Did Maraniss Commit Fraud to Protect Obama?
I was sitting out at lunch the other day reading David Maraniss's new book, Barack Obama: The Story, when I came across a passage that gave me pause. Maraniss excerpted the passage from an article, "Breaking the War Mentality," that Obama had written in 1983 for a Columbia University publication called the Sundial. What caught my attention was that the passage in question read better than I remembered.
I returned to my office after lunch, checked a digitized copy of the article, and then double-checked a PDF of the original print edition. I was right. The passage had been edited to fix one of Obama's signature errors, his chronic failure to get nouns and verbs to agree.
Here is how the offending sentence appears in the Maraniss book: "But the states of war -- the sounds and chill, the dead bodies -- are remote and far removed." (Italics mine.)
Here is how the sentence appears in the original text: "But the taste of war -- the sounds and chill, the dead bodies -- are remote and far removed." The sentence, of course, should read, "the taste ... is." [editor's note in response to comments: there is no typo here. Maraniss changed "taste" to "states," which allowed for noun-verb agreement.] This is one of an appalling five sentences in Obama's 1,800-word essay in which the noun and verb do not agree.
The Sundial article is Obama's defining piece, his Rosetta Stone. The mistakes he makes -- the random use of commas, the tortured sentence structure, the awkward participles, the inept word selection, and especially the misaligned nouns and verbs -- reappear in his 1988 essay "Why Organize" and in a lengthy 1990 letter he wrote to the Harvard Law Record, the only other prose pieces before his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, that bear his name.
Let me explain why this matters. Obama wrote this article in the same school year he sent long-distance girlfriend Alex McNear a series of quasi-love letters, one of which was prominently excerpted in a Maraniss piece in the May issue of Vanity Fair.
The letter impressed me as being much better-written than the Sundial article or any of Obama's subsequent pieces. The punctuation, erratic in the Sundial essay, was impeccable in the letter. Then, too, the subject matter was sophisticated and well-removed from Obama's expressed range of interests. Let me cite a few sentences as they appeared in Vanity Fair:
But I will hazard these statements -- [T. S.] Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats.
Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality.
Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.
Upon reading the letters, I presumed Obama had either plagiarized parts of them or had gotten help from a friend. Lovelorn young men have been doing both since the invention of papyrus. Obama had much to prove. Two years earlier, McNear, then the editor of the Occidental literary magazine, had rejected a piece of short fiction he had submitted. In the Maraniss book, this is one of the few times the reader sees Obama truly angry. "The rejection infuriated Obama," he writes. The would-be writer reportedly told the managing editor, "You just don't get it. You're stupid."
In the McNear letter, whatever his involvement, Obama was clearly showing off. The other Obama letters that Maraniss quotes in the book are not nearly as ambitious, including those sent to McNear as the relationship dimmed.
Maraniss has the maddening habit, however, of documenting some letters and not documenting others. On one occasion, for instance, he quotes at length a letter Obama received from his father. "The important thing," Obama Sr. writes in encouraging his son to visit Kenya, "is that you know your people and also that you know where you belong." There is no citation. The average reader would presume that Maraniss had been given a copy of the letter by Obama. I found it in Dreams. In context, knowing Obama's tendency to improvise, I thought it likely a fake.
The McNear letters are documented. I have no doubt that they exist and little doubt that they were sent by Obama when Maraniss said they were. Still, as I had written in an earlier article, given the controversy surrounding the authorship of Dreams, Maraniss owes his reader some sense of what format he found the letters in, some proof of their legitimacy. He obviously feels otherwise.
When David Weigel of Slate posed my suspicion to Maraniss, he responded with the contempt he has lately been showering on us "strange armies of ideological pseudo-historians [that] roam the biographical fields in search of stray information." Wrote Maraniss, "It is preposterous on its face, utterly made of whole cloth."
At the time I voiced my concerns, I presumed that either Obama had gotten help with the letters in 1982-1983 or that the Obama camp had tampered with the letters before Maraniss saw them. There is, after all, much at stake here. Obama's claim to genius is based on his literary skills, especially as evident in Dreams. In recent years, however, many observers have come to suspect Obama had substantial help in writing the book, most likely provided by neighborhood editor extraordinaire Bill Ayers.
The publication of the Vanity Fair excerpts helped put to rest, at least temporarily, doubts the literary community might harbor about Obama's genius. The New York Times's Adam Hirsch, for instance, gushed over the young Obama's "literary sensibility" and his "ironic, literary mind." Although regretting that Obama's "authenticity" has not made him a transformative figure, Hirsch remains "certain" that Obama "has it in him to produce the best post-presidential memoir ever -- if he is willing to let that unguarded early voice speak again."
The McNear letter reminded me of the literary establishment's vulnerability to politically appealing fraud, a subject about which I wrote a book a few years back called Hoodwinked. Upon first reading the letter, I suspected that Maraniss had proved equally vulnerable. Did he not ask himself how a mediocre student, writing presumably from memory, could embark upon a sophisticated, spontaneous discussion of T.S. Eliot or think to put an umlaut over the "u" in Münzer?
After catching the word switch in the Sundial excerpt, I now have to question whether it was the young Obama who added the umlaut. I suppose the Sundial edit, like the umlaut, might have been made by an editing program and overlooked by Maraniss, but the duty to explain is now his. Otherwise, he stands accused of fraud.