February issue 2009
From Literary Beast to Political Animal
Even the greatest victory comes at a price. With Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the US Presidency, the world may have gained a political leader armed with a strong intellect, unmatched eloquence and sensible policy prescriptions, but it has lost a writer of rare talent.
Back in the mid-1990s, the book publishing industry thought it would be a good idea to commission every 30-year-old who had made something of his life to write a 500-page memoir. Amid the rash of self indulgent claptrap, Dreams from My Father, the life story of a rising star in Chicago politics, who had earlier become the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, stood out for its insight into race relations, family life and the struggles associated with living in modern America. A decade later, this talented author was on the verge of running for president. To introduce himself to the country, Obama produced The Audacity of Hope, an infinitely weaker and duller book than its predecessor that was careful not to offend any potential voter. A politician was born, and a writer lost.
With Dreams from My Father, Obama has said on multiple occasions, he intended to write a scholarly study on evolving race relations in the US, peppered with anecdotes from his life. As he began to write, the anecdotes dwarfed any academic thesis. And the book is far superior because of it. Obama has lived an unusual life; something which has been forgotten as the outlines of his biography have become increasingly familiar, thanks to the overheated media coverage of the presidential campaign.
The only son of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother, Obama was only two when his father left the family. By the time he was 18, Obama had spent four years in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather and another five with his grandparents in Wakiki. In between, he also managed a couple of months in Pakistan, where his mother was working at the time.
Dreams from My Father highlights the young author’s knack for drawing colourful personalities. The preeminent presence in the memoir is his maternal grandfather, Gramps to Obama, a World War II veteran who caught the small breaks when he needed them most, but was always caught in a futile search for the big breakthrough. The most devastating passage describes Gramps’s short career as a freelance insurance salesman:
“Sometimes I would tiptoe into the kitchen for a soda, and I could hear the desperation creeping into his voice, the stretch of silence that followed when the people on the other end explained why Thursday wasn’t good and Tuesday not much better, and then Gramps’s heavy sigh after he had hung up the phone, his hands fumbling through the files in his lap like those of a cardplayer who’s deep in the hole.”
Obama’s writing is also very effective at explaining the disillusionment, displacement and devastation he faced throughout much of his life. He explains his constant search for a true identity with the metaphor of his vanished father. In his imagination, his father has grown to truly mythical proportions. Obama tells his classmates that his father is an African prince, travelling in a golden chariot and leading a tribe that builds pyramids on the Nile. Then, one day, a librarian helps him find a book that mentions his father’s tribe, the Luo. His poetic prose rams home the disillusionment he felt. “The Luo merited only a short paragraph. The Luo raised cattle and lived in mud huts and ate corn meal and yams and something called millet. Their traditional costume was a leather thong across the crotch. I left the book open-faced on a table and walked out without thanking the librarian.”
The fairytale Obama has built around his absent father is shattered for good when he finally gets to meet his dad. The “builder of pyramids,” Obama is surprised to find, is actually a bespectacled middle-aged man with a pronounced limp. The reunion is bittersweet and short-lived. Family feuds ruin the moment and the elder Obama leaves, dying in a car crash soon after.
It is these moments of personal drama, and the epiphanies that occurred to Obama after he experienced them, that give Dreams from My Father its heft. Ten years later, with an eye on the White House, Obama wrote The Audacity of Hope, which shares many of the same attributes as his first book, but none of its attention to detail.
The biggest problem with The Audacity of Hope is also the biggest strength of Dreams from My Father: Obama’s habit of seeing every side to every issue. While this works well when tackling family issues, it isn’t half as effective when articulating political issues. A good example of his tendency towards on-the-other-handedness is the pride he takes in the role of judicial nominee John Roberts’ confirmation hearing. He takes great satisfaction in his vote to reject Roberts’ nomination but also notes that he ticked off those who were criticising Democrats who voted for Roberts.
The Audacity of Hope also highlights Obama’s tendency for unwarranted self-congratulation. At one point, he declares his courage in holding the views he does and then goes on to say that he supports competition, entrepreneurship, a strong military and gender equality. All these positions are so vague as to be virtually meaningless.
There is an illuminating exchange towards the end of Dreams from My Father, when Obama has a conversation about politics with his half-sister Auma. She says, “I don’t like politics much.” Obama’s reply: “Why’s that?” Auma says, “I don’t know. People always end up disappointed.” Obama’s presidency hasn’t even started and he’s already disappointed literary fans.
Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.