The Campaign Spot

The Campaign 2012 Meme du Jour: ‘Composite’

Over at Politico:

One of the more mysterious characters from President Obama’s 1995 autobiography Dreams From My Father is the so-called ‘New York girlfriend.’ Obama never referred to her by name, or even by pseudonym, but he describes her appearance, her voice, and her mannerisms in specific detail.

But Obama has now told biographer David Maraniss that the ‘New York girlfriend’ was actually a composite character, based off of multiple girlfriends he had both in New York City and in Chicago.

Dave Weigel reminds us that Obama pointed out his use of “composites” in the introduction of the book. So this isn’t really a huge scoop. Weigel writes, “Is it kosher for a future president to write like this and then be cagey about who was who? Interesting discussion! But in 2012, you can’t ‘admit’ something you told book-buyers in 1995.”

So, besides having some fun with the “composite” concept — “Elizabeth Warren is a composite of 31 white ancestors and one Native American one” — let’s have that interesting discussion. Obama’s autobiography was a big, big part of his 2008 campaign, and it was how he introduced himself to the American people. And yet it was . . . by the author’s own admission, not accurate. (Back in 2008, I found an anecdote that allegedly takes place in the early 1980s that referred to Jack Kemp as Housing and Urban Development Secretary; Kemp wasn’t named to that position until 1989.)

Why was young Obama’s mentor in Hawaii, Frank Davis, only identified as “Frank”? (Probably because Davis was alleged to be a Communist.)

Why does Obama’s description of his duties at a consulting house not match the memories of his co-workers at all?

Why does the book’s kind, easygoing portrait of Jeremiah Wright . . . not match the man seen in videos of his sermons and at the National Press Club years later?

Every autobiography probably includes some inaccurate or self-serving memories, some interpretation of past events that portrays the author in the best possible light. But when Obama describes conversations and interactions with people who didn’t exist, or at least existed in a quite different form from the way they’re described on the page, readers have a right to wonder if they’re reading fiction or nonfiction.

Among the conservative grassroots, it is an article of faith that one of the reasons Barack Obama won in 2008 was because he misrepresented himself to the American people, and he was “not vetted.” I’m not quite sure the 2008 results are quite so simple; I think you can strongly argue that once Lehman collapsed, the state of the economy largely doomed the party of the incumbent president.

However, in 2008, the Obama campaign had a very particular, heroic, noble, unifying image they wanted to project of Obama, and most media were not interested in looking too hard at facts that might contradict that heroic narrative. Weigel chuckled earlier today that the “composite girlfriend” story was news only to those who hadn’t actually read Obama’s autobiography. The same could be said of the “Obama ate a dog” anecdote.

When you think about telling the world your story, and telling the world about the people who shaped you . . . would you use a composite?


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