February 18, 2007


What followed, Obama says in a memoir, was a life-altering experience, an early taste of his ability to motivate the powerless and work the levers of government. As the 24-year-old mentor to public housing residents, Obama says he initiated and led efforts that thrust Altgeld's asbestos problem into the headlines, pushing city officials to call hearings and a reluctant housing authority to start a cleanup.

But others tell the story much differently.

They say Obama did not play the singular role in the asbestos episode that he portrays in the best-selling memoir, "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance." Credit for pushing officials to deal with the cancer-causing substance, according to interviews and news accounts from that period, also goes to a well-known, pre-existing group at Altgeld Gardens and to a local newspaper called the Chicago Reporter. Obama does not mention either one in his book.

"Just because someone writes it doesn't make it true," said Hazel Johnson, a longtime Altgeld resident who worked with Obama on the asbestos campaign, and who began pushing for a variety of environmental cleanups years before he arrived.

U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) said it was Johnson's work, as well as asbestos testing conducted by the Chicago Reporter, that sparked the interest of Chicago officials and prompted Rush, who at the time was a City Council member, to launch an inquiry. While he has not read Obama's memoir, Rush, who has been a political rival of Obama's in recent years, said Johnson's role was so prominent that he was "offended" by anyone telling the Altgeld story without including her.

Big problem, or little problem? I'm not sure, though anything that makes Obama look like an ordinary, credit-grabbing politician probably does disproportionate damage by undermining his above-politics appeal. Read the whole thing.