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Obama's Back Story

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

While I was whiling away my youth as an insurance investigator -- yes, yes, Cohen of Claims -- I met the lovely Penny, a wise and beautiful woman who utterly changed my life. She invited me to her family's summer place at the beach. The old house had a screened-in porch, and it was there, my first morning, that I encountered her father. He was dressed in khaki shorts and sitting at his typewriter, completing yet another book. I decided then and there that he had precisely the life I wanted. He was a writer.

I tell you this story to suggest something about Barack Obama. In his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," he recounts a watershed moment of his own -- a "revelation," a "violent" awakening, an incident that "permanently altered" his "vision." Twice he tells how as a 9-year-old he went to the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia (a country where his mother had taken him to live) and came across a Life magazine article about a black man who had tried to whiten his skin through some sort of chemical process. The result was a disaster.

"I felt my face and neck get hot," Obama wrote. "My stomach knotted; the type began to blur on the page."

The child had, for the first time, confronted racism and its hideous consequences.

Only there is no such issue of Life magazine. So says the Chicago Tribune, which has gone through the Obama memoir with commendable thoroughness. The newspaper conducted "more than 40 interviews with former classmates, teachers, friends and neighbors" from Obama's youth and found both trivial and substantial differences between the stories Obama tells and those recalled by others. What emerges from the Tribune's reporting is a man who seems much less fixated than he insists on finding his racial identity.

When the Tribune told Obama that Life magazine historians could find no such story, Obama suggested it might have been Ebony -- "or it might have been . . . who knows what it was?" (The Tribune says Ebony's archivists also could not come up with such an article.) Indeed, the memory of the event/non-event is so firmly planted in Obama's mind that it seems to have become an emotional truth for him, far more powerful than an intellectual truth.

Two and two are four. That's an intellectual truth for you. But America is a uniquely great country. That's an emotional truth, and I'm far more likely to die for the latter than the former. So, I suspect, are you.

My own emotional truth concerns Penny and her father. Years later, when I reconnected with Penny, I mentioned that day on the porch and how much it meant to me. No such porch, she told me. I insisted otherwise and did not relent until she sent me a picture of the home. No porch. Still . . . I like the story my way.

In Obama's case -- and maybe my own -- there might be something more than foggy memory at work. He may be manipulating the facts in order to wrap raw ambition in the gauze of a larger cause. Sheer ambition is no longer tolerated in American public life.

Obama was only 34 when his memoir was published, but he was already on his way, a successful packager of himself. He already knew, I suspect, that a public figure -- he was already the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review -- has to have both a cause and a back story: the PT-109 incident that changes a life, the rural poverty that has such an impact on a boy from Plains, the hope that comes to the man from Hope. No one can seem too ambitious, careerist. Only CEOs can seem to be out for themselves -- that's because if they do well, or so they insist, so do their shareholders.

This tendency to manipulate facts may bear watching in Obama. (After all, we hardly know him.) But while his book is a warning flag, it is also an astounding display of a supple, first-class mind -- not merely a bright fellow, but an insightful one, and the single best piece of writing by a politician since John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage."

JFK, of course, is the politician to whom Obama is most often compared -- the wit, the physical grace, the eloquence, the youth. That's understandable, but superficial. The politician who really understood that life should unwind like a movie -- the arc, the reveal, the back story, etc. -- was Ronald Reagan. He always starred in his own movie and so, it seems, does Obama.

cohenr@washpost.com


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