The Dog In the Manger In the Night-Time

by Michael Walsh

From the Sherlock Holmes story, Silver Blaze:

Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”[

My mention yesterday of Obama’s former literary agent, Jane Dystel, got me thinking about the fishy circumstances under which Dreams From My Father came to see publication, and Ms. Dystel’s strange silence on the subject — even though she apparently was euchred out of a significant payday by her client. 

You may recall that, having failed to finish his book on time and having blown through a remarkable six-figure advance and had his contract canceled by Simon and Schuster, Obama was faced with the prospect of paying back the money. So Dystel saved his bacon by negotiating a smaller $40,000 advance — for a first-time proven failure at fulfilling an author’s basic responsibility to his publisher! — with Times Books, which he then spent in part on a trip to Bali, thus prefiguring BHO II’s passion for exotic vacations at other people’s expense. Somehow, he finished the book — which bears little or no stylistic resemblance to anything he’s written before or since — and it finally was published in 1995 to middling response.

Let’s let publisher Peter Osnos pick up the story in this piece from 2006, “Barack Obama and the Book Business”:#more#

When Obama was selected to be the keynote speaker at the Democratic Convention in Boston, Dystel, who had stayed in touch with Obama, had the idea of reclaiming rights to the book and reselling it. But an alert editor at Crown had already spotted it on the proverbial shelf and it was quickly reissued in paperback. After Obama’s brilliant speech at the convention, the book took off. . . 

Now comes the part in which Obama showed a steely side and displayed an element of character which, while completely legal and entirely within his rights as a writer, makes me uneasy . . .  After his victory, Obama, on the advice of friends I have been told, decided to replace Dystel as his agent with Robert Barnett, the formidable Washington lawyer who has represented the Clintons and a host of other major Washington political figures and writers. Whereas agents take a flat percentage of all the clients’ earnings—usually 15 percent these days—Barnett charges by the hour, which means that the bill is substantially smaller as a portion of the proceeds on big deals. Dystel, a feisty sort, was furious. I have no idea about the details of interaction between Barnett, Dystel, and Obama, but I would bet it was not warm and fuzzy.

This is stunning moral malfeasance. The relationship between a writer and his agent is predicated on shared risk: The agent takes on an unknown author with no sales track record as a leap of faith, hoping for a payoff down the line; the writer benefits from the imprimatur of representation, since few publishers accept over-the-transom manuscripts. For Obama to shaft Dystel the way he did is simply disgraceful — and, in retrospect, indicative of his fundamentally amoral personal character and his arrogant, manipulative nature.

Philip Weiss noticed this element in the president’s makeup in a story from four years ago entitled, “Obama’s Dark Side.” He nails Obama’s dog-in the-manger attitude toward giving or sharing credit brilliantly:

As a writer, I am keen on reading acknowledgments, and that’s something else that struck me about Obama’s book: the acknowledgments, contained in his introduction, are very skimpy. He offers thanks to “my friends,” but mentions only one by name. The others he thanks by name are his wife and two editors and his agent. (Among those he leaves out is Peter Osnos, a legendary New York editor and publisher, who had met with him and bought the book.)

I’m saying that Obama’s stingy about sharing credit. The most egregious instance of this is his description of taking a friend to the play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, by the poet Ntozake Shange. Obama quotes three passages from the play, 18 lines in all. He does not say the name of the play or the author’s name. I only know that it’s Shange’s play because I googled a couple lines. Obama doesn’t even say it’s a play at first–but says it was “a meeting” he wanted to bring his friend to.

This is an insult to the writer whose words he’s borrowed; it goes against literary convention, and perhaps copyright law too. When you quote a writer, especially at length, you give the writer credit. There’s no mention of Shange’s name or play on the copyright page either. Weird.

Not really. Obama has left a trail of silence behind him wherever he goes. It’s the rare Harvard Law classmate who even admits he or she knew the Punahou Kid. For Barack Obama, all the dogs — perhaps, if Dreams is to be believed, even the one he dined on — do nothing in the night-time. 

That’s what’s weird.

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