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.
Buy Now on Amazon
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 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. 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!”
The rare moment when he does take credit, arguing that his recovery act made the American financial system bounce back faster than any nation’s in history with a similar substantial shock, has a dissonant echo for being so unusual. His self-assessment is harsh even about his first stirring of social awareness in his teenage years. He passes an adult judgment on his navel-gazing politics, labeling it self-righteous and earnest and humorless. But of course, it was; it always is at that age.
This tendency, darker than self-awareness but not as dark as self-loathing, seems to have fed in him something charitable, wholesome humanity, a deep generosity; it is as though he is both freed and ennobled by having dealt himself the severest hand. And so he is lavish with forgiveness and with praise, giving the benefit of the doubt even to those barely deserving. He makes heroes of people: Claire McCaskill voting her conscience for the Dream Act, Tim Geithner’s grace during the upheavals of the financial crash, Chuck Hagel’s principled support of his foreign policy. His affection for his first-term inner circle — Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs, Rahm Emanuel — is moving, as is the work culture he creates, of not looking for scapegoats when things go wrong. He makes a point of regularly reading the letters of ordinary Americans not just to keep abreast of the concerns of the electorate but to lift his own spirits and suppress his own doubts. On George W. Bush’s last day in the White House, Obama is angry to see protesters, thinking it “graceless and unnecessary” to protest a man in the final hours of his presidency. A lovely human response. But this being Barack Obama, self-indicter extraordinaire, he is quick to add that there is surely an element of self-interest in his position since he is now about to become president.
And yet for all his ruthless self-assessment, there is very little of what the best memoirs bring: true self-revelation. So much is still at a polished remove. It is as if, because he is leery of exaggerated emotion, emotion itself is tamped down. He writes exhaustively about the nuts and bolts of passing his landmark Affordable Care Act, but with an absence of any interiority. “I love that woman,” he says of Nancy Pelosi, after a phone conversation about the only way to bypass a Republican filibuster in the Senate — by passing the Senate version of the bill in the House. But we do not get anywhere near a measure of what emotional or even intellectual price he has paid for the many malicious Republican roadblocks which made that phone conversation necessary in the first place. “If I sometimes grew despondent, even angry, over the amount of misinformation that had flooded the airwaves, I was grateful for my team’s willingness to push harder and not give up,” he writes. And one immediately thinks: if?
The determined and deliberate Republican opposition to Obama feels astonishingly reckless in retrospect — members of Congress oppose bills they haven’t fully read, merely because they are Obama’s bills. It does not matter to them what the consequences might be for the country. One cannot help wondering if Obama imagines what his administration would have been without the Republican rancor. What if the billionaire conservative ideologues David and Charles Koch had not convened their sinister-sounding conclave of some of America’s richest conservatives with the singular goal of strategizing how to fight Obama? What if the Republican hostility had not shaped the way the media, and consequently the public, viewed his administration? That Obama himself uses the term “Obamacare” — which at first was a derisive term used by the right for the Affordable Care Act — is revealing in how much the right set the agenda during his administration. When he writes about realizing that it was not merely his policies that the Tea Party had demonized, but him personally, his sentences are edged with an elusive quality, something detached and impenetrable.
With foreign policy, he is less guarded. He even manages a kind of poetic jingoism, where nearly every criticism of the United States is mere preface to an elegant and spirited defense. In this sense Barack Obama defies the stereotype of the American Liberal for whom American failure on the world stage is not the starter course but the main. He is a true disciple of American exceptionalism. That America is not merely feared but also respected is, he argues, proof that it has done something right even in its imperfectness. “Those who complained about America’s role in the world still relied on us to keep the system afloat,” he writes, a reactionary position, as if it were innately contradictory to question America’s outsize role and also expect America to do well at the job it chose to give itself.
The highlight of the political memoir is the gossipy bit, the small detail that surprises or upends what we imagine we know. That rousing rallying cry of the Obama campaign, “Yes We Can”? It was Axelrod’s idea, which Obama thought corny, until Michelle said it wasn’t corny at all. Think of the iconic image of Jesse Jackson crying on the night Obama won the presidency. Here, we learn that Jackson’s support for Obama’s presidential campaign was “more grudging” than the enthusiastic support of his son Jesse Jackson Jr. And how odd, that the first family pays out of pocket for food and toilet paper. Who would have thought that it would be generals rather than civilians who counseled Obama for more restraint in the use of force throughout the eight years of his presidency? Or that he is actually a slow walker, with what Michelle called a Hawaiian walk, after so many images of him nimbly bounding up plane steps, striding across the White House lawn? Or, given his image of tireless discipline, that he is “messy” in that childlike absent-minded way that only men manage to be, knowing that someone will see to the mess. Someone usually a woman.
His loving friendship with Michelle sparkles in its solidity. He acknowledges the sacrifices she has made for him, and the pressures his political life thrust on her. When they first meet, she is “tailored and crisp, focused on her career and doing things the way they’re supposed to be done, with no time for nonsense.” She is also, briefly, his mentor. She is perhaps the reason, along with his grandmother and mother, remarkable and unusual women both, that he seems so genuinely alert to misogyny. He articulates the burdens women face, the double standards and unfairness, the contradictory impulses of a sexist world, with a fluidity and fluency that can oddly lead to a kind of resentment. It is like a beleaguered new mother in middle-class America, overwhelmed and leaking milk, who looks at her patient, helpful husband, and feels a burst of rage because what she wants is not his empathy but a new world in which his empathy is redundant. Here, at last, is a man who gets it, and yet that he so perfectly gets it feels like an affront. Is it a clever metaphorical take on gender role reversal that he frequently describes the physical looks of men and not of women? We are told of the handsomeness of men like Charlie Crist and Rahm Emanuel, but not the beauty of women, except for one or two instances, as in the case of Sonia Gandhi.
More practically, he hires women and intervenes decisively when female staffers complain of misogynistic behavior from male staffers, but because of his history with Hillary Rodham Clinton, one cannot help scouring his portrayal of her for larger lessons on his view of women as equal political actors. His respect for Clinton rings true. In his early Senate days, his team looked to her as guide and inspiration. Their goal was to be, as she was, a “workhorse and not a showhorse.” He writes that her crying in New Hampshire, so unfairly mocked in the media, was a “rare and genuine show of emotion.” He clarifies his statement during their debate — “you’re likable enough” — which was meant to show his disdain for the question itself, how women are expected to be nice in ways that men never are. And just as this exegesis is about to end satisfactorily, he writes that he considered Clinton as his running mate but decided it would be too complicated. One can imagine perfectly sensible reasons for this complication, but the one we are given? The awkwardness of a former president roaming the West Wing without a clear portfolio. She doesn’t get offered the job because of her husband.
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.”
📣 Bgs Raw is now on Telegram. Get the more latest news & stories updates, subscribe to us on Telegram & WhatsApp ... And this report was brought to by The New York Times, without a change in body, title has been edited