Barry Münchausen

Ben Smith:

The Real Story Of Barack Obama

David Maraniss’s new biography of Barack Obama is the first sustained challenge to Obama’s control over his own story, a firm and occasionally brutal debunking of Obama’s bestselling 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father.

Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story punctures two sets of falsehoods: The family tales Obama passed on, unknowing; and the stories Obama made up. The 672-page book closes before Obama enters law school, and Maraniss has promised another volumne, but by its conclusion I counted 38 instances in which the biographer convincingly disputes significant elements of Obama’s own story of his life and his family history.

The two strands of falsehood run together, in that they often serve the same narrative goal: To tell a familiar, simple, and ultimately optimistic story about race and identity in the 20th Century. The false notes in Obama’s family lore include his mother’s claimed experience of racism in Kansas, and incidents of colonial brutality toward his Kenyan grandfather and Indonesian step-grandfather. Obama’s deliberate distortions more clearly serve a single narrative: Race. Obama presents himself through the book as “blacker and more disaffected” than he really was, Maraniss writes, and the narrative “accentuates characters drawn from black acquaintances who played lesser roles his real life but could be used to advance a line of thought, while leaving out or distorting the actions of friends who happened to be white.”

That the core narrative of Dreams could have survived this long into Obama’s public life is the product in part of an inadvertent conspiracy between the president and his enemies. His memoir evokes an angry, misspent youth; a deep and lifelong obsession with race; foreign and strongly Muslim heritage; and roots in the 20th Century’s self-consciously leftist anti-colonial struggle. Obama’s conservative critics have, since the beginnings of his time on the national scene, taken the self-portrait at face value, and sought to deepen it to portray him as a leftist and a foreigner.

Reporters who have sought to chase some of the memoir’s tantalizing yarns have, however, long suspected that Obama might not be as interesting as his fictional doppelganger. “Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs…significantly differs from the recollections of others who do not recall his drug use,” the New York Times’s Serge Kovaleski reported dryly in February of 2008, speculating that Obama had “added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic.” (In one of the stranger entries in the annals of political spin, Obama’s spokesman defended his boss’s claim to have sampled cocaine, calling the book “candid.”)

Maraniss’s deep and entertaining biography will serve as a corrective both to Obama’s mythmaking and his enemies’. Maraniss finds that Obama’s young life was basically conventional, his personal struggles prosaic and later exaggerated. He finds that race, central to Obama’s later thought and included in the subtitle of his memoir, wasn’t a central factor in his Hawaii youth or the existential struggles of his young adulthood. And he concludes that attempts, which Obama encouraged in his memoir, to view him through the prism of race “can lead to a misinterpretation” of the sense of “outsiderness” that Maraniss puts at the core of Obama’s identity and ambition.

There is a lot more and you should go read it. (Go ahead, we’ll wait for you.)

Barack Obama is certainly not the first person to lie about himself. Lots of people do it. But why would he make up negative stuff, like exaggerating his drug use?

First of all, because he was trying to sell a book, and the truth wasn’t going to move a lot of copies. He was barely in his thirties, had accomplished nothing and was writing a memoir. “I came from a privileged background, skated through life and here I am” isn’t very inspiring. He needed to juice it up a little.

He made himself seem more exotic. He couldn’t make his family famous or important, but he padded their resumes the best he could. He never lived in a ghetto or belonged to a street gang, but he portrayed himself as having lived a semi-wild youth. In reality he wasn’t even the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, he was Carlton Banks.

Obama barely knew his father. He attended a fancy private prep school then a fancy private college before transferring to an Ivy League school. He had white roommates. He dated white girls. He never spent time in the black community until he became a community organizer and even then he lived somewhere else. And yet “Dreams From My Father” is supposed to be about “race and inheritance.”

Professor Jacobson:

Just about the only thing we know about Obama is what he has told us about himself.

And what he told us about himself mostly was fiction.

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27 Responses to Barry Münchausen

  1. Oswald says:

    Anyone who has spent time around a rehab or a fundamentalist church knows that there is a certain status to being a reformed addict/sinner. The worse you were before you were saved, the more status.

  2. DandyTiger says:

    I sure hope he didn’t make up the part about eating dogs. And lions.

  3. DandyTiger says:

    Barack Obama doesn’t exist.

  4. angienc says:

    The review here is far superior to the one on Buzzfeed:

  5. WMCB says:

    He was in Chicago by the time he wrote the book ( or had it written.) He had an eye on advancing in politics. That by definition meant black politics, in that setting. So he reinvented himself. The book, and joining the church he joined, were all of one piece.

    You can’t climb the political ladder as a black man in Chicago unless you are down with the struggle. Barry Obama, the drifter and hanger-on through the topography of private multi-ethnic Hawaiian schools, slacker student orgs and indolent academia, had no creds. So he made himself a Big Black Struggle, and pimped it for all it’s worth.

    • Nell says:

      You can’t climb the political ladder as a black man in Chicago unless you are down with the struggle.

      If you’re an outsider trying to break into Chicago machine politics, the first question you’re asked is “Who sent you?”

      What I’ve never been able to figure out is just who sent Obama to Chicago in the first place.

      • KC says:

        “What I’ve never been able to figure out is just who sent Obama to Chicago in the first place.”

        Yep! And who’s idea was it for a “memoir” to be published under his name? He had done nothing to remotely warrant that.

  6. DeniseVB says:

    So? When will Oprah be inviting him to her couch for a sit down and finger wagging a la James Frey who embellished his bio to sell books too? BO pulled the wool over her eyes too. Oh wait, Frey is white, nevermind….. 😉

    • Lola-at-Large says:

      That’s the best part about the Buzzfeed article linked in this post. It’s full up with fools making comparisons like “When has Frank McCourt had a memoir fact checked? This is obvious racism.”

      It’s fun to follow up with a reminder of James Frey, lily white, midwestern James Frey.

  7. Oswald says:

    Ed Driscoll:

    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.

    We can see the dilemma he faced. Obama signed a contract to write a racial memoir. They were all the rage in those days, but in fact their moment had passed. Even with the distant father and absent mother, the schooling in Indonesia and the remote stepfather, Obama lived a life of relative ease. He moved, however uncomfortably, into one elite institution after another, protected by civil rights laws, surrounded by a popular culture in which the African-American experience has embedded itself ineradicably. As Obama’s best biographer, David Remnick, observed, this wasn’t the stuff of Manchild in the Promised Land; you couldn’t use it to make the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or the Auto-biography of Malcolm X. So Obama moved the drama inside himself, and said he’d found there an experience both singular and universal, and he brought nonexistent friends like Regina and Ray to goose the story along.

    He did in effect what so many of us have done with him. He created a fable about an Obama far bigger and more consequential than the unremarkable man at its center.

    • imusthavepie says:

      • leslie says:

        Thanks for posting this, imust. Everytime my sister repeats the charge of “racism” againt the Clintons I am going to pointher to this video.

        (Frankly though, every time I think about this incident I become just as angry as the first time.)

  8. DeniseVB says:

    Here’s the Oprah-James Frey transcript. Interesting ….

  9. Lola-at-Large says:

    Near topic: I’m totally loving razzing Michael Tomasky today in his new Daily Beast article about Romney’s biography. Tomasky was born, raised, and educated in West Virginia, from whence he fled the minute he got his BA, heading out for New York, never to look back. You know the self-loathing type. He’s a liberal now and totally in the tank for Obama, I’m sure hoping it will rub the stink of redneck off him. I love going meta on these fools.

    • Lola-at-Large says:

      For example, he refers to Romney as “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” So I started referring to Tomasky as “The Man Who Would Like to Forget He’s from West Virginia.”

    • DeniseVB says:

      Whoa, he’s getting hammered in the comments. Seems the author’s problem was Romney’s priviledged childhood of non-suffering. Heh.

      I have no problems with children of priviledge unless they’re a’holes, like the Menendez brothers 😉

  10. Lulu says:

    I am under the distinct impression that Obama was too lazy to actually have a life, as in create one for himself, so he just made one up. He was drawn to hucksterism and the ole okey doke in Chicago because it was easy because he had already been doing it a good while. He is a pack of lies, wrapped in an illusion, marketed as redemption and sold to suckers.

    • leslie says:

      Lulu ~

      He is a pack of lies, wrapped in an illusion, marketed as redemption and sold to suckers.

      You should copyright that statement and then sell it to Woody Allen

      • Lola-at-Large says:

        He could use it for his next autobiographical movie. Seriously, have you heard Allen interviewed recently? He’s an idiot filled with bravado and lies. “I was never a smart kid. I was a jock.” Yeah, right.

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