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The Great Barry
Self-invention on shifting postmodern sands.

Barack Obama at Harvard

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Mark Steyn

A delegation of college students visited the White House last week, and Vice President Biden told them: “You’re an incredible generation. And that’s not hyperbole either. Your generation and the 9/11 generation before you are the most incredible group of Americans we have ever, ever, ever produced.” Ever ever ever ever! Even in a world where everyone’s incredible, some things ought to be truly incredible. Yet Harvard Law School touted Elizabeth “Dances with Crabs” Warren as their “first woman of color” — and nobody laughed. Because, if you laugh, chances are you’ll be tied up in sensitivity-training hell for the next six weeks. Because in an ever more incredible America being an all-white “woman of color” is entirely credible.

Entering these murky waters, swimming through it like a crab in Mrs. Warren’s tomato mayo, Barack Obama refined his own identity with a finesse Harvard Law’s first cigar-store Indian lacked. In 1984, when “Elizabeth Warren — Cherokee” was cooking up a storm, the young Obama was still trying to figure out his name: He’d been “Barry” up till then. According to his recently discovered New York girlfriend, back when she dated him he was “BAR-ack,” emphasis on the first syllable, as in barracks, which is how his dad was known back in Kenya. Later in the Eighties, he decided “BAR-ack” was too British, and modified it to “Ba-RACK.” Some years ago, on Fox News, Bob Beckel criticized me for mispronouncing Barack Obama’s name. My mistake. All I did was say it the way they’ve always said it back in Kenya. But Obama himself didn’t finally decide what his name was or how to say it until he was pushing 30. In the shifting sands of identity, he picked his crabs carefully.

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“I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then,” says Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. “His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people — his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. . . .  So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”

In a postmodern America, the things that Gatsby attempted to fake — an elite schooling — Obama actually had; the things that Gatsby attempted to obscure — the impoverished roots — merely add to Obama’s luster. Gatsby claimed to have gone to Oxford, but nobody knew him there because he never went; Obama had a million bucks’ worth of elite education at Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard Law, and still nobody knew him (“Fox News contacted some 400 of his classmates and found no one who remembered him”). In that sense, Obama out-Gatsbys Gatsby: His “shiftless and unsuccessful” relatives — the deportation-dodging aunt on public housing in Boston, the DWI undocumented uncle, the $12-a-year brother back in Nairobi — are useful props in his story, the ever more vivid bit-players as the central character swims ever more out of focus, but they don’t seem to know him either. The more autobiographies he writes, the less anybody knows. Like Gatsby presiding over his wild, lavish parties, Obama is aloof and remote: Let everyone else rave deliriously; he just has to be. He is in his way the apotheosis of the Age of American Incredibility. When just being who you are anyway is an incredible accomplishment, Obama managed to run and win on biography almost entirely unmoored from life.  But then, like Gatsby, he knew a thing or two about “the unreality of reality.”

 Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is the author of After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. © 2012 Mark Steyn



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