Reading Barack Obama

The Illinois senator's two books explain his singular and visionary approach to politics -- but I still don't know if he can beat Hillary Clinton.

Published October 19, 2007 8:44PM (EDT)

I contributed to Salon's "All the Candidates' Books" feature this week, but I had more to say about Sen. Barack Obama's books. (I love having a blog; you can circumvent your editors.) Both books are must reading for anyone who cares about the Democratic primary. I thought I'd write a little more about them today because I find myself thinking about both of them often when sizing up Obama's presidential campaign to date, and whether he can beat Sen. Hillary Clinton. Today I'm wondering whether he'll join Sen. Chris Dodd in a filibuster to block telecom amnesty. (Obama opposes the bill, but hasn't said whether he'd join a filibuster. Still, that's more than Clinton has said; she hasn't yet taken a stand either way. I'll update this post if that changes today.)

I made the mistake of starting "The Audacity of Hope" with the expectations raised by raves for his first book, "Dreams From My Father" -- which I hadn't read. Don't do that. The exquisite and sometimes precious balancing act Obama models in "Audacity" can't be understood, let alone respected, without reading "Dreams" -- and fans of a certain kind of brutal, us vs. them politics will never respect either book. But "Dreams" makes Obama's faith in his singular power to reconcile harsh American polarities more admirable, even believable, because you get to watch the way he has done it in his own life.

Even with "Dreams," there's, well, audacity -- some might say self-importance, even entitlement -- to the undertaking: Granted, he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, but was that really enough to merit a long memoir by this young man, 32 at the time he wrote it, his career still ahead of him? But Obama, even that long ago, had a story worth reading.

For one thing, I realized, reading "Dreams," that I'd gotten the outlines of his background wrong: I saw his progress, from childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, fancy Punahou prep school, Columbia University and Harvard Law School; knew he was the child of academics, and sketchily, wrongly, perceived a childhood of privilege. "Dreams" makes clear his background was much more complicated than that, laying out the patchy, striving backgrounds of both his parents. I learned a lot from Obama's take on his white mother's side of the family, the way he tracks his grandparents' acceptance of their daughter's marrying a black man to their own willingness to leave their native Kansas for ever more different environs: Texas, Seattle and finally Hawaii. He notes the curiosity and openness to change and difference that often mark the white-race mixer, as well as a certain tendency to be a misfit in the buttoned-down white world of achievement.

His maternal grandfather was a dreamer and schemer, moving the family to Hawaii in search of opportunity, never quite conventionally successful. His grandmother quietly took on more of the traditional breadwinner role, rising to be a bank vice president while her sometimes-bitter husband took a larger role helping to raise young Barack. His mother was a smart-girl misfit, harassed for having a black friend as a child, determined to go away to college despite her parents' doubts; was open, available, naive and yearning for big change when she met his father; and raised her son to revere him after he left her to return to Kenya when the boy was only 2.

Most of "Dreams" is of course about his father, a goat-herder who got a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, met and married Obama's mother, and then took his education back to his family in Kenya -- including a spouse and children it's not clear Obama's mother knew about. He gets a job with the government as a finance minister, falls in and out of favor, drinks, loses his job, gets his job back and then dies in a car accident. At some point in that less than happy life, he comes back to Hawaii to visit his son when Obama is 10; they spend an uneasy Christmas break together. It's left to Obama to get to know his father with a trip to Kenya after he dies.

The story of Obama's Kenya sojourn is fascinating and the heart of the book -- he's embraced by brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, his father's other wives; he sees the legacy of colonialism up close. But what was most useful about the book for me was learning about his time as a community organizer in Harold Washington's Chicago. I hadn't known much about his work, but he did the unglamorous job of turning people out for public meetings and other rabble-rousing about education, jobs, safety, asbestos in public housing in Chicago's poor, mostly black neighborhoods. I liked his portraits of the black community activists he got to know, warts and all: saints and charlatans, harried bureaucrats, savvy, salt-of-the-earth resident organizers, bought-off functionaries, ineffectual race-baiting nationalists. Obama clearly sees race as the core issue but not the only issue in urban poverty today; he's got more than a notion of what to do to fix it, how hard it will be and why we nonetheless have to try.

As I wrote in the candidates' books feature, the issues that come alive in "Dreams," with real people and conflicts and stories and drama, are in "Audacity" too, but they're mostly flat and dull on the page. Obama is a really good writer, so the book isn't entirely a chore to get through, but I put it down halfway through the first time I started it. I was particularly put off by a trademark tic in his writing, and his thinking, in which he holds up two clashing constituencies and then tries to reconcile them: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals members and their critics; gun owners and gun haters; abortion supporters and opponents; Daily Kos readers and the Democrats they criticize. It's exhausting. It was only after reading "Dreams" that I had a full appreciation for this tic of Obama's, how it's the response to a life spent reconciling what the world says can't coexist. That doesn't mean it isn't still a little hard to deal with. "Audacity" feels as though it was written to show why Obama is ready to be president, but it had the opposite effect, on me anyway. I wanted real-life stories to illuminate the way out of our current political divide, the way stories from "Dreams" did for our racial divide, but Obama hasn't lived them yet.

I went into the early primary season assuming I'd vote for Obama, his landmark Boston Democratic convention speech having transformed my thinking about politics in 2004. But I'm not sure. He's starting to get tougher on Hillary Clinton, which the conventional wisdom says he had to do, but he hasn't found a galvanizing issue or role that sets them apart. Sen. Chris Dodd has taken extraordinary leadership to block the Senate FISA bill granting telecoms immunity for spying on American citizens without court orders, but none of the other leading candidates has come to his side yet. With Harry Reid signaling he'll ignore Dodd's "hold" on the bill, which is quite extraordinary, Dodd has promised to filibuster it. Will Obama support him? Will Clinton? I can see the foundation of either decision in Obama's books, frankly. He's got plenty of courage and vision; he's also got an enviable capacity to convince himself that the singular way he sizes up an issue is superior to the thinking of more conventional pols like Dodd. Stay tuned.

By Joan Walsh

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