Mortenson and Obama: Putting the Fiction in Nonfiction

Last month, former Illinois teacher Deborah Netter filed a lawsuit against a bestselling author, the Associated Press reported. The damages alleged were in compensation "for herself and all other individuals or entities, who purchased [the book] and did not get what they paid for, but instead, were wrongly induced by each of the defendants to buy a phony and fictional story as opposed to the truth."

If you guessed that the book in question is Barack Obama's allegedly brilliant memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, nice try.  The defendant in the above-referenced case is actually Greg Mortenson, author of the feel-good favorite of soccer mommy book clubs everywhere, Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time.

If you are unfamiliar with the book, it tells the dramatic story of an injured Mortenson's stumbling into the impoverished Afghan village Korphe after a failed attempt to climb the world's second-tallest mountain, K2.  The kind villagers in Korphe nurse Mortenson back to health, so he decides to give something back by building a school there.  He eventually expands his humanitarian vision and founds the Central Asia Institute to fulfill his newfound life's purpose: to build schools, especially for girls, in war-ravaged Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Mortenson went on to write a second bestseller with the touchy-feely title Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- a follow-up to Three Cups in which he describes the many difficulties of pursuing his dream in the face of militant opposition, which included a 1996 incident in which he was kidnapped by the Taliban.

One need only hear Mr. Mortenson describe the dispute he had with his publisher over the subtitle of Three Cups to understand why his yarn had such great appeal for his target audience (one he shares with the Oprah).  As the Christian Science Monitor reports: 

He wanted its subtitle to read "One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time." What his publishers preferred, however, was, "One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations ... One School at a Time."

To Mortenson, there was a significant difference between the two. "If we fight terrorism," he says, "that's based in hate. But if we can promote peace, that's based in hope."

This sappy story is part of Mortenon's standard spiel.  Can't you just picture the swooning audiences when Mr. Mortenson delivers that line?  No doubt they can barely contain their delight as they walk out to the parking lot to their minivans and Priuses with their "Co-Exist" bumper stickers, gushing about this wonderful man and his amazing altruistic adventures. 

For this bunch, this boffo story has everything, including the pursuit of gender equality through vaunted female education and the naïve belief that "outreach," education, and eradication of poverty can transform jihadist fanatics into gentle, peace-loving mountain-dwellers.  Three Cups couldn't miss -- and it didn't.  It has sold over 3 million copies since its 2006 release.

Unfortunately, Mr. Mortenson's inspirational fable started to unravel last April, when 60 Minutes reported on allegations that he may have a bit of a Casey Anthony problem: specifically, that he was never kidnapped by the Taliban, that he lied about how he got started building schools (namely, he did not stagger into Korphe disoriented and injured after his attempt on K2), and that he used donated funds "as his own personal ATM" to fund travel on private jets and otherwise enrich himself.  One of his most vocal critics was a former supporter and fellow bestselling author, Jon Krakauer, of Into Thin Air fame, who penned his own exposé, Three Cups of Deceit. 

And now we arrive at that other bestselling book, Dreams from My Father.  As the New York Times reported earlier this week:

During his presidential campaign and subsequent battle over a health care law, Mr. Obama quieted crowds with the story of his mother's fight with her insurer over whether her cancer was a pre-existing condition that disqualified her from coverage.

In offering the story as an argument for ending pre-existing condition exclusions by health insurers, the president left the clear impression that his mother's fight was over health benefits for medical expenses. 

But in "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother," author Janny Scott quotes from correspondence from the president's mother to assert that the 1995 dispute concerned a Cigna disability insurance policy and that her actual health insurer had apparently reimbursed most of her medical expenses without argument. 

Barack Obama did acknowledge in the introduction to the paperback edition of Dreams that he had created composite characters and conversations that were "approximations."  However, he has never admitted that the heartrending fairy tale about his late mother's battle with evil insurance companies is false.  And it's not like Obama could have somehow been unaware of this; as the New York Times article notes, he actually handled the dispute with Cigna on his mother's behalf.  I suppose that's why the White House has "declined to challenge" Ms. Scott's reporting.

So we have two charlatans.  One is a hope-hawking huckster who made millions and financed a lavish lifestyle, including globetrotting on private jets, by peddling hokum about helping impoverished children, the power of education, women's rights, and Muslim outreach.  The other is Greg Mortenson.  If we ask which of the two has perpetrated the greater fraud, there's no contest.  As bad as many believe Greg Mortenson's actions were, it's one thing to scam people out of their money under false pretenses.  It's another, and much worse, thing to scam them out of not only their money, but also their freedom as you "remake" their country into something that the Founders wouldn't recognize. 

In fairness to Mr. Mortenson, even his harshest critics have not suggested that he didn't actually write his books.  We cannot say the same thing for the One.  In addition, the purchasers of Mr. Mortenson's book, while arguably duped, chose to buy it.  They were not force-fed the result of backroom deals, bribes, and outright lies, with a gun to their heads to pay for it.  We cannot say the same for the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

In his critique of Mr. Mortenson's book, Mr. Krakauer says that the "image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption [is] an artifact born of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem."  We can say the same thing for Barack Obama. 

I wonder if Deborah Netter purchased Dreams, and if she voted for Barack Obama.  If she did either, I wonder when we can expect her lawsuit against our audacious fraud-in-chief.

Teri O'Brien is an author, pubic speaker and the host of  "The Teri O'Brien Show." You can write to her at