By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2008
In two autobiographies and dozens of speeches, Barack Obama has weaved the narrative that defines his campaign: An introspective boy gradually comes to terms with his mixed-race heritage and emerges with an "unprejudiced" worldview. He enters politics because of his "love of country" and succeeds by staying faithful to his morals and "transcending the partisan divide."
Two weeks before Obama accepts the Democratic nomination for president, conservative author Jerome R. Corsi has attacked his story with a narrative of his own: The son of an "alcoholic polygamist," Obama deals with his abandonment issues and "black rage" by experimenting with drugs and radical thought. He makes a calculated entrance into politics despite having accomplished little and having developed some "anti-American" sentiments. Once in office, he regularly manipulates the political machine and becomes a liberal who will "divide America."
Corsi's "The Obama Nation" lacks major revelations and has been dismissed by Obama's campaign as a series of lies from a serial liar. Parts of the book have also been disproved by the mainstream media. In 2004, Corsi co-wrote "Unfit for Command," in which Swift boat veterans criticized Sen. John F. Kerry's Vietnam War record. That book was also widely disproved.
Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, has started a Web site to help discredit these tactics on Obama's behalf.
Nevertheless, Corsi's book about Obama will debut as a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and threatens the candidate where he could be vulnerable. Ever since Obama introduced himself at the 2004 Democratic convention as the "unlikely" son of a Kenyan goat herder and a white woman from Kansas, he forever married his background to his political future. Corsi and other conservative authors hope that by diminishing one, they can destroy the other.
"The problem with running a campaign that's based on cult of personality is that cracks in the grandiose facade of Obama's life become very damaging," Corsi said in an interview. "That's where you can get a reader's attention and have substantial impact."
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for Obama, said Corsi's book "is nothing but a series of lies that were long ago discredited." Vietor added: "The reality is, there are many lie-filled books like this in the works cobbled together from the Internet to make money off a presidential campaign."
Both Democrats and Republicans think the election could hinge on whether Obama's narrative loses its luster. Until recently, he had the luxury of presenting his story alone. "Dreams From My Father" and "The Audacity of Hope," his autobiographies, were the first two books written about him, and they remain bestsellers. Obama also relied on his background during his career's most public moments -- the keynote address at the 2004 convention, a speech in March about race in America -- to inspire a diverse following.
In the past few months, other storytellers have proved that a market for skepticism remains. In addition to Corsi's book, two other anti-Obama books rank in the top 35 on Amazon.com's bestseller list. Their titles reveal their intent: "Fleeced," by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann, and "The Case Against Barack Obama," by David Freddoso. In all three books, the authors state that they share the mission of destroying the idealized image of Obama that is popular among Democrats.
Corsi is most damning in his portrait of the candidate. He implies that Obama misrepresents his religion, for instance, saying that Muslim faith plays a significant role in his ideology, even though he is a practicing Christian. He portrays the senator from Illinois as a savvy opportunist who manipulated Chicago politics and then consistently voted like an "extreme" liberal. "The book is going to change a lot of opinions," Corsi said. "It's a different version of the man than he's been presenting."
Obama supporters, though, have largely dismissed Corsi's book and the other attacks as products of bitterness, partisanship and dishonesty. Corsi has a track record of making extreme comments -- he once called Pope John Paul II "senile" and Islam a "virus" -- and "The Obama Nation" includes potentially offensive passages. Corsi writes that Obama's mother chose "men of color" from the "third world" to be her "mates," and that Obama identifies more with his "African blood" than his American roots.
Corsi's book and the others like it have found their largest audience inside a conservative echo chamber, reinforcing the divide between supporters of Obama and those of his challenger, Republican Sen. John McCain. The anti-Obama narratives are the creation of conservative authors, pushed by conservative book clubs that buy in bulk to drive up sales and publicized by right-wing bloggers. Corsi said he attempts to expand beyond that audience by aggressively marketing to independent voters and those who supported the presidential bid of Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The book is published by Simon & Schuster's Threshold Editions, whose main editor is former GOP strategist Mary Matalin.
Vietor characterized Corsi's new release as similar to his Kerry book in that it is a thinly veiled effort to keep Republicans in power. "This is an attempt to perpetuate those politics for four more years," he said.
Corsi acknowledged as much, saying: "One of the reasons I wrote this book is to keep Obama from getting elected."
Authors of the other anti-Obama books were similarly forthcoming about their motives. They wanted not just to analyze Obama but to debunk him, they wrote. In the introduction to "The Case Against Barack Obama," Freddoso says he felt compelled by duty: "As it became clear that he was going to win the Democratic nomination for president, it seemed irresponsible to stand by as so many were offering admiration, piety, even worship to -- of all things -- a politician. Because the idea of Barack Obama as a reformer is a great lie."
Readers of the new books are forced to differentiate on their own between bias and biography, between facts and fictionalizations, literary experts said. It is a task most readers have learned to manage. "Readers aren't as gullible as they used to be," said Tom Smith, a biography scholar at Pennsylvania State University at Abington. "One thing we've learned so far with biographies in the 21st century is that every book is going to be one person's take."
Pad a biography with enough slant and opinion, experts said, and a good author can make the same facts reveal two different stories. Take two McCain books that explore the same subject: There's Paul Alexander's glowing portrait in "Man of the People: The Maverick Life and Career of John McCain." Or there's Matt Welch's eviscerating take in "McCain: The Myth of a Maverick."
"Especially in politics, you have a crowded book market and there's probably room for five or six takes that can be totally different," Smith said. "It's ultimately up to the reader to decide which one he likes."