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For years, I had a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt hanging on my living room wall.
I had painted it while in high school in New York at a salon overseen by Helen Farr Sloan, the widow of famed American painter John Sloan and herself a painter of no small talent.
One day, an artist friend of mine stopped by the house and spied the painting.
“Who did that?” he asked.
“I did,” I answered proudly.
“I can believe you did the face,” said my friend, a funny, blunt guy. “That sucks. But who did the eyes?”
“I did,” I answered. He stared at me hard. “I had help,” I added sheepishly.
“You had more than help.”
In reading Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” my friend’s accurate assessment of my TR portrait resonates.
In writing “Dreams,” Obama had more than help, much more. The real question is where that help came from and why.
Although I am no more an art critic than I am an artist, I do know something about writing. In my careers in advertising and publishing, I have reviewed no fewer than a thousand portfolios of professional writers.
Not one of those aspirants could have written “Dreams,” at least not the “eyes” of “Dreams.” I am not sure I could have.
The Times of London calls it “a beautifully written personal memoir steeped in honesty.” And if the “honesty” part is questionable, the “beautifully written” part is not.
Here, as example, is “Obama” describing Chicago: “Night now fell in midafternoon, especially when the snowstorms rolled in, boundless prairie storms that set the sky close to the ground, the city lights reflected against the clouds.”
With no known prior writing except, by his own admission, “a journal of daily reflections and very bad poetry,” Obama is alleged to have sat down and written the above sentence. I could just as probably have painted the Mona Lisa.
Our “Obama” is particularly eloquent on the subject of the black male, himself generously included in that category.
Phrases like “full of inarticulate resentments,” “knotted, howling assertion of self,” “unruly maleness,” “unadorned insistence on respect” and “withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage” lace the book.
These are the “eyes” of the book. Yet in the several spontaneous interviews Obama has given on the subject of race, one sees not a glimpse of this eloquence and insight.
As Obama tells the story of the book’s genesis, “a few publishers called” after he had been elected editor of the Harvard Law Review in 1990.
(Oh, it must be nice to be Obama. This ill-paid community organizer had thought to apply to only three law schools, “Harvard, Yale, Stanford.”)
With an advance in hand, and a fellowship and office from the University of Chicago to help him write, Obama dithered. “In order to work without interruptions,” Wikipedia tells us, “Obama and his wife, Michelle, traveled to Bali.”
Obama was supposed to have finished the book within a year. Bali or not, advance or no, he could not. He was surely in way over his head.
The book was not published until 1995, the same year the unrepentant Weatherman bomber Bill Ayers helped launch Obama’s political career.
Someone intervened, possibly the publisher. On several occasions, for instance, I have been asked to rescue books by publishers whose authors were floundering.
In each case, however, the author was a celebrity and the advance had been substantial. My job was to match the celebrity voice, finish the book and salvage the publisher’s investment.
I have a hard time believing a publisher would pay what it would take to rescue in high style the 450-page book of an unknown author like Obama.
Tellingly, whoever assisted Obama helped turn the book into a grievance narrative. A useful guide to this process is the work black scholar Gerald Early did in analyzing the Muhammad Ali autobiography, “The Greatest: My Own Story.”
According to Early, Richard Durham, the Marxist-oriented editor of “Muhammad Speaks,” taped any number of conversations with Ali or between Ali and others and then gave them to an “editor” for writing.
That editor was Toni Morrison. Ali’s is surely the only boxing autobiography ghosted by a Nobel Prize winner. Nation of Islam honcho Elijah Muhammad’s son Herbert signed off on every page.
Not surprisingly, the collective retelling of Ali’s Louisville experience rendered his story poorer, tougher and blacker, and it does so at the expense of the truth.
Ali’s middle-class home, his loving parents, the Olympic gold he won, the glorious hometown reception, the generous white sponsors and the inevitable pink Cadillac did not make for a compelling grievance narrative.
So for “The Greatest,” Ali and his handlers had to concoct an event powerful enough to undo it all. For symbolic reasons, they focused on the Olympic gold.
In this version, Ali, wearing his gold medal, stops at a diner to duck an impending rainstorm. The manager tells Ali that gold medal or no gold medal, “We don’t serve no niggers.”
“Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do with this cheap piece of metal and raggedy ribbon,” says Ali. He proceeds to a bridge over the Ohio River and throws it in.
Ali’s sidekick Bundini Brown would tell Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram, “Honkies sure bought into that one.” In reality, the instinctively patriotic Ali wore the medal until the gold rubbed off.
True to form, the New York Times described “The Greatest” as “honest” and “very convincing.” The major media are no more discerning about “Dreams.”
“Dreams” offers several comparable moments of negative racial awareness. The most dramatic one is conspicuously and provably false.
In 1970, the 9-year-old Obama alleges to be visiting the American embassy in Indonesia. While waiting, he chances upon “a collection of Life magazines neatly displayed in clear plastic binders.”
In one magazine, he reads a story about a black man with an “uneven, ghostly hue,” who has been rendered grotesque by a chemical treatment.
“There were thousands of people like him,” Obama learned, “black men and women back in America who’d undergone the same treatment in response to advertisements that promised happiness as a white person.”
Obama’s attention to detail is a ruse. Life never ran such an article. When challenged, Obama claimed it was Ebony. Ebony ran no such article either.
Among the thousands of black people I saw in Newark, N.J., where I lived at the time, I never saw such a one. Besides, in 1970, black was beautiful.
The whole story smells of purposeful intervention. The whole book does. A political career holds more promise when launched with a lovely memoir under one’s belt than with an unfulfilled contract over one’s head. Much more.
The question remains: Who did the intervening and why?