Parsing Barack Obama’s biography

The first thing those with presidential aspirations do is write an "autobiography" that recounts how they overcame adversity and personal tragedy to come to this place where they are ready to lead the world’s only remaining superpower.

It is essential to do this if one is not as prominent as one’s opponent. That’s the case in the current race for the White House. Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, has written two such books and now finds himself under attack by those who question his honesty.

As a rule of thumb, the politically curious should forgo reading autobiographies by those seeking high office, particularly the presidency. These often hastily written books are by their very nature designed to put the best spin possible on the candidate, glossing over events that might challenge his or her suitability for the job. Only if these accounts include the candidate’s views on current issues do they add anything really worthwhile to a voter’s political education. Otherwise, they should be regarded as promotional, partly fact but wholly subjective.

The same holds, perhaps even more so, for biographies written by those who hope to make large amounts of money from disclosing the "truth" about a candidate but in actuality are mainly hatchet jobs that reshape facts and interpret every occurrence in the candidate’s life in the worst possible light. Both, after all, are extremes aimed at the same thing, persuading us to be either for or against a particular candidate.

Currently, those who so effectively convinced many Americans that there was something seriously wrong about 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s "heroism" on a swift boat during Vietnam are asking similar questions about Obama’s fitness for the White House, citing his own autobiographies as less than truthful about his life growing up with a black father, who wasn’t there most of the time, and a white mother. In the "Obama Nation" Jerome Corsi, who co-authored "Unfit for Command" challenging Kerry’s service record, not only portrays Obama’s mother and father unflatteringly, he questions the Illinois senator’s dedication to Christianity, contending that the Muslim faith actually plays a significant role in his ideology.

These sorts of attempts to derail the political careers of candidates are nothing new, of course. Way back in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson’s character was attacked in a little book called a "Texan Looks at Lyndon Johnson." It depicted Johnson, then running for his own full term, as a rogue whose long Senate career had begun with the theft of a ballot box and had been punctuated by venality ever since. With one of those bulk-purchasing campaigns, the book got distributed to millions to no avail. Johnson still beat GOP nominee Barry Goldwater in a landslide.

But Johnson was a politically savvy incumbent and heir to the legacy of John F. Kennedy, at least temporarily, and had enough sense to ignore the "slanders," some of which, by the way, weren’t untrue, including the infamous missing ballot box.

While Corsi’s book has started at the top of the bestseller list, much of what he contends is purely opinion. The spin is obvious and the credibility, as has been noted, clearly shaky. Yet it is a problem that Obama must face, coming from a background that is woefully short on political experience and unusual enough even in today’s far more liberal world to lend itself to this kind of speculation.

He is the first African American to reach this pinnacle and voters want to know who he is or isn’t. At this point, millions of them aren’t sure, having seen only one side of this extremely charismatic candidate — the public one.

During the next two months, he can expect to face a barrage of criticism about the gaps in his readiness and what he is like when push comes to shove. The onslaught will include some of the Corsi-like allegations. He has to be ready to deal with them if he hopes to become the first of his race to occupy the Oval Office. Kerry wasn’t ready to combat the swift-boat damage, and by the time he tried it was too late despite the discrediting of the allegations. Obama apparently has informed his concerned supporters that he is prepared to fight back and will meet any and all allegations firmly and responsibly. Let’s hope so.

Meanwhile, it is worth noting that autobiographies are best written after the election by the losers or winners. Even then most aren’t terribly good with one major exception, the critically acclaimed memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, whose generalship helped make it possible for Obama to be where he is –even if it took 143 years.



(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)