Column: Barack Obama's Self-Made Myths Still Stand

August 9th, 2023 5:56 AM

The media deification of Barack Obama has really never ended. His election to the presidency in 2008 was treated as a milestone, like man landing on the moon. Allegedly objective journalists lined up in every studio and on every front page to do him homage.

It wasn’t journalism. It was more like idolatry. It was like Bryant Gumbel harshly replying in 1989 to new information about Rev. Martin Luther King’s adultery. He said "When the truth collides with a legend, print the legend."

This line came to mind in reading a recent Tablet magazine interview with liberal historian David Garrow, a Martin Luther King specialist. Garrow's massive 2017 tome on Obama – titled Rising Star – was blasted by New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani. She argued his epilogue was like a “Republican attack ad.” This is comical, since Garrow's epilogue recounted quotes from, among others, liberals at the Times and The Washington Post.

David Samuels – who penned an unforgettable piece for The New York Times Magazine revealing that Obama aide Ben Rhodes boasted of creating an “echo chamber” for Obama’s foreign policy in the press – focused Garrow on a woman named Sheila Miyoshi Jager, who Obama asked to marry him twice.

Samuels is amazed at how no one before Garrow really put Jager into focus. That includes David Maraniss, whose 2012 Obama book preceded Garrow in ruling that Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father was largely fictional, especially Obama turning his girlfriends into a composite white character. He didn’t put Jager in the index. (Jager is half-Dutch, half-Japanese.)

This is the obvious Samuels pull quote:

“The idea that the celebrated journalists who wrote popular biographies of Obama and became enthusiastic members of his personal claque couldn’t locate Jager—or never knew who she was—defies belief. It seems more likely that the character Obama fashioned in Dreams had been defined—by Obama—as being beyond the reach of normal reportorial scrutiny.”

Samuels suggests Garrow’s book was scorned because it highlighted “a remarkable lack of curiosity” about a man who was “treated less like a politician and more like the idol of an inter-elite cult.” It underlined that as Obama decided he wanted to be president one day, he realized having a white wife would be an obstacle.

Obama’s memoir told a story about taking his composite girlfriend to a “very angry play” by a black playwright and she came out “talking about why black people were angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering – nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said.”    

Maraniss reported this couldn’t have been Obama’s girlfriend Genevieve Cook, and Obama admitted “that was not her...that was an example of compression.” Maraniss didn’t pinpoint Jager, whose grandparents helped hide Jews from the Nazis in the Netherlands.

Jager said in the spring of 1988, she and Obama attended the play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but she recalls a major fight after they toured an Adolf Eichmann exhibit, and she says what upset her was that Obama wouldn’t condemn vicious anti-Semitic remarks made by Steve Cokely, then an aide to Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer. Solidarity with the established black pols of Chicago came first.    

This might seem like fragments of ancient history, but every negative fragment about Obama has the potential to upset the cemented mythology. The Obama of myth never compromises his ideals (or invents personal history) to get ahead. That’s why book critics accuse authors of writing “Republican attack ads” when they throw a negative shadow. “When the truth collides with a legend, print the legend.”