For many months I’ve resisted the urge to read either of Senator Obama’s books, particularly the first, “Dreams from My Father,” the memoir written before he became a political candidate. Why? Because I had thrown in my hat, such as it is, with Senator Clinton, and was afraid that I would be so moved by Senator Obama’s memoir that it would undermine my support of Senator Clinton.
Fifteen years ago on the eve of publication of my second novel, in response to a moment in which I expressed grave self-doubt, an editor at Dutton named Michaela Hamilton kindly reassured me that I was a “real writer.” I think I suspected that I would find in Senator Obama’s memoir akind of kindred spirit, a “real writer”, to use Michaela’s words, someone to whom the “‘real writer” in me could truly relate, someone who understands what it takes to search one’s own soul honestly and carefully and accurately, and put that search on the page. Now that I’ve finally read the book, I find that my concerns were well founded. I have discovered not only a “real writer,” but someone who by breadth and depth and force of his personality and background, and by brilliance, honesty, clear thinking, and sheer talent, has rendered my past support of Senator Clinton, an admirable person in many respects, irrelevant.
The memoir is remarkable, and not only because it was written by a politician. The man is a real person–authentic, self-aware, probing, searching, honest with himself and with us, willing to be vulnerable, and most important, able to offer us a big piece of his interior life on his journey of self-discovery, not some made-up, faux patriotic, self-serving, self-deluding version of his interior life, but the real thing. Given the ghost-written pabulum served up by so many other politicians, “Dreams From My Father” is a revelation, a call to action, a sanctuary of hope that this man really can begin to build bridges across cultures and countries, and change the world. At the risk of sounding like I’ve bought into a cult of personality, I’ll say that I believe the country and the world needs such a man. How refreshing and different and hopeful it would be to have him as President.
What politician has ever, or would ever write these words?
“Sometimes I would find myself talking to Ray about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false. Or I would be helping Gramps dry the dishes after dinner and Toot would come into say she was going to sleep, and those same words–white folks–would flash in my head like a bright neon sign, and I would suddenly grow quiet, as if I had secrets to keep.”
Or report the following outburst out of the mouth of a young friend, chastising the future candidate for sucking up:
…All that stuff about ‘Yes, Miss Snooty Bitch, I just find this novel so engaging, if I can just have one more day for that paper, I’ll kiss your white ass.’ It’s their world, all right? They own it, and we in it. So just get the fuck outta my face.”
Or present us with this wonderful paragraph?
Three o’clock in the morning. The moon-washed streets empty, the growl of a car picking up speed down a distant road. The revelers would be tucked away by now, paired off or alone, in deep, beer-heavy sleep, Hasan at his new lady’s place–don’t stay up, he had said with a wink. And now just the two of us to wait for the sunrise, me and Billie Holiday, her voice warbling through the darkened room, reaching toward me like a lover.”
The contrast with other “political” memoirs is, of course, astounding. I won’t dwell on that, however, except to point out the most compelling disparity, the one between this man, Barack Obama, and our current President, George Bush, who is revealed in Scott McClellan’s new book, “What Happened.” Continue reading