Some reviews of Obama’s new book here. He’s got a scorcher of a comment on Sen Lindsey Graham, and deservedly so.
A PROMISED LAND
By Barack Obama
Barack Obama is as fine a writer as they come. It is not merely that this book avoids being ponderous, as might be expected, even forgiven, of a hefty memoir, but that it is nearly always pleasurable to read, sentence by sentence, the prose gorgeous in places, the detail granular and vivid. From Southeast Asia to a forgotten school in South Carolina, he evokes the sense of place with a light but sure hand. This is the first of two volumes, and it starts early in his life, charting his initial political campaigns, and ends with a meeting in Kentucky where he is introduced to the SEAL team involved in the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
His focus is more political than personal, but when he does write about his family it is with a beauty close to nostalgia. Wriggling Malia into her first ballet tights. Baby Sasha’s laugh as he nibbles her feet. Michelle’s breath slowing as she falls asleep against his shoulder. His mother sucking ice cubes, her glands destroyed by cancer. The narrative is rooted in a storytelling tradition, with the accompanying tropes, as with the depiction of a staffer in his campaign for the Illinois State Senate, “taking a drag from her cigarette and blowing a thin plume of smoke to the ceiling.” The dramatic tension in the story of his gate-crashing, with Hillary Clinton by his side, to force a meeting with China at a climate summit is as enjoyable as noir fiction; no wonder his personal aide Reggie Love tells him afterward that it was some “gangster shit.” His language is unafraid of its own imaginative richness. He is given a cross by a nun with a face as “grooved as a peach pit.” The White House groundskeepers are “the quiet priests of a good and solemn order.” He questions whether his is a “blind ambition wrapped in the gauzy language of service.” There is a romanticism, a current of almost-melancholy in his literary vision. In Oslo, he looks outside to see a crowd of people holding candles, the flames flickering in the dark night, and one senses that this moves him more than the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony itself.
And what of that Nobel? He is incredulous when he hears he has been awarded the prize.
“For what?” he asks. It makes him wary of the gap between expectation and reality. He considers his public image overinflated; he pushes pins into his own hype balloons.
Obama’s thoughtfulness is obvious to anyone who has observed his political career, but in this book he lays himself open to self-questioning. And what savage self-questioning. He considers whether his first wanting to run for office was not so much about serving as about his ego or his self-indulgence or his envy of those more successful. He writes that his motives for giving up community organizing and going to Harvard Law are “open to interpretation,” as though his ambition were inherently suspect. He wonders if he perhaps has a fundamental laziness. He acknowledges his shortcomings as a husband, he mourns his mistakes and broods still on his choice of words during the first Democratic primaries. It is fair to say this: not for Barack Obama the unexamined life. But how much of this is a defensive crouch, a bid to put himself down before others can? Even this he contemplates when he writes about having “a deep self-consciousness. A sensitivity to rejection or looking stupid.”
His reluctance to glory in any of his achievements has a particular texture, the modesty of the Brilliant American Liberal, which is not so much false as it is familiar, like a much-practiced pose. It brings an urge to say, in response, “Look, take some credit already!”
And then there are his biographical sketches, masterful in their brevity and insight and humor. Of the stone-faced Emily, a staffer on the Iowa campaign: “My charm and wit invariably crashed on the rocks of her steady, unblinking gaze, and I settled on trying to do exactly what she told me.” Vladimir Putin reminds him of the tough, street-smart ward bosses who used to run the Chicago machine. Also on Putin: “Physically, he was unremarkable.” Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh both come across as having a kind of impassive integrity. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has the manner of “someone who’s burned away frivolity and distractions from his life.” Rahul Gandhi has “a nervous, unformed quality about him, as if he were a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject.” Joe Biden is a decent, honest, loyal man who Obama senses “might get prickly if he thought he wasn’t given his due — a quality that might flare up when dealing with a much younger boss.” Chuck Grassley would “hem and haw about this or that problem he had with the bill without telling us what exactly it would take to get him to yes.” Sarah Palin had “no idea what the hell she was talking about” on the subject of governance. What Mitch McConnell “lacked in charisma or interest in policy he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness and shamelessness — all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power.” Nicolas Sarkozy, bold and opportunistic, has “his chest thrust out like a bantam cock’s.”
In a private meeting, Hu Jintao reads from stacks of prepared papers, so monotonous that Obama considers suggesting “that we could save each other time by just exchanging papers and reading them at our leisure.” Lindsey Graham is the guy in the spy thriller or heist movie “who double-crosses everyone to save his own skin.” Harry Reid is brusque and decent and honest. “You can win,” he tells a startled Obama long before Obama thought he could. And with characteristic Camelot charisma, Ted Kennedy tells him, “You don’t choose the time. The time chooses you.”
If Kennedy’s words suggest a sense of destiny, it isn’t clear how much Obama himself wants it. He is a conflicted and sometimes reluctant participant in politics, a man who feels increasingly lonely as the size of his crowds swells, an unlikely leader with both a bohemian distrust of established politics and a realist’s resignation to it. And how unlikely his political ascent. He attended the Democratic National Convention in 2000, invited by a friend, his fortune in tatters, unable to rent a car because his credit card was maxed out, barred from the convention floor because his credential was too low-rank. And then four years later he gave the keynote speech that ultimately propelled him to the presidency.
There is, from the beginning, a sense that he is above the muck of politics. In the Illinois State Senate, a colleague doesn’t pressure Obama to support a less-than-ethical deal, because “Barack’s different, he’s going places.”
Obama risks a lot to run for the U.S. Senate — Michelle objects because she likes their privacy, and because they have little savings which would further shrink if he stopped practicing law — and puts in much effort, and yet there is a sense that were he to lose, he would not be crushed. “I don’t think you’ll be unhappy if you never become president,” Axe tells him during the campaign. Perhaps it is that he wants to be president but does not need to be, that he is interested in power not for power’s sake but for what he might achieve with it, and that he would take any route that might bring about change, even if it did not involve accruing personal power.
This might be why, after eight years as president, he still comes across as a kind of outsider, writing about the political process as though he were not participating in it but merely looking in. His jaded description of the State of the Union address — the ritualized drama of it, no bipartisan clapping except for any mention of troops overseas — has an undercurrent of ironic humor, but one with a broken heart at its center. He wishes things were different. He wishes that Senate confirmations were not made difficult merely to embarrass the administration in power, that issues important to ordinary citizens were not overlooked because they do not have expensive lobbyists roaming the halls of Congress on their behalf, that senators were not bullied into voting a certain way, as Olympia Snowe was by Mitch McConnell, when he threatened to strip her of her committee ranking post unless she backed away from supporting Obama’s bill.
So obvious is Obama’s longing for a different way, that he admires the friendship across party lines of the old bulls of the Senate — Kennedy, Orrin Hatch, John Warner — which is lacking in the younger generation of senators whom he describes as having the “sharper ideological edge that had come to characterize the House of Representatives after the Gingrich era.” Bipartisanship is important to him — he wanted Bob Gates in his administration, to help push against his own biases — and there is a lingering sense that he thinks as much, if not more, of those he has not won over as of those he has.
Some progressives are disappointed in Obama for not delivering what he never promised to deliver, and he seems keen to address them, writing that the image of him as “starry-eyed idealist” was not quite accurate. His is instead a pragmatic idealism, influenced by his grandmother. “She was the reason why, even in my most revolutionary moments as a young man, I could admire a well-run business and read the financial pages, and why I felt compelled to disregard overly broad claims about the need to tear things up and remake society from whole cloth.”
It is also why, as president, he is cleareyed about the reality of governance. “I didn’t like the deal. But in what was becoming a pattern, the alternatives were worse,” he writes, words that might apply to almost every major decision he makes. It says something about Obama and about the complicated nature of his presidency that he is sometimes called anti-business by Wall Street and a friend of Wall Street by progressives. And in case anybody was wondering, he admires the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush for managing the end of the gulf war. He did not support the Iraq war but considers Afghanistan a war of necessity.
He writes that Republicans are better at fighting to win, and there is a wistfulness to his unstated longing for a similar sense of tribal loyalty on the left. When the public option was stripped from the A.C.A. bill because it would not pass otherwise, many Democrats were understandably furious. Obama expected that they would share his pragmatism, that they would understand that he had no choice if he wanted the bill to pass. He makes a convincing argument here for accepting the imperfect A.C.A., because social welfare policies like the Civil Rights Act and New Deal started off imperfect and were built upon. Why did he not, publicly and consistently, make this argument then?
But it is on the subject of race that I wish he had more to say now. He writes about race as though overly aware that it will be read by a person keen to take offense. Instances of racism are always preceded by other examples that ostensibly show the absence of racism. And so, while we hear an Iowan supporter say, “I’m thinking about voting for the nigger,” we see many nice Iowans who just care about the issues. The racist incident is never allowed to be and breathe, fully aired out, unmuddied by that notion of “complexity.” Of course racism is always complex, but complexity as an idea too often serves as an evasive device, a means of keeping the conversation comfortable, never taking the full contours of racism to avoid alienating white Americans.
Obama recognizes, during his run for president, that while special-interest politics — by ethnic groups, farmers, gun-control enthusiasts — is the norm in America, it is only Black Americans who practice it at their peril. To focus too much on “Black issues” like civil rights or police misconduct is to risk the backlash of whites. During the Iowa caucus, Gibbs tells Obama, “Trust me, whatever else they know about you, people have noticed that you don’t look like the first 42 presidents.” In other words: We don’t need to remind them that you’re Black. What goes unsaid is that were Blackness politically benign, then it should make no difference if voters were reminded of it. There is something so unfair about this and yet one realizes that the approach was probably the most pragmatic, the only way to win, much as pragmatic brings with it a foul smell.
During Obama’s presidency, I would often say, accusingly, to my friend and argument-partner Chinaku, “You’re doing an Obama. Take a damn stand.” Doing an Obama meant that Chinaku saw 73 sides of every issue, and he aired them and detailed them and it felt to me like subterfuge, a watery considering of so many sides that resulted in no side at all. Often, in this book, Barack Obama does an Obama. He is a man watching himself watch himself, curiously puritanical in his skepticism, turning to see every angle and possibly dissatisfied with all, and genetically incapable of being an ideologue. Early in their relationship Michelle asks why he always chooses the hard way. Later she tells him, “It’s like you have a hole to fill. That’s why you can’t slow down.” Indeed. Here, then, is an overwhelmingly decent man giving an honest account of himself. It is now normal to preface any praise of a public figure with the word “flawed,” but who isn’t flawed? As a convention it feels like an ungracious hedge, a churlish reluctance to commend the powerful or famous no matter how well deserved. The story will continue in the second volume, but Barack Obama has already illuminated a pivotal moment in American history, and how America changed while also remaining unchanged.