Whew! I finally finished David Mendell’s Obama: From Promise to Power last night. Note to self, any political biography will suck if immediately read after a political biography written by Carl Bernstein.
For those of you who don’t know, I was planning to vote for Bill Richardson in the TX primary and the day he dropped out, I picked up Carl Bernstein’s bio of Hillary Clinton and David Mendell’s bio of Barack Obama to strengthen my understanding of these two political players. I didn’t want to read the books they wrote themselves because, obviously, they’re biased and formulaic with their messages, so I thought reading their own scripts would be a waste of time at this juncture. If you want to read my assessment of Hillary’s bio, click here.
Before I launch into the impression Mendell’s book gave me of Obama, let me address my impressions of the book. First of all, it should have been called “Obama N’ Me” or “Tuesdays With Obama” because Mendell was almost as much a main character in this book as Obama himself. Note to Mendell, read Carl Bernstein’s bio of Hillary – cause that’s how you write a biography. Mendell didn’t want to repeat all the biographical information Obama provided in his own two texts, so Promise to Power was filled with a lot of filler (dragging descriptions of Obama’s Hawaiian home. It was tropical, we get it), details repeated over and over (if I had to read one more time that Obama would rather wear a black shirt and khaki pants or that his target constituency in Chicago was African-Americans and liberals, I was going to gouge my eyes out) and gave extra-extra-attention to Barack’s run for U.S. Senate – which is the period David Mendell covered Obama the most for the Chicago Tribune. If I had known how much Mendell would insert himself into the book and gloss over many time frames – including Barack’s time in the U.S. Senate – and deeply focus on times where Mendell was present, I probably would have picked up a different book.
That said, here are my thoughts on Obama.
This is a hard one for me. I was a light, on-and-off smoker for a long time, until I was 26 and it was time to grow up. I loved it and would continue on a chain basis if it were a healthy habit, but it’s not. I especially have difficulty with parents who smoke and are doing such a grave disservice to their children. Obama stopped only when his wife made it a prerequisite for him to run for the presidency. I knew this before I read the bio.
This isn’t a major big deal, but it does speak to his decision-making skills on that “obvious” level. Smoking is fun when you’re young and dumb, but for someone in their forties who has procreated…I have a hard time with that. He probably smoked around the same amount of time as Peter Jennings and look where he is today. Poor Peter.
Barack certainly has abandonment issues and had a hard time figuring out where he fit in as a bi-racial person which has left him with the same type of self-absorption that applies to almost all people who feel they have a greater calling. What can I do? Where do I fit in? etc. But Obama’s search to find himself has instilled in him a need to seek the counsel of others and listen – and that is something we see in great leaders and something we don’t in poor leaders (hello, Bush, Cheney, even Hillary to an extent).
It’s hard not to notice that Obama has never spent a prolonged period of time doing the same thing; he has always looked to what’s next and to climb a bigger mountain. Occidental, Columbia, community organizer, Harvard Law School, State Senate, U.S. Senate. He certainly doesn’t marinate in one area too long because he thinks he can make bigger and better changes over the next horizon. Granted, he wasn’t looking to run for the presidency so soon and sort of became caught up as the Democrat’s darling in this age of overwhelming disappointment with Bush, but he has never felt comfortable in one place for very long. If he’s elected and then re-elected, eight years will be the longest he’s kept the same job, I think. I haven’t decided what this means or if it really matters to the presidency, but it certainly contributes to my need to psycho-analyze him.
It’s interesting how childhood abandonment issues affect adult behavior. Obama seeks the approval of elder males, especially of African-American heritage, and climbs the professional and political ladder relentlessly. Bill Clinton was also born to a young mother and didn’t know his father and later sought solace in the buffet of T&A is positions of influence brought him. Bush had two well-intentioned, loving, and fairly-present parents and he was a screw-up who almost led an oil company into bankruptcy, bought a small part of a baseball team, used the team as his personal playground, rode his last name right into the governorship of Texas and spewed campaign promise after promise he wouldn’t keep in order to be president of the U.S.ofA. Who would you rather have as president? Let’s hear it for single mothers!
One thing is clear. However comfortable and candid and honest Obama is, he is playing the political game. He knows which field he is on and that greatly motivates his actions and words.
I found this to be true in the area of religion. Mendell speaks of Obama as a young agnostic who visits Chicago’s black churches as a community organizer and found a home. My experience with agnosticism, and even atheism, is that such developments largely occur the other way around. People tend to be raised christian and then gain some education or experience the world and release themselves from the familial obligations of their past. Not Obama. He found comfort in the church and felt like he belonged to a group in a way that soothed much of those echoes of abandonment. But belonging to a church wasn’t just Obama finding a family; it’s clear that to navigate an ambitious political path, one has to assimilate in the area of faith. Chicago’s black community certainly accepted him in a way that would have been impossible if he maintained a skepticism about christianity. He calls the bible a “a great book that contains a lot of wisdom” according to Mendell. But does he really think he has to accept Jesus as his savior or he’s going to hell? As a person who is finds religious assimilation abhorrent, this gives me pause. But not a long pause. More like a bathroom break.
Obama wasn’t destined for the White House from the start the way Bill Clinton was; but for a long time, Obama has strategically made choices that will take him wherever his future goes. He may not be as vetted as Hillary claims to be (questionable), but he watches himself and plays the game carefully. There may be an authenticity to him, but underneath it all, those wheel are definitely turning.
Certainty, or lack thereof
The one characteristic I dislike in politicians – and people in general – is certainty. These people have sheer conviction that they are right on all accounts and leave no spec of mind open to other ideals. They commit no mistake and attack relentlessly those that might choose to challenge them on any issue. Gingrich, Delay, Pol Pot, Bush, Cheney, in many cases, Hillary. There is no compromise, no discussion. Certainty is an indication of a mind petrified that has ceased to learn and makes demands instead of finding solutions. And our government suffers for it. Our democracy is poisoned by it. And I am annoyed by it as they express their righteousness on television day in and day out.
Obama has proven over and over he is not a man of this ilk. One might call him inexperienced or green or wishy-washy. But it is not that. He listens to others and considers their points. He chooses to cooperate with “the other side” and seeks understanding among all parties. He admits when he has been mistaken or mis-spoke. He does not assume he is right all the time and is willing to admit it when he is not – and that is a powerful thing. The humility, while not the style of today’s politics, might just be important enough to make him a good leader. This might not be the clincher for my vote, I have not fully decided, but it is certainly enough for me to think the world won’t end if he’s elected president.
Obama is a bit of an undefined. We don’t exactly know what we’d get if he were president. He does have chinks in his rainbow of hope and change. Reality is one of them – our world won’t be all roses and honeybees and pretty fairies if he’s elected; he’s inheriting a disaster from Bush, for one. His education on many of the issues is lacking, as we saw on Tuesday night’s debate and the learning curve will be straight up. His halting speech indicates extreme thoughtfulness behind every single word he utters (not always a good thing) and his relentless clipping of words can irritate the crud out of me. If one of his campaign staff did call the Canadian ambassador to tell them his talk of NAFTA was campaign rhetoric, I’ll be mightily unhappy. His meteoric rise, both of his and others’ doing, is certainly giving answer to all those who have clamored for someone new. When I think of hope in relation to Obama, I don’t think he gives me hope that we have a brighter future. I know we do because Bush won’t be president. I just hope Obama doesn’t eff the whole thing up if he’s elected.
But, he’s worth the consideration and he’s certainly worth the research. If he gets the nomination, I recommend everyone read a bio of his so he can become more of a known entity. Because he just might be an entity that becomes leader of the free-frickin’-world, yo.