Whoever is responsible for the text of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father is a gifted writer. For an informed appreciation of the literary qualities of Dreams, see Andrew Ferguson’s “The literary Obama.” Ferguson denies that “anyone who reads it could doubt that Dreams from My Father is the work of a real writer; a young writer, it’s true, with a young writer’s mannerisms.”
Obama’s failure to display literary gifts in texts other than Dreams leads me to wonder whether he is responsible for the flair of Dreams. Would a gifted writer put up with the gaseous rhetoric of Obama’s clunky and cliche-ridden speeches?
I doubt it, but GQ correspondent Robert Draper is a true believer in Obama’s literary genius. In “Barack Obama’s work in progress,” Draper finds evidence of Obama’s literary genius everwhere. “At least from early adulthood if not before,” Draper writes, “Barack Obama was clearly driven to write; to trace that continuing compulsion, from the days when he penned fiction and then memoir to his present speechcraft, is to recognize that writing is anything but a small part of Obama’s life. It’s basic to who he is.”
In his article Draper sounds a bit like the old members of the Soviet Writers Union who lavished their praise on the all-wise leader Stalin. At the first Soviet Writers Union Congress, Alexander Fadeyev, who later ascended to the leadership of the Union, described Stalin as “that mighty genius of the working class.” This is the tone of Draper’s article.
Draper apparently finds evidence of Obama’s literary genius extending back to his college days. One of the article’s pull quotes is an excerpt of Obama’s poem “Pop,” as featured in the Spring 1982 number of the Occidental College literary magazine Feast:
Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken
In, sprinkled with ashes,
Pop switches channels, takes another
Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks
What to do with me, a green young man
Who fails to consider the
Flim and flam of the world…
The poem is a collegiate production, and it is fair to describe it as sophomoric. It does not support the proposition that Obama is a gifted writer. Unfortunately, Draper does not pause over the poem to explicate the “Flim and flam of the world.” He might have found it a useful guide to Obama’s speeches, if not to Dreams. But Draper only finds further evidence of Obama’s literary genius in the speeches.
Thus Draper portrays Obama working on his March 2008 “More Perfect Union” speech during the campaign. It was the speech in which Obama sought to tamp down the furor caused by the release of video excerpts of his pastor’s sermons. Obama himself had proclaimed the importance of his pastor to his life over the past twenty years in books and interviews. Both circumstantial and direct evidence demonstrated Obama’s knowledge of Reverend Wright’s sick and indefensible views.
Rather than forthrightly condemn them in his speech, Obama chose to give the appearance of transcending them. Obama reviewed American history going back to the founding, provided autobiographical reflections, and presented himself as the man come to redeem racial relations in the United States. Obama denied familiarity with the statements whose revelation gave rise to his speech and suggested that they unfairly represented the man. Obama’s speech provided the larger context for understanding Wright.
Draper does not touch on the substance of the speech, instead drawing on email between Obama and Obama’s young speechwriter Jon Favreau:
[Obama} hadn’t finished by Monday at 8 a.m., when he set the draft aside to spend the day barnstorming across Pennsylvania. At nine thirty that night, a little more than twelve hours before the speech was to be delivered, Obama returned to his hotel room to do more writing. At two in the morning, the various BlackBerrys of Axelrod, Favreau, Plouffe, and Jarrett sounded with a message from the candidate: Here it is. Favs, feel free to tweak the words. Everyone else, the content here is what I want to say. Axelrod stood in the dark reading the text: “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made…. But what we know–what we have seen–is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope–the audacity to hope–for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”
He e-mailed Obama: This is why you should be president.
Where is the artistry of Obama’s text? Is it anything more than the politician’s usual bromides? Draper doesn’t consider that in his March speech Obama explicitly rejected the opportunity to denounce Wright as the “crank or demagogue” he so transparently is. Obama likened Wright to the grandmother who loved him unconditionally. Wright could not be disowned.
The following month, however, when Wright reiterated his views in public appearances, Obama had second thoughts. He had reconsidered. He had changed his mind. Wright could be disowned. Again, one might pause to reflect on the “Flim and flam of the world.”
Draper also shows Obama working on his address to the Muslim world in Cairo. Draper finds more evidence of Obama’s literary genius:
For an hour, Obama paced the Oval Office as he talked: “There are these tensions between the West and Islam. They’re rooted in colonialism….I want a set piece where we talk about the contributions of Islam.” Islam and the West weren’t separate categories, he went on–and he knew this, because “I’ve lived in both worlds.” He listed a few commonalities–the desire for work and education, the love of family and God–and then said, “These things we share.” At one point he observed, “Suppressing ideas never makes them go away”–and recognizing that the line was a keeper, Obama made sure that Rhodes had it down verbatim. The same with, “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.” (McDonough and Rhodes tried to conceal their envy. They’d spent days meeting with experts inside and outside of government on how to handle the issue that their boss had now crystallized in a single sentence.)
Whatever Obama’s dictation evidences, it is not literary flair.
Elsewhere in the article Draper cites a recent Obama speech on health care as “spangled with apealing rhetoric.” O, say, can you see? Here is Draper’s citation from the speech: “When facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom…we lose something essential about ourselves.” Provoked by similar effusions of Nelson Rockefeller’s campaign rhetoric in 1968, Bill Buckley concisely responded: “We must cut the crap.”
Draper describes the difficulty Obama experienced writing Dreams:
“I just can’t get it down on paper,” he confesses to Valerie Jarrett in 1992. “I’d much rather hang out with Michelle than focus on this.” It occurs to Jarrett, seeing her talented friend struggle to come to terms with his father and his racial identity and his Larger Purpose, that this is the first time Barack Obama has ever undertaken anything that tests his limits. He seeks refuge at a friend’s place in Wisconsin, but homesickness for his soon-to-be bride soon lures him back to Chicago. Meanwhile, his editors at Poseidon are hounding him for copy. His due date is June 15, 1992. By the spring, Obama is starting to spit out the pages, but there’s no way he’s going to come close to meeting the deadline. It passes. On October 3, he marries Michelle.
Seventeen days later, [Obama’s publisher] Poseidon terminates his contract for failing to meet his deadline.
Obama subsequently contracted with Times Books to write Dreams when Poseidon passed on it. In Draper’s telling, Obama then thinks to travel to Bali, where the muse descends on him:
He floats the idea to Jarrett: He’ll go to Bali. “What do you think Michelle’s gonna say when I tell her I’ve gotta go?” he asks her nervously. What Michelle says is, Uh, didn’t we just get married? She certainly can’t come along–she’s got a job and they’re broke and just back from their honeymoon… Fine, Barack. Whatever. As the first lady now says, “He needed to go and get it done so that we could move on with our lives.”
This passage implies that Michelle did not travel to Bali with Obama. The New York Times has previously reported, however, “[Obama’s] half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, said [Obama] eventually retreated to Bali for several months with his wife, Michelle, ‘to find a peaceful sanctuary where there were no phones.'”
Christopher Andersen addresses the writing of Dreams in his new book on Barack on Michelle Obama. Draper does not discuss the contribution to Dreams that Andersen credits to Michelle. According to Andersen, Michelle Obama suggested that her husband get advice about writing the book “from his friend and Hyde Park neighbor Bill Ayers.”
Andersen adds: “In the end, Ayers’s contribution to Barack’s Dreams From My Father would be significant — so much so that the book’s language, oddly specific references, literary devices, and themes would bear a jarring similarity to Ayers’s own writing.”
Is Obama a gifted writer? Draper claims to find evidence of Obama’s literary gifts throughout Obama’s adult life. Draper’s article to the contrary notwithstanding, the evidence of Obama’s literary gifts is limited to Dreams. Whether or not Bill Ayers collaborated with Obama on Dreams — a proposition about which I am agnostic — the lack of such evidence elsewhere seems to me to raise a legitimate question about the authorship of Dreams.
JOHN adds: So Obama thinks the conflict between the West and Islam is “rooted in colonialism.” Do you think he means Islam’s efforts–quite successful efforts–to colonize Europe that lasted from the seventh through the seventeenth centuries? No, I don’t think so either. When it comes to history, Obama is an idiot. In a different context, Victor Davis Hanson writes, “There seems to be neither a moral compass nor even a casual knowledge of history in this administration.”