Obama’s airbrushed dreams | Power Line

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I placed David Garrow’s biography of the young Barack Obama (now available in paperback) in my top 10 books of 2017. Forgive me for quoting myself. This is what I wrote:

Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, by David J. Garrow. This staggeringly researched book covers 1078 pages of text supported by 300 pages of footnotes — even though Garrow relegates his comments on Obama’s presidency to a 50-page epilogue in which he criticizes Obama from the left. I have not read this book from cover to cover, but I have dipped into it to explore the periods of Obama’s pre-presidential life that most interest me. I have been surprised by the substantial discoveries Garrow has made as well as the level of detail that Garrow has achieved. I have learned from what I have read and intend to return to the book for more. The historian David Greenberg suggests the riches on offer here in “Why so many critics hate the new Obama biography.” Working on the book, Garrow secured a total of eight hours of off the record interviews with Obama. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for those.

Professor Garrow covers Obama’s writing of Dreams from My Father near the midpoint of the book’s text. Without resolving all mysteries, his scholarship belies the notion that the book was ghostwritten by Bill Ayers or other such collaborator. Jack Cashill had pursued this theme in his book Deconstructing Obama and elsewhere. I was open to the thought and wrote (too much) about it in years past.

I was mostly troubled by the literary quality to which Andrew Ferguson had paid tribute (I quoted him here): “I don’t think anyone who reads it could doubt that Dreams from My Father is the work of a real writer; a young writer, it’s true, with a young writer’s mannerisms. The story as he tells it is a bit overstuffed with epiphanies; one event after another sends waves of significance through the narrator’s vast reservoir of sensibility.” Ferguson had second thoughts about his praise of the author as a memoirist, but didn’t modulate the regard he had expressed for the level of the writing.

Everywhere else in Obama’s writings and speeches, however, I was struck by the utterly pedestrian and cliched quality of the prose. Can one find a sentence under Obama’s name outside the covers of Dreams that isn’t dead or leaden? It is a difficult and mind-numbing task to search for one, to say the least. I nevertheless thought Cashill took his case beyond where the evidence could go.

In Rising Star Professor Garrow credited Obama’s Harvard Law School classmate and friend Rob Fisher with editorial advice and assistance on Obama’s drafts of Dreams. Professor Garrow’s account otherwise shows the author — Obama — at work on the book.

Professor Garrow now returns to Dreams through an examination of the book’s original typescript in the The Critic essay “Obama’s airbrushed dreams.” If you have any curiosity in the issues around the book, Professor Garrow’s essay is intensely interesting in its own right and an important contribution. For me, the mystery abides.

I emailed Professor Garrow yesterday to follow up on his essay and raise my own question with him. He kindly responded this morning: “I don’t recall exactly where the Bill Ayers [stuff] got started, but it, like the Frank-Davis-as-father notion, is just beyond loony, ’cause Dreams is already *in galleys* when Barack and Bill first get to know each other. Rob Fisher put in LOTS of work on it, but not in *composing*. When one reads the ca. 200 pages of their joint 1991 unpublished book manuscript, it’s fairly easy to tell what’s by Barack & what’s by Rob, who was a PhD. economist.”

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