Wednesday, January 14, 2009

New Age President?

Dreams from My Father Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Early in the presidential campaign, I read Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope," which made me like the guy as a potential POTUS. That book contains discussions of policy that are conventionally liberal in tone, but that touches "third rail" issues like faith and race in ways that suggest Obama is more open and thoughtful than the average politician, liberal or conservative.

"Dreams from My Father," first published in 1995, gives us great insight into Barack Obama as a person. The book is about race and inheritance, and it takes Obama from his upbringing in Hawaii (the least race-conscious state in the U.S.) with his white mother and grandparents, through his growing consciousness about race and his discovery of what it means to be black in America, through his community organizer days in Chicago, and to his first trip to Kenya and meetings with his father's African family.

Obama has the perspective of an outsider/insider on the African-American community. He was raised to be proud of his black roots--his grandparents were very open about race for people of their generation--but he had to study black history and associate with other African-Americans before he could really understand black America and become a part of it. It is, perhaps, from this experience of observation and study that Obama developed keen senses of detachment and insight. This guy had more self-awareness at age 33 than most of us can hope to gain in a lifetime--though I have to wonder whether a small child would have the feelings and insights that Obama attributes to his much younger self. Obama also appears to have keen insight into other people and their circumstances. Whether these traits will serve him well as POTUS remains to be seen, but a self-aware President is something we really haven't seen at all in the United States since, perhaps, FDR and Harry Truman.

Obama's absent father--an intellectually brilliant Kenyan civil servant--was built into a legendary figure by his mother's family. Obama as a child felt something of a burden to live up to his father's legend. His Kenyan half-sister Auma shattered the illusion of Barack Senior when she visited Obama in Chicago after their father's death. Obama writes that he would have laughed out loud after discovering that his father wasn't all he was cracked up to be. Now, I know from my own experience that most, if not all, men have a moment when they come to that kind of realization about their fathers--even if it is just the simple realization that our dads are humans and make human mistakes within a reasonable margin of error. But most of us are fortunate enough that our fathers are around to show us their flaws and foibles, and we don't know our fathers only from legends with which we are indoctrinated.

One theme throughout the book is the relationship of people to power. Obama's Indonesian stepfather had his independent spirit beaten out of him by the government of Indonesia; Obama observed political power on a micro level on the South Side of Chicago; and Obama's father simply failed to understand that power in Kenya was derived from connections to that country's then president-for-life, Jomo Kenyatta. According to Obama, it was in Indonesia that his mother had an insight about her then-husband and his relationship to power, and she packed Barack back to Hawaii when she feared that he, too, would be ground under by the powers that be in Indonesia. Obama's insights into the relationship of people to political power should serve him well as President, if only to help him understand and shape his behavior as the most powerful political figure on the planet-and to keep the reigns on the powerful personalities he has placed in powerful positions.

This is one of the best memoirs from a political figure I've ever read, perhaps because it was written before Barack Obama became a political figure. Whether the detachment and insight that are apparent in the book are useful traits in the Obama presidency remain to be seen.

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