Breitbart.com is getting new mileage out of its discovery of a 1991 literary catalogue which claims that then-aspiring author Barack Obama was born Kenya.
Literary agent Miriam Goderich took responsibility for the birthplace error in a statement that Nick Gillespie recently called "definitive as definitive can be."
But the Breitbart folks have now revealed a new facet of the story: that author bios sent out by Jane Dystel's literary agency (now the Dystel & Goderich agency) are written and submitted by the authors themselves. Writer Steve Boman recounts his own experience with the agency during the nineties:
In my dealings with Dystel, I found her exceptionally thorough and very professional. She had a template she wanted non-fiction writers to follow, and my writing partner and I followed her template closely…
All material she used in our proposals came directly from me and my writing partner. She edited our rough-draft proposals and gave us feedback, but the final versions were all ours. Our final versions, bio included, were then simply photo-copied, by us, and distributed to potential publishers. This was back in the pre-Google days, recall.
I was asked to write the bio in the third person…
Several years later, my writing partner and I returned to Dystel with what we thought was a better proposal… I have pulled that proposal out of my files, and it is sitting on my desk as I write this.
That second proposal logged in at 59 pages, including original art and writing samples. My bio for that proposal was five sentences long.
The policy appears not to have changed. From the submission requirements at Dystel's website:
Finally, there should be a more formal narrative Bio of the author.
This is followed by links that serve as Support Material—reviews of previous books, recent articles by and about you from national publications, a schedule of speaking appearances, any national media appearances, etc.
Now this is all less definitive than Goderich's statement. (And who wouldn't take the word of an agent when there's documentation to the contrary?) But it does show that what I always thought was Andrew Breitbart's particular genius – the ability to string a story along by releasing bits of new information that contradict the subjects' denials – appears to live on at the company he founded.
Does this mean America must head back down the murky corridors of the birthers? Maybe not. I believe we can reconcile Obama's legitimate Hawaiian birth certificate with the Kenyan-birth claims that, we now know, precede birtherism by nearly two decades. And as it happens, the Democratic Party has recently given us the example we need.
Thanks to Elizabeth Warren's heated Senate campaign against Republican Scott Brown, we now know to a pretty fair certainty that the Harvard law professor falsely claimed her family history included membership in the Cherokee Nation. It also appears that Warren used this fake affiliation to further her career.
Warren's fictional Cherokee history and Obama's imagined Kenyan birth share a common point: Neither Warren nor Obama could know the absolute truth about events that took place when they were respectively not alive and newborn. But all children are susceptible to family scuttlebutt. Both Warren and Obama are exceptionally opportunistic people for whom "Close enough for government work" is a permanent way of life.
So here's my theory: Obama was born in Hawaii, but at some point in his life he considered it expedient to claim he was born in Kenya. In other words, the myth of the Kenyan birth was invented by Barack Obama himself.
Maybe (as I suspect was the case for Warren) he was merely making vague reference to stories he'd heard as a child and did not know for sure that the claim was false. Maybe he believed that a foreign birth would confer some extra prestige or exoticism on an up-and-coming community organizer and prose writer. In any event, the only narrative that makes sense of all the elements is this one: Obama himself actively or passively originated the story that he was born in Kenya.
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