Barack Obama, Editor

The hoary joke in the literary world, based on Dreams From My Father, was that if things had worked out differently for Barack Obama, he could have made it as a writer. Not as a pro basketball player, which might have been his original fantasy (or pro golfer, despite recent tips from Tiger Woods); or as a game-show host or famous disc jockey, where you can imagine Bill Clinton being a big success; or as commissioner of baseball, the path-not-taken for G.W. Bush; or as a backstage legislative master, like Lyndon Johnson or even Teddy Kennedy. But in nonfiction writing, he coulda been a contender.

He might also be vying for the ever-dwindling number of editor jobs that are available. Three years ago I posted the picture of his hand-edited version of his address to a Joint Session of Congress on health-care reform. Now we get this White House photo of his reworking of last month' inaugural address. Click for a zoomable detailed view.


There are lots of fascinating details and insights from the edits Obama has made here, and from comparison with the final version he delivered six days after this draft. I'll leave most of them for you to find and will mention only one.

As I noted at the time, early in the speech Obama made a very powerful allusion to Lincoln's second inaugural address:

Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free.

That line isn't in this draft shown in the picture --  at least not the part we can see. But Obama is working toward it with this handwritten insert at the top of the page:

 Through blood and toil ____ we learned that no nation founded on these principles could survive half-slave and half-free.

He recognizes that "toil" is not right -- "blood and toil" would be an allusion to Churchill, not Lincoln -- but he also knows that for cadence he needs another word after "blood," where he's crossed out "toil" and left a  ___  mark.

At some point between this draft and delivery time he or his assistants figured out that the most elegant approach would be simply to use Lincoln's phrase -- and, part of the elegance, just to use it as an allusion, an element of the national heritage Americans either should know or could know, rather than lumbering it with a heavy "in the words of our Sixteenth President" attribution. Much as our Sixteenth President himself had once used the phrase "a house divided" without having to tell his audience that he was quoting the Bible. There's much to observe in this one image. Thanks to reader KP.

Update: I mentioned earlier that I "remembered" a line from Obama's 2004 Democratic convention speech that he hadn't actually uttered. Reader TZ, in California, gives another explanation for why I "heard" something different from what Obama said:
As others may have pointed out, in the movie Man of the Year, Robin Williams character Tom Dobbs speaks this line:
But the last few years we've been divided. Red states, blue states.
There are no red and blue states, there's only the United States of America. That's what we're about.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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