A Promised Land (Barack Obama) -Reviews
America’s former commander-in-chief shares his character flaws and fears for the presidency in this poetic, introspective account of his childhood and first term in the White House
Barack Obama and Joe Biden ride together in the motorcade from the White House to sign the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, July 2010
Barack Obama and Joe Biden ride together in the motorcade from the White House to sign the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, July 2010. Photograph: Pete Souza/The White House
Like the best autobiographers, Barack Obama writes about himself in the hope of discovering who or even what he is. It’s a paradoxical project for a man who is universally known and idolised, but this uncertainty or insecurity is his motivating force and his most endearing quality. Born to a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, brought up in Indonesia and Hawaii, educated in California and New York, he has a plural personality. His mother anglicised his given name by calling him Barry, though he liked to pretend that it was a tribal epithet that identified him as a chieftain. As a candidate for the Senate, he admitted that he was “improbable”; campaigning for the presidency, he revised the adjective to “audacious”. Now, in this searchingly introspective account of his first presidential term, he divests himself of the “power and pomp” of office, disassembles the “ill-fitting parts” that make him up and ponders his similarity to “a platypus or some imaginary beast”, unsure of its dwindling habitat.
The book, he says, was written by hand, because he mistrusts the smooth gloss of a digital text: he wants to expose “half-baked thoughts”, to scrutinise the first drafts of a person. He mistrusts his own eloquence as an orator, even though it “taps into some collective spirit” and leaves him with a “sugar high”. Hunched at his desk, he has to renounce those winged words and submit to a more reflective self-interrogation. “Is it worth it?”his wife, Michelle, demands as his political ambition upends their placid family life. “When is it going to be enough?” she asks later. Obama, glimpsing himself through her eyes as “this strange guy with a scruffy wardrobe and crazy dreams”, is not sure how to answer. After his election to the Senate, a reporter deferentially inquires: “What do you consider your place in history?”, to which Obama replies with incredulous laughter. Told that he has been awarded the Nobel peace prize, he addresses the question more probingly to himself: “For what?” he says.
Success intensifies Obama’s suspicion that he is an impostor: the crowds at his rallies diminish him rather than causing his ego to balloon, because he knows they are not “seeing me, with all my quirks and shortcomings”. He resists “the continuing elevation of me as a symbol”, because he knows that this hero-worship is a betrayal of his conviction that “change involves ‘we’, not ‘me’”. To disabuse us, illicit glimpses of the private man are permitted. At one point, he guiltily skulks on the back porch of a Chicago apartment to smoke while watching raccoons, indulging a “foul habit” of their own, forage through his household’s rubbish bins. Much more painfully, he feels “a great shame” when a political campaign keeps 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 in the White House he is “trapped in my own high-mindedness”. Feeling somehow intellectually disembodied, he is warmed by Hillary Clinton’s “good, hearty laugh” and he explains that he chose the chatty, convivial Biden as his running mate because “most of all, Joe had heart”. Obama’s plaintive substitute for Biden’s glad-handing 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.
Source – theguardian.com