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In his 2012 biography, “Barack Obama: The Story,” David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor with the Washington Post, exposed many of the minor fictions on which Obama built his career.
What Maraniss shied from doing, however, was pursuing those leads that would unravel the major fictions.
Maraniss has been particularly protective of the myth of Obama’s literary genius, a myth built entirely upon Obama’s claimed sole authorship of his 1995 memoir, “Dreams from My Father.”
To test this claim, it pays to review the book’s timeline. To this end, a 2006 article by publisher Peter Osnos has proved very useful. More recent sources have helped flesh out this account.
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 book on race and voting rights.
In the spring of 1992, on top of his existing obligations, Obama was offered the opportunity to head up Project Vote. If Obama accepted the offer, he would have still another excuse for not being able to meet his June 15, 1992, manuscript deadline despite the generous 18 months he had been allotted.
He took the job and missed the deadline. Simon & Schuster extended it. In the summer of 1992, he and Michelle visited Kenya and married in October of that year.
After the couple’s West Coast honeymoon, Obama decamped to Bali for a month to finish the book without interruption. Nothing happened.
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.
Celebrity biographer Christopher Andersen reports that Obama had spent $75,000 of the advance and could not pay it back.
According to Andersen, 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, 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.
According to Maraniss, Obama submitted the first draft of what was now a memoir to Crown editor Henry Ferris before writing the final section of the book, which dealt with his 1988 Kenya visit. This would have been well into 1994. “Dreams” was published in July 1995.
Maraniss paraphrases Ferris as saying that “Obama traveled to Kenya a second time for further research before turning in the last part of the book.”
In gathering information for his Obama biography, Maraniss was able to question Obama in the Oval Office about this research-oriented Kenyan trip.
Obama was at pains to insist that the story he told in “Dreams” about his 1988 African pilgrimage was true as written and that he “did not compress” it, meaning meld it with experiences from a later trip.
This latest trip, confirmed Obama, was for “fact-checking” and enabled him to do “more background on things like Kenyan history.”
As he has often done, Maraniss left a potentially revealing story on the table. According to all accounts, Obama made only two trips to Africa before his election to the Senate in 2004: the first one in 1988 recounted in “Dreams” and the second one with Michelle in 1992.
In his Oval Office discussion with Maraniss, Obama makes no mention of Michelle accompanying him on the fact-checking trip. Besides, in 1992, Obama was still under contract with Simon & Schuster to write a book on race and voting rights.
There are a few possible explanations for the obvious holes in this account. An unlikely one is that Ferris incorrectly recalled Obama’s return trip to Kenya, and Obama compounded this lapse with his own chronologically confused account to Maraniss.
A second possible explanation, an intriguing one, is that Ferris and Obama remembered correctly, that Obama did make a third trip to Kenya in 1994 or early 1995, and Obama chose not to reveal it beyond his inner circle.
A third possibility is that Obama lied to Ferris about making a return trip to Kenya, possibly to show how serious he was about the book and getting his facts straight.
Instead of going to Africa, Obama may have contented himself with going to the local library and pillaging the memoirs of longtime Kenya resident Kuki Gallmann.
This is the theory proposed by Shawn Glasco, the tireless researcher I refer to in my book “Deconstructing Obama” as “Mr. Southwest.” Obama’s evasions about his research trip make Glasco’s theory all the more credible.
Glasco was intrigued by the title of Gallmann’s 1991 memoir, “I Dreamed of Africa” – later made into a film with Kim Basinger – given the similarity between her title and Obama’s.
Glasco was intrigued even more by the many words and phrases in “Dreams” that also appeared in Gallmann’s book, “African Nights,” which was published in 1994.
These include words like Baobab [a tree], bhang [cannabis], boma [an enclosure], samosa [a fried snack], shamba [a farm field], liana [a vine], tilapia [a fish], kanga [a sheet of fabric] and shuka [decorative sashes].
It is possible that Obama remembered these phrases – and many more – from his two previous short trips to Kenya, but it is not at all likely. More likely is that he swiped them from Gallman.
“Nothing is so tempting for conspiracy theorists as what appears to be a hole in a life,” sneers Maraniss.
In leaving this hole so conspicuously unfilled, it falls to us conspiracy theorists to do the job real biographers used to do.
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