Start Spreading the News…

Obama’s years in New York City? Fuggedaboutem

Among their many reputations, New Yorkers are known for being almost parentally protective of their city. If you’re lucky enough to live here, the thinking goes, you’d better appreciate it; and if you’re unfortunate enough to live anywhere else, you’d better at least acknowledge your misfortune. Or, you know, fuggedaboutit.

This kind of heart-New York-or-else attitude seeps into The New York Times’s latest installation of its (aptly named) “The Long Run” series—occasional vignettes about this year’s presidential candidates that highlight particularly telling aspects of those candidates’ biographies, personalities, etc. Thanks to the series, I’ve learned about Hillary Clinton’s particular management style (and that, apparently, she’s a fan of Grey’s Anatomy); about Rudy Giuliani’s relationship with 9/11 (before his fondness for proclaiming that relationship became a running Daily Show joke); and about the politically transformative experience that managing the Salt Lake City Olympics was for Mitt Romney. The whole series is like a light, bright sorbet to cleanse the palate between heavy, sometimes soporific courses of campaign coverage.

The latest “Long Run” offering is a history of the years, in the early 1980s, that Barack Obama spent living in New York City. A great premise for a, you know, New York newspaper. But the piece can’t seem to get over the fact that, while Obama made it here, he decided to really make it elsewhere. “Do you know who I am?” the Times seems to be asking on behalf of its city. The indignation appears to spring chiefly from the fact that Obama’s time in New York—in Dreams from My Father, the memoir on which this article is based—“surfaces only fleetingly.” (Obama “barely mentions Columbia, training ground for the elite, where he transferred in his junior year, majoring in political science and international relations and writing his thesis on Soviet nuclear disarmament,” the piece huffs. “He dismisses in one sentence his first community organizing job—work he went on to do in Chicago—though a former supervisor remembers him as ‘a star performer.’”)

Also—and more so—at issue in the piece are the discrepancies between some details of Obama’s memoir and those details as remembered by Obama’s fellow students and co-workers. The piece highlights the handful of people—at jobs Obama took to pay off college loans, in Columbia’s Black Student Organization—who say they don’t remember the future candidate. It’s strange to make such an issue of this, though: while an undergrad at Columbia, Obama told the university’s alumni magazine for a 2005 profile, “I spent a lot of time in the library. I didn’t socialize that much. I was like a monk.” So Obama was admittedly a loner. He studied a lot. Which might have something to do with the fact that some people don’t remember him. (It might also, incidentally, have had something to do with his being an “outstanding” student, as his senior thesis adviser remembers him, and maybe a little something to do with his future success.)

So, questionable logic, yes. But what’s really problematic—and the reason an otherwise innocuous piece deserves mention here—is the curious tone of investigative indictment that weaves throughout the article. It’s not just, how-could-you-be-a-loner-in-New-York, but also your-memory-of-New York-is-wrong-and-maybe-intentionally-so. “Some say he has taken some literary license in the telling of his story,” Janny Scott writes—a not trivial allegation that the piece backs up with precious little substance. Here’s its next sentence, for example:

Dan Armstrong, who worked with Mr. Obama at Business International Corporation in New York in 1984 and has deconstructed Mr. Obama’s account of the job on his blog,, wrote: “All of Barack’s embellishment serves a larger narrative purpose: to retell the story of the Christ’s temptation. The young, idealistic, would-be community organizer gets a nice suit, joins a consulting house, starts hanging out with investment bankers, and barely escapes moving into the big mansion with the white folks.”

A co-worker—from over twenty years ago—who seems to fancy himself a literary critic, citing Obama’s “literary license.” Some fellow students—again, from twenty years ago—who don’t remember Obama being part of their club. Oh, and we get another former co-worker who questions Obama’s memory of wearing suits to work (“many workers dressed down,” Scott notes), and of having a secretary. (This is the most substantial discrepancy in the piece, since “only the vice president in charge of Mr. Obama’s division got a secretary, [employees] said.”) So the fact that Obama “declined repeated requests to talk about his New York years, release his Columbia transcript or identify even a single fellow student, co-worker, roommate or friend from those years”—which he could have done for any number of reasons—feels, somehow, like a nail in a coffin. And the piece overall feels less like “Barack Obama Has a Cold” and more like “Barack Obama Has a Secret.”

That “gotcha” tone (busted, Barack!) is out of line. Discrepancies—and the ones here are minor—can result from intentional “embellishment,” sure, but are just as easily explained by faulty memories. Or from a collection of perfectly fine memories that naturally see the world from varied perspectives. Scott, apparently, has never seen Rashomon.

We’ve said it before: when it comes to candidates, every biographical detail, no matter how large or how tiny, is potential ammunition, either for or against their candidacy. (See “swiftboat,” and the fact that it’s now a verb.) If Obama has, indeed, embellished part of his memoir, by all means, highlight that. But the candidate, as presented here, is no James Frey; what the Times has given us is merely the suggestion of narrative license. The piece is still worth a read for the great biographical tidbits it provides (Obama spent his first night in NYC in an alley near Columbia, for example, and, the next morning, he bathed at a fire hydrant alongside a homeless man) that most people wouldn’t know unless they’d read the candidate’s 450-page-plus memoir. But readers—and, in particular, voters—might want to season this particular course with some hefty grains of salt.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.