Obama has maintained tight control over his brand and his story. However, in this month's GQ an interesting loose end has emerged in Robert Draper's re-telling of the creation myth built around Obama's "Dreams From My Father" - did Michelle go with Barack to Bali while he wrestled with writer's block, or not?
The story takes up after Obama has accepted an advance (based on his fifteen minutes at the Harvard Law Review):
“I just can’t get it down on paper,” he confesses to Valerie Jarrett in 1992. “I’d much rather hang out with Michelle than focus on this.” It occurs to Jarrett, seeing her talented friend struggle to come to terms with his father and his racial identity and his Larger Purpose, that this is the first time Barack Obama has ever undertaken anything that tests his limits. He seeks refuge at a friend’s place in Wisconsin, but homesickness for his soon-to-be bride soon lures him back to Chicago. Meanwhile, his editors at Poseidon are hounding him for copy. His due date is June 15, 1992. By the spring, Obama is starting to spit out the pages, but there’s no way he’s going to come close to meeting the deadline. It passes. On October 3, he marries Michelle.
Seventeen days later, Poseidon terminates his contract for failing to meet his deadline.
And suddenly Barack Obama’s story becomes a familiar one—that of the author who took a significant book advance but failed to deliver and is now thoroughly, mercilessly forgotten. (Even to this day. “I don’t recall a blessed thing,” says Elaine Pfefferblit, the Poseidon editor who acquired Obama’s book. Says the former editorial director at Poseidon, Ann Patty, who killed a book that now has more than 3 million copies in print, “Did it ever come in? Did we ever read it? I’m sure if I read and rejected it, I’d remember. I remember paying him!”) But Obama’s literary career is lifted from the shoals by the enterprising Dystel, who resells the book to Times Books for a far smaller advance—$40,000, according to his new editor, Henry Ferris—which Obama uses to fulfill his outstanding financial obligation to Poseidon.
Now he’s got to produce. But how? He floats the idea to Jarrett: He’ll go to Bali. “What do you think Michelle’s gonna say when I tell her I’ve gotta go?” he asks her nervously. What Michelle says is, Uh, didn’t we just get married? She certainly can’t come along—she’s got a job and they’re broke and just back from their honeymoon… Fine, Barack. Whatever. As the first lady now says, “He needed to go and get it done so that we could move on with our lives.”
In early 1993, Obama returns to Indonesia, the land of his childhood. And there he reenacts a common artistic ritual, albeit one that remains largely an unknown part of his biography, until now: He sequesters himself in a rental cottage on the crescent of Bali’s Sanur Beach, where for a month he is a lone figure pacing on the white sand and hammering on his laptop, as unknown as he will ever be.The July 1995 publication of Dreams from My Father is unremarkable.
Now when I read that quickly or slowly I come away with the firm conviction that I am being told that Obama went to Bali by himself. And Draper is in a position to know - he offers a direct quote from Michelle, he spent time with Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett last summer, and he has spoken with Barack.
That represents a bit of news, since previous reporting was that Barack and Michelle went together to Bali. Here, for example, is the Times from May 18, 2008:
The two worked mostly by telephone and by manuscripts sent by Federal Express between New York and Chicago. Mr. Obama, an inveterate journal writer who had published poems in a college literary magazine but had never attempted a book, struggled to finish. His half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, said he eventually retreated to Bali for several months with his wife, Michelle, “to find a peaceful sanctuary where there were no phones.” He showed drafts to a few close relatives including his grandmother, of whom Ms. Soetoro-Ng said, “It probably made her a little nervous, having the family written about, just because you don’t do that in Kansas.”
Is the half-sister wrong? One can imagine the motivation to massage the truth a bit here - having the newlyweds hive off to Bali together is much more romantic than having the hubby decamp alone shortly after their wedding on Oct 3, 1992.
Now had I been paying attention I would have noticed that the Times included this Bali revelation in their own magazine profile of the Obama marriage on Oct 26, 2009 (which hit the streets after the GQ article; I blame the Yankees for distracting me):
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.
Interesting - that is surely consistent with the Draper version that Michelle didn't go.
So how long was Barack in Bali? Draper says "several months"; Ms. Kantor says "several weeks". I will go with the obvious answer - Obama spent forty days and forty nights wrestling with his demons before creating his work of genius.
As to why he came back from Bali in early 1993 but did not submit a manuscript until late 1994, Draper does not say. An answer is offered by Christopher Andersen in his portrait of the Obama marriage - Obama came back from Bali with notes and drafts but still couldn't turn the raw material into a book. At Michelle's behest he sought help from a friend who had published some books already, and Bill Ayers helped turn the rough work into "Dreams".
That timing makes more sense than Draper's, who seems to be promoting the notion that Obama came back with a manuscript in early 1993 and sat on if for a year before submitting it.
As to the truth, gosh, we thought the Times had pinned down "the truth" about Barack and Michelle going to Bali together; now we see that they have gotten behind a newer truth.
Well. Clearing the haze around the Obama biography will take time. For example, Team Obama lied repeatedly about the connection between Ayers and Obama. The Times explained the over-arching motivation more than a year ago - Obama's brand is his biography:
“Barack is worth millions now,” Mr. Osnos said. “It’s almost all based on these two books, two books not based on a job of prodigious research or risking one’s life as a reporter in Iraq. He has written about himself. Being able to take your own life story and turn it into this incredibly lucrative franchise, it’s a stunning fact.”
The money, the White House, the Nobel Prize, the future book deals - it is all based on the brand, so Obama needs to control the disclosure of his life story very carefully. The actual detail about Bali is not consequential in itself, but serves as a reminder of how little we actually know about the man and how carefully his image has been crafted.
But now the story of the blissful newlyweds churning out a work of genius has been scrapped, which is tough luck for Bali Discovery Tours. One wonders what other new truths will eventually emerge from behind the facade. The truth about Obama's relationship with Bill Ayers would be a lot more interesting - whether Ayers played a large role, a small role, or no role at all in marshalling "Dreams", it would be interesting to clear up the puzzle as to when they met.
The current cover-up is that they 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.
MORE: Could this be a possible model for brand management? Maybe!