A conversation with David Garrow Ph.D. '81

The historian and author talks about his nearly 1,500 page book about President Barack Obama.
July 12, 2017

In "Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama," historian and author David Garrow Ph.D. '81 takes a detailed look at the formative years of the forty-fourth president. Garrow isn't new to writing big books. His "Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade" and "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Leadership Conference" both were more than 800 pages. His deep reporting has paid off; the King book won both the Pulitzer Prize for biography and the Robert Kennedy Award.

Garrow, who is also professor of law & history and distinguished faculty scholar at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, worked on the Obama book for nine years. Here he talks about his choice of subject matter and how he approaches his work.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: One of Obama’s formative experiences—and one of the important sections of the book—was his time spent doing community organizing work in Chicago. Why is that period so interesting?

Garrow: Everyone who knew Obama up through ’85 thought he was a perfectly nice guy, but quite unmemorable. Then three years later in 1988, when he arrives at Harvard to start law school, everyone who meets him thinks that this is an incredibly remarkable guy they’ll be reading about in the future. So those three years in Chicago give him a sense of identity and sense of strength. And indeed, he uses the word “destiny” with his closest friends. It gives him a commitment to pursue a political career. And that’s why he leaves to go to Harvard. He has an electoral plan in mind from 1987 forward.

Q: Did you always think that this book would focus on those sort of precursor years and his upbringing?

Garrow: When I first started interviewing in March 2009, all I knew for sure was that I wanted to write something about the community organizing experience. Within literally the first two or three days in Chicago, one of the organizing mentors sent me to this woman who had incorporated all their groups, a tax lawyer who saves her files. And so she pulled out this old manila folder with all these documents typed by Barack back in ’86, ’87, including a list of everybody who was active in the community group. So, boom, all of a sudden, I had like forty-five people to try to track down. That was really the beginning of the slippery slope.

Q: That leads into my next question. When did you realize you were on your way to writing a nearly 1,500-page book?

Garrow: I’d say two other points beyond that list of the Far South Side people. I found my way to Sheila Jager [one of Obama’s ex-girlfriends, now a professor at Oberlin College] in August of 2009. I was living in Britain at that time. Only in 2011 did we come back to the U.S. from Cambridge. But Sheila was incredibly enthusiastic and forthcoming from that point forward.

Then—and this gets a little bit deep in the weeds, but it is a crucial moment, and I remember it very clearly—Barack spent eight years down in Springfield in the state legislature. And so a big decision for me was to commit the amount of time necessary to go down there to Springfield, because everyone in the Illinois State Capitol Building knew him, had stories. But there wasn’t even a decent magazine article about Barack’s time in Springfield. Barbara Flynn Currie, who still has the Hyde Park seat in the State House, was one of the first state legislative people whom I went to see in Chicago. And Barbara told me the perfect time to go to Springfield was veto session, when the state legislature reconvenes in November, and everybody’s there, but they don’t have a whole lot to do. The time in Springfield is very intense. Once I made that commitment, then I knew that the story had to come all the way forward in an authoritative way through 2004.

Q: You’ve written these kinds of extensive histories before. How do you approach a research project of this magnitude and make it seem manageable?

Garrow: It’s daunting as a matter of personal discipline, but I’ve always had a sort of innate ability to know what goes into the story and what doesn’t. So there’s not much wasted effort. I’m very well-organized. And so everything goes into a sort of chronological notes database, because with something of this scale, one thing you need to be sure of is that you’re not rereading some newspaper article for the second time and failing to remember that you already entered it in your notes four years ago. But the real joy in doing something like this, or in doing the King books, or in doing Liberty and Sexuality, is meeting the people. You know, I first started meeting all of the people that worked with Dr. King in September 1979. In all of these books, I’m always very conscious of the fact that I’m drawing energy from the people whom I’m seeing. And to me, a very important motivator in all these books is how many people there are with historically significant stories to tell, who’ve never had a chance to do so before.

Q: In other interviews, you’ve noted how journalists tend to talk to the same few sources whereas historians, like yourself, have this luxury of speaking to more people. You talked to over a thousand people for this story—how do you weigh their relative importance and then synthesize the story?

Garrow: I think one of the other crucial differences between myself, and a good number of historians, as distinct from journalists, and we see this in civil rights historiography too, is that when you’re hearing people’s oral stories and memories, human memory is very fungible. People, on a number of occasions, will have stories that are just too good to be true. Now, a good many journalists eagerly embrace and run with stories that are too good to be true. I think I have a more forceful flak—I’ll use flak as a four-letter word there in place of another one—flak detector because every time someone tells you that they knew in 19-whatever that Obama would be president, you shouldn’t necessarily accept all of those.

Q: During your reporting, was there a particular discovery or discoveries that surprised you the most?

Garrow: When Genevieve discovered all her letters from Barack—Genevieve Cook [another ex-girlfriend of Obama’s]—that cover 1984 to 1986. And it was only last summer that Rob’s mother [Rob Fisher was Obama’s classmate and friend from law school], who still lives in the sort of family farmhouse down in southern Maryland, that Rob’s mother found the race chapter of that unpublished book manuscript. Rob had found the first half of it a good three years earlier.

The other thing I really love—and this is at the end of chapter three, it’s like pages 192 to 195—is Barack’s summer of 1985 conversation with Bob Elia, the motel owner up here in western Pennsylvania. It’s a story Barack had told even as late as 2006, twenty years later in commencement speeches, that he’d had this sort of unforgettable conversation with this guy. But in one of the letters to Genevieve, right after he arrives in Chicago, he named the motel that he’d stayed at. And so Marc Silverman, who’s my law librarian here at Pitt, Marc took the name of the motel and looked in Pennsylvania state property records to identify who had owned the motel in 1985. “Robert Elia,” Marc comes back with. So I look on the web to find some phone numbers up around there for a Robert Elia, leave two voicemail messages, and get a call back. And within about twenty-five seconds, it’s clear that the guy who’s talking to me is without question the same guy Barack remembered talking to in 1985. I love this story because it incidentally highlights how crucial librarians and archivists are for anybody who does the sort of historical research I do.

Q: You worked on this book for nine years, and because Barack Obama was a two-term president, the research basically enveloped his time as president. How did your attitude evolve during this time period? Would you see things in your research that would relate to current events?

Garrow: Yes. There’s inescapably a lot of cross-pollination. I’m essentially a Bernie Sanders Democrat. I’m not 100 percent with Sanders on all issues, but I’m a whole lot more of a Sanders than a Hillary Clinton sort of person. Everyone who had known Barack in Chicago and in Illinois politics had much more limited expectations for him as president than a lot of the national euphoria that we saw in late 2008, early 2009. So when the Obama presidency, as it goes along, turns out to be more centrist, in some respects, more Bush-like in national security policy, that was less surprising to me, I think, than to many people because of how much I’d already heard from people in Illinois.

Q: So your expectations were lowered somewhat relative to the people who didn’t have this additional context?

Garrow: Yes. And even just having been back in Chicago doing a lot of media last week, it was very striking to me—whether it’s an audience of older, mainly Jewish people from the north suburbs, or African Americans from in the city, or White university folks in Hyde Park—without exception they all have a critical perspective on Obama that I think a lot of people in the sort of Acela corridor—I’m using the Amtrak word—a lot of people in the Acela corridor don’t have the background knowledge to have.

Q: You spent nine years on this book. How do you see yourself spending your next nine years?

Garrow: Ironically, two of my previous books, my FBI book, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. from 1981, and Liberty and Sexuality, have both, just within the last month, been optioned by major Hollywood film production companies.

Q: Really? That’s awesome.

Garrow: It’s a weird oddity of timing. It’s not like either book came out in the last ten years. So that may take up some time.