The new Obama biography by David Maraniss finds still more composites haunting the pages of Dreams of My Father. That “still more” is not surprising, as Dreams says up front that some composites have been employed, but the importance of them to the narrative, and the lengths to which the compositing of them went, really is. Black-power extremist “Ray” and authentic black experience “Regina” now appear to be even more tangled webs of fabrication than the privileged white “New York Girlfriend” composite I discussed here. So the always-worth-reading Andrew Ferguson explains at The Weekly Standard. His judgment hits the right balance between that’s weird/lying’s bad, on one hand, and why he likely did it on the other:
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… …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.
Ferguson’s overall judgment is that this is dispiriting…it reveals a squishy post-modern reserve. Obama, even in a memoir that used confessional tropes, gave us little to work with in terms of understanding him. In Ferguson’s hands, that suggests not so much a sinister character, but rather, a pretty uninteresting one.
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. …
And I think Ferguson could go further, to speculate that Obama’s staged “conservations” with his composited characters, usually touching on racial identity matters, might reflect a pattern not just of “self-branding” narrative-construction, but of this construction-process at some level taking in and fooling himself.
These little details about Obama’s long practice of playing with the truth seem more significant to me than the debate about his socialism. Yes, Stanley Kurtz’s sober book on Obama’s socialist past Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism got one of its key factual findings further documented last week, but in my opinion the most shocking thing in that book is not its revealing Obama’s socialism (he was a democratic socialist at least up through the 90s), but the brazen acceptance of deception and smear-tactics that pervaded the movement, and which he did nothing to diminish when he was in community-organizer or political-candidate leadership positions.
Bonus: Ferguson also demolishes the latest big Obama-hating book, The Amateur, as no one but he can, and to a large degree on the basis that there’s just too little available evidence about Obama’s pre-candidate life to make the judgments it does.