seinfeld. Through letters written between Obama and two former girlfriends, Maraniss discovered that Barack was not a fan of T.S. Eliot’s “bourgeois liberalism” but enjoyed lounging around on Sundays “drinking coffee and solving the New York Times crossword puzzle, bare-chested, wearing a blue and white sarong.” Beenu Mahmood, part of a group of Obama’s friends that the future president reportedly referred to as “the Pakistanis,” recalls Barack rereading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man over and over for a period of two to three months. Mahmood interpreted this as the Obama’sway of analyzing his own racial identity. Obama is “the most deliberate person I have ever met in terms of constructing his own identity, and his achievement was really an achievement of identity in the modern world,” Mahmood tells Maraniss in the book. “[That] was an important period for him, first the shift from not international but American, number one, and then not white, but black.”
3. The Quiet Period
Obama in some ways receded into himself during these first New York years, Maraniss writes, causing ex-roommate Phil Boerner to speculate a routine “where you’re not participating in life but you’re kind of observing, one step removed.” It was not a comfortable experience to live off campus at Columbia during the early 1980s. Housing was poorly maintained, as perhaps best illustrated by a student newspaper article that explored the peculiar procedures at an area hospital where doctors had become expert at removing cockroaches from the ears of what must have been distressed patients. Another oft-recounted tale among students, Maraniss recounts, involved a few unfortunate underclassmen who, carrying home a carpet they had found, unrolled it to find a gunshot victim wrapped inside. It must have been in many ways a shock for the Hawaii native, and Obama never quite connected with college life, remaining reserved through his undergraduate years
4. “The Most Segregated City in America”
It was in Chicago, however, and not New York, that Barack Obama became the man who Americans would elect president of the United States. Given an ignominious distinction as the “most segregated city in America” by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1959, Chicago remained a city divided by race when Obama arrived, despite the election of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor. With his mother’s advice from his boyhood ringing in his ears –“Damn it, Bar, you can’t just sit around like some good-time Charlie” – Obama became committed to “the broader notion of getting serious about helping humanity,” Maraniss writes. Making a home in the mixed-race neighborhood of Hyde Park, Obama went to work as a community organizer, attacking his assignments with a keen perception for human nature. The young organizer wrote reports on the community’s members that were “different than anybody else’s,” Jerry Kellman, his boss in the organizing office at Holy Rosary Parish on the city’s South Side, tells Maraniss
5. Land of His Father
Before setting off for Harvard and law school, Obama traveled to Africa, stopping first in Europe. Paris and Rome had their charms, the traveler noted in his journals (and later in Dreams form My Father), but, “It just wasn’t mine. I felt as if I were living out someone else’s romance, the incompleteness of my own history stood between me and the sites I saw like a hard pane of glass.” What he found in Africa among his father’s relatives offered little cohesion. “Obama had come to Kenya hoping to put all the pieces of his shattered genealogy back together again,” Maraniss writes. “His young life had been a struggle to integrate the disparate parts of his history in a way that would make him feel whole.” When he returned to Chicago, however, friends and family were given the impression that some part of Obama’s life had closed, and another had begun. “He would be leaving soon,” Maraniss writes, “but never again in the same way.”