I finally finished reading Obama’s third memoir A Promised Land. I’d already read his other two and am reminded of an astute observation John Meacham made to Charlie Rose, that we know very little about Barack Obama, which is remarkable for a man who has published two best-selling memoirs. Of course, I’m not talking about silly nonsense like the myth he was born somewhere other than Hawaii. I’m talking about the rigorous details of biography that had been fleeting until recently. Now, published knowledge of Obama’s life has caught up with what we’d expect of a U.S. President, thanks to what is probably the best biography, Rising Star, written by David Garrow as well as a remarkably candid memoir from Michelle Obama.
Why would a reader of the Oregon Catalyst care? Hopefully, you are sufficiently engaged in politics to long for a mastery of historical detail. Autobiographies are always very biased sources of information, but they generally offer many morsels of first-person observations that make them remarkably information-rich. An hour spent reading a former president’s memoir is more informative than an equivalent time spent watching a documentary on the same person. Also, if, like me, you disagree with many of Obama’s policy choices, then you will benefit even more from reading his book. We learn more from authors we disagree with than from authors we expect to reinforce our worldview. That’s one reason it took so long for me to read, A Promised Land. I share a Kindle account with my father and let him read this book first. He didn’t like it, but it was good intellectual hygiene for my Dad to stray from his comfort zone.
In contrast to his previous two books, Obama has published a very detailed account of his life in politics up to the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Expect another book out soon that covers his second term.
Part of the hope and change narrative that Obama rode to the White House was the opaque canvas of his life, beliefs, and agenda. Obama was a fresh new face that people pinned their hopes upon. Obama supporters saw in him what they wanted to see. Progressives saw someone who was ideologically pure. Moderates saw someone who was pragmatically centrist. Obama’s third autobiography tries to position himself as both. That sounds like a contradiction, but really, like any skilled politician, that just means he was an opportunist. This book also has a theme of admitting that he’s just a human being. Obama has been revered by so many supporters, that he takes pains to admit that his wife was right. In her book, she revealed how Obama’s ambitions compelled him to spend very little time with his family and dump all household responsibilities on her. He admits to this with a regretful tone.
A particularly interesting passage follows a culmination of how he began to see an opportunity to run for President, and his wife kept pouring cold water on the idea. He tried to call her bluff by saying he wouldn’t run unless she agreed. She wasn’t bluffing.
As the summer wore on, though, the chatter began to seep through the cracks and crevices of our home life. Our evenings and weekends appeared normal so long as Malia and Sasha were swirling about, but I felt the tension whenever Michelle and I were alone. Finally, one night after the girls were asleep, I came into the den where she was watching TV and muted the sound.
“You know I didn’t plan any of this,” I said, sitting down next to her on the couch. Michelle stared at the silent screen.
“I know,” she said.
“I realize we’ve barely had time to catch our breath. And until a few months ago, the idea of me running seemed crazy.”
“But given everything that’s happened, I feel like we have to give the idea a serious look. I’ve asked the team to put together a presentation. What a campaign schedule would look like. Whether we could win. How it might affect the family. I mean, if we were ever going to do this—”
Michelle cut me off, her voice choked with emotion.
“Did you say we?” she said. “You mean you, Barack. Not we. This is your thing. I’ve supported you the whole time, because I believe in you, even though I hate politics. I hate the way it exposes our family. You know that. And now, finally, we have some stability…even if it’s still not normal, not the way I’d choose for us to live…and now you tell me you’re going to run for president?”
I reached for her hand. “I didn’t say I am running, honey. I just said we can’t dismiss the possibility. But I can only consider it if you’re on board.” I paused, seeing that none of her anger was dissipating. “If you don’t think we should, then we won’t. Simple as that. You get the final say.”
Michelle lifted her eyebrows as if to suggest she didn’t believe me. “If that’s really true, then the answer is no,” she said. “I don’t want you to run for president, at least not now.” She gave me a hard look and got up from the couch. “God, Barack…When is it going to be enough?”
Before I could answer, she’d gone into the bedroom and closed the door.
What makes this passage interesting is the absence of a later story of how she changed her mind. He ultimately ran for president against Michelle’s wishes. That passage is followed by a series of invitations to donor-sponsored events that seek to draft Obama to run. He presents Michelle as begrudgingly accepting the idea but never actually agreeing.
The wave of support Obama had been surfing swelled from his 2004 DNC convention speech, when he said things like “There is not a Black America and a White America and a Latino America and an Asian America. There’s the United States of America.” That liberal point of view on race is now considered to be a white supremacy position in progressive circles. It was that liberal hope that prompted his supporters to chant, before Obama’s victory speech in South Carolina, that “Race doesn’t matter!” But true to the changes in the Democratic Party of today, Obama walks that liberal view back in his book in light of the illiberal progressive views on race today.
As I walked onstage in an auditorium in Columbia to give our victory speech, I could feel the pulse of stomping feet and clapping hands. Several thousand people had packed themselves into the venue, though under the glare of television lights, I could see only the first few rows—college students mostly, white and Black in equal measure, some with their arms interlocked or draped over one another’s shoulders, their faces beaming with joy and purpose.
“Race doesn’t matter!” people were chanting. “Race doesn’t matter! Race doesn’t matter!”
I spotted some of our young organizers and volunteers mixed in with the crowd. Once again, they’d come through, despite the naysayers. They deserved a victory lap, I thought to myself, a moment of pure elation. Which is why, even as I quieted the crowd and dove into my speech, I didn’t have the heart to correct those well-meaning chanters—to remind them that in the year 2008, with the Confederate flag and all it stood for still hanging in front of a state capitol just a few blocks away, race still mattered plenty, as much as they might want to believe otherwise.
This passage symbolized the transformation of the Democratic Party on race. “Race doesn’t matter” is a chant of hope. Hope has converted to hate as the ideals of a colorblind society have been discarded in favor of racial identity politics.
I highly recommend reading Obama’s third memoir. This book fleshes out the humanity in the man, who was neither a savior nor a satan. He was just an ambitious politician. This book also shows how Obama finds himself on the defensive to his progressive readers, feeling the need to spin his liberal views of 2008 with the progressive views of his party today, offering a barometer for how our politics have changed in the past fifteen years.
Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.