The Education of Barack Obama
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
By Barack Obama
Three Rivers Press, 1995, 2004
The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
By Barack Obama
Three Rivers Press, 2006
Obama: From Promise to Power
By David Mendell
When you peel back the layers of campaign narrative in any Presidential candidate you are bound to find some disquieting things; how instructive they are will depend upon the candidate. A full examination of John McCain’s twenty-five years in public life paints a sordid picture: a lying, opportunistic egomaniac who’s had quite a string of luck. Like McCain, Barack Obama has often ended up on the credit side of fortune’s ledger, but he’s harder to pin down. Part of it is time. His political career is over ten years shorter than his opponent’s, and he’s been on the national stage for less than four years. Obama has written two books (only the first is a straightforward autobiography) but they leave huge gaps in his timeline. His political voice opens space for dialogue, but it gives him room to maneuver as well. He is simply a vaguer character than his Republican rival.
Obama’s autobiography is the obvious place to begin, but be cautious. Many praise Dreams from My Father for its honesty (with which it seems to abound), and recommend it in part as a window into Obama’s thoughts before he became involved in politics. It’s an idea Obama has done nothing to discourage, but it’s a myth. As Ryan Lizza pointed out recently in The New Yorker, “Obama was writing ‘Dreams’ at the moment that he was preparing for a life in politics, and he launched his book and his first political campaign simultaneously, in the summer of 1995.” It would be more accurate to say that Dreams was written before Obama had any idea that his career would take him to the US Senate and towards the Presidency, an office he’d seen himself running for by the time he met his wife. When his first book was published, Obama was already a politician in mind if not in practice.
|Dreams from My Father is about personal as much as racial identity. Barack Obama was born on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, the son of a white woman born in Kansas and a black man born in Kenya. His parents, Ann Durham and Barack Obama, Sr., had married six months before and would separate in less than a year. Barack’s father would leave for Harvard University before he was one, and his mother returned to college a year later. She relied on her parents, as well as the food stamps mentioned so often on the campaign trail, to take care of Barack, Jr. Ann met Lolo Soetoro, a student from Indonesia, while studying for her bachelor’s degree, and they married four years later. Lolo was compelled to return to Indonesia; Ann and her son prepared to follow. Obama, Jr. makes much of the haze of youth.||
Barack Obama Sr. posing with his son
Reviewers often strike a note of surprise when confronted with Obama’s literary gifts, and one has to wonder why. We’ve had them before in our aspirants to the presidency: Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, even George Bush the elder’s diaries. Perhaps it’s the dearth of recent talent. We’re not going to get a masterpiece out of George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton’s memoirs were bloated, to put it mildly. What stands out with Obama is his novelistic flair (he dabbled in writing fiction, none of it published), and his clear prose style; he endears himself to his readers by making his personal thoughts and struggles accessible. The reader can project their own lives and thoughts onto the author. This feeling of empathy helps to explain the success of the book, and it helps to explain the success of the candidate as well. Obama does indeed have a gift for description. Here’s his arrival in Jakarta with his mother:
The road to the embassy was choked with traffic: cars, motorcycles, tricycle rickshaws, buses and jitneys filled to twice their capacity, a procession of wheels and limbs all fighting for space in the midafternoon heat…. Along the side of the road, wizened brown women in faded brown sarongs stacked straw baskets high with ripening fruit, and a pair of mechanics squatted before their open-air garage, lazily brushing away flies as they took an engine apart. Behind them, the brown earth dipped into a smoldering dump where a pair of round-headed tots frantically chased a scrawny black hen. The children slipped in the mud and corn husks and banana leaves, squealing with pleasure, until they disappeared down the dirt road beyond.
Obama spent four years in Indonesia, amidst the toil of a poor country emerging from war and entering decades of repression. He makes frequent use of his mother’s Midwestern roots, but she was actually, in his words here, an “unreconstructed liberal.” She was born in Kansas but moved at least five times before her eighteenth birthday, ending up in Hawaii by way of California, Texas and Washington. Ann Dunham (her father, in a Johnny Cash moment, originally named her Stanley) was “spiritual” but non-religious, she was against the Vietnam War, she married a black man, and her politics harkened back to the New Deal of FDR. These are not what you would call “heartland” values. Obama the writer describes them as “secular humanism;” Obama the candidate sticks with Kansas.
Lolo was a completely different influence. After marrying Ann, he’d been called back to Indonesia and drafted into Sukarno’s Army. The man who greeted Obama and his mother had hardened since they last saw him. He educated Barack, Jr. in the Manichean ways of desperate men, showed him how to behead a chicken and taught him rudimentary boxing skills. “Men take advantage of weakness in other men. The strong man takes the weak man’s land. He makes the weak man work in the fields. If the weak man’s woman is pretty, the strong man will take her…Which would you rather be?” “The world was violent, I was learning, unpredictable and often cruel,” Obama reflected.
Some of what is recounted here is questionable. Reporting by The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune contradicts Obama’s claim here (repeated on other occasions) that he learned Indonesian in “six months.” He claims to have made friends easily, but people remember him as someone who was quiet and who bore an unusual amount of childish cruelty from his age-mates. Partly this was because Obama’s neighborhood was predominately Muslim and he went to a Catholic school. He would later attend one that was mostly Muslim, though it wasn’t a Madrassa (and it’s a sad commentary on our times that he must assert this so vehemently). Of course he stood out ethnically.
On that subject too reporting has unearthed some questions. Obama claims to have had a life-changing moment one day while visiting his mother at work. He was leafing through a Life magazine and came upon a photograph of a black man who’d treated his skin with chemicals that promised to make him whiter. Instead they’d peeled off much of his flesh. Obama describes the article as an “ambush attack” that made him understand how different he was. But no such photograph exists in Life, and The Los Angeles Times, which interviewed dozens of people who knew Obama in Indonesia, thought it “surprising” that it would take a photograph to remind the young boy that he was different.
Ann had felt a growing distance from Lolo. One day Barack came home with a deep gash on his arm. Lolo didn’t take it too seriously and decided he wouldn’t drive to the hospital until morning. Ann drove to a hospital where the doctors didn’t take the injury too seriously either. They finished a card game they were playing before stitching the boy up. Ann, feeling apart from her husband and fearing for her son’s safety and the opportunities he would miss in Indonesia, decided to move back to Hawaii in 1971.
Obama, his mother and new baby sister Maya moved into a small apartment near his new environs, an elite prep school named Punahou. In his later years there, he struggled with his blackness, pouring over his thoughts with a similarly cynical and much more angry friend named “Ray”:
I was living out a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood. Yet at a time when boys aren’t supposed to want to follow their fathers’ tired footsteps, when the imperatives of harvest or work in the factory aren’t supposed to dictate identity, so that how to live is bought off the rack or found in the magazines, the principal difference between me and most of the man-boys around me…resided in the limited number of options at my disposal. Each of us chose a costume, armor against uncertainty. At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts…. It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn’t be a disadvantage. And it was there that I would meet Ray and the other blacks close to my age who had begun to trickle into the islands, teenagers whose confusion and anger would help shape my own.
He drank, smoked pot and occasionally did cocaine. “Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man.” In the end, he turned himself around somewhat, and was accepted into Occidental College, a liberal arts school in Los Angeles.
|Much of this narrative is contested as well. Ray’s real name is Keith Kakugawa, and he’s given conflicting accounts of Obama’s racial struggles. In Dave Mendell’s Obama: From Promise to Power, the only credible book extant on the candidate’s life, the author recounts an interview with ABC News, in which Kakagawa, of mixed race himself, describes Obama’s state of mind: “He wasn’t this all-smiling kid…. He was a kid that would be going through adolescence, minus parents, feeling abandoned and, you know, inner turmoil with himself. He did have a lot of race issues, inner race issues, being both black and white.” But then this, in an interview with The Chicago Tribune around the same time:|
He does recall long, soulful talks with the young Obama and that his friend confided his longing and loneliness. But those talks, Kakugawa said, were not about race. “Not even close,” he said, adding that Obama was dealing with “some inner turmoil” in those days. “But it wasn’t a race thing,” he said. “Barry’s biggest struggles then were missing his parents. His biggest struggles were his feelings of abandonment. The idea that his biggest struggle was race is [bull].”
Kakugawa was fresh out of jail for a parole violation, and he admitted to asking Obama’s campaign for money. He told the Tribune, “Listen, I’m homeless…I ask everyone I know for money.” Still, interviews with friends and teachers tend to back up the claim that Obama overstated his struggles with race, and his characterization of Ray as someone with “rage” at the white world he lived in has been universally described as inaccurate. Members of the small and informal group of black students at Punahou don’t recall hanging out with Obama, and his group of friends was diverse but mostly white. A white friend of his named Orme saw no hint of Obama’s racial struggles. “He never verbalized any of that…. He was a very provocative thinker. He would bring up worldly topics far beyond his years. But we never talked race.” Perhaps, as he moved on to Los Angeles, New York and eventually Chicago, he projected his feelings of displacement backwards. In these places his account of the struggle to form a coherent identity meets less opposition from the facts.
By the time he graduated from high school, Obama was being raised by his grandparents. His mother had gone to school again and then back to Indonesia for anthropological field work. He was intelligent, unsure of his identity to a degree that we can’t determine, and desirous of something great for himself. In that desire he received encouragement from his mother’s letters, and doubly so from his grandparents. They’d sacrificed a more comfortable living to put him through schooling his mother couldn’t afford, and in doing so had become examples of what he didn’t want to be. The life seemed to slowly drain out of them. He describes this in a sad passage from Dreams:
That’s how my grandparents had come to live. They still prepared sashimi for the now-infrequent guests to their apartment. Gramps still wore Hawaiian shirts to the office, and Toot still insisted on being called Toot. Otherwise, though, the ambitions they had carried with them to Hawaii had slowly drained away, until regularity – of schedules and pastimes and the weather – became their principal consolation…We didn’t go to the beach or on hikes together anymore; at night, Gramps watched television while Toot sat in her room reading murder mysteries. Their principal excitement now came from new drapes or a stand-alone freezer. It was as if they had bypassed the satisfactions that should come with the middle years, the convergence of maturity with time left, energy with means, a recognition of accomplishment that frees the spirit. At some point in my absence [while in Indonesia], they had decided to cut their losses and settle for hanging on. They saw no more destinations to hope for.
Obama won a full scholarship to Occidental, where both his ambition and identity would continue to slowly crystallize. At first,
To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism and patriarchy.
In those late-night debates, there were already hints of the talent Obama would show as a politician. In a New York Times article, a classmate recalls that “When he talked…people listened. He would point out the negatives of a policy and its consequences and illuminate the complexities of an issue the way others could not…. He has a great sense of humor and could defuse an argument.”
Obama became more serious during his sophomore year, taking dense philosophy courses, becoming involved with the Black Students’ Association and a campaign to divest funds from apartheid South Africa. He got his first taste of the allure of public speaking at a rally for the anti-apartheid campaign, where he played the role of an activist giving a speech in a piece of street theater. After a few opening remarks, white students dressed in paramilitary uniforms were to come on stage and drag him away. As it happened, after he got through his opening remarks:
I stopped. The crowd was quiet now, watching me. Somebody started to clap. “Go on with it Barack,” somebody else shouted. “Tell it like it is.” Then the others started in, clapping, cheering, and I knew that I had them, that the connection had been made. I took hold of the mike, ready to plunge on, when I felt someone’s hands grabbing me from behind…They started yanking me off the stage, and I was supposed to act like I was trying to break free, except a part of me wasn’t acting, I really wanted to stay up there, to hear my voice bouncing off the crowd and returning back to me in applause. I had so much left to say.
A bit of purple prose there, but his growing ambition is obvious. By Obama’s sophomore year he was finding Occidental too small and inconsequential a stage, and so he applied for a transfer to Columbia in New York City to finish the two remaining years on his degree. He wanted to find a community of blacks where he could “put down stakes and test my commitments.”
Obama didn’t find that in New York. There his lofty self-appraisal and diligent study habits would lead him to what Mendell describes as a “monastic existence, spending time alone in his spare Manhattan apartment and digesting the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Herman Melville and Toni Morrison, as well as the Christian Bible.” Obama recalls this period in an interview with the author: “I read everything. I think that was the period when I grew as much as I have ever grown intellectually. But it was a very internal growth.” Mendell also notes that “Obama’s intellectually elitist nature also began to sprout during this period, and he perhaps began taking himself a bit too seriously.” The statement ignores the adumbrations above, but there’s no doubt Obama’s ego was growing with his horizons.
There’s little about his New York years in Dreams from My Father and not much in Mendell’s book either. Obama lived off-campus, moving from apartment to apartment and familiarizing himself with some of New York’s ethnically Balkanized poor neighborhoods. Before he graduated (teachers recall him as a fine student) in 1983, Obama decided that he would become a community organizer. He recounts explaining this to his friends, and the reader can’t help but be struck by the irony:
When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.
When he received no replies from “civil rights organization[s],” “black elected official[s],” “neighborhood councils” or “tenant rights groups,” he took a job as a “research assistant” in a “consulting house to multinational corporations.” “Like a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan office and sat at my computer terminal.” Despite being promoted to a position with an office and secretary, he found the work unsatisfying and devoid of purpose, so he quit to find organizing work. Dan Armstrong, a co-worker with Obama at Business International Corporation, disputes Obama’s account of the company. A New York Times article reports Armstrong as writing this on his blog:
All of Barack’s embellishment serves a larger narrative purpose: to retell the story of the Christ’s temptation. The young, idealistic, would-be community organizer gets a nice suit, joins a consulting house, starts hanging out with investment bankers, and barely escapes moving into the big mansion with the white folks.
Obama did not have a secretary, the company wasn’t a consulting firm (it was a reference service and Obama wrote newsletters), and it was informal, with a young staff who called it “high school with ashtrays.” Armstrong also hits upon a recurring theme in Dreams; an idealist’s struggle with temptation and redemption. Over and over again we see it in the pressure to assume an identity, the pressure to do drugs, the pressure to make money. No doubt this self-conception glides comfortably into self-importance.
Searching for a job “closer to the streets,” Obama spent three months working for a Ralph Nader group in Harlem, whose goal, he writes in Dreams, was “to convince minority students at City College about the importance of recycling.” Members of that group dispute this, claiming that the work involved dealt with much more substantive issues. Three months of that and a week-long stint with a moribund local campaign and Obama, also dealing with news of his father’s death, was desperate. He eventually received a call from Marty Kaufman (real name Jerry Kellman), a Jewish man organizing black and white churches to save manufacturing jobs in Chicago. Kaufman needed a black face, and Obama fit the bill. He moved to Chicago a week later in the summer of 1985.
Outside of work in Chicago, he continued his monastic life. “Obama still kept a daily journal of his observations and emotions, still read philosophy and literature extensively and still led a rather isolated personal life,” according to Mendell. Organizing would prove to be a shock to Obama’s ego; his idealism was ill-suited to the occupation he had chosen, one that required moral compromise and pragmatism. And the South Side of Chicago did not receive Obama with open arms. His self-assurance, the belief that when confronted with this amazing dynamo people would rally to his banner, would be dealt a severe blow. More of this disappointment was to come in his political career, but here was the first time since his speech at Occidental that Obama would be slapped in the face with the knowledge that he couldn’t change the world by simply projecting his magnificence outwards.
He did, to his credit, learn from this experience. Tempering Obama’s hubris was a formidable intelligence honed by the observer status his isolation conferred upon him. He would run the Developing Communities Project, a church-funded group aiming to build a grassroots organization of the poor and disenfranchised. Obama would have to adapt to the realities of work “closer to the streets.” Kellman recalls Obama’s attitude upon arrival in an interview with Mendell: “You can’t go out there and do any kind of significant political work or organizing and be idealistic. And he was idealistic, almost ridiculously so. You know, it is in his nature. He was a dreamer.”
Several themes are important here. Obama the utopian was being educated in what could be “realistically” achieved, as opposed to what you could dream. This pragmatism carries on to his politics today, for good and for ill. It’s a perfect microcosm of why Obama is so difficult to figure out. His equanimity in dealing with disparate points of view can be politics, but it can also be the best way to get something done with the least amount of resentment on both sides. Obama was also beginning to recognize that shunting aside moral absolutes was necessary in achieving his goals. He was learning the ruthlessness he would occasionally display in politics. “Issues, action, power, self-interest. I liked these concepts. They bespoke a certain hardheadedness, a worldly lack of sentiment; politics, not religion.” There’s the Nietzsche.
Chicago was a crash-course in the difficulty and complexity of politics as well as organizing, and Obama would come out of the experience with knowledge about the urban poor perhaps unrivaled in the history of the Presidency. He learned through failure as much as anything else. Altgeld Gardens, the massive housing project where he did much of his work was a sad, broken place. Obama succeeded in organizing residents to get City Hall to open a job bank, but a campaign to remove asbestos ultimately failed after a promising start. Residents would join the campaign and then drift away. Obama left Chicago in 1988 and would return three years later to find the South Side, the violence and poverty, even worse than he left it. Obama hadn’t made more than a dent, but with his literary gifts he manages to convey the difficulty in prose both knowing and vulnerable:
These boys have no margin for error; if they carry guns, those guns will offer them no protection from that truth. And it is that truth, a truth that they surely sense but can’t admit and, in fact, must refuse if they are to wake up tomorrow, that has forced them…eventually to shut off access to any empathy they may once have felt. Their unruly maleness will not be contained, as mine finally was, by a sense of sadness at an older man’s injured pride. Their anger won’t be checked by the intimation of danger that would come upon me whenever I split another boy’s lip or raced down a highway with gin clouding my head. As I stand there, I find myself thinking that somewhere down the line both guilt and empathy speak to our own buried sense that an order of some sort is required, not the social order that exists, necessarily, but something more fundamental and more demanding; a sense, further, that one has a stake in this order, a wish that, no matter how fluid this order sometimes appears, it will not drain out of the universe. I suspect that these boys will have to search long and hard for that order – indeed, any order that includes them as more than objects of fear or derision. And that suspicion terrifies me, for I now have a place in the world, a job, a schedule to follow. As much as I might tell myself otherwise, we are breaking apart, these boys and me, into different tribes, speaking a different tongue, living by a different code.
Barack Obama, like his mother, was not religious. He’d been educated in religious school, and spent years organizing churches, but he was not a believer; his mother’s “secular humanism” still held sway. There’s a sort of pragmatism to his conversion from agnosticism and he acknowledges it, but he doesn’t explore its implications. In his second book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama recalls that “I came to realize that without a particular commitment to a particular community of faith I would be consigned at some level to always remain apart, free in the way that my mother was free, but also alone in the same ways that she was ultimately alone.” He chose Trinity United Church of Christ, the church of Pastor Jeremiah Wright.
Kenneth Walsh explains Wright’s style in an article for US News and World Report:
[Wright] belonged to a gospel-shouting tradition in many black churches of “signifying”—connecting with parishioners by linking religion to contemporary life and politics. He was dramatic and topical in part to attract young people to his version of the Christian tradition rather than Islam, which also had appeal to young blacks, to some degree because of charismatic leaders such as Farrakhan.
It was also a politically active church whose membership was more upscale than most of the black churches in Chicago. It counts politicians, Oprah Winfrey and the rapper Common among its parishioners. Obama was aware of this. Walsh: “Despite having little previous interest in religion, Obama joined Wright’s growing church in part to deepen what one friend called ‘a whole web of relationships’ in the community that gave him a strong political base and a well-connected mentor.”
What to make of Obama’s faith, that all-important prerequisite for the most powerful office in the world? The implication Obama doesn’t explore, or doesn’t explore publicly, is that he doesn’t necessarily believe all that he’s hearing; he likes the emotional drug of it, the sense of community and the way his membership in the church seems to root his identity through the sense of acceptance that church membership conferred. Obama wrote in Dreams that before he got religion, “I could no longer distinguish between faith and mere folly, between faith and simple endurance…. I remained a reluctant skeptic, doubtful of my own motives, wary of expedient conversion, having too many quarrels with God to accept a salvation too easily won.” He never seems to offer a successful explanation for his conversion. Dave Mendell had difficulty getting Obama to talk about his faith, an irony considering how much use the candidate makes of it on the campaign trail:
He was uncharacteristically short in his responses…. He told me that he referred to his Bible a “couple times a week.” “It’s a great book and contains a lot of wisdom,” he said simply. When I pried further, he said he was drawn to Christianity because its main tenet of altruism and selflessness coincided with his own philosophies. “Working with churches and with people of faith, I think, made me recognize that many of the impulses that I had carried with me and were propelling me forward were the same impulses that express themselves through the church,” he said.
These generalities appealed to him; what he makes of the details is a complete unknown. Obama is no biblical literalist and the church, with its activism, would fulfill political needs as much as salve personal ones. Here were the makings of a base he would draw upon when he entered politics in the mid 1990s.
After three years of organizing Obama was disillusioned with his lack of achievement, with the small ephemeral marks he was able to make. Mendell interviewed Bobby Titcomb, a friend from Punahou who visited Obama at the time and recalls him saying that “I just can’t get things done here without a law degree…I’ve got to get a law degree to do anything against these guys because they’ve got their little loopholes and this and that.” He was aware of the example of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. Washington had a law degree from Northwestern, and was able to affect great change before he died that year, still in office. Obama applied to Harvard, was accepted and traveled to Kenya for a month to explore his past before moving on to Cambridge.
Dreams from My Father ends with Obama’s trip to Kenya in the summer of 1988. It’s difficult – and this is no surprise considering our author – to discern the root of its inaccuracies. How much was self-serving and how much was for narrative’s sake? Here’s Obama in the introduction on the dangers of autobiography:
The temptation to color events in ways favorable to the writer, the tendency to overestimate the interest one’s experiences hold for others, selective lapses of memory. Such hazards are only magnified when the writer lacks the wisdom of age; the distance that can cure one of certain vanities. I can’t say that I’ve avoided all, or any of these hazards successfully. Although much of this book is based on contemporaneous journals or the oral histories of my family, the dialogue is necessarily an approximation of what was actually said or relayed to me. For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.
Most names were changed as well. How to judge? To take an example, Obama may have hidden the racial struggles of his youth from his friends, or he may have projected them backward from an older age, or he may have thought the story appeared better that way, or simply that he appeared better that way. Much the same holds true for the rest of the book’s inaccuracies, or misrememberings, or whatever. We could think of Dreams as the work of someone capable of both self-effacing honesty and ego-derived distortion; a Samuel Pepys/James Frey hybrid. One could keep guessing in this vein until the apocalypse.
There’s nothing in either of Obama’s books about his time at Harvard Law, where he began in the fall of 1988. He threw himself into his studies and graduated magna cum laude. He wrote articles for the Harvard Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review, was active again in anti-apartheid work, and served on the Black Law Students Association’s board of directors. Here Obama finally got the chance to practice the soaring oratory that would eventually make him famous. Mendell cites friends and professors who remember “fiery and inspirational speeches concerning the importance of cultures and ideas mixing on campus,” a “bridge-building approach” that was another anticipation of his political persona.
It was a fateful year for Obama. He would meet his future wife, Michelle Robinson, while clerking in a Chicago law firm over the summer. He would befriend Cassandra Butts, who would become a senior adviser to Representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri. And Obama would be selected for a spot on the Harvard Law Review, the most influential publication in the field. When he arrived, it was in the middle of what could only be called bitter partisan warfare, what Mendell describes as “fierce intellectual battles in classrooms, lunchrooms, at parties and, of course in the offices of the prestigious Law Review.” Brad Benson, a classmate of Obama’s and a future member of George W. Bush’s Justice Department, described the Law Review to Mendell as a place “populated by a bunch of would-be Daniel Websters harnessed to extreme political ideologies…Political rivalries and personal divisions inside the Review were just ridiculously bitter, given how little was a stake.”
In the elections to select the next president of the publication, Obama was one of 19 editors running for the position; about one quarter of the entire staff. Of all the liberal candidates (the majority of those running), Obama was the most palatable to conservatives, and when the last of them was eliminated from contention they threw their support behind him and tilted the election in his favor. He became the first black president of the Law Review, and this would garner his first appearance in the national media. Stories appeared in several newspapers, The New York Times among them. It was this publicity which would allow him to write Dreams from My Father.
Obama and peers of The Harvard Law Review, 1990
Obama gained a reputation for fairness. In the same interview with Mendell, Benson recalled that
Barack always floated a little bit above those controversies and divisions. Barack made no bones about the fact that he was a liberal, but you didn’t get the sense that he was a partisan–that he allied himself with some ideological faction…He was a more mature and more reasonable and more open-minded person. We had the sense, and I think it was borne out by the experience of his presidency, that he genuinely cared what the conservatives had to say…. He did show great political deftness as president…He made people feel generally included and valued and he got everybody in harness, working toward a common goal…. I remember marveling at the amazing set of interpersonal and political skills that he had.
Obama made good use of the abilities he’d gained as an organizer. And as he’d do in local and national politics, he disappointed many of the liberals and black students who thought he’d be on their side. He appointed some conservative as editors, a sacrilege to liberals who wanted to dominate and black students who felt underrepresented.
Of course, homing in on Obama’s specific political views is a fool’s errand. A New York Times article notes that “Surrounded by students who enjoyed the sound of their own voices, Mr. Obama cast himself as an eager listener, sometimes giving warring classmates the impression that he agreed with all of them at once…In dozens of interviews, his friends said they could not remember his specific views from that era, beyond a general emphasis on diversity and social and economic justice.” Fellow Law Review member Kenneth Mack recalls the appeal of his speeches: “It’s the inspiration of the speech rather than the specific content,” adding that “he is very hard to pin down.” A professor noted Obama’s diplomatic abilities and skills as a listener: “He can enter your space and organize your thoughts without necessarily revealing his own concerns and conflicts.”
As his time at Harvard wound down, Obama looked back to Chicago, and to politics. Harold Washington’s example (no doubt the devotion he received as well as the achievements he notched) drew him towards mayoralty, where he thought he could finally have the power to affect change, the power he lacked as a community organizer. But he wouldn’t run for office for another five years.
Upon returning to Chicago, Obama married Michelle Robinson. She’d quit her job at her old law firm and applied for one as an assistant to Valerie Jarrett, chief of staff to Mayor Richard Daley, Jr. Jarrett remains a close friend and advisor to Obama; it was the first of the important political connections he’d accumulate after his second stint in Chicago began.
Barack Obama didn’t run for elected office, but he postponed his law career and delved into local politics. He spent six months running Illinois Project Vote, a voter registration and education campaign targeting Chicago’s poor blacks. It registered about a hundred and fifty thousand voters and played a bit part in helping Bill Clinton win Illinois in 1992. In Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article, David Axelrod (Obama’s closest political advisor today – the two were introduced through a Project Vote supporter) notes that “He met people not just in the African-American community but in the progressive white community…. The folks who funded Project Vote were some of the key progressive leaders.” Obama spent his nights working on Dreams from My Father. After the election he went to work for the law firm Miner, Barnhill & Galland.
Obama practiced law for nine years but never handled a trial, working in teams of lawyers who prepared paperwork for the firm’s cases. Courtroom work wasn’t on Obama’s mind. Mendell explains: “It was Judson Miner himself who appealed to Obama…. Miner had been corporation counsel in Harold Washington’s administration…. From those days, Miner had a bevy of contacts in Chicago’s political circles. And as Obama had mentioned to friends and family, politics greatly interested him.” Miner’s firm was popular in the circles Obama ran in during his time at Project Vote, the base he was slowly building for himself.
Much of Dreams from My Father was composed on a computer in Obama’s new office at the University of Chicago’s School of Law. He’d received a fellowship there, fittingly on the recommendation of a conservative scholar who knew Obama from Harvard. Obama would teach there for twelve years and ascend to senior lecturer, a rarity considering his age. Among professors he made no close friends, and few could remember any specific policies he advocated or positions he held.
Obama lecturing at the University of Chicago Law School
When networking, however, Obama was direct and forthcoming. Abner Mikva, an experienced politician and an informal advisor to Obama’s presidential campaign, told Ryan Lizza that Obama “understands how you network. I remember our first few meetings. He would say, ‘Do you know So-and-So?’ And I’d say yes. ‘How well do you know him? I’d really like to meet him.’ I would set up some lunches.”
The main stumbling block was finding a race to enter. In 1995 Illinois state senator Alice Palmer announced her intention to run for Congress, and for her successor she chose someone described as “a well-connected attorney” by The Chicago Sun-Times. This was Barack Obama, and he’d been working diligently for three years to put all of his political stars into alignment. He had a good network of contacts, a strong base of urban blacks and rich lake-front progressives, and endorsement from the well-respected Alice Palmer.
There followed a bitter unraveling. Palmer was not doing well in the Congressional primary. Her candidacy was soon overshadowed by the star power of Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Emil Jones, a powerhouse of the Illinois State Senate. Her people asked Obama to step aside if she lost the race. Mendell:
After pulling together a campaign, Obama had no interest in ditching the effort. And he did not equivocate in expressing that sentiment to Palmer’s representatives. At thirty-four, Obama was eager for this next step in his evolution. This was, after all, a man who had mused to his brother-in-law a couple of years earlier that, hey, you never know, he might be the president of the country one day. Palmer, in Obama’s view, was reneging on an agreement that they had negotiated in good faith.
When Palmer lost the primary, she quickly filed to run against Obama for her old seat. There seemed little chance that he could win. She gobbled up most of his supporters, received the endorsement of Jesse Jackson, Jr., who’d beaten her in the Congressional primary, and had an enormous advantage in name recognition and manpower:
But Obama had one card up his sleeve. He could not envision how Palmer’s supporters, even as solidified as they seemed to be, had gathered the necessary number of voter signatures on the nominating petitions in such a short time. So a volunteer for Obama challenged the legality of her petitions, as well as the legality of petitions from several other candidates in the race…. Palmer realized that Obama had called her hand, and she acknowledged that she had not properly acquired the necessary number of signatures. Many of the voters had printed their names, rather than signing them as the law required. Palmer said she was desperately trying to get affidavits from those who had printed their names, but time was running out.
In the end Palmer and all of Obama’s other opponents were knocked off the ballot. He ran unopposed in the primary and cruised to victory in the general election. Mendell notes that
For Obama, that saga pointed up several things. Rather than winning a position in the Illinois General Assembly by ousting an incumbent or taking an open seat, he appeared to have slipped in the back door on a technicality. And by challenging Palmer…highly regarded in black political circles…he had left a bad taste in the mouths of many…influential people whom he would have to work with in the state capitol and in his district…. But most significantly, the whole episode showed that Obama was an extraordinarily ambitious young man willing to do whatever it took to advance not only his agenda of community empowerment but his own political career.
Barack Obama took office in January of 1996, and for four years he was a minor player, known to give policy-heavy and overly intellectual speeches. His options were limited; he was in the minority party the first six of his eight years in state office. But several things stand out. The new state senator kept up his habit of ingratiating himself with those outside the liberal spectrum. He formed relationships with several downstate (rural) legislators, joining their weekly card game. Obama noted that “the most important thing that you do in Springfield is you bring all sides of an issue to the table and you make them feel they are being listened to.” A Republican colleague praised him and noted that “members of both parties listened closely to him.” He was a key vote for Republicans and Democrats looking to squeeze out enough support to pass their bills. This low-key, behind the scenes approach often meant working to pass pieces of legislation he often wouldn’t take any credit for, though he did pass a campaign finance reform law – modest by the standards of any other state – that essentially brought Illinois up to par with the rest of the country in its restrictions on legalized corruption.
Networking was still important, and Obama even picked up golf, in business and politics the favorite pastime of the slick huckster. He also had something of a reputation for honesty, though you can put a cynical spin on it, as Ryan Lizza does. He quotes a Washington Post article by E.J. Dionne, Jr. in which Obama explains how money was replacing organization as the key to power in Springfield and Chicago:
A young Barack Obama…artfully explained how the new pinstripe patronage worked: a politician rewards the law firms, developers, and brokerage houses with contracts, and in return they pay for the new ad campaigns necessary for reelection. “They do well, and you get a $5 million to $10 million war chest,” Obama told Dionne. It was a classic Obamaism: superficially critical of some unseemly aspect of the political process without necessarily forswearing the practice itself. Obama was learning that one of the greatest skills a politician can possess is candor about the dirty work it takes to get and stay elected.
Obama brushed whatever qualms he had about this sort of patronage aside and acquired a few controversial backers along the way. He was less close to Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn – former members of the Weather Underground, a domestic terrorist group that operated in the 1960s – than he was to Tony Rezko, a developer with interests in Obama’s district. Rezko, famous now for his legal troubles, raised about ten percent of the money for Obama’s first race. They dined regularly and vacationed together at least once.
Much as John McCain’s corruption in the 1980’s taught him how to present himself to the public, Barack Obama’s loss to Bobby Rush in a 2000 primary race for the House of Representatives taught the young state senator how be a better politician. Rush had been in the House of Representatives since 1992 and lost terribly in an attempt to oust Chicago mayor Richard Daley, Jr. in 1998. Obama figured Rush was vulnerable, so he decided to make a run at ousting Rush in the primary.
Obama lost by 30 points. Rush was a veteran of the Civil Rights movement, an ex-Black Panther who was beloved by the black community. Obama was an outsider with ties to the suspicious University of Chicago, an island of the establishment in the heart of the South Side. Several fateful events contributed to his demise as well. Obama missed a key vote on gun control while vacationing in Hawaii, and Rush’s son was murdered in the middle of the race; the outpouring of sympathy that followed made an Obama win impossible. Hubris, too, made its contribution. “He allowed himself to believe things that weren’t believable,” Abner Mikva recently told the NewsHour. Obama, again convinced that his suitability was self-evident, walked into Mayor Daley’s office expecting an easy endorsement from Rush’s former opponent. But he got none. His campaign was poorly funded and as his pastor, Reverend Wright told him, “Barack, you didn’t have enough of the people in the party with you–you were kind of out there on your own.”
A dejected Obama attended the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, where a promising young black politician named Harold Ford, Jr. was giving the keynote speech, basking in his stardom and sounding a call for change: “I recognize that I stand here tonight because of the brave men and women – many no older than I am today – who were willing to stand up, and in many cases sit down, to create a more perfect union. I also stand here representing a new generation, a generation committed to those ideals and inspired by an unshakable confidence in our future.” Barack Obama, Jr. couldn’t get a floorpass; he left early and considered leaving politics.
There were strong forces pushing him in that direction. Money was tight and Obama had recently been appointed to the boards of several big-time non-profit organizations. His second daughter had just been born and after four years in the legislature he was still in the minority party, unable to have the power and effect he wanted. He chose to stay on and according to Mendell colleagues noted “a changed man, a more chastened figure” when he returned to Springfield. “Obama impressed his colleagues and friedns by putting his head down and diving back into the trenches of the General Assembly,” seeking out those with whom he’d had fractious relationships, “working to improve relations.” His patience and learning would be rewarded.
What had Barack Obama learned? He started to cut down on the verbiage, to speak more directly, to shear his speeches of some detail and inject more emotional and personal appeals. Mendell likens Obama to John F. Kennedy in this respect: “It might be hard to believe that JFK was initially a poor stump campaigner…. Kennedy, too was intitially viewed by some as a condescending elitist. But slowly…Kennedy learned the value of pleasing oratory and press-the-flesh connections with everday voters.” Obama would do the same, but other things were more important. Emil Jones, Jr., a powerful legislator and the most important ally Obama would make in Springfield, told Ryan Lizza that the loss to Rush showed Obama who his natural base was:
He learned that for Barack Obama it was not the type of district that he was well suited for. The type of campaign that he had to run to win that district is not Barack Obama. It was a predominantly African-American district. It was a district where you had to campaign solely on those issues. And Barack did not campaign that way, and so as a result he lost. Which was good.
The best voting coalition for Obama was not just black; in fact he did best with progressive whites, “lake-front liberals” in Chicago parlance.
Barack Obama would take note. Lizza details a visit Obama made in early 2001 to the Stratton Office Building in Springfield, where he entered an upstairs room Democrats had dubbed “the inner sanctum,” filled with computers and an enormous printer. Obama and Democratic consultant Jim Corrigan pulled up detailed maps of Chicago. Rush’s district had been drawn in 1990 by Republicans seeking to squeeze blacks into as few voting blocks as possible. Corrigan and Obama began to imagine what an ideal district would look like for the ambitious state legislator, one that skewed north out of the South Side and into booming areas under development by men like Tony Rezko; into the economic heart of the city and onto lake-front property.
2002 was another fateful year for Obama. Democrats would take control of the Illinois legislature, and a wiser, hardened, and more experienced Barack Obama would finally get a chance to wield real power. He got his dream district and the big donors that came with it. His friend Emil Jones became president of the State Senate and gave Obama important laws to pass, results to which his name could be attached. And he gave a forceful speech against the impending invasion of Iraq which went relatively unnoticed at the time, but would pay big dividends in the years to come. Many of Obama’s warnings would come to be seen as prophetic by a nation weary of war.
Almost immediately after the Democrats took control, Obama began seriously considering running for national office, and he set his sights on the US Senate. The winner of the Democratic primary would face the Republican incumbent Peter Fitzgerald, who’s maverick streak had alienated many in the state, including members of his own party. He was vulnerable and a Democratic challenger had a decent chance. Obama saw no alternatives. Rush looked to hold onto his House seat for a long time, and more senior members of his party were in line for statewide offices.
He had considered other options. Mendell writes: “Obama had interviewed for private sector jobs, as head of nonprofit foundations. But his restless soul and driving ambition had given him an intense fear of winding up in such a prosaic societal position – a nine-to-five office job that lacked excitement.” Jerry Kellman, Obama’s boss from his organizing days, noted a refrain that kept popping up in conversations with the young man, a fearful concern that echoes the sad appraisal of his grandparents in Dreams from My Father. “He always talked about the New Rochelle train, the trains that took commuters to and from New York City, and he didn’t want to be on one of those trains every day…The image of a life, not a dynamic life, of going through the motions…that was scary to him.”
Obama had been laying the groundwork for such a run for years, but assembling the support necessary to run for such an office was still difficult. He put out feelers to others in the legislature, and they seemed receptive. He held a small fundraiser so he could hire some staff. The most important contacts Obama made were with the fundraisers from his failed Congressional bid, people with contacts of their own. Some big donors got on board and this had a modest snowball effect.
Several things were still up in the air. He didn’t have top-tier political talent in his campaign. David Axelrod was offered a job but declined, telling Obama his hopes for statewide office were “probably unrealistic.” The biggest question mark was whether Carol Moseley Braun would try to return to the Senate; she’d lost that seat to Fitzgerald in 1998. She was well-known and enjoyed wide support among black and liberals, so Obama would be forced to step aside if she decided to run. Other candidates had begun to surface and Obama needed to put his name out there.
While he was on his annual Christmas vacation in Hawaii, Obama received a phone call from Illinois: Moseley Braun had decided not to run for the Senate, the first in a string of fortuities that would catapult the anxious state legislator into nationwide political fame. He announced his candidacy for the US Senate on January 21, 2003, entering a primary that already had three other serious contenders.
Pieces began falling into place. Emil Jones pushed Obama forward as the key sponsor for legislation he would brandish on the campaign trail, bills on health insurance for children, death-penalty reform, racial profiling and laws that benefitted labor unions. Obama’s fundraising increased, buoyed by the political coronators in his fancy new district. Perhaps most importantly, David Axelrod finally agreed to join the campaign after months of shopping around for a candidate. As much as anyone else, he would make Obama a better politician. Axelrod explains to Mendell:
“My involvement was a leap of faith,” Axelrod said. “Barack showed flashes of brilliance as a candidate…but there were time of absolute pure durdgery…. His speeches were very theoretical and intellectual and very long. But I thought that if I could help Barack Obama get to Washington, then I would have accomplished something great in my life.” …He urged Obama to think more in terms of people and their stories rather than pure policy…to “invoke more humanity in his speeches.”
“In a classic way he grew under the tutelage of the people he was meeting out on the stump and realized that he was internalizing their everyday concerns and problems and realizing what the whole was about,” Axelrod said. “It clicked in his head and he became a much better candidate over time.”
The front-runner at this point was Dan Hynes, a man with a well-connected family and ties to organized labor. But pro-labor legislation Obama had passed netted him the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union, with its hundred thousand employees in Illinois. More labor endorsements followed, and some momentum shifted toward Obama. Hynes’ lead then vanished as Blair Hull, an empty suit with a huge personal fortune, skyrocketed past him on the strength of a massive advertising campaign.
Obama made incremental gains as Hynes and Hull blasted away at eachother, splitting the rural white vote between them. In the last weeks of the campaign, Hull’s candidacy imploded in a divorce scandal, but Obama still had problems with name recognition.On Axelrod’s sage advice Obama had saved much of his money for a last-minute ad blitz that would prove incredibly effective. The theme of the TV campaign was “Yes, we can,” and the candidate found this sort of thing trite and unbecoming. The Barack Obama of today has made his peace with these sort of compromises. A win now seemed inevitable; Mendell notes that “polling was clearly headed in that direction, and suddenly you could feel something in the air when Obama appeared in public–a buzz in the crowd, a certain look of sheer devotion on the faces of his followers.” Opponents couldn’t figure out how to stop him. Attack and they risked alienating the black vote. Emphasizing themselves was an act of futility; they couldn’t match his charisma and star power. Obama beat his closest rival by 29 points.
National media began to take notice. The New Republic put him on its cover, The New Yorker offered up a big profile, the country’s major newspapers wrote stories about him. Funds from the Democratic party poured in. He beefed up his campaign organization, some of the new talent coming from his old connections to Dick Gephardt’s staff. Obama was becoming a household name.
In the general election, Obama’s opponent was Jack Ryan (Peter Fitzgerald had retired), husband to the fantastically proportioned Jeri Ryan, of Star Trek: Voyager fame. Blair Hull, one of Obama’s primary opponents, had sealed divorce files that ended up ruining him. So did Jack Ryan. Obama just sat back and watched the media pounce on Ryan, who apparently spent much of his marriage pressuring his wife to attend underground sex clubs. Ryan withdrew from the race, and the Republicans searched for a candidate, finally settling upon the articulate wacko Alan Keyes.
Meanwhile, Barack Obama was making new friends. John Kerry, the party’s nominee for President, had met him several times and was duly impressed. The Democratic National Committee offered Obama the Tuesday-night keynote address at their convention in Boston, but Obama and his team wanted the prime-time Monday slot, which the major networks would be carrying live. Not getting the segment they wanted, Axelrod and co. won more control over the content of Obama’s speech.
Obama arrived in Boston as a celebrity. Being given the keynote address meant that the party wanted to showcase someone they thought of as a rising star, as they’d done with Harold Ford, Jr. four years before. Mendell opens his chapter on the speech, perhaps the most famous political speech of the last decade, with a priceless series of quotes:
We must make the American people hear our tale of two cities. We must convince them that we can have one city, indivisible, shining for all its people.
-Mario Cuomo in his 1984 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention
We’ve been told that the interests of the South and the Southwest are no the same interests as the North and Northeast. They pit one group against the other. They’ve divided this country, and in our isolation we think government isn’t gonna help us, and we’re along in our feelings. We feel forgotten. Well, the fact is that we are not an isolated piece of the puzzle. We are one nation. We are the United States of America.
-Ann Richards in her 1988 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention
The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging alleigiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
-Barack Obama in his 2004 keynote address to the convention
Policy aside, there wasn’t then, and there really isn’t now, much that is new in Barack Obama’s message. All Presidential candidates, especially those running against an incumbent party, embrace the themes of unity and change. Obama simply delivers this message more convincingly than anyone else, including the “maverick” he’s facing today. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews: “I was shivering, it was so good.” Republican Jack Kemp called it a “fabulous speech” on FOX News. “Wow,” exclaimed a news anchor. Even the sedate Wolf Blitzer noticed the excitement, observing that Obama had “electrified this crowd here.”
Barack Obama trounced the goofily doctrinaire Keyes in the general election by 41 points. John Kerry lost to George Bush; the lack of a focal point for the Democratic Party would afford Obama the chance for more media coverage in the next four years, a period of time for which he had some ideas.
Obama debating Alan Keyes
Obama hired Tom Daschle’s top aide Pete Rouse to run his Senate office. Axelrod, Rouse, strategist Robert Gibbs and Obama got together and formulated a plan for the next segment of Obama’s career, imaginatively titled “The Plan.” It began with Obama getting settled in the Senate, learning names and faces, forming a political action committee to raise money for himself and others, and “turning down the volume on his publicity machine.” Obama netted an advance of two million dollars for a three-book deal, among them The Audacity of Hope, which would be by default a 350-page self-advertisement.
Hilary Clinton, in an interesting little irony, provided the model for his early Senate career. He worked cautiously to build relationships and avoided sponsoring controversial legislation; hewing the the center as it were. He worked with Republican Richard Luger on arms proliferation and voted for veterans benefits and ethanol subsidies. Obama voted to confirm Condoleeza Rice as Secretary of State, which he defended essentially on the grounds that she was less bad than Bush’s other advisors.
A trip to Africa provided the opportunity to witness some of Obama’s contradictions. The 2006 trip had been planned out over a year earlier, part of “The Plan,” and an effort to garner good publicity. He spoke out forcefully against the dangerous AIDS policy of Thabo M’becki, president of South Africa and a person who publicly questioned whether HIV led to the disease. It took some guts to criticize the leader of another country while you were standing in it. It took a strong stomach to do some of the other things he did. Antoinette Pieterson was giving Obama a tour of a museum dedicated to the Soweto uprising of the 1970s. The museum was named after her brother, the uprisings most famous victim. Mendell:
With media crews buzzing around them, Antoinette solemnly walked Obama along the museum’s exhibits. They gazed at photographs of Mandela and other images from the antiapartheid movement. When they reached the most dramatic moment of the tour, Obama knew exactly what to do. The two stopped in front of a wall-sized printo of the iconic photo of the lifeless body of Anoinette’s younger brother as he ws carried from the protest scene in the arms of another young man…In a “feel-your-pain” moment reminiscent of Bill Clinton, Obama slid his long slender arm across Antoinette’s shoulders and pulled her against his thin torso. She reached around his waist and pulled him tighter. The two lingered in front of the huge photo as flashbulbs feverishly flickered behind them. “That was the shot there, man,” the Tribune’s Souza observed. “Just a great shot, and Obama knew it.”
Obama arrived in Kenya as the most popular person in the country. He descends from the Luo tribe, one of the country’s larger ethnic groups, and huge crowds followed him everywhere he went. His much-publicized and haphazard visit to his family marked a stark contrast with the trip he took nearly two decades previous, a contemplative journey of self-discovery beautifully conveyed in the last part of Dreams from My Father.
Returning from Kenya, Barack Obama began to think seriously about running for President. He’d received widespread and adoring coverage in the media for the last year and many pundits and columnists were saying he should run. George Bush was widely unpopular, and the fall of 2008 looked to be a good year for the Democrats. If he didn’t run for the Presidency, Obama wouldn’t have another chance until 2016, ten years into the future. The Audacity of Hope was released a few months later in October, and Obama went on a book tour, appearing on every major network talk show, ending with an appearance on Oprah with his wife. It would reach number one on The New York Times bestseller list and go on to sell millions of copies.
Mendell thought the book “not nearly as raw” as Dreams:
After all, Audacity was a work from a man in his mid-forties who, by this time in life, had made concessions and reconciliations to an imperfect world, both for his own survival and his own advancement…much of the book wrestles with how a politician can hold on to his ideals [in Washington]…. In this way, for a book from a politician with presidential aspirations, Audacity was rather candid, and it again put Obama’s uniquely personal writing voice on vivid display.
Writing recently in The New Republic, Andrew Delbanco addressed one of the conundrums that defines the candidate: his appeal to boths sides of an issue and the little question of how much of it is genuine and how much is politics:
This is the writing of someone trying to map a route through a world where choices are less often between good and bad than between competing goods. Though it lacks the sensual immediacy of the earlier book, the language is open and unresolved, the sentences organized around pairs of sentiments or arguments that exert equal force against each other – a reflection of ongoing thinking rather than a statement of settled thoughts.
Just as important as the issue of honesty is the strength this method of presentation carries. Obama’s positions on most issues are decidedly liberal, but there’s often a twist on them that alters their appearance more than their content. Obama is for affirmative action, but he thinks that the government should tilt its focus away from race and toward class. Obama is for government intervention in the economy, but as a compliment as much as a constraint to free enterprise. He’s for government involvement in society, but promotes personal responsibility as well. These positions have an allure beyond their vague and inspirational qualities. They make policy discussions a question of balance rather than of opposition. In their vague, hydra-headed appeal they can seem to be tautologies. So in the eyes of opponents and voters disagreement with Barack Obama becomes a question of degree and emphasis; the attacks of his enemies are blunted.
If Barack Obama wins the coming election, we will not see a modern “Mr. Smith goes to Washington.” Life and politics have changed the idealistic boy who first said he wanted to be President in an essay written while he was in school in Indonesia. One wonders how a young Barack Obama, Jr. would have felt about that; if he believed that he could have gotten as far as the Presidency without making the necessary compromises: glad-handing rich and dishonest men, distilling long-held beliefs into empty slogans, crushing underfoot those who stand in your way, tossing principles aside for the sake of expediency. But it should come as no surprise to us that this is what we find in our politicians, what we find in abundance in our would-be Presidents. It should also be no surprise that intelligence, charisma, hard work and insight borne of detached observation have been the vehicles for ambition, Barack Obama’s true lodestar.
While Audacity soared to the top of the bestseller list, similar books from Hilary Clinton and John Edwards languished in relative obscurity. After the Democrats took control of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections, Obama met with his brain trust to discuss the Presidency. He tested the waters by visiting the early-primary state of New Hampshire, where donors received him favorably. In January of 2007 Obama announced that he was forming a presidential exploratory committee to consider his options. He’d been a US Senator for exactly two years, but the wind was at his back and there would never be a better time. Two months later, in 12 degree weather and in front of a crowd of fifteen thousand at Springfield’s Old State Capitol, Obama threw his hat into the ring.
Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.