What the Unearthed 1995 Video Tells Us about Obama
A professionally shot video of Barack Obama from 1995 has recently surfaced. Shot at the Cambridge, Mass. Public Library, the video captures a skinny, youthful Obama promoting his then newly released memoir, Dreams from My Father.
In this hour-long presentation, Obama openly talks about his relationship with his mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, a Communist and pornographer. Perhaps more importantly, Obama gives us a much clearer picture of who he was in 1995, on the cusp of his political career, than we had seen before. Some observations:
The Obama of 1995 was not a very good speaker. He had a halting delivery, stuttered, was obviously nervous, and, although congenial enough, could not tell a joke. What Obama did do well was read. He read a dramatic passage from his book for a full fifteen minutes uninterrupted and used multiple voices halfway credibly.
Over the years, Obama’s handlers have exploited his ability to read and sheltered him as far as possible from impromptu speaking. Had Obama’s teleprompter malfunctioned during his breakthrough speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he would not be president today. He has always depended on the eloquence of others, and he still cannot tell a joke.
The Obama of 1995 was not a firebrand, at least not on the surface. He presented himself to the small, roughly half-black Cambridge audience as an optimistic, easy-going liberal. In the question-and-answer session, he distinguished himself from the more obviously angry black professor Cornel West. “Cornel West has to go back to his Bible. Got to have faith,” said Obama in a black accent almost as cringe-inducing as the one Hillary rolls out on occasion. In fact, Obama turned that accent on throughout the presentation, especially when answering questions from black women.
Obama’s allusion to the Bible was purely metaphoric. He made no reference to his much bruited Christian faith. He made no reference to Islam, either. Despite his concession that white Americans were “basically decent,” Obama did not think they were “making a serious effort” to compensate for the “brutal experience” of black history. That “was going to cost some money,” and, according to Obama, “Americans don’t like to sacrifice.”
Obama made the supersized claim that “American culture at this point, what is truly American, is black culture to a large degree.” As evidence, he cited Pulp Fiction, a pop-art gangster movie with a surfer music sound track and an Italian-American director.
Obama’s “angry black man” is largely fictional. The one and only passage that Obama read details how he came to grips with the reality of being a black man in America. Much of it is fabricated, especially the part about his brooding black friend “Ray.”
Obama-friendly biographer David Maraniss tracked the real “Ray” down. His name is “Keith Kakaguwa.” Two years ahead of Obama at Punahou, Kakaguwa is only about one fourth black. Maraniss describes Ray as the “first of several distorted or composite characters” in Dreams. According to Kakaguwa, he and Obama lived close to a carefree Hawaiian existence, not at all the tortured, race-scarred one Obama imagined.
The second of Obama’s guides to black life is more legitimate. Interestingly, Obama introduced him by his full name, Frank Marshall Davis. In that Obama wrote two adolescent poems about Davis – and Davis likely one about Obama – Davis may be the most real character in the book. It is a shame no one in the major media – not even Maraniss in an extended Washington Post series – thought to mention Davis before the 2008 election.
In the cited passage, Obama tells the story of how a “very aggressive” panhandler harassed “Toot,” his diminutive white grandmother. “Gramps” then tells Obama that Toot felt threatened because the aggressor was black. “The words were like a fist in my stomach,” wrote Obama. In 2008, he would compare Toot’s alleged racism to Jeremiah Wright’s to save his candidacy.
After this incident, Obama visited “Frank” to get the lowdown on white people. “What I’m trying to tell you is, your grandma’s right to be scared,” Davis tells Obama. “She understands that black people have a reason to hate. That’s just how it is.” With these words of wisdom ringing in his ears, Obama heads into the night “utterly alone.”
Obama finished reading his passage with those two words. They were his way of telling black American audiences that their experience was his experience. He has never been very convincing at that. He keeps trying, however, even if it means yielding to every destructive race hustle the Jacksons and Sharptons of the world can conjure up.
Obama did not write Dreams unaided. In listening to Obama speak, one could not help but note the stark difference between the eloquence of the words he read and the tortured syntax of the words he spoke. Sentences like “Most black folks always have an open hand to individual whites” were not unusual in his talk.
What is more, in answering a question on how he organized his writing, Obama could not quite get his story straight. He never can. In this retelling, he initially planned to write an academic treatise on racial issues, but at some point he shifted instead to a family history.
In fact, he claimed to have used his very generous advance from Simon & Schuster to go back to Kenya in 1992 “to do some more research because the last section of the book talks about Kenya.” Michelle, then his fiancée, went with him. In October 1992, they married.
Obama missed the extended deadline, and Simon & Schuster asked for their money back in the summer of 1993. Obama’s agent, Jane Dystel, secured a new publisher, Times Book, a division of Random House. Obama still could not produce.
As bestselling mainstream biographer Christopher Andersen relates, 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,” as evident in his 1993 book, To Teach.
According to Maraniss, Obama submitted the first draft of his memoir to Henry Ferris, the editor at his new publisher, some time in 1994. The draft did not include the final section of the book, the Kenya section. Before completing the book, Obama returned to Kenya, or so he appears to have told Ferris.
Writes Maraniss, who interviewed Ferris, "Obama traveled to Kenya a second time for further research before turning in the last part of the book." The language here is clear. Obama traveled to Africa after the first submission but before the final one. This trip could have been no earlier than 1994 and not much later. Dreams was published in July 1995. In a White House interview with Maraniss, Obama confirmed this later trip.
As the 1995 video confirms, however, there was no 1994 trip. As I have argued in these pages before, Obama likely lied to Ferris about making a return trip to Kenya, possibly to show how serious he was about finishing the book and getting his facts straight. Instead of going to Africa, Obama – or his writing partner – may have gone to the local library and pillaged the memoirs of longtime Kenya resident Kuki Gallmann.
What the 1995 video truly confirms is how indifferent the major media were to telling Obama’s story when it mattered. Had he been a Republican, Barack Obama would have been no better remembered than Alan Keyes or Herman Cain. But the name “Frank Marshall Davis,” I am sure, would live on in Democratic lore.