Pity the poor authors whose books were released this week. Former president Barack Obama’s post-presidential memoir, “A Promised Land,” has rightly stolen the show.
Volume one, released Tuesday, is a 768-page doorstop apt for the moment, as history’s door stands ajar. While we await recounts, a presidential concession and the dark orbit of the COVID-19 pandemic, Obama’s latest memoir reminds us of where we’ve been and how we arrived as this crucial, democracy-mocking hinge in American history. Yet, even as he means to clarify and contextualize his decisions for future readers, one suspects that he’s trying to lend a moral order to his presidency for his own edification as well.
A lovely writer, Obama gives readers more than a mere recitation of events. He offers an insider’s peek into his thought process perhaps to make his decisions seem more palatable in retrospect. If readers could peek over the rim of his skull and watch the wheels turn, they’d likely be rubbing shoulders with Obama himself. He wants to understand how he thinks, too.
Having a third-person relationship with oneself can be helpful to a writer, if it doesn’t cripple him. Watching oneself do a thing can cause the thing to become something else — and then something else — and on and on, into paralytic infinity. Why, you can talk yourself out of most anything if you study it to its ultimate conclusion, which is, of course, nada. Obama’s well-earned reputation as someone who could overthink almost anything is one reason fellow writers, especially in the media, found him so fascinating. It’s also why progressives found him so maddening. Just do it!
We ink-stained wretches admired Obama’s thoughtful ways around a subject, his meandering along pathways of implication and possibility, culminating in a formulation that, often as not, would be punctuated with an ellipsis rather than a period. One could often see his mind working as he spoke.
If his speech at times felt halting, it was because of his care with wording. Presidents can’t afford a misspoken word for good reason — another one of those presidential memos Donald Trump never read. Trump’s supporters found his “honesty” refreshing, by which they meant, he’s saying what I’m thinking, no matter how ignoble my thoughts. When Obama speaks, he obviously chooses each word with great care. He understands his responsibility to the nation and the world by expressing himself so carefully that nothing is left to interpretation.
Obama is also well-read, which probably accounts for his skillful way with words. In his days as a candidate, columnist David Brooks interviewed Obama and waxed euphoric about his familiarity with Reinhold Niebuhr, the American philosopher-theologian.
Watching his recent “60 Minutes” book interview with Scott Pelley — or reading an excerpt in the New Yorker — felt like slipping into a warm bath. Obama’s natural elegance, contrasted to Trump’s bombastic bleats, provided a reawakening to our better angels and the higher truths that have been diminished or forgotten these past four years.
President-elect Joe Biden is no Obama, but he understands that the office of the presidency isn’t for showmen. How he governs, assuming he takes office in January, remains to be seen. But we’ve learned that governance isn’t only about policies; it’s also about the persona embodied by the president of the United States.
Obama says he wrote his book for a younger generation, but I don’t believe him. My guess is that he has many more chapters to write. Authors often say they write the books they themselves need to read. And for all his accomplishments and stubborn optimism, Obama is still haunted by his father’s dreams. How do I know? Next to boy-meets-girl, it’s the never-ending story of humankind.
Obama’s early losses, of his father through abandonment and his mother from premature death, are what propelled him to the summit. I spotted both engines in him long ago because I share them.
Perhaps with his memoir, he can finally put the ellipsis to rest. But I doubt it.