The Book on Barry

'Promised Land' president shows how the lie became a pillar of the state.

“I did find refuge in books,” says the author of A Promised Land. “The reading habit was my mother’s doing.”

As the new book explains, the author’s grandparents took him to a rummage sale at the Central Union Church, and he started pulling out books by Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Robert Penn Warren, Dostoyevsky, D.H. Lawrence, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The list is something of a departure from the 1995 Dreams from My Father, the first book attributed to Barack Obama, a man with no prior record of publication.

“I gathered books from the library,” the Dreams author recalls, books by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, W.E.B. DuBois, and Malcolm X. The authors were all “exhausted, bitter men,” and “only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different.” Malcolm X is a no-show in A Promised Land and Dreams from My Father gets only a single mention.

In 2017, after the author had served two terms as president of the United States, biographer David Garrow authored Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. As the Pulitzer Prize winner explained, Dreams from My Father was not an autobiography or memoir but “without any question” a novel, and the author a “composite character.” Back in 1995, Dreams left the key by the front door.

The author announces “a stubborn desire to protect myself from scrutiny.” Part of him believed the story about the long-lost African father, “but another part of me knew that what I was telling them was a lie.” The Kenyan foreign student Barack Obama is part of a “useful fiction,” and “an image I could alter on a whim or ignore when convenient.”

In Dreams, the Kenyan foreign student Barack Obama “bequeaths” his name to Barry Soetoro. The book also claims the Kenyan adopted the name Barry “because it was easier to pronounce. You know – helped him to fit in. Then it got passed on to me. So I could fit in.” A Promised Land claims that Barry was only a “nickname,” and the author’s Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro is not mentioned by name.

Dreams devotes more than 2,000 words to the poet “Frank” and it wasn’t until after the composite character became president that Frank’s true identity began to emerge. He was Frank Marshall Davis, an African American Stalinist who spent most of his life defending all-white Communist dictatorships. Frank disappeared from the audio version of Dreams and made no appearance in The Audacity of Hope. In 2017, Frank surfaced again in Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama.

“Davis’ Communist background plus his kinky exploits made him politically radioactive,” Garrow explained. In 2018, Davis made no appearance in Becoming by Michelle Obama and The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes. Also absent was David Garrow and Rising Star, but high-profile conservatives were still on board with the useful fiction.

George Will, proclaimed “best writer, any subject” by the Washington Journalism Review, in 2019 hailed “Obama’s studied elegance.” That recalls the prediction of David Brooks that Senator Obama would be a good president based on his “perfectly creased pants.” Back in 2012, Jonah Goldberg wrote, “it’s becoming increasingly clear that President Obama is not burdened with too heavy a commitment to honesty.” Less clear is Goldberg’s take on Garrow’s revelation that Dreams from My Father is a novel and the author a composite character.

David Garrow and Frank Marshall Davis are both missing from A Promised Land, so as in Dreams, the author still shows that “stubborn desire to protect myself from scrutiny.”

Even so, the book provides new revelations, in the same novelistic style.

In law school, the author claims, he read the essays of Vaclav Havel. In Promised Land Havel says, “today autocrats are more sophisticated. They stand for election while slowly undermining the institutions that make democracy possible. They champion free markets while engaging in the same corruption, cronyism and exploitation as existed in the past.” Havel tells the American president “you have been cursed with people’s high expectations.” Readers can’t cross-check the quotes with Havel, who died in 2011.

When he meets Russian president Dimitry Medvedev the Promised Land author says “I remembered what the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn said about politics during the Soviet era, that ‘the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the state.’” What was true in the USSR is now the case in America, where The Treason of the Intellectuals has long been the rule.

The “useful fiction” of Dreams from My Father gets accepted as fact and the composite character becomes president. He transforms the United States from a constitutional republic into an arrangement more characteristic of totalitarian states. The outgoing president choses his successor and deploys deep state forces to attack her opponent, candidate and President Trump. The establishment media follow in lockstep, with no second thoughts.

A Promised Land is a blend of autohagiography and Stalinist agitprop but George Will, David Brooks, Jonah Goldberg et al will have little if any role in exposing its many evasions, distortions and lies. The Never Trump conservatives are all-in with Obama’s studied elegance and perfectly creased pants. At worst, the composite character was “not burdened with too heavy a commitment to honesty.”  This brand of cowardice surely helped the lie become a pillar of the state.  

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