Commentary Magazine


Topic: David Maraniss

Yes, Obama’s Bio Lies Constitute a Pattern

Never let it be said the New York Times is afraid to tackle an unflattering story about President Obama, even if it’s often a delayed reaction. The paper’s political blog The Caucus deigned to notice today that the new biography of the president by David Maraniss uncovered the fact that much of Dreams From My Father, the highly praised Barack Obama autobiography, is either fabricated or exaggerated. The Times’s Michael Shear opines that having its author now sitting in the White House has brought Dreams more scrutiny than its author could have envisioned when he wrote it in 1995. But the problem with contemporary analyses of the questionable personal history in the book is not so much the peril associated with being a famous political author but whether the book provides proof of a pattern of falsehoods and distortions about his past that has been one of the hallmarks of the president’s public career.

The answer to that question is contained near the bottom of the piece in which Shear lets drop that proof of such a pattern was already provided by his own newspaper last year. Though the Times buried the story when it broke and then never followed up or editorialized on the scandal, it was their own reporter Janny Scott whose research on the life of the president’s mother Ann Dunham revealed that the oft-told story of her dying because of the failure of her health insurance company to pay for her cancer treatment was a flat out lie. But while Shear is right that this year’s election will not turn on how Maraniss’s book is received, the unwillingness of the Times and other mainstream publications to call out Obama for writing fiction and calling it autobiography gives us a good indication of how much of an advantage having a quiescent media is for an incumbent president.

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Never let it be said the New York Times is afraid to tackle an unflattering story about President Obama, even if it’s often a delayed reaction. The paper’s political blog The Caucus deigned to notice today that the new biography of the president by David Maraniss uncovered the fact that much of Dreams From My Father, the highly praised Barack Obama autobiography, is either fabricated or exaggerated. The Times’s Michael Shear opines that having its author now sitting in the White House has brought Dreams more scrutiny than its author could have envisioned when he wrote it in 1995. But the problem with contemporary analyses of the questionable personal history in the book is not so much the peril associated with being a famous political author but whether the book provides proof of a pattern of falsehoods and distortions about his past that has been one of the hallmarks of the president’s public career.

The answer to that question is contained near the bottom of the piece in which Shear lets drop that proof of such a pattern was already provided by his own newspaper last year. Though the Times buried the story when it broke and then never followed up or editorialized on the scandal, it was their own reporter Janny Scott whose research on the life of the president’s mother Ann Dunham revealed that the oft-told story of her dying because of the failure of her health insurance company to pay for her cancer treatment was a flat out lie. But while Shear is right that this year’s election will not turn on how Maraniss’s book is received, the unwillingness of the Times and other mainstream publications to call out Obama for writing fiction and calling it autobiography gives us a good indication of how much of an advantage having a quiescent media is for an incumbent president.

The fables Obama seems to have told about his alienation, his girlfriends and the rest of his over-intellectualized voyage of self-discovery actually pale in comparison to the whopper he told when running for election in 2008 that his mother died because she had been denied coverage and treatment of her disease. Scott revealed that in fact the expenses relating to her cancer had been paid by her insurance. Though she had a separate and totally unrelated dispute relating to disability coverage, Scott’s research proved that Obama’s statement during the 2008 presidential debate was fiction:

For my mother to die of cancer at the age of 53 and have to spend the last months of her life in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies because they’re saying that this may be a pre-existing condition and they don’t have to pay her treatment, there’s something fundamentally wrong about that.

It bears repeating that the president knew this account was false because he served as his mother’s attorney in all her dealings with the insurance company.

When the Times ran that story (on page 14 rather than on the front page), the White House chose not to deny the truth of Scott’s reporting. But that didn’t stop the Obama campaign from refloating the same falsehoods about Ms. Dunham having perished for lack of insurance coverage in an autobiographical campaign film narrated by Tom Hanks. Not only has the president never apologized for lying to the American people about his mother’s plight, he rightly assumed that even though the truth was uncovered by the New York Times, neither that paper nor the rest of the mainstream media would follow up on it as they undoubtedly would had a Republican ever tried to sell the voters such a transparent whopper.

It may be as Shear writes, that as a result of Maraniss’s work, Obama may face more questions about his “personal narrative” than he did four years ago. But the proof of his willingness to tell a lie — even one about his late mother — about his past in order to score political points has already been well established. Most Americans don’t care about the president’s old girlfriends or place much importance about the proper sequence of events in his life. Nor should they. But the myth he wove about Ann Dunham’s death is the sort of damning falsehood for which he still deserves to be held accountable. That he won’t be is a much bigger story than anything uncovered by Maraniss.

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Is Obama’s Vetting Finally Beginning?

As trivial as the Obama-eats-dogs and composite-girlfriend memes might seem, they actually speak to a deeper issue. At the Telegraph, Tim Stanley argues:

What stands out from the composite story isn’t that Obama amalgamated characters, it’s that the press hadn’t noticed until now. As with the dog story, this confirms the suspicion that the mainstream media gave Obama a free pass in 2008 and declined to check too deeply into his background. Even The Atlantic’s [David] Graham admits that he’s never read Dreams From My Father, and neither, it would seem, has anyone else in the press corps. They have the excuse that the book is incredibly narcissistic and boring, but otherwise isn’t this exactly the sort of character assessment/assassination that should have happened four years ago? …

And yet we knew everything there was to know about Sarah Palin, despite the fact that she was in the race for a much shorter space of time than Obama – and only running for veep.

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As trivial as the Obama-eats-dogs and composite-girlfriend memes might seem, they actually speak to a deeper issue. At the Telegraph, Tim Stanley argues:

What stands out from the composite story isn’t that Obama amalgamated characters, it’s that the press hadn’t noticed until now. As with the dog story, this confirms the suspicion that the mainstream media gave Obama a free pass in 2008 and declined to check too deeply into his background. Even The Atlantic’s [David] Graham admits that he’s never read Dreams From My Father, and neither, it would seem, has anyone else in the press corps. They have the excuse that the book is incredibly narcissistic and boring, but otherwise isn’t this exactly the sort of character assessment/assassination that should have happened four years ago? …

And yet we knew everything there was to know about Sarah Palin, despite the fact that she was in the race for a much shorter space of time than Obama – and only running for veep.

This election, the Romney campaign is not going to be broaching the issue of Obama’s past, so unless the press brings up these stories, they won’t be discussed. Republicans are intent on running against Obama’s record, not his personal background, and it’s obvious why. Conservatives might find Obama’s past radical associations horrifying, but these stories have never been very successful at informing public opinion about the president. And some of the nuttier conspiracy theories about Obama’s past, particularly the birther movement, have actually been politically helpful for him. The president and his staff elevated the birther nonsense last spring, and his campaign even fundraised off of it.

In contrast, the White House is reportedly uneasy about the upcoming David Maraniss book. Because Maraniss is not a conservative, his reporting can’t be easily dismissed, and his book threatens to undermine the life narrative crafted by the Obama campaign. Politico reports:

The success of Dreams has given Obama nearly complete control of his own life narrative, an appealing tale that has been the foundation of his political success. But Maraniss’s biography threatens that narrative by questioning it: Was Obama’s journey entirely spiritual and intellectual? Or was it also grounded in the lower realms of ambition and calculation? …

There are some signs the president himself is concerned. In fact, Obama was so intent on having his side of the story convincingly articulated, he granted the author a virtually unprecedented 90-minute Oval Office interview, twice the allotted time Maraniss thought he was getting.

The brief excerpt from the book in Vanity Fair suggests that this will be the first serious, mainstream examination of Obama’s younger years, and a very compelling one at that. I’m not under any illusions that Maraniss will provide a full vetting of Obama in his book, which will likely be sympathetic to the president. But the fact that Maraniss has uncovered basic, and fascinating details of Obama’s life that were previously glossed over by the rest of the media, may at least prod other reporters into doing their jobs.

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