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Sweet column reprise. Obama's book: What's real, what's not


This column was first published on Aug. 8, 2004....

When Barack Obama was only 33, he wrote a memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.

I remember Obama telling me about his book when he visited my office in Washington back in 1999, when the Democrat was making what turned out to be a failed run for the House of Representatives.

Dan Shomon, Obama's aide, sent me a copy of the book. I tucked Shomon's letter, dated Aug. 13, 1999, inside the cover and stuck the book on a shelf. There it sat until last June. I dug it out and read it because Obama is virtually certain to win election to the U.S. Senate and become a national political figure. Because of Obama's soaring popularity, the book is being reissued, and 50,000 copies will be in bookstores on Tuesday.

I was dismayed, however, at what I found when I read Dreams from My Father. Composite characters. Changed names. And reams of dialogue between Obama and other people that moves the narrative along but is an approximation'' of the actual conversation.

Except for public figures and his family, it is impossible to know who is real and who is not.

Obama disclosed in his introduction that he uses these literary devices to buttress his recollections. He also kept a journal. For the sake of compression,'' Obama writes, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I've known and some events appear out of precise chronology. With the exception of my family and a handful of public figures, the names of most characters have been changed for the sake of their privacy.''

The devices well serve to eloquently take the reader along on Obama's quest to understand his heritage as, as he writes, the son of a black man and white woman, an African and an American.''

Most of the book centers on his namesake father, a Harvard-educated Kenyan economist who he met only once, with less emphasis on his mother, who grew up in Kansas.

In the preface to the 2004 edition, Obama, 43, writes of his regret for focusing on the absent parent'' rather than on the parent who was the single constant in my life.''

Obama devotes several chapters in the middle of the book to his life in Chicago, where he moved after graduating from Columbia University in 1983 and where he returned after picking up a Harvard Law School degree in 1991.

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.

I asked him about a man called Marty Kaufman in the book; he was Obama's boss at his first job in Chicago as a community organizer at the Calumet Community Religious Conference.

Kaufman, Obama told me, is really Gerald Kellman. I tracked down Kellman and asked him about his portrayal in the book.

I think Barack was very accurate not only about myself but other people that I knew,'' Kellman told me.

That's reassuring, but most readers do not have the ability to call around to try to sort out the fictional characters from real people.

I say in the book it is my remembrances of what happened,'' Obama told me. I don't set it out as reportage . . . read the book for what it is worth.

"You reconstruct your memory for what happened. It is not reportage. It is not appearing in the New York Times or the Sun-Times. I say that explicitly in the book.''

I bounced my reservations about Obama's book off of Caryl Rivers, a journalism professor at Boston University and a media critic who writes fiction, non-fiction and screenplays.

Rivers did not have a problem with changing names. Using composite characters -- without telling the reader -- is troublesome, she said. When you start to bring in composite characters you immediately bring up the question of what is true,'' Rivers said.

Obama's home-run keynote address before the Democratic National Convention month vaulted him into the political stratosphere, and there is much interest in him. As in his book, his keynote dwelled much upon his life. I urge him to be meticulous from now on.

Several direct-mail pieces issued for Obama's primary campaign said he was a law professor at the University of Chicago. He is not. He is a senior lecturer (now on leave) at the school. In academia, there is a vast difference between the two titles. Details matter.


Hi Lynn,

I appreciate you trying to set Chris Matthews straight about the madrassa hoax story during your Feb 9th Hardball appearance. Thank you.

But, as far as this piece? Well, your discomfort with the narrative liberties Obama took with his first book -- and which he's never attempted to hide -- made no sense in 2004. And, in 2007, it still doesn't.

Why the reprint?

It only serves to encourage potential voters to infer that Obama had done something wrong, or was trying to cover something up. Again, neither is true.

And, as you may know, your piece has been mentioned on and by Andrew Sullivan. And, most alarmingly, your article was the basis of an incorrect statement made by Brian Kilmeade during the infamous Feb 17th Fox & Friends madrassa hoax debut.

Perhaps, Vermonter, you might have missed the fact that several of the people that were whitewashed from the Obama memoir have complained in the media this week that a Senator who is short on experience is trumping up his credentials by washing them out of the past. See LA Times Page 1 on Saturday...

A reprint is necessary to show that the Sun-Times was out in front years ago on this topic, and that it is still germane today.

Thanks Max,

You may have missed the information that the Obama campaign provided that thoroughly debunked that LA Times story.

Like counsel from Obama regarding his tome, when I channel the famous I read it for what it's worth.

Through a mystic and somewhat esoteric fusion of energies and in broad daylight, I have talked to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He said, "I have something to say about Obama, his writing and the umbra of Hillary. Go to my poetry. With your eyes shut and using a newer yellow Sharpie Accent Highlighter arbitrarily select passages from my work and you will see the flowers that grow between." I did as asked.

"The leaves of memory seemed to make a mournful rustling in the dark.

This is the place. Stand still, my steed, let me review the scene and summon from the shadowy past the forms that once have been.

Look then into thine heart, and write.

For time will teach thee soon the truth. There are no birds in last years nest.

He heard the trailing garments of the night sweep through her marble halls.

She floats upon the river of his thoughts.

She knew the life-long martyrdom, the weariness, the endless pain of waiting for someone to come who never more would come again.

She can false and friendly be, Beware, Beware, trust her not, she is fooling thee.

The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight.

He is a little chimney and heated hot in a moment.

Deeds are better things than words are, actions mightier than boasting.

Oh the long dreary Winter! Oh, the cold and cruel Winter!

This is the forest primeval"

To the moderator, since you appear on Chris Matthews' show, maybe you could ask him a question for me? Could you ask him why he hates white people so much? You could ask him off camera if he won't allow you to ask it on camera. And then you could post the answer back on here. Thank you very much.

The new york media is crushing Obambi for Hillary, and the Chicago media is weak, just like bambi.

Lynn Sweet has always asked tough questions. I hope that Jerry isn't lumping Lynn into his weak Chicago media hypothesis.

On another note, from a fellow Chicagoan, check out this post on electability. Hillary is the heavy weight when it comes to electability. No crystal ball required.

Is Vermonter mocking the mystic?

Well, if details matter, we might consider the University of Chicago's view of Obama's status:

From 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama served as a professor in the Law School.


According to the Univ of Chicago - Obama was NOT a professor - regardless of how they initially tried to spin it.

Yet another "misstatement" from Obama.

And now we learn he LIED in his book about his own father!


Dreams of my father is a great book and one well worth reading by all Americans interested in understand not just Obama, but questions of identity and race relations in modern America.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on February 20, 2007 9:28 AM.

Sweet column: Did Obama take too much credit? was the previous entry in this blog.

Sweet blog special: Obama in Los Angeles. UPDATES. Obama's research memo--on himself.. is the next entry in this blog.

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