We are gifted with a President who can write. A kind of chronicle of a president foretold, Obama beat any biographer to the punch in penning his first book, Dreams from My Father, nearly twenty years ago. I remember reading that book review, obliquely, noting in my notebook as a “summer read.”
I didn’t get to Dreams until November 2008, after the election, and I’m quite glad I waited. I think as a voter I would have been less critical of then-candidate Obama, colored by the insightful and poetic language, wooed by a writer who seemed aligned with my worldview, a black man who so aptly describes the experiences rather than policies that aligned with my politics. He did win me over: I got on a bus and knocked on doors in North Philly the weekend before the election.
The biography marketplace, as to be expected, is crowded with thick volumes trying to unpack the man that would become president to dissecting his marriage. Seems no one can figure this dude out.
Vanity Fair previewed a salacious chapter from Barry Obama’s high school days in David Maraniss’s Barack Obama, The Story. Here, Michiko Kakutani offers a closer read of this latest volume, noting:
Mr. Maraniss’s efforts to articulate an original, overarching thesis can feel forced. He argues that Mr. Obama was determined “to avoid life’s traps,” including “the trap of his unusual family biography” and the “trap of race in America, with its likelihood of rejection and cynicism.” As a result this book tends to be at its strongest when Mr. Maraniss uses his chops as a reporter to amplify what we already know from the president’s best-selling memoir (“Dreams From My Father”) and a host of earlier biographies and journalistic accounts. Once again we see a cool, calm, collected young man, his adaptability a product of growing up half-black, half-white in Hawaii and Indonesia. His detachment is at once a means of navigating those disparate worlds, “protective armor covering his determination to make a mark in the world,” and an emotional defense against growing up without a father and with a mother who parked him for years with her parents in Hawaii while she pursued a career as an anthropologist.
Obama’s own retelling of his story has obviously presented the most arduous challenge for any historian or biographer. He’s created a primary source; his own words supersede all others. The public can read a biographer’s work side by side and question his/her forensic reconstruction of events. Obama, we also know from the introduction to Dreams, admits taking poetic license in his rendering of his own life.
It works a little different in real time. Francine Prose offers a close reading of that epic NYT piece on Obama’s Secret Kill List:
Get Bin Laden dead? With its execrable grammar, its calculated thuggishness, and, for all that we have been reading about the assumption of personal responsibility, its euphemistic avoidance of what is really at issue (to get dead is not the same as to kill, and it’s never laws but people who get other people dead), the quote suggests a new dispensation in which our government, at the highest level, has given Tony Soprano license to ignore the rule of law and murder actual human beings, some of them harmless civilians. Shouldn’t we feel more frightened than reassured by the knowledge that the leader of our country holds himself accountable for every one of these deaths?
‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ Joan Didion writes in her essay, The White Album. Everyone is trying to get into this dude’s head, trying to unravel (perhaps marvel at) his ability to hold contradicting truths and reason his way to action.
Prose dissects the language and journalistic storytelling that the essay requires. She is alarmed (as am I) that the leader of our country holds himself accountable to these deaths outside our rule of law. Yet, I can’t help but acknowledge a darker truth, that in reading of Obama’s beginnings, his painstaking and labored reasoning between conflict and compromise that we couldn’t be more gifted with a mentally strong individual to weigh these things? Terrible things.
This is the story I’m telling myself in order to live. I don’t hold myself less accountable to that. I voted him in. Perhaps in our close reading of his beginnings, we’ll understand how he could lead and why he’d want to do it for another four years. And why I’d want him to?