Steven Heller | Essays

A Month With President Obama

I spent last month, approximately three hours-a-night, seven-days-a-week, with President Barack H. Obama. Well, not personally, exactly, but avidly and devotedly reading his recent 700-plus page memoir, A Promised Land (Crown/Random House), at a steady pace of 40-50 pages-per-night. Then before turning out the lights, I’d read news stories, interviews, and reviews that when taken as a whole gave me an even greater appreciation of what the 44th president of the United States had gone through during his early period in office. In fact, my esteem is probably more acute than if we were locked up in a room together. I had personally met, albeit briefly, candidates John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson (when I was ten years old), Bill Clinton (at a White House gathering during the late 90s) and Michelle Obama (in 2011) and, believe me, being in the company of truly charismatic luminaries trumps any other celebrity encounter. Finishing A Promised Land makes me yearn to actually meet President Obama all the more.

He is a natural storyteller and his stories are, for the most part, snapshots of unvarnished history. His prose is vivid, witty, self-effacing, unpretentious, and detailed. So impressively detailed, based on meticulous notes, diaries, journals, Google, and memories, it took him four years to write (longer than any other U.S. President, reported The New York Times) because he insisted on authoring it entirely himself (in long-hand on legal paper). And this is just part one: Ending on a dramatic chapter about Osama Ben Laden’s capture, which like all the other chapters, is elegantly woven between recollections of family life and world concerns and crises filled with the joys, anxieties, and disappointments experienced in real time. If this sounds like standard material for any memoir or autobiography, I assure you this is on a higher level than other presidential histories that I’ve read. While he deftly protects national security and respects the privacies of friend and foe alike, the reader does not miss a thing. President Obama does not skimp on critical analysis of himself or others (there is no mystery who earns respect and who does not) or on how world and national affairs behind the scenes played out.

For instance, he strongly opposed George W. Bush’s war in Iraq yet nonetheless writes about him with the deference due his predecessor and former president (and is especially grateful for the Bush family’s generosity during the transition period and after). While he does not entirely pull punches when mentioning Vice-President Dick Cheney or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for their misguided blunders, he tempers his criticism with language befitting his office. Obama is bi-partisan in his praise and reproach for others; yet is much quicker to blame himself for perceived missteps. This book, however, is not an apologia. Nor is it an obfuscation of truth. He admits to a delicate philosophical, political, and polemical balancing act. At times he confides being angrily stunned and sadly dismayed by the almost total absence of Republican cooperation. And spends considerable space on how difficult it was to negotiate stimulus relief, climate change legislation, and, of course, his historic Affordable Care Act. Read each chapter for yourself to understand how the complexity threatened to do great harm.

While he forgives, he is unwilling to entirely wipe clean the intense frustration he felt from the politicization of basic human rights on one hand, and unrelenting attacks on his personal life—religion, race, and beliefs—on the other. Instead, he writes of many issues with a fatalistic wit that makes the reader feel his pain but experience his calm. President Obama writes in a fluid manner that is designed to keep his readers from becoming angry by proxy. This book was not written as propaganda to stir up supporters nor divide partisan from non-partisan. Whether you love or hate him, those who make the investment to read this volume will doubtless have deep or grudging admiration for man who was devoted to this incredibly difficult job.

When the book landed as a gift on my doorstep, my first thought was to regift it to someone worthy of the burden. I read a book-a-week, but one of the reasons I can is that I average 300-450 pages per book and no more, except for Tolstoy and Doestyevski when I majored in high school in Russian Lit; and mostly then I stuck to much slimmer works by Gogol, Turguenev, and Lermontov. I know I’ve missed quite a few important books that way—but there’s always the movie or mini-series. Diving into even 300 pages often feels claustrophobic knowing that as I turn each page, I’m getting deeper into a tunnel from which there is no escape, knowing I cannot turn back but must move forward to finish the first half (hopefully by then I cannot put it down) or feel guilty that I’ve squandered my time.

At 706 tightly packed narrative pages (not including a long acknowledgement and index) President Obama is skilled enough with prose so not a single page is a let-down. The story of Obama’s pre- and active presidential life is told so well—with passion, empathy, and intelligence—that it is the must-read book of this and next year whether you care most about politics, government social activism, love and marriage, international diplomacy, basketball, or America’s economic fragility. This is worth the time and effort, if for no other reason than to read a good book. It is not like reading the memoirs, autobiographies, or biographies of other presidents, who are preserving (manipulating) their official records for posterity. President Obama chronicles the facts and feelings with scholarship and grace. He eagerly explains who or what he is discussing rather than leave the reader in the dark. His work is particularly enlightening for those of us who recall the many crucial events he describes. Moreover, these are not packaged “then I did this, then I did that” memories but honest personal insights into often extraordinary relationships and interactions with staff, friends, colleagues, national and international leaders. Most important he shares why it was remarkable for him to serve the nation as the first African American President of the United States of America.

Posted in: Books, Politics

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