Jodi Kantor of the NY Times is getting a hefty advance for a book about the Obamas.
So what does the market want, and what is Ms. Kantor likely to produce - a big wet smooch for the Obama or a riskier attempt to deliver some real dirt? And is the AP standing by with eleven fact-checkers?
Right now Times reporters seem to picture themselves as foot soldiers in a struggle between Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin on one side and Truth, Justice, and Obama on the other. However, it is possible that attitudes will change and the public will develop a mood for a "How did we elect this guy" type of expose. Of course, in that environment there will also be Times dead-enders clamoring for a "Remember why we elected this guy" puffer, so who knows?
There is also the slight chance that Ms. Kantor has something like a reporter's instinct for a cover-up and will feel some personal or professional pride in getting at the truth behind the Obama facade. Obama's biography is his brand, and it has been tightly controlled - maybe Ms. Kantor will rise to the challenge. She may even be aided and abetted in this by Team Obama. By 2012 Obama will be able to run on his record, not his resume; maybe over the next few years the brand managers won't be afraid to let the truth trickle out with a whimper, not a bang.
I poked at this a few weeks back, earning some kind words from Jack Cashill, so let me try for a quick reprise. As a minor point illustrating Obama's brand and biography management, let's poke at a seemingly innocuous question - did Obama go off to Bali by himself to work on Dreams From My Fathers just a few months after his wedding and honeymoon, or did the happy couple go off together?
In May of 2008 the Times was clear about the story of a blissful couple heading to Bali so the hubby could work on the book, and they had a source who ought to have known:
So in May of 2008, with an election looming, Obama's half-sister told us about the happy couple.
But Ms. Kantor had a different story a few weeks back in her NY Times Magazine article on the Obama marriage:
For the moment, he was enmeshed in writing his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” He had retreated to Bali for several weeks to work on the manuscript and was still preoccupied with it after his return. “Barack was just really involved in the book. [Michelle] and I would do lots of shopping and movies,” Yvonne Davila, still a close friend, remembered.
“Barack doesn’t belong to you,” she told me she warned Michelle.
Robert Draper, writing in GQ, told a similar version of Barack Alone, wrestling with his demons for forty days and forty nights in Bali. Hmm, the once-happy couple is now a feckless hubby running off to Bali (and mom!) just a few months into his marriage, unable to endure the cold weather of Chicago or the cold looks from Michelle as the book goes unwritten. A darker tale! But the election is over, so it's all good.
And it is clearly not a big deal in itself. However, it is symptomatic of some larger points. We know very little about the true biography of a President who was elected on the basis of his biography, and, perhaps because the gloss is so pretty and so historic, the press has not shown much inclination to seek the truth.
I have no idea whether Ms. Kantor is interested in doing some real research and I am sure she is not currently interested in switching sides in the Palin Wars.
However, I do have a seemingly simple biographical question that the Obama campaign choked on for most of 2008 - when did Barack Obama meet Bill Ayers, and when did he meet Bill Ayers' father?
Ahh! As an Earnest Lib, Ms. Kantor knows this question is fraught! On the other hand, if a reporter's instincts still flicker within her, she might wonder at the evolution of the Obama explanation and marvel at the absurdity of their current version of the truth. I wrote this a few weeks back:
The current cover-up is that [Obama and Ayers] first met in early 1995 at the founding of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.
But just a reminder, this is from "Dreams" - Obama is describing his frantic efforts in the spring of 1988, prior to leaving for Harvard Law School:
"The months passed at a breathless pace, with constant reminders of all the things left undone. We worked with a citywide coalition in support of school reform."
That coalition was coordinated by Bill Ayers, who assumed the leadership role by inexhaustibly attending every meeting. Yet he never met Barack, the charismatic young black man about whom everyone spoke so highly. And years later, after Ayers had sweated for a year on the creation of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge he left the selection of the chairman to others, who - coincidence! - picked Barack. Ayers then agreed to turn his baby over to a total stranger who had no background in education reform.
Sure. That is a loose end that will be picked at by some big time reporters (or historians) eventually.
Maybe Ms. Kantor wants to see whether there is a story here. Or she can pass and eventually be scooped by someone else. Whatever.