Friday, December 4

A Promised Land by Barack Obama Review: Behind the Power and the Pomp | Autobiography and memoirs


LLike the best autobiographers, Barack Obama writes about himself in the hope of discovering who he is or even what he is. It is a paradoxical project for a man who is universally known and idolized, but this uncertainty or insecurity is his motivating force and his most endearing quality. Born to a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother, raised in Indonesia and Hawaii, educated in California and New York, he has a plural personality. His mother changed his first name to call him Barry, although he liked to pretend it was a tribal epithet identifying him as a chieftain. As a candidate for the Senate, he admitted that it was “unlikely”; Campaigning for the presidency, he revised the adjective to “bold.” Now, in this introspective account of his first presidential term, he strips himself of the “power and pomp” of office, dismantles the “ill-fitting parts” that compose it, and reflects on its similarity to “a platypus or some imaginary beast.” “Unsure of its dwindling habitat.

The book, he says, was handwritten, because he mistrusts the soft glow of a digital text: he wants to expose “half-thoughts”, to scrutinize the first drafts of a person. He distrusts his own eloquence as a speaker, even though it “taps into some collective spirit” and leaves him with a “sugar rush.” Hunched over at his desk, he has to give up those winged words and submit to a more thoughtful self-examination. “Is it worth it?” Asks his wife, Michelle, as his political ambition turns his placid family life upside down. “When will it be enough?” ask later. Obama, who sees himself through her eyes as “this weird guy with a scruffy wardrobe and crazy dreams,” isn’t sure how to respond. After his election to the Senate, a journalist deferentially asks: “What do you consider to be your place in history?” To which Obama responds with an incredulous laugh. When you are told that you have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, you ask yourself the question more inquisitively: “What for?” he says.

The success intensifies Obama’s suspicion that he is an imposter: the crowds at his rallies diminish him rather than make his ego inflate, because he knows they are not “watching. I, with all my peculiarities and defects ”. He resists “the continued elevation of me as a symbol” because he knows that this hero cult is a betrayal of his conviction that “change involves ‘us’, not ‘me'”. To disillusion us, illicit glimpses of the private man are allowed. At one point, he guiltily hides on the back porch of a Chicago apartment to smoke as he watches raccoons, indulging in a “disgusting habit” of their own, rummaging through the garbage cans in his home. Much more painfully, he feels “great shame” when a political campaign keeps him from his mother’s deathbed.

Even his idealism is evaluated 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 pride.” Feeling somewhat intellectually disembodied, he is comforted by Hillary Clinton’s “good, hearty laugh” and explains that he chose the talkative and hearty Biden as his running mate because “above all, Joe had a heart.” Obama’s whiny substitute for Biden’s cheery demeanor is a collection of charms given him by voters: a Las Vegas poker chip given to him by a motorcyclist from Iowa; a pink crystal heart from a blind New Hampshire girl; a silver cross from an Ohio nun.

'His Comfort': The Obamas aboard Air Force One in Chicago, November 2012
‘His consolation’: the Obamas aboard Air Force One in Chicago, November 2012. Photograph: Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

Despite these tactile reminders, his inauguration begins a stealthy and mortifying process that leaves him feeling depersonalized, insensibly detached from those who placed their trust in him. Cleared from traffic so that your armored limousine can navigate unhindered, the city streets turn ghostly. His wardrobe at the White House takes him out of existence: This incorrigibly messy man’s socks and shorts are “folded and neat as in a department store window.” The aides mechanize the new commander-in-chief’s body language by teaching him to “say a proper salute,” with the elbow sticking out at a dramatic angle and the fingertips pressed tightly to the brow. The simplest physical act, a signature, for example, now requires foresight. When signing the legislation, you have to use a different pen for each letter of your name, so that monogrammed implements can be distributed as souvenirs. In sending his personal condolences to the families of fallen service members, he is especially careful, “careful not to smear the heavy beige paper with my left side grip,” miserably aware that his autograph will never be able to comfort the letter’s recipients. for your loss. .

For some of his followers, Obama’s election was the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy. A pastor who fought for civil rights in the 1960s says: “We are the generation of Moses” and adds that “you, Barack, are part of the generation of Joshua”; after liberation from slavery, Obama now needed to conquer Canaan. Unsurprisingly, those expectations leave you trembling with doubt, terrified by a sense of inadequacy. It doesn’t help that Václav Havel, another liberator, tells you that those whom he has inspired are destined to be disappointed. The politics, which Obama smells like retail, increasingly dismays or dislikes him and he wonders if his “selfless dream of changing the world” is nothing more than a reflection of conceit. Your actions in office tend to be triggered by pangs of conscience. “I felt his difficulties as a reprimand,” he says of his impoverished Chicago constituents; His trips to a military hospital to visit amputees or road bomb victims evacuated from Afghanistan are “a necessary penance.”

Through all of this, her comfort is her family. As a lanky and dreamy teenager, he was “a Don Quixote without Sancho Panza.” In Michelle he found both his Sancho Panza and his Esmeralda, a sincere who speaks the truth but also an object of adoration, who possesses a “higher power” than that of the presidential veto. Their loving and fun interventions are a delight. When her daughters, Malia and Sasha, complain on a trip to the zoo that Obama has become too recognizable for their comfort, Michelle says that any costume will involve an operation to clip his ears. During a summit in Moscow, the girls talk about a day they spent visiting dancers and doll makers; Michelle tells them to moderate their jubilation, because “your father is not allowed to have fun, he has to sit in boring meetings all day.”

With Bo, the family's first dog, on March 15, 2009
With Bo, the family’s first dog, on March 15, 2009. Photograph: Pete Souza / The White House

Off duty, Obama’s prosaic aridity of legislative tribulations and diplomatic squabbles relaxes into poetry as he remembers “tucking Malia into her first ballet tights” or “watching baby Sasha laugh while I nibbled on her feet. “and most of all,” listening to Michelle breathe slowly, her head resting against my shoulder as she fell asleep. “He is solemnly lyrical in his account of the permanently lit Oval Office, luminescent throughout the night” like the rounded torch of a lighthouse But still more tenderly appreciates the seasonal flora on the White House grounds, and there is a seriousness from Wordsworth in his exchanges with the elders, “the quiet priests of a good and solemn order.”

Little by little, however, a sobering philosophical shift takes hold of him. In his travels, he notices everywhere the decline of empires and worries that the imperial style of the American presidency will soon collapse. A private tour of the pyramids reminds him, like Hamlet’s colloquium with the gravediggers, that “I and those I loved would one day turn to dust”; on a walk along the Great Wall, he tells his bodyguard about the infighting that toppled the Ming dynasty and made fun of that stronghold; Meetings with Putin make him realize that only “fear and fatalism” protect Russians from “an icy landscape that forgives nothing.” Most alarming of all is his preview of doom as he drives through a Louisiana swamp to inspect the oil spill after the BP Deepwater well explosion: engineering is helpless against “the ocean and mighty river that flows into it “. Such clairvoyant pessimism overshadows his inauguration, as he recalls George Washington’s inauguration in 1789. After taking the oath, Obama says: “The father of our country was free to go ahead with the task of making sure America survived his mandate “. Hasn’t that been the arduous task of all of Washington’s successors, at least up to the current incumbent, who seems to want the republic to perish before him?

In the book’s tense and emotionally narrated climax, Obama defeats two enemies in a single weekend. He sends a team of commandos to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, while in a speech after dinner in Washington he ridicules Trump, who was then peddling a slander suggesting that Obama may have been born outside of the United States, thus would have become ineligible to be president. Triumphal rejoicing over the body of Bin Laden is not allowed. Instead, Obama, who once enthusiastically caught and killed a fly during a television interview, muses ruefully that he could generate a sense of common purpose by executing a terrorist, but not by passing health care reform. He lets himself enjoy Trump’s awkwardness at dinner, then has to admit that Trump “was a show and that was a form of power.”

The vision before us, which will be discussed in the second volume of these memoirs, is unfavorable and confirms Obama’s demoralizing suggestion that no individual, however gifted with charisma or grace, can long prevail against what he calls “dark spirits”. His politics always depended on a “community of faith,” a sacred sociology that defended faith in the idea of ​​community. Trump has chosen to select the dividing lines of society to foment internal war and the promised land is now plagued by pestilence.

• A promised land by Barack Obama It is published by Viking (£ 35). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply

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