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Obama's book: What's real, what's not

Author(s): Lynn Sweet    Date: August 8, 2004 Page: 32 Section: Editorials
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.

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