Let’s put this one to bed: Despite what you may have heard, President Obama is not James Frey.
On Wednesday, Vanity Fair released excerpts of a new Obama biography by David Maraniss that focuses on his romances as a student in the early 1980s. At one point in the story, Obama — who never gave the girls’ names in his original book, “Dreams From My Father” — tells Maraniss that one story about a date was not referring to the same girlfriend who made up his most serious relationship at the time and is the focus of Maraniss’ chapter, Genevieve Cook. From Vanity Fair:
“When asked about this decades later, during a White House interview, Obama acknowledged that the scene did not happen with Genevieve. “It is an incident that happened,” he said. But not with her. He would not be more specific, but the likelihood is that it happened later, when he lived in Chicago. “That was not her,” he said. “That was an example of compression I was very sensitive in my book not to write about my girlfriends, partly out of respect for them. So that was a consideration. I thought that [the anecdote involving the reaction of a white girlfriend to the angry black play] was a useful theme to make about sort of the interactions that I had in the relationships with white girlfriends. And so, that occupies, what, two paragraphs in the book? My attitude was it would be dishonest for me not to touch on that at all … so that was an example of sort of editorially how do I figure that out?”
Politico, however, suggested that Obama may have misled about his memoir by not cautioning readers that characters might be combined: “Though Dreams From My Father is an autobiography, and hence non-fiction, Obama makes no mention of this ‘compression,’ nor is their any note by the publisher, Broadway Books,” wrote Dylan Byers. “In fact, Obama only acknowledged the ‘compression’ after Maraniss learned that Cook had no recollection of some of the events at which Obama said she was present.”
Drudge Report went further, trumpeting Byers’s story with the headline: “OBAMA ADMITS FABRICATING GIRLFRIEND IN MEMOIR.”
Except, he didn’t mislead anyone. Politico blew it by not reading an actual copy of the book, in which a then 33-year old Obama — in the introduction — explicitly makes clear that he used composite characters throughout the book. Nor was this added to later editions after the fact: the intro was in the first edition. Here’s the relevant passage:
“For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology. With the exception of my family and a handful of public figures, the names of most characters have been changed for the sake of privacy.”
Byers eventually updated the story to note that he had missed the passage in question, but by then it had already become a meme in conservative media. To be clear: Obama did not deceive anyone with the use of composite characters that he acknowledged up-front, and Drudge Report is 100 percent wrong to play this is as any kind of scandal or revelation about the book.
Late update: The Byers piece now includes this correction:
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post stated that Obama had acknolwedged using composite characters in the reissue. In fact, Obama acknolwedged [sic] the use of composite characters in the first edition of the book.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.