The backstory on Obama's books

If one had to name Barack Obama's chief accomplishments in public life, his two books would outweigh anything he has done in politics. The New York Times had a fascinating article, The Story of Obama, Written by Obama, on the front page of Sunday's paper. The piece points out that Obama's attraction to the masses is driven not by what he has accomplished in the real world (especially in the Senate), but by his ability to tell a tale -- his own. Unspoken by the NYT is that this phenomena does have its place in history - it is the very definition of "cult of personality".

Senator Obama understands as well as any politician the power of a well-told story. He has risen in politics less on his track record than on his telling of his life story - a tale he has packaged into two hugely successful books that have helped make him a mega-best-selling, two-time Grammy-winning millionaire front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination at age 46. According to his publisher, there are more than three million copies of his books in print - and two more books on the way.

The story of Mr. Obama's life as an author tells as much about him as some of the stories he has recounted in his books. It possesses at times the same charmed quality sometimes ascribed to his political ascent - an impression of ease, if not exactly effortlessness, that obscures a more complex amalgam of drive, ambition, timing and the ability to recognize an opportunity and to do what it takes to seize it.

But what do Obama's books really tell you about the candidate? Here's something that should give us all pause, especially since it was said about his first book, Dreams From My Father, by someone who is presented in the article as a fan of the Senator:

"The book is so literary," said Arnold Rampersad, a professor of English at Stanford University who teaches autobiography and is the author of a recent biography of Ralph Ellison. "It is so full of clever tricks - inventions for literary effect - that I was taken aback, even astonished. But make no mistake, these are simply the tricks that art trades in, and out of these tricks is supposed to come our realization of truth."

Obama's flirtation with literary circles dates back to shortly after he was elected as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. He was approached by an agent, Jane Dystel, who got him a contract for a book. Obama missed his deadline, and Dystel promptly got him another contract and a $40,000 advance for the same book. And the next time you hear Michelle Obama complain about how hard they had it early on in their life together, the following passage is useful to remember. It happened after Obama had been given free use of an office at the University of Chicago, along with a law school fellowship and the aforementioned advance, to finish his first manuscript - at a post-education time in their lives when most people would be working at real jobs:

The two worked mostly by telephone and by manuscripts sent by Federal Express between New York and Chicago. Mr. Obama, an inveterate journal writer who had published poems in a college literary magazine but had never attempted a book, struggled to finish. His half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, said he eventually retreated to Bali for several months with his wife, Michelle, "to find a peaceful sanctuary where there were no phones."

Ah, retreating to Bali after getting a $40,000 advance and while receiving income from a law school fellowship -- a tough life indeed. We can all empathize. Oh, and about the "truthfulness of the book"?

In the introduction, Mr. Obama acknowledged his use of pseudonyms, composite characters, approximated dialogue and events out of chronological order. He was writing at a time well before a recent series of publishing scandals involving fabrication in memoirs. "He was trying to be careful of people's feelings," said Deborah Baker, the editor on the first paperback edition of the book. "The fact is, it all had a sort of larger truth going on that you couldn't make up."

That's how we judge "truth" now? Ignore the lies used to build the foundation for the benefit of the quest for the nebulous "larger truth"? This article is looking more and more like an apologia for upcoming disclosures that Obama's story as told by himself has more than a few holes in it.

Barack Obama long recognized the power of the written word, since just the promise of a well-told story had gotten him far early in his career. As such, Obama correctly concluded that the road to his ultimate goal -- the Presidency -- would be easier if it were paved with books rather than accomplishments. From the article, it's unclear how much time the Senator actually spent on the affairs of government after being elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois in 2004. In the first 18 months of his first Senate term he was also writing his second book, The Audacity of Hope. Immediately after finishing that, he built up support for his upcoming Presidential campaign by campaigning for other Democrats in 2006, took part in a book tour, made a few appearances on entertainment shows, and began his campaign for the presidency. Not much time for doing what he was elected to the Senate to do, representing the people of Illinois.

As for the originality of The Audacity of Hope, the NYT article contains a few surprises there as well. The individuals that Obama sent first drafts to for comments comprise a Who's Who of liberal Democratic Party insiders, some of whom are now associated with his campaign: David Axelrod, Anthony Lake, Gene Sperling, Samantha Power, and Cass Sunstien. Sunstein, in particular, notes that he made many comments on the manuscript -- a few of which made it into Obama's book. This differs from the official spin about the book, which is that it is a liberal manifesto penned solely by Barack Obama. One wonders if eventually we will find out more about these collaborations of Obama's -- for an example see Ted Sorenson's recent admission (May '08) of what he had previously denied for 40-plus years verbally and in writing - that he ghost wrote the book that John Kennedy used to win a Pulitzer, Profiles in Courage.

The most troubling aspect of the article is, however, how it attributes Barack Obama's success not to anything tangible he has accomplished, other than getting into a few good schools and winning a few elections, but to his ability to weave a compelling tale. Here's a quote from Peter Osnos, formerly the publisher of Times Books, the home of Obama's first book. It's a comment about Obama's literary career, but it could just as easily be a comment about the Senator's political career, as well: 

"Barack is worth millions now," Mr. Osnos said. "It's almost all based on these two books, two books not based on a job of prodigious research or risking one's life as a reporter in Iraq. He has written about himself. Being able to take your own life story and turn it into this incredibly lucrative franchise, it's a stunning fact."