Does anyone remember Josh Steiner, the young Treasury Department official who, when it turned out that his diary entries were damaging to the Clinton administration regarding Whitewater, testified that he lied to his diary? I suppose that lying to one’s autobiography isn’t as unusual as lying to a diary. Where’s the gain in deceiving a document no one is likely to read? But it’s not healthy to lie to either.
David Maraniss’ new biography of Barack Obama makes clear that our president lied to his autobiography to the point that the book is “literature and memoir, not history and autobiography.” Maraniss adds that “The character creations and rearrangements of the book are not merely a matter of style, devices of compression, but are also substantive.”
But Obama presented Dreams From My Father as autobiography, not literature. The book does contain a disclaimer. Obama wrote that the dialogue in the book is “an approximation” and that some of the characters in his book had been compressed or combined. But he did not disclose that his character creations and other “rearrangements” altered the substance of his life story.
Maraniss is a smart guy. He must have known early on in the project, and maybe even before he commenced it, that Dreams From My Father would not hold up as an accurate account of Obama’s life. Thus, Maraniss had plenty of time to find excuses for the president.
Here is what Maraniss came up with:
In an interview Tuesday morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, Mr. Maraniss said the president did not set out to write a factual history of his life and was “trying to see everything through a racial lens. That was the original purpose of that book.” Mr. Maraniss added that “I don’t think it’s a venal reason. I think it says more about a writer’s pressures to try to tell a story than anything about his larger character.”
Mr. Maraniss attributes some of the differences to the kind of family lore that is often exaggerated. He notes that the story about the death of Mr. Obama’s step-grandfather — allegedly killed while fighting Dutch troops in Indonesia — was “a concocted myth in almost all respects.” Mr. Maraniss writes that he died trying to hang drapes.
In other words, Obama didn’t lie for personal gain; he lied in the name of racial politics. It was the pressure of fitting his life story into a predetermined racial narrative that caused Obama to change and distort the facts.
I wonder whether Maraniss realizes that he is only making matters worse for the president. It’s one thing for a politician, or future politician, to engage in a little old-fashioned personal puffery. For example, if Obama had exaggerated his role on his state championship basketball team, there wouldn’t be anything in it.
Distorting the facts of one’s life experiences in the name of ideology is a more serious matter. And this is particularly true when it comes to a subject as important as race.
But Obama was having it both ways. Not only did he make his political point, but he also puffed himself into appearing as a more “authentic” Black than his real life story would support.
Obama was a young man when he wrote Dreams From My Father. But his penchant for “lying to his autobiography” in order to make political points does not appear to have abated. As Jonathan Tobin points out, during the health insurance debate, Obama falsely claimed that, in her last months, his mother fought with her health insurance company over reimbursement of medical expenses. A book by Janny Scott of The New York Times found that this isn’t true.
There seems to be no limit to the political uses to which Obama will put his ancestors. The mother who is a false object lesson in the need for Obamacare; the grandmother who is an object lesson in the pervasiveness of white racism (is there any reason to believe that Obama has depicted her accurately?); the martyred Indonesian freedom fighting step-grandfather who really died hanging drapes; the Kenyan grandfather who Obama says was arrested and tortured by the British, but who very likely was not.
Apart from the damage Obama is doing to honest political discourse, there’s the question of whether, after years of distorting his life story, Obama really knows who he is. I discussed this problem in a post called “The long shadow of Barack Obama’s identity crisis.”
What we can say with certainty is that Obama isn’t the person he tells us he is. And he isn’t “no drama Obama.”