A Promised Land by Barack Obama assessment – behind the facility and the pomp | Books
L.Like the best autobiographers, Barack Obama writes of himself in hopes of finding out who or what he is. It is a paradoxical project for a man who is well known and adored, but this insecurity or insecurity is his motivating power and his most endearing quality. Born to a Kenyan father and Kansas mother, he grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, was educated in California and New York, and has a pluralistic personality. His mother Anglicized his first name by calling him Barry, although he liked to pretend it was a tribal epithet that identified him as a chief. As a candidate for the Senate, he admitted that he was “unlikely”; In the election campaign for the presidency, he revised the adjective to “bold”. Now, in this searchingly introspective account of his first term as president, he escapes the “power and pomp” of office, dissecting the “mismatched bits” that make it up, and thinking about his resemblance to “a platypus or platypus.” imaginary animal “after”, unsure of its dwindling habitat.
The book, he says, was handwritten because he distrusts the sleek sheen of digital text: he wants to reveal “half-hearted thoughts” in order to question a person’s first drafts. He distrusts his own eloquence as a speaker, even though it “unlocks a collective spirit” and leaves him a “sugar high”. He is bent over at his desk and has to do without these winged words and undergo a more reflective self-questioning. “Is it worth it?” Urges his wife, Michelle, as his political ambitions turn her quiet family life upside down. “When will it be enough?” she asks later. Obama, seeing himself through their eyes as “that weird guy with an unkempt closet and crazy dreams,” isn’t sure how to answer. After his election to the Senate, a reporter reverently asked, “What do you think of your place in history?” Obama replied with a laugh of disbelief. When told that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the question is more likely to turn to himself: “What for?” He says.
The success reinforces Obama’s suspicions of being a fraud: the crowd at his rallies diminishes him instead of boosting his ego because he knows they don’t see me “with all my flaws and flaws”. He resists “the constant exaltation of me as a symbol” because he knows that this hero worship is a betrayal of his belief that “change involves” us “and not” me. “To abuse us are illegal glimpses into the At one point he guiltily sneaked out onto the front porch of an apartment in Chicago to smoke while watching raccoons indulge in “bad habits” and rummage in the trash cans of his household. Much more painful, he feels “very ashamed “When a political campaign prevents him from his mother’s deathbed.
Even his idealism is assessed as a character flaw. “I got lost in my head,” Obama says of his student days, while at the White House “trapped in my own generosity.” He feels kind of intellectually disembodied and is warmed up by Hillary Clinton’s “good hearty laugh”. He explains that he chose the talkative, sociable Biden as his runner-up because “Above all else, Joe had heart.” Obama’s plaintive substitute for Biden’s happy hand is a collection of amulets presented to him by voters – a Las Vegas poker chip given to him by an Iowa biker; a heart of pink glass from a blind girl in New Hampshire; a silver cross from an Ohio nun.
“His Consolation”: Obama’s Air Force One Board in Chicago, November 2012. Photo: Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images
Despite these tactile memories, his inauguration begins a stealthy, shameful process in which he feels depersonalized and numb, alienated from those who have trusted him. Freed from traffic so that his armored limousine can drive unhindered, the streets of the city become eerie. His wardrobe in the White House clears him from life: the socks and shorts of this incorrigibly messy man are “folded and sorted like in a department store”. Aides mechanize the new commander in chief’s body language by teaching him to “give a proper greeting” with the elbow sticking out at a dramatic angle and the fingertips firmly drawn against his eyebrow. The simplest physical act – a signature, for example – now requires foresight. When signing laws, he must use a different pen for each letter of his name so that the monogrammed devices can be distributed as souvenirs. He expresses his personal condolences to the families of the fallen service members and pays special attention not to “smear the heavy beige paper with my left-handed side grip”. He is sadly aware that his autograph can never console the addressees of the letter for their loss.
For some of his followers, Obama’s election was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. A pastor who fought for civil rights in the 1960s says, “We are the Moses generation” and adds that “you, Barack, are part of the Joshua generation”; After being freed from bondage, Obama now had to conquer Canaan. Unsurprisingly, such expectations make him tremble with self-doubt, startled by a feeling of inadequacy. It does not help to say of Václav Havel, another liberator, that those whom he has inspired must become disillusioned. The politics that Obama is sniffing at as retail is increasingly dismaying or indignant, and he wonders whether his “selfless dream of changing the world” is just a reflex of intrusive imagination. His official acts are usually provoked by remorse. “I saw their plight as a reprimand,” he says of his impoverished Chicago voters. His trips to a military hospital to visit amputees or roadside bomb victims evacuated from Afghanistan are “a necessary penance”.
His consolation is his family. As a gawky, dreamy youth, he was “a Don Quixote without Sancho Panza”. In Michelle he found both his Sancho Panza and his Esmeralda – a grounded fortune teller, but also an object of worship with a “higher power” than the presidential veto. Your loving, humorous interventions are a joy. When his daughters Malia and Sasha complain during a trip to the zoo that Obama has become too recognizable for consolation, Michelle says any disguise will involve surgery to plug his ears. During a summit meeting in Moscow, the girls chat about a day when they visit dancers and puppet makers. Michelle urges her to soften her joy because “your father can’t have fun – he has to sit in boring meetings all day.”
With Bo, the first family dog, on March 15, 2009. Photo: Pete Souza / The White House
In his spare time, the prosaic dryness of Obama’s legislative troubles and diplomatic strife relaxes in poetry as he remembers “writhing Malia in her first ballet tights” or “watching Baby Sasha laugh while I nibbled her feet” and before “listening to Michelle” everything Breathe slowly, her head resting on my shoulder, as she fell asleep. “He is solemnly lyrical in his report on the permanently lit Oval Office, which shines all night“ like the rounded torch of a lighthouse ”. But he is even more fond of the seasonal flora in the White House gardens, and there is literal gravity in his interactions with the elderly nurses, “the silent priests of a good and solemn order.”
Gradually, however, a sobering philosophical change overtakes him. On his travels he notices the collapse of empires everywhere and fears that the imperial momentum of the American presidency will soon collapse. A private tour of the pyramids reminds him, like Hamlet’s conversation with the gravedigger, that “I and those I loved would one day turn to dust”; While walking along the Great Wall of China, he tells his bodyguard about the internal strife that toppled the Ming Dynasty and mocked this bulwark. Meetings with Putin make him realize that only “fear and fatalism” protect the Russians from “a cold landscape that forgave nothing”. Most alarming is his preview of fate as he drives through a swamp in Louisiana to investigate the oil spill after BP’s deep-water well was blown out: technology is helpless against “the ocean and the mighty river that flows into it.” Such far-sighted pessimism overshadows his inauguration as he recalls the swearing-in of George Washington in 1789. After the oath, Obama says: “The father of our country was free to see that America outlasted his term of office”. Wasn’t that the anxious task of all of Washington’s successors, at least up to the current incumbent, who seems to want the Republic to die prematurely?
At the book’s tight, excitingly narrated climax, Obama defeated two enemies in a single weekend. He sends out a team of commandos to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan while mocking Trump, who then perpetrated a slander that suggested Obama may have been born outside the United States, in an after-dinner speech in Washington became what would have made him ineligible to be President. Triumphant over bin Laden’s corpse is not allowed. Instead, Obama, who once jubilantly caught and killed a fly during a television interview, ponders ruefully that he might conjure up a sense of common cause in executing a terrorist, but not if he passes healthcare reform. He allows himself to enjoy Trump’s writhing discomfort over dinner, then has to admit that Trump “was a spectacle and that was a form of power”.
The look into the future, which is dealt with in the second volume of these memoirs, is unfavorable and confirms Obama’s demoralizing suggestion that no one, however charismatic or graceful he may be, can long assert himself against what he calls “dark spirits” designated. His politics always depended on a “community of faith,” a sacred sociology that upheld belief in the idea of community. Trump has chosen to look at the fault lines of society to fuel the internecine war, and the promised land is now ravaged by plague.
• • Barack Obama’s Promised Land is published by Viking (£ 35). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply