November 18, 2009
Fact-Check This, Associated Press!By Jack Cashill
"I think Obama's in a league with TR," observes historian and presidential biographer Douglas Brinkley. "He created his political reputation through the written word."
To be sure, no one has ever accused Sarah Palin, a defeated vice presidential candidate, of creating her reputation thusly. One has to wonder, then, why her book, Going Rogue, would merit a fact-check by no fewer than eleven Associated Press reporters when neither the AP nor any other mainstream outlet has spent a moment vetting the books of the "author in chief," as President Barack Obama was anointed in a November GQ article, "Barack Obama's Work in Progress" by Tom Draper.
In an observant piece called the Road to Bali, blogger Tom Maguire addresses the implicit media balance. He does so by calling attention to just one relevant question that the media might have profitably asked our president: did you take new bride Michelle to Bali with you in 1993?
In the course of asking that question, not terribly significant in and of itself, Maguire sheds light on a more substantive question: why have the media paid so little attention to how Barack Obama came to write the book that would make his reputation -- his acclaimed 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father?
As source, Maguire turns to Draper, who has spent time with Michelle and Barack and written the most detailed account to date of the genesis of Dreams. Blinded by Obama's light, however, Draper fails to see the gaping holes in his own storyline.
As Draper tells it, a February 1990 New York Times article telling how Harvard has elected Obama president of the Harvard Law Review attracted the attention of a young agent named Jane Dystel. Draper implies that Obama's "irresistible" writing skills netted him the position, which is not at all true.
In fact, the election was a popularity contest held in racially charged environment. The culturally ambiguous Obama won on his race-healing talents, not his literary ones. He would contribute only one leaden, unsigned case note to the HLR and has not written another legal article since.
According to Draper, on November 28, 1990, Poseidon Press, a Simon & Schuster imprint, issued "a six-figure contract" to Obama for a book tentatively titled Journeys in Black and White. In his recent book, Barack and Michelle: Portrait of An American Marriage, Christopher Andersen specifies the amount at $150,000.
In the hope of recruiting Obama, the University of Chicago Law School offered him an office to use for finishing the book, and there he spent 1991 and 1992. Nearly two years passed, and Obama could not produce. Draper quotes an Obama confession to confidante Valerie Jarrett in 1992: "I just can't get it down on paper. ... I'd much rather hang out with Michelle than focus on this."
Although Draper would never say so, this represented a failure of character as much as it did a failure of talent. Obama had pocketed $75,000 of that advance in exchange for the promise of a manuscript by June 15, 1992. He had more than eighteen months to complete a memoir, the easiest of all genres. It required minimal research, no footnotes, and a narrative that needed not be factual as long as it was plausible.
As a point of comparison, I was offered a contract in April 2005 to write a memoir with a deadline of September 1, 2005. In other words, I had four months to do what Obama could not do in eighteen. To complicate matters, my memoir was to be a story about growing up in the age of Muhammad Ali. So in addition to writing, I read roughly 30-40 books on boxing and related subjects during that period and watched scores of fight films and documentaries.
I set as a goal a thousand words a day, and I made the September 1 deadline. It would have helped a lot if I had ever learned to type, but to me, missing the deadline was unthinkable if for no other reason than that I, like Obama, had signed a contract and accepted an advance. Although Sucker Punch was my fourth published book, I can assure you that my advance was considerably less than that of the untested Obama.
In any case, the June 15, 1992 deadline came and went without a manuscript from Obama. As Draper blithely notes, Obama had other things on his mind, namely his impending October 3rd marriage to Michelle. On October 20, 1992, according to Draper, Poseidon terminated Obama's contract.
Andersen adds a detail that mythmaker Draper chooses to omit. Obama feared that Simon & Schuster would demand the $75,000 already advanced. Writes Andersen, "But when Barack informed them that he had spent the money -- and that he and his wife were still chipping away at their massive student loan debt -- the publisher agreed not to press the issue." In other words, Obama asked for and received an undeserved bailout. A pattern was developing here.
The tenacious agent Jane Dystel managed to find another publisher, Times Books, and secured a smaller advance of $40,000. Draper tells us that Obama used the advance "to fulfill his outstanding financial obligation to Poseidon." Andersen's take sounds more credible.
"Now he's got to produce," writes Draper. "But how?" Although the sanctuary at the University of Chicago and a previous retreat to a friend's Wisconsin farm had done no good, Obama hit upon the idea of going to Bali to unblock. (For Sucker Punch, I went to my cabin on Lake Erie).
As blogger Maguire notes, the pre-election myth, advanced by the New York Times and others, is that Michelle accompanied him. Wrote the Times on May 18, 2008, Obama "eventually retreated to Bali for several months with his wife, Michelle."
A more recent and less romantic version, advanced by Draper and by the Times as well, is that Obama went by himself. "For a month," writes Draper, "he is a lone figure pacing on the white sand and hammering on his laptop."
Andersen describes the Obamas as "drowning in debt" during this period. How either Barack or Michelle could have afforded to go to Bali during this period, for one month or three, remains something of a mystery. Mysterious too is how the media could leave unresolved such glaring contradictions in the biography of the world's most famous man.
Maguire highlights still another hole in the Draper narrative. Incredibly, in a 5,000-word article on Obama's development as a writer, Draper says nothing about what happened between early 1993, when Obama returned from Bali, to June 1995, when Dreams was published. Draper leaves the impression that the month-long Bali high was just what Obama needed to fire his synapses.
Andersen is much more credible here. As he tells it, Bali proved no more helpful than any other retreat. At Michelle's urging, the "hopelessly blocked" Obama finally turned to "friend and Hyde Park neighbor" Bill Ayers to help him.
Andersen's details are specific. The Obamas were convinced of "Ayers's proven abilities as a writer." Barack particularly liked the novelistic style of To Teach, a 1993 book by Ayers. The key sentence in Andersen's account is this: "[The Obama family] oral histories, along with his partial manuscript and a trunkload of notes were given to Ayers."
Adds Andersen, "Thanks to help from veteran writer Ayers, Barack would be able to submit a manuscript to his editors at Times Books." Based on my own research, I would argue that Ayers actually wrote the book's best sections. Obama's previous published efforts show not a wisp of the skill on display in Dreams. Not surprisingly, Draper overlooks those early efforts.
With his man-crush trumping his critical insights, Draper chooses not to relate the fate of plucky agent Dystel. That story was hard to miss. The proudly liberal but seriously disgusted publisher Peter Osnos went public three years ago. According to Osnos, Obama dumped his devoted long-time agent after Dreams took off and then signed a seven-figure deal with Crown, using only a by-the-hour attorney.
Obama pulled off the deal after his 2004 election to the U.S. Senate but before being sworn in as Senator, thus avoiding the disclosure and reporting requirements applicable to members of Congress. Osnos publicly scolded Obama for his "ruthlessness" and "his questionable judgment about using public service as a personal payday."
But that was in 2006, when Obama was a mere mortal. Today, Obama is a literary god, however false, and challenging the gods is apparently above the AP's pay grade.