Obama book is an intimate view of life in White House
Retired US President Barack Obama is the kind of political leader who can inspire the world to action if he chooses to rally support for a cause.
This was most evident in the just concluded US elections, during which he mobilised support for his former vice-president Joe Biden.
In all, a record of more than 350 million people came out to vote, and over half of them voted for Biden in one of the most dramatic elections the world has witnessed in recent years.
Now, Obama has pulled back the curtains of the White House, the official residence of the US president, for the world to peak inside and to understand what it is like to hold the powerful position that American like to self-indulgently call “the leader of the free world”.
A Promised Land, which will be released worldwide today, offers insights into some of the personal and collective decisions that propelled Obama, first into politics and later into the presidency, becoming one of history’s most unlikely candidates to occupy the Oval Office.
The book also sheds light on the intimate details that shaped Obama’s eight years as president, painting both a broad canvas of the weighty issues he had to grapple with as well as the little happenstances that inspired him every day.
He reveals that when he left the White House in 2017, he had hoped it would take him about a year to complete his memoir, which he expected to be short and crisp.
However, the project took on a life of its own and would not be completed until three and a half years later — and in two volumes.
The first volume, all of 750 pages, goes on sale today and will be available in over 22 languages globally.
“First and foremost, I hoped to give an honest rendering of my time in office – not just a historical record of key events that happened on my watch,” Obama writes in the highly-anticipated book published by Crown.
Crown is an imprint of Penguin Random House, the New York publishing company that paid Obama and his wife Michelle an advance in excess of Sh6.5 billion ($56 million) for their respective memoirs.
The amount is itself unprecedented in the history of publishing and of presidential memoirs.
A Promised Land is a superiorly crafted book with a cadence that chimes crisply like a bird song in the morning air from the very first word.
It has all the hallmarks of a work that springs from a deep well in the heart of the author with no hint of the contrived or the artificial.
Indeed, it reveals both the man and the office holder in often simple but humanising portrayal of the duality of being an American president and a man of flesh and blood.
“Of all the rooms and halls and landmarks that make up the White House and its grounds, it was the West Colonnade that I loved best,” Obama writes in the intimate memoir’s opening line.
He goes on to describe his relationship with the men and women who worked there, including the elderly groundskeepers, one of who pledged to remain in service for as long as Obama was president.
This was despite the fact that he was nearing retirement and had aches which made his work all the more difficult.
“…the groundskeepers in the garden – they were guardians, I thought, the quiet priests of a good and solemn order.
And I would tell myself that I needed to work as hard and take as much care in my job as they did theirs,” he writes.
Early on, Obama revisits his family story and the influence that his mother had on his world view, his moral vision and work ethic and how his grandparents kept him grounded even when he was seeking to find his footing in the confusing world that was his mixed racial heritage.
His father, Barack Obama Snr, was a Kenyan, while his mother was an American.
“Since I didn’t know my father, he didn’t have much input. I vaguely understood that he had worked for the Kenyan government for a time, and when I was ten, he traveled from Kenya to stay with us for a month in Honolulu.
That was the first and last I saw of him; after that I heard from him only through the occasional letter…” he says.
His mother later married an Indonesian and moved with her family to the Asian country for some years, giving Obama yet another view of the world shaped largely by economic inequality and class differences.
It was here, he reveals, that he started wondering what he could do to empower people to make a difference in their own lives.
Though he does not say so explicitly, it is also probably here that the seed of community mobilising was first planted before it blossomed when he moved to Chicago as a young lawyer.
“But I wasn’t concerned only with race,” he says. “It was class as well. Growing up in Indonesia, I’d seen the yawning chasm between the lives of wealthy elites and impoverished masses.
I had a nascent awareness of the tribal tensions in my father’s country – the hatred that could exist between those who on the surface might look the same…”
He goes on to describe his political awakening, revealing tongue-in-cheek, that his early reading of Karl Marx, Franz Fanon and other revolutionary thinkers was in most part inspired by the girls he was dating or whose affections he was courting at the time. Sadly for him, not every reading yielded the desired fruit.
Later on, he met Michelle while he was a law student at Harvard, and over time, shared with her his idea about making the transition from community mobilising to politics.
By then they were already married. With Michelle’s and his mother’s blessings, he took his first plunge into elective politics, vying for a local seat.
“I threw myself into my maiden political campaign. It makes me laugh to think back on what a bare bones operations it was – not much more sophisticated than a campaign for student council,” he reminisces.
There were many lessons he learned on that campaign, one of the most important being a candidate’s ability to respect the rules that govern elections, especially the requirement to meet the threshold for one’s name to appear on the ballot.
Obama would learn many lessons along the way, both in politics and as a husband and father, and he reveals details about how his success in politics strained his relationship with Michelle and how they had to recalibrate their relationship especially after he told her at some point that he had his eyes on a Congress seat, which he went out to seek.
He lost that battle but no sooner had an opening for a Senate seat presented itself, than he decided to throw his hat in the ring “one last time”.
“When I think back now on the brashness – the sheer chutzpah – of me wanting to launch a US Senate race, fresh as I was off a resounding defeat, it is hard not to admit the possibility that I was just desperate for another shot, like an alcoholic rationalizing one last drink.”
Joys of reading
Ahmed, the proprietor of Prestige Bookshop, one of the two bookstores selected by Obama’s publishers to distribute his memoirs in Kenya, described the book as “the most important presidential memoirs ever written” considering that Obama, the first African-American US president, was sharing his experience in one of the most powerful seats in the world.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of Africa’s most celebrated authors, in a review published in the New York Times, described Obama as “as fine a writer as they come” and the book as “pleasurable to read, sentence by sentence.”
A Promised Land lives up to the billing. Again, her characterisation of both the man and the work is interesting considering that for the first time, Obama reveals that writing was one of his ambitions as a young man after his mother introduced him to the joys of reading.
He eventually got his first publishing contract after he was elected president of the Havard Law Review, the first African-American to hold that position.
That was how Obama landed the contract to write his first memoir, Dreams from My Father, first published in 1995.
He later published The Audacity of Hope in 2006, ahead of launching his campaign for the 2008 US presidential election. — The writer is a partner and Head of Content at House of Romford. [email protected]