In his disingenuous State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama called for “a return to the American values of fair play and shared responsibility,” a theme he repeated throughout the speech.
“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” said the president, “or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”
Fair shot? Fair share? Same set of rules? Not so fast. A 2006 article by publisher Peter Osnos sheds a different light altogether on our Robin Hood president.
As Osnos relates, a 1990 New York Times profile on the Harvard Law Review’s first black president caught the eye of hustling young literary agent Jane Dystel.
Dystel persuaded Obama to put a book proposal together, and she submitted it. Poseidon, a small imprint of Simon & Schuster, signed on and authorized a roughly $125,000 advance in November 1990 for Obama’s proposed memoir.
With advance in hand, Obama repaired to Chicago where the University of Chicago offered him a stipend, benefits and an office to help him write what Obama told the administrators would be a book on race and voting rights.
When Obama switched topics to pure memoir, biographer David Remnick reports that the University brass were “unfazed.” They were mostly just glad to have Obama in their midst.
Some of his new colleagues at Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, the town’s leading civil-rights firm, were less than thrilled to see their young associate, feet up on his desk, doodling on his memoir on company time. The named partners, however, indulged him.
Jack Cashill’s literary investigation uncovers revelations galore about Obama’s alleged life narrative. Order the book “Deconstructing Obama: The Life, Love and Letters of America’s First Post-Modern President”
In the spring of 1992, on top of his existing obligations, Obama was offered the opportunity to head up Project Vote, a nonpartisan voter-registration effort designed to herd thousands of fresh Democrats to the polls come November.
If Obama accepted the offer, he would have still another excuse for not being able to meet his June 15 manuscript deadline despite the generous 18 months he had been allotted. He took the job and missed the deadline. Dystel persuaded Simon & Schuster to extend it.
In November 1992, he and Michelle married. After their honeymoon, to finish the book without interruption, Obama decamped to Bali for a month to write. Nothing happened.
His friends have been at pains to excuse his inability to honor his contract. Pal Valerie Jarrett would tell Remnick, “He had to come to terms with some events in his life that some people pays years of therapy to get comfortable revealing.” She adds, “The writing went slowly because everything was so raw.”
There is a simpler explanation. The writing went slowly because Obama finally came face-to-face with the fact that he was not a writer.
Bali or not, advance or no, he could not produce. He was surely in way over his head. Simon & Schuster lost patience. In the summer of 1993, the publishing house canceled the contract. According to Osnos, the publisher asked that Obama return at least some of the advance.
Biographer Christopher Andersen elaborates that Obama had spent $75,000 of the advance and could not pay it back. As Andersen relates, the publisher let Obama keep the money only after he pled poverty due to “massive student loan debt,” this despite a combined salary for the still-childless Obamas well into six figures.
As Osnos tells it, the ever-faithful Dystel did not give up. She solicited Times Book, the division of Random House at which Osnos was publisher. He met with Obama, took his word that he could finish the book and authorized a new advance of $40,000.
During this same period, Obama was working as a full-time associate at Davis Miner, teaching classes and spinning through a social whirl that would have left Scarlett O’Hara dizzy. Writes Remnick, “He and Michelle accepted countless invitations to lunches, dinners, cocktail parties, barbecues and receptions for right minded charities.”
Obama’s Luddite approach to writing slowed him down even further. “I would work off an outline – certain themes or stories that I wanted to tell – and get them down in longhand on a yellow pad,” he would later relate. “Then I’d edit while typing in what I’d written.”
In late 1994, Obama finally submitted the manuscript for “Dreams From My Father.” The Obama faithful believe that a slow writer, who had only some sophomoric essays in print, who blew a huge contract after three futile years, who turned in bloated drafts when he did start writing and who had taken on an absurdly busy schedule, somehow suddenly found his mojo and turned in a minor masterpiece. No one else could believe this.
Although few people bought the book when published, it became a huge best-seller after Obama’s 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic convention.
As Osnos relates, Crown Publishing offered Obama a seven-figure deal for subsequent books. Knowing that his loyal, hardworking agent, Jane Dystel, would get 15 percent of that, Obama promptly dumped her and hired a by-the-hour attorney.
To avoid congressional disclosure and reporting requirements Obama inked the deal after his election but before being sworn in as senator.
To his credit, despite being an un-closeted liberal, Osnos publicly scolded Obama for his “ruthlessness” and “his questionable judgment about using public service as a personal payday.”
Dystel’s 15 percent would have netted her at least another $500,000 in royalties had Obama not forsaken her. Dystel did not return my emails or my subsequent phone call.
I would like to know how she feels about the Obama’s plan for a country, “where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”