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Obama and Biden: Political lives and lessons

Former US president Barack Obama, left, and president-elect Joe Biden. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Shawn Thew)

Having read both Barack Obama’s new memoir and Evan Osnos’ portrait of Joe Biden, the writer takes a chance to think about the nature of the narrative of ‘the great man’.

Some years ago, this writer was working in Lagos, Nigeria, for several months, and I found myself searching for something interesting and different to read in the long evenings, especially those where the light came from candles or a generator. Rummaging through the American Consulate library, I came across Ulysses S Grant’s memoirs of his military life — beginning with his early days as a young officer and on through to his final victory against the Confederacy in April 1865.

Grant had written his memoir at a furious pace, knowing his death from cancer was just months away, and, in fact, finishing it just a few days before he died. Mark Twain published the memoir in two volumes. By virtue of an audacious direct door-to-door sales campaign across the country, Twain revived the then-desperate financial circumstances of Grant’s estate through a massive wave of sales, providing a substantial inheritance for his widow and children, even if Grant himself did not benefit from it. 

Ulysses S Grant has often been derided as a mediocre president at best; one who allowed the fast-talking, shady con-men and grifters of his age to despoil his two terms as president. In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in and respect for Grant. This has evolved from some new biographies and television series about him. They have brought to the fore evidence that Grant’s strong pro-Reconstruction policies for black economic emancipation in the South — the American version of the radical economic transformation of its day — could well have created a more equal society in America, if only they had been fully implemented by other government officials.

The memoir Grant himself had written was an unstinting account of his rise through the military, accepting his mistakes where he thought he was to blame and explaining his strategy for the war and the need for fatalities and destruction to save the nation. 

In fact, in his military career, he had set out (and largely created) the basic doctrine of modern industrial warfare. In command during the Civil War, he had melded telegraphic communication, command, control, rapid rail transportation, industrial mass production of war materiel and the deployment of large, well-supplied, well-trained conscription armies, together with a strong grasp of the strategic goals of the war, rather than a hunt for immediate tactical victories. Moreover, in contrast to the usual orotund Victorian style of so many other writers of his time, Grant employed what was nearly an unadorned, spartan prose style, making it easily accessible to modern readers without any of the head-scratching about what he meant in all that fancy phraseology. 

Years before I discovered Grant’s writing, like so many others, I had also been captured by an oral history of the life of Harry Truman and related material, compiled by historian Merle Miller. Entitled Plain Speaking, it seemed to capture precisely the style of the former president, his brisk speaking and unadorned thinking, as well as his penchant for some salty language about those whom he disliked or disdained for policy reasons. 

The volume gave Truman a space to make clear his processes of decision making, and how he decided he would stick with a decision once he had fully and completely made up his mind. There is the famous story, for example, of how, after he had decided to authorise the first use of those two nuclear bombs designed to bring World War 2 to an end, Truman had said that at having made up his mind, he then made a ham sandwich, poured himself a glass of buttermilk, ate this evening snack and then went to bed where he said afterwards that he had “slept soundly”. No second thoughts. No self-recriminations. The book is actually a wonderfully entertaining read, even if the reader must now deal with claims (and evidence) Miller essentially made up some of the best, the juiciest anecdotes.

There is clearly something attractive about the biographies of or autobiographies from famous leaders. Such works almost automatically find a wide readership. There are literally thousands of books each about Abraham Lincoln, about Napoleon Bonaparte, about Adolph Hitler, about Winston Churchill (or by him), and about Franklin Roosevelt. (And Julius Caesar’s books on his military adventures retain their attraction two thousand years later.) Of course, it helps if the subject is a wartime leader. That adds to the drama and the consequentiality of the words to be read. 

In contemporary American circumstances, it has become common that former senior officials will sign well-paying contracts to turn their experiences, revelations and observations about the nature of their service, and who they served, and at least a few embarrassing secrets about the principal they served. Typical of this was the recent book by former national security advisor John Bolton about his time in the Trump administration. If a book is by a president or their spouse, the publisher’s advance becomes even bigger and expectations that much higher. This is true even if most of these books are pretty much a slog.

If the president has been martyred, as John F Kennedy was, a torrent of hagiography (and later, more objective historical analysis) has flowed forth. Even now, authors continue to look for heretofore unknown personal gems among what surely is thoroughly combed archival material. Within the first several years of his death, in fact, a veritable shelf of thick volumes came from former White House staffers and family members, such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s A Thousand Days, Theodore Sorensen’s Kennedy, Roger Hilsman’s To Move a Nation, or, a few years later, Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days, among dozens of other volumes. This latter volume, stripped of its obligatory bow to the Kennedy legend, is actually an excellent text for studying presidential decision-making under extreme pressure, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

This continuing fascination with presidential memoirs helps to partially explain the extraordinary response greeting the first volume of Barack Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land. Of course, Obama’s place in history as the first African American president has made his recollections even more noteworthy, just as did the crises of his presidency. But the fact he was already known as a graceful writer added to the public’s anticipation of his memoir. Within a few weeks of its release, the book has already sold over a million copies — with the promise of many more to follow.

It was around this time that I started having a recurring dream. In it, I find myself on the streets of some unnamed city, a neighbourhood with trees, storefronts, light traffic. The day is pleasant and warm, with a soft breeze, and people are out shopping or walking their dogs or coming home from work. In one version I’m riding a bike, but most often I’m on foot, and I’m strolling along, without any thoughts in particular, when suddenly I realize that no one recognised me. My security detail is gone. There’s nowhere I have to be. My choices have no consequence.

Obama’s memoir is the first of two volumes and this first one, by itself, is over 700 pages long. Accordingly, it is surprising it only covers his presidency roughly up to the killing of Osama bin Laden, meaning there are still six years left to chronicle. When that second volume is finally released, together, this will be a monumental written record for future historians and policy thinkers to parse, analyse and dispute, especially as they conduct their own research in the archives.

A Promised Land does not linger in much detail over Obama’s early life. That ground was largely covered in his first book, Dreams From My Father. This new book goes into significantly more depth about his early years in politics, as a state legislator and then his Senate career, however. This could easily have been subtitled: Barack Obama Learns about the Realities of Politics and How it is Played

For those fascinated about how a politician, any politician, begins to think they could become a president, how their presidential campaign begins, then coalesces, encounters challenges and struggles, and, then, finally, builds momentum towards eventual success, the section on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign is fascinating. Just how does a politician find the people who can help them; how do they make choices about issues and priorities to highlight; and most importantly, how does a candidate own up to his mistakes and deal with adversity? The description of how Obama coped with the fallout over the video-tape of Rev Jeremiah Wright’s jeremiad about American racism and how Obama turned that into his own embrace of race as a topic he simply could not ignore for his campaign is a miniature essay on its own on Barack Obama’s own relationship with questions of race and racism in public life.

Obama’s description of his early crises, such as legislation addressing the 2008-9 financial collapse, or the struggle to pass the Affordable Care Act are rich, nuanced discussions of the complex negotiations with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress in order to gain sufficient support to see legislation through to passage. And these were in the period where the Obama administration was dealing with a Congress in which both the House and the Senate were in the formal control of his own Democratic Party. These parts too can stand on their own as monographs on the difficulties of creating policies to address national emergencies. 

Similarly, Obama’s discussion of his administration’s efforts at the Copenhagen climate change conference offers insights into the human elements of what could easily — too easily — become abstract discussions of abstruse things like cap and trade for emissions, carbon taxes, and the balance between developed and underdeveloped nations in reducing pollution. But the portrayal of Obama and his staff literally barging into a meeting of BRICS representatives and others, and offering a back of the envelope deadlock-breaking proposal is vivid and entertaining.

Obama’s description of his official visit to Beijing contains the very human recognition of how fatigue can afflict leaders and their senior aides. As Obama wrote of one state dinner, following an impossibly long day, “After five days on the road with our clocks turned upside down, our entire crew was running on fumes; at the table next to ours Larry Summers was fast asleep, his mouth open and his head lolling back, causing Favs [speechwriter Jon Favreau] to shoot out an email to the group: ‘It looks like SOMEONE’s in need of a second stimulus.’ ” Fortunately there was no international crisis that night!

In this memoir, Barack Obama also offers insights into the dynamics of his own nuclear family — from the tensions that arose from his various political campaigns to the way he and his wife, Michelle, found ways to keep the lives of their two daughters as normal as possible while in the White House. Still, as president, Obama cannot avoid being wistful for the normal life of others. 

As he wrote, “…it was around this time that I started having a recurring dream. In it, I find myself on the streets of some unnamed city, a neighbourhood with trees, storefronts, light traffic. The day is pleasant and warm, with a soft breeze, and people are out shopping or walking their dogs or coming home from work. In one version I’m riding a bike, but most often I’m on foot, and I’m strolling along, without any thoughts in particular, when suddenly I realize that no one recognised me. My security detail is gone. There’s nowhere I have to be. My choices have no consequence. I wander into a corner store and buy a bottle of water or iced tea, making small talk with the person behind the counter. I settle down on a nearby bench, pop open the cap on my drink, take a sip, and just watch the world passing by. I feel like I’ve won the lottery.” That is someone with a realistic sense of self, and a lack of pompous self-importance.

Towards the end of his second year in office, Obama’s narrative described how his team had begun to think through a more nuanced Middle East policy, addressing the complicated balance between pressing authoritarian regimes for greater human rights and the need to preserve stability in the region. But, as he wrote, “I was heartened by the fact that we were starting to steer America’s foreign policy machinery in the right direction. If only our timing had been a bit better.” This, of course, was at the precise moment of the explosion of the “Arab Spring”. What it shows, of course, is that a president can be hostage to events and developments over which powerful leaders have little or no control.

Judging by its title, some readers might believe that Carlos Lozada’s ‘What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era’ is satire. It is anything but.

Even for those events for which it could be assumed the president and his staff have rigorous control via the most technologically complex gear imaginable, it turns out he was forced to give the command to the operation’s commander to commence the assault on Osama bin Laden’s hideout via a borrowed, non-secure, open cellphone, during Obama’s official visit in Brazil. As Obama explained, “…with those four words, spoken into a device that had probably also been used to order pizza, I initiated the first new military intervention of my presidency.”

Late in this volume, Obama is given to musing about how it seems national unity only seems to coalesce around events like the death of bin Laden, rather than whether he could “rally the country so that our government brought the same level of expertise and determination to educating our children or housing the homeless as it had to getting bin Laden; if we could apply the same persistence and resources to reducing poverty or curbing greenhouse gases or making sure every family had access to decent day care.” Stepping back from himself, he worries his staff would see him as a hopeless utopian for even thinking about these kinds of ambitions. 

In fact, this second sight is one of the great virtues of A Promised Land. Obama is both the detailed and precise narrator of his trajectory, as well as the clear-eyed outside observer, sitting judgment of the musings of this hopeless utopian, and of his reluctant compromises at nearly every turn of the wheel.

In contrast to Obama’s own memoir, Joe Biden — American Dreamer by Evan Osnos is a political biography of a man who had served Obama loyally for two terms as vice president, and, at the time of the book’s publication, was, then, improbably, on course to win the presidency for himself. Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and his book has evolved out of a series of pieces he wrote for his magazine about Joe Biden. In the past several years, as he travelled with Biden or interviewed him on various occasions, it is clear Osnos became increasingly fond of Biden, and that he admired his ability to transcend political adversity, illness, and family tragedy. 

While Osnos’ book does not break major ground in psychological interpretation, it clearly offers fill-in-the-details, colour, and shading that will be helpful to many for understanding the nature of the man who will now become America’s president in just over a month. In that sense, it will be an invaluable reference point for people who must interpret this man for others. 

Or, as Osnos writes of the president-elect, “Joe Biden’s life was replete with mistakes and regrets and staggering personal loss. And, if he came to the presidency, he was unlikely to supply much of the exalted rhetoric that reaches into a nation’s soul. But, for a people in mourning, he might offer something like solace, a language of healing.” The books that explore, justify, or evaluate Joe Biden’s actions as president will come, but not yet. 

Barack Obama and Joe Biden form the two bookends that bracket the devastating presidency of Donald Trump. Despite a plethora of books about this presidency, according to James Kloppenberg’s review in The Washington Post of Carlos Lozada’s own book about the Trump era, readers really do not yet have a volume that gets to the core. 

Lozada is, himself, the Washington Post’s book critic, and Kloppenberg wrote of Lozada’s volume, “Judging by its title, some readers might believe that Carlos Lozada’s ‘What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era’ is satire. It is anything but. Lozada, The Washington Post’s nonfiction book critic, has read some 150 works assessing Donald Trump and his presidency and has produced an immensely valuable book that, in his words, delves into the ‘debates of this moment — from the heartland to the border, from the resistance on the left to the civil war on the right, from the battles over truth to the fears about democracy.’

“But Lozada sounds chagrined that the huge body of work that Trump has incited hasn’t added up to a richer intellectual portrait of his influence. ‘Too many books of the Trump era are more knee-jerk than incisive, more posing than probing, more righteous than right, more fixated on calling out the daily transgressions of the man in the Oval Office — this is not normal! — than on assessing their impact,” he writes. “Individually, these books try to show a way forward. Collectively, they reveal how we’re stuck.’ ”

If Lozada is right, it will be a while still before someone — but who? — actually manages to capture the Trump presidency and place it fully displayed in a case like a magnificent butterfly or moth (or, perhaps a poisonous scorpion) for us to marvel at. In the meantime, readers can do much worse than read Barack Obama’s own memoir and Evan Osnos’ shorter study of the incoming president, Joe Biden, for an understanding of what a president must do, and how a president must be. DM

A Promised Land, Barack Obama, Viking/Penguin Random House, 2020

Joe Biden — American Dreamer, Evan Osnos, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020

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  • As a man whose older daughter has a massive fascination with snakes, spiders and sundry creepy-crawlies, I would just like to point out that scorpions are not poisonous – they are venomous.
    The easiest way to remember is: “If you bite it and you die – it is poisonous. If it bites you and you die, it is venomous!!”

    • As somebody who used to collect bugs (and yes, a scorpion is not a bug) and raise snakes, I should have remembered that important difference.