LOS ANGELES -- Worried about a pending potentially negative Los Angeles Times story, Barack Obama's presidential campaign assigned its top researcher the job of tracking down people Obama worked with when he was a community organizer in Altgeld Gardens -- some the basis of composite characters in his memoir, Dreams From My Father.
Obama changed names of real people, created composite characters and re-created conversations in his best-selling memoir.
That article ended up on Page 1 of Monday's Los Angeles Times, hitting as Obama started a two-day fund-raising blitz in California, topped off this evening with a fund-raiser in Beverly Hills hosted by Hollywood's David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg.
Times staff writer Peter Wallsten raised the question in his story of whether Obama took too much credit in helping residents of Altgeld Gardens fight the Chicago Housing Authority over asbestos removal in the South Side complex in the 1980s. The paper headlined the piece ''Fellow activists say Obama's memoir has too many I's.''
Obama, 45, is hoping to dilute questions about his experience by arguing that the totality of his career -- from community organizer to state senator to the U.S. Senate -- should count, and not just his last two years in Washington.
An apparently anxious Obama campaign sent out a detailed memo at 5:05 a.m. Monday, rebutting the thesis of the L.A. Times article and the "implication" Obama "partially fictionalized events" in Altgeld. The campaign memo contained testimonials of several people familiar with Obama's Altgeld role and said he downplayed his role in the asbestos controversy.
Also noteworthy: The real names of several Chicago people who were the basis for characters in Obama's memoir surfaced in this memo. The internal sleuthing that dug up the people behind some of the composites was done by Obama campaign research director Devorah Adler.
"When calling folks who he worked with in his community activist days, she asked, 'were you represented in the book?' " said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. Adler had to dig up the real identities by herself even though it would have seemed simpler for her to ask Obama.
Obama disclosed in his introduction that he used literary devices to buttress his recollections. He also kept a journal. In August 2004 I wrote a column about Obama's use of literary license in Dreams and concluded: ''Except for public figures and his family, it is impossible to know who is real and who is not. . . .
"Colorful characters populate the Chicago chapters: Smitty the barber, LaTisha, the part-time manicurist, Angela, Ruby, Mrs. Turner and one Rafiq al Shabazz. Who they really are, or if they are composites, you would not know from reading the book."
I questioned Obama about his memoir in a phone interview just before the Democratic convention.
''I don't remember what Smitty's real name was. I think it was Wally,'' Obama said.
The Times article quotes Altgeld resident and community activist Hazel Johnson. My colleague, Sun-Times political writer Scott Fornek, interviewed her in 2004 and again on Monday.
Fornek reports that Johnson, 72, objects to Obama taking credit for helping force the CHA to remove asbestos at Altgeld Gardens. Johnson has not read Obama's book. She said he played no role in the asbestos-removal fight. She said he did help get "angel hair," another type of dangerous insulation, removed from attics in the complex's row houses -- and worked on public transportation issues and helped get a library built. ''He was not with us on the asbestos,'' she said.
But Johnson told Fornek a different version of the events in 2004 during an interview for a profile on Obama during that year's U.S. Senate race. She said Obama worked on the asbestos removal after the angel hair project. "We worked together." Another colleague, Sun-Times reporter Tim Novak, talked to Cheryl Jackson, her daughter. She said her mother was exploited by Obama when he failed to include her efforts in his book.
"My mother worked too hard and too long of a time. That hurts when someone who has been a sole soldier for so long and continues to be a soldier for environmental issues . . . for someone to exploit the work that she has done is not fair."