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June 23, 2008

Barack Obama: Regular Guy All His Life


This is much longer than I intended, but I had to put the different pieces together to give a little different picture of who Barack Obama is.  He isn’t the elitist that some wants us to believe he is, how could he be? 

He might have a sense of pride about him (and he should!) but he isn’t arrogant or pompous.  His journey started a long time ago and it has been a long excursion in his short 46 years.

This story begins with Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich “D&G”.  D&G represents a huge variety of clients from No. 1 bestseller nonfiction authors like: Joy Bauer (Joy Bauer’s Food Cures) and Robin L Smith (Lies at the Altar) to best selling fiction authors like Jacqueline Carey and Anne Stuart.

Dystel & Goderich believe in the slush pile and read every submission that is sent to them, even if they chose not to represent that author. They are committed to finding the best talent and giving the authors the best representation. 

Jane did an interview with Jayne of ‘Dear Author’ about a year ago that I found interesting, particularly because Jane is the person who ‘found’ Barack Obama and his literary voice.  Here is a ‘little’ background about Jane from her own mouth and then a little bit about how she came to meet Barack Obama 18 years ago.

Tell us about your background. What made you decide to become a literary agent? How did you get started in your career? What types of books do you primarily agent?

Dystel: First things first. I began on the publishing side after a year of law school. My father was the President of Bantam Books, and so that was the first place I went to work, initially as an editorial assistant and then as the head of their permissions department. After 5 years, I went to Grosset & Dunlap as managing editor and then became an editor; my next stop was as the Publisher of the World Almanac and founder of World Alamanc Publications where I stayed for over 8 years. After that, I felt I really wanted to be on “the other side of the desk” and so I joined a literary agent named Jay Acton. I left that agency which by then was called Acton & Dystel and set up my own company in 1994 with my now partner, Miriam Goderich.

I became an agent because I felt as a publisher I had grown away from what I really loved discovering new writers and helping them develop and sell their ideas. That is what I am now doing every day. I agent primarily narrative non-fiction and many different kinds of fiction.

What is the primary role of the agent?

Dystel: An agent’s primary role is helping his or her clients develop their ideas and selling these to the best possible editor and publisher. Then it is the agent’s responsibility to “take care of the client by carefully reviewing their contracts, collecting their money and paying them in a timely manner, being available at all times to deal with their problems and being a troubleshooter on their behalf with their publishers.

Do you contract with authors you love or that you think are saleable?

Dystel: I try to do both actually. However, it is true that as is human nature, I like some of my clients more than others — those who are honest, straight- forward, respectful of what we do and loyal.

What is the best part of being an agent?

Dystel: Oh, that’s easy. Seeing my clients and their ideas grow and become successful.

What is the worst part of being an agent?

Dystel: Sadly, being treated badly by someone you’re trying to help. That doesn’t happen often but it does happen and it is still very upsetting even today.


In 1990 Barack Obama was President of The Harvard Law Review “The Review”.  Becoming the President of The Review was no easy feat – it wasn’t handed to him, he had to fight for it.

The Review is a student-run organization whose primary purpose is to publish a journal of legal research and studies. The Review comes out monthly from November through June and has roughly 2,000 pages per volume. The organization is formally independent of the Harvard Law School. Student editors make all editorial and organizational decisions and, together with a professional business staff of three, carry out day-to-day operations. A circulation of about 8,000 enables the Review to pay all of its own expenses.

The Review publishes articles by professors, judges, and practitioners and solicits reviews of important recent books from recognized experts. All articles — even those by the most respected authorities — are subjected to a rigorous editorial process designed to sharpen and strengthen substance and tone.

In January 2007 The New York Times did an in-depth article about Barack Obama while he led the Harvard Review.  They interviewed students and faculty who knew Obama well during his time there. Here are a few bits and pieces from the article:

Along with 40 other classmates, Obama won a precious spot on the law review at the end of his first year through grades and a writing competition. But the next year, when other students implored him to run for the presidency, he demurred; he wanted to return to community work in Chicago, he said, and the credential would be no help. Late in the process, he finally agreed, saying he might be able to heal the review’s partisan divisions.

The election was an all-day affair with the ego-crushing drama of a reality TV show. Inside ‘Pound Hall’, the editors picked apart the intellectual and social skills of the 19 contenders, eliminating them in batches. At the last moment, the conservative faction, its initial candidates defeated, threw its support to Mr. Obama. “Whatever his politics, we felt he would give us a fair shake,” said Bradford Berenson, a former associate White House counsel in the Bush administration. The two finalists were invited back into the room. But before the winner could be announced, Mr. Mack, a black student who had rejoined the editors after being eliminated, lunged toward Mr. Obama, so moved by the barrier that had just fallen that he embraced him tightly, tears streaming down both men’s cheeks. Newspapers and magazines flocked Obama once he achieved this historical feat for interviews and statements.

At The Review Obama proved skillful navigating an institution scorched with ideological battles, many of which revolved around race. He developed a leadership style based more on furthering consensus than on imposing his own ideas. Surrounded by students who enjoyed the sound of their own voices, Mr. Obama cast himself as an eager listener, sometimes giving warring classmates the impression that he agreed with all of them at once.

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard law professor and a mentor of Mr. Obama, said, “He can enter your space and organize your thoughts without necessarily revealing his own concerns and conflicts.”  When it comes to articulating, and then implementing and executing a new and coherent vision Obama was superior.

Perhaps this type of leadership-by-consensus, grounded in well-reasoned analysis of policies and issues, is what America needs in this chaotic, conflicted era of a post-Iraq invasion and economic insecurity.

What is inspiring to me is that Obama is just like many Americans.  His parents divorced; he was raised without his father; his mother had to work; his grandparents helped to raise him; they loved him unconditionally and he studied real hard; he had to struggle to pay for tuition, books dorms, food.  Yet despite the odds he succeed and in the process of succeeding he became the first black student to win the most coveted spot at the most praised and boasted about club at one of America’s most prestigious institutions.

This is where Jane Dystel entered.  She was a New York literary agent and a former law student and she read with interest stories in newspapers about Barack Obama, the President of The Review who happened to be — black.  She knew something special was happening so she wanted to, had to find Obama. She tracked down his phone number and called him. She told him she was with Acton & Dystel and told the guy with the funny name who some of her clients were; she wanted him to know she was for real.  She told him that he had a book in him.  He was polite, interested (she uses the words “cool and reserved”) he said he wanted to hear more but it was a brief phone conversation. 

A couple of months later Obama travelled to New York to meet her.  “My little office then had no windows,” recalls Jane. “We talked. He was attractive, charismatic, and passionate about public service.”  I told him that we had an unquestionable interest in his story but despite liking the idea of writing a book, he said, ‘I can’t even begin to write this until I graduate law school.’ We both said it should be a memoir. He suggested three parts: childhood, law school and the search for his father. We sold the book, ‘Dreams From My Father‘ while he was still in Harvard, even though he didn’t start writing until he graduated.

“I liked his authoritative voice. He was so focused. Mature, really together, already sure of himself. Not your typical kid. No question whatsoever he was going someplace. I told him, ‘If ever an African-American becomes president of the United States in my lifetime, it’s going to be you.’ And you know something? You could tell this wasn’t the first he’d heard that. I clearly sensed I wasn’t the first person who’d said that to him.”

Over the years, they’ve kept in contact by phone and e-mails, Christmas cards, political discussions. She said she saw him when he last visited her at her office. This time her office was larger, fancier and had windows. And her staff used Barack Obama as a decoy to get Jane to her surprise birthday party.  He may just be a little too busy to be her decoy next year.

I wrote this post because of Jane.  She seems to be a very smart and principled woman and she has been Obama’s literary agent for 18 years and she likes him as a person – she strikes me as the type of person who would drop him if he was surly.  That is very telling to me.  In addition Obama seems to have long-term relationships and friendships. That is a huge statement about his character.

Jane added another dimension to Obama’s life story and authenticates that he has been a regular guy all his life.  He did all the things you and I did and he was lucky but I think ‘blessed’ is a better word.  You’ve got to be blessed in this life – whether it is bestowed upon you or thrust upon you, you’ve got to have an extra serving of blessing.  No matter how hard you’ve worked or how well you’ve prepared – you’ve got to be blessed as well.

Obama understands what it’s like not to have enough money for food while at university and while earning a salary of $13,000 a year as a community activist.  He understands what it’s like to struggle to pay his rent.  He understands what it’s like not to be able to afford gas or even a car.  He understands not being able to pay his light or his gas bill.  He understands. Obama is the American Dream personified. 

For those of us who worked hard but luck shunned us, and for those of us who did well but simply want an America who is all she can be, we see Barack Obama and we see that he will work for the greater good of all Americans.  We see hope and see what the next generation in our families can become no matter our race, color, creed or background.  Because of him, we see a bigger, better, stronger America in our future.

Obama made The Harvard Law Review better, he made the Illinois State Senate better and he will make America better.





  1. […] You can read the rest of this blog post by going to the original source, here […]

    Pingback by » Barack Obama: Regular Guy All His Life — June 23, 2008 @ 11:27 pm | Reply

  2. I told him, ‘If ever an African-American becomes president of the United States in my lifetime, it’s going to be you.’ And you know something? You could tell this wasn’t the first he’d heard that. I clearly sensed I wasn’t the first person who’d said that to him.”–Obama was destined to be our leader. Great story!

    Comment by siriushomes — June 24, 2008 @ 12:16 am | Reply

  3. […] media@politico.com (Jonathan Martin) wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThis is much longer than I intended, but I had to put the different pieces together to give a another picture of who Barack Obama is. He isn’t the elitist that some wants us to believe he is, how could he be? … […]

    Pingback by My new WordPress MU Site » Blog Archive » Barack Obama: Regular Guy All His Life — June 24, 2008 @ 2:04 am | Reply

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