In the heady days around the Obama ascension and his much-anticipated inaugural address, I went back to Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, completed when the president was in his early thirties, to look again at the young writer for insight as to what kind of person he was then and would become. I called my colleagues on the small publishing team that worked with Obama on the book, released in August 1995, and asked them to shake out recollections of what has turned out to be, after all, their brush with history, supporting a memoir already considered a classic and an epic bestseller. What they all remembered was significant for its common theme. Barack Obama combined a writer’s natural gifts for story telling and reflection with a cool professionalism so consistent that the editor, publicist, and art director responsible for the now iconic cover say their only regret about the experience is that Obama did not ask more from them. As Henry Ferris, his editor recalls, “I would show him what I thought needed to be done and he would make it better.”
Obama never seemed uncertain or insecure about a process that was new to him. In a world of many squeaky wheels, Obama glided smoothly from task to task.
The background is that when Obama was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990, he was contacted by several literary agents, and chose Jane Dystel. He received a substantial advance of more than $100,000 from Simon & Schuster. The book missed its deadline, and when the first two parts did arrive, according to Ferris, the manuscript was rejected as too long and too late. Ferris says that Dystel called him and said, jokingly, “I am bringing you a book by the man who will be the first black president of the United States.” We met with Obama at our offices (I was publisher of Times Books, which was then an imprint of Random House). He was casual (chinos and a tweed jacket, I think), and clearly determined to finish the book. The multicultural saga already had the style and much of the substance it needed. Over the next two years, Ferris and Obama mainly exchanged drafts by mail (all the material known in publishing parlance as “dead matter” either was discarded or is buried deep in some Random House repository). Ferris made suggestions, most of which Obama accepted. The major editorial work involved cutting earlier sections, and by the time Obama traveled to Kenya to see his father’s homeland, he had learned the craft of narrative, and Ferris remembers having to do relatively little with the account.
By then Obama was so busy with life and legal work in Chicago that his contact with staff at Times Books was by phone. He supplied the photographs for the cover collage; he got blurbs from Marian Wright Edelman, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and Derrick Bell, three leaders of the African-American intellectual establishment. He approved all of the marketing material, including a handsome pre-publication reading galley that signaled our belief in the book’s potential. Obama never seemed uncertain or insecure about a process that was new to him. In a world of many squeaky wheels, Obama glided smoothly from task to task. Mary Beth Roche, the publicity director, remembers that Obama did express some concern about the need to emphasize the magnitude of his breakthrough at the Harvard Law Review in pitching him to national television, which didn’t work anyway. But the book did get prominent and admiring reviews in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Overall, Obama left an impression of skill, talent, and personal reserve, which was notable given how deeply personal the book was meant to be. This was a young man with an ego big enough to write a book about himself, accomplished enough to succeed, and yet, somehow, still modestly low-key.
In 2004, after his brilliant speech at the Democratic National Convention, Dreams From My Father was reissued by Crown Books, which had inherited the inventory of the by-then-departed Times Books. Following his election to the Senate, Obama signed a lucrative new contract with Crown and wrote The Audacity of Hope, his political manifesto. Just as Obama went from community organizer to president of the United States with barely a stumble, he went from first-time memoirist (a rejection in his pocket) to world-class author, and made it look almost effortless. Barack Obama got $40,000 from Times Books for that first contract and, according to his 2007 tax returns, made over $4 million in royalties. There is much, much more in earnings to come.
Setting Dreams From My Father against the writing in Obama’s campaign speeches, his acceptance address, the victory speech, and then the inaugural, what you see is that, as a writer, Obama is completely in control of the words he uses. The book draws its power from description and anecdote. The speeches are framed with themes and some memorable oratory. The inauguration address reflected a different quality. It was not a tour de force of rhetoric. It was emphatic and unequivocal, and what remains is the message about the challenges the country faces and not, particularly, the unforgettable language. I have no idea how or why the speech came out that way, but I have no doubt that the choice of what to say was Obama’s. Based on the record, this is a man, a writer, in complete command of his gift of communication at a level that cannot be acquired. His is a gift that comes from some genetic combination that produces natural mastery.
We couldn’t have known it at the time, and sort of wish we had; the team assisting Dreams From My Father was witnessing a unique display of artistry—literary introspection on the way to the White House.
Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation, where he writes the weekly Platform column. Osnos is the founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs Books. He is vice chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House Inc. and was a correspondent and editor at The Washington Post. Visit TCF.org for a full archive of Platform columns.