Old Interview Sheds New Light on Obama's Debate Flop
In February 2001, Julieanna Richardson, as part of an oral history on black Americans called "History Makers," interviewed Barack Obama at length.
Although the 10,000-plus-word interview offers no Eureka moments, it does help demystify Obama's debate failure and deepens the doubt that he uniquely authored his own memoir, Dreams from My Father. Kudos to attorney Barron Sawyer for bringing this interview to light.
Richardson seems to capture the 39-year-old state senator as he was -- cautious, ambitious, and more than a little vain. Given his ambitions, Obama confined his discussion to topics that would not derail his political career. When asked about his influences, for instance, he did not mention Frank Marshall Davis, his communist mentor from Hawaii, or any of the other communists and fellow travelers he cited in Dreams, like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, W.E.B. DuBois, and Frantz Fanon.
Off the cuff, here as always, Obama did not impress. His vocabulary was pedestrian, his syntax uninteresting, his thinking more or less off-the-shelf, and his use of the phrase "you know" maddening. True, people write in a different style from how they speak, but usually not that different. The reader of Dreams had a right to expect more from "the best writer to occupy the White House since Lincoln" than this interview offers.
These limitations would not even be an issue if Obama and his acolytes acknowledged them. Before Wednesday, they did not. Based on little more than Dreams and his ability to read well, Obama supporters thought Obama a genius and did not shy from saying so. Obama shared their opinion. "I had learned as an organizer to be able to articulate a position and express myself in clear ways that served me well as a law student and, ultimately, as a lawyer as well," he told Richardson.
That talent was not exactly evident to Wednesday's debate audience. To the dispassionate observer, it never has been evident. Obama was not "off his game" in Denver. That was his game. As a student of Obama, I was not at all surprised by the outcome. I had been predicting it.
Complicating Obama's debating posture was his inability to express his truest sentiments. As he told Richardson, he had long been asking himself, "... how do we bring about more just society? You know, what are the institutional arrangements that would give people opportunity?" He had learned as a boy in Indonesia that the wealthy were not "smarter or more able" than the poor, but rather "craftier, stronger or luckier, or more ruthless."
As Obama matured, he projected what he saw in Indonesia to America and came to see that the "racism in the United States is just one expression of sort of a broader set of injustices that you see around the world." Unable to voice his core beliefs in the debate, Obama lacked a true organizing principle around which to order his thoughts. This problem will plague him in the foreign policy debate as well, perhaps even more.
The social philosophy on display in the interview did not vary much from that expressed in Dreams, at least not in content. The real difference was in tone. Absent in the interview was any hint of the anger that prompted Dinesh D'Souza to title his book on Obama The Roots of Obama's Rage. In Dreams, Obama proved particularly eloquent on the subject of angry black males, himself included. 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" laced the book.
In Dreams, Obama recounted any number of personal racial slights as well. On one occasion a tennis coach touched Obama's skin to see if the color rubbed off -- and this in Hawaii, mind you. On another mystifying occasion, Obama barely refrained from punching out a white school chum because the kid made a sympathetic allusion to Obama's outsider status. On a few occasions, he scolded his mother for romanticizing the black experience, and then, of course, he chastised his grandmother, first in the book, and later before the world, for daring to let a black panhandler intimidate her.
It is unlikely that the real Obama ever felt this way. He told Richardson that his childhood in Hawaii was "idyllic" and that "the image that [he] had of being a black American was almost exclusively positive." He added that "all the children around me were of some mixture, and so I was not unusual or untypical in Hawaii." He mentioned not a single racial affront.
Friendly biographer David Remnick conceded that Obama "darkens the canvas" in Dreams and that many of the grievances recited were "novelistic contrivances." Biographer David Maraniss said much the same thing, telling Ben Smith of Buzzfeed that Obama falsified his bio largely to portray himself as "blacker and more disaffected" than he really was.
What neither biographer asked, however, was whether Obama darkened the canvas of his own accord. There is overwhelming evidence, in fact, that he had help. As I relate in my book, Deconstructing Obama, that evidence leads to neighborhood editor and terrorist emeritus, Bill Ayers. 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," wrote 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, Frantz Fanon -- and misspelled Fanon's name the same way Obama did. 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.
In Fugitive Days, "rage" ruled. Ayers told 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 spoke of "rage" the way that Eskimos do of snow -- in so many varieties, so often, that they felt the need to qualify it, as Obama did when he said "impressive rage," "suppressed rage," or "coil of rage."
In the interview with Richardson, the audience sees no sign at all of the raging Obama and, for that matter, very little sign of the writer Obama. Obama told Richardson he was "a very good writer" -- he is not -- but he offered this tidbit in an academic context. He spoke not a word about the writer's craft and volunteered no information about Dreams. When Richardson offered that the book was "beautifully written." Obama stumbled around to deflect the conversation:
Yeah. Well, you know, I think that, you know, as I wrote about in the book, 'Dreams From My Father,' which is really sort of an exploration of my father and my mother and what legacy they left me, I think a lot of my early memories are sort of an almost idyllic sort of early childhood in Hawaii where there weren't many things to worry about, and I think everybody's childhood, to some degree, is like that.
Sentences like this clunker tell us why the genius Obama lost the last debate and why he will lose the next one