For a biographer, the emerging matchup in the presidential campaign between Barack Hussein Obama and Willard Mitt Romney is about as American as it can get. Although the candidates are noted for their innate caution, their family histories evoke a kind of exceptionalism that defines the United States — not in some gauzy and false way, but in the reality of a national fabric woven from exotic threads. Where to start? How about polygamy?
Perhaps it is true of most people if you go back far enough, but with Obama and Romney, it can be said with certitude that neither would exist had their ancestors not lived with many wives at once.
The president’s most virulent critics have tried for years to portray him as a stranger in our midst, someone outside the comfortable mainstream of American life; a Muslim socialist born elsewhere, probably in Kenya. The mythology is wrong on all three particulars about Obama, a Christian liberal born in Hawaii, and its distortions are antithetical to historical inquiry, a manipulation of facts for ideological purposes. Yet the real story is colorful enough, and odd in a way that is foreign while familiar. Sit down long enough at any American family’s table, and some strange history is likely to be served.