Open Thread: The First Obama Fabulist

More than likely, you've already heard about David Maraniss's new book Barack Obama: The Story and news reports that President Obama created a "composite" character of a girlfriend who actually never existed.

It turns out, the fake girlfriend is only one of several fake people with whom Obama pretended to have life-changing moments as Andrew Ferguson writes in a review of Maraniss's book for the Weekly Standard. As Ferguson discovers, Barack Obama was the first person to make up fake warm fuzzy stories about himself, something his subsequent presidential campaign would later make the primary justification to elect him:

Years before Obama haters could inflate him into an America-destroying devil or Obama worshippers spied those rolling swells of greatness that have yet to surface, Barack Obama was carefully fashioning from his own life something grander than what was there. He was the first Obama fabulist.

Obama himself drops hints of this in Dreams. He writes in his introduction that the dialogue in the book is only an “approximation” of real conversations. Some of the characters, “for the sake of compression,” are “composites”; the names of others have been changed. All of this is offered to the reader as acceptable literary license, and it is, certainly by the standards of the early 1990s, back in the day when publishers flooded bookstores with memoirs of angst-ridden youth and there were still bookstores to flood. Yet the epiphany-per-page ratio in Obama’s memoir is very high. The book derives its power from the reader’s understanding that the events described were factual at least in the essentials. Maraniss demonstrates something else: The writer who would later use the power of his life story to become a plausible public man was making it up, to an alarming extent.

At least it should be alarming to admirers of Dreams. Early on Obama signals that his book will be more self-aware, more detached and ironical, than most youthful memoirs, especially those involving the humid subject of race. Thus we meet Ray, a classmate at Punahou School in Hawaii. Ray is black and radicalized, and given to racially charged rants about “white folks,” a term the narrator comes to despise.

“Sometimes, after one of his performances,” Obama writes, “I would question his judgment, if not his sincerity. We weren’t living in the Jim Crow South, I would remind him. We weren’t consigned to some heatless housing project in Harlem or the Bronx. We were in goddamned Hawaii.” [...]

But Ray wasn’t really there​—​didn’t exist, in fact. Ray is a “reinvention” of one of Obama’s friends, Maraniss tells us. His mother was half-black and half-American Indian; his father was .  .  . Japanese. His name was Keith Kakugawa, and he had no trouble dating white girls; his girlfriend at the time was the base admiral’s daughter. Maraniss discovered that Obama’s luck with girls, whatever their melanin count, was just as robust as Keith’s. With a Japanese name, Kakugawa would have trouble​—​more trouble than half-black Barry Obama​—​identifying himself as an African American and speaking as one. If Kakugawa was Ray, then the rants and the attitudes they represent are in this instance made up, and the story line of Dreams​—​the story of Obama’s life as we have learned it​—​loses an essential foil. [...]

What’s dispiriting is that throughout Dreams, the moments that Obama has invented are precisely the occasions of his epiphanies​—​precisely those periodic aha! moments that carry the book and bring its author closer to self-discovery. Without them not much is left: a lot of lovely writing, some unoriginal social observations, a handful of precocious literary turns. Obama wasn’t just inventing himself; he was inventing himself inventing himself. It made for a story, anyway.

Apparently Jayson Blair, the disgraced New York Times reporter who was fired from the paper picked the wrong career. He should have run for president instead.

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Matthew Sheffield's picture