Shortly after being elected first black president of Harvard Law Review, Barack Obama signed a deal to write a memoir of his life. Remarkably literate, given it was written so young, the book revolves around his quest for identity as the child of a white teenage mother and an African father who walked out when he was just two.
Despite titling it Dreams From My Father, the absent parent was little more than a shadow. ‘After a week of my father in the flesh, I had decided that I preferred his more distant image,’ reflected Barack Obama on the short time they spent together in his boyhood.
‘If my father hadn’t exactly disappointed me, he remained something unknown, something volatile and vaguely threatening.’
Well, he is unknown no longer. He has been bought to life in a compelling biography by American journalist Sally H. Jacobs. And what a vile man he turns out to have been: a drunken, wife-beating, bribe-taking bigamist of extreme arrogance, who spent much of his life propping up bars while bemoaning his fate and running down rivals.
His nickname was Double-Double after the way he liked his whisky. He was a fantasist, who told self-aggrandising stories and impersonated his bosses.
He married four times and had seven or nine children, depending who you listened to. And he was such a brazen womaniser he even bought mistresses home when his latest wife was asleep, loudly demanding the marital bed for his conquests.
Little wonder he turned out such a disappointment to the boy who, against all odds, went on to become President of the United States. Not least since they shared so much, including formidable intellect that took them to Harvard University, fierce ambition and the ability to turn on the charm.
But one became leader of the free world, the other ended up a loser, crippled in car accidents caused by drunk-driving and corroded by jealousy.
The young Barack had a lucky escape. His unfortunate siblings in Nairobi returned home from school each day in fear, growing increasingly nervous as they awaited their father’s late-night return.
‘When he got there he would probably be drunk,’ said one. ‘And then the light would go on and you would hear thuds and shouts and my mother’s voice rising and crying and screaming.’
But this is no misery memoir. For it is not just the tale of a brilliant man in free fall, ruined by the flaws in his character. It is also the absorbing story of a country on the cusp of change as it shook off imperial shackles. In so many ways, the other Barack’s life mirrored that of Kenya, filled with post-independence promise but felled by self-inflicted wounds.
He could have risen to similar heights as his son, had he had more self-control. He was born in a mud hut to a domineering father who worked as cook for British colonists and a mother who fled after endless beatings with her husband’s whip.
It was a severe upbringing: he would be tested on his homework and, if he stumbled, sent to bed without supper. Barack’s brains marked him out from the start, but so did the flaws that led him to argue with teachers and get thrown out of one of Kenya’s elite schools.
Despite this setback, he managed to win over an American aid worker who helped him get to the University of Hawaii, a remarkable achievement.
The first African student in a state that had only recently joined the union, his arrival was front-page news and he was a figure of fascination.
Typically, he was disappointed by Hawaii but started dating a 17-year-old classmate called Ann Dunham. Soon they were married and had a son, also called Barack–but he never mentioned the wife and two children left behind in Kenya.
He told university officials he was divorced and intended giving the new baby away. Then he abandoned his second young family to gain a doctorate at Harvard, but was ejected before completing his studies because of his complicated private life.
Even so, the very fact of having been at Harvard marked him out in newly post-colonial Kenya, where there were only 600 nationals with degrees from overseas.
As the hated ‘No Africans or Dogs’ signs were ripped down at hotels, such a talented economist could have worked almost anywhere shaping his nation’s future.
Instead, he turned down a government planning job because the pay was too poor, watching with envy as the man who took the post became one of the country’s most prominent people.
He drifted from job to job while carousing, crashing cars and picking up women. Despite his Harvard failure, he insisted upon being called Dr Obama and would endlessly put down others.
‘Where were you when I was getting my training at Harvard?’ he would demand loudly. Generous with his own money, the bar-room bore ended up borrowing from friends as funds ran out. Some would avoid him rather than listen to the bitter rants.
Meanwhile his personal life was in disarray, his second American wife fleeing after he attacked one of their sons. She had stood by him even after he held a knife to her neck.
‘One day he was charming and loving and wonderful. He was just the way a woman wants a man to be. And then the next day he’s beating you and abusing you,’ she said.
By the time of his early death, smashing his car into a tree stump, he was about to get married again, this time to a 20-year-old woman who had just given birth to his latest child.
A wasted life in both senses, made all the worse for the flashes of genius through the blur of alcohol and the bravery with which he confronted the tightening grip of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president who inflamed the tribal divisions that still plague the country.
But not entirely wasted. For as Jacobs’ concludes in this meticulously-researched book, his impact proved far greater than even this bombastic man could ever have predicted by fathering the man who reinterpreted the American dream for the 21st century.