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Tilting at Windmills

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May 5, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GETTING TO KNOW OBAMA....Sally Quinn writes about Barack Obama:

The biggest problem that Obama has is this: We don't know who he is. Who are his people? Whom does he surround himself with? Whom does he listen to? Who gives him advice? He's so new to the national political scene that he hasn't had time to choose the team that would be with him in the White House. The more we see him in action, he's still just campaigning. He still has the quality of an unknown. And as attractive and likable as Obama is, we still need references.

Here's a peculiar thing: I agree with this, though in a different kind of way, and the reason I agree is that I've read Dreams From My Father, Obama's autobiographical "story of race and inheritance."

That is peculiar, isn't it? You'd think that after reading an autobiography you'd get a better sense of the author. But I didn't. In fact, there's a very oddly detached quality to the book, almost as if he's describing somebody else. This is clearest in the disconnect between emotions and events: Obama routinely describes himself feeling the deepest, most painful emotions imaginable (one event is like a "fist in my stomach," for example, and he "still burned with the memory" a full year after a minor incident in college), but these feelings seem to be all out of proportion to the actual events of his life, which are generally pretty pedestrian. Is he describing his real feelings? Is he simply making the beginning writer's mistake of thinking that the way to convey emotion is to use lots of adjectives? Or is something else going on?

Another oddity is that we get very little sense of what motivates him. In 1983, for example, he decided to become a community organizer, but says in the book only that he was "operating mainly on impulse." Even with the benefit of a decade of hindsight, the only explanation he can offer is that it was "part of that larger narrative, starting with my father and his father before him, my mother and her parents, my memories of Indonesia with its beggars and farmers and the loss of Lolo to power, on through Ray and Frank, Marcus and Regina; my move to New York; my father's death." That's not very helpful.

There's just something very peculiar about the book. I can't put my finger entirely on what it is, but for all the overwrought language that Obama employs on page after page, there's very little insight into what he believes and what really makes him tick. It was almost as if Obama was admitting to his moodiness and angst less as a way of letting us know who he is than as a way of guarding against having to really tell us. By the time I was done, I felt like I knew less about him than before.

Has anyone else who's read the book felt the same way? I can't really tell if I just had some weird idiosyncratic reaction or if there's something to this. If you've read it, let me know in comments what you thought.

Kevin Drum 11:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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You mean someone would really waste the time and money on his book when he hasn't even proven himself on the political stage? He is a nobody. He is all talk and no action. He is a spin master. At least Bill Clinton accomplished a lot when he was in office, therefore backing up his words with deeds. As of this date, and until and unless he proves otherwise, Obama is an empty suit.

Posted by: RightWingersCut&Run on May 5, 2007 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

Where's the rest of me?

Posted by: gwelix on May 5, 2007 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Take a look at the recent profile of him in the New Yorker. It's based largely on "Dreams ..." but fleshes out some of his deeper beliefs.

Posted by: justin on May 5, 2007 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

Is it that he's trying to distance himself from his ambition, as if there were something unseemly about it?

Posted by: cld on May 5, 2007 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

Nope, I didn't have that reaction at all. The events in many of our lives seem pedestrian to outside observers, but to us they're terribly important.

Posted by: AP on May 5, 2007 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

Didn't he write the "Dreams of My Father" book years ago? "The Audacity of Hope," certainly did not leave me feeling I didn't know what he believed.

Posted by: NewMexiKen on May 5, 2007 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

I'd just like to say that it's not very uncommon for some things to hit people far more emotionally than other, and of course sometimes we just react crazily out of proportion for some reason even to pedestrian things.

Posted by: MNPundit on May 5, 2007 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

"No man does anything from a single motive." S. T. Coleridge

Posted by: lampwick on May 5, 2007 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

I've only skimmed the book, but I get the impression that Barack wasn't thinking foremost about making a political statement. Ironically, I think he still isn't thinking his main thrust is to make a political statement, although of course now he must. The NightLine piece on Obama a week or two ago had all his former friends, teammates, HS basketball Coach, et al giving him high marks. They said he was a great guy, isn't phony, etc.

Posted by: Neil B. on May 5, 2007 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I think maybe you're expecting the wrong thing. I don't trust people who have systems of knowledge. From his books I can see a fluidity of thought and sensitivity. That's a good thing, as the last six years have demonstrated.

Posted by: chris on May 5, 2007 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

RightWingersCut&Run, what exactly did Bill Clinton accomplish before he ran for President? Barak's short time on the political scene is rather refreshing to me and at least for a short while I'd rather not see him surrounded by old-school politicians and advisors. Lets let him define himself a bit more, we have almost a year still to let his entourage define what his presidency will be like and we don't need time to discern that as his Presidency will rest on aged and schooled advisors to counter his youth on the scene.

Posted by: Tom on May 5, 2007 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

I think voters fool themselves when they adopt the conceit that they know any of the people they vote for. People do the same with celebrities and star athletes. The best one can do is to look at their behavior and make some guesses. The only thing I knew about George W. Bush in 2000 was that a guy who made his pile on taxpayer subsidies was unlikely to a have an approach to domestic policies that I looked upon with good feeling.

Posted by: Will Allen on May 5, 2007 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

Referencing the poll yesterday that Obama had pulled ahead of Hillary, this Newsweek poll shows her still ahead, but that Obama beats any Republican by a larger margin, and concludes,

All of the candidates can perhaps take some solace in Americans’ dissatisfaction with the way things are going in the United States at this time (only 25 percent are satisfied; 71 percent dissatisfied). American dissatisfaction ratings last hit 71 in the NEWSWEEK poll in May 2006, at the height of the scandal over secret government wiretapping inside the United States. The last time that even half of our survey respondents were happy with the direction of the country was in April 2003, shortly after the start of the Iraq war. With that many unhappy Americans, the nation should have a strong appetite for new leaders and new ideas.

Posted by: cld on May 5, 2007 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

I haven't read the book but Quinn's column is more than a little odd. She states that "Perhaps some of the many people who are supporting him sense that doing so brings out the better part of their nature." That statement rather eloquently describes why someone would make a good candidate. She then follows up by calling on Obama to basically release the names of his cabinet and White House staff.

Quinn and others in the MSM often treat some popular candidates as dangerous ciphers, individuals that must be held to a higher standard of specificity than other candidates. They demand that these candidates establish their bona fides in order to be taken seriously on issues of foreign policy or defense. The fact is that the bar has now been set pretty low in those areas. The greatest peril for this country in this election cycle is that we will let the perfect become the enemy of the good and again elect offal.

Campaigns are artificial constructs that are rather different from governing. No candidate can provide a list of probable cabinet officials at this point in the election cycle. Quinn knows this. If we want to learn more about Obama we should watch him as the election cycle progresses. Things will happen, Obama will respond, and we will evaluate those responses. Quinn's column is a FUD effort directed at Obama.

Posted by: rk on May 5, 2007 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

I have a generally positive view of Obama but there seems to be an amorphous quality about him. I want to know much more.

I don't really care for Hillary - I find her tedious and I know she can't help it. It's a problem for all white, male, divorced voters - the ex-wife-ishness, I mean (is that a word?)

I will vote for her if she is the candidate - no question.

Posted by: numi on May 5, 2007 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK


As far as your question re: "What Did Clinton accomplish before he ran for president?"

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Clinton

scroll down to: Early political career
then subsection: Governor of Arkansas

It appears you must be under 18. Please get your mother's permission before posting here.

Posted by: RightWingersCut&Run on May 5, 2007 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

Well said, rk. Quinn is being disingenuous.

I have a vivid memory of listening to one of the 2000 debates on the radio and hearing Candidate Bush talk about how strongly he disliked "nation building" and how his administration was not going to be doing anything of the sort. Looking back, the lesson I learned was that even the clearest statement of intent by a candidate can and will be dumped right out the window once you get into office.

In short, I tend to take firm policy statements by candidates much less seriously than I used to. I'm more interested in finding out how they think, how they make decisions, and what they inspire in the people around them.

As much as it is way, way too early in the cycle to be making a decision, if I had to pick a candidate today, it would be Obama, precisely because of his ability to inspire.

Posted by: fiat lux on May 5, 2007 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

I think you missed a lot, Kevin. The core of the book is a search for identity. Obama grew up not fitting anywhere. He was a half-African/half-American in Hawaii. He was an American in Indonesia. He was too bright and reflective to be an American black and too black to be an American white person.

The constant theme is the search for an authentic identity. At the very end of the book, he understands that his grandfather and father had exactly the same problem, albeit for different reasons.

I came away thinking that this is a man who knows himself to an uncommon degree. Most people have easy categories on which to base a personal identity. Obama has had to construct a sense of himself from nothing except those mysteries harmonics he feels when he is getting it right.

Posted by: mnstoryteller on May 5, 2007 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

Are we seeing the first tentative signs of Obama mania waning?

Posted by: alline on May 5, 2007 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

Someone should kick Quinn to the gutter and leave her there. Her comment on Clinton was the stupidest single thing that came out of the whole impeachment panty-raid. What a useless old hag.

Posted by: John Emerson on May 5, 2007 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

Posted by: mnstoryteller:
He was too bright and reflective to be an American black

Excuse me, but wtf are you trying to say here?

Posted by: Penon on May 5, 2007 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

This post reads very closely to one of the old "Gore doesn't know who he is" themes, and if Obama is the nominee, we're likely to see a lot more of this stuff. Attaboy Kevin, you're slightly to the right on the curve, if not entirely ahead of it.

Posted by: Martin Gale on May 5, 2007 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK


I don't know what's in mnstoryteller's mind, but be aware that in the African-American community, the term "bright" is often used to refer to skin tone - not intelligence. As a person of mixed race, his skin is lighter than many African-Americans, and so he might have trouble fitting in with that community. At least I hope that's what he/she meant.


Posted by: sam on May 5, 2007 at 2:57 PM | PERMALINK

"It was almost as if Obama was admitting to his moodiness and angst less as a way of letting us know who he is than as a way of guarding against having to really tell us."

I know what you mean, Kevin. It's like when people say, during well-lit national interviews, that they are "very private people". It's considered a positive in our culture, but what does it mean? Probably it's thought of as a hail-Mary pass when any tough questions appear.

The other point raised above is the one about ambition. When, in our bootstraps ethos, did that become a negative? Wanting to be president is now a sign that you're not fit for the job? "Kerry was in training for it all his life" -- so let's give to the Guy Least Likely to Succeed?

Is this a fucked-up country or what?

Posted by: Kenji on May 5, 2007 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

Posted by: sam I don't know what's in mnstoryteller's mind, but be aware that in the African-American community, the term "bright" is often used to refer to skin tone...

I'm lighter skinned than Obama and have never once been called "bright" in that way, nor have I ever heard the word used in the way you say it is used. Perhaps I grew up among the wrong black folks or something.

Posted by: Martin Gale on May 5, 2007 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

Posted by: Kenji Wanting to be president is now a sign that you're not fit for the job?

Only if you're a Democrat.

Posted by: Martin Gale on May 5, 2007 at 3:05 PM | PERMALINK


I'll clarify - that term was in regular use at the high school at which I taught in the Mississippi Delta. I've heard it used elsewhere, but I shouldn't have generalized to black folks anywhere and everywhere.


Posted by: sam on May 5, 2007 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

Other than his recent cowardice on opposing Iraq funding, I don't have any big beef against Obama but I still don't understand why so many people get SO excited about him. Where's the beef? Face it, Obama's reputation is hugely inflated.

Until I see some thing truly impressive from Obama I can't help but think that he is just the next Colin Powell. Some white people feel good about themselves for feeling good about a black guy. This phenomenon didn't serve us well in Powell's case. He ended up using his unearned respect to con us into a war using intelligence he knew to be false.

I want to see some real, honestly felt principles expressed by Obama, and I want to see him take some real political risks in service of those principles before I am willing to jump on any Obama bandwagon. Because politicians with weakly held principles that they will toss aside at the first sign of political turbulence are a dime a dozen.

Posted by: Disturbance on May 5, 2007 at 3:08 PM | PERMALINK

I think voters fool themselves when they adopt the conceit that they know any of the people they vote for. People do the same with celebrities and star athletes. The best one can do is to look at their behavior and make some guesses.

Excellent point. This is sort of the flip side of the "I'd think it would be fun to have a beer with Bush." delusion. You aren't auditioning someone for your new best friend. Let's all try and be adults this time around.

Posted by: Col Bat Guano on May 5, 2007 at 3:19 PM | PERMALINK

Sam, I'm familiar with that usage of "bright", mainly from literature of the Harlem Renaissance and old songs, where references to being, "light, bright and alright" abound (along with, "if you're yella that's mella, if you're brown stick around"). I wonder if these phrases are disappearing now, even in the deep South.

Posted by: Kenji on May 5, 2007 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK


I did not read this book but I read the Audacity of Hope. I did not feel anything like you describe. I was very much impressed that a politician could be so warm in his book - nothing like what any other politician has written.

Posted by: Paul Siegel on May 5, 2007 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

Asks Miss Quinn:

"Whom does he surround himself with? Whom does he listen to? Who gives him advice?"

Well, the last guy who surrounded himself with wise men effed up Big Time.

Posted by: Rula Lenska on May 5, 2007 at 3:42 PM | PERMALINK

"but these feelings seem to be all out of proportion to the actual events of his life, which are generally pretty pedestrian.'

Let's see, being the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, and spending most of your childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, is "pretty pedestrian?"

You must have an interesting group of friends, Kevin.

Posted by: brewmn on May 5, 2007 at 4:02 PM | PERMALINK

Until I see some thing truly impressive from Obama I can't help but think that he is just the next Colin Powell. Some white people feel good about themselves for feeling good about a black guy.

This whole 'Obama is popular because of white guilt' meme is bullshit. I support him because I like his rhetoric and his politics, and in spite of his race --- he would be stronger candidate in the general if he were white.

Posted by: goethean on May 5, 2007 at 4:03 PM | PERMALINK

mhr: "Perhaps with more Obamas types blacks will once again feel that free again."

Clearly, affirmative action got YOU where you are today. But do try to learn the language while you are here.

Posted by: Kenji on May 5, 2007 at 4:09 PM | PERMALINK

What unmitigated nonsense.

How much did Sally Quinn know about GWB? Even if she did how much of that has turned out to be false?

Posted by: gregor on May 5, 2007 at 4:18 PM | PERMALINK

mentally handicapped reject:

Louisiana, 1927. Look it up. that is when - and why - blacks left the Republican Party in droves.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on May 5, 2007 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

I find touchy-feely stuff about what particular candidates are really like to be unhelpful. What matters is how they think about issues. Hillary flunks almost all of those (the war and health care being the top of the list). Obama is good on Iraq, but he seems to be buying the bullxxxx that Iran is a threat, and he is hyping biofuels (a sop to Illinois farmers?). Of course Obama or Edwards would be head-and-shoulders over any Republican. But Hillary - nope, I couldn't vote for Hillary.

Posted by: bob on May 5, 2007 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

don't know what's in mnstoryteller's mind, but be aware that in the African-American community, the term "bright" is often used to refer to skin tone - not intelligence. As a person of mixed race, his skin is lighter than many African-Americans, and so he might have trouble fitting in with that community. At least I hope that's what he/she meant

And the use of the word bright with reflective. I guess he means Obama is a car.

Posted by: aline on May 5, 2007 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

Dear Kevin:

I'm glad you read the book. Despite it being on the bestseller list for so many months, it's clear not many people in the media have read all or even much of it. The Obama described in his "Story of Race and Inheritance" is not at much at all like the race-transcending Obama that the media assumes he is.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 5, 2007 at 4:48 PM | PERMALINK

I recommend everyone taking the $15 challenge: Send $5 each to Obama, Edwards and Clinton. Then, look at each candidate's response.

Obama's campaign called a couple of months ago. I did not donate because I sent money to Edwards. I told the caller this. The caller was still very kind and gracious and understanding as well as very passionate and articulate about his candidate. It was the nicest campaign contribution call I've ever received (callers from the National Democratic Committe - or whatever their name is have hung up on me TWICE when I tell them I only support specific candidates).

Anyway, after the Obama call, I felt like I had to reward his campaign, so I sent Obama $10. A few weeks later I received a classy and tasteful letter from Obama's campaign. Generally, all those mailings are hideous.

I was quite surprised by both the phone call and the mailing, and I thought, "This guy (Obama) surrounds himself with people who not only share his passion, but who also know what they're doing, and they do it really well."

I've given Edwards more money, but only received emails from his campaign. I haven't given anything to Clinton, and I've not her from her campaign.

I've told my friends, "Obama is not 'technically' the most qualified, but in a sense he IS the most qualified. He's a quilt. All the other candidates are single squares. Their individual squares may be more intricate and show more mastery, but they don't make a quilt."

And, Obama is winning me over. My support for Edwards is waning. I didn't expect that.

Posted by: Mr. Pink on May 5, 2007 at 4:50 PM | PERMALINK

RightWingersCut&Run, anyone who honestly believes what you wrote about Obama is too stupid to breathe on his own.

Posted by: Michael on May 5, 2007 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

Considering this is May 2007 it seems to me we will have plenty of time to "get to know" Obama and his people only if "journalists" like Sally Quinn bother to actually do some homework rather than sit on their cans and write drivel.

BTW, how does he spend on hair cuts?

Posted by: Mike on May 5, 2007 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, the disconnect you describe should be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever taken a creative writing class - or to the instructors of those classes, at least. Obama's extravagant feelings (as you describe them) probably aren't rendered so just because he's overly fond of adjectives. The "fist in my stomach," "burning with the memory" writer uses such trite, stock language because he or she believe that this is how people who feel things talk about those feelings. Young writers suffer this malady because they are, in fact, young: they haven't done anything yet, haven't felt or experienced much yet. They have no framework except for what they've read or heard from others - purely secondhand stuff - so they adapt their own stories to that framework. It makes for a weird combination of melodrama (assigning unearned emotion to events) and distance (because in a real sense, it's not their story they're telling).

So you might say that this speaks to Obama's lack of experience...as a writer, at least.

Now this doesn't account for purely political craftiness in telling one's story, of course. It's just another element.

Posted by: Waveflux on May 5, 2007 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

I have a hard time with Sally Quinn saying this because she is the consummate DC cocktail party circuit hostess who is really saying that he is not enough of one of them

Posted by: rkf on May 5, 2007 at 5:31 PM | PERMALINK

I have a higher opinion of the literary merits of Obama's "Dreams from My Father" than Kevin does. I think Obama would have made a fine novelist. His subsidiary characters are sharply drawn and, while he doesn't have much of a gift for dialogue, he is quite good at imitating how different kinds of people would deliver long speeches (if they were to get up on a soapbox). Whether these literary talents would make him a good President is a highly speculative question, but it might be refreshing to have a President who was good at something.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 5, 2007 at 5:38 PM | PERMALINK


Two observations:

1) Have you read "Audicty of Hope"? Having read both books, I actually feel like I have a fairly good sense of who Obama is. Though I admit, I read Audicty of Hope first. Maybe that's why.

2) Do you really feel like you have a better sense of who Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are? 'Dreams' may not be as illuminating as it could have been, but I find it pretty hard to believe that you don't come away from that book feeling like you know more about Obama than his rivals. I personally have freakin' clue what John Edwards or Hillary Clinton are really like or what motivates them. That's not a knock on them. It's just a fact of life about famous people, particularly politicians. After reading Obama's books, I feel like I have at least some idea who the man is and what makes him tick.

Posted by: Anonymous Liberal on May 5, 2007 at 5:57 PM | PERMALINK

I meant "Audacity" not "audicty," whatever that is.

Posted by: Anonymous Liberal on May 5, 2007 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

Let me crassly expand on what Kevin is hinting at.

The autobiography that Obama wrote at age 33 after being elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, "Dreams from My Father," is 442 pages of "Race and Inheritance," as the subtitle makes clear. That's it. There's almost nothing in the 442 pages of Obama's elegant but dense prose that doesn't have to do with the closely linked topics of "race and inheritance." Obama's thematic and aesthetic self-discipline is striking. Obama never tosses in an entertaining anecdote from his life unless it's tied to race and inheritance.

Apparently, Obama, at least during the extended period in his 30s when he worked on this book, was obsessed with race, and with the insensitivity of others toward him on account of his race and inheritance.

One big problem with the book, however, is that this preppie from paradise has enjoyed, on the whole, a quite pleasant life -- the top prep school in Hawaii, posh Occidental College in LA, Ivy League Columbia U., president of the Harvard Law Review, U.S. Senator, and now, at age 45, a leading candidate for President. And many of those nice things that have happened to him were helped along precisely because he was half black, and nice white people like to do nice things for well-spoken young black men like him.

And yet, at least through age 33, Obama seems self-obsessed and self-pitying.

A major issue is the dramatic gap between the race-obsessed Obama of the 442 pages and the "race-transcending" Obama that the media assumes he is today. Did he have some epiphany and change? Was he faking it back in 1995? Or is he not what the media assumes he is today?

These are rather important questions about a potential President, and so it's time for the press to sit down and work their way through Obama's memoir.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 5, 2007 at 6:01 PM | PERMALINK

Finally, it's clear that "Dreams from My Father" was _not_ ghostwritten. Any professional hack would have insisted that Obama make it more reader-friendly, less literary, and more entertaining. I'm not sure you can say that with the same degree of confidence about any other candidate's book.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 5, 2007 at 6:05 PM | PERMALINK

I've not read Obama's books yet. I suppose I'll have to. Ms. Quinn's column I found unhelpful; she appears to want very deeply to feel good about herself and her country, sees Obama as someone who can make this happen, and seeks assurance that what she sees is not an illusion. If it is, presumably, this will be Obama's fault, not hers.

I have no excess of interest in Sally Quinn's feelings, but she did say one thing about Obama worth commenting on: If elected, he would be older than Theodore Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Bill Clinton were when they took office. This is by way of addressing concerns about Obama's inexperience.

The record suggests something else. Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest man ever to become President when he assumed office in 1901, had already written several histories, been a major political force in multiple offices in the largest state in the Union, raised and led a regiment of volunteers in war against Spain, reformed the New York City police department, served Presidents of both parties as a Civil Service Commissioner and Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and made and lost money in the cattle business. Kennedy had had a Japanese destroyer cut his torpedo boat in half in the Pacific and served 14 (admittedly unremarkable) years in the House and Senate. Even Clinton had been governor of his (admittedly small) state for over a decade.

Obama spent several years as a community organizer, whatever that is, and has many friends and acquaintances who say he is authentic and a nice guy. He has also written a pair of books about himself. Now, that last is something I would never do on a very large bet. Otherwise, though, what Obama's record suggests to me is that if he should be President, I should be President.

In the world of the permanent campaign, image is vitally important. Obama is all aces in that area. The things needed to prosper in Campaign World, though, are largely unrelated to the things needed to govern effectively, something recent history has demonstrated in dramatic fashion. Whether Obama is authentic, comfortable with his own identity, or makes Style Section columnists feel good about themselves all strike me as secondary considerations. What I'd like out of the next election is relief from the long Dark Age of the American Presidency that we've been living through for almost 20 years now, but I don't want anything badly enough to see it in a Presidential candidate just because it has to be there.

Posted by: Zathras on May 5, 2007 at 6:09 PM | PERMALINK

Sen. Barack Obama is an amazingly complicated creature, full of hopes and doubts, inspirations and frustrations, dreams and fears, aspirations and ambitions, and plans and schemes.

He is that proverbial puzzle enveloped by a riddle wrapped by an enigma. -- as are we all, though most of us choose to not wear our humanity on our sleeves.

Obama has resurrected and elevated for the 21st century the fine and traditonal American art of poltical oratory. To paraphrase a cliche, his mere recitation of the ingredients on a cereal box would be far more interesting than anything I heard last Thursday night from those ten tired and pedantic middle-aged white males currently seeking the GOP presidential nod.

I actually felt personal embarrassment for Sen. John McCain, whose overought promise to follow Osama bin Laden "through the Gates of Hell" effectively reduced his formerly lofty stature as GOP front-runner to that of a poorly-drawn political caricature, furtively pleading for the public's attention in a crowded field of candidates. That shrill vow was so campy that one would think the good senator was auditioning for the part of "Ming the Merciless" in the next big-screen adaptation of the Flash Gordon comic book series, rather than aspiring to be our next President of the United States.

But I clearly digress. Anyway, my personal decision to support another candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination at this time, in no way diminishes my overall admiration of Barack Obama and his accomplishments thus far. He represents the promise of our party's future.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on May 5, 2007 at 6:15 PM | PERMALINK

First, I have to take issue with the comments by Mr. Sailer, who doesn't seem to acknowledge what at least the author thinks his book is about, his difficulty as a young man wrestling with the legacies of his family, particularly his father. I don't think the book is self-pitying; if anything it's self-lacerating. That's what makes the book different from the "campaign" books that the other candidates (and Obama himself) have put out--there are some really unpleasant aspects of Obama on display here. That said, he does show some of the difficulties that even a successful, relatively advantaged black man has to work through in order to be comfortable in his own skin. Mr. Sailer is mystified by the differences between Obama today and the Obama in the book, but that's the point, after all: the book is about how Obama wrestled with his difficulties and got to be the man he is today.

Kevin finds some of the passages "overwrought" and others "detached," and puts all this together to suggest that the book doesn't give you a true sense of who Obama is. I found this one of the most honest aspects of the book. It is not the case that our emotions naturally fall in sequence with events; sometimes small things set us off, and big things seem to pass by without us fully understanding them. Mediocre autobiographers rush to tell a simple story to account for their choices and behaviors, usually a ex post facto account that sounds plausible. I found Obama unusually honest in not trying to explain everything, and in letting uncomfortable or unknown aspects of his life linger in the reader's mind.

As many have written, I'm not sure how well you can know anyone from such a long distance. That said, I was impressed by Obama's skill as a writer and his honesty in examining a very important part of his life, his coming to terms with his family and place in America. I don't see why you would expect anything more from a book like "Dreams of My Father."

Posted by: Tom Burke on May 5, 2007 at 6:19 PM | PERMALINK

Um, Steve?

"One big problem with the book, however, is that this preppie from paradise has enjoyed, on the whole, a quite pleasant life..."

I suppose that depends on what matters to you. Some people might find it hard to have a father disappear. Or to be taken off to Indonesia, where you see a second father figure who's been permanently damaged by the horrors he'd seen.

As for being self-absorbed, I suppose that's in the eye of the beholder, too. Having known a number of Harvard Law grads, I can tell you there aren't many who've spend five minutes on the South Side of Chicago as a community organizer (or, for that matter, who'd work in any impoverished white neighborhood). Nor do I know many who passed up big money to become civil rights lawyers or successful state legislators. Obama in particular became known for a mastery of detail and an ability to understand people whose point of view was much different than his. That continues today.

So far as I can tell, none of that is the least bit consistent with self-absorption.

Posted by: TedL on May 5, 2007 at 6:31 PM | PERMALINK

Obama seems to be offering, as far as leadership, himself - as a symbol, as a bridge between communities etc. I want more. I want specific policies. That's why I like Edwards.

Posted by: dissent on May 5, 2007 at 6:39 PM | PERMALINK

I personally just don't get the appeal of Obama, except as Presidential Palimpsest. You can write anything you want on the guy, because there's virtually nothing pre-existing that would firmly contradict anything you might want to assert.

As a recent example, I gather that the neocons climbed all over Obama's foreign policy speech, embracing him as a soulmate, because they found enough in his rhetoric akin to their own to support their agenda.

How can it be a good thing to have a politician who is so slippery that nearly everyone, including those whom one would apriori expect to be his complete antithesis, thinks they agree with him?

Then there's the humorlessness, the sanctimoniousness, and the apparent utter self absorption with his own angst.

Honestly, if, in all of American history, there's ever been a good and effective political leader who has exhibited that constellation of traits, I'm not sure who it would be.

Posted by: frankly0 on May 5, 2007 at 6:42 PM | PERMALINK

"Preppie from paradise", Steve Sailer?

Just who the fuck are you, that you can so casually mock the man's roots and birthplace -- and my current hometown -- in such a derisive and dismissive manner?

For your information and enlightenment, Honolulu is the 12th largest single municipality in the United States, and the third oldest American city west of the Mississippi River (only Santa Fe, NM and St.Louis are older). Honolulu, as capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, also had telephone and electrical service and an efficient waste disposal system before most American cities in the 19th century.

Further, Punahou School -- Obama's alma mater -- was founded in 1841, making it the second-oldest American school west of the Mississippi River (the oldest is Lahainaluna High School on Maui, founded in 1831).

Not that you would care about such things. You're clearly the type that only sees our city as a place to get drunk and laid.

You're the one who's playing the part of the elitist here, not Barack Obama. And like most pseudo-intellectuals of your superficial ilk, the fact that you've not the slightest fucking idea what you're talking about proves to be little or no hindrance to your rendering an ignorant, race-baiting -- if not racist -- opinion.

but then again, what the hell do I know, living as I do out here in "paradise", right?

Aloha, putz.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on May 5, 2007 at 7:05 PM | PERMALINK

I did read the book and I didn't have you reaction...but on the other hand I read Audacity first. One striking thing to me...it's clearly the same voice that comes across in the writing.

Dreams of my Father is a first book, written in Obama's mid-thirties. As such, it's not surprising to me that some sections seem forced, or overwrought...the author himself admits to this in the 2004 intro.

As far as the "pedestrian" life he led, who are we to judge? Obama is clearly an introspective person, who reflects on his emotions and judgements...and challenges himself. Do you have to be abused as a child or experience overt racism for years to have strong emotions about your experiences? If you "should" have been grateful for your middle-class life...does that discount the effect of being fatherless with a mother who often wasn't there herself? Do emotions have a 1:1 equation with a "scale" of how much you've suffered?

In any case, I think you really have to read both to see the arc of Obama's life and thinking. It's hard to think of any politician who lets us in even that much. IMHO, it's part of what makes him feel "authentic" to people.

Posted by: rashomon on May 5, 2007 at 7:06 PM | PERMALINK

TedL claims that there's nothing in "the least bit consistent with self-absorption" with Obama being an ethnic activist in Chicago or becoming a discrimination lawyer.

But, if he would read Obama's book, he would see these decisions are all extremely consistent with Obama's obsession with "Race and Inheritance." It's all part of Obama's long quest to be accepted by African-Americans as one of them. It goes along with his joining and remaining active for the last 20 years in what the NYT calls an "Afrocentrist" church in order to belong to a black community. Similarly, in the book he pushes away a white girlfriend when he realizes that marrying her would mean living in a mostly white world.

Whether this is what you want in a President is a personal opinion, but the key point that's indisputable is that the media have been yanking our chains when they assure us that Obama "transcends race." That can only stem from ignorance of his book.

I congratulate Kevin on being one of the few to have an informed opinion on Obama.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 5, 2007 at 7:18 PM | PERMALINK

There's just something very peculiar about the book. I can't put my finger entirely on what it is... By the time I was done, I felt like I knew less about him than before.

Kevin, your reaction seems typical of people who have expectations of what they think Dreams From My Father is or should be.

Posted by: has407 on May 5, 2007 at 7:40 PM | PERMALINK

In other words, Kevin has been watching television for the last couple of years and heard all the happy-clappy media chatter about Obama. When he finally read Obama's pre-political autobiography, however, the man turns out to be radically different from what the media have been feeding us about him.

For the simplest, Occam's Razorest explanation of Obama's "story of race and inheritance" -- that it really _is_ a story of race and inheritance -- see my much denounced American Conservative article "Obama's Identity Crisis" at


Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 5, 2007 at 7:49 PM | PERMALINK

Steve Sailer -- I was not suggesting that people expect Dreams From My Father will affirm or validate what's been promulgated in the popular the press.

I was suggesting that many people seem to expect that Dreams From My Father will unlock Obama-as-Presidential-candidate, and are dissatisfied or uncomfortable when their expectations are not met.

Posted by: has407 on May 5, 2007 at 8:06 PM | PERMALINK

Rare post of Kevin's with which I actively disagree -- Josh Marshall nails Quinn's lame column.

Posted by: Subliminability on May 5, 2007 at 8:14 PM | PERMALINK

Why are people responding to Steve Sailer, who belongs to a hate group? When I was growing up, there was an elderly couple who used to give neighborhood kids candy. They were also Klansmen. The former did not make them good people. Just because Steve Sailer can string more words together than your average racist or hides his racism in hackneyed rhetoric doesn't make him a thinker worth engaging or of any influence. Fuck him. Ignore him and he'll shrivel up and die. He's like Mr. Hanky without the soul.

Posted by: Reality Man on May 5, 2007 at 8:37 PM | PERMALINK

He was too bright and reflective to be an American black

Excuse me, but wtf are you trying to say here?

Seems pretty straightforward -- that America essentially treats smart black men as an aberration, and it's done a weird/creepy manner that's distinct from pretty much any other group. You know: he's "articulate."

Posted by: Adam on May 5, 2007 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

Politicians - especially presidential candidates - are basically fake, invented people. They claim to be motivated by this or that, to care about this or that, but it's basically a lie from top to bottom.

I for one think it's a GREAT thing that Obama is causing some chin-rubbing because he doesn't say quite the same things, write quite the same way, surround himself with the same crowd as others.

That gives me hope that maybe - just maybe underneath Obama is a real live person...something that is simply not true of the others. You think John McCain or Hillary Clinton actually know what they think about anything any more? Hell no. People like them and Romney and Giuli lost touch with their own souls decades ago so that they could win elections.

P.S. - anyone who is annoyed that a presidential candidate is 'self absorbed' is sort of missing the forest for the trees IMO. Anyone who has the audacity to think that they should/could do that job BETTER be a little self-absorbed or they're in the wrong line of work. Presidents have always been partly about service, partly about personal power, ego-stroking, and #1. We can only hope that the person who wins is a little more about the former than the latte...

Posted by: ssdagger on May 5, 2007 at 8:52 PM | PERMALINK

Sounds to me like Rightwingerscutand run: is a typical edwards supporter. angry and hateful. Loves ripping on other dems to the point of sounding like a winger. And they always say the same thing, like well trained wingers.
It is very obvious what motivates him. His community organizing roots. He has this passion for public service and making it work for ordinary people. that may sound like crap to you but, I worked in social service and government and it is a very real passion.
But, you seem to miss the boat like many bloggers have. He is not someone like an Edwards. You guys always say you want someone different but, when that person comes along you look at it with same old eyes and miss the point. The person who is different is going to approach things and do things different. He won't pander to bigshots nor to the netroots. He doesn't want to be owing to anyone but, the people. And not to dance to others ideology.
To get to know who he is I would suggest strolling around the website. check out the blogs and what people write. Go to all the stops. YOu can get a feel of the person there.
And he won't be rushed on policy as he knows 2 things.
1. No matter what policy you put out, once it's done and submitted it will get worked over by many people of both sides and end up being something different. so you can do all the detail stuff and if you become prez, congress will work it over.
I say, what is the point? You are not going to get what is proposed.
2. A policy rushed out for the impatient is not worth the paper it's printed on. To do a good thoughful policy, you have to look at all angles and take your time.

Posted by: vwcat on May 5, 2007 at 9:14 PM | PERMALINK

What the F are you talking about?

Posted by: Kenji on May 5, 2007 at 10:12 PM | PERMALINK


Such a thorough analysis on so few words. Actually, I voted for Bill and I am a Hillary fan.

Posted by: RightWingersCut&Run on May 5, 2007 at 10:49 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks, Realityman. I hadn't seen Sailer before.

But in case anyone on this thread hasn't read the book, rest assured Sailer's misrepresenting it.

I can't pass without noting, though, Sailer's comment: "It's all part of Obama's long quest to be accepted by African-Americans as one of them..."

Wow, that's creepy.

Posted by: TedL on May 5, 2007 at 11:39 PM | PERMALINK

I thought Obama's memoir was one of the best-written books I've read in ages. As an English professor, I'm obliged to read many good books. Obama is thoughtful throughout, sensitive to ideas and people (like the little known Harlem Renaissance poet who lived out his years in Waikiki). Compared to what we've got? My word. By the way, I live in Hawai`i and really appreciated Obama's writing about this state.

Posted by: susan on May 5, 2007 at 11:40 PM | PERMALINK

I thought Obama's memoir was one of the best-written books I've read in ages.

Great credentials if he's running for Poet Laureate.

President, not so much.

Posted by: frankly0 on May 6, 2007 at 12:13 AM | PERMALINK

Obama's portrait of Hawaii in the 1970s has taken a bad beating form self-sacrificing reporters who talked their editors into sending them on an expense-paid late winter trip to Hawaii to interview his old schoolmates, who pointed out that neither Obama nor the people around him acted much like Obama claims in his book.

The funny thing is that Obama himself largely admitted in his book that his depiction of Hawaii was a fictionalized projection of his own self-pity and resentment.

On p. 340 of Dreams from My Father, he is in his late 20s, visiting Kenya, and on his way to meet his father's third wife (and second white American wife Ruth) and her son Mark, Obama's disturbing doppelganger, his half-brother who is home on vacation from Stanford, where he is a physics student.

"Ruth lived in Westlands [in Nairobi], an enclave of expensive homes set off by wide lawns and well-tended hedges, each one with a sentry post manned by brown-uniformed guards. … The coolness reminded me of the streets around Punahou [Obama's Honolulu prep school], Manoa, Tantalus, the streets where some of my wealthier classmates had lived back in Hawaii. Staring out Auma's car window, I though back to the envy I'd felt toward those classmates whenever they invited me over to play in their big backyards or swim in their swimming pools. And along with that envy, a different impression -- the sense of quiet desperation those big, pretty houses seemed to contain. The sound of someone's sister crying softly behind the door. The sight of a mother sneaking a tumbler of gin in midafternoon. The expression of a father's face as he sat alone in his den, his features clenched as he flicked between college football games on TV. An impression of loneliness that perhaps wasn't true, perhaps was just a projection of my own heart, but, that, either way, had made me want to run …"

Obama as the postmodern John Cheever of Hawaii ...

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 6, 2007 at 12:44 AM | PERMALINK

You know, Zathras convinced me at 6:09 pm.

I've been seduced by the image of Obama, but the American electorate must eschew image this time.

Makes me lean to Richardson as the candidate with the most experience, especially in foreign policy. Even BUSH sends him to talk with one of the axis (axises, axes?) of evil. And he's a successful Governor of a Western State. He did very well, I thought, in the debate. If he only had money, he could run for President.

Posted by: Cal Gal on May 6, 2007 at 12:49 AM | PERMALINK

You'd think that after reading an autobiography you'd get a better sense of the author. But I didn't. In fact, there's a very oddly detached quality to the book, almost as if he's describing somebody else.

I got the same feeling reading A Charge to Keep.

It was almost as if Karen Hughes had written the thing.

Posted by: Roger Ailes on May 6, 2007 at 12:55 AM | PERMALINK

I thought Donald from Hawaii nailed it, too, when he said "I actually felt personal embarrassment for Sen. John McCain, whose overought promise to follow Osama bin Laden "through the Gates of Hell" effectively reduced his formerly lofty stature as GOP front-runner to that of a poorly-drawn political caricature, furtively pleading for the public's attention in a crowded field of candidates."

Not only was he overwroght in saying it, he followed it with a maniacal grin that sent shivers down my spine. Has he really lost it to that extent? He often seemed to stumble and search for (and finally find) talking points that he could use to fill his time. And he looked at the camera instead of the moderator, the only one who did that, making him look too wierdly overeager.

Posted by: Cal Gal on May 6, 2007 at 12:55 AM | PERMALINK

Than again, what notable writings have any of the other '08 contenders produced? (Ok, a few, but nothing that seems to get the same attention.)

That Dreams From My Father is not the definitive political manifesto or the Rosetta Stone that unlocks the secrets of Obama should not be held against him.

It is what it is--a tale of one man's coming-of-age, told at a relatively young age. And although I think it is a well-told story, it is necessarily incomplete, given the age at which he wrote it.

Obama has provided ample evidence that he is thoughtful and articulate. He has not yet shown the same evidence of his ability to be President.

In short, judge the man as much by his contemporaneous words and actions--not simply on a literary work he produced 12 years ago.

Posted by: has407 on May 6, 2007 at 1:00 AM | PERMALINK

I can't see how Kevin would be confused by the book. It's plainly written as something of a racial odyssey. Obama sort of tips his hand when he cites a story about The Heart of Darkness. Dreams from my Father is something of a inverted image of that classic, where Obama travels through various stages of 'blackness'--Honolulu, Los Angeles, the edge of Harlem, South Side Chicago and, finally, Kenya, where the novel ends in a joyful epiphany. The climactic point of the novel is when he realizes that his whole life is connected to his father's ancestral home in Kenya. It all intersects there.

I can't pass without noting, though, Sailer's comment: "It's all part of Obama's long quest to be accepted by African-Americans as one of them..."

Wow, that's creepy.

No, it's an accurate assessment of the character Obama himself presents in the book. He's constantly being lectured by other black figures--his high school buddy Ray, the poet Frank, Marcus, Reggie, Will, Regina--on what he's supposed to do as a black man. The theme constantly reappears. In fact, two of the characters he disdains most are blacks who show little to no concern for race, specifically "Joyce" and his half-brother "Mark."

Something to keep in mind, too, when parsing this work is that Obama wasn't very honest about his back story, as a Chicago Tribune investigation found out. He never showed any sort of racial angst in high school. The main black character he uses turns out to have been a fictional creation--the real life Ray, Keith Kakugawa, insists he never discussed racial issues with Obama. The transformative article he read in Indonesia about blacks trying make themselves white is also a boldfaced invention. And, ironically, he skips over the only real racial discrimination he ever suffered, which was in Indonesia. But that was at the hands of nonwhite Muslims, which doesn't really fit into the theme he was developing.

Despite these large gaps in his story's veracity, I came away from the book with a greater appreciation of the man himself. Obama did think things through, and I imagine he put a lot of effort and worry into this book. He certainly deserves every plaudit being thrown his way for literary ability. The man can write.

However, writing ability alone is not a qualification for the White House. His life since 1995 shows no evidence of him getting past the racial antagonism you see in Dreams. As others have noted, he's a member of a radical black separatist church. Yes, given our country's history, you can excuse a minority for seeking refuge in this sort of thing, but we're talking about a man trying to be the president.

Posted by: Derek Copold on May 6, 2007 at 1:07 AM | PERMALINK

I haven't read the book, but I vote for "beginning writer mistakes", having made plenty of those same mistakes myself.

Politicians and lawyers don't necessarily make compelling authors, and vice versa.

Posted by: KathyF on May 6, 2007 at 2:12 AM | PERMALINK

Perhaps the most interesting character in Sen. Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance is his half-brother "Mark," even though he appears only briefly. Another half-white son of Barack Obama Sr., Mark, a physics student at Stanford, disturbs Obama with his lack of black racialism. He looks so much like Obama, but his values are so different.

While many whites fantasize that Obama "transcends race," the Presidential candidate's autobiography is actually obsessed with race. It's his estranged half-brother Mark who is the true post-racial man.

Mark is the son of Obama's father and his third wife (and second white American wife) Ruth.

Unlike Obama, who long dreamed of Kenya but knew little about it, Mark spent his summers off from his American studies in Kenya at his mother and step-father's upscale Nairobi home, where Obama met him in the late 1980s.

Here's the heart of the half-brothers' encounter:

"I asked [Mark] how it felt being back [in Kenya, from Stanford] for the summer.

"'Fine,' he said. 'It's nice to see my mom and dad, of course. … As for the rest of Kenya, I don't feel much of an attachment. Just another poor African country.'

"'You don't ever think about settling here?'

"Mark took a sip from his Coke. 'No,' he said. 'I mean, there's not much work for a physicist, is there, in a country where the average person doesn't have a telephone.'

"I should have stopped then, but something -- the certainty in this brother's voice, maybe, or our rough resemblance, like looking into a foggy mirror -- made me want to push harder. I asked, "Don't you ever feel like you might be losing something?'

"Mark put down his knife and fork, and for the first time that afternoon his eyes looked straight into mine.

"'I understand what you're getting at,' he said flatly. 'You think that somehow I'm cut off from my roots, that sort of thing.' He wiped his mouth and dropped the napkin onto his plate. 'Well, you're right. At a certain point, I made a decision not think about who my real father was. He was dead to me even when he was still alive. I knew that he was a drunk and showed no concern for his wife or children. That was enough.'

"'It made you mad.'

"'Not mad. Just numb.'

"'And that doesn't bother you? Being numb, I mean?'

"'Towards him, no. Other things move me. Beethoven's symphonies. Shakespeare's sonnets. I know -- it's not what an African is supposed to care about. But who's to tell me what I should and shouldn't care about? Understand, I'm not ashamed of being half Kenyan. I just don't ask myself a lot of questions about what it all means. About who I really am.' He shrugged. 'I don't know. Maybe I should. I can acknowledge the possibility that if looked more carefully at myself, I would …'

"For the briefest moment I sensed Mark hesitate, like a rock climber losing his footing. Then, almost immediately, he regained his composure and waved for the check.

"'Who knows?' he said. 'What's certain is that I don't need the stress. Life's hard enough without all that excess baggage.'

"… Outside we exchanged addresses and promised to write, with a dishonesty that made my heart ache."

Notice that it's Obama's own dishonesty that is (supposedly) making his heart ache -- he can't know what's in Mark's heart as they exchange addresses, but Obama knows that he never wants to hear from his own half-brother Mark again. The physicist is (at least) Obama's intellectual equal, but his realism about Kenya, his lack of an identity crisis, lack of black ethnocentrism, and lack of illusions about their mutual father leave Obama so uncomfortable that he doesn't want to see Mark anymore.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 6, 2007 at 2:56 AM | PERMALINK

Let me translate Quinn's column:

WaPo's Quinn calls Barack Obama "Boy".

Because that's really what's going on. This column is a 2007 update of Quinn's famous "trashed the place. And it's not his place" column in the Clinton years.

It's a sighting shot. Quinn is telling Barack he's going to be dealing with his betters if he makes it to the big house.

I hate to say this, but shouldn't this be obvious to anybody who's been watching how the Beltway operated under Clinton and Bush?

And if the aristocrats are already gunning for the man, it looks like an excellent reason to vote for him.

Posted by: lambert strether on May 6, 2007 at 9:29 AM | PERMALINK

Who are his people? Whom does he surround himself with? Whom does he listen to? Who gives him advice?

For many, a dark skin is enough. They don't really want to know.

Obama has been friends with Rezko for 17 years. Rezko has been a political patron to Obama and many others, helping to raise millions of dollars for them through his own contributions and by hosting fund-raisers in his home.

Posted by: Luther on May 6, 2007 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

"Whom does he listen to? Who gives him advice?"

His wife and David Axelrod would seem to loom largest here.

Samantha Powers would seem to be a significant factor in foreign affairs.

His Senate office staff is a cut above the usual for Illinois ( a low bar, admittedly)

Posted by: zenpundit on May 6, 2007 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

First off, I should say I will vote for the Dem nominee, whoever that is. I would highly recommend the New Yorker profile of Obama that Kevin mentions. I believe its called "The Conciliator" (& its free). I found it very helpful in understanding the man. 2 things struck me: 1.)the fact that he is so comfortable in his skin. How does that square w/ his apparent struggle with racism? Does it speak to his strong character or does it imply some inate personality? Secondly & more importantly, what jumped out at me was his essential conservatism. He is very wary of seeking fast, fundemental change. He doesnt think its possible. He also struck me as being detached from issues, perhaps as a result of his privileged background. If elected would he be a Pres we all feel good about but who doesnt fight for fundemental change? I want a fighter in the White House, not Mr Cool. The stakes are very high (see Iraq, global warming, income equality, health care). With Hillary, we would get someone who would work hard to accomplish things; granted within the parameters of Dem orthodoxy. Everything Ive read about her points to that. Shes always been a grind & she takes issues seriously. I believe she will want to revisit the health care issue & finish what she started. Is she the best person, b/c of her efforts in past, to actually fix the current health care mess?

Posted by: bikenut53 on May 6, 2007 at 2:31 PM | PERMALINK

I haven't read the book, but I vote for "beginning writer mistakes", having made plenty of those same mistakes myself.

Creating characters out of thin air and passing them off as actual people is a bit more than a rookie error. I mean, the guy just graduated from Harvard Law. He had to know this wasn't kosher.

Don't get me wrong, though. I still the like the book, and I recommend it heartily. I just think Obama should have called it a novel.

One thing I didn't think of in my first post is the subtle and skillful way Obama parallels his experience with his father with Harold Washington. Both were "Big Men" who died unexpectedly, leaving confusion amongst their retainers. You see the institutions plaguing Chicago mirrored later in Kenya and Africa: the featherbedding, the backroom deals and the petty jealousies. It really is a great work of art because it can generate a lot of fruitful discussion on a number of issues.

Posted by: Derek Copold on May 6, 2007 at 3:37 PM | PERMALINK

As others have noted, he's a member of a radical black separatist church.
Posted by: Derek Copold on May 6, 2007 at 1:07 AM

From what I've read, Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ, which is a mainstream, majority white denomination, also known as Congregationalists; you know, like the Pilgrims and such. Here's a link to the UCC website with an article about Obama's membership.
Barak Obama: UCC Member

I'd be interested to hear other info.

Posted by: rosie on May 6, 2007 at 6:55 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I've read the book and strongly disagree with you; his book definitely helps me understand him. Getting all worked up about pedestrian events is pretty typical for adolescents and young adults.

Posted by: KidinEvanston on May 6, 2007 at 8:24 PM | PERMALINK


His church is affiliated with UCC, but it's specific principles are not "mainstream." http://www.tucc.org/scholarship_pdf/black%20value%20system.pdf

Posted by: Derek Copold on May 6, 2007 at 8:50 PM | PERMALINK

There's nothing NON-mainstream about Trinity United Church of Christ.

As an Black woman, I recognize the deepest and best traditions of the Black Church in Trinity. Jeremiah Wright is no 'Prosperity Preaching Pimp.'

He's from the old school - Christianity, Responsibility, and doing for ones self.

I argue that so many have a problem with Trinity because it doesn't fit the ' oh woe is me Jesus' stereotype that so many have of the Black Church.

It is a church filled with successful African-Americans, who also know that they:
1. didn't do it alone
2. that 'to whom much is given, much is expected'.
3. don't expect others to do for your community what you won't do for yourself.

There's a reason Dr. Wright didn't move his megachurch OUT of the city to the suburbs. He wanted it to be an obvious anchor TO the community. A beacon for what is possible. It's no coincidence that it's literally located across the railroad tracks from a housing project.

Posted by: rikyrah on May 6, 2007 at 9:39 PM | PERMALINK


The church is explicitly organized around racial principles, as its document makes clear. If Obama were just another citizen, or even running for a local office, I wouldn't give it another thought. As he's running for President, though, it becomes a different matter. It's certainly legitimate to question their principles, their meanings and Obama's adherence to it.

Posted by: Derek Copold on May 6, 2007 at 10:06 PM | PERMALINK

Hey, check this out:
Republicans defect to the Obama camp:
Times Online UK

Posted by: Neil B. on May 6, 2007 at 10:24 PM | PERMALINK

What Drum and several others don't seem to get is that if you look like a black man in the U.S. you're treated like one, and if like Obama you grow up mostly outside black U.S. culture, you have a sort of double problem. Honolulu, especially Punahou, has very few African Americans and is not going to prepare you well for the racial culture of the mainland.

One of the basic differences race makes is that white people, in most parts of the U.S., don't have to give a lot of thought to what it means to be a white person. Someone like George Bush can be a fake Texan and we all indulge him: his right to be here, and to pick up and discard various white identities, is unquestioned. If you're Barack Obama you're going to be asked repeatedly, from childhood through to Sally Quinn, who are you, what are you, are you really one of us.

What educated bigots then do is a double move: the moment you raise race and deal with it you're "obsessed" and "self-pitying." In any case Obama's current self-possession clearly has a lot to do with having worked through this stuff.

The related point, as anyone who reads the New Yorker profile will see, is that Obama is in some respects a Burkean conservative. People need to get used to the fact that not every black politician is Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, or for that matter Alan Keyes or J.C. Watts. Obama's a smart, thoughtful centrist, and you can support him or not on that basis, but the calls for him to take "risks" seem a little weird.

Posted by: C on May 7, 2007 at 1:10 AM | PERMALINK

That Steve Sailer guy seems to have craftily created "Derek Copold" as his sockpuppet to buttress his fairy tales about Obama's supposed obsession with "race consciousness".

Posted by: tecumdas on May 7, 2007 at 1:49 AM | PERMALINK

I thought I got a very good sense not necessarily of who Obama is, but of his path to becoming the person he now is, and of his temperament, values, and thought processes. Since I happen to think these are quite a bit more indicative than policy stances or professed beliefs of how a person will operate in the fluid and fraught environment of national politics, I was quite pleased to get an unfiltered look at the way a candidate thinks and how grew into the person we see now, and came away much more impressed than I was going in. The book is all about the search for identity and community in the face of fragmentation and alienation, both of which are very real battles for many young liberals, and thoughtful young Americans in general. I thought it was pretty clear that the search for some sort of authentic community, and an authentic personal identity within said community was what drove him into organizing, and what brought him back to religion later as well.

I came away most impressed with his ability to empathize, his fair-mindedness, his pragmatic idealism, and his ability to struggle and assimilate the many fractious parts of his identity and experience. He hasn't transcended race, he's figured out a 3rd-way that acknowledges and grows out of his experiences as a black American, but refuses to be wholly defined or constrained by them. A way forward from identity and issue politics to a broader liberal/progressive outlook, in other words. I like what I see, though I'm still going to be wary of the vulnerability of his thought processes to reflexively compromising and poll-watching DLC-ish tendencies.

Something else I was impressed with was his sense of the importance of stories. His ability to tell his stories in a way that allows him to both figure out who he is, and reach out to others is vital. I think Kerry's inability to or fear of telling his compelling and potentially resonant personal story about his experiences with Vietnam had a lot to do with his loss in '04, and I'm excited to see a candidate who can tell us compelling stories about who he is, who we are, and what we can strive to be as a country.

Posted by: J. Dunn on May 7, 2007 at 2:56 AM | PERMALINK


Steve didn't craft me. I'm a real person. I'm not even posting under a pseudonym. I've read the book, and while I wouldn't be as harsh on him as Sailer, Sailer's interpretation is the more correct one.

Posted by: Derek Copold on May 7, 2007 at 9:19 AM | PERMALINK

I fully agree with J. Dunn's comment.

Posted by: Korha on May 7, 2007 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

i also read the book and when i look at his adult life choices i see the roots of them in Dreams from my father. maybe being my non-whiteness helps. it's called epistemological privilege.

maybe this mature perspective can help:


Posted by: pk on May 7, 2007 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

i have to add that i thought kevin was quiet dishonest in this blog. if you truly read all 3 parts of the book, there's no way you come out not knowing who you just read about.

Posted by: pk on May 7, 2007 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK



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