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E-mails twist context of Obama's memoir

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan June 10, 2008

SUMMARY: Anonymous e-mailers make hay from Obama's memoir, getting quotes wrong or out of context. We read the book and give you the skinny in case Dreams from My Father isn't in your beach bag.

Many presidents write memoirs. Most presidential candidates, however, have not written a memoir before being elected to public office. But that's the case with Sen. Barack Obama, whose book Dreams from My Father , written early in his life, has become required reading for curious voters, campaign reporters and politics junkies.

The book, published in 1995, is a coming-of-age story about Obama growing up as the son of a white mother and an immigrant father from Africa. It ends before any mention of his political career, with his marriage to Michelle Robinson at age 31.

Obama went on to become a state senator in Illinois and then ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004. After that success, he wrote a second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream , a collection of his thinking on topics such as political divisions, values, faith, race and the international scene.

The two books have made Obama a millionaire. Public records show he has received about $2.3-million in advance money for sales of The Audacity of Hope and a reissue of Dreams from my Father, as well as another nonfiction book and a children's book, both yet to be published.

The books, especially Dreams from My Father , have also provided fodder for the press and Obama's political foes.

The Chicago Tribune conducted a multipart series on Obama's biography and concluded his memoir was "largely accurate but sometimes misleading in the details." The Los Angeles Times looked at his years as a community organizer and found people who said he hogged the credit for initiating a cleanup of asbestos in Chicago's public housing. A New York Times report credited Obama with writing the books on his own, without the use of a ghostwriter, and examined their commercial success.

Anonymous e-mailers have used Dreams from My Father as the raw material to launch cyberattacks against Obama. has received the "Dreams" attack e-mail 20 times from readers asking if it's true. (You can read the text of the e-mail here) .

"This guy wants to be our president and control our government," a typical e-mailer declares. "If you ever forwarded an e-mail, now's the time to do it again."

The e-mails lay out a series of supposedly damaging quotes from Obama's books. Most of them are taken out of context; one is fabricated completely.

First, let's look at a brief synopsis of Dreams from My Father.

The book chronicles Obama's childhood in Hawaii, where he was raised by his mother and grandparents from Kansas. He spends a few years in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather, then returns to Hawaii for high school. He finishes college in New York City, and is then recruited to organize Chicago's historically black churches. In Chicago, Obama grapples with issues such as urban crime, black entrepreneurship and empowerment, class divisions, black self-esteem, political cronyism and religious faith.

In the book's final third, Obama travels to Africa and learns more about postcolonial Kenya and the father he never knew. Barack Obama Sr. returned to the country intent on improving it, but lost his job due to political corruption and his own refusal to play along. He drank heavily and neglected his family for a time, but then found another job and seemed to be overcoming his troubles when he died in a car accident.

The book's emotional high point comes when Obama travels to the homestead of his late grandfather — his father's father — who was a farmer and a servant to the British. Both his grandfather and father, he realizes, were stubborn, go-it-alone types who ended their lives grappling with isolation and disappointment. He weeps for the lost connections between the generations, and imagines a better future, one that requires "a faith born out of hardship, a faith that wasn't new, that wasn't black or white or Christian or Muslim but that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead — a faith in other people."

Naturally, the anonymous e-mailers looked at the more political statements in the book. Here are the quotes from Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope , as well as an explanation of their truthfulness. We have added page numbers for the current paperback editions of the books.

• From Dreams from My Father : "I ceased to advertise my mother's race at the age of 12 or 13, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites." (Introduction, p. xv)

This quote, taken out of context, is part of a longer explanation of how people react to Obama when they discover he is biracial and grew up with a white mother.

"When people who don't know me well, black or white, discover my background (and usually it is a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother's race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no longer know who I am."

• From Dreams from My Father : "I found a solace in nursing a pervasive sense of grievance and animosity against my mother's race."

This quote is a fabrication and does not appear in either of Obama's books. It's actually a rewriting of a sentence from a conservative critique of Obama's book. As a result, we gave it a Pants on Fire ruling.

• From Dreams from My Father : "There was something about him that made me wary, a little too sure of himself, maybe. And white." (Page 142)

This truncated quote refers to Marty Kaufman, a community organizer who interviews Obama, a recent college graduate, and recruits him to work in Chicago. In this scene, Kaufman, who is white, has just explained to Obama that he needs to hire someone black to help organize the historically black churches of Chicago. The fuller quote:

"After he was gone, I took the long way home, along the East River promenade, and tried to figure out what to make of the man. He was smart, I decided. He seemed committed to his work. Still, there was something about him that me wary. A little too sure of himself, maybe. And white — he'd said himself that that was a problem."

• From Dreams from My Father : "It remained necessary to prove which side you were on, to show your loyalty to the black masses, to strike out and name names." (Page 101)

This quote is taken from a description of Obama's first year of college, when he self-consciously cultivated an identity of angry rebelliousness, a phase he grows out of. Here's the fuller quote:

"To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society's stifling constraints. ... But this strategy alone couldn't provide the distance I wanted … After all, there were thousands of so-called campus radicals, most of them white and tenured and happily tolerated. No, it remained necessary to show your loyalty to the black masses, to strike out and name names."

• From Dreams from My Father : "I never emulate white men and brown men whose fates didn't speak to my own. It was into my father's image, the black man, son of Africa , that I'd packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela ." (Page 220)

This quote is taken out of context from one of the most poignant passages of the book. Obama is now several years out of college and a community organizer living in Chicago. His half-sister Auma — his father's daughter from a previous marriage, who was raised in Kenya — has come to visit her brother for the first time. The two bond instantly, and in the conversations that follow, Auma tells Obama things about his father that he has never heard before. Auma tells how his father returned to Africa from the United States, and at first, he did well. But as the political situation in Kenya begins to change, so did the struggles of his father. He loses his job and his passport is revoked. He finally accepts a small job just to put food on the table for his new family. He begins to drink heavily and neglects his children. But he seems to be pulling himself together again when he gets into the car wreck that kills him.

Obama's idealized version of his father's life is shattered in a highly personal way. He reflects: "Yes, I'd seen weakness in other men — Gramps and his disappointments, (his stepfather) Lolo and his compromise. But these men had become object lessons for me, men I might love but never emulate, white men and brown men whose fates didn't speak to my own. It was into my father's image, the black man, son of Africa, that I'd packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela. ... Now, as I sat in the glow of a single light bulb, rocking slightly on a hard-backed chair, that image had suddenly vanished."

• From The Audacity of Hope : "I will stand with the Muslims should the political winds shift in an ugly direction." (Page 261)

The final quote of the e-mail comes from The Audacity of Hope. Obama talks about speaking in front of audiences of immigrants, and how he often tells them that they embody the American dream. But he wrote that when he speaks to audiences of Pakistani and Arab-Americans, their message to him has a more urgent quality.

"(T)he stories of detentions and FBI questioning and hard stares from neighbors have shaken their sense of security and belonging. They have been reminded that the history of immigration in this country has a dark underbelly; they need specific assurances that their citizenship really means something, that America has learned the right lessons from the Japanese internments during World War II, and that I will stand with them should the political winds shift in an ugly direction." Obama doesn't mention Muslims. And the e-mail version suggests this is a declarative statement Obama is making, when actually it is what is being asked of him. That's why we concluded this statement was False.

We should note that Obama is not the only author running for president. His opponent, John McCain, has written two well-received memoirs with longtime adviser Mark Salter: Faith of My Fathers , which focuses on McCain's military career and time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and Worth the Fighting For , about his career in Congress. He has also written, along with Salter, three other books on his values and political philosophy: Why Courage Matters , Character is Destiny and Hard Call: The Art of Great Decisions .


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Our Sources

Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance , 1995

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream , 2006

Center for Responsive Politics, Financial Disclosure for Barack Obama , 2006

Chicago Tribune, Barack Obama: The Making of a Candidate

Chicago Tribune, The not-so-simple story of Barack Obama's youth , March 25, 2007

Chicago Sun-Times, Sweet column: Did Obama take too much credit? Feb. 20, 2007

Los Angeles Times, Fellow activists say Obama's memoir has too many I's , Feb. 19, 2007

New York Times, The Story of Obama, Written by Obama , May 18, 2008


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