The Real Price of Obama's Prevarications
Prevarication, noun: a statement that deviates from or perverts the truth.
On July 5, Fox News ran a piece documenting the "fresh scrutiny" Barack Obama has faced since the June publication of David Maraniss's new book, Barack Obama: The Story.
"By some counts," Fox's James Rosen reported, "The Story presents more than three-dozen instances of material discrepancy where [Dreams from My Father] fails to align with the facts as Maraniss reports them." Although Rosen tried to determine whether Obama was justified in prevaricating as he did in his 1995 memoir, he did not assess the real cost of that prevarication. Neither did those he interviewed.
Among them was black scholar Gerald Early, who caught some heat for his remarks. Said Early of Obama's "fabrications," a word he doesn't hesitate to use, "I don't think it much matters whether Barack Obama has told the absolute truth in Dreams From My Father. What's important is how he wanted to construct his life."
In the full disclosure department, I have met Early. He struck me as a reasonable guy even before he wrote a positive review of my book, Sucker Punch, for the New York Times. In his defense, Early discusses Obama here as a memoirist in the black tradition, not as a would-be president. That latter task has been undertaken most prominently by two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers, David Maraniss and David Remnick. Their standard should have been higher.
Sarah Palin would certainly think so. The Associated Press alone assigned eleven reporters to fact-check her memoir, Going Rogue on the suspicion that she would be a presidential candidate in 2012. By contrast, not a single mainstream journalist -- not one -- fact-checked Dreams before Maraniss in 2012, and even he pulled his punches.
Tellingly, Maraniss would not respond to Rosen's phone requests for an interview. When Rosen caught up with him at a book signing, Maraniss denied the president "fabricated anything" or "lied to his readers." Said Maraniss, "I consider his book very valuable in terms of understanding his interior dialogue, his struggle that he went through."
In earlier interviews, Maraniss was more forthcoming, telling Ben Smith of Buzzfeed that Obama falsified his bio largely to portray himself as "blacker and more disaffected" than he really was. David Remnick made a similar point in his Obama biography, The Bridge. To compensate for his white family and privileged background, writes Remnick, Obama "darkens his canvas as well as he can."
Darkening the canvas, as shall be seen, has consequences. If done fraudulently, the media -- literary establishment included -- would seem obliged to challenge the perpetrators at least as vigorously they did, say, Million Little Pieces author James Frey, but they do not. The reason is simple enough: the canvas darkeners almost inevitably advance the media agenda.
Early showed how willingly the media indulge certain kinds of fraud with his forthright deconstruction of Muhammad Ali's manufactured autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story. According to Early, Richard Durham, the Marxist-oriented editor of Muhammad Speaks, taped any number of conversations with Ali or between Ali and others and then gave them to an "editor" for writing. That editor was future Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. To assure Morrison painted a dark enough picture of Ali's life, a Nation of Islam honcho reviewed every page.
These collaborators retold Ali's story to make him appear poorer, tougher, blacker, and more victimized. An all too typical fabrication in The Greatest, one of many, involved the gold medal Ali won at the 1960 Olympics. As Team Ali tells it, Ali and a friend stop at a Louisville diner only to be crudely refused service. Ali thinks of calling his white sponsors to intervene, but each, he realizes, is tainted by his Confederate past.
Once outside, Ali and his pal fight off a gang of motorcycle outlaws, resplendent in Nazi regalia and Confederate flags. The Olympic gold medal, the reader learns, has purchased Ali no refuge from America's racist heritage. "Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do with this cheap piece of metal and raggedy ribbon," says Ali. He proceeds to the highest point of a bridge across the Ohio and throws it in.
In fact, before yielding his good sense to the Nation of Islam, Ali relished every moment of his glorious Louisville homecoming. In real life, he wore his Olympic medal until the gold started rubbing off. As to the bridge incident, Ali's best friend Howard Bingham would later admit the story was "concocted." "Honkies sure bought into that one," affirmed Ali sidekick Bundini Brown.
Honkie buy-in began at the top. Random House editor-in-chief James Silberman told Ali biographer Thomas Hauser, "If you check Winston Churchill's version of history, you'd find it somewhat at odds with other versions by historians." Historian Thomas Hietala meanwhile flirted with parody in his indulgence of the book's obvious fraud. "While inaccurate in detail," he writes of Ali's ludicrous rumble with the motorcycle gang, "the story was metaphorically true."
True to form, the New York Times described The Greatest as "honest" and "very convincing." The Detroit Free Press called it "the greatest, most honest contribution to sports literature perhaps ever." Fittingly, Remnick wrote a biography of Ali's life, King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, that romanticized Ali's ugly ten-year tenure in the Nation of Islam.
As Early understood, my argument in Sucker Punch was not so much with Ali as with "the Ali myth, largely constructed by a white, liberal left cultural elite." This same elite, a bit older, no wiser, allowed Obama -- with a little help from his friends -- to construct his own angry, dishonest coming-of-age story.
The elite media have indulged Obama for the same reasons they indulged Ali. That indulgence allows them to assert their own virtue and revel in their own enlightenment. Largely controlling the information flow, they continue to produce -- fabricate if need be -- racial morality plays in which their guy triumphs over some frightful species of right wing troglodyte. They did it with Ali-Frazier. They did it with Obama-McCain. And now, dangerously, they are doing it with Martin-Zimmerman. That this reckless game playing helps convince black America of white America's villainy troubles them not at all.
When the troglodytes speak up, the elite shuts them down. Maraniss and Remnick, for instance, contemptuously dismiss all challenges from the right. Maraniss would not even return Rosen's phone calls despite the need to publicize his book.
Gerald Early again deserves credit. Although acknowledging Sucker Punch as "the most thorough-going conservative revisionist view of Ali," he took the book seriously. Said he of my assessment of Ali's life in his Sucker Punch review, "Cashill is right on virtually every point." (Note to the Davids: I was right on Obama too). Early concisely summarized my thesis as follows:
Sports was a common ground between white urban ethnics and blacks, but Ali seemed to violate that, polarizing things as a way to sell himself and his fights. In the end, there is a certain elegiac, tragic sense to Cashill's book, as if, sadly, Ali failed his moment. If only Ali had been the true hero, refusing to fall prey to his times.
Early wrote this review in 2006. Today, an almost identical case could be made against Obama. He too failed his moment. He too fell prey to his times. If nothing else, Obama had the potential to ease black America away from the festering sense of grievance that has crippled it emotionally for the last half-century.
Instead, Obama fueled it. Long after Dreams, he continues to write new chapters in his ongoing grievance narrative, to wit, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." Multi-millionaire comedian and Obama supporter, Chris Rock, perfectly captured the essence of Obama's darkened canvas with his Fourth of July tweet, "Happy white people independence day. The slaves weren't free but I'm sure they enjoyed fireworks."
This is what Obama and his media enablers have wrought, a constituency more alienated and a country more divided than before the "historic" 2008 election. And if Obama is defeated in November and George Zimmerman is acquitted, trust me, no one will enjoy the fireworks that ensue.