Obama’s Book Deal: the $60 Million Selfie

If you had any doubt that former community organizer Barack Obama sees his future as a corporate pitchman for the rich and famous (the Ricardo Montalban of the policy set), look no further than the deal that he and his wife, Michele, struck with Penguin Random House for a reported $60 million (which is a lot of “Corinthian leather”).

According to press reports, Penguin Random House acquired the worldwide rights to publish both memoirs, which are due out in 2018.

Various lawyers, agents, and middlemen helped the Obamas and Penguin Random House structure the pay day, which presumably is for more than just two self-congratulatory memoirs.

I would imagine that Michele will throw in a few exercise books for children (Playing to Win?) and that Barack will send along his collected speeches, if not a handbook on fundraising (It’s All for a Good Cause: Me).

Normally, the announcement of celebrity memoirs is followed in the trade press with rumors about which ghostwriters will sign on to the project. The best way to judge the seriousness of a major book deal is to assess the hired hands.

No one expected George W. Bush personally to write his memoirs, any more than fans of the New York Jets believe that Joe Namath himself wrote I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow: ’Cause I Get Better-looking Every Day.

In Barack’s case, however, because he’s a writer who pals around with Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and had Barbara Kingsolver and Zadie Smith to the White House, it is assumed that he will need no help in penning his memoirs, not even with the deadline looming next year.

Never mind that Herbert Hoover needed eighteen years to complete his memoirs; he was responsible for the Depression.

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Much of the Obama mythology is built around the immaculate conception of his first book, Dreams from My Father, which has been hailed as a cross between To Kill a Mockingbird and Soul on Ice.

The Time columnist Joe Klein said that Dreams “may be the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.” Most of the sycophantic praise for the book, however, only appeared after Obama was being mentioned as a presidential candidate (which can bring even a book as bad as Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal back into print).

The hagiography around Dreams established Obama, much the way log cabins made Abraham Lincoln or PT-109 burnished the reputation of John F. Kennedy. And much of that ego enlargement came because everyone believes that Obama personally wrote not just Dreams but his subsequent best-seller, The Audacity of Hope, which came out in 2006 and launched his campaign for president.

Not so long ago, Obama said to a group of schoolteachers: “I’ve written two books … I actually wrote them myself.” It’s the basis of the Obama mythology from which all things flow, including now the $60 million windfall from Penguin Random House.

The first book earned for Obama more than $10 million in royalties and established his political identity, as did The Audacity of Hope. If later, it turned that ghostwriters had a hand in turning out one or both books, would we not feel about Obama as we do about cyclist Lance Armstrong—that he had used some of “mother’s little helpers” to get to the finish line?

Lance cheated because “everyone did it” and because seven-time winners of the Tour de France earned $100 million and rode private planes to beachside manors, while less successful domestiques (support riders) ate bananas for lunch and worked during the off-season as a wrench in a bike shop.

Would Lincoln be Lincoln if it later turned out that he had spent his early years living in a split-level suburban ranch house, playing video games after school?

Would Obama be kite-surfing off Richard Branson’s private island if his first book had sounded like a downloaded term paper?

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Instead of speculating about which Obama speechwriter might be brought on board for the book project, the press greeted the Penguin Random House news by fast forwarding to the anticipated reviews, and wondering if these might be the greatest memoirs a president will have ever written.

Already fawning reviewers were lining up to compare the anticipated Obama volume with Grant’s Personal Memoirs, which have become the gold standard when it comes to presidential memoirs—even though Grant’s books never mention his failed presidency and dwell almost entirely on the battle lines of the Civil War.

Having read both volumes of Grant’s Memoirs (a bad flu in 1979 got me going), I can stay that if his books are the best that we have from an American president, the bar for Obama is set fairly low.

To be sure Grant writes clearly and well for a Civil War general (Ambrose Burnside wasn’t much of a stylist, and Nathan Bedford Forrest was busy starting up the Klan), but his book doesn’t get anywhere near the White House for the simple reason that his presidency was awash in corruption.

Grant no more wanted to write about Crédit Mobilier, Black Friday or The Whiskey Ring than Obama will want to square his famous quote, “Turns out I’m really good at killing people,” with his Nobel Peace Prize.

Maybe this Obama memoir will end with his first election? After all, it was downhill from there.

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As a genre of literature, presidential memoirs are somewhere between cook books and The Hardy Boys (“Way to go, CIA!” Joe said proudly. “So everyone who was involved in this has been arrested?”). I would rather rot in hell with the collected works of Danielle Steel than find myself in a dark eternity with all the presidential memoirs.

Part of the reason the collection is so bad is because the great writers who lived in the White House—I am thinking now of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln—never wrote their memoirs.

Jefferson spent most of his presidential days at his writing table, but never churned out a self-serving tract on his presidency. I would argue that Lincoln’s memoir is the Gettysburg Address, those 222 words that eloquently capture both the soul of the man and the troubled nation.

Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge both published an autobiography, as did James Buchanan, although it wasn’t until Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower wrote their memoirs that it became a presidential tradition, right up there with pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey and splendid little wars in Asia.

Before becoming president, John F. Kennedy published several best-sellers, including Profiles in Courage. But I would argue he was a better reader than writer. He read seriously and retained much. His published books, however, drifted in the direction of the Reader’s Digest.

Profiles was put together as an anthology, with various (unnamed) historians contributing chapters about Thomas Hart Benton or George Norris. Kennedy was the editor-in-chief. He did write his college thesis, later published as Why England Slept (about appeasement and rearmament), but, again, he had the benefit of a family rewrite man (columnist Arthur Krock of the New York Times) before the book went to press. But the books introduced Kennedy to the American public as a serious political figure.

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The presidential memoirs of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and the George Bushes all feel like the literary equivalent of elevator music.

It’s too bad all of them fell back on a Washington – Muzak style, as each of them had a story to tell, and had it been told in their distinct voices, some memorable prose might have resulted.

Imagine if Lyndon Johnson had published a book on the nature of power won and lost, and if he had told it as he recounted stories over bourbon and branch in his Senate chambers. (For example, he once said: Jerry Ford is so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time…”) He could have written the Ball Four of politics.

Instead, Lyndon Johnson published The Vantage Point, about his presidency, which my aunt and uncle gave me for Christmas in 1971. It is full of phrases such as: “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.”  In my childhood, only Sunday school film strips (about Nazareth) were more tedious.

Nixon understood revenge, the cheap trick, bribery, and vote rigging, but instead wrote memoirs, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, as if he were an English Lord, perhaps Benjamin Disraeli, assessing the Empire and the Bulgarian Agitation.

The dutiful Dutch Reagan published both memoirs and his White House diaries (the tone of the journal is that of letters to Santa Claus). Of his forgettable memoir, at least he had the honesty to say: “I hear it’s a terrific book. One of these days I’m going to read it myself.”

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Why anyone would part with $30 to read the prepackaged memoirs of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush is a mystery to me. Were not the eight years of their press conferences, daily spectacles, and appearances on television sufficient to digest their messages?

Publishers paid multimillion dollar advances to each man—presumably so that they could “set the record straight”—although both danced around the key subjects at hand (oral sex as a weapon of mass destruction?) as if the books were lawyers’ briefs, as I guess they were.

Financially, however, for the publishers as for Clinton and W, recent presidential memoirs have been a home run, one reason Penguin Random House is now willing to pay shortstop money to the Obamas. (The other, maybe better reason is that parent company Pearson is trying to dump its shares in Penguin Random House, and Pearson’s stock is in free fall.)

Does it mean Obama will knock out 3,000 words a day as did Churchill at Chartwell in the 1930s, when he wrote a number of his 45 books? Don’t count on it. Obama may have many talents, but writing isn’t among them.

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Obama invented the persona of a writer, much as the way in The Secret Sharer, Joseph Conrad writes about: “That ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself.” It must have sounded better than “self-promoter”.

Having spent my life in the presence of authors and worked for many years as an editor, I don’t for a minute think of Obama as a writer. Nor do I believe that if you sent him off to a quiet cabin with a fountain pen and paper that his output would be much better than the prose in a Department of Commerce directive.

In my experience, writers live for the printed word. In their early days they collected pens, then typewriters and, finally, word processors. They like the smell of ink and print shops, and they are forever buying paper, typewriter ribbon, fountain pens, or notebooks (never quite happy with the pads they own). They buy books the way most people buy milk, and they are endlessly marking passages in magazines or clipping newspapers.

In general, when writers go on vacation, it is to read or write. They might play a round or two of golf, but not 333 rounds over eight years. They don’t watch television or go to Hawaii.

If they work at other jobs during the week, weekends become sacred—for writing. They get nervous and grumpy, on Saturdays, when neighbors drop by for chit-chat, and they tend to be happy when it rains on Sundays and they can spend the day at their desk. On Saturday night, instead eating in Michelin-starred restaurants, they proofread.

None of these traits would seem to apply to Golfer Obama, Conference Man Obama, Air Force One Obama, or Martha’s Vineyard Obama, who remind me more of George Clooney than Nathaniel Hawthorne.

As a literary man, Obama strikes me as what the publishing industry calls “a packager,” someone who neither writes nor edits the books, but is a big picture guy who comes up with the subject, puts together the package, and sells it on to the publisher.

Like the Clintons or the Bushes, Obama is best understood as a brand, the front man for certain articles of faith. (Nor would I call it liberalism if your keystone achievements are to unleash the IRS on citizens who fail to buy health insurance or if you spend $1 trillion to put together the lockdown state.)

As a brand manager, Obama uses books (not to mention speeches, TV interviews, and world tours) to promote the product, but he no more writes the ad copy than does the chairman of Coca-Cola.

So what could go wrong?

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Rather than promote himself as just another half-time entertainer trying for a slot at the Super Bowl—more Beyoncé than a homesick Clydesdale?—early on Obama decided his runs for higher office needed a compelling storyline and for that he turned himself into another James Baldwin, Richard Wright or Walt Whitman (“I and this mystery, here we stand”).

After all, he had attended Columbia and Harvard universities, edited the law review, and taught at the University of Chicago. It made sense that he would “be a writer.”

For that, he offered up Dreams from My Father, a masterpiece by most accounts. Except that, into his thirties, Obama had never written anything that was published, except one article as an undergraduate, “Breaking the War Mentality,” which ran in a Columbia University newspaper, the Sundial.

Read thirty-five years later, the voice in the campus article is unmistakably Obama’s. The cadence in the writing is his, as are the clumsy diction and grammatical errors. (For example, he writes: But the taste of war—the sounds and chill, the dead bodies—are remote and far removed.)

Toward the end of the article, he says: “Indeed, the most pervasive malady of the collegiate system specifically, and the American experience generally, is that elaborate patterns of knowledge and theory have been disembodied from individual choices and government policy.” It sounds like Obama, even down to the point where I have no idea what he is saying.

Can the Sundial author really have written Dreams? If he didn’t, what will it say about the Obama investment in which Penguin Random House has just stumped up $60 million in front money?

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I regret that only right-wing conspiracists have embraced the theories that challenge Obama’s authorship of Dreams, at least the published version, because there is much that should be discussed. After all, how did the Sundialer become Harper Lee?

The person beating the loudest drums against Obama having written the songs of himself is Jack Cashill, a midwestern professor, who—as if deconstructing Shakespeare in search of homoerotic imagery—chose to pull apart Obama’s books to prove that Obama did not write Dreams and, further, that whoever wrote Dreams did not write The Audacity of Hope, a book of campaign hackwork.

Because Cashill’s work has mostly appeared in conservative publications and on alt websites, he’s dismissed as a birther, obsessed with Kenyan nativity or TWA flight 800 coming down to a navy missile.

But just for his textual analysis of Obama’s prose he deserves commendation. I have read his essays and watched him on YouTube, and he strikes me as a middle of the road English professor, no more or less obsessed with deconstruction than were many who taught me Man’s Fate or All the King’s Men (both of which, by the way, are superb political novels).

Cashill’s theory on Dreams is that Obama was paid a big-time $125,000 advance for his story (Kenyan native son makes good at Harvard Law School), collected some materials, made a few trips, and wrote out a turgid first draft, after which he became “stuck.” He had no feel for narrative language, which may explain why, as president, he saw the need to travel with four speechwriters and a truckload of tele-prompters.

Fearing that the publisher would send around some repo men to claim the hefty advance, Obama persuaded his friend and neighbor, the radical professor Bill Ayers, to “look at” his draft. And it was Ayers who was able to spin the straw of Obama’s clunky jargon into political gold.

Cashill cites the similarities in diction, imagery, and cadence between Ayers’ memoir, Fugitive Days, and Obama’s. Here’s a sample of Ayers’ writing: “I breathed the air of deliverance through books, and through books I leapt over the walls of confinement.” And here’s a passage from Dreams:

I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. Even DuBois’s learning and Baldwin’s love and Langston’s humor eventually succumbed to its corrosive force, each man finally forced to doubt art’s redemptive power, each man finally forced to withdraw, one to Africa, one to Europe, one deeper into the bowels of Harlem, but all of them in the same weary flight, all of them exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels.

What do I think? Whether Obama turned to Ayers or someone else, I don’t know. I do presume that Obama pulled together family notes and interviewed relatives. But I cannot imagine that he wrote the final draft, not when the same author, in college, could write:

The very real advantages of concentrating on a single issue is leading the National Freeze movement to challenge individual missile systems, while continuing the broader campaign.

As Stan Mack used to write above his Village Voice cartoons: “All Dialogue Is Reported Verbatim.”

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Had Obama never become president, no one would have cared that he had hired a friend to “spin his manuscript through the typewriter.” Even now, it happens all the time in London and New York.

In the trade it’s called a “heavy edit,” and it means sending out for a rewrite man. In recent years I have found one for a president’s grandson and another for a distinguished naval historian, both of whom had written Sundial first drafts.

When Obama published The Audacity of Hope in 2006, critics chose to overlook that the author of the banal second book sounded nothing like the writer of the first. Well, they wrote, what do you expect from a campaign flyer? Still they gave Obama credit for “writing” the first book and kept comparing him favorably to Hadrian, Cicero, and Pitt the Younger.

Again, no one would care that a politician running for president had decided to package a book of speeches for an election. Except in this case, the politician was running on the claim of authorship and all those talk-show comparisons to literary greatness.

Now, however, Obama is in a bind: in less than year, he has to come up with a $60 million Shakespearean masterpiece and duplicate the narrative voice from Dreams; otherwise, everyone will know that his first book was plagiarized (which means “to take the work of someone else and pass it off as one’s own).

Will he catch lightning in a manuscript twice? I can’t see it happening. Whoever helped him with the first book has passed out of his life, which is why even Audacity sounds like the campaign promises of Governor James M. Cox, who ran in 1920 and lost to Warren Harding.

All that remains, among the presidential wordsmiths, are the likes of ventriloquist Ben Rhodes, who gave us eight years of soaring rhetoric and business-as-usual around Guantanamo.

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One thing you can be sure of is that during the Washington run of The Obama Talk Show, there was a room in the White House, staffed with elves, devoted entirely to manufacturing his memoirs. Anecdotes were recorded, and facts were written down, along with a day book and chronology, much the way JFK tasked Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. to be Camelot’s court historian, which he accomplished on bended knee.

Now, in theory, Obama will be handed these spiral notebooks and—like Grant at 3 East 66th Street wrapped in a blanket—he will work nonstop for nine months on his recollections, turning presidential memos into something on par with Xenophon’s The Persian Expedition.

I can even imagine Obama shills briefing reporters on progress of the memoir writing, although at the same time there will be more private plane rides to Palm Springs and tropical islands, dinners with the rich and famous, golf in the Washington suburbs, headline grabbing trips to Paris and London, and fireside chats with Oprah and Stephen Colbert. Why should the next four years be any different from the last eight?

More likely, in between an appearance on 60 Minutes and a speech in the Knesset, Obama will be passed “draft chapters” of his memoirs by his staff, so that he can write: “Check with Kerry on what the Iranians actually said in the meeting.” From such marginalia are great writers found.

In the end, maybe with Harry Potter secrecy but surely in time for the Christmas rush, we will be presented with a 784-page, toaster of a book that will sell for $40, perhaps under the title: The Conscience of a President. On the red, white, and blue cover there will be a blurb from People magazine: “The finest political memoir ever written.” On the back jacket, Hillary Clinton will write: “It was my privilege to be part of this history.”

As Ricardo himself said about the Chrysler Cordoba, it may even have seats of “soft Corinthian leather.”

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of many books including, most recently, Reading the Rails.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.