By Bob D'Angelo
One of the juicier tidbits in Barack Obama’s new memoir is that he learned that his first name translated to “peach” in Hungarian. It’s true; I looked it up.
It is a random fact, to be sure, but another reason why the first book of a two-volume set from the former president memoir is so entertaining. Obama’s attention to detail and his descriptive writing style make A Promised Land (Crown; hardback; $45; 751 pages) an interesting read.
The book is long — more than 700 pages — but it moves briskly, particularly during the first 202 pages that delve into the 44th president’s early life and campaigns before he was elected president in 2008.
“Where possible, I wanted to offer readers a sense of what it’s like to be the president of the United States,” Obama writes.
I love the way the book opens. Obama is describing his walk through the West Colonnade of the White House, recalling his interactions with the gardeners and the feelings he had as he strode toward work in the morning or was returning to his family in the evening — “my stride got longer, my steps a little brisker,” he writes — giving the reader a sense of what a president faces each day.
In addition to the peach revelation, readers are given explanations of a tutorial Obama received on how to properly salute military personnel, and a comical — and definitely awkward — conversation the president had with Saudi Arabian monarch King Abdullah about domestic bliss.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, Your Majesty, but how do you keep up with twelve wives?” Obama asks.
“Very badly,” the king responds. “One of them is always jealous of the others. It’s more complicated than Middle East politics.”
It’s a light moment, and fun to read.
There is plenty of policy in this hefty volume, and it doesn’t even cover Obama’s entire first term. That will come in the second volume. A Promised Land begins with Obama’s childhood, details his campaigns for the U.S. Senate, and later, the presidency, and stops — appropriately enough — at the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
It is certain that the second volume will deal with the aftermath of his presidency, the rise of Donald Trump, the “red line” in Syria, the shootings in Charleston and Newtown, and racial flashpoints such as Ferguson, Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Matter movement.
That is for another time.
This first volume offers a detailed look at the major issues Obama faced during his first term. He had a full plate, dealing with health care, immigration, the environment (particularly the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico), war in Afghanistan and trying to revive the economy.
Obama is a very good writer, who enjoys providing background and history behind his key policy decisions. That could be why A Promised Land tops 700 pages, but it is instructive to know where he is coming from. One criticism leveled at the book is that Obama bogs down his prose with history, making it tedious. I disagree. Obama’s knowledge of history, and his ability to communicate it within the context of his decisions, are strong points in this memoir.
Certainly, some readers have disagreed with Obama’s policies and his efforts in A Promised Land to explain and justify them. That is fair. Where Obama is concerned, there is always going to be a segment of the public that cherishes his achievements, while another segment believes he brought the nation close to ruin. That is par for any president, including the current one.
What I find interesting, however, is that Obama not only discusses policy but also the process by which he arrived at his decisions. To me, that provides a unique look into the Oval Office and the president’s advisers.
Although Obama’s book came out after the 2020 election, he certainly had the campaign on his mind as he put pen to paper (disdaining computers, Obama wrote out his outlines longhand on yellow legal pads). Obama’s thoughts about Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are definitely relevant. He mentions Trump in passing toward the end of the book, but it is clear that Obama is dismissive of his successor.
Obama’s observations about his vice president, Joe Biden — now the President-elect — are intriguing.
One anecdote revolves around Obama’s first National Security Council meeting when the subject of sending more troops to Afghanistan was being debated. Biden, he writes, disagreed with the idea of sending troops, believing Afghanistan was “a dangerous quagmire.” When the meeting was over, Obama said Biden gripped him by the arm as he headed toward the Oval Office.
“Listen to me, boss. Maybe I’ve been around this town for too long, but one thing I know is when these generals are trying to box in a new president,” Obama quotes Biden as saying as the vice president “brought his face a few inches from mine and stage-whispered,” “Don’t let them jam you.”
Obama’s impressions of Biden are interesting and at times, amusing. “In a town filled with people who liked to hear themselves talk, Joe had no peer,” Obama writes, adding that Biden’s “lack of a filter periodically got him in trouble.”
Still, Obama observes that Biden’s “occasional gaffes were trivial compared to his strengths,” citing his intelligence on domestic issues and his “broad and deep” experience in foreign policy. He complimented Biden’s determination through the years, writing that he “had heart” and had a gut feeling that his choice for vice president was “decent, honest and loyal.”
McConnell — who was Senate Minority Leader when Obama took office — is a fascinating character as seen through the prism of the president. McConnell is without a doubt the most powerful lawmaker in the Senate in 2020, but Obama’s interactions in 2009 provide a foreshadowing of what is to come. McConnell’s influence in Senate politics rivals that of Lyndon B. Johnson, the acclaimed “master of the Senate” in Robert Caro’s influential 2002 book of the same name.
True. McConnell sounds like the late actor Jimmy Stewart and has a slow, soft Kentucky drawl. “But what McConnell lacked in charisma or interest in policy,” Obama writes, “he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness, and shamelessness — all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power.”
That has not changed in the past 11 years.
It is amusing that Obama refers to McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Republican leader John Boehner as “The Four Tops.” Instead of “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “It’s The Same Old Song.”
Michelle Obama, quite obviously, plays a large role in the book. She had to pull back on some of her ambitions while her husband campaigned for the Illinois state senate, the U.S. Senate, and finally, the presidency. The strain of basically being a single parent wore on Michelle Obama.
“This isn’t what I signed up for, Barack,” she told him during one argument. “I feel like I’m doing it all by myself.”
And yet, Michelle Obama would adapt in her role, particularly as the first lady, creating what her husband called “The Michelle Effect.” That was noticeable in her interactions with children, and even perceived gaffes on the international stage — she absentmindedly rested her hand on the shoulder of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and wore a cardigan sweater, “sending Fleet Street into a horrified tizzy” — were easily deflected.
A Promised Land is a long read. I imagine that the audiobook version might be more compelling, but I found the prose clear, conversational and entertaining. Obama can be gracious, humble, uncertain, and funny. Never dull.
David Axelrod, who was Obama’s chief strategist during the 2008 election, once said that the candidate’s problem during the presidential debates was that “you keep trying to answer the question.”
When Obama wonders if that wasn’t the point, Axelrod sets him straight.
“The point is to get your message across,” Axelrod says. Take whatever question they give you, give ’em a quick line to make it seem like you answered it … and then talk about what you want to talk about.”
Illuminate? To a point, yes. Evoke an emotion? That is the main goal.
In A Promised Land, Obama does both. His insights on the presidency are illuminating, and this first volume gives the impression that while there were obstacles, Obama delivered on his promises. It’s a peach of a memoir.