My Book World
Having read President Obama’s 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father a number of years ago, I pre-ordered this book and anxiously awaited its arrival from Amazon on November 17, 2020. Dreams had revealed to me a skilled and sensitive writer. The scene in which Mr. Obama kneels at his father’s grave in Kenya is deeply moving and serves as the striking climax. It remains fresh in my memory.
A Promised Land is a title that resonates in a global way. However, Mr. Obama transforms it a bit to reveal how the United States of America has functioned as a promised land for him, for his life. The book seems to possess a unique structure. The former president limns in this the first volume of his long-awaited memoir his political life. Yet he does not hesitate to return readers by way of carefully selected flashbacks to his humble beginnings: we learn things about his family that we perhaps did not know before, the boldly liberal nature of his Kansas-born grandparents who flee to Hawaii to live a freer life; their daughter who marries a Kenyan man and gives birth to Barack Hussein Obama.
At the same time, this memoir develops a strand of history focused as readers would expect to see through the eyes of the person to whom it happened, the one who witnessed first-hand his several political campaigns, his earthy language in dealing with staff who have displeased him or fallen short of their expected performance. In spite of the subjectivity of such a view, one senses that Mr. Obama is being fair, that not many can argue with his point of view, his memory, his own fact-checking.
But finally, this book is silver-lined with personal and moving vignettes the president experiences throughout his first term: campaign events, public and private; White House anecdotes (he gives an inviting description of the contemporary White House); the relationships he develops with everyday WH employees, the large majority of whom are African-American, one essentially declaring, “You’re one of us.” At the same time, though he avoids making too much of the issue, Mr. Obama sets the record straight on the political evils he must endure: Donald Trump’s birtherism campaign; the media’s daily tearing at his flesh even though he is far more transparent and open than the previous administration’s leader; obstructionist Republicans who wish to thwart the President’s agenda, not because they so much disagree with him ideologically (which they do) but because they object so blatantly to him. Mr. Obama very elegantly portrays their vitriol without saying what I have no problem stating: Republicans regularly respond with a latent but powerful sense of White person’s entitlement, racism, and bigotry that have laced our American life since before its formation. That the man continues to rule with great dignity is a tribute to his stature as an adult who wishes to build on our democracy, not destroy it.
Mr. Obama relates the night at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, in which he takes stand-up potshots at a seated and furious Donald Trump. I think Mr. Obama must later realize how much this roasting inspires DT to run for president. Finally, skillfully building toward the narrative arc’s fine climax, Mr. Obama relates the fulsome scenario by which Osama bin Laden is assassinated and buried at sea. Though at times the reading is a slog, because the former prez wishes to be thorough and exact (a quality I appreciate), the book is well worth the time. And that infamous date, May 2, 2011, is where the first half of this memoir ends.