Barack Obama’s autobiographical fictions
Jun 18, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 38 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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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