Barack Obama’s book

I have been reading Barack Obama's first book, Dreams from My Father — skipping rather rapidly through the second half of it because it was due to be returned to my public library and I didn't give myself time to read it properly, an omission soon to be repaired.  Many commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have been very considerably impressed by this book (written, of course, before 'Dreams From My Father', Barack ObamaSen. Obama launched his candidature for the Democratic Presidential nomination).  So was I.  It is a very striking chronicle of a deeply complex young man's journey from confusion and loneliness to self-knowledge and the discovery that he could relate the most unusual complexity of his ethnic make-up and upbringing to the state of the American nation and its future.  Joe Klein, himself no slouch in the political writing department, is quoted in Wikipedia as having written in Time magazine that Dreams from My Father "may be the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician." (Klein's article about Obama is worth reading in full.  But of course so are many others like it.) 

Many things about this book came as something of a surprise to me, despite my having already read so many articles about Obama (haven't we all?).  Although his Kenyan father spent relatively little time with Barack jnr. before his death, he has obviously played a major role in his son's voyage of self-discovery — bigger than I had realised.  So has Obama's awareness of the importance of Africa in his genes, and also his awareness that he differs materially from most other Afro-Americans in not being descended from slaves, in not having experienced the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, and in the immediacy of his African heritage.  There are other significant things that set him apart from a vast majority of other Americans, white as well as black and brown:  not least among them his upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia as well as in the US, and his lengthy visits to Kenya to establish relationships with his African relatives.  Such a cosmopolitan background, movingly and extensively described in Dreams, is evidently central to the person he has become, and it's so different from the American norm that his ability to inspire the empathy and affection of millions of ordinary Americans is the more remarkable. 

At the same time, Obama's qualifications for the highest American political office are also impressively mainstream:  Harvard Law School, editor of the Harvard Law Review, experience in the state Senate of a major State as well as in the US Senate, work as a community organiser in the most deprived areas of Chicago, a beautiful and brilliant wife and the obligatory pair of beautiful daughters.  He writes revealingly and movingly in Dreams about his controversial relationship with the radical pastor, "Reverend Wright" (or as we in the UK would call him, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright), convincingly putting that issue into a positive perspective. 

There are sixteen passages from Dreams on a website here which give something of the flavour of the book.  Whether or not Barack Obama becomes the next President of the United States, his book is obviously required reading by anyone who wants to know more about this remarkable figure, who has emerged so unexpectedly from outside mainstream American politics, marginalising in a few months the woman who for the past two years or more has been the front runner for nomination as the Democratic Party's Presidential candidate, and placing himself in pole position to be the first black President of the United States.

Who would have predicted even a year ago that the Presidency could be almost within the grasp of an American with an African father (and a Muslim grandfather), educated in a Muslim and a Catholic school, much influenced by an Indonesian step-father, who describes in his own memoirs how he was at one point in danger of becoming a drug addict, born and partially educated in the outermost margins of the US in Hawaii, a voracious reader of radical black literature (and much else) who was almost destroyed by the loneliness and isolation of his uniqueness but who came to develop out of that adversity an inspiring political personality as a unifier and reformer?  To quote the Guardian cliché, you couldn't make it up. 

None of this means that Barack Obama, if nominated and if (a much bigger if) able to defeat both the vastly experienced McCain and a mountain of racial prejudice, would necessarily turn out to possess the inner steel, physical and moral strength, ruthlessness and serpentine subtlety, required to be an effective liberal reforming President.  In conventional political terms, none of these qualities has been severely tested in the Senator's life and career to date.  But he has demonstrated unusual strength of character and determination in converting the experience of discrimination, apartness and loneliness into a vision of unifying reform and his special personal role in achieving it that just might change the world.  I started out as a supporter of Hillary Clinton who doubted if there was much hard-core political substance to her black challenger.  I have now come round to the view (confirmed by but not originating in Dreams from My Father) that if Barack Obama is not given the chance to show what he can do as President of the United States, it will be a kind of tragedy, not just for him, not just for the United States, but for all of us.  It will be a huge gamble, and one that might well not come off.  But it's a gamble that looks increasingly important to take. 

Update (14 May 08):  Please now read Jonathan Steele's important article in today's Guardian about Barack Obama and his likely foreign policies if elected President in November.   Steele writes of Dreams from My Father:

It's a beautiful book. One wonders whether any would-be US president has been so good a writer. More importantly, has any other candidate grown up with such a direct encounter with a country under massive political repression or seen the cynical face of the US empire? The Republican nominee John McCain accuses Obama of not having national security "experience", but what experiences do he or Hillary Clinton have which compare with Obama's? They were raised in the usual American cocoon of believing that the values behind the country's anti-colonial beginnings still guide its international behaviour. Obama, by contrast, knows the US has run a global empire for at least the past half a century. His mother taught him, he writes, "to disdain the blend of ignorance and arrogance that too often characterised Americans abroad".  [emphasis added]

Carl Lundquist's comment on this post (below) is also interesting reading, especially coming from an acknowledged Republican and McCain supporter;  so are some (but not all!) of the comments so far appended to Jonathan Steele's article in Comment Is Free. 


5 Responses

  1. Carl Lundquist/LA says:

    Obama is an impressive man indeed.    If, as is likely, he is the Democratic nominee, we are likely to have one of the most interesting campaigns in my memory.  Neither candidate is a normal politician  for his party, and both seem to have a low BS quotient.

    I would note one thing.  There is a definite racial factor in Obama’s leap to prominence but it works in his favor.   I have seen this factor working in my own city, Los Angeles, when we elected a black Mayor Tom Bradley.  People want a black candidate to suceed.   They looked at Obama back in 2004 with his speech to the Democratic convention and immediately became enthralled with the guy.   They flocked to his organization and revolutionized American politics with web based organizing and fund raising from millions of contributors.

    He will be a formitable campaigner in the fall and barring some disaster he may well be inaugurated in January.   He seems to have survived his October Suprise when he finessed the crazy preacher uproar.

    I say this in full realization that I am a Republican and a McCain fan.


  2. Carl Lundquist/LA says:

    They were raised in the usual American cocoon of believing that the values behind the country's anti-colonial beginnings still guide its international behaviour. Obama, by contrast, knows the US has run a global empire for at least the past half a century.

    Ah the dear old Graud.  I suspect that McCain's family had a pretty clear idea of the American imperium, they were a 3 generation US Navy family, the spearpoint of American miltary policy.   Furhermore McCain paid his dues in those efforts as few have.

    I would submit that if one checks out the policy statements of all 3 candidates, you would find difference only in the details.   While Obama was against the Iraq war at its inception, he was so on the cheap.  He was a state senator with no shred of responsibility for his opinion.   Clinton and McCain were US senators with votes that counted in that policy decision.   There is a world of difference there.  Obama was blovating, Clinton and McCain were voting.

    That said, I would urge Europeans to enjoy the race, but reserve their judgement.  The last US President that Europe fell in love with in my memory was Jack Kennedy.   When he assumed office his foreign policy efforts included the Bay of Pigs, an assassination plot on the life of Fidel Castro, being rolled by Khrushchev in Vienna, consenting to the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, and as a culmination of his efforts the coup against Diem and the Vietnam War which he passed on to Johnson as a legacy.

    Root for the man, but be wary — romancing politicians is a health hazard.

    Brian writes:  Man, that's some indictment of JFK!  I suppose Teddy K. might reply that his brother inherited the Bay of Pigs and the assassination attempt and that it would have been political suicide to cancel them;  that he more than made up for the Vienna encounter with Khrushchev by his masterly handling of the Cuban missile crisis (which I'm surprised to see you hold against him?); that he had no alternative to acceptance of the Berlin Wall (apart from starting a world war over it); and that towards the end of his life he was showing signs of disillusionment over the Vietnam war, and if he had had more time, as he was entitled to expect to have, he might well have moved to wind it up — see e.g. his speech to the American University just weeks before he was murdered, holding out a dramatic olive branch to the Soviet Union and plainly very much about Vietnam even though he never mentions the word.  However, your general warning is well taken. 

    By the way, your opening quotation is of course from Jonathan Steele's Guardian article, not from my blog post, as your reference to the dear old Graud (or Grauniad, as we usually call it over here) makes clear.  

  3. Carl Lundquist/LA says:

    Shoot Brian, I did not even get into JFK's domestic policies such as they were.  But as the old LA motto goes, that was then, this is now.  

    Now is Edward throwing his hat in the ring for a VP slot, for that is the most reasonable motive for the Grand Rapids fiesta.   There is a hat already in that ring — that of Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

    I do not know what Edwards would gain Obama.  Both are from the Senate.  Both are darlings of the upper middle class liberal actiivist Democrat.  Both have more than a bit of matinee idol about them and how many matinee idols does a ticket need?   

    Richardson appears a better complement.   Obama is very weak in Hispanic support and Richardson, despite the surname is the Hispanic governor of an Hispanic state.  Unlike Obama and Edwards, he is from the executive ranks  — Sec of Energy in the Clinton cabinet and decent US foreign service cred as Ambassador to the UN.   Matinee idol problems?  Not in the least, he would make Gordon Brown look like Lawerence Oliver — but more cheerful.

    All that said, the Demos will probably vote "None of the Above", so what do I know.  I do not even have the least idea who McCain will pick for VP.

    Brian writes:  How much more gripping can it get?  (What you say about that glamour-boy Sen. Edwards looks very plausible to me, and Richardson a much more likely bet.) 

  4. Peter Harvey says:

    JFK was extremely popular in Berlin with his Ich bin ein Berliner speech, but apart from that my mind has been running along the same lines as Carl’s (whatever next?) Obama is inexperienced in international affairs — as was Blair and look what that led to. I remember Alastair Cooke quite deliberately not including JFK in his list of all-time great US Presidetns

  1. 14 May, 2008

    […] Terry Flew wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptBarack Obama’s book ‘Dreams from My Father’ is an extraordinary chronicle of Obama’s progress from personal isolation to reforming vision: essential reading whether or not he wins the Presidency [More >>>] […]