... Barack Obama's "Dreams from My Father." I read "The Audacity of Hope" earlier last year, when I was still debating the relative strength of his candidacy with Hillary Clinton's. If I remember well, I wrote at the time that the book introduced me to a whole new Barack Obama than the one I had encountered on a daily basis on the television screen. Reading the book, I soon learned that the attempt to portray him as an inexperienced lightweight was absurd. I was amazed by the ease with which he drew on an extensive breadth of historical knowledge, his political acumen, his grasp of the problems facing us and the depth of his understanding of human nature--not to mention his extraordinary ability to listen with patience to opposing views and embrace well-considered compromise.
Now, reading the first of his two books, I am coming to understand something about the origin of these qualities. Since early childhood, he has clearly been a close and critical observer of the people and the world around him, a questioner who has wanted to find out what lies beneath the surface of external events. The exceptional diversity of backgrounds that converge in this one man is well-known--a diversity matched by that of his lived experiences. In this, he seems like a man ahead of his time, a truly 21st century human being, the product of a "flat world" in which individuals are citizens not of a particular city or a particular nation, but rather of the globe; and in which racial identities merge into a more broadly human one.
"Dreams from My Father"--I'm a little more than halfway through--is giving me a more personal and immediate understanding of these well-known aspects of our new President. What has remained a kind of abstract knowledge becomes concrete, intimate, and real. In part, this is because Obama is a terrific writer: his stories are vividly told, compelling, utterly believable. He is curious about everything that happens to him, and translates this curiosity into understanding, and understanding into change. He describes a constant process of growth based in experience, the epitome of an "examined life" that allows him to continually move forward. His teenage years, recalled with a compassion that does not gloss over the awkwardness, the fears and pain of adolescence, reveal a not-yet-formed individual whose rebellious missteps will be familiar to all of us who have experienced that difficult age. It is remarkable to read these pages and recall that this typically stumbling teenager is now President of the United States.
Of huge and poignant importance in his development are the difficulties he has in coming to terms with his racial identity, and with his inner drive to find some way to be of service to the world. Black, and yet not-quite-black, he struggles with the sense of aggrievement he sees in those around him--and his own--as well as with the compensatory promotion of black power and black pride at the other end of the scale. Recalling his now-famous Philadelphia speech on the subject of race, following the public revelation of the scandalous remarks of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that nearly scuttled his campaign, I understand now that his empathy with black anger was hard-earned, through years of authentic struggle and internal debate. If he is able in his leadership to transcend the racial divide in a way no other has before him, it is not because he arrived on the political scene at a time when these issues were already resolved, but rather because he had to go through his own personal hell to reach that point in his intellectual life.
I am just now reading the long section in which he describes his arrival in Chicago as a "community organizer"--work that was dismissed with such easy sarcasm at the Republican convention--and that full first year in which he labored with only minimal success to find a place for himself, a beginner's political identity that would foster his leadership qualities. Again, as he is forced time and again to recognize his failings and re-evaluate his approach, we watch a process of continual growth and change, a deepening of experience that forges at once the steelier and more compassionate character he'll need in order to achieve his goals: his bid for the presidency is already in our minds, as readers, if not in his, and we marvel at the depth of his preparation for the path that is to follow. It is remarkable that the young man he describes, with all his uncertainties and doubts, his innocence and idealism, his naivete and his errors of presumption and assumption--that this often insecure and yet determined young man should end up in our White House.
More to come. I'm looking forward to the second half...