Barack Obama’s autobiographical fictions
There’s a DVD that’s been sitting in its jewel box on my desk for a few years (I’ve been busy—no time to tidy up), and the other day, after reading through two brand-new books about Barack Obama, one admiring, the other ferociously disapproving, I snapped the cellophane at last and slid the disk into my computer drive.
I bought the video on a visit to Occidental College in Los Angeles, not long after Obama took office. He attended Oxy from 1979 to 1981, then lit out after his sophomore year and never returned. It must be a tricky business for a college publicist, marketing your school as the place that one of the world’s most famous men couldn’t wait to get away from, but these are highly competitive times in the liberal arts college racket, and a flack will work with what he’s got. During my visit the campus was transforming itself into a three-dimensional tribute to its most famous dropout.
In the common room of the library a shrine of sorts had been set up in a glass display case, under the famous Shepard Fairey Hope poster. The display promised to document “Barack Obama’s Occidental College Days,” but the pickings were slim. Every item on display was derivative and indirect in its relation to the man being honored. There were photos of three of his professors, a copy each of his two memoirs, an invitation that someone had received to his inauguration, and an issue of Time magazine showing a recently discovered cache of posed pictures taken of Obama by a classmate in 1980. Obama’s Occidental years have the same waterbug quality that so many periods of his life seem to have in retrospect: You see a figure traveling lightly and swiftly over the surface of things, darting away before he could leave an impression that might last. Archivists have combed college records and come up empty, mostly. Barry Obama, as he then was known, published two poems in the campus literary magazine his sophomore year. The testimony of the handful of professors who remembered him, four by my count, is hazy. He was never mentioned in the student newspaper, never wrote a letter to the editor or appeared in a photo; he failed to have his picture taken for the yearbook, so his likeness isn’t there either. A photo from 1981 celebrating Oxy’s 94th anniversary was in the display case, labeled, with eager insouciance: “An all-campus photo . . . included students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Perhaps Obama is included?” We can hope.
I found my DVD, called “Barack Obama’s Occidental College Days,” in the student bookstore, where shelves groaned under stacks of Obama merchandise—paperweights, caps, pennants, T-shirts, pencils, shot glasses—in which the “O” from Obama was graphically entwined with the “O” from Occidental. (You work with what you’ve got.) The film, with a cover showing a rare photo of Obama on campus, lasts no more than 15 minutes and seems padded even so. Our host is a large and enthusiastic man named Huell Howser. He sports a Hawaiian shirt and a crewcut. With an Oxy flack as guide and a cameraman in tow, he strides the sun-drenched campus and pauses here and there as if simply overwhelmed.
“This place is full of history,” he says.
“There’s a lot of history to be marked here,” the flack agrees.
On the steps of the school administration building they are almost struck dumb. Almost.
“On this spot,” our host says, Obama may have given his first political speech—a two-minute blast at the college for investing in South Africa’s apartheid regime. But we can’t be sure.
“There are no photographs,” says Howser, “but then there are very few photographs of Barack Obama at Occidental.”
“That’s right,” the flack says glumly.
Howser’s passion burns undiminished. His every glance, this way and that, says, Isn’t this something? He finds a professor who taught Obama political science. The professor says he remembers Obama, but only because of his Afro hairstyle and his improbable name. A chinwag with a former dorm-mate from freshman year—Obama moved to an apartment several miles off campus his second year, removing himself even further from the school’s day-to-day life—isn’t much help either. Howser’s imperturbable smile shows no sign of desperation even when he collars the head of alumni affairs, who boasts that his alumni association is one of only 25 in the world that could claim attachment to a U.S. president.
The host is beside himself.
“Is that right? How involved has he been in the alumni association?”
“Well, I have to admit he hasn’t been to any alumni events . . . ”
“Has he been a big contributor?”