Monday, August 09, 2021

Barack Obama's "A Promised Land"


I confess that I came to Obama's new book with some ... grudges ... because of my disappointment in his presidency. He had excited me in 2007 and 2008 like few others, and I worked hard for his election. But what happened to him happened in Washington, already inhabited before Obama got there with hostile tribes invested with power. President Obama was too big a gentleman -- and too insecure -- to be the strong man sonofabitch I thought we needed in Washington. (Too many guys back in those days still thought "bipartisan" was a thing.) 

Obama was no pusher and shover. He was not LBJ. He did not capitalize on the veto-proof majority that came in with him in 2008 when he could have, and should have, and he got whacked anyway over what was actually a weak health reform. Yes, a weak reform like Obamacare wrecked the Congressional Democrats in the 2010 midterms. After that rout, Obama faced an overwhelmingly white and jerkily male political party -- the Eisenhower Republican Party having now purposely transformed into approximately the North Carolina Democratic Party of 1898. The big power muscles that Obama should have earned by right, by precedent, in that election of 2008 got rarely flexed and seemed to atrophy like any unused sinew. 

So I started reading "A Promised Land" (the first of what will be two volumes of autobiography), having previously psychoanalyzed my president endlessly and --need I say? -- to my utter satisfaction. I had decided that he'd spent so much of his life pleasing and negotiating with and around white people that he instinctively bent rather than risk a break. It's one thing to be the first Black president, at the putative top of the white world. It's another if you're always on a balance beam of racial doubt. Insecurity leads to hesitation, leads to getting rolled.

Obama readily admits to “a deep self-consciousness. A sensitivity to rejection or looking stupid.” Very early in the book, I encountered this:

...was I still trying to prove myself worthy to a father who had abandoned me, live up to my mother's starry-eyed expectation of her only son, and resolve whatever self-doubt remained from being born a child of mixed race? "It's like you have a hole to fill," Michelle had told me early in our marriage.... (p. 71)

I wanted to be neither a supplicant, always on the periphery of power and seeking favor from liberal benefactors, nor a permanent protester, full of righteous anger as we waited for white America to expiate its guilt. (p. 118)

...the constant need to soften for white folks' benefit the blunt truths about race in this country.... (p. 121)

In other words, I consider my prior diagnosis of Obama's cultural insecurity as essentially confirmed by the bits of autopsy that Obama generously performs on himself in written form. (My reading of "A Promised Land" will be superseded, I hope, by the eventual HBO mini-series. Have fun casting it in your head!)

His frankness and his insight made me occasionally laugh out loud:

...we [Black officialdom] had grown skilled at suppressing our reactions to minor slights, ever ready to give white colleagues the benefit of the doubt, remaining mindful that all but the most careful discussions of race risked triggering in them a mild panic. (p. 398)

He knows the name of the beast, but he will not let himself write "racist" (though he comes close):

It was as if my very presence in the White House had triggered a deep-seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted. Which is exactly what Donald Trump understood when he started peddling assertions that I had not been born in the United States and was thus an illegitimate president. For millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House, he promised an elixir for their racial anxiety. (p. 672)

I enjoyed all 700 pages of this big book. Obama was and is a good man, if ultimately scarred by his environment, and I like him better, respect him more, after reading "A Promised Land." He's a good writer. He's funny, he's generous, he's often aching with the pain of a toss-up decision he had to make, but he's a good father, and like any good father -- or like your most gifted professor of history -- he's great at explaining complicated stuff. His several pages on the long epic of the Jewish resettlement of Palestine totally engrossed me, for one example.

He's also self-aware in a way that might make any man insecure:

....they [my super-excited supporters in the early days of the campaign] had taken possession of my likeness and made it a vessel for a million different dreams. I knew a time would come when I would disappoint them, falling short of the image that my campaign and I had helped to construct. (p. 136)

That's a considerable irony, that the biracial man who'd "experienced what it was like not to be fully seen inside my own country," ends up the star of the show, in the spotlight and existing as a not quite accurate meme constructed specifically to lodge comfortably inside the heads of white liberals. 

No comments: