Sunday, May 18, 2008

"The Story of Obama, Written by Obama"

NY Times Sunday Magazine:
Barack Obama was a first-time author and rookie politician embarking upon his first run for public office. Hermene Hartman was the publisher of N’Digo, a magazine in Chicago aimed at upscale black readers. As Ms. Hartman tells it, she got a call from Mr. Obama in the fall of 1995 saying he wanted to come and talk. He wanted her to read his newly published memoir.
Ms. Hartman read the book, “Dreams From My Father,” but chose not to review it. Mr. Obama’s life story struck her as too exotic for her readers — the Kenyan father, the white mother, the childhood in Honolulu and Jakarta, Indonesia. But she felt she had gotten to know him from his writing; when he ran for the United States Senate eight years later, N’Digo became the first magazine to put Mr. Obama on its cover.

“Barack is a very focused, determined person,” said Ms. Hartman, who now considers Mr. Obama a friend. “Barack would go to people one by one and say, ‘Here’s my book, I want you to read it, give me feedback.’ For me, as a publisher, he wanted me to write about it. He would call me every week and say, ‘Did you read my book?’ ”

Senator Obama understands as well as any politician the power of a well-told story. He has risen in politics less on his track record than on his telling of his life story — a tale he has packaged into two hugely successful books that have helped make him a mega-best-selling, two-time Grammy-winning millionaire front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination at age 46. According to his publisher, there are more than three million copies of his books in print — and two more books on the way.

The story of Mr. Obama’s life as an author tells as much about him as some of the stories he has recounted in his books. It possesses at times the same charmed quality sometimes ascribed to his political ascent — an impression of ease, if not exactly effortlessness, that obscures a more complex amalgam of drive, ambition, timing and the ability to recognize an opportunity and to do what it takes to seize it.

Just as he was eager to promote his first book to Ms. Hartman, he has made the most of his second. When his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention sent his memoir soaring out of obscurity and straight onto the best-seller list, he untethered himself from his longtime literary agent in favor of Robert B. Barnett, the Washington lawyer who had gotten Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton an $8 million book advance and then landed Mr. Obama a $1.9 million, three-book deal.

He finished his second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” 18 months into his first term in the Senate, edited the proofs late at night on a Congressional fact-finding trip to Africa, plunged into campaigning for colleagues in the midterm elections, took time out for a 12-city book tour, appeared on programs like “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Charlie Rose,” then announced four months later that he was running for president.

The books have defined Mr. Obama’s public image in a way that few books by politicians have done. Reporters paw through them for insights into Mr. Obama the candidate, supplied by Mr. Obama the author. Out of his story, he has also drawn the central promise of his campaign: if a biracial son of a Kenyan and a Kansan could reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable in himself, a divided country could do the same.

His memoir is, as one publisher put it, “the single most vetted book in American politics right now.” Written at a time when Mr. Obama says he was thinking less about a career in politics than about simply writing a good book, it leaves an impression of candidness and authenticity that gives it much of its power. Reporters have questioned Mr. Obama’s use of fictional techniques like composite characters, but some editors and critics say that is common in memoirs.

“The book is so literary,” said Arnold Rampersad, a professor of English at Stanford University who teaches autobiography and is the author of a recent biography of Ralph Ellison. “It is so full of clever tricks — inventions for literary effect — that I was taken aback, even astonished. But make no mistake, these are simply the tricks that art trades in, and out of these tricks is supposed to come our realization of truth.”

In a telephone interview on Friday, Mr. Obama said he would not be surprised if some people had gotten involved in his campaign “because they feel they know me through my books.” But he said he was not even thinking about political consequences when he wrote the memoir. In fact, he said, one editor warned him back then that his references to drug use could come back to haunt him — if he were ever nominated for the Supreme Court.

“This is an example of what happens when you look at things backwards,” Mr. Obama said when asked whether he had his political future in mind when he first began to write. “Then everything looks like, ‘Ah! Of course this was part of some well-calibrated consideration.’ But frankly, no. It would have been very hard for me to anticipate that I’d be where I am today, where a book that I wrote almost 20 years ago now would even be read.”

Early Exposure

Mr. Obama’s story first surfaced publicly in February 1990, when he was elected as the first black president of The Harvard Law Review. An initial wire service report described him simply as a 28-year-old, second-year student from Hawaii who had “not ruled out a future in politics”; but in the days that followed, newspaper reporters grew interested and produced long, detailed profiles of Mr. Obama.

The coverage prompted a call to him from Jane Dystel, a gravelly-voiced literary agent described by Peter Osnos, then the publisher of Times Books, as “a good journeyman with a hard edge.” The home page of her firm’s Web site currently features clients’ best sellers including “Lies at the Altar: The Truth About Great Marriages.” Ms. Dystel suggested Mr. Obama write a book proposal. Then she got him a contract with Poseidon Press, a now-defunct imprint of Simon & Schuster. When he missed his deadline, she got him another contract and a $40,000 advance from Times Books.

Mr. Obama’s original plan was to write a book about race relations. But, sitting down to write, he found his mind “pulled toward rockier shores.” So the book became more personal — the record of an interior journey, as he put it in the introduction, “a boy’s search for his father, and through that a search for a workable meaning for his life as a black American.”

Mr. Obama was given an office to write in at the University of Chicago through a surprising connection. Douglas G. Baird, a professor who was head of the law school’s appointments committee, had learned of Mr. Obama from Michael W. McConnell, a conservative constitutional scholar then at Chicago whom President Bush would later make a federal judge.

Professor McConnell encountered Mr. Obama during the editing of an article he wrote for The Harvard Law Review, Professor Baird said recently. “He sent a note saying this person is really brilliant, we should have him on our radar screen,” Professor Baird said. Professor Baird called Mr. Obama at Harvard and asked if he was interested in teaching.

“I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something to the effect that, ‘Well, in fact, I want to write this book.’ What he really wanted was the Virginia Woolf equivalent of a clean, well lighted room.” So Professor Baird got him one, a small office near the law library, along with a law school fellowship that Professor Baird hoped might later lead to his full-time teaching.

By the time Mr. Obama landed at Times Books, he had a partial manuscript. He required minimal editing, said Henry Ferris, his editor, who is now a vice president and executive editor at William Morrow. He simply needed guidance in paring and shaping the sections already written and keeping the rest from becoming too long. The writing, Mr. Ferris said, “is very much his own.”

The two worked mostly by telephone and by manuscripts sent by Federal Express between New York and Chicago. Mr. Obama, an inveterate journal writer who had published poems in a college literary magazine but had never attempted a book, struggled to finish. His half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, said he eventually retreated to Bali for several months with his wife, Michelle, “to find a peaceful sanctuary where there were no phones.” He showed drafts to a few close relatives including his grandmother, of whom Ms. Soetoro-Ng said, “It probably made her a little nervous, having the family written about, just because you don’t do that in Kansas.”

In the introduction, Mr. Obama acknowledged his use of pseudonyms, composite characters, approximated dialogue and events out of chronological order. He was writing at a time well before a recent series of publishing scandals involving fabrication in memoirs. “He was trying to be careful of people’s feelings,” said Deborah Baker, the editor on the first paperback edition of the book. “The fact is, it all had a sort of larger truth going on that you couldn’t make up.”

A Memoir Revived

The book came out in the summer of 1995, shortly before Mr. Obama announced that he was running for the Illinois State Senate. At 57th Street Books, in Mr. Obama’s neighborhood in Chicago, a few dozen people turned out for a reading. There were respectful reviews in newspapers including The New York Times and The Boston Globe. Times Books sold 8,000 to 9,000 copies.

“I joke that 290 million Americans did not buy the book,” he said.

Kodansha Globe, a now-defunct branch of a Japanese company, bought the paperback rights for $5,000 to $7,500 and printed about 6,000 copies in 1996, said Philip Turner, Kondansha’s editor in chief at the time. The cover carried a blurb from Marian Wright Edelman: “Perceptive and wise, this book will tell you something about yourself whether you are black or white.”

“Even now, it’s hard to get my mind around the idea that this person is in politics,” said Ms. Baker, who described Mr. Obama as a born writer. “I actually think he could be a brilliant politician. He was ambitious as a writer in the same way — very cunning in the way he structured the book. I remember thinking, ‘This guy really knows how to tell a story.’ ”

But within a few years, “Dreams From My Father” was out of print.

Then in March 2004, Mr. Obama’s political and literary fortunes abruptly shifted. His victory in a tightly contested United States Senate primary in Illinois made him an overnight Democratic Party sensation. In New York City, Rachel Klayman, an editor at Crown Books, read a article on Mr. Obama by the author Scott Turow, an Obama friend, titled “The New Face of the Democratic Party — and America.”

Ms. Klayman looked up Mr. Obama’s memoir on and found that the rights were controlled by Crown, which now had the Times Books list. She sent an e-mail message to her boss, suggesting that Crown reissue the book. She contacted Ms. Dystel and asked Mr. Obama to write a new preface, which came in nearly word perfect.

Then Mr. Obama was chosen to give the keynote speech at the Democratic convention.

Crown moved up the publication date, Barnes & Noble increased its order to 20,000 copies, and the book hit the top 50 on Amazon before it was even reissued. Bidding on eBay for a first edition copy hit $255. By December, Mr. Obama was the senator-elect and his book had been on the best-seller list for 14 weeks. And Ms. Dystel had initiated discussions with Crown about a new book contract for Mr. Obama.

Two weeks before Mr. Obama’s swearing in, Crown announced that it had signed a contract with him for three more books. The first would offer “a window into the political and spiritual convictions that propelled Obama’s recent U.S. Senate victory.” The second will be a children’s book about his life, and the third is yet to be defined. The deal had been initiated by Ms. Dystel, the announcement said, but “negotiated and concluded by Robert B. Barnett of Williams & Connolly LLP.”

What happened between Mr. Obama and Ms. Dystel is not clear. Ms. Dystel declined to be interviewed for this article. Mr. Obama said, “It really had more to do with the fact that by the time ‘The Audacity of Hope’ was written, I was going to be in Washington and was obviously now very high profile.” Mr. Osnos called Mr. Obama’s decision to switch to Mr. Barnett, whose clients include former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, “disloyal but not unusual.”

Others said it was understandable. “You’re nobody in Washington without Barnett working for you,” said a rival publisher, who asked not to be named. “Bob knows how to deal with the politics of a book as well as the selling of the book, Senate ethics rules, the advance. Bob is a fixer.” Unlike literary agents, who take a percentage of an author’s earnings, Mr. Barnett bills by the hour.

Mr. Obama completed “The Audacity of Hope” in the summer of 2006. This time, he distributed drafts to several dozen friends and Senate staff members, many of whom now advise his campaign. They included David Axelrod, his chief political strategist; Anthony Lake, who was a national security adviser for President Bill Clinton; Gene Sperling, a former economic adviser to Mr. Clinton; and Samantha Power, who recently stepped down as a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Obama after calling his opponent, Mrs. Clinton, “a monster.”

“He wrote very polished first drafts,” said Cass R. Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor who read drafts of chapters on the Constitution and economic policy. “He was very clear to me that these were drafts on which he hoped for comments. I wrote very detailed comments. And afterwards he accepted a small minority of my comments. I gave him some potential formulations for what he might write. He always put it in his own words. Not once did he use my words.”

A Second Success

The book’s release in October 2006 must have been the envy of anyone who ever published a book or contemplated higher office. In Chicago, people started lining up outside 57th Street Books at 4:15 on the morning of Mr. Obama’s book signing. For his Seattle signing, the Elliott Bay Book Company rented the 2,500-seat hall where the symphony performs, sold out the tickets in 90 minutes and reported a level of turnout that topped all previous records at the store for any author, including Mr. Clinton.

Time magazine published an excerpt of the book and put Mr. Obama on the cover, with a line that said “Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President.” An adoring photo essay inside shows him doing things like washing the breakfast dishes with his daughter.

“Barack is worth millions now,” Mr. Osnos said. “It’s almost all based on these two books, two books not based on a job of prodigious research or risking one’s life as a reporter in Iraq. He has written about himself. Being able to take your own life story and turn it into this incredibly lucrative franchise, it’s a stunning fact.”



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