Breathtaking but a Scrappy Memoir

    03-Feb-2021
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In the stirring, highly anticipated first volume of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from a young man searching for his identity to leader of the Free World, describing in strikingly personal detail both his political education and the landmark moments of the first term of his historic presidency—a time of dramatic transformation and turmoil
 
-Ameya Kulkarni 


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A Promised Land Barack Obama, Crown, pp 768, Rs 1385
 
 
They say it is better to be lucky than smart—and better still to be both. Barack Obama is undoubtedly smart. But his rise to the presidency was also marked by instances, large and small, of good luck. Obama was fortunate to come of age in the aftermath of the civil rights revolution, when elite educational institutions, including Columbia College, where he received his undergraduate degree, and Harvard University, where he studied law, were actively recruiting Black students after many decades of racial exclusion. He had the ambition and talent to take full advantage of these opportunities. Fortune smiled on his early political campaigns. When he ran for the Senate in Illinois in 2004 his main opponent in the Democratic primary had his candidacy derailed when his wife went to court alleging domestic abuse. In the election that followed, Obama’s Republican opponent Jack Ryan withdrew when alleged that he had forced his wife to accompany him to sex clubs.
 
Obama was also lucky when he first ran for President. A few weeks before the election of 2008, the global financial crisis struck, not only inspiring a widespread desire for political change but revealing that Obama's opponent, Senator John McCain, had virtually no grasp of economics.
 
In a way, the 44th President of the United States has effortlessly built a narrative in this long presidential memoir, which covers only the first term in office that states he stayed true to doing right within the limitations he faced.
 
Obama is not a revolutionary. He is according to me “an ideological liberal with a conservative temperament”. When he became President, the U.S. was facing immense economic and geopolitical crises. The sub-prime crisis and the subsequent recession had a huge impact on the American economy. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were also not showing any sign of ending. Obama’s priority was to steady the ship. And to do that, one of the first things he did was to align himself with the Washington establishment.
 
He chose Clinton-era free-market economists to lead his economic team, whose primary job was to take the U.S. out of the financial crisis for which the same free-market policies were blamed. He chose Robert Gates, the Republican “Cold War hawk” who supported the Iraq war and was appointed by George W. Bush as Defence Secretary, to continue to run the Pentagon. Why? Because Obama wanted to end the “partisan rancour”. Recalling President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous reference to the “military-industrial complex”, Obama says he wanted to win the trust of the intelligence agencies and the military because “there was a high likelihood that pushing reform might be harder for a newly elected African-American President”.
 
Usually, the memoirs of political leaders read by me are focused on policy decisions and historical events. Typically, readers would also want that—details of events that shaped history. But Obama is not our regular leader. As the first African-American President of the U.S., the world's oldest democracy that had to fight a civil war to end slavery, Obama has a special place in history, irrespective of his politics and policies. And Obama tells his story from that special place. He’s not just giving a colourless account of his White House years. He has placed himself and his family in the crucible of history to tell the story of his personal and public lives and how they evolved, often with contradictions, over the years. He travels from the family to politics, from love to diplomacy and trust to judgments in beautiful, engaging prose and anecdotes. The historical examples and parallels he invokes while talking about his journey (“the seven-day trip of George Washington by barge and horse-drawn buggy from Virginia to New York City” or the story of the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office or Lincoln’s ‘House Divided’ speech) draw up the larger picture of the road the U.S. has taken over the centuries to reach where is it now.
 
Obama's thoughtfulness is obvious to anyone who has observed his political career, but he lays himself open to self-questioning in this book. And what savage self-questioning. He considers whether his first wanting to run for office was not about serving as about his ego or his self-indulgence or envy of those more successful. It is fair to say this: not for Barack Obama the unexamined life. But how much of this is a defensive crouch, a bid to put himself down before others can? Even this he contemplates when he writes about having “a deep self-consciousness. Sensitivity to rejection or looking stupid.”
 
His reluctance to glory in any of his achievements has a particular texture, the modesty of the brilliant American liberal, which is not so much false as it is familiar, like a much-practised pose. It brings an urge to say, in response, “Look, take some credit already!”
 
The rare moment when he does take credit, arguing that his recovery act made the American financial system bounce back faster than any nation’s in history with a similar substantial shock, has a dissonant echo for being so unusual. His self-assessment is harsh even about his first stirring of social awareness in his teenage years. He passes an adult judgment on his navel-gazing politics, labelling it self-righteous, earnest and humourless. But of course, it was; it always is at that age.
 
And yet for all his ruthless self-assessment, there is very little of what the best memoirs bring: true self-revelation. So much is still at a polished remove. It is as if, because he is leery of exaggerated emotion, the emotion itself is tamped down. He writes exhaustively about the nuts and bolts of passing his landmark Affordable Care Act, but with an absence of any interiority. “I love that woman,” he says of Nancy Pelosi, after a phone conversation about the only way to bypass a Republican filibuster in the Senate—bypassing the Senate version of the bill in the House. But we do not get anywhere near a measure of what emotional or even intellectual price he has paid for the many malicious Republican roadblocks which made that phone conversation necessary in the first place. “If I sometimes grew despondent, even angry, over the amount of misinformation that had flooded the airwaves, I was grateful for my team’s willingness to push harder and not give up,” he writes.
 
With foreign policy, he is less guarded. He even manages a kind of poetic jingoism, where nearly every criticism of the US is the mere preface to an elegant and spirited defence. In this sense, Barack Obama defies the American liberal for whom American failure on the world stage is not the starter course but the main. He is a true disciple of American exceptionalism. That America is not merely feared but also respected is, he argues, proof that it has done something right even in its imperfectness. But it is on the subject of race that I wish he had more to say now. He writes about race as though overly aware that it will be read by a person keen to take offence. Instances of racism are always preceded by other examples that ostensibly show the absence of racism. And so, while we hear an Iowan supporter say, “I’m thinking about voting for the nigger,” we see many friendly Iowans who care about the issues. The racist incident is never allowed to be and breathe, fully aired out, unmuddied by that notion of “complexity.” Of course, racism is always complex, but complexity as an idea too often serves as a mysterious device, a means of keeping the conversation comfortable, never taking the full contours of racism to avoid alienating white Americans.
 
The story will continue in the second volume, but Obama has already illuminated a pivotal moment in American history, and how America changed while also remaining unchanged.
 
(The writer is a Mumbai based columnist)