Did Obama Plagiarize the Kenya Section of Dreams?
A surreal journey into historical fictions.
Reprinted from The American Spectator.
In June, the memoir of veteran publisher and editor Peter Osnos, An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen, was released with minimal fanfare. Although he sanitizes his experience as the publisher of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, Osnos lets slip a detail that could transform Obama’s reputation from “the best writer to occupy the White House since Lincoln” to the best plagiarist to occupy the White House before Biden.
First, the sanitation. In a 2006 article, Osnos publicly scolded then-Sen. Obama for his “ruthlessness.” As Osnos recounted, hustling young agent Jane Dystel stuck by an unknown Obama even after he failed to honor a book contract with Simon & Schuster. Undaunted, Dystel landed Obama a new contract with Osnos, then the publisher of Times Books. The punch line of the 2006 article is that, after Dreams took off in 2004, Obama repaid Dystel by dumping her for a D.C. power attorney. Obama’s “questionable judgment about using public service as a personal payday” dismayed the openly liberal Osnos.
That was 2006. In his 2021 memoir, Osnos includes the details of the original book deal with Dystel, but he purges all traces of Obama’s venality. Off-handedly, however, he adds a potentially damning detail. In 1994 — note the date — Obama met with Osnos and Times Books editor Henry Ferris to set terms. Writes Osnos, “He was determined, he said, to finish the book, which would involve a trip to Kenya for research about his father, who had died there in a car accident.”
According to all official accounts, Obama made only two trips to Africa before his election to the Senate in 2004: the first one in 1988 recounted in Dreams and the second one with Michelle in 1992. The accounts about how Obama managed to research Kenya and finish off the book, however, are many and varied.
In his new memoir, A Promised Land, Obama offers no help. The only time Obama mentions Dreams from My Father by name is when he evokes Donald Trump’s challenge to its legitimacy. Otherwise, he reports he signed a contract “to write a book” and that he “finished my book,” and that was that.
Dreams has three major sections, the last involving Kenya. This is where the mischief begins. In his 2009 book, Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage, celebrity biographer Christopher Andersen argues that Obama’s terrorist friend and neighbor Bill Ayers was the muse. Using basic literary forensics, I came to a similar conclusion about Ayers in the fall of 2008.
Relying on two sources in Chicago’s Hyde Park, Andersen comes to a credible understanding of how the Kenya section evolved. “To flesh out his family history, Barack had also taped interviews with Toot, Gramps, Ann, Maya, and his Kenyan relatives,” he writes. “These oral histories, along with his partial manuscript and a trunkload of notes, were given to Ayers.”
In his 2017 Obama biography, Rising Star, Pulitzer Prize–winning civil rights historian David Garrow points to Obama’s friend Rob Fisher, a white economist and law school buddy, as his muse. “I was deeply involved with helping him sort of shape it,” said Fisher who claimed to have “had a big influence” on the final product. Ayers and Fisher may have helped doctor the book independently. If either were involved, Obama’s boast on the campaign trail in 2008 — “I’ve written two books. I actually wrote them myself” — is pure puffery.
According to Garrow, Obama took six weeks off from his legal work in spring 1994 to finish the book. He was able to flesh out the Kenya portion thanks to copies of letters he sent during a Kenya trip in 1988 provided to Obama by an old girlfriend. “Michelle was ecstatic that the end of what was now a four-year-long struggle was finally in sight,” writes Garrow.
David Maraniss, also a Pulitzer Prize winner, offers still another sequence of events, one that tracks with the account by Osnos. As Maraniss relates in his biography, Barack Obama: The Story, the draft submitted to editor Henry Ferris at Crown did not include the lengthy final section of the book, the section that dealt with Kenya.
This material, writes Maraniss, came not from a girlfriend’s letters but from notes Obama made in his own journal during the 1988 trip to Kenya. “I almost transcribed my journal into the book,” Obama told Maraniss in a White House interview.
Maraniss had previously interviewed Ferris. According to Ferris, writes Maraniss, “Obama in fact traveled to Kenya a second time for further research before turning in the last part of the book.” The language here is clear. Obama traveled to Africa after the first submission of the book but before the final one.
In his Oval Office interview with Maraniss, Obama seems to have confirmed Ferris’s account:
I did take a second trip to Africa, but all the stuff that I learned about the family, that was all in the first trip. The second trip was essentially me doing more background on things like Kenyan history. That was as close as I came to fact-checking, was that second trip. But that initial narrative, that I did not compress, that all happened on the first trip.
Maraniss left a potentially revealing story on the table. In his report of the Oval Office interview, Obama makes no mention of Michelle accompanying him on the fact-checking trip. Besides, in 1992, when Michelle accompanied him to Kenya, Obama was still under contract with Simon & Schuster to write a book on race and voting rights.
There are a few possible explanations for this seeming mystery. An unlikely one is that Ferris and Osnos incorrectly recalled Obama’s alleged return trip to Kenya, and Obama compounded this lapse by confirming this trip in his interview with Maraniss.
A second possible explanation, intriguing but also unlikely, is that Obama did make a third trip to Kenya in 1994 and chose not to reveal it beyond his inner circle. In A Promised Land, Obama sheds no light on any of his trips to Kenya. When he mentions Kenya, it is usually to complain about conspiracy theorists claiming he was born there.
A third possibility, and the most likely, is that Obama misled Ferris about making a return trip to Kenya, possibly to show how serious he was about finishing the book and getting his facts straight. Instead of going to Africa, Obama may have spent his six-week leave from his law firm pillaging the memoirs of long-time Kenya resident Kuki Gallmann.
This is the thesis proposed by Shawn Glasco, a tireless researcher into all things Obama. Obama’s evasions about his Kenya research trip — and Osnos’s confirming detail — make Glasco’s theory all the more credible.
The Gallmann book that most intrigued Glasco was African Nights, conveniently published in 1994. Glasco found scores of words and concepts that reappear all but intact in Obama’s Dreams. Any number of distinctive local words and phrases show up in both books: Baobab (a tree), bhang (cannabis), boma (an enclosure), samosa (a fried snack), shamba (a farm field), liana (a vine), tilapia (a fish), kanga (a sheet of fabric), shuka (decorative sashes).
On the fashion front, both books have young women “wrapped” in their kangas and “dressed” in “rags.” The women in both books wear shukas, head shawls, head scarves, and goatskins, and they balance baskets on heads graced with “laughing” smiles.
On the animal front, men in both books spearfish in “ink-black” waters and hunt by torchlight. Elephants are seen “fanning” themselves, birds “trill,” insects “buzz,” weaver birds “nest,” and monkeys “mesmerize.” The books share a veritable Noah’s ark of additional fauna: crickets, crocodiles, starlings, dragonflies, cattle, lions, sand crabs, vultures, hyenas, “herds of gazelle,” and leopards that can hold small animals “in their jaws.”
On the flora front, the shared references are just as compelling: roadside palms, yellow grass, red bougainvillaea, pink bougainvillaea, fig trees, shady mango trees, thornbrush, banana leaves, Baobab trees, liana vines, tomatoes. The landscape, occasionally “barren,” is rich in “undulating” hills whose “grazing lands” are dotted with the occasional “watering hole.” The “mud-and-dung” houses feature “thatched” roofs, “verandas,” and “vegetable gardens.”
People seem to be carrying “straw mats” everywhere. The stars “glint” and people “waltz” underneath them. Eyes “glimmer” in the light of campfires. Children sing in “high-pitched” rhythms, and girls endure “barbaric” circumcisions. Obama, like Gallmann, travels to the Great Rift Valley and stands at its edge. Both visit the small trading town of Narok. Indeed, Gallmann may have played the role for Obama that British Labour party leader Neil Kinnock did for Joe Biden.
Not all these theories are mutually exclusive. Obama could have pulled some Kenya material from old letters, from notebooks, and from taped interviews. He could not, however, have pulled the many and specific details described above from any of these sources. Gallmann had spent more than 20 years in Kenya at the time she wrote African Nights. Obama had spent a few weeks before writing Dreams.
After his “four-year-long struggle,” Obama wrapped up the book almost effortlessly in late 1994, and it was published in July 1995. From their offices in New York, Osnos and Ferris would not have known just how Obama and friends in Chicago pulled this off. Given the insignificance of the project at the time, they would have taken Obama at his word that the book was nonfiction and that he wrote it himself.
As Garrow observes, however, Dreams “was not a memoir or an autobiography; it was instead, in multitudinous ways, without any question a work of historical fiction,” (italics mine). The remaining question is this: How much of this fiction did Obama write, and how much of it did he steal?