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Self-Made Man

Barack Obama’s autobiographical fictions

Jun 18, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 38 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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The man gives one of those nods that are more headshake than nod. “He​—​he is on our mailing list.”

“Uh huh!”

“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.

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