Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Biography is well researched, but particularly revealing

It is an unenviable task to draw, for your first book, a biography of one of the most overexposed politicians on the planet. Even worse is when your subject has already written both a wildly successful memoir and a semi-autobiographical policy book. Barack Obama highlights this in an early meeting with the author in David Mendell’s Obama: From Promise to Power, asking, “I wrote four hundred pages about myself. What more could you want from me?” And this was before the additional 400 in The Audacity of Hope.

In light of Obama’s current career aspirations, this is a strange question. The texts Obama penned, Dreams from My Father and Audacity, are quite comprehensive portraits of the man; he doesn’t scrub his record or boast excessively. More importantly, Obama clearly enjoys the process. He writes with ease, mixing insight, levity, and an impressive recontextualization of contemporary political struggles through personal and historical lenses.

However, these works leave plenty of room for biographers. Because of Obama’s rapid ascendance to the national spotlight, his country doesn’t know much about him. The American people generally smile gently at their fuzzy conceptions of the Senator. Such a swift rise demands two approaches – the unbiased, searching, perceptive portrait of the candidate, and the report from the underbelly of the political machine. Mendell’s book promises both; he was allowed access to Obama’s friends and family, and also knows Chicago politics from years of reporting for the Tribune.

Mendell seems to have all the right tools to create a valuable source of knowledge about Obama, but Power fails to deliver. The author’s neutral tone is appropriate for interviews with family and friends, but none of these prove particularly revealing. Discussing Obama’s loss in his congressional campaign, Mendell writes, “Obama had learned a similarly hard lesson about the vagaries of life once before- when despite his hard work and intense desire, he was benched from the [high school] basketball team.” Mendell posits a handful of high school basketball games as more significant to Obama’s development than his work as a community organizer, or his time spent reading Baldwin and Fanon alone in a barren apartment. Louis Menand, in the New Yorker, criticizes the bibliographic practice of making such outrageous logical fallacies to facilitate a “conversion narrative.” Still, he ultimately concedes that the reason for weaving such unlikely stories is because readers crave them. At least, they desire these connections when the passages display acuity – something lacking here.

The other story, clandestine cell phone calls at campaign stops, threatens to materialize. Obama convinces a powerful campaign manager with inside information about the opposition to join his Senate bid. The manager is a notoriously colorful and quirky figure with a dry wit. Obama eludes video stalkers and sneaks cigarettes while fighting off serious fatigue. Double-secret alliances form and change, rerouting and consolidating power. This may be business as usual for Mendell, a veteran of Chicago politics, but not for the rest of us. The author’s dispassionate tone robs the story of any drama, leaving it dry and uninspired.

Still, Power is not without merit. Mendell should be applauded for the work he put in traveling and interviewing Obama’s acquaintances, and his knowledge of Illinois politics is staggering in its intricacy and breadth. Most important, though, is his attention to the perception of Obama as a political messiah. Mendell explains this adroitly by referencing the Kennedys.

Obama creates a perception of a candidate with promise by recasting the language of assassinated political and civil rights leaders. He borrows from Martin Luther King, Jr., cites Abraham Lincoln, and quotes John F. Kennedy. Mendell gives Robert Kennedy the most significance in Power. Standing in Cape Town, Obama says, “my desk in the senate is the same desk that Robert Kennedy had.” Mendell starts the chapter with excerpts from both of their speeches in Cape Town. Following Kennedy’s “Day of Affirmation” speech with Obama’s, Barack becomes the fulfillment of Kennedy’s “tiny ripple of hope.”

More striking is a comparison involving “A Time of Shame and Sorrow,” Robert Kennedy’s speech given the day following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. Kennedy said, “whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily… whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.” Kennedy’s legacy appears in Audacity, when Obama writes, “I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society… their struggles are our own. If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves.” This Christian sentiment forms the foundation of Obama and Kennedy’s political beliefs. The same bequest that leads Obama to note that he was born in the same year as J.F.K.’s inaugural address inspires him to write, “what’s needed is a broad majority of Americans… who see their own self-interest as inextricably linked to the interests of others.”

This is not to say that Obama is a Kennedy. Robert Kennedy believed that the difficulties of African-American communities could be overcome in the same way as those of the Irish, something Obama sees differently. What’s more, Obama has an almost unmatched gift at building consensus. Mendell devotes attention to this phenomenon, but doesn’t analyze the Right’s reaction to Obama. Instead, Mendell lets interviewers repeat stories about how they don’t feel demonized. While the history of race relations and Obama’s charisma and intelligence are undoubtedly major factors in this ability to bridge gaps, what goes unmentioned are Obama’s extraordinary rhetorical talents.

Of political figures at present, Obama possesses a singular talent for framing progressive politics in a conservative, family-oriented manner. Although Hillary Clinton and John Edwards expertly stir their base with union-era David versus Goliath metaphors, this tactic fails to play well enough outside of traditional liberal centers. Mendell quotes a piece Obama wrote for the Chicago Reader early in his career: “right now we have a society that talks about the irresponsibility of teens getting pregnant, not the irresponsibility of a society that fails to educate them to aspire for more.” Obama would get better at using the language of conservative positioning to suggest progressive policies. In Audacity, he writes, “we say we value the legacy we leave the next generation and then saddle that generation with mountains of debt. We say we believe in equal opportunity but then stand idle while millions of American children languish in poverty. We insist that we value family, but then structure our economy and organize our lives so as to ensure our families get less and less of our time.” Obama’s focus is not on materialism, even in a discussion about economics and poverty. This emphasis on children and family recenters his progressive policies around traditionally conservative subjects.

Many Democrats fear that Obama is not electable. This is largely the result of a combination of reservations regarding his racial identity and his relative inexperience, but this anxiety is misdirected. Mendell’s descriptions of the difficulties Obama has in accepting the media burdens of public life are telling. In Audacity, Obama writes, “I am who the media says I am. I say what they say I say.” Even on the Daily Show, a friendly arena if there ever was one, Obama was visibly frustrated at a question about being stuck in a narrative of sacrificing experience for potential to Hilary Clinton. This may reveal a potential problem in facing the Right - opposition that has sloganized and distorted so many campaigns to their dooms. Now, Clinton is surging, seemingly a reaffirmation of traditional politics. It will be interesting to see Obama he can break out of this binary coverage and find space for a message that has traditionally appealed to a broad political spectrum, or if he will be overcome by the aggravation Mendell witnessed at the media’s shoehorning. - Alan Snider