A president we can’t believe in

David Bromwich writes: I went to see Barack Obama speak in New York, in spring 2007, at a preliminary ‘sounding’ for donors and assorted others. This was a few weeks after he announced his candidacy, and the audience of a hundred or so, in a spacious Upper West Side apartment, were brought in close enough to let everyone have a glimpse. Impartial curiosity was the mood about Obama then. There was no fuss at his entrance; he shook a few hands, chatted with the friendly strangers, and stayed within himself. He talked for something under half an hour, and what we heard was an attitude more than a programme.

It was a bad time, he said. We had to get the country going in the right direction. The wars were taking a heavy toll and drawing us away from our responsibilities towards each other. He spoke fluently and agreeably, without passion. George W. Bush had lately ignored the advice of the Baker Commission to withdraw from Iraq, and had ordered the ‘surge’ of additional troops headed by General Petraeus; there was a feeling close to despair among the arts and media crowd in the room, but Obama mentioned none of that: you might have thought the year was 1992 and his opponent George H.W. Bush. What struck me was his proficiency at blending in. Yet his sense of crisis was impersonal and oddly minimal. A woman with a worried look said afterwards: ‘I’m not sure he’s what we need.’

The glamorous Obama who emerged in 2008 – the greetings to whole cities with a celebrity shout, ‘Hello, Miami!’, the faithful cry of ‘Fired up, ready to go!’: none of this seemed to fit the man we heard, though his 2004 convention address had given hints of another side that accounted for the loyalty of his warmer enthusiasts. But as it has fallen out, most of his presidency has been conducted in the style of that living-room talk. Ceremonial speeches like the State of the Union or the occasional solemn bulletins from the Oval Office or orations such as he offered after the Tucson shootings in 2011 have marked episodic returns to the grand style, but when you hear those speeches you wonder what office he thinks he occupies, and in what country. The dignified and commanding presentation suits a theatrical impulse that lies deep in Obama’s idea of his proper powers – an impulse he has always recognised, which, at most times in his life, he has taken great care to repress.

One reward of David Maraniss’s biography of Obama’s first 27 years is that it confirms a hunch about Obama’s self-invention. His vagabond life with a bohemian intellectual mother, and the charismatic and reckless father who went back to Africa, belong to an early childhood that the Maraniss book recalls in detail and others have explored too, but those years explain less than has been supposed. Young Barack was always cared for, and from the age of ten, his education saw a passage with apparent ease through elite institutions. The Punahou school in Hawaii is one of the top preparatory schools in the United States, Occidental College in Southern California is a small liberal arts school of high quality, and for his last two years Obama transferred to Columbia. By the age of 22 his ambition encompassed the presidency – a hope that emerged with matter-of-fact seriousness in a conversation with a New York friend. During his last year at Columbia, and at a low-level corporate job that followed, Obama brooded over his need to acquire a black identity – a sign was the copy of Ellison’s Invisible Man which he took with him everywhere. He had never thought of himself as black before. The two girlfriends of those years whom Maraniss has traced, and an unnamed third in his first year in Chicago, were white, and so were many of his friends.

Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father condensed several partners into one, and offered a scene of mutual alienation between the hero and his girlfriend over divided reactions to a play about black Americans. Here, Maraniss indicates, an incident from another time and place, with another person, was transferred for the sake of narrative economy. It went down more easily to have his temporary estrangement from white society follow a single arc with a single romantic foil. More generally, the data of Obama’s early years, Maraniss has found, are so stretched and tweaked in his memoir, the incidents and characters so altered and transposed that Dreams from My Father is best thought of as a ‘work of literature’ rather than personal history. [Continue reading…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email