In defending his administration's efforts at putative financial reform, President Obama suggested a ceiling, perhaps government-imposed, for Wall Street executives. Although he did not begrudge them income that is "fairly earned," he added ominously, "I do think that at a certain point, you've made enough money."
The president may be projecting guilt from his own excellent adventures in greed. A surprising 2006 article for the American Century Foundation by liberal publisher Peter Osnos sheds useful light on this subject. As Osnos relates, a 1990 New York Times profile on The Harvard Law Review's first black president caught the eye of a hustling young literary agent named Jane Dystel.
Dystel persuaded Obama to put a book proposal together, and she submitted it. Poseidon, a small imprint of Simon & Schuster, signed on and authorized a roughly $125,000 advance in November 1990 for Obama's proposed memoir.
With advance in hand, Obama repaired to Chicago, where the University of Chicago offered him an office and stipend to help him write. Obama dithered. At one point, in order to finish without interruption, he decamped to Bali for a month. Obama was supposed to have finished the book within a year. Bali or not, advance or no, he could not. He was surely in way over his head.
"Obama had missed deadlines and handed in bloated, yet incomplete drafts," David Remnick tells us in The Bridge. Simon & Schuster lost patience. In the summer of 1993, Simon & Schuster canceled the contract. According to Osnos, the publisher asked that Obama return at least some of the advance
Not surprisingly, the Obama-friendly Remnick skips some of the details that Christopher Andersen includes in his book, Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage, such as how Obama had spent $75,000 of the advance and could not pay it back. According to Andersen, the publisher let Obama keep the money only after he pled poverty due to "massive student loan debt" -- this despite a combined salary for the still childless Obamas well into six figures, not to mention the trip to Bali and a trip to Kenya for the couple as well.
As Osnos tells it, Dystel did not give up. She solicited Times Books, the division of Random House at which Osnos was publisher. He met with Obama, took his word that he could finish the book, and authorized a new advance of $40,000.
During this same period, Obama was working as a full-time associate at the law firm of Davis Miner, teaching classes at the University of Chicago Law School, and spinning through a social whirl that would have left Scarlett O'Hara dizzy. Writes Remnick, "He and Michelle accepted countless invitations to lunches, dinners, cocktail parties, barbecues, and receptions for right minded charities." Obama had also joined the East Bank Club, a combined gym and urban country club, and served on at least a few charitable boards.
In addition, Obama, as Remnick admits, was a slow writer. He would later explain his plodding, 19th-century technique to Daphne Durham of Amazon. "I would work off an outline -- certain themes or stories that I wanted to tell -- and get them down in longhand on a yellow pad. Then I'd edit while typing in what I'd written."
As Andersen tells it, Obama found himself deeply in debt and "hopelessly blocked." At "Michelle's urging," Obama "sought advice from his friend and Hyde Park neighbor Bill Ayers." What attracted the Obamas were "Ayers's proven abilities as a writer." Noting that Obama had already taped interviews with many of his relatives, both African and American, Andersen elaborates, "These oral histories, along with his partial manuscript and a trunkload of notes were given to Ayers." The result was Dreams From My Father.
Although Dreams did not do particularly well in 1995, the sales shot through the roof after Obama's keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. As Osnos relates, Obama unceremoniously dumped his devoted longtime 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 election but before being sworn in as Senator in order to avoid the disclosure and reporting requirements applicable to members of Congress. Although an Obama-supporter, Osnos publicly scolds Obama for his "ruthlessness" and "his questionable judgment about using public service as a personal payday."
As to the question of income "fairly earned," Obama makes Fabrice 'Fabulous Fab' Tourre look like a lumberjack.
Jack Cashill's latest book is Popes and Bankers.
"... not ... because we begrudge success that is fairly earned."