Book Review: Barack Obama’s ‘A Promised Land’

Barack Obama is as fine a writer as they come. It is not merely that this book avoids being ponderous, as might be expected, even forgiven, of a hefty memoir, but that it is nearly always pleasurable to read, sentence by sentence, the prose gorgeous in places, the detail granular and vivid. From Southeast Asia to a forgotten school in South Carolina, he evokes the sense of place with a light but sure hand. This is the first of two volumes, and it starts early in his life, charting his initial political campaigns, and ends with a meeting in Kentucky where he is introduced to the SEAL team involved in the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Obama’s thoughtfulness is obvious to anyone who has observed his political career, but in this book he lays himself open to self-questioning. And what savage self-questioning. He considers whether his first wanting to run for office was not so much about serving as about his ego or his self-indulgence or his envy of those more successful. He writes that his motives for giving up community organizing and going to Harvard Law are “open to interpretation,” as though his ambition were inherently suspect. He wonders if he perhaps has a fundamental laziness. He acknowledges his shortcomings as a husband, he mourns his mistakes and broods still on his choice of words during the first Democratic primaries. It is fair to say this: not for Barack Obama the unexamined life. But how much of this is a defensive crouch, a bid to put himself down before others can? Even this he contemplates when he writes about having “a deep self-consciousness. A sensitivity to rejection or looking stupid.”

The highlight of the political memoir is the gossipy bit, the small detail that surprises or upends what we imagine we know. That rousing rallying cry of the Obama campaign, “Yes We Can”? It was Axelrod’s idea, which Obama thought corny, until Michelle said it wasn’t corny at all. Think of the iconic image of Jesse Jackson crying on the night Obama won the presidency. Here, we learn that Jackson’s support for Obama’s presidential campaign was “more grudging” than the enthusiastic support of his son Jesse Jackson Jr. And how odd, that the first family pays out of pocket for food and toilet paper. Who would have thought that it would be generals rather than civilians who counseled Obama for more restraint in the use of force throughout the eight years of his presidency? Or that he is actually a slow walker, with what Michelle called a Hawaiian walk, after so many images of him nimbly bounding up plane steps, striding across the White House lawn? Or, given his image of tireless discipline, that he is “messy” in that childlike absent-minded way that only men manage to be, knowing that someone will see to the mess. Someone usually a woman.

Sorry, the review is out of the NYTimes, so there’s a paywall, but as of this morning it is the only review of the book online.