Reading Barack Obama

Writers overestimate the erudition of politicos. Alfred Kazin, watching with amazement at the number of poets and novelists cozying up to John F. Kennedy, suggested a sentimentality at work whereby writers, shunned by mass culture, suddenly find validation when a president has memorized one of their book titles.

I myself developed a fleeting crush on Barack Obama fourteen years ago after finishing Dreams of My Father. I couldn’t dump on its occasionally overwrought de-mythologizing. Reckoning with peripatetic youth by finding correspondences between his fractured self and the literature he absorbed, Obama positioned himself as a figure in an non-fiction bildungsroman. So indelible is the self-portrait that after his stunning victory in 2008 I couldn’t accept the degree to which he believed in the good intentions of the conservatives who sought to destroy his presidency from the moment John Roberts mangled the Oath of Office. Perhaps this egoist who didn’t take himself seriously assumed the force of his personality would overcome Joe Lieberman and Mitch McConnell.

Most likely, given what we’ve learned about him, Obama can’t bring himself to admit the dangerous fissures in an American experiment chary of democracy, comfortable with minority rule, hostile toward social programs, opposed to distributions of wealth unless they flow upward, and devoted to the notion that presidents like Barack Obama and people like the millions of citizens who voted for him are illegitimate. The former president strikes me as too smart — too erudite — not to be a closeted cynic, by which I mean, as usual, a curdled sentimentalist, disappointed if not embittered because the world functions by no manmade schema. Speculation, I’ll admit.

Reading about a dozen pages of Obama’s White House memoir A Promised Land at the local bookstore last weekend, I sighed as if by reflex on noting how the Public Man’s doublespeak had done little damage to his prose. I don’t believe George W. Bush or Bill Clinton could sustain a narrative, let alone understood its requirements, hence the carpentered prose by anonymous “researchers” stretching into infinitudes of white space. Obama says he wrote it by hand because technology raised the suspicions of this former Blackberry master. The bits I read boasted enough phrases betraying an alert sensibility to relax me; The Guardian‘s review praises examples like “the quiet priests of a good and solemn order” about the White House’s groundsmen. A New Yorker excerpt about the fight over the Affordable Care Act also augured good things.

How communities of color define masculinity remains a fraught topic, addressed by Obama in a manner that alarms Osita Nwanevu. In a typically lucid review, he puts Obama’s affinity for Hollywood archetypes in rather grim context:

Obama’s spiritual rendering of our cultural decline goes some way toward explaining why, beyond sheer egotism, he’s set on remaining an active narrator and promoter of his own story. The spiritual void that birthed our turn toward materialism and Trump as a popular icon might be partially filled, he supposes, by more positive role models. Reflecting further on Trump’s rise in his interview with Goldberg, Obama refers at one point to “the classic male hero” in the cultural milieu of his youth. “The John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter,” he said. “There was a code … the code of masculinity that I grew up with that harkens [sic] back to the ’30s and ’40s and before that. There’s a notion that a man is true to his word, that he takes responsibility, that he doesn’t complain, that he isn’t a bully—in fact he defends the vulnerable against bullies.”

Ironically, one of the first major fictional characters in our age of anti-heroes pursued the same line of thought. “Nowadays, everybody’s got to go to shrinks, and counselors, and go on Sally Jessy Raphael and talk about their problems,” Tony Soprano famously tells his therapist in The Sopranos’ pilot episode. “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings, he just did what he had to do.” Obama and Tony, similarly aged, share more than an interest in Old Hollywood. Both killed people; both convinced themselves their professions indemnified them from judgment on the basis of that fact. “The work was necessary,” Obama writes of his administration’s drone program, “and it was my responsibility to make sure our operations were as effective as possible.” Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, he notes, gave him an additional responsibility—“his new, liberal president couldn’t afford to look soft on terrorism.” Wayne, Cooper, Stewart, and even Eastwood—political reactionaries all—might have offered the same advice.

Nwanevu’s pointed ironies cut into the bipartisan kumbaya of which the president-elect remains fond and his former running mate has since rejected. “Biden’s always lacked Obama’s eloquence, but he’s ably performing here something Obama always excelled ⁠at—an attempt to mystify the forces at work in American politics, framed as a demystification,” Nwanevu writes. “The hard, stubborn reality we all ought to man up and recognize, Biden tells us, is that teamwork makes the dream work.”

Prophecy? We’ll know soon enough.

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