Book Review Lynn McKeown
Hope and the danger of slipping
The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, by Barack Obama. Crown Publishers, 2006. $25.00.
I approached this book with some degree of misgiving. Books by politicians tend to consist of dry generalities and high purpose in boring prose. Often they are actually written by a ghost writer. This book, according to an interview on Amazon.com, was actually written by Obama, first in longhand and then typed. I could believe this – it is a well-written, often personal book, with much thoughtful discussion of contemporary politics. It is not always easy reading, often dealing with abstract political principles, but leavened with many personal stories and an appealing frankness and humor. I might have expected this after reading Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father, which I reviewed earlier, and which is also an engrossing, interesting book. (If Obama is elected President, he might be the best writer in that office since Theodore Roosevelt.)
In that earlier book, Obama told the story of growing up without his black father (who left the family when Barack was two years old), of being raised by his white mother and grandparents, then living for a time in Indonesia when his mother remarried a man from that country. He also told of later experiences living in the eastern U.S. where he attended Ivy League schools, later experiences as a civil rights lawyer and community organizer in Chicago, and journeying to Kenya to meet relatives there. This second book is more a book of political principles, though it also contains many of Obama’s own life experiences in later years, especially the two years he had spent as U.S. Senator from Illinois at the time of publishing this book.
From the beginning of Audacity of Hope (a title he borrowed, ironically, from a sermon by his controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright), Obama asks for a change in American politics – which he describes as a “dead zone” of partisan warfare – to an atmosphere in which there is bipartisan cooperation to meet the challenges facing the nation. The book was written and published after Obama’s widely noted keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, in which he called for going beyond the “red” and “blue” political culture wars mentality and toward work for the common good. He mentions that he cannot take seriously such right-wing commentators as Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity, but also finds some on the left prone to exaggeration when they say that America is becoming “fascist.” And he notes with approval the “cordiality” he finds extending across the aisle in the Senate among older members such as Republican John Warner and Democrat Robert Byrd, a cordiality whose absence makes more difficult the compromises necessary in democratic government. (Obama has an interesting story of a private meeting with Byrd, one of the grand old men of the Senate.)
Near the beginning of the book, Obama tells the story of his visit, with other new legislators, to the White House, including a funny incident when President Bush offered him a squirt of hand sanitizer. The President also took him aside and offered him some advice: Obama, the President said, had a “bright future,” but “When you get a lot of attention like you’ve been getting, people start gunnin’ for ya. And it won’t necessarily just be coming from my side, you understand. From yours, too. Everybody’ll be waiting for you to slip, know what I mean? So watch yourself.”
Obama goes on to say that Democratic audiences are surprised when he tells them he doesn’t “consider George Bush a bad man,” and believes “he and members of his Administration are trying to do what they think is best for the country.” Obama makes clear here and elsewhere in the book that he thinks Bush and the Republicans are “wrong-headed” in many of their policies, and he spells out that wrong-headedness in some detail. But he finds most Republicans “pretty much like everybody else, possessed of the same mix of virtues and vices, insecurities and long-buried injuries, as the rest of us,” and he tends “to recognize in them values I share.” But Obama’s vision for America is different in many ways.
Audacity of Hope is divided into nine main chapters: Republicans and Democrats, Values, Our Constitution, Politics, Opportunity (dealing with the economy), Faith, Race, The World Beyond Our Borders, and Family. Probably not many voters will read this book (We’re told that Americans don’t read many books of any kind), and that’s a shame because it provides a thoughtful discussion on many problem areas of American life and would give them a good idea of what makes Obama tick. It is a highly intelligent book by a writer who was for a time a professor of constitutional law, but also a down-to-earth book with many anecdotes, including stories of the author’s own life with his wife and two daughters, even the problems and conflicts of a marriage in which the couple are necessarily pursuing their lives and responsibilities in separate cities much of the time. In a number of instances, Obama relates his discussion of the nation’s problems – the economy, for instance – to problems encountered by residents of Galesburg. (Those who saw Obama’s Democratic Convention speech will remember his references to Galesburg at that time.)
There is currently an attempt by “conservatives” and Republicans to paint Obama as an empty-headed, “far-left” “elitist.” It probably won’t work, and certainly won’t work with anyone who has read either of his books. Audacity of Hope is a call to return to the moderate liberal tradition of the best programs of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, though recognizing the new world of globalization and terrorism. Obama finds much wrong with the conservative Republican hegemony of recent decades, including the invasion of Iraq and what he considers a neglect of the less fortunate in our society. But he is not a pacifist – he will undoubtedly disappoint those who think military action and a strong military capability are always wrong – and he gives much more weight to religion than may be comfortable to some. But in fact, one feels he is rooted in the Judeo-Christian belief – or the basic moral conviction, if you will – that we are “our brother’s keeper.” That is also a core liberal democratic belief and seems to this reader to be a genuine core element of Obama’s approach to politics.
Now that Obama is running for president, he is finding out the truth of George W. Bush’s comments about everyone “gunnin’” for him, including some on his own “side.” The Obama presidential campaign is now a target of the right and to a lesser extent the left. There is a campaign of lies and distortion, “swift-boating,” as it was called during the last presidential campaign, coming from the right. (The Obama campaign, learning from the past, has developed a quick response policy they hope will blunt swift-boating attacks.) And there is also sniping from the left, who sometimes see Obama, like Hillary Clinton, as insufficiently anti-war and anti-establishment. This book will probably not reassure many on either the right or left (if they should take the trouble to read it). They will recognize, though, if they are at all honest, that it was written by an idealistic but savvy and highly knowledgeable man with much political talent. It is an attempt, one that may be overly optimistic and “hopeful,” to promote a politics with less grandstanding and belligerence and more intelligent discussion and wise compromise.