What Happened to Obama?

August Kleinzahler

  • Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
    Canongate, 442 pp, £12.99, September 2007, ISBN 978 1 84767 091 5
  • The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Barack Obama
    Canongate, 375 pp, £14.99, May 2007, ISBN 978 1 84767 035 9
  • Obama: From Promise to Power by David Mendell
    Amistad, 406 pp, $25.95, August 2007, ISBN 978 0 06 085820 9

Barack Obama, junior senator from Illinois and presidential candidate, passed through San Francisco last month during a three-day visit to California, the climax of which was an ‘exclusive’ fund-raiser at Oprah Winfrey’s estate in Santa Barbara County, expected to raise around $3.5 million. Winfrey is a good friend to have, whether you’re moving depilatories, novels or presidential campaigns, and Obama needs all the friends he can get: he is trailing Hillary Clinton nationally by nearly 20 per cent and is 30 points behind in California.

You’d think Obama would be doing better, particularly out here in California, one of the more progressive of the blue states, and where youth, good looks and fast celebrity count for a lot. But he’s not, and his appearance at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, after a $2300 per head reception and a Women for Obama luncheon, drew about 1500 people, leaving the room half-empty. Nor was his speech terribly compelling, making his usual points about inclusiveness and taking a fresh approach to the big problems like healthcare, rather than indulging in the usual Washington partisan gamesmanship. This was intended as a slap at Senator Clinton, although it would be easy not to notice. Obama is above ad hominem attacks, at least on the record. Obama is about a new way of doing business in Washington.

Barack Obama is tanking badly and appears to have lost the plot. He’s frantically selling an idea of himself that fewer and fewer people are buying. His appearances are becoming as hotly anticipated as another Barry Manilow Farewell Tour. This is a shame because Obama is one of the more remarkable politicians to appear on the American scene in recent years. He is extremely intelligent, well educated and, by political standards, a decent, altruistic and very capable man. He speaks beautifully in a rich, warm baritone. He’s terrific looking: handsome, tall, rapier-thin, athletic and graceful, a tailor’s dream. Few politicians are his equal in commanding a stage. And he is black. His chief adversary in the Democratic primary has the highest disapproval rating any major presidential candidate has ever had, and is mistrusted even by her natural constituency – white, educated, middle-aged, female registered Democrats – not to mention right-wing evangelical male yahoos in the red states who’ll be goddamned before they vote for some pushy left-wing bitch.

In March, Obama had drawn a crowd of ten thousand or so outside City Hall in Oakland, just across the Bay. Last winter Rolling Stones-sized crowds gathered wherever he went: in major cities like LA and Cleveland, middle-sized cities like Austin, and smaller places like Ames, Iowa and Concord, New Hampshire. Earlier in the summer his friendly, handsome black mug seemed to grace half the magazine covers on any rack. He seemed hotter and more unstoppable than Howard Dean had during the early part of the 2004 presidential primaries, before the press and electronic media decided to destroy his candidacy. Dean frightened people, the people who count: he was principled, stubborn and unpredictable. Obama doesn’t frighten anyone very much. He’s a pussycat even if he is black. That’s his appeal. Even if Clinton stumbled badly and Obama made it onto the ticket as the Democratic presidential candidate, no one would be terribly worried, not even the folks at the Trilateral Commission or the Bohemian Grove Club or the Hoover Institution. Barack Obama is sensible, cautious and tractable. Talented, sensible, cautious, tractable African-Americans can do well among the political elites in this country: ask Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice. But in any case Hillary Clinton is unlikely to stumble: she’s an alarmingly disciplined candidate.

Barack Obama first came to national attention when he gave the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston. He was a state senator at the time in Illinois and running for national office. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, a singularly drab and prevaricating man, had been much taken by Obama after appearing on stage with him in Chicago. Many were taken with him. He was the ‘It’ guy, the papers said so. It isn’t much of a speech, listening to it on YouTube after the fact and out of context. It’s worth having a look, however, if only for the quick camera pan to Charles Rangel, the 18-term black Congressman from the 15th Congressional district of New York, which includes Harlem, the Upper West Side and Washington Heights. He is smirking, regarding Obama like a crocodile gazing at a chicken McNugget. Rangel was one of those who encouraged Clinton to run for the Senate in New York. He is head of the House Committee on Ways and Means, which means that he holds the purse strings. Charlie knows where the bodies are buried and quite a bit else.

The Obama speech is political convention boilerplate, the usual feelgood-God-bless-America-we’re-the-greatest, with hammer and anvil parallelisms, antitheses, and the occasional chiasmus for spice. Obama gives it a multicultural twist, reprising the now famous story of his mixed-race background, modest upbringing and unlikely rise to the top of the ladder and the American dream, ‘a skinny kid with a funny name’.

Obama isn’t the usual African-American Democratic politician, a shrill, churchy, ambulance-chasing, in-your-face political extortionist like Jesse Jackson, or his less polished epigone with processed hair, the Reverend Al Sharpton. No, Obama is Harvard, good-looking, soft-spoken, accommodating, responsible, articulate. You could even tolerate your daughter dating him, at least for a while. ‘A fine boy, Melissa and I both really liked him. We’re truly sorry it didn’t work out with him and Janey.’

Apart from his convention speech and life story, Obama is best known for his early opposition to the war in Iraq. For this most cautious of politicians, his position on the war was a calculated risk, but a sound one. In the autumn of 2002, around the time Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and John Edwards voted to give Bush the authority to invade Iraq, Obama spoke at an antiwar rally in Chicago:

What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne. What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income – to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

It was a sound bet because it was obvious to any reasonable person with any knowledge of Iraq’s history what would happen. And it was a sound bet because Obama, then a state senator, represented an antiwar constituency of African-Americans and white, well-heeled Lake Shore liberals. If it was Obama’s bravest hour – and he hasn’t had a braver one since – it wasn’t all that brave: he was only a young member of the Illinois state legislature. Had he been on the Senate floor with Clinton, Kerry and Edwards he might not have been so bold.

The other thing Obama is known for is his memoir, Dreams from My Father, which was first published in 1995, four years after he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he was president of the Harvard Law Review, the first African-American president in its 104-year history. Obama was 33 when the book appeared. While he wrote it he was working on a successful voter registration drive on Chicago’s South Side, teaching constitutional law at Chicago, practising civil rights law at the firm of Miner, Barnhill and Galland, getting married and having children. His wife, Michelle (Princeton and Harvard), also African-American, working class, beautiful and quite wonderful by every reliable account, would, presumably, have preferred he hadn’t written the memoir, which he did late at night after everyone else was asleep.

The memoir bombed, but when it was republished after Obama’s 2004 convention speech with a new preface and the text of the keynote address, it sold more than 500,000 copies in two years. It made Obama a wealthy man. The Audacity of Hope, a collection of stump speeches glued together and tarted up, made him wealthier still, though it’s all chump change compared to the advances and royalties the Clintons received for their books. It’s a worthless book, but almost all such books are worthless, at least those written by presidential candidates who don’t want to say anything of consequence lest it come back to bite them. Serious presidential candidates seldom have interesting ideas, but voters aren’t really interested in ideas. They care more about how a candidate makes them feel about themselves and how he or she looks on TV.

The writing in the memoir is crisp and shapely: he can fashion a sentence and has a good ear. The scenes are well framed, often artfully so. Obama, by some accounts, had aspirations to become a novelist, presumably during his years as an undergraduate at Columbia, when he read a great deal, became politically and racially conscious, and transformed himself into the ascetic-looking Obama we recognise today. He had been rather chunky, but that look didn’t fit with his new idea of himself: intellectually serious, selfless, tireless, socially committed.

His story has become so familiar, at least in the States, that it’s approaching the folkloric status of George Washington and the cherry tree. The brilliant Kenyan father meeting the mother at the University of Hawaii, where her father had moved for a job; Obama Senior going off to Harvard to take his doctorate and then continuing back to Kenya, leaving Barack and his mother in the lurch; her second marriage to an Indonesian and Obama’s time in Jakarta, aged six to ten; Obama’s return to Honolulu, where he was brought up by his mother’s parents and, through a friend of his grandfather’s, accepted at the island’s elite private school, Punahou; his move to the mainland, for two years at Occidental College in LA, then on to Columbia; his move to Chicago, where he worked as a community organiser; the death of his father when he was 21, and his subsequent visit to Kenya to meet his family there and learn about his father.

Obama’s memoir is honest, or at least it seems to be. If it’s about any one thing it’s about race, although this can be said of any memoir by an African-American. Barry Obama, a thickly built teenager sporting an Afro, was an uninspired B-student, interested in sport and bodysurfing, and then in girls. Growing up in Honolulu, he was insulated from racial prejudice and even from racial self-consciousness. But there are not very many black people on the island and towards the end of his time there Obama began to be aware of his blackness, not least when he started going to parties and dating.

One of the best scenes in the book occurs near the end of Part One, ‘Origins’. Obama’s grandmother had been bothered by an aggressive panhandler, and her husband suggested she’d overreacted because the panhandler was black. This upset Obama, who that night went to visit one of his grandfather’s poker-playing friends, a black man called Frank, who was in his eighties and lived in a rundown area of Waikiki. Obama’s grandfather sometimes stopped by Frank’s in the evening and took the boy along. The older men would drink whiskey out of a jelly jar, Frank would read some of his poems, the two old men would complain about women, tell dirty jokes, that sort of thing. Frank grew up near Wichita, Kansas, like Obama’s grandfather – not a very progressive place, racially or otherwise. When he got to Frank’s house Obama helped himself to some whiskey and Frank told the boy that his grandfather was

basically a good man. But he doesn’t know me . . . He can’t know me, not the way I know him. Maybe some of these Hawaiians can, or the Indians on the reservation. They’ve seen their fathers humiliated. Their mothers desecrated. But your grandfather will never know what that feels like. That’s why he can come over here and drink my whiskey and fall asleep in that chair you’re sitting in right now. Sleep like a baby. See, that’s something I can never do in his house. Never. Doesn’t matter how tired I get, I still have to watch myself.

There are all sorts of good bits in Dreams from My Father, not all of them to do with race. Obama can describe the fauna of Jakarta as ably as he can the Altgeld housing project in Chicago. At one point, not long after his return to Honolulu from Jakarta, his father turned up to spend a month with the family he had not seen since he left for Harvard. This was the one patch of time Obama would spend with his father and he captures the awkwardness and tensions of the visit very well. Obama also notes the way in which his father, frail and convalescing from an illness, was able to command a room. ‘For whenever he spoke – his one leg draped over the other, his large hands outstretched to direct or deflect attention, his voice deep and sure, cajoling and laughing – I would see a sudden change take place in the family.’ And a bit later: ‘It fascinated me, this strange power of his, and for the first time I began to think of my father as something real and immediate, perhaps even permanent.’ Obama would inherit that voice – ‘black velvet’ – and his father’s presence as well.

It’s unheard of for a major American politician to write as well as this. But Obama is a rare bird: getting less rare by the day, but rare nevertheless. In conveying a sense of the adult politician, David Mendell’s book is surprisingly good. Mendell can’t write as well as Obama, but he’s a reasonably honest, capable and diligent reporter for the Chicago Tribune and takes his assignment seriously. What’s most interesting about the book is that Mendell doesn’t particularly like Obama. He admires him, and is rather jealous of him, but finds Obama vain (the term ‘healthy ego’ comes up at least twenty times), thin-skinned, sanctimonious and shockingly ambitious, which sounds plausible enough.

The best part of the book charts Obama’s rise through the infamous Cook County Democrats. I once came across a few local Democratic pols late one evening in the basement bar of Chicago’s Bismarck Hotel: men of some importance, by their tones of voice and the way they carried themselves. I’d never seen or heard anything quite like them. The conversation went something like this: ‘Hey Mike, how’s your mother?’ ‘A bit better, Joe. The chemo seems to be working. It was nice of you to ask.’ ‘Oh, that’s OK, Mike. Actually, I was a bit worried about her. After I got done fucking her last night she was looking kind of ill.’ The conversation went downhill from there. This is the world in which Barack Obama, sweet smile and beautiful elocution notwithstanding, came out on top.

It was inevitable that once Obama stepped off that platform in Boston and into the fray the gold plate was going to start coming off. He has turned out to be a timid and surprisingly drab candidate, if a remorselessly perky one. His early opposition to the war is no longer an asset. Everyone’s against the war now, except the knuckleheads and nutters, and Hillary Clinton’s conversion experience doesn’t seem to have done her much damage. Obama has not done well in the debates. He’s slow off the mark and rather long-winded. He hurt himself a couple of times, first saying he’d talk to the leaders of Iran, Syria and North Korea, then saying he’d consider bombing Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. This led the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to suggest that Obama had transformed himself overnight from Jane Fonda into Dr Strangelove. African-Americans aren’t wild about him. When he tries to get down with the brothers and sisters at church meetings he sounds foolish, by all accounts. He’s Harvard. Outflanked on the left by John Edwards and the unelectable Dennis Kucinich, he hasn’t anywhere to go, with Clinton covering the gelatinous centre, a celebrity, the cuckolded wife of the former president, steely and ambitious, but ‘pragmatic and experienced’. Obama seems to have become so entranced with his own press-clippings that he’s forgotten to pull the trigger.

He won’t get the prize this time, or the next time either. It looks like one-term presidents for a while and he’s probably better off out of it, at least until Iraq gets sorted out, one way or another, and the economy too. Nothing but rough weather is headed this way. But keep your eye on him. He’s a quick learner and tougher than he lets on. He also looks like the best we’ve got at the moment, which is not saying a lot.