Generally, I’m an optimist. Not a cockeyed one to be sure, but
one of the uniquely American variety. A river of cynicism runs through it.
It may be related to former President Reagan’s comment, ‘trust but verify,’
or it could be attributed to dysfunctional parenting. I rarely read books by
politicians. I just don’t buy the fact that they were written solely to
‘share.’ Usually, they’re a prelude to a well-crafted future campaign.
Boring and insincere.
OK, John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage was an exception, but I was
still green and so was America (the late Sixties would soon change that). It
was only later that allegations surfaced that Kennedy’s book was, in fact,
mostly ghostwritten. No matter, it won the Pulitzer Prize anyway. A little
deception adds spice, as we Americans would later find out, over and over
So, that’s why I’m just now getting around to reading Obama’s The
Audacity of Hope. I wouldn’t have deliberately sought it out, nor paid
300+ baht to buy it. But as I was cruising the shelves of the AUA Library,
there it was. And his photo on the cover was so easy on the eye. But I still
hesitated, because the title had that political ring to it. Who but an
aspiring pol would write a book about ‘hope’ these days? But yes I did, I
did check it out. Light bedtime reading, I thought.
Wrong! Riveted might be a tad too strong, but totally engaged would be about
right. Obama ruminates through chapters on values, the American
constitution, faith, race, and international affairs among others. As an
American, I can tell you that to read well-reasoned, highly-informed and
intelligent opinions by a President is, well, somewhat of a shock. Maybe I
just have a selective memory, and having missed Lincoln by over a century,
it just hasn’t happened in my lifetime. But the thing is, it’s happening
now, at least I hope it is – the audacity of it.
On the American form of government, Obama says its creation was a singular
experiment for its time – not guaranteed to work at all. And he reminds us
that our founders’ central insight was that ‘republican self-government
could actually work better in a large and diverse society…where the
differences of opinion could promote deliberation and circumspection.’ Truly
a fortuitous insight because, at that time, American society was scarcely
diverse (Native Americans didn’t count, nor did slaves). It sure is now.
Deliberation and circumspection is certainly being given a run for its money
in America, if not in the entire world.
The checks and balances of America’s founding documents were designed to
force us into a conversation – not civil wars or coups – ‘deliberative
democracy’ as Obama puts it. Compare this form of government to Burma’s
‘disciplined democracy’ or Russia’s ‘managed democracy’ and perhaps you’ll
see why I’m waxing a bit sentimental about the home turf.
Actually, the word ‘democracy’ shouldn’t have need of any other words
preceding it. The definition of the word alone is sufficient unto itself:
government by and for the governed with freedom of expression as the
non-negotiable foundation. Is America there yet? Not totally in all things,
but we want to get there.
It’s in discussing his marriage that the ‘No-Drama’ part of Obama is tested.
When time-consuming demands of his political life caused his wife to say,
‘You only think about yourself. I never thought I’d have to raise a family
alone,’ he relates that he ‘was stung by such accusations, I thought she was
being unfair.’ We’ve heard this medley before, but not with totally
out-there frankness from such a prominent person.
Another book I picked up recently at AUA Library: The Fire Next Time
written in 1963 by James Baldwin, one of America’s prominent
African-American writers. Both Baldwin and Obama write openly, eloquently,
and honestly about their feelings on race, about those ‘invisible tears.’
But what a difference a day makes.
In 1963, the ‘Negro Problem’ was necessarily the centerpiece of Baldwin’s
prose. But in 2009, Obama only obliquely dwells on race per se, preferring
instead to reference America’s problems as affecting many – all the working
and non-working poor. And the conversation is not only about civil rights
enforcement – it’s about quality education, expanded technology, and
Obama has the luxury of a broader address, because he knows well upon whose
shoulders he stands to make this wide-angle view possible. His thoughtful
pondering of unique American tragedies such the death from a white
supremacist’s bomb in 1963 of four young girls in a Birmingham, Alabama
church, tells us we have a President whose feelings run deep.
The difference in orientation between Baldwin and Obama is great, almost a
half-century span. One such as Obama no longer needed to ‘make peace with
mediocrity,’ as Baldwin warned, no longer needed to remind that ‘we cannot
be free until they [whites] are free.’ Even this phrase sounds anachronistic
today, happily so. That’s why these two books should be read in tandem: they
are amazing tributes to a country’s progress, two voices counterpointing
each other across decades.
Baldwin cites the uncannily prescient quote from the late Bobby Kennedy in
1961: ‘There’s no question that in the next 30-40 years, a Negro [sic] can
also achieve the same position…as President of the United States.’ Search
YouTube for, ‘Barack Obama/Bobby Kennedy – Hope’ for an attention-grabbing
During the events of 9/11, while I was still in America, I remember watching
a news story about an African-American volunteer at the devastated Twin
Towers site. He said, ‘I feel just like a real countryman.’ The optimism
(‘invisible tears’) of that remark went straight to my heart, and I’ve
remembered it since. Baldwin would have understood.
In his own way, this volunteer was essentially saying, ‘my heart is filled
with love for this country.’ He didn’t say it just this way, but Obama did.
It’s the final sentence of The Audacity of Hope.
Yeah, I’m a fan but, like all aficionados, we don’t take disappointment
lightly. So, we need to do more than hope-along. We need to hold Obama’s
well-intentioned feet to the proverbial fire, so that the phrase ‘the fire
next time’ remains only the title of a book.