That story, of course, would become even more astonishing, and profoundly American, four years later, when its teller would be elected president of the United States. But the first time Obama related his life story -- and in the greatest detail -- was with the publication of his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.
The book, which won wide critical acclaim and rose to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, recounted the complex tale that is by now familiar to most Americans: the young Obama's racial confusion as the son of a white mother from Kansas and a dark-skinned, absentee father from Kenya; his mother's remarriage to, and eventual split from, the boy's Indonesian stepfather, with a spell in a Muslim school in Jakarta; the boy's rearing by white grandparents in Hawaii, who sent him to a private school there; his journeys through Occidental College and Columbia University, marked by a shifting intellectual worldview and numerous romances, some of them inter-racial; his path-breaking stint as the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review; and his exploits as a community organizer and Chicago lawyer with a deepening interest in politics.
In the introduction, Obama openly admitted changing some people's names and compressing both characters and chronology, mostly for the sake of narrative flow. Over the years, the president’s biographers have made inroads piecing together which characters were based on which real-life individuals, and which events were compressed or conflated.
That process has now reached a kind of zenith, with the publication last month of Barack Obama: The Story, a deeply researched, 600-page study of the president's ancestry and early life by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Washington Post editor David Maraniss. The result reflects the hyper-scrutiny that attaches to our chief executives. It also offers a window into how much of the life story of this self-made man may have been made up.