Obama's Life and the Truth: David Maraniss Almost Regrets Telling the Real Story
Poor David Maraniss. The best-selling biographer of the just published Barack Obama: The Story is not only crying all the way to the bank, but also shedding crocodile tears that his new biography is giving the Right ammunition against the president. Yesterday, Maraniss told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien the following on Starting Point:
I'm not writing it as a fact-checker. I'm writing it as an historian. Other people for ideological reasons are pouncing on that part of what my book is, but in fact I'm trying to tell the truth.
A memoir is far different from rigorous factual biography. It's not as though I'm trying to say, aha, I got you, at each point, I'm just trying to present the way I really found it, which in many cases was different from what he presented.
Let me pause to parse the above paragraph from the distinguished journalist and historian. Here is my translation of what Maraniss is actually saying:
My book has been taken up by Obama’s enemies just because I told the truth. Give the president a break. He was writing a memoir, and everyone knows a memoir is different from the truth, since Obama is the first post-modern president. His memoir was his truth -- even though it wasn’t true, it was to him. I didn’t mean to show he lied -- pardon me -- unintentionally fabricated his own story. I only sought to show the truth was different than he said it was.
Get it now? If you don’t, Maraniss also said on the program that Obama sought to write it through the “prism of race.” He went on to note that the “right-wing” is “cherry-picking” negative things in the book, which “is almost why I didn’t want to write it.” As he went on, he got deeper into the problem:
He wrote it when he wasn’t running for president, and had no thought that people like me would come along and tell the real story.
So what is the real story? Fortunately, Buzzfeed has given us a good summary. The Maraniss bio, Ben Smith tells us, “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." And this is important because I and so many others can tell you about how many people voted for and supported Obama for president precisely because of what he related in his own memoir.
As Smith writes, that story had a firm “narrative goal,” one based on a story of race and identity in the 20th century. The falsehoods in Obama’s memoir include his mother’s claim that she experienced racism in Kansas, and stories about the colonial brutality suffered by his grandfather in Kenya and by his Indonesian step-grandfather. To quote Maraniss, it paints Obama as “blacker and more disaffected” than he was in real life, and hence Obama “accentuates characters drawn from black acquaintances who played lesser roles in his real life but could be used to advance a line of thought, while leaving out or distorting the actions of friends who happen to be white.”
Having written these lines, Maraniss suddenly has seen the devastating impact they could have in souring people on the president’s truthfulness. Since he is himself a good liberal and supporter of the president, David Maraniss is in effect apologizing for the truthfulness of his own account.
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.
The problem that Maraniss acknowledges is that Obama’s composites and rearrangements are not only that of style, but “are also substantive.” Hence he sees Dreams as a work of “literature and memoir, not history and autobiography.” The key example is the woman named “Regina” that Obama treats as a symbol of an authentic African-American experience that Obama wanted for himself, and that he found in the woman he eventually married. But Maraniss found out that Regina was an Occidental College student leader who was white and not African-American! Her real name was Caroline Boss, and Regina was the name of her Swiss grandmother.
Other fabrications found by Maraniss include that Hussein Onyango, Obama's paternal grandfather, was not whipped and tortured by the British. Nor was his Indonesian stepfather killed by Dutch soldiers in the fight for independence. Maraniss calls it a “concocted myth in almost all respects.” The truth was far more simple and hardly one to call up reverence: he “fell off a chair at his home with trying to hang drapes, presumably suffering a heart attack.”
One must also note that these truths offset some of the mythologizing carried out by Dinesh D’Souza, whose book The Roots of Obama’s Rage is based on accepting what Maraniss has now exposed as false. As Smith writes, “Obama’s conservative critics [have] taken the self-portrait at face value, and sought to deepen it to portray him as a leftist and a foreigner.” Certainly, while Obama was a leftist, I think Smith is correct when he says that Obama did not have a “foreign and strongly Muslim heritage.” Nor did he have “roots in the 20th Century’s self-consciously leftist anti-colonial struggle.”
Finally, Maraniss shows that Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr., “sheds whatever sympathy his intelligence and squandered promise should carry.” He was a domestic abuser who beat his wives, one of whom got a sexually transmitted disease because of an extramarital relationship he had. Nor was Obama and his mother abandoned by the father when they were in Hawaii in 1963. Maraniss writes that his mother left Hawaii a year earlier than Barack Sr., and most likely did so because of spousal abuse.
Obama’s own friend “Ray,” discussed in the president’s memoir, was not as Obama wrote “a symbol of young blackness,” but was a man "half-Japanese, half-Native American, and part black,” like Obama himself. Nor was he Obama’s close friend. And they had no trouble dating white girls, unlike the claim made by Obama in his memoir. As one friend told Maraniss: "Everything didn’t revolve around race.”
Then there is “the oft-told story of [Obama’s mother’s] dying because of the failure of her health insurance company to pay for her cancer treatment [which] was a flat out lie." Ann Dunham’s cancer treatments were in fact paid by insurance, although she had a separate and unrelated conflict about disability coverage. During the 2008 campaign Obama said the following:
For my mother to die of cancer at the age of 53 and have to spend the last months of her life in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies because they’re saying that this may be a pre-existing condition and they don’t have to pay her treatment, there’s something fundamentally wrong about that.
Obama, Jonathan S. Tobin notes, knew this to be false, since he handled her insurance matters with the company. Yet he and the campaign regularly referred to this falsehood even though a buried story in the New York Times by Janny Scott revealed the truth. It was also repeated in a film about Obama narrated by Tom Hanks. Tobin writes: “Not only has the president never apologized for lying to the American people about his mother’s plight, he rightly assumed that even though the truth was uncovered by the New York Times, neither that paper nor the rest of the mainstream media would follow up on it as they undoubtedly would had a Republican ever tried to sell the voters such a transparent whopper.”
So the question remains, as more we didn’t know about Barack Obama comes out: what difference if any will it make in causing voters to reevaluate what they know about the president? What will come from this new record of fabrications concerning his own life, and uttered to score a political point about the need for universal health care?
Now that David Maraniss has reluctantly opened the door, will the press and other investigators do their best to carry out the kind of vetting about Barack Obama that did not take place in 2008? Let us hope that Maraniss’ work is only the beginning.