David Garrow’s “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama” was published in 2017 and named a “Best Book of 2017” by The Washington Post. Garrow is a professor of Law & History at the University of Pittsburgh and received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
Spanning 1,078 pages of text (with more than 300 additional pages of notes and bibliography), this weighty tome is the product of nearly a decade of research. And while I was aware of the book’s mixed reputation, it promised a thorough review of Obama’s life (up through his presidency) so I was optimistic about its potential. Unfortunately, this proved to be one of the least satisfying presidential biographies I’ve ever read.
“Rising Star” quickly proves dull, tedious and frequently pointless. The narrative tracks Obama’s day-to-day movements and conversations with a level of granularity that is seemingly impossible…and entirely undesirable. The superfluous detail embedded in the text is suffocating and Garrow is unable (or unwilling) to synthesize and distill the facts he unearthed into salient observations and themes – leaving this biography almost completely devoid of overarching themes.
In any biography some level of detail is needed to provide background and context, of course, and additional detail is required to identify connections and support conclusions. But there is no discernible effort to separate the mundane from the consequential. And, instead, the narrative dives so deeply into the weeds that for the majority of the book the reader has no sense for what is pertinent and whether there even is a “big picture.”
This biography possesses numerous other flaws including an odd dependence on testimony from a former girlfriend, a peculiar fascination with Obama’s sex life and unseemly criticism of competing biographies by David Remnick and David Maraniss. And although Garrow takes the time to cover Obama’s two-term presidency, its relative brevity (fewer than thirty pages) stands in stark contrast to the previous thousand-plus pages of pre-presidential minutiae.
Fortunately for the persistent reader there are moments of merit. Garrow’s introduction to Jeremiah Wright and Trinity United Church is particularly interesting and sets up one of the book’s few threads – the evolving relationship between Obama and his pastor. In addition, the Harvard Law Review, Michelle Robinson, Valerie Jarrett and the Chicago political machine each receive enlightening coverage.
Garrow also provides good insight into Obama’s failed run for a seat in the House of Representatives as well as his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. And coverage of Obama’s deliberations relating to his potential candidacy for president of the United States is quite engaging.
Overall, however, “Rising Star” is most noticeable for just one thing: its utterly exhausting coverage of Barack Obama’s life. The book is impressive in scale and Garrow deserves credit for this detailed reference on Obama’s pre-presidency. But for fans of great presidential biographies, “Rising Star” will prove little more than a mind-numbing exercise in patience and pointless perseverance.
Overall rating: 2 stars