Twenty-odd years ago, my aunt sent me a book, explaining that it was a memoir written by a friend’s son who’d just finished law school. “He’s a smart young guy, and I think he’s a really talented writer,” her note said. I didn’t read the book; the genre of Books by Friends of Relatives is a dismal one, and churlishly I didn’t think a fellow writer two years my junior was old enough to be publishing a memoir. Instead, I gave the book away to a library donation. Bad mistake. Do you know what a first-edition hardcover of Dreams From My Father goes for today? Worse, I had the chance to gain advance insight into the man who would become our 44th president, and flubbed it.
The handful of people who knew both of Barack Obama’s parents includes my aunt and uncle. Decades ago they lived in Kenya, where my uncle worked for a development institute whose mission included recruiting talented young Kenyans to study for graduate degrees in economics at Harvard. One of the young recruits was Barack Obama Sr. By sheer happenstance twenty years later, in the mid-1980s, having moved on from East Africa to Indonesia, my aunt and uncle became friendly with Ann Dunham, Obama’s mother, who was living in Jakarta and working in the same development-banking circles my uncle worked in. Barack was already back in the States, so they only met him once or twice. But they were impressed.
As I sit down to write this, Obama is beginning his penultimate full day as President. Last night before he went to bed, if he was true to form, he spent an hour reading. Not position papers, but a novel or book of history. The president’s bookish ways are captured in this profile by New York Times book maven Michiko Kakutani. Kakutani states that “not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped—in his life, convictions and outlook on the world—by reading and writing as Barack Obama.” Though of course most presidents claim to read lots of books, the only ones in my lifetime who truly seemed like book devotés were Nixon and Carter, and maybe Bill Clinton, a powerful information acquirer who sucked up books in the process. But Obama, as Kakutani suggests, is something altogether different. Obama cherishes books and writers and language itself. He is not a president who happens to write well and loves to read. He’s a writer—and reader—who became president.
It still seems so unlikely. Most politicians I’ve known have had a fairly limited interest in books, reading and even ideas per se. One young friend of mine is a highly influential politician in our state. His political gifts—his savvy in finding agreement with colleagues, his nose for how the votes line up, his ability to summarize complex legislative issues and articulate them, his finely calibrated calculation of what is practicable—are almost uncanny. But nothing about these aptitudes or their focus is abstract or theoretical. He’s not interested in Robert Putnam’s notion of how a dwindling communitarianism is sapping social cohesion, expressed in the metaphor of “bowling alone”; he’s interested in the politics of the zoning ordinance that determines the fate of the bowling alley. I know there are exceptions, but most politicians have little time for any idea in excess of what is necessary for the deal that can actually be done. The skilled politician is a diplomat, power-wielder, and dealmaker. My young politician friend is very smart about politics, and he’s well educated too. But when I email him, say, a Mark Lilla essay from the New York Review of Books—well, as I said, he’s a master diplomat. Thanks for sending!
I don’t know why this should come as a surprise and disappointment—who do I think is running things, David Hume?—and yet it does. That’s probably because (confession coming) I tend to see the world as a huge seminar, where ideas are enacted, embodied, discussed, picked apart and put back together in altered form; while the politician sees the world as a place where things get done. Still. When a journalist profiling Bernie Sanders raised the topic of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and observed that the candidate would be about as likely to read that book as he would be to pick up a New York taxi cab and hurl it across the street, I was discouraged. First, wouldn’t a guy whose political platform was so firmly based on a critique of capitalism want to be up on the latest version of that critique? But second, if Bernie is a politician who doesn’t read, then who is one who does?
Obama, that’s who. In Kakutani’s article we learn that during his Presidency he has delved into the writings of Shakespeare, Lincoln, MLK, Gandhi...but also Colson Whitehead, Daniel Kahneman, Elizabeth Colbert, Junot Diaz, and Jhumpa Lahiri. He enthuses over popular literary or genre novels like Gone Girl and Fates and Furies. He famously interviewed novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson in the New York Review. He even admires the Hugo Award–winning apocalyptic sci-fi epic The Three-Body Problem by the Chinese writer Liu Cixin. Well, he’s got me there. Never heard of it!
From the moment he appeared in the national spotlight, Obama seemed less presidential than professorial. To me he suggested that familiar figure, the Coolest Professor on Campus—articulate and witty; friendly but a little bit detached, with a self-regard nicely tempered by irony; a superb performer in class who might be hard to get hold of in office hours. It’s an attractive character type—but fundamentally an outsider, an observer and commenter, in love with ambiguity and prone to sardonic views and comments. A writer, in other words.
How does the Cool Professor become president in the first place? One answer is the triumph of mass media over the political machine; one thing Obama and Trump have in common is that both reached over the heads of their parties to voters themselves via a media-delivered appeal: Obama with his soaring oratory, and Trump with his TV and social-media ubiquity. This end-run around traditional political structures makes it likely that we’ll continue to see Presidents with unconventional skillsets. In the space of half a century we have moved from a President like LBJ, a crude bumpkin in his public image but a monster powerbroker behind the scenes, to Presidents whose rise is based largely on their media appeal.
But there is still the unusual reality of the writer as president. Here is Obama, in the Kakutani interview, on the role of stories and politics in his life:
[E]ven though by the time I graduated [from Columbia] I knew I wanted to be involved in public policy, or I had these vague notions of organizing, the idea of continuing to write and tell stories as part of that was valuable to me. And so I would come home from work, and I would write in my journal or write a story or two.
The great thing was that it was useful in my organizing work. Because when I got there, the guy who had hired me said that the thing that brings people together to have the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issue, it’s that they have shared stories. And he told me that if you learn how to listen to people’s stories and can find what’s sacred in other people’s stories, then you’ll be able to forge a relationship that lasts.
But my interest in public service and politics then merged with the idea of storytelling.
Again, it’s unusual, in my experience, that these interests would merge; that a practitioner of politics would also be a person in love with stories. Not that a politician would lack a handy repertoire of stories to tell—they all have that, of course. But that kind of story is a talking point for the perpetual campaign; a tool to lure voters and pad interviews. Consider, in contrast, the kind of young reader-writer Obama was. In the Kakutani interview he describes himself as having been “hermetic,” “very intense, and kind of humorless.” And those short stories he was writing? They were often about much older people, and imbued with what in retrospect he calls “this sense of loss and disappointment.” Looking back, Obama sees “not a lot of Jack Kerouac, open-road, young-kid-on-the-make discovering stuff. It’s more melancholy and reflective.”
Melancholy and reflective. Not exactly campaign stuff. As for all those books read while he was president, Obama told Kakutani that reading helped him maintain balance while working in “a place that comes at you hard and fast,” and—channeling the advice of Atticus Finch from one of his favorite novels—that it helped boost “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.” These two things, he added, “have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say.”
It’s a terrific question. Is it possible that literature, with its long apprenticeship in ambiguity and imaginative sympathy, may enrich you as a person while disabling you as a decision-maker? If you’re the president, after all, those decisions will often have huge downsides; you may be choosing between greater and lesser evils, and many victories may turn out to be Pyrrhic. And how does it help you to walk in another man’s shoes when you may be raising that other man’s taxes—or ordering his death by drone? By accustoming you to seeing from multiple points of view, being well-read can suspend you in perpetual ambivalence. I recall Cecil Day Lewis’ comment about abandoning philosophy for poetry because in studying philosophy he found himself always agreeing, led by strongly persuasive philosophers first in one direction, then another. Finally, being the perpetual outsider and observer, while conducive to writing novels, may be antithetical to a certain joie de combat that is one requirement of effective governance in a democracy.
Unsurprisingly, as a book person, I’m already missing Obama. After all, how often can a critic hope to take literary recommendations from the White House? The obvious fact is that those of us who find life impossible to imagine without books know we are losing a soulmate in the White House—in exchange for someone whose ghost writer insists he has never read a book cover to cover. And in the end, I have to believe in the power of books to inform and enlighten power; to improve a president in his capacity not as president, but as human being. Is this merely my own obvious professional preference? Some years back I was on a committee tasked with coming up with a questionnaire for my twenty-fifth college reunion. We were brainstorming on a whole range of things involving professions, lifestyles, hobbies, and priorities, and I suggested including the question, “How many books have you read in the last year?” Another guy on the panel, who had spent his career in finance, bristled and turned to me. “Why don’t we ask, ‘How many business deals have you closed in the last year?’” he said. Sputtering a bit, I attempted to explain what I took to be the special function of books, especially to what was, after all, an institution of higher learning, not a business school.
In retrospect that exchange between the two of us—“How many books have you read?” brusquely rebuked by “How many deals have you closed?”—seems a harbinger of the particular deal that will be sealed in Washington DC on Friday, when the poet-president steps off the stage, and the plutocrat-president steps onto it. I can’t help but be deeply glum about it, and anxious. Another chapter closes in our nation’s history, but I’d rather not turn the page, for fear of what happens next.
Whether they’ve made me a better president, I can’t say. When historians and biographers assess Barack Obama’s presidency, they will surely reckon with these writerly traits of his. I’ll await their assessments eagerly. But not half as eagerly as I’ll wait for Obama’s own memoir—a work by a writer, after all, returning to his roots. This time I won’t give it away.