03 May 2012

Young Obama and His Composite Girlfriends

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Yesterday’s big item was a Vanity Fair teaser excerpt from David Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story, hitting the shelves on June 19th.

There was general wonder and astonishment over the revelation that Obama’s New York girlfriend in Dreams from My Father was actually a composite character based on multiple girlfriends in New York and Chicago.

Jim Geraghty contended that the use of composite characters in Obama’s autobiography was a key aspect of the book’s evasive, downright mendacious, character.

Why was young Obama’s mentor in Hawaii, Frank Davis only identified as “Frank”? (Probably because Davis was alleged to be a Communist.)

Why does Obama’s description of his duties at a consulting house not match the memories of his co-workers at all?

Why does the book’s kind, easygoing portrait of Jeremiah Wright… not match the man seen in videos of his sermons and at National Press Club years later?

Every autobiography probably includes some inaccurate or self-serving memories, some interpretation of past events that portrays the author in the best possible light. But when Obama describes conversations and interactions with people who didn’t exist, or at least existed in a quite different form from the way they’re described on the page, readers have a right to wonder if they’re reading fiction or nonfiction.

Among the conservative grassroots, it is an article of faith that one of the reasons Barack Obama won in 2008 was because he misrepresented himself to the American people, and he was “not vetted.”…

When you think about telling the world your story, and telling the world about the people who shaped you… would you use a composite?


Some excerpts from a 1982 letter from Barack Obama to girlfriend Alex McNear provoked discussion.

I haven’t read “The Waste Land” for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes. But I will hazard these statements—Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times. You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?

On a Yale conservative discussion list, one of our alumni who teaches English Literature at a major Eastern university, remarked that from the perspective of a professional student of Eliot, Yeats, and Pound Obama’s verbiage struck him as “half gibberish, half misunderstanding,” and commented with frustration that he’d never heard of “Münzer” and could not even find him in Wikipedia.

I, too, was puzzled, but only a little investigation made it clear that Obama had misspelled the name of Thomas Müntzer, an early Reformation era heretic extremist and leader of a servile insurrection in Thuringia, who was defeated and well-deservedly executed in 1525.

Müntzer is, like Gracchus Babeuf, the kind of obscure historical figure that is remembered by specialists in the particular period and by members of the hard-core revolutionary left. Obama’s knowledge of the very existence of Thomas Müntzer is one more proof of his upbringing in a communist family, the kind of family in which the works of Engels are a standard reading staple.


The above and this additional excerpt of the same letter seem to, at least, clear up, once and for all, more than one major historical controversy.

Moments trip gently along over here. Snow caps the bushes in unexpected ways, birds shoot and spin like balls of sound. My feet hum over the dry walks. A storm smoothes the sky, impounding the city lights, returning to us a dull yellow glow. I run every other day at the small indoor track [at Columbia] which slants slightly upward like a plate; I stretch long and slow, twist and shake, the fatigue, the inertia finding home in different parts of the body. I check the time and growl—aargh!—and tumble onto the wheel. And bodies crowd and give off heat, some people are in front and you can hear the patter or plod of the steps behind. You look down to watch your feet, neat unified steps, and you throw back your arms and run after people, and run from them and with them, and sometimes someone will shadow your pace, step for step, and you can hear the person puffing, a different puff than yours, and on a good day they’ll come up alongside and thank you for a good run, for keeping a good pace, and you nod and keep going on your way, but you’re pretty pleased, and your stride gets lighter, the slumber slipping off behind you, into the wake of the past.

John Hinderaker: That, folks, is not a parody. It may provide a hint as to why Obama’s college and law school grades remain a well-kept secret.

Ann Althouse concluded: “I am now willing to believe Obama wrote his own memoir.”

One Feedback on "Young Obama and His Composite Girlfriends"


Your friend needs to work on his Wiki skills; there are two different Munzers on Wikipedia. The more likely candidate is German Classical scholar Friedrich Munzer, one of the originators of prosopography. You could hardly say Muntzer showed an “ecstatic vision”, after all.


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