It’s an annual event now. October comes, and with it the “memoirs” of a politician unceremoniously chucked out of office in the past decade. First we had Nick Clegg, whose Politics: Between the Extremes didn’t much change prospects for Britain remaining in the EU, but attracted the attention of Silicon Valley. Gordon Brown’s largely turgid memoirs reminded us all of why he had trouble communicating with the public. David Cameron’s exhaustive For the Record took up nearly 700 pages before he could bring himself to write about the referendum. A Promised Land by Barack Obama does not depart from these efforts in its mission, but it is refreshing in its style.
This is a profound book written by a profound person. The first African-American to be elected President of the United States, the primary success story is the fact of his election, not necessarily what he did in office. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the first 250 pages — that is, his life before becoming President — are the most engaging and the most genuine. A real strength of this book is Michelle’s presence in the story. Every big decision he takes, he devotes time recalling his prevarications with Michelle, rather than his own calculations.
For a man who had such a profound cultural, if not political, impact on the world, his writing is full of depth, tempered with an existential ennui and a doubting voice in his head which he communicates well on the page. He is prone to ruminating — while driving, he caught himself “looking out the rain-streaked window…wonder[ing] how long the road I was travelling would last…before it too was swallowed by the waves”.
For the atheist, it is hard not to believe in some sort of divine providence when looking at the arc of Obama’s life in this volume. His ascent is time-consuming, (he devotes large sections to road-trips and campaigning in Illinois), but effortless. Things fall into place. The right people float into his life — Michelle, David Axelrod, Joe Biden — and the people who may thwart him fall without him doing anything — John McCain, most notably.
Obama’s life, then, is a remarkable story told from the emotional perspective. He is a self-deprecating, funny and very elegant writer. But from the political view, he remains one of a flock of young liberal politicians who beckoned in a storm. Obama’s account of his political career is bloated. There are some highs, including his compelling narrative of the night bin Laden was assassinated, and there are some lows, mainly his attempts to get healthcare reforms through in exhaustive policy detail.
A Promised Land only covers up to mid-2011, so there is a whole other volume to go. Why the length? Some might say it comes from a lofty sense of self, but it seems to come from the opposite — a deep insecurity and acknowledgement of himself and his achievements. As you thumb through the pages, you know what you’re waiting for. The spectre of the 45th president, haunting the narrating 44th, is tangible. And there is no historical way out for Obama. Either Trump succeeded, and negated Obama’s legacy, or Trump failed, and Obama bequeathed his country that mess. The only thing he can do is a long justification, bloating his presence in the historical record with exhaustive policy detail, procrastinating from answering the dreaded question, “so who came after you?”. Like a lot of us, Obama cannot bear to look it in the eye.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama is published by Viking, 768 pages.