I don’t usually read anything written by politicians during their run-up to declaring candidacy or elections. Hence, I have missed out on this or this or that, etc. etc. (you get the point and I am tired of searching on Amazon for Richard Nixon’s campaign books). And yet, a few days ago, I walked into a bookstore and plunked down cold hard plastic for Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. Apparently unmollified by such a brash act, I proceeded to read the whole thing over the next few days and I even got a little teary-eyed.
The chatter, here, there, everywhere, is about Obama’s sudden rise and plans for the presidency. They complain about his funny names (um. Bush?), his style (see lapata below), his lack of experience (8 years as a community leader in Chicago; 7 years in the state legislature, partly as a minority party, in which he still managed to pass substantive bills), his lack of work in the Senate (primary sponsor of some 152 bills and resolutions; and serves on that all-important Foreign Relations Committee), his rockstar-ness (ok, that’s legit), and varied and sundry matters. To all chatter-ers, I heartily recommend that they read The Audacity of Hope – because it will tell you the following, at the very least: Obama wil most likely run for President; he has a long and fairly accomplished legislative record; he is very thoughtful, smart and cares deeply about his country; and he has some very specific and some very smart ideas about improving the civic and social life of this country. The book is rather formulaic, insofar, that it arranges all information into chapters taken from the political platform grid: Values, Faith, Family, Politics, Foriegn Policy, etc. The narrative structure is simple: An event/meeting/memory from Obama’s present life – the greater issue facing America – a reminiscence from Obama’s past – his recommendation for dealing/discussin the greater issue facing America. No, Pynchon obviously didn’t ghost write it. In fact, it is clear from the very first sentence that no one ghost-wrote it – there is a cadence and clarity to the sentences, a feeling of revision and emphasis in the paragraphs, that is unmistakably his. So, perhaps it isn’t great literature, but to know his positions on core issues and, more importantly, how he arrived at them – this is the text.
Rather than bore us all to tears [remember, I didn’t tell you why I got teary-eyed] with a summary of Obama’s policy and civic recommendations, I’d rather focus on the things that shine out from the text: his humanity, his empathy, his pragmatism and – this notion of hope. To the last, first. The title, and the theme, comes from the speech Obama gave at the 2004 DNC convention. The word “hope” – coupled with audacity – brings to mind, at least this mind, some evil robot of Kathie Lee Gifford variety, intoning and demanding that we smile and butter our toast the right side up. But, in Obama, this hope is the hope of a struggle and a commitment to a future, perhaps impossible to attain. In sentences scattered throughout, again and again, he shows that he understands the darkness and the futility that grids our public and social existence – the intransigence in public discourse, the failed experiments of yesteryears, the debilitating crush of our racist and imperialist past.
The theme carries over throughout the book – both in meaningful and pragmatic ways. When he speaks about the inner-city and the urban ghetto – about how the public discourse congealed on the subject of Welfare reform and no more and how the only existence of the urban poor is to be oh so brilliantly depicted in our entertainment [The Wire!] and be completely missing from our national conversation. And yet, he hopes that we can start anew and find ways of achieving equality in opportunities for all. Or about immigration (and Sam Huntington’s Fear of a Brown Planet – we will leave the Newts and the Pats aside), he writes about the pain of outsourcing on little communities, of the reality of capitalism and the abuse of borders. Still, he recognizes that the America has always grown and expanded and gave meaning to generations of immigrants. Or the red/blue state conundrum, wherein we have a political body where “no one’s listening” (15).
In essence, Obama’s hope comes from a deeply realistic reading of the past and the present. This brings me to the last thing that I would like to mention:
The best I can do in the face of our history is remind myself that it has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty. The hard, cold facts remind me that it was unbending idealists like William Lloyd Garrison, who first dounded the clarion call for justice; that it was slaves and former slaves, men like Denmark Vesey and Frederick FDouglass and women like Harriet Tubman, who recognized power would concede nothing without a fight. It was the wild-eyed prophecies of John Brown, his willingness to spill blood and not just words on behalf of his visions, that helped force the issue of a nation half slave and half free. I’m reminded that deliberations and the constitutional order may sometimes be the luxury of the powerful, and that it has sometimes been the cranks, the zealots, the prophets, the agitators, and the unreasonable – in other words, the absolutists – that have fought for a new order. Knowing this, I can’t summarily dismiss those possessed of similar certainty today – the antiabortion activist who picket my town hall meeting, or the animal rights activist who raids a laboratory – no matter how deeply I disagree with their views. I am robbed even of the certainty of uncertainty – for sometimes absolute truths may well be absolute. (97)
To speak of absolute truths, in a world torn asunder by shrapnel of such truths, is a dangerous proposition. After all, we already have a President, and an Establishment, that believes absolutely in their own Truths. However, this passage highlights for me the one quality above all that shines throughout the book: empathic understanding – his desire to try and attempt to understand the other position. This is the genuine quality that attracts me to Obama. Not as a presidential candidate, or even as my Senator, but as a thinker.