Monday, June 9, 2008

I believe! (a bit)

In the spirit of finding out more about your leaders, I generally turn not just to the Colbert Report but to that awful genre, the political autobiography. I posted about this early in the life of this blog (see "Obamarama"). Political autobiographies are uniformly thick and bland, like rice pudding with no flavoring. Hillary Clinton's Living History was no exception; she can't afford to answer the questions you'd really like to ask. I remember Jay Leno mocking it relentlessly because she describes, in vivid detail, her shock and respiratory distress when Bill finally confessed that the affair with Monica Lewinsky was real. His punchline: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me six thousand times..."

But I went back to it, like Jonathan Edwards' dog to its vomit, now that Obama is quite definitively the Democratic candidate, and dug out Dreams from my Father: A story of race and inheritance.

It's amazing.

Not that there aren't moments of blandness or telling omissions, but there is also a lot of hard reality about the entanglements of racism and racial identity, and the awful unlimits of self-deception in those regards. His relationship with his white grandparents is the most revealing -- that would be the white grandmother he mentioned in his famous speech on race who was afraid of black men walking down the street. Here also is the story of his childhood in Indonesia with his Indonesian stepfather, his tenuous relationship with his father, his slow meeting with his African half-siblings (ending with the time he spent in Kenya getting to know them), and his ridiculous floundering as a community organizer in Hyde Park. This is, in essence, the foundation of that great speech.

It is, in some ways, just a big coming to terms with racial identity that could easily lapse into the McGreevey confessional, except that it is so extremely well written, with a more complex philosophy of creating identity. (And for those who cry ghostwriter, there's a lot said now about how his law firm was so annoyed that he would just sit in his office with his feet on his desk and write his damn book. I don't doubt that there was editing, but I'm willing to believe that the fundamentals are all his.) And well structured, moving back and forth in time to juxtapose key memories.

I have not been an Obamaniac, Obama girl, or whatever other nickname you can come up with, and as a disillusioned child of the 1992 election, I am still jaded about the bright young candidate with the Kennedy blessing. But this book made me want to believe.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous Ben Here--

I love this book too! It's going to be the focus of the Conclusion to my current book, since Obama's Dad underwent exactly the kinds of cross-cultural transformations (I switched to that word instead of conversions), in multiple directions and stages, that I'm focusing on.

As always, thanks for the great and well-written thoughts.


Heidi said...

Hey Ben! I should have known you had read it. Interesting that you switched to transformations -- we'll have to talk about that sometime...