Adam Ash

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Barack Obama the writer (hey, Joe Biden, the man's not only articulate, he's literate)

The Literary Obama
From eloquent memoir to Democratic boilerplate.
Review of Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama
The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Barack Obama
By Andrew Ferguson/The Weekly Standard

Barack Obama ran for president of Harvard Law Review in 1990, and in an early testament to the winning ways that have recently dazzled a fair percentage of the American public, the Review 's editors elected him by an impressive majority. As the first black law student to hold the job, he was soon enjoying a mild percolation of celebrity: stories in the New York Times and Time , a smattering of TV interviews, requests to appear at conferences, and then, as day follows night, the calls from book publishers and literary agents, asking him to write a book telling the world what it was like to be him. Obama hired an agent and signed a deal and set about writing.

Four years after his graduation, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance appeared, emerging into what many of us recall as a madcap season in the long sad history of American book publishing. Sometime in the early nineties, editors and publishers had persuaded one another that contracting with large numbers of 30-year-olds to write detailed accounts of their young lives was a good idea. It was not a good idea, however. By 1995, unreadable memoirs were suddenly everywhere. The books didn't vary much in quality, and only superficially in subject matter. They ranged from the depressed reminiscences of young, unhinged white women with drug problems ( Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel) to the angry reminiscences of young, unhinged black men with drug problems ( Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall).

It is less of a compliment than the book deserves to say that Dreams from My Father was much better than the mid-'90s average.

Yet it was not the book Obama intended to write; he hadn't intended to write a memoir at all. On the evidence, he lacks the solipsistic urge that propelled youngsters like Wurtzel and McCall deep into a glowering contemplation of their innermost, uninteresting selves. What young Obama hoped to write, instead, he later said, was an abstract, high-altitude examination of American race relations, surveying the uses and limits of civil rights litigation, the meaning of Afro-centrism, and so on, flavored now and then with anecdotes drawn from his own experience as the only son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya.

Yet it was the anecdotes that spurred his interest and kept drawing him back to pen and paper--stories and impressions of his parents and grandparents, childhood pals, and colleagues from school and work. Next to this human material, "all my well-ordered theories seemed insubstantial and premature."

So he wrote a memoir. Dreams from My Father was favorably reviewed, got respectfully discussed here and there, and then, as books do, went the way of all pulp. "Sales," Obama later wrote, "were underwhelming. And after a few months I went on with the business of my life, certain that my career as an author would be short-lived." In his adopted hometown of Chicago he taught classes at a law school and plunged into electoral politics. He ran for state senate and won, ran for Congress and lost, ran for the U.S. Senate and, before winning in a landslide, delivered a booming speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that made several news anchors weep, though this is not so difficult as it sounds.

In its second go-round, celebrity has come to Barack Obama less as a percolation than a volcanic eruption. Dreams was reissued in paperback and has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 61 weeks. And after his election to the U.S. Senate, Obama wrote another book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream . It has been atop the bestseller list for four months.

The Audacity of Hope is a lot like the book that young Obama originally hoped to write when he wrote Dreams , before he was distracted by his memories of the people with whom he's shared his life. Audacity is high-minded and abstract, pumped with the helium of political rhetoric and discussions about policy--health care or budgeting, for example--that seem just serious enough to bore any reader except someone who knows enough about policy to find them tendentious and superficial. Spiked with folksy touches and potted anecdotes, Audacity is the work of a professional politician under the careful watch of his advisers, a campaign book only marginally more memorable, though much better written, than such classics of the genre as John Kerry's A Call to Service or George W. Bush's A Charge to Keep .

Read together, back to back, Obama's two books illuminate each other. They trace a narrative arc of their own, as the writer of the first book--the dreamy, painfully sensitive, funny, and not quite wised-up memoirist--slowly fades from view behind the gummy presence of the author of the second, the careful, ingratiating main chancer. Audacity is an infinitely weaker, duller book than its predecessor, and its single interesting revelation is unintentional: In this most perilous age, when our great country strives for direction in a world of crisscrossing riptides and dangerous undertow, we have lost a writer and gained another politician. It's not a fair trade.

Dreams tells the story of Obama's life up to his matriculation at Harvard. The outlines of his biography are quickly becoming well known, thanks to coverage of the already overheated presidential campaign. Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, met his father at the University of Hawaii, to which the father (also named Barack) had come as an exchange student. They married in 1960, and young Barack arrived soon after. The father left wife and son when Barack was two, returning to his native Kenya after a few semesters in a doctoral program at Harvard. Barack's mother remarried when Barack, now called Barry, was six. Her new husband moved the new blended family to Indonesia. In Jakarta, Barry attended private schools, two years at a Catholic school, two more at a private school with a predominately Muslim student population.

When his mother's second marriage fell apart, Barry was sent back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents while his mother continued graduate studies in Indonesia. He won a scholarship to a fancy prep school in Waikiki, then another to Occidental College in Los Angeles, and finished his last two years of college at Columbia. He moved to Chicago to be a "community organizer" on the South Side. After three years he headed to Harvard Law.

It's not, on its face, the stuff of a great memoir. But against all expectation, the book never flags. I don't think anyone who reads it could doubt that Dreams from My Father is the work of a real writer; a young writer, it's true, with a young writer's mannerisms. The story as he tells it is a bit overstuffed with epiphanies; one event after another sends waves of significance through the narrator's vast reservoir of sensibility. And though he's a graceful and sure-handed stylist, Obama has a weakness for the dying fall; many of his sentences are so grandly bittersweet, so summarily touching, you could imagine them as the last lines of a Tennessee Williams play.

But these are problems that come from an excess of talent rather than its lack. And there is also the refreshing presence of Obama's own personality, sufficiently detached and amused to play off his shortcomings, and modest enough to tell much of his story through characters other than himself, older and more experienced than the callow narrator, though not necessarily wiser or more hardened to the knockabouts of life.

And he makes these characters breathe; they change and grow and, in several instances, turn inward and recede under the pressure of events. The preeminent male presence in his memoir is his maternal grandfather. Gramps is a restless veteran of World War II who pushed his family from Kansas steadily westward in pursuit of the Big Score until he ran out of continent and made the leap to Hawaii where, among other hopeless ventures, he opened a furniture franchise.

Gramps first appears in Dreams as a Micawber of postwar America, genial and enthusiastic even when the odds look long. But then a gloom settles over him as time runs out and his possibilities narrow for good. By the time Barry is a teenager his grandfather is selling insurance, making cold calls from the living room where a TV tray doubles as his desk.

“Sometimes I would tiptoe into the kitchen for a soda, and I could hear the desperation creeping into his voice, the stretch of silence that followed when the people on the other end explained why Thursday wasn't good and Tuesday not much better, and then Gramps's heavy sigh after he had hung up the phone, his hands fumbling through the files in his lap like those of a cardplayer who's deep in the hole.”

Having lost his dreams of business success, the chief goal of Gramps's life seems to be to inject some steadiness into the zigs and zags of his grandson's childhood. It's another lost cause, thanks to the spectral presence of Barry's vanished father. In the boy's imagination the father has grown to mythic dimensions. He tells his classmates his father is an African prince, traveling in golden chariots and leading a tribe that builds pyramids on the banks of the Nile. The name Obama, he says, means "Burning Spear." For all he knows it might even be true--until one day when a local librarian helps him find a book that mentions the Luo tribe. These are his father's people and, he hopes, his own.

"The Luo merited only a short paragraph," he discovers. "The Luo raised cattle and lived in mud huts and ate corn meal and yams and something called millet. Their traditional costume was a leather thong across the crotch. I left the book open-faced on a table and walked out without thanking the librarian."

When Barry is ten, his father returns to Hawaii to visit. He is tall, slender, and frail, bespectacled and limping--not a prince at all. The month he spends is to be their only time together--his father died in a car crash in Kenya a decade later--and it is made brittle and uncomfortable by resentments and betrayals among the adults.

Obama's aching account of the visit ends, as is his wont, with an epiphany, but most of Obama's epiphanies are moments not just of clarity but also of disillusion. As he grows up one source of consolation after another runs dry. Many of these disappointments involve race, of course, and the degree of sympathy one can muster for the president of the Harvard Law Review in his various tales of woe will vary from reader to reader. But Obama is the shrewdest of memoirists. He won't let himself, or his reader, off easy. As a teenager he befriends Ray, another African-American boy who vents his authentic black rage between classes at their prep school, as the ocean breezes stir the towering palms overhead. This black rage was "the thing that Ray and I never could seem to agree on ...”

“Our rage at the white world needed no object, he seemed to be telling me, no independent confirmation; it could be switched on and off at our pleasure. Sometimes ... I would question his judgment, if not his sincerity. We weren't living in the Jim Crow South, I would remind him. We weren't consigned to some heatless housing project in Harlem or the Bronx. We were in goddamned Hawaii. We said what we pleased, ate where we pleased; we sat at the front of the proverbial bus. None of our white friends treated us any differently than they treated each other. They loved us, and we loved them back. Shit, seemed like half of 'em wanted to be black themselves--or at least Dr. J.

“Well, that's true, Ray would admit.

“Maybe we could afford to give the bad-assed nigger pose a rest. Save it for when we really needed it.”

The full truth about Obama's father turns out to be much sadder and more pathetic than he could have imagined. It's revealed at the end of the book, when our memoirist, now in his early twenties and having proudly reclaimed his given name Barack, travels to Kenya to meet his paternal grandmother and cousins, as well as his half-brothers and half-sisters whom his father has scattered around Kenya. By now Barack has shed his dependence on the myth of his old man, yet he still fumbles for some other consolation to steady himself and locate his place in the world.

The promises of religion ring false to him. Drugs and drink don't help for long. He's unlucky in love. Succumbing briefly to the pre-packaged racial alienation of the post-civil rights generation, he gives it up in the end, when he sees how the rage, genuine or not, destroys other black friends, including kids even more privileged than he. Marcus, for example, his best friend at Occidental and, for a while, an ambitious student until "he took to wearing African prints to class and started lobbying the administration for an all-black dormitory. Later, he grew uncommunicative. He began to skip classes, hitting the reefer more heavily. He let his beard grow out, let his hair work its way into dreadlocks." Marcus slips away. If black rage ever seemed a plausible approach to him, Obama's last glimpse of his friend, playing the bongos at a street fair in Compton, seems to foreclose the possibility: "Through the haze of smoke that surrounded him, his face was expressionless; his eyes were narrow, as if he were trying to shut out the sun. For almost an hour I watched him play without rhythm or nuance, just pounding the hell out of those drums, beating back untold memories."

One faith that he acquires early and never manages to shake, not completely, is his faith in politics. In Dreams, especially after he moves to Chicago to become a "community organizer," it's a particular kind of politics that appeals to him: localized, intimate, small scale, "grassroots," to use the cant phrase, a matter of the tenants association and the shop floor rather than the state house or the convention hall. Yet even this kind of politics has its misdirections and dead ends. The greatest pleasure of the memoir is the way Obama is always willing to let reality confound him and his reader. His writerly conscience never gives him a break: Just when you worry he's going to lapse into cliché--and, not incidentally, flatter his readers by allowing them to slip into a clichéd response--he pulls the rug out.

Often his good guys prove unreliable, weak, or corrupt, and villains are never quite as villainous as they seem at first, like the slumlord Barack leads into a legal trap: "There was part of me that wanted to warn him off. I had the unsettling feeling that his soul was familiar to me, that of an older man who feels betrayed by life--a look I had seen so often in my grandfather's eyes." Obama has the most essential of the writer's gifts: He has sympathy and fellow feeling; he never settles for seeing people from the outside in.

Once in a while, reading Dreams , I stopped to ask myself how it was that such a beautiful, exquisitely wrought book could fail to find readers on its first appearance ten years ago. I know, I know: Lots of beautiful, exquisitely wrought books fail to find an audience. I wonder, though, whether it might not have been a failure of salesmanship, or of a publisher's blinkered misreading. Even now some reviewers and critics insist that Dreams is essentially a racial memoir. And it is, I guess, in the sense that Anna Karenina is a meditation on the power of locomotives in czarist Russia.

Obama's themes are universal--far grander and more enduring than the difficulties of American race relations. His memoir is about the crosswise love between fathers and sons, the limits of ambition and memory, the struggle between the intellect and the heart. And what gives the book its special force is the writer's own sensitivity: He teases his themes only out of the experience of real human beings. He relies on the power of the particular. He shuns abstraction and the easy generality. The author of Dreams from My Father is after bigger game.

The game he hunts now, ten years later, is political power, and it was with an eye toward the White House that his second book was written. I say that the writer of Dreams disappears behind the pol of Audacity, but that's not completely true. He's still here. Barack Obama might be able to write a bad book if he tried hard enough, and there are signs in The Audacity of Hope that he's trying very hard indeed; but flashes of brilliance show through even so--in a physical description of the Illinois prairie, or a thumbnail sketch of President Bush in conversation, or a disarming moment of self-deprecation, as when he admits his happy acquiescence in reciting focus-group-approved bromides given him by his political handlers.

The real problem with The Audacity of Hope (aside from the portentous, meaningless title) is that Obama's gifts of observation and sympathy have been reduced to the realm of the political, and it's a bad fit. Already his habit of seeing every side of every question--the writerly habit that rescued his memoir from stereotype and cliché--has begun to frustrate many of his would-be allies. The liberal journalist Joe Klein, writing in Time , says he "counted no fewer than 50 instances of excruciatingly judicious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-handedness in The Audacity of Hope." Articles in the New York Review of Books and Harper's quote the book and fret over his tendency to "equivocation."

And there are points where the tendency does verge on self-parody. He proudly notes that he voted against the nomination of the perfectly unobjectionable John Roberts; then he proudly notes he wrote to the left-wing blog Daily Kos to attack its attacks on Democrats who had voted for Roberts. The book is a long self-advertisement for his own reasonableness, along with expressions of disappointment at the unreasonableness of everyone else: He's not only against John Roberts, he's against people who are against John Roberts.

The book opens with a kind of personal catechism: "Undoubtedly, some of these views will get me in trouble," he warns us. So stand back: "I insist that government has an important role in opening up opportunity for all," he says. "I believe in evolution, scientific inquiry, and global warming; I believe in free speech, whether politically correct or politically incorrect, and I am suspicious of using government to impose anybody's religious beliefs--including my own--on nonbelievers."

Had enough? Too bad:

"I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of government programs don't work as advertised. . . . I carry few illusions about our enemies, and revere the courage and competence of our military. I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally."

You can almost see the nostrils flare in self-congratulation. "I suspect that some readers may find my presentation of these issues insufficiently balanced." Unlikely.

The conclusions , though, are another matter. Those frustrated would-be allies like Joe Klein shouldn't worry. On one practical issue after another, at the end of long, tortured passages of chin-pulling and brow-furrowing, after the unexpected praise for Ronald Reagan and for the genius of the free market, the disdain for identity politics and for the overregulation of small business, there's never a chance that Obama will come down on any side other than the conventionally liberal views of the Democratic party mainstream. It turns out that much of his on-the-one-hand judiciousness is little more than a rhetorical strategy.

He tut-tuts over the simplistic caricatures that shape our politics--on both the left and the right, needless to say. He insists: "I know very few elected Democrats who neatly fit the liberal caricature; the last I checked, John Kerry believes in maintaining the superiority of the U.S. military, Hillary Clinton believes in the virtues of capitalism"--and so on.

Judicious readers might be more willing to take his word for it if this passage didn't follow one that claimed the "ideological core of today's GOP is . . . an ideology of no taxes, no regulation, no safety net--indeed no government beyond what's required to protect private property and provide for the national defense . . . a movement that insists . . . that a particular, fundamentalist brand of [Christianity] should drive public policy, overriding any alternative source of understanding, whether the writings of liberal theologians, the findings of the National Academy of Sciences, or the words of Thomas Jefferson."

An admirer of Dreams from My Father can only marvel at the crudity of passages like this. Has there ever been a better display of the destructive effects--the miniaturizing effects--of professional politics? For the only thing that separates the writer of the one book from the writer of the other is ten years of life as a politician. You're not ten pages into The Audacity of Hope before you begin to long for the writer of that earlier memoir--an artist, really--who never bragged of his contempt for caricature but still managed to demonstrate it on every page. Because Obama remains such an appealing figure, you want to wave him off (for his own good!) and to thrust his own memoir at him, and to remind him of a lovely passage on page 209.

In it he introduces his half-sister Auma to some old ladies he's befriended in his work as a community organizer in Chicago.

"They seem very fond of you," Auma said afterward. ... "Are you doing this for them, Barack?" she asked, turning back to me. "This organizing business, I mean?"

I shrugged. "For them. For me."

That same expression of puzzlement, and fear, returned to Auma's face. "I don't like politics much," she said.

"Why's that?"

"I don't know. People always end up disappointed."

(Andrew Ferguson, senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of the forthcoming Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America.)


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