What Maraniss Obviously Missed
I read the lead in the review of David Maraniss's much discussed new book, Barack Obama, the Story, by Ben Smith of Buzzfeed of with at least one eyebrow arched.
"David Maraniss's new biography of Barack Obama is the first sustained challenge to Obama's control over his own story," writes Smith, "a firm and occasionally brutal debunking of Obama's bestselling 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father."
Although those of us in the blogosphere lack Maraniss's resources and access to friendly witnesses, we have been debunking Obama's Dreams for the last four years. As I note in the introduction of my 2011 book, Deconstructing Obama, "In unlocking [Obama's] past, I have discovered that the story that Obama has been telling all his life varies from the true story in ways big and small."
Maraniss documents those variations better than I ever could have. "I counted 38 instances in which the biographer convincingly disputes significant elements of Obama's own story of his life and his family history," writes Smith. According to Maraniss, and this comes as a revelation to Smith, Obama falsified his bio largely to portray himself as "blacker and more disaffected" than he really was.
What is missing from the Maraniss book, however, is any real understanding of how Obama came to do this. A little background is in order here. It just so happened that Barack Obama was not the only black icon in his neighborhood to write a best-selling memoir. Boxing great Muhammad Ali produced one long before Obama, and he too with more than a little assistance. In Ali's case, that assistance has been well documented by black scholar Gerald Early.
According to Early, the Nation of Islam oversaw the entire production of The Greatest: My Own Story. The NOI newspaper's Marxist editor, Richard Durham, taped any number of conversations with the nearly illiterate Ali or between Ali and others and then gave them to an "editor" for writing. That editor was a young Toni Morrison. Ali's is surely the only boxing autobiography ghosted by a future Nobel Prize winner. NOI honcho Elijah Muhammad's son Herbert reviewed every page. As you might expect, Ali's Muslim helpmates rendered his story poorer, tougher, and blacker than the truth would bear. I relate this tale of literary gamesmanship in my own book, Sucker Punch.
As I came to believe early on, whoever guided Obama steered him towards a grievance narrative like Ali's, if not quite as obvious or extravagant. Even on my first reading in July 2008, I could see that Obama's muse proved particularly eloquent on the subject of the angry black male.
Phrases like "full of inarticulate resentments," "knotted, howling assertion of self," "unruly maleness," "unadorned insistence on respect" and "withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage" lace the book. Yet in the several spontaneous interviews Obama had given on the subject of race, I had not seen a glimpse of this eloquence or of this anger.
The evidence eventually led me towards an odd conclusion: The man who lent Obama his voice on the subject of blackness gave all appearances of being white. The more I researched Bill Ayers' background, the less unlikely this seemed. Skin color aside, Ayers and Obama had much in common. Both grew up in comfortable white households, attended idyllic, largely white prep schools, and have struggled to find an identity as righteous black men ever since.
"I also thought I was black," writes Ayers only half-jokingly in his 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days. He read all the authors Obama did -- James Baldwin, Leroi Jones, Richard Wright, Malcolm X. As proof of his righteousness, Ayers named his first son "Malik" after the newly Islamic Malcolm X and the second son "Zayd" after Zayd Shakur, a Black Panther killed in a shootout that claimed the life of a New Jersey State Trooper. Just as Obama resisted "the pure and heady breeze of privilege" to which he was exposed as a child, Ayers too resisted "white skin privilege" or at least tried to.
Tellingly, Ayers, like Obama, began his career as a self-described "community organizer," Ayers in inner-city Cleveland, Obama in inner-city Chicago. In Chicago, Ayers also found a strategic ally in Jeremiah Wright, a man he called a "distinguished theologian and major intellectual," meaning that Wright too spelled "Amerikkka" with three Ks. In short, Ayers was fully capable of crawling inside Obama's head and relating in superior prose what Obama calls, only half-ironically, a "rage at the white world [that] needed no object."
In Fugitive Days, "rage" rules. Ayers tells of how his "rage got started" and how it evolved into an "uncontrollable rage -- fierce frenzy of fire and lava." In fact, both Ayers and Obama speak of "rage" the way that Eskimos do of snow -- in so many varieties, so often, that they feel the need to qualify it, as Obama does when he speaks of "impressive rage," "suppressed rage" or "coil of rage."
This rage leads Ayers to a sentiment with which Obama was altogether familiar. Ayers writes, "I felt the warrior rising up inside of me -- audacity and courage, righteousness, of course, and more audacity." Ayers had likely pulled the concept of "audacity" from the same source Jeremiah Wright did, Martin Luther King. Something apparently got lost in translation.
Ayers may have outgrown his affection for violence by the time he and Obama hooked up, but his attraction to radical politics smoldered on. Like so many on the hard left, he supported those politics with whatever historical invention he could get away with. "If there is no God," said Jean Paul Sartre in his famous paraphrase of Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov, "everything is permitted." Ayers admits as much. "The old gods failed and the old truths left the world." Ayers observes. "Clear conclusions were mainly delusional, a luxury of religious fanatics and fools."
The respective memoirs of Ayers and Obama follow the kind of rules one would expect from someone indifferent to truth. Ayers describes his as "a memory book," one that deliberately blurs facts and changes identities and makes no claims at history. Obama says much the same. In Dreams, some characters are composites. Names have been changed. Events occur out of precise chronology
Like Maraniss, Obama-friendly biographer David Remnick
cuts Obama a lot of his slack for his many twists of the truth. What makes Dreams "exceptional," he observes, is "not that Obama allows himself these freedoms, but, rather, that he cops to them right away." Not that exceptional. Ayers copped to these freedoms right away too. He asks of his own memoir, "Is this then the truth?" He answers, "Not exactly. Although it feels entirely honest to me."
Maraniss's book promises to be the first of two volumes. For all of his good work to date, until he can bring himself to address the obvious question of authorship, he will be casting only the dimmest light on history's greatest presidential mystery.