In late August 2008, Team Obama had to be more than a little worried about what veteran Washington Post reporter Davis Maraniss would turn up in his exhaustive research into the life of their candidate.
Obama and his advisers had to be particularly worried about Maraniss’s inquiries into his early years. From his emergence on the national stage at the 2004 Democratic Convention, Obama had been shaping his persona around an easily disproved fiction.
“My parents shared not only an improbable love,” Obama told a rapt convention crowd in 2004, “they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation.”
By 2008, Team Obama knew that Obama Sr. had never been seen in public with Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, let alone shared an improbable love.
They knew Obama Sr. had no interest in America and even less interest in his presumed son, whom he would not even see for another 10 years. They knew too that Obama Sr. had never lived with Dunham, either before young Barry’s birth or after.
One suspects that Team Obama harbored even deeper fears about what Maraniss might turn up, but they knew that even if Maraniss reached no higher than this low hanging fruit, he could have undone the candidacy.
On Aug. 24, Maraniss eased Team Obama’s fears. In his 10,000-word article, he did more than preserve the fiction. He reinforced it. The only question is whether he and the Post did this through unforgivably sloppy reporting and editing or whether they did it intentionally.
In dispute here is the first year of Obama’s life. By the time Maraniss was doing his research in 2008, conservative bloggers had deduced that Dunham spent that year in the state of Washington.
The 1961-1962 Polk Directory for Seattle lists an “Obama Anna Mrs. Studt h516 13th Av E apt 2.” Posted course records show that Ann was enrolled for two night courses at the University of Washington, beginning in the fall quarter of 1961. Maraniss overlooked this information.
Maraniss also appears to have overlooked an April 2008 article in the Seattle Times, which reported, “Susan Blake [Botkin], another high-school classmate, said that during a brief visit in 1961, Dunham was excited about her husband’s plans to return to Kenya.” Note that the year was 1961, and the destination was Kenya.
Maraniss likewise missed a video interview with Botkin that had been posted online in which she specifically placed the date of Dunham’s visit as an “afternoon in 1961 when Barry was just a few weeks old.” She even claims to have “changed Barry’s diaper and showed [Dunham] how to do it.”
On Aug. 23, 2008, a day before the Maraniss article appeared, author Michael Patrick Leahy interviewed Botkin by phone for his 2008 book, “What Does Barack Believe?”
Again, Botkin placed the visit in late summer 1961. “She left just as soon she had clearance from her doctor to travel with her new baby,” Botkin said of Dunham. “He was just 3 weeks old.”
Another high school friend, Maxine Box, confirmed for Leahy what Botkin was saying. The year Dunham showed up in Seattle was 1961. The baby was a newborn. And Dunham was on her way to see her husband, but Box was not sure where. Both Botkin and Box told Leahy they never saw Dunham again.
On this point, Botkin was very specific. Leahy reports that Botkin sent Dunham an invitation to her own 1964 wedding to her last known address in Hawaii, but it was returned with no known forwarding address.
Instead of the hard data confirming Dunham’s presence in Seattle, Maraniss relied heavily on Susan Botkin and Maxine Box, but he either seriously misinterpreted their testimony or he massaged it to suit his own purposes.
As Maraniss acknowledged, Obama Sr. left Hawaii for the mainland and Harvard in June 1962, nearly a year after Barry’s birth in August 1961. This much is true. According to Maraniss, there was an “unresolved part of the story,” namely whether Dunham tried to follow Obama Sr. to Cambridge.
“Her friends from Mercer Island were left with that impression,” wrote Maraniss. “Susan Botkin, Maxine Box and John W. Hunt all remember Ann showing up in Seattle late that summer with little Barry, as her son was called.”
Maraniss placed the visit in 1962, not 1961. “She was on her way from her mother’s house to Boston to be with her husband,” Maraniss quoted Botkin as saying. “[She said] he had transferred to grad school and she was going to join him.”
“But as Botkin and others later remembered it,” Maraniss continued, “something happened in Cambridge, and Stanley Ann returned to Seattle. They saw her a few more times, and they thought she even tried to enroll in classes at the University of Washington, before she packed up and returned to Hawaii.”
Maraniss got every critical detail wrong. Dunham visited Seattle in the summer of 1961, not 1962. She stayed and enrolled at the University of Washington. She had no idea Obama Sr. would head for Harvard a year later. She never went to Cambridge. She told her friends she was headed for Kenya in any case. She never saw her friends again.
Rare is it that a reporter gets to make so consequential an error, if an error it was. What Maraniss did was to create the illusion that Obama Sr. and Dunham Sr. spent a year together, long enough to share their improbable love and their abiding faith in America. In short, he preserved the fiction on which Obama had built his campaign.
Just a few days later, on Aug. 28, Obama got to trot the fable out once again in the very beginning of his convention speech. “Four years ago,” said Obama. “I stood before you and told you my story – of the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren’t well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America, their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to.”
They shared nothing more than perhaps a night or two together, but thanks to Maraniss, Obama did not need to recant. The fiction endured.
Next month, Maraniss’s much-discussed new book, “Obama: The Story,” debuts. I am hoping Maraniss corrects the record, but given his track record, we can take at face value nothing Maraniss says about Obama not even his story of the missing girlfriends.