The Non-Controversy over Barack Obama’s Of Thee I Sing

Earlier this week, we put to rest one of the right wing’s more durable political myths. To celebrate the occasion — and to remind us that these myths can be big or small and can originate on the right or the left — I’d like to return to a idiotic mini-scandal from last year. Let me say upfront that everyone has moved on and no real harm was done. Still, the procedures and incentives that created this kind of nonsense still hold, and we’ll see many more stories following this template in the next 18 months.

Anyway: in November of 2010, Barack Obama published a children’s book, Of Thee I Sing. It was the latest in a long line of presidential children’s books — see other entries by Theodore Roosevelt, JFK, Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, and Laura and Jenna Bush — and an even longer line of celebrity-written children’s books. (Whether celebrity book vs. presidential book remains a useful distinction is a topic for another post.)

Nevertheless, in the days surrounding its release, Of Thee I Sing set off a series of controversies. The first  — doesn’t Obama have something better to do than write a children’s book? — was quickly defused by his publisher and his agent: he wrote the book after the election but before the inauguration, and the illustrations caused the delay. The second controversy — is Obama cashing in on his presidency? — was never more than notional. Of Thee I Sing sold 50,000 copies in its first week, but, as the AP reported, Obama donated “his proceeds to a scholarship fund for children of disabled and fallen soldiers.”[1]

The book’s third controversy, however, could not be so easily dismissed. When Fox Nation linked to a USA Today story about Of Thee I Sing, it added its own headline: “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General.” (Sitting Bull is one of the 13 figures Obama profiles in the book.) Over the next 48 hours, the online world’s usual suspects — media criticsaggregators, pundits, Gawker — came together to criticize Fox News for its hyper-partisan behavior. AOL’s Politics Daily commissioned a 1,000 word feature, complete with expert interviews and a larger import.

But here’s the thing: the only glimmer of conservative outrage came in that first headline, which Fox Nation quickly changed “for historical accuracy.” (The afore-linked stories also included a few online comments, sure, but the journalistic habit of quoting online commenters is its own sick joke.) This story lived and died on the left; the right never even noticed. The whole mess underlines the fact that attacking everything Fox News does is now as ingrained as Fox News attacking everything Obama does. Another way to say this is that Fox News wasn’t the only media outlet willing the Of Thee I Sing controversy into being. I’m not sure who won the day, but we all lost it.


[1] This probably isn’t the full truth. Of Thee I Sing was the last in a three-book, $1.9 million deal Obama signed with Knopf in 2004 — the publisher had originally promised this book would be the childhood autobiography of a “skinny young kid with big ears and the funny name” — but I never saw anyone ask if the “proceeds” include part of his advance.


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