[16 July 2007]
PORTSMOUTH, N.H.—Stealing a page from Oprah Winfrey—his close friend and fellow Chicago celebrity—Sen. Barack Obama launched book clubs in a dozen New Hampshire towns and online last week.
His life story is the first topic of discussion.
With their assigned reading being Dreams from My Father, Obama’s best-selling memoir that has become his unofficial campaign handbook, a small group of his followers settled in at the SecondRun used bookstore in this coastal city for a two-hour discussion.
The Portsmouth gathering was amid an initial round of meetings that evening that was part of a new campaign initiative meant to better inform people about Obama and build interest in his presidential bid.
“We’re doing this because people don’t really know him very well,” said Christine Davidson, a freelance writer and editor from Portsmouth who led the discussion. “You get to know him in this book.”
Book club participants will also be able to dial into conference calls throughout the summer with significant figures from his life. Mike Kruglik, from Obama’s Chicago community organizing days, for example, made a personal appearance in the state to promote the club.
That the effort is taking place in New Hampshire is telling. The Illinois senator trails Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York in polls here, unlike in the other early-voting state of Iowa where the two are basically tied.
Although Clinton and others in the presidential field have written their own books—or had books written about them—Obama is alone among the top tier of Democrats to try to leverage his book to such an extent.
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has discussed books with supporters online through his One America Book Club, but that effort focused mostly on the works of others.
The Obama effort is one of the campaign’s more creative ways to push his biography, something his operatives feel is one of his biggest selling points and something they hope will help counter the notion that he lacks enough experience to lead the nation.
But whether this activity accomplishes what it set out to do—attract new Obama supporters—remains to be seen.
Dennett Page, a volunteer and mother, told her fellow book club participants here that she found “Dreams From My Father” real, but sometimes perhaps too honest.
“There’s a part in there when he first gets to Chicago and it’s real street talk,” she said. “That’s pretty brave ... having conversations that, you know, include a lot of language that to many people is completely unacceptable, but at the same time, you know, this is reality.”
Leslie Miller, Obama’s New Hampshire communications director, said about 85 people participated in the book clubs statewide last Tuesday evening.
The gathering in Portsmouth attracted only women on a night when baseball’s All-Star Game was being played. The six women were also already committed to supporting Obama, not the sort of undecided voter the campaign was hoping to attract.
Each book club will meet twice to discuss the book, a biographical account the Chicago Tribune found through its own eight-part series to be largely accurate but sometimes misleading in the details.
Absent from the discussion in Portsmouth, for example, was any mention of Keith Kakugawa, a close high school friend of Obama’s given the pseudonym “Ray” in the book.
Obama wrote that he and “Ray” had long talks about racism at their elite prep academy in Hawaii. But in an interview with the Tribune this year, Kakugawa said those talks were not about race. “Barry’s biggest struggles then were missing his parents. ... The idea that his biggest struggle was race is (bull).” Even Obama, who may have been contemplating elected office when the book was first published in 1995, acknowledges in the introduction that autobiographical writers often have “selective lapses of memory.”
The new effort in New Hampshire comes at a slow time in the campaign season, when many in the state are on vacation and not paying attention to politics. The book club offers a way to keep Obama’s message moving, as the candidate is expected to spend more time in Iowa than New Hampshire this summer.
Page, a New Hampshire native who wore an “Obama Mama” T-shirt, said this is the first time she has ever been involved in a political campaign.
“This is it gang,” she told her new book club buddies. “This is an opportunity to make change.”
Still, one must only look across the shelves of the bookstore to see tales of other politicians who have fallen short.
On one shelf is “A Call to Service,” Sen. John Kerry’s 2003 book about his biography and political views. The hardcover is selling for $7, about a third of its original price.
Chicago Tribune (MCT)