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The Lies and Rise of Barack Obama

If you don't want to take it from me or the Tribune, take it from David Remnick and Garry Wills: Barack Obama is full of it.

From "Behind Obama's Cool," Wills's review of Remnick's The Bridge: The Life and Times of Barack Obama:

"Obama is such a good storyteller that his biographer might well be intimidated by the thought of competing with his own version of his life. But Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, has many important additions and corrections to make to our reading of Dreams From My Father."

It seems Obama got his own life story wrong - something that would become a familiar pattern.

As Greg Waldmann wrote at Open Letters Monthly:

"Many praise Dreams from My Father for its honesty (with which it seems to abound), and recommend it in part as a window into Obama's thoughts before he became involved in politics. It's an idea Obama has done nothing to discourage, but it's a myth.

"As Ryan Lizza pointed out recently in The New Yorker, 'Obama was writing Dreams at the moment that he was preparing for a life in politics, and he launched his book and his first political campaign simultaneously, in the summer of 1995."

The Los Angeles Times - among others - once noted that Dreams From My Father, the first of Obama's books, is not a historical account. In it, Obama uses literary techniques that are rarely found in political memoirs."

That's because of this acknowledgement, which makes it impossible to rely on:

"Dialogue in the memoir is an 'approximation of what was actually said or relayed to me,' Obama wrote in its introduction. For the sake of compression, he wrote, some characters are 'composites of people I've known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.'"

Journalists have relied on it anyway.

As Remnick shows, though, it's carefully codged.

"Obama makes his mother sound naive and rather simple in his book," Wills writes. "Remnick shows that she was a smart and sophisticated scholar, whose studies for her doctorate were aided by her friend Alice Dewey, the granddaughter of John Dewey."


"Though Obama becomes disillusioned by the end of the book with his hard-drinking and bitter father, Remnick shows that another of Barack Sr.'s sons has even darker tales to tell of him - how this African son, Mark, gave up his father's name out of memories of the way his mother screamed as her husband cruelly beat her."


"Remnick notes that Obama's pot smoking in high school was more a matter of belonging to a new crowd than of adolescent angst (as Obama paints it)."

This is no small point. Every step of the way, those who were around Obama consistently tell his story differently.

Former Obama co-worker Dan Armstrong wrote on his Analyze This blog:

"All of Barack's embellishment serves a larger narrative purpose: to retell the story of the Christ's temptation. The young, idealistic, would-be community organizer gets a nice suit, joins a consulting house, starts hanging out with investment bankers, and barely escapes moving into the big mansion with the white folks."

In the New York Times's "Obama's Account of New York Years Often Differs From What Others Say," Armstrong said:

"[I]n order to make it a good story, it required a bit of exaggeration."

The Tribune (charitably) put it this way:

"[S]everal of his oft-recited stories may not have happened in the way he has recounted them. Some seem to make Obama look better in the retelling, others appear to exaggerate his outward struggles over issues of race, or simply skim over some of the most painful, private moments of his life."


Back to Wills:

"Remnick begins The Bridge with a set piece on the 2007 commemorations of the Selma march. Obama had just begun his presidential campaign, and he went to Selma to claim its civil rights legacy as his own. At the time, Hillary Clinton led him in support among blacks by three to one. Even Lewis would be on her side, at first. The Clintons had a long and excellent record with African-Americans. Obama was 3 years old at the time of the Selma march, and he was living in Hawaii, far from the civil rights turmoil of the '60s.

"In his first race for Congress, against the former Black Panther Bobby Rush, Obama was branded 'not black enough.' He was not the descendant of American slaves. He had not participated in the civil rights struggle. He was not a militant activist. Nonetheless, Obama spoke at Brown Chapel in 2007, the launch site of the Selma march. Hillary Clinton was slow to make arrangements and had to settle for the less iconic First Baptist Church. She spoke well enough. Remnick is unfair to her, saying she dropped her g's and gave a northern Illinois version of Southspeak, 'channeling her inner Blanche DuBois.' In fact, Clinton is a natural mimic who 'does the voices' when she tells a story - I have heard her become a Southern judge and a black woman preacher when describing one of her law cases. This got her into trouble when she 'channeled' Tammy Wynette. Obama has the same gift. When he reads the audio version of Dreams From My Father. he speaks, in turn, like his Kenyan relatives, his Kansas relatives and the street kids he met in New York."

Indeed. Obama, after all, is the one who had to be taught how to speak more street and less Harvard - and shifts in and out of black church mode when politically convenient.

("[H]e learned how to speak more Chicago and less Harvard in subsequent campaigning" Abner Mikva told the New York Times.)


"The difference between the two ­speeches that day in Selma lay less in delivery than in Obama's way of making the events of his life story meld with those of his audience," Wills writes. "He was laying claim to the black struggle as his own. He said: 'My grandfather was a cook to the British in Kenya. Grew up in a small village and all his life, that's all he was - a cook and a houseboy. And that's what they called him, even when he was 60 years old. They called him a houseboy. They wouldn't call him by his last name. Call him by his first name. Sound familiar?' Actually, Remnick shows that Obama's grandfather was a respected village elder and property owner, who left his native town for Nairobi to cook for British colonials, and then traveled with British troops to Burma, bringing back their Western clothes and ways to his village.

"In Selma, Obama claimed that his father was the beneficiary of the civil rights movement because it made the American government bring Kenyans, including his father, to the United States: 'So the Kennedys decided we're going to do an airlift. We're going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country.' Remnick proves that the airlift was an idea for the improvement of Kenya, conceived and implemented by the Kenyan leader Tom Mboya, who came to America and raised funds from private sources, including Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. It was only after Obama's father had flown in the first airlift that John Kennedy contributed to the airlift, also from private (not government) funds."


See my real-time analysis of the Selma speeches here.


"Remnick rightly sees that memoir as a bildungsroman in the specifically black form of a 'slave narrative,' a story of the rise from dependency to mature self-possession," Wills writes. "In order to place himself in that tradition, Obama darkens the early part of the story and lightens the concluding sections. He trims the facts to fit the genre, just as he trimmed the events in his Selma speech to fit the black sermon format.

"Obama was not literally a slave in his youth, but he was in thrall to false images of his father, fostered by his mother's protective loyalty to her husband. Since Obama comes to a later recognition of his father's flaws, the story is crafted to show him shedding false idealism to become a pragmatic realist. The narrative protects him from claims that he is an ideologue or peddler of false hopes. The art with which the book is constructed to serve his deepest personal needs shows how ludicrous is the charge of Rush Limbaugh and others that he did not write it."

Yes, but by placing Obama's "art" against Limbaugh's ludicrosity you let Obama off the hook. Another way of looking at it: Obama lied.


"Remnick presents Obama as a perpetual outsider who wins acceptance in whatever new company he joins - in Hawaii, at Occidental College, then Columbia, then Harvard, in Chicago streets and churches, at the University of Chicago Law School, in the Illinois legislature, in the United States Senate.

"To do this, he had to allay the natural suspicions of any newcomer. Remnick sees how this was accomplished: 'Conciliation was his default mode, the dominant strain of his political personality.'

"In interview after interview, people's initial reaction to him is that he is always winning, always disarming - cool, intelligent and charming. A perfect example is the way he won election as the editor in chief of The Harvard Law Review.

"In a company of voting editors heatedly divided between left and right, he positioned himself in the center and won support from conservative editors along with liberals. Once in the editor's office, he banned a more militant black ally of his from the masthead to preserve peace on The Review.

"Later, when he taught at the University of Chicago Law School, he won the respect of conservative professors there, including Richard Posner - 'especially,' as Posner tells Remnick, 'after one of my clerks, who had worked with him at The Harvard Law Review, told me that he wasn't even all that liberal.'

"For all Obama's skills at ingratiation, Remnick grants that luck played a great role in his rise. He was never in a closely contested election until the presidential race of 2008, and the charges brought against him in that one were mainly trumped up - Remnick scrupulously sifts through the maximum use made of his minimal connections with Tony Rezko, Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright."

Here, Remnick stumbles and Wills bites. Obama was close to both Rezko and Wright. As has been noted here, Obama used to call Rezko his "political godfather." Not only that, but the Obamas socialized with the Rezkos and during Obama's U.S. Senate campaign he spoke to Rezko nearly every day. Wright was Obama's personal pastor, a confidante, the man who married him and Michelle, baptized their kids, and who served as the inspiration for the title of The Audacity of Hope.


"Obama's strategy everywhere before entering the White House was one of omnidirectional placation," Wills concludes. "It had always worked. Why should he abandon, at this point, a method of such proved effectiveness?

"Yet success at winning acceptance may not be what is called for in a leader moving through a time of peril. To disarm fears of change (the first African-­American presidency is, in itself, a big jolt of change), Obama has stressed continuity. Though he first became known as a critic of the war in Iraq, he has kept aspects or offshoots of Bush's war on terror - possible future 'renditions' (kidnappings on foreign soil), trials of suspected terrorists in military tribunals, no investigations of torture, an expanded Afghan commitment, though he promised to avoid 'a dumb war.'

"He appointed as his vice president and secretary of state people who voted for the Iraq war, and as secretary of defense and presiding generals people who conducted or defended that war.

"To cope with the financial crisis, he turned to Messrs. Geithner, Summers and Bernanke, who were involved in fomenting the crisis. To launch reform of medical care, he huddled with the American Medical Association, big pharmaceutical companies and insurance firms, and announced that his effort had their backing (the best position to be in for stabbing purposes, which they did month after month).

"All these things speak to Obama's concern with continuity and placation. But continuity easily turns into inertia, as we found when Obama wasted the first year of his term, the optimum time for getting things done. He may have drunk his own Kool-Aid - believing that his election could of itself usher in a post-racial, post-partisan, post-red-state and blue-state era. That is a change no one should ever have believed in. The price of winningness can be losing; and that, in this scary time, is enough to break the heart of hope."


Comments welcome.


For more separation of myth from reality, see the world's best analysis of Obamology in Obamathon.


1. Gary Borg writes:

After more than 30 years of a voting life, I've concluded that the last time anyone voted for a presidential candidate and was pleasantly surprised at the result must have been 1932. As for Obama, if it weren't for his self-regard, his suit would be empty.

2. Prescott Carlson writes:

I seem to recall a certain white guy who fudged the events in his memoir and he wound up having to get spanked by Oprah on her show and apologize. Maybe he should have hired David Axelrod instead.


Posted on April 14, 2010

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