There’s been no shortage of flattering network stories about Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. “You are the equivalent of a rock star in politics,” NBC Today co-host Meredith Vieira told Obama in October. “You can see it in the crowds. The thrill, the hope. How they surge toward him. You’re looking at an American political phenomenon,” ABC’s Terry Moran gushed on Nightline a few weeks later.
“Barack Obama, with his fairy tale family, has personal charisma to spare,” ABC’s Claire Shipman enthused in January. “He does draw on something deeply good about this country. And we will have to see whether he can really deliver,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews announced on Hardball in February.
This weekend, the Chicago Tribune published a long investigative story about Obama’s youth, discovering that the story of his own life that Obama presented in his memoir is sometimes at odds with the facts. “Several of his oft-recited stories may not have happened in the way he has recounted them,” the Tribune’s Kirsten Scharnberg and Kim Barker reported in Sunday’s article, “The not-so-simple story of Barack Obama’s youth.”
The Tribune reporters retraced the years young “Barry Obama” spent in Hawaii and Indonesia, and found several discrepancies in Obama’s autobiographical accounts. But Sunday’s World News on ABC never mentioned the Tribune’s discoveries (the CBS Evening News was pre-empted by college basketball, while east coast editions of NBC Nightly News were pre-empted by golf), nor were they mentioned on Monday’s ABC, CBS or NBC morning shows.
On the networks' Sunday morning chat shows, the only mention of Obama came from NBC's Tim Russert, who asked ex-Senator Bill Bradley, "Do you think Barack Obama is someone who has tapped into idealism in our country?"
Would the networks’ similarly skip over such detailed reporting if it cast doubts on a Republican candidate’s credibility?
Here’s some of the key paragraphs of Sunday’s Tribune story. The full version is available here (registration is required to access the Tribune’s web site).
More than 40 interviews with former classmates, teachers, friends and neighbors in his childhood homes of Hawaii and Indonesia, as well as a review of public records, show the arc of Obama's personal journey took him to places and situations far removed from the experience of most Americans.
At the same time, several of his oft-recited stories may not have happened in the way he has recounted them. Some seem to make Obama look better in the retelling, others appear to exaggerate his outward struggles over issues of race, or simply skim over some of the most painful, private moments of his life.
The handful of black students who attended Punahou School in Hawaii, for instance, say they struggled mightily with issues of race and racism there. But absent from those discussions, they say, was another student then known as Barry Obama.
In his best-selling autobiography, "Dreams from My Father," Obama describes having heated conversations about racism with another black student, "Ray." The real Ray, Keith Kakugawa, is half black and half Japanese. In an interview with the Tribune on Saturday, Kakugawa said he always considered himself mixed race, like so many of his friends in Hawaii, and was not an angry young black man.
He said he does recall long, soulful talks with the young Obama and that his friend confided his longing and loneliness. But those talks, Kakugawa said, were not about race. "Not even close," he said, adding that Obama was dealing with "some inner turmoil" in those days.
"But it wasn't a race thing," he said. "Barry's biggest struggles then were missing his parents. His biggest struggles were his feelings of abandonment. The idea that his biggest struggle was race is [bull]."
Then there's the copy of Life magazine that Obama presents as his racial awakening at age 9. In it, he wrote, was an article and two accompanying photographs of an African-American man physically and mentally scarred by his efforts to lighten his skin. In fact, the Life article and the photographs don't exist, say the magazine's own historians.
Some of these discrepancies are typical of childhood memories -- fuzzy in specifics, warped by age, shaped by writerly license. Others almost certainly illustrate how carefully the young man guarded the secret of his loneliness from even those who knew him best. And the accounts bear out much of Obama's self-portrait as someone deeply affected by his father's abandonment yet able to thrive in greatly disparate worlds.
Still, the story of his early years highlights how politics and autobiography are similar creatures: Each is shaped to serve a purpose.
In its reissue after he gave the keynote address at the Democratic convention in 2004, "Dreams from My Father" joined a long tradition of political memoirs that candidates have used to introduce themselves to the American people.
From his earliest moments on the national political stage, Obama has presented himself as having two unique qualifications: a fresh political face and an ability to bridge the gap between Americans of different races, faiths and circumstances. Among his supporters, his likability and credibility have only been boosted by his stories of being an outsider trying to fight his way in.
As much as he may have felt like an outsider at times, Obama rarely seemed to show it. Throughout his youth, as depicted in his first book, he always found ways to meld into even the most uninviting of communities. He learned to adapt to unfamiliar territory. And he frequently made peace--even allies--with the very people who angered him most.
Yet even Obama has acknowledged the limits of memoir. In a new introduction to the reissued edition of "Dreams," he noted that the dangers of writing an autobiography included "the temptation to color events in ways favorable to the writer ... [and] selective lapses of memory."
He added: "I can't say that I've avoided all, or any, of these hazards successfully."