There has been a lot of discussion this week about Barack Obama’s first memoir. Let’s take a look at how it came to be written in the first place. This is from “The Long Run, The Story of Obama, Written by Obama“:
Mr. Obama’s story first surfaced publicly in February 1990, when he was elected as the first black president of The Harvard Law Review. An initial wire service report described him simply as a 28-year-old, second-year student from Hawaii who had “not ruled out a future in politics”; but in the days that followed, newspaper reporters grew interested and produced long, detailed profiles of Mr. Obama.
The coverage prompted a call to him from Jane Dystel, a gravelly-voiced literary agent described by Peter Osnos, then the publisher of Times Books, as “a good journeyman with a hard edge.” The home page of her firm’s Web site currently features clients’ best sellers including “Lies at the Altar: The Truth About Great Marriages.” Ms. Dystel suggested Mr. Obama write a book proposal. Then she got him a contract with Poseidon Press, a now-defunct imprint of Simon & Schuster. When he missed his deadline, she got him another contract and a $40,000 advance from Times Books.
A $40,000 advance? That’s a couple years salary for some people! Obama was still a law student. He had accomplished NOTHING. He hadn’t even published something in the Law Review. Most unpublished authors would be lucky to get offered a percentage of sales after the book was written.
But wait! There’s more:
Mr. Obama’s original plan was to write a book about race relations. But, sitting down to write, he found his mind “pulled toward rockier shores.” So the book became more personal — the record of an interior journey, as he put it in the introduction, “a boy’s search for his father, and through that a search for a workable meaning for his life as a black American.”
Mr. Obama was given an office to write in at the University of Chicago through a surprising connection. Douglas G. Baird, a professor who was head of the law school’s appointments committee, had learned of Mr. Obama from Michael W. McConnell, a conservative constitutional scholar then at Chicago whom President Bush would later make a federal judge.
Professor McConnell encountered Mr. Obama during the editing of an article he wrote for The Harvard Law Review, Professor Baird said recently. “He sent a note saying this person is really brilliant, we should have him on our radar screen,” Professor Baird said. Professor Baird called Mr. Obama at Harvard and asked if he was interested in teaching.
“I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something to the effect that, ‘Well, in fact, I want to write this book.’ What he really wanted was the Virginia Woolf equivalent of a clean, well lighted room.” So Professor Baird got him one, a small office near the law library, along with a law school fellowship that Professor Baird hoped might later lead to his full-time teaching.
Okay, Obama graduated from Harvard Law School. That is arguably the best law school in the country. But they graduate over 500 students a year. Every year the Harvard Law Review has a president. How many of them got a $40,000 book deal and a sincure upon graduation?
Susan Estrich was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review in 1976 and all she got was a clerkship for Judge James Skelly Wright at the DC Court of Appeals.
The book came out in the summer of 1995, shortly before Mr. Obama announced that he was running for the Illinois State Senate. At 57th Street Books, in Mr. Obama’s neighborhood in Chicago, a few dozen people turned out for a reading. There were respectful reviews in newspapers including The New York Times and The Boston Globe. Times Books sold 8,000 to 9,000 copies.
Now check this out – Obama graduated from Harvard in 1991. He didn’t start working for Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland until 1993. He spent about six months heading up a voter registration drive in 1992. His book wasn’t published until 1995. But in order to get his book done he took Michelle on a vacation to Bali for several months.
What was he doing during all this time?
Remember, this was a memoir and he was in his early thirties and hadn’t accomplished anything. How long would it take you to write your own life story? I could grind mine out in two weeks and provide lots more detail than Obama did. He left out big chunks of his life.
Of course writing fiction is harder than telling the truth.
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