The Campaign Spot

Recalling Jack Kemp’s Cameo in ‘Dreams From My Father’

Unlike many at NR, I didn’t cross paths with Jack Kemp, so I’m afraid I don’t have any good tales of an admirable man. But looking through my archives, I found this, which examines the arguably fictional reference to Kemp in Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father.

Obama describes interviewing for a position at “a prominent civil rights organization” in New York City. As the book is written, it appears to occur sometime not too long after Obama’s graduation in 1983. Two pages earlier, he mentions to a building guard he is 22 and working at a “consulting house to multinational corporations,” first as a research assistant, then as a financial writer. One page earlier, he makes a reference to this meeting occurring “a few months” after the death of his half-brother David in a car accident.

He was a tall, handsome black man, dressed in a crisp white shirt, a paisley tie, and red suspenders. His office was furnished with Italian chairs and African sculpture, a bar service built into the exposed brick. Through a tall window, sunlight streamed down on a bust of Dr. King.

“I like it,” the director said looking over my resume. “Particularly the corporate experience. That’s the real business of a civil rights organization these days. Protest and pickets won’t cut it anymore. To get the job done, we’ve got to forge links between business, government, and the inner city.” He clasped his broad hands together, then showed me a glossy annual report opened to a page that listed the organization’s board of directors. There was one black minister and then white corporate executives. “You see?” the organizer said. “Public-private partnerships. The key to the future. And that’s where young people like yourself come in. Educated. Self-assured. Comfortable in boardrooms. Why, just last week I was discussing the problem with the secretary of HUD at a White House dinner. Terrific guy, Jack. He’d be interested in meeting a young man like you. Of course I’m a registered Democrat, but we have to learn to work with whoever’s in power . . .”

The scene of a Mephistophelean offer from the ultimate sell-out is a little too perfect in a lot of ways, but what jumped out at me was the reference to “just last week I was discussing the problem with the secretary of HUD at a White House dinner. Terrific guy, Jack.” I presume that’s a reference to Jack Kemp.

But Jack Kemp didn’t become secretary of HUD until 1989, when George H. W. Bush took office. Obama spent most of Bush’s term at Harvard Law School. (And at this point in DFMF, Obama hasn’t even moved to Chicago yet, where he spent three years before going to Harvard.) I noted last summer that the reference didn’t quite add up, even granting that Obama writes in the introduction, “for the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.”

A bit of digging reveals that it is pretty tough to find when Obama’s half-brother David Ndesandjo died; some sites put it at 1987. So in the span of several pages, we have an anedote from 1983 (when Obama tells the guard he is 22), his half-brother’s death (at age 25-26?), and a reference to Kemp (which couldn’t have happened before Obama was 28).