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Writing Obama

Introducing Alcove 4, an exploration of books, their authors,
their ideas, and their relevance to our daily life.

On June 28, the New America Foundation held a conversation with three authors who have helped reveal the real Barack Obama to the American public: David Maraniss, a Washington Post editor and author of Obama: The Story; Noam Scheiber, The New Republic senior editor, author of The Escape Artists and New America Schwartz Fellow; and Jodi Kantor, New York Times correspondent and author of The Obamas. Frank Foer, editor of The New Republic and New America Schwartz Fellow, moderated the event.

Listen to the full audio of this event:

Click here for an MP3 recording of this event

“Is Barack Obama ‘knowable?'”

That’s the question Frank Foer posed Thursday evening to three authors who have recently taken on the daunting task of writing books about the president.

“As president, we can know him by his actions,” said Jodi Kantor, New York Times correspondent and author of The Obamas.

But to really know him is another story.

Kantor referred to an anecdote from biographer David Mendell's 2007 book, in which presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett recalls a conversation with Michelle Obama. The first lady confided that every time she thought she understood her husband, he did something to surprise her.

“If even Michelle Obama isn’t entirely sure she has her husband's state of mind figured out, let that serve as a warning to us all,” Kantor said.

Inherent uncertainties and potential pitfalls come with writing about a sitting president -- particularly one who is more reserved and self-aware than earlier residents of the White House. The authors who spoke at New America's event, "Writing Obama," described how they took on the president as a subject.

The most difficult part of writing about Obama, all three authors agreed, is that he considers himself a writer too.

"He is the custodian of his own story," Kantor said. "His story is what led to his rise."

Indeed, Obama was an author before he was a politician. He wrote Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance a year before his election to the Illinois state senate, and the book was reissued in 2004 following his primary win in the race for U.S. Senate.

Noam Scheiber, author of The Escape Artists and a New America Schwartz Fellow, explained, "Obama primarily thinks of himself as a crafter of narrative." He added that Obama had signed a copy of his book for Scheiber, and inscribed it, "To Noam, a fellow storyteller."

"He has more of a writer's sensibility than any other politician," said David Maraniss, a Washington Post editor and author of Obama: The Story.

Maraniss was quick to point out, however, that the president's own books, while insightful, are somewhat unreliable. In the introduction to his book, Maraniss called Obama's autobiography "literature" -- a line that earned him a reprimand from the president.

The qualities that make Obama a good storyteller and author put pressure on the writers as they worked on their books.

The president is extremely attuned to what is being written about him daily in the press, Kantor noted, adding that she was "getting constant feedback" throughout the time she was covering the president and his family. "It's not just water off his back."

Barack Obama is not only participating in politics, Maraniss said. "He's watching himself participate. He is always self-aware." Such qualities, Maraniss said, are quite different from the qualities usually found in politicians. He contrasted Obama to Bill Clinton, pointing out that Bill Clinton would tend to charge ahead and figure things out as he went while Obama did the opposite.

It is also a trait that Scheiber described as "fighting with one hand tied behind your back" for a politician. The difficulty in understanding Obama, Scheiber said, could in part be due to the tension between his role as a politician and as a storyteller.

"As a writer, your first obligation is to be interesting," Scheiber said. "As president, your first obligation is to not be interesting."

Given the hurdles of getting to know a complicated man like Obama, Maraniss said he felt he had arrived at a point where he could begin to understand the president's motivations and how he might act and why.

"A central thread with him is that his whole life has been a set of traps that he's tried to figure his way around," Maraniss said. Understanding that pattern can help interpret many of his actions as president, he concluded.

--Kate Schuler

Listen to the full audio of this event:

Click here for an MP3 recording of this event


Featured Speakers
David Maraniss
Editor, Washington Post
Author, Obama: the Story

Noam Scheiber
Senior Editor, The New Republic; Author, The Escape Artists
Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow, New America Foundation

Jodi Kantor
Correspondent, The New York Times
Author, The Obamas

Franklin Foer
Editor, The New Republic  
Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow, New America Foundation

Event Time and Location

Thursday, June 28, 2012 - 6:00pm - 8:00pm
ASU Washington Center
1834 Connecticut Avenue, NW St
Washington, DC

Event Photos

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A range of photos from this event are available on Flickr. Click on the icon at left to view or download the photos.