Don’t get me wrong - I’m a big fan of Barack Obama, the Illinois freshman senator and hot young Democratic Party star. But after reading his autobiography, I have to say that Barack engages in some serious exaggeration when he describes a job that he held in the mid-1980s
. I know because I sat down the hall from him, in the same department, and worked closely with his boss. I can’t say I was particularly close to Barack - he was reserved and distant towards all of his co-workers - but I was probably as close to him as anyone. I certainly know what he did there, and it bears only a loose resemblance to what he wrote in his book.
Here’s Barack’s account:
Eventually a consulting house to multinational corporations agreed to hire me as a research assistant. Like a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan office and sat at my computer terminal, checking the Reuters machine that blinked bright emerald messages from across the globe. As far as I could tell I was the only black man in the company, a source of shame for me but a source of considerable pride for the company’s secretarial pool.
First, it wasn’t a consulting house; it was a small company that published newsletters on international business. Like most newsletter publishers, it was a bit of a sweatshop. I’m sure we all wished that we were high-priced consultants to multinational corporations. But we also enjoyed coming in at ten, wearing jeans to work, flirting with our co-workers, partying when we stayed late, and bonding over the low salaries and heavy workload.
Barack worked on one of the company’s reference publications. Each month customers got a new set of pages on business conditions in a particular country, punched to fit into a three-ring binder. Barack’s job was to get copy from the country correspondents and edit it so that it fit into a standard outline. There was probably some research involved as well, since correspondents usually don’t send exactly what you ask for, and you can’t always decipher their copy. But essentially the job was copyediting.
It’s also not true that Barack was the only black man in the company. He was the only black professional man. Fred was an African-American who worked in the mailroom with his son. My boss and I used to join them on Friday afternoons to drink beer behind the stacks of office supplies. That’s not the kind of thing that Barack would do. Like I said, he was somewhat aloof.
… as the months passed, I felt the idea of becoming an organizer slipping away from me. The company promoted me to the position of financial writer. I had my own office, my own secretary; money in the bank. Sometimes, coming out of an interview with Japanese financiers or German bond traders, I would catch my reflection in the elevator doors—see myself in a suit and tie, a briefcase in my hand—and for a split second I would imagine myself as a captain of industry, barking out orders, closing the deal, before I remembered who it was that I had told myself I wanted to be and felt pangs of guilt for my lack of resolve.
If Barack was promoted, his new job responsibilities were more of the same - rewriting other people’s copy. As far as I know, he always had a small office, and the idea that he had a secretary is laughable. Only the company president had a secretary. Barack never left the office, never wore a tie, and had neither reason nor opportunity to interview Japanese financiers or German bond traders.
Then one day, as I sat down at my computer to write an article on interest-rate swaps, something unexpected happened…. I had never met this half sister; we had written only intermittently. …[several pages on his suffering half-sister] …a few months after Auma called, I turned in my resignation at the consulting firm and began looking in earnest for an organizing job.
What Barack means here is that he got copy from a correspondent who didn’t understand interest rate swaps, and he was trying to make sense out of it.
All of Barack’s embellishment serves a larger narrative purpose: to retell the story of the Christ’s temptation. The young, idealistic, would-be community organizer gets a nice suit, joins a consulting house, starts hanging out with investment bankers, and barely escapes moving into the big mansion with the white folks. Luckily, an angel calls, awakens his conscience, and helps him choose instead to fight for the people.
Like I said, I’m a fan. His famous keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention moved me to tears. The Democrats - not to mention America - need a mixed-race spokesperson who can connect to both urban blacks and rural whites, who has the credibility to challenge the status quo on issues ranging from misogynistic rap to unfair school funding.
And yet I’m disappointed. Barack’s story may be true, but many of the facts are not. His larger narrative purpose requires him to embellish his role. I don’t buy it. Just as I can’t be inspired by Steve Jobs now that I know how dishonest he is, I can’t listen uncritically to Barack Obama now that I know he’s willing to bend the facts to his purpose.
Once, when I applied for a marketing job at a big accounting firm, my then-supervisor called HR to say that I had exaggerated something on my resume. I didn’t agree, but I also didn’t get the job. But when Barack Obama invents facts in a book ranked No. 8 on the NY Times nonfiction list, it not only fails to be noticed but it helps elevate him into the national political pantheon.