In observing the campaign of the Obama administration, a correspondent asked me whether we were watching some diabolically clever strategy at work or just “sloppy chess being played by amateurs.”
In the case of the recently discovered Obama girlfriends, I will have to argue for B – “sloppy chess.” I will focus here not on Genevieve Cook, the presumed diarist who has gotten most of the attention, but rather on Alexandra McNear, who allegedly kept Obama’s love letters for 30 years before sharing them with biographer David Maraniss.
In a recent Vanity Fair excerpt, Maraniss reprints two extended excerpts from one of those letters. I believe that these letters were volunteered to Maraniss to impress the kind of people who read the New York Times.
If so, the Times took the bait. Reporter Adam Hirsch gushes over the young Obama’s “literary sensibility” and his “ironic, literary mind.” Although regretting that Obama’s “authenticity” has not made him a transformative figure, Hirsch remains “certain” that Obama “has it in him to produce the best post-presidential memoir ever – if he is willing to let that unguarded early voice speak again.”
What Hirsch refuses to question is whether that “unguarded early voice” is Obama’s own. On this question, Maraniss does nothing to enlighten him. As an Obama biographer – his book “Barack Obama: The Story” is due out next month – Maraniss obviously knows that controversy surrounds Obama’s writing skills.
Given that controversy, he owes his reader some proof of the letter’s legitimacy. He should tell us whether he saw a hard copy of the letter, whether it was typed or hand-written, and why it reads so much better than Obama’s published work of the same period. He does none of the above.
To this day, Obama writes first drafts of just about everything longhand. During the 2008 campaign, he explained his style to Daphne Durham of Amazon: “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.”
In 1982-1983, when the Vanity Fair letters were written, college students did not use word processors. If they typed, they did so on a typewriter. The odds are that this letter, if an original, was not typed.
This make the excerpts’ second sentence as it appears in Vanity Fair hard to explain, “But I will hazard these statements – Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats.”
Recall that Obama, in the words of friendly biographer David Remnick, was an “unspectacular” student. A Northwestern University prof who wrote a letter of reference for Obama reinforces the point, telling Remnick, “I don’t think [Obama] did too well in college.”
And yet writing longhand, presumably from memory, Obama has the wherewithal to put an umlaut over the “u” in Münzer. In college, I was an Honors English student and a Classics minor, not a political science major like Obama. I had not even heard of Münzer before reading this letter.
That Obama could embark upon a sophisticated, spontaneous discussion of T.S. Eliot – he claimed not to have read “The Waste Land” for a year and never bothered “to check all the footnotes” – should have alerted Maraniss.
Nowhere in “Dreams” is there any mention of T.S. Eliot, Münzer or Yeats, or any of the themes in this letter that so excited Adam Hirsch. As Obama tells it, he and his pals “discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy.” This I can believe.
Totally missing from “Dreams,” too, are the more exotic words in the letter to McNear: ecstatic, mechanistic, asexual, stoical, moribund, reactionary, fertility, dichotomy, irreconcilable, ambivalence, plus “hazard” and “counter” used as verbs, as in “I will hazard these statements” and “Counter him with Yeats and Pound.”
What finally makes hash of this letter’s authenticity is Obama’s Rosetta Stone, the 1,800-word essay he wrote for the Columbia Sundial in 1983, “Breaking the War Mentality.” Here are some excerpts:
The belief that moribund institutions, rather than individuals are at the root of the problem, keep SAM’s energies alive. (Random commas, misuse of “moribund,” should be “keeps.”)
Regarding Columbia’s possible compliance, one comment in particular hit upon an important point with the Solomon bill. (Misuse of participle, comments don’t “hit upon.”)
What members of ARA and SAM try to do is infuse what they have learned about the current situation, bring the words of that formidable roster on the face of Butler Library, names like Thoreau, Jefferson, and Whitman, to bear on the twisted logic of which we are today a part. (A syntactic disaster from beginning to end.)
Now compare these with three excerpts from the McNear letter written, we are led to believe, within months of the Sundial article:
Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he [T. S. Eliot] accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. (Appropriate participle use.)
Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini. (Deft use of commas.)
… but you’re pretty pleased, and your stride gets lighter, the slumber slipping off behind you, into the wake of the past. (Apt punctuation, participle use.)
We know the Sundial article is Obama’s because we have the original copy with his name on it. Not only that, the mistakes he makes in the Sundial article – the random use of commas, the tortured sentence structure, the inability to use participles correctly, and especially the failure to make nouns and verbs agree (an appalling five such failures in this article alone) – reappear in his 1988 essay “Why Organize” and a 1990 letter Obama wrote to the Harvard Law Record.
In the Harvard Law Record letter, which is less than 1,000 words long, Obama has three sentences in which nouns and verbs fail to agree, including the very first one: “Since the merits of the Law Review’s selection policy has been the subject of commentary for the last three issues, I’d like to take the time to clarify exactly how our selection process works.”
In the Harvard of 1990, with his name fully emblazoned upon his work, Obama was not hesitant to share syntactically challenged clunkers like this one: “No editors on the Review will ever know whether any given editor was selected on the basis of grades, writing competition, or affirmative action, and no editors who were selected with affirmative action in mind.” Huh?
The letter Maraniss reproduces, by contrast, is exquisitely punctuated and free of all such errors. The author of the letter even uses his or her participles correctly.
I do not know whether the fraud took place in 1983 or in 2012 or someplace in between, but the author of “Breaking the War Mentality” did not in any meaningful way write the letter that Maraniss reproduced.