How reliable was Dreams From My Father as a biography and historical narrative? Barack Obama’s most recent biographer David Maraniss has discovered that Obama’s memoir was less a reliable historical account — and more of a carefully crafted didactic narrative intended to score political points. BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith discussed the findings with a panel on CNN earlier today, but just how much should any of this surprise people?
Buzzfeed also has a list of nine tropes from Dreams that Maraniss debunked in his investigation — without which Obama’s life would have seemed … somewhat boring. “Nobody wants to buy that book,” Soledad O’Brien notes when Smith says that the truth of Obama’s wild youth is much more mundane than the book portrays, and that’s certainly part of the reason that exaggerations in biographies are more common than not. Kitty Kelley made an entire career out of repeating the most outrageous rumors of celebrities and packaging them into hardbound editions. Readers eat up controversy, not banality, and let’s face it: by this time, a revelation that a middle-aged person smoked a little choom in high school hardly rises above the banal any longer. For a little-known aspiring politician (at the time of publication), book sales needed more than a haze of pot fumes and an overextended identity crisis.
Given the nature of biographies and especially autobiographies, we shouldn’t be surprised to find exaggerations and convenient telescoping of events, or even full-on fiction in order to score political points. The better question is why the national media didn’t do in 2008 what Maraniss did in 2012 when the same little-known, little-experienced backbencher from Illinois decided he was ready for the Presidency. While the media sent dozens of people to Wasilla to vet the GOP’s selection for Vice President and managed to dig up the fact that she had bought herself a used tanning bed, none of the national media outlets devoted any time to vet Obama at all, even to the extent of just checking on the stories Obama himself presented in Dreams.