I’m glad that reporters spent so much of 2008 analyzing the big questions, like whether Sarah Palin was literate, rather than wasting their time rehashing uninteresting stories like how Our Most Philosophical President Ever came to be an author:
The story of Obama’s writing career is an object lesson in how our president’s view of himself shapes his interactions with the world around him. In 1990, Obama was wrapping up his second year at Harvard Law when the New York Times ran a profile of him on the occasion of his becoming the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. A book agent in New York named Jane Dystel read the story and called up the young man, asking if he’d be interested in writing a book. Like any 29-year-old, he wasn’t about to turn down money. He promptly accepted a deal with Simon & Schuster’s Poseidon imprint—reportedly in the low six-figures—to write a book about race relations.
Obama missed his deadline. No matter. His agent quickly secured him another contract, this time with Times Books. And a $40,000 advance. Not bad for an unknown author who had already blown one deal, writing about a noncommercial subject.
By this point Obama had left law school, and academia was courting him. The University of Chicago Law School approached him; although they didn’t have any specific needs, they wanted to be in the Barack Obama business. As Douglas Baird, the head of Chicago’s appointments committee, would later explain, “You look at his background—Harvard Law Review president, magna cum laude, and he’s African American. This is a no-brainer hiring decision at the entry level of any law school in the country.” Chicago invited Obama to come in and teach just about anything he wanted. But Obama wasn’t interested in a professor’s life. Instead, he told them that he was writing a book—about voting rights. The university made him a fellow, giving him an office and a paycheck to keep him going while he worked on this important project.
In case you’re keeping score at home, there was some confusion as to what book young Obama was writing. His publisher thought he was writing about race relations. His employer thought he was writing about voting rights law. But Obama seems to have never seriously considered either subject. Instead, he decided that his subject would be himself. The 32-year-old was writing a memoir.
I don’t think there’s anything prescient in that story at all.