Barack Obama’s autobiographical fictions
Jun 18, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 38 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
There’s a DVD that’s been sitting in its jewel box on my desk for a few years (I’ve been busy—no time to tidy up), and the other day, after reading through two brand-new books about Barack Obama, one admiring, the other ferociously disapproving, I snapped the cellophane at last and slid the disk into my computer drive.
President of the Harvard Law Review, soon-to-be author of Dreams from My Father
I bought the video on a visit to Occidental College in Los Angeles, not long after Obama took office. He attended Oxy from 1979 to 1981, then lit out after his sophomore year and never returned. It must be a tricky business for a college publicist, marketing your school as the place that one of the world’s most famous men couldn’t wait to get away from, but these are highly competitive times in the liberal arts college racket, and a flack will work with what he’s got. During my visit the campus was transforming itself into a three-dimensional tribute to its most famous dropout.
In the common room of the library a shrine of sorts had been set up in a glass display case, under the famous Shepard Fairey Hope poster. The display promised to document “Barack Obama’s Occidental College Days,” but the pickings were slim. Every item on display was derivative and indirect in its relation to the man being honored. There were photos of three of his professors, a copy each of his two memoirs, an invitation that someone had received to his inauguration, and an issue of Time magazine showing a recently discovered cache of posed pictures taken of Obama by a classmate in 1980. Obama’s Occidental years have the same waterbug quality that so many periods of his life seem to have in retrospect: You see a figure traveling lightly and swiftly over the surface of things, darting away before he could leave an impression that might last. Archivists have combed college records and come up empty, mostly. Barry Obama, as he then was known, published two poems in the campus literary magazine his sophomore year. The testimony of the handful of professors who remembered him, four by my count, is hazy. He was never mentioned in the student newspaper, never wrote a letter to the editor or appeared in a photo; he failed to have his picture taken for the yearbook, so his likeness isn’t there either. A photo from 1981 celebrating Oxy’s 94th anniversary was in the display case, labeled, with eager insouciance: “An all-campus photo . . . included students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Perhaps Obama is included?” We can hope.
I found my DVD, called “Barack Obama’s Occidental College Days,” in the student bookstore, where shelves groaned under stacks of Obama merchandise—paperweights, caps, pennants, T-shirts, pencils, shot glasses—in which the “O” from Obama was graphically entwined with the “O” from Occidental. (You work with what you’ve got.) The film, with a cover showing a rare photo of Obama on campus, lasts no more than 15 minutes and seems padded even so. Our host is a large and enthusiastic man named Huell Howser. He sports a Hawaiian shirt and a crewcut. With an Oxy flack as guide and a cameraman in tow, he strides the sun-drenched campus and pauses here and there as if simply overwhelmed.
“This place is full of history,” he says.
“There’s a lot of history to be marked here,” the flack agrees.
On the steps of the school administration building they are almost struck dumb. Almost.
“On this spot,” our host says, Obama may have given his first political speech—a two-minute blast at the college for investing in South Africa’s apartheid regime. But we can’t be sure.
“There are no photographs,” says Howser, “but then there are very few photographs of Barack Obama at Occidental.”
“That’s right,” the flack says glumly.
Howser’s passion burns undiminished. His every glance, this way and that, says, Isn’t this something? He finds a professor who taught Obama political science. The professor says he remembers Obama, but only because of his Afro hairstyle and his improbable name. A chinwag with a former dorm-mate from freshman year—Obama moved to an apartment several miles off campus his second year, removing himself even further from the school’s day-to-day life—isn’t much help either. Howser’s imperturbable smile shows no sign of desperation even when he collars the head of alumni affairs, who boasts that his alumni association is one of only 25 in the world that could claim attachment to a U.S. president.
The host is beside himself.
“Is that right? How involved has he been in the alumni association?”
“Well, I have to admit he hasn’t been to any alumni events . . . ”
“Has he been a big contributor?”
The man gives one of those nods that are more headshake than nod. “He—he is on our mailing list.”
“We have big plans to ask Mr. Obama back to campus to speak.”
Howser beams. History has that effect on people.
And there we are. You can’t help but sympathize with our host, with the flack, with the curators at the college library. They faced a challenge known to anyone who tries to account for Barack Obama: How do you turn him into a man as interesting and significant as the world-historical figure that so many people, admirers and detractors alike, presume him to be? There’s not a lot of material here. Obama had an unusual though hardly Dickensian childhood complicated by divorce, and at age 33 he wrote an extremely good book about it, the memoir Dreams from My Father. He followed it with an uneventful and weirdly passive career in politics, and he wrote an extremely not-very-good book about it, The Audacity of Hope. Then, lacking any original ideas or platform to speak of, he ran as the first half-black, half-white candidate for president and, miraculously, won. It’s a boffo finish without any wind-up—teeth-shattering climax, but no foreplay.
There are two ways to aggrandize Obama, to inflate the reality so that it meets the expectation: through derogation or reverence. The facts warrant neither approach, but they don’t deter the Obama fabulists, two of whom have just published those brand-new books I mentioned.
The Amateur, by a former New York Times magazine editor named Edward Klein, takes the first approach. Pure Obama-hatred was enough to shoot the book to the top of the Times bestseller list for the first three weeks after its release. Klein is best known as a Kennedy-watcher, author of such panting chronicles as All Too Human: The Love Story of Jack and Jackie Kennedy and Farewell, Jackie: A Portrait of Her Final Days; among the many info-bits he has tossed onto the sprawling slagheap of Kennedy lore is the news that Jackie lost her virginity in an elevator (the elevator was in Paris, where else). More recently Klein has honed his hatchet with books on Hillary Clinton and Katie Couric. Now The Amateur proves that he has mastered the techniques of such anti-Obama pioneers as Dinesh (The Roots of Obama’s Rage) D’Souza and David (The Great Destroyer) Limbaugh. He knows how to swing the sledgehammer prose, combine a leap of logic with a baseless inference, pad the paragraphs with secondary material plucked from magazine articles you’ve already read, and render the most mundane details in the most scandalized tones.
Sure, “Michelle now likes to pretend that she plays no part in personnel decisions or in formulating policy.” We’ve all heard that. And you believe it? “The facts tell quite a different story.” Facts are stubborn things! In truth, “Michelle’s aides meet regularly with the president’s senior communications team and select public events that will maximize and reinforce the Obamas’ joint message.” Wait. It gets worse. Klein has made a source of “one of Barack’s closest confidants.” And here’s what this confidant reveals: “Barack has always listened to what she has to say.” A direct quote, from source’s mouth to author’s ear. I wonder if they met in a darkened garage.
Klein has a problem with his sources—or rather, the reader should have a problem with Klein’s use of his sources, whoever they are. Blind quotes appear on nearly every page; there are blind quotes within blind quotes. The book cost him a year to research and write, he says proudly—“an exhilarating experience that took me to more than a half-dozen cities, either in person or by telephone or email.” (I visited several cities by email just this morning.) And it’s clear that all this dialing, emailing, dialing, emailing, bore little fruit. “I was at a dinner where Valerie [Jarrett] sat at our table for nearly 10 minutes,” another anonymous source divulges. “And I wasn’t particularly impressed.” Now it can be told. The book’s big revelation comes from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He claims, in an on-the-record interview with Klein, that in 2008 an unnamed friend of an unnamed friend of Obama sent Wright an email offering him $150,000 “not to preach at all until the November presidential election.” Republicans may seethe, but it’s odd that they would suddenly take the word of Jeremiah Wright, a publicity-seeking narcissist who says AIDS was invented by the government.
With such thin material, the only way to keep a book like The Amateur chugging along is with gallons of high-octane contempt. Yet because Klein provides so little to provoke fresh outrage—or to support the theme that Obama is “something new in American politics,” a historically unprecedented threat to the Republic—readers will have to come to the book well-stocked with outrage of their own. They will be satisfied with sentences that begin with an appeal to phony-baloney authority (“According to those who know him best”) and continue with assertions that no Obama intimate would make to Edward Klein, on or off the record: “inept in the arts of management . . . make[s] our economy less robust and our nation less safe . . .” and so on. And they’ll admire his ability to fit his theme of Obama’s villainy to any set of facts. After his election, for example, Obama didn’t take a wise man’s advice to disregard his old Chicago friends—a sign of Obama’s weakness and amateurism, Klein says. A few pages later Obama and Valerie Jarrett are accused of ignoring their old Chicago friends—a sign of coldness and amateurism. Klein gets him coming and going.
If Klein makes Obama something he’s not by hating him more than he should, David Maraniss, a reporter for the Washington Post and a biographer of Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, takes the opposite approach. Klein is an Obama despiser, Maraniss is a big fan—big fan. Klein assumes the worst of his subject at every turn, Maraniss gives Obama every benefit of the doubt, sometimes with heroic effort. Klein writes hastily and crudely, Maraniss writes with great care, veering now and then into those pastures of purple prose that Obama frequently trod in his own memoir. Klein’s book aims for a limited but sizable audience of readers who already despise Obama as much as he does, and therefore don’t require footnotes or any other apparatus of verification; Maraniss, with 30 pages of notes, has grander ambitions to satisfy anyone curious about Obama’s upbringing and family life. Klein’s book is a squalid little thing, Maraniss’s is not.
It is not, however, the book that Obama lovers will hope for—maybe not the book that Maraniss thinks it is. Prepublication, his splashiest piece of news has been the extent of the future president’s love for, and consumption of, marijuana. Through high school—he apparently lost the taste for pot sometime in college—Obama’s ardor reached Cheech and Chong levels. His circle of dopers called themselves the “Choom Gang,” after a Hawaiian word for inhaling pot, and the phrase is already threatening to enter the common language, ironically or otherwise. (I Googled it today and got 560,000 hits, pardon the expression.)
Obama politically indemnified himself against charges of youthful drug use by admitting them in his memoir, though he was smart enough to avoid the words “Choom Gang.” Even at 33, when he wrote his book, he had his eye on a political landscape that would require acknowledgment if not full disclosure of youthful “experimentation,” as the charming euphemism went. In Dreams, he treats the drug use as another symptom of his singular youthful confusion. Maraniss’s explanation is less complicated: Obama really, really liked to get high. Maraniss offers similarly unblinkered portraits of Obama’s appalling father, a vain, wife-beating bigamist and drunk, and of Obama’s maternal grandfather, who comes off in Dreams as a latter-day Micawber, innocent and luckless. Maraniss hints at a darker, even slightly menacing figure. And he discovers some sharp edges beneath the flowing muumuu of Obama’s mother, more often depicted as an idealistic flower-child-turned-scholar (or, in the Klein-reading camp, a Communist agitator).
Maraniss’s book is most interesting for the light it casts on Obama’s self-invention, which is of course the theme of Dreams from My Father: a sensitive and self-aware young man’s zig-zagging search for a personal identity in a world barely held together by fraying family ties, without a cultural inheritance, confused and tormented by the subject of race. Dreams is a cascade of epiphanies, touched off one by one in high school, at Oxy, in New York and Chicago, and, at book’s end, before his father’s grave in Africa. Years before Obama haters could inflate him into an America-destroying devil or Obama worshippers spied those rolling swells of greatness that have yet to surface, Barack Obama was carefully fashioning from his own life something grander than what was there. He was the first Obama fabulist.
Obama himself drops hints of this in Dreams. He writes in his introduction that the dialogue in the book is only an “approximation” of real conversations. Some of the characters, “for the sake of compression,” are “composites”; the names of others have been changed. All of this is offered to the reader as acceptable literary license, and it is, certainly by the standards of the early 1990s, back in the day when publishers flooded bookstores with memoirs of angst-ridden youth and there were still bookstores to flood. Yet the epiphany-per-page ratio in Obama’s memoir is very high. The book derives its power from the reader’s understanding that the events described were factual at least in the essentials. Maraniss demonstrates something else: The writer who would later use the power of his life story to become a plausible public man was making it up, to an alarming extent.
At least it should be alarming to admirers of Dreams. Early on Obama signals that his book will be more self-aware, more detached and ironical, than most youthful memoirs, especially those involving the humid subject of race. Thus we meet Ray, a classmate at Punahou School in Hawaii. Ray is black and radicalized, and given to racially charged rants about “white folks,” a term the narrator comes to despise.
“Sometimes, after one of his performances,” Obama writes, “I would question his judgment, if not his sincerity. We weren’t living in the Jim Crow South, I would remind him. We weren’t consigned to some heatless housing project in Harlem or the Bronx. We were in goddamned Hawaii.”
Still Ray’s rants continue, and Obama continues to listen. Ray complains the football coach won’t start him, despite his superior skill, because he’s black; Obama is clearly being passed up by the basketball coach on account of his race, too. The white girls refuse to go out with them—for the same reason.
“Tell me we wouldn’t be treated different if we was white. Or Japanese.”
Racial resentment is the key to Ray. In Maraniss’s words, he’s “a symbol of young blackness, a mix of hot anger and cool detachment,” racially authentic in a way none of Obama’s other friends were. He provides a crucial example of the resentment that Obama is tempted by but at last outgrows.
But Ray wasn’t really there—didn’t exist, in fact. Ray is a “reinvention” of one of Obama’s friends, Maraniss tells us. His mother was half-black and half-American Indian; his father was . . . Japanese. His name was Keith Kakugawa, and he had no trouble dating white girls; his girlfriend at the time was the base admiral’s daughter. Maraniss discovered that Obama’s luck with girls, whatever their melanin count, was just as robust as Keith’s. With a Japanese name, Kakugawa would have trouble—more trouble than half-black Barry Obama—identifying himself as an African American and speaking as one. If Kakugawa was Ray, then the rants and the attitudes they represent are in this instance made up, and the story line of Dreams—the story of Obama’s life as we have learned it—loses an essential foil.
“Somewhere between pseudonymous and fictitious,” Maraniss writes, gently as always, “Ray was the first of several distorted or composite characters employed in Dreams for similar purposes.” But it’s the purposes themselves that are worrisome. Maraniss cuts Obama much more slack than he would, say, if he were an editor at the Washington Post magazine fact-checking a memoir he hoped to publish. He’s right to accept some invention from a memoirist who insists on telling his story through precise rendering of scenes and dialogue. But a memoir is just realist fiction unless the “composite” says and does things that were done and said by someone. In Dreams many of the crucial epiphanies, the moments that advance the narrator’s life and understanding to its closing semi-resolution, didn’t happen.
That first year at Oxy, Obama writes, he was “living one long lie,” crippled by self-consciousness and insecurity. (Many freshmen have known the feeling.) But then Barry Obama meets Regina.
“Regina . . . made me feel like I didn’t have to lie,” he writes. The two are introduced by a mutual friend, Marcus, in the campus coffee shop. She asks him about the name Barry—and becomes, in a liberating moment, one of the first to call him by his given name, Barack. More important, “she told me about her childhood in Chicago.” It was an authentic black American experience, he learns: “the absent father and struggling mother,” the rundown six-flat on the South Side, along with the compensations of an extended family—“uncles and cousins and grandparents, the stew of voices bubbling up in laughter.”
“Her voice evoked a vision of black life in all its possibility, a vision that filled me with longing—a longing for place, and a fixed and definite history.”
The afternoon with Regina transforms Barack. “Strange how a single conversation can change you,” he writes, setting up the ol’ epiphany.
“I had felt my voice returning to me that afternoon with Regina . . . [and] entering sophomore year I could feel it growing stronger, sturdier, that constant, honest portion of myself, a bridge between my future and my past.”
And the rest is history.
Except . . . there is layer upon layer of confusion here. When Maraniss inquired, Obama’s closest black friend at Occidental couldn’t recognize any real-life counterparts to the characters of Regina and Marcus, and in fact neither of them existed. Regina, Maraniss thinks, was the combination of a wealthy white girl (there were lots of them at Oxy, then and now, none overly familiar with the authentic black American experience) and a female black upperclassman who grew up middle class. Which part of Regina belonged to which real person isn’t mentioned and probably not discoverable. But that crucial background that Regina recounts to the narrator—the upbringing that inspired Obama to discover his voice and set in motion a train of events that led him to leave Occidental and the West for New York City and Columbia University—belonged to neither of Obama’s friends. The background, Maraniss says, may have been drawn from Michelle Robinson (later Obama), whom Obama would not meet for another 10 years. It’s like an epiphany in a time warp. And even then the facts are obscured: Michelle’s father never left his family, as Regina’s did.
Going back to Dreams after several years, and after reading Maraniss’s impressive book, you can get a bad case of the jumps. Take this spat between Regina and Barry, occurring the evening after his big antiapartheid speech, given on those steps that years later would wow Huell Howser:
Knowing what we know now—that this intelligent, socially aware, fatherless girl from the South Side didn’t exist, by whatever name—we can only hope that there was some “very sweet lady” at Occidental who actually did flatter Barack Obama in this way, at that moment. If it’s pure invention it reads like a testy exchange between Norman Bates and his mother.
What’s dispiriting is that throughout Dreams, the moments that Obama has invented are precisely the occasions of his epiphanies—precisely those periodic aha! moments that carry the book and bring its author closer to self-discovery. Without them not much is left: a lot of lovely writing, some unoriginal social observations, a handful of precocious literary turns. Obama wasn’t just inventing himself; he was inventing himself inventing himself. It made for a story, anyway.
We can see the dilemma he faced. Obama signed a contract to write a racial memoir. They were all the rage in those days, but in fact their moment had passed. Even with the distant father and absent mother, the schooling in Indonesia and the remote stepfather, Obama lived a life of relative ease. He moved, however uncomfortably, into one elite institution after another, protected by civil rights laws, surrounded by a popular culture in which the African-American experience has embedded itself ineradicably. As Obama’s best biographer, David Remnick, observed, this wasn’t the stuff of Manchild in the Promised Land; you couldn’t use it to make the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or the Auto-biography of Malcolm X. So Obama moved the drama inside himself, and said he’d found there an experience both singular and universal, and he brought nonexistent friends like Regina and Ray to goose the story along.
He did in effect what so many of us have done with him. He created a fable about an Obama far bigger and more consequential than the unremarkable man at its center. He joins us, haters and idolaters, as we join Huell Howser, looking this way and that, desperately trying to see what isn’t there. Isn’t that something?
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. A graduate of Occidental College, he reviewed Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope in our February 12, 2007, issue.
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