Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Obama Book is Fine, Man

by Charlie Leck
[17 April 2007]

This is a review of Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope; however I must come to this essay’s real purpose only after making a wide, sweeping turn that will eventually bring me back to my task. It’s my blog! I’ve got my rights!

I think the objective person would admit that the Democratic Party has three very good, viable and electable candidates competing for the presidential nomination that will we awarded in the summer of 2008. I could not only vote for any of them or each of them, but I would be proud to do so and confident that any one of them will lead this nation exceptionally well.

For the record: As of this day, 17 April 2007, I am leaning toward Barack Obama as I watch him campaign for the presidency of the United States. The Senator from Illinois has impressed me in so many ways. Though I’ve been impressed by his natural charisma and his remarkable speaking ability and the patience he shows toward both the general public and the press, I am most pushed to him as a result of reading his very good book, The Audacity of Hope.

Why do certain people have that remarkable ability to catch people’s attention and hold it – charisma? The American Heritage Dictionary (4th Edition, 2000) defines it as “Personal magnetism or charm” and further calls it “a rare personal quality attributed to leaders who arouse fervent popular devotion and enthusiasm.” It comes from the Greek: kharisma – for “divine favor” or “to favor.” I’m not sure it should be reserved to describe attributes only of leaders. I’ve met rather unknown housewives and a bartender who have it. There’s just something about certain people who can, like a magnet, draw people’s attention and interest. John Fitzgerald Kennedy had an overdose of charisma. Princess Diana had nearly as much of it. Billy Graham interestingly had it, too. I was attracted to Graham even though I didn’t appreciate his approach to religion or Christianity. Jesse Jackson had loads of it when I met him the first time. He sprung a leak somewhere along the line and it got away from him.
Obama stopped at a few campaign gatherings early in his campaign not expecting anything near a crowd of people. The new campaign staff hadn’t had an opportunity to plug the events very forcefully – it’s called advance work. Nevertheless, there wasn’t room for all the people who showed up. Thousands showed up at some of his book signings where plans were laid out for a few hundred. The same thing happened during his campaign’s first major fund raising effort this year. Most all expectations were that he wouldn’t come close to matching Hillary Clinton’s efforts, but neither would he be embarrassed. In fact, he matched Hilary nearly dollar for dollar – and, Obama’s totals were spread out over a far larger number of individual donors. It shows Obama appeals to the little person.

There will be many more tough tests ahead, but let’s just say that he will probably meet them all quite well. I hope he avoids any major gaffs so that he will be in contention late into the race. If he does, the stretch run will be quite exciting.

Now, to the book. I’ve read it twice – twice very carefully. The reports are that he wrote it himself – completely. Of course, an editor at the publishing house would have carefully combed through it, removing stray hairs and those with split ends. This book reads like Barack Obama speaks (talks). It has a strong and clear voice and it doesn’t stumble. It moves along very smoothly and the reader won’t find himself stumbling and needing to go back to reread sentences. The book gets an A+ for reading style and the smoothness of its writing.

As far as I’m concerned, there are two other elements by which I judge such a book. (1) Is it interesting – captivating – and does it hold my interest? (2) Is it logical and do its arguments make sense? He gets another A+ and an A. I’ll tell you why.

It held my interest because it is personal. Obama deals honestly with his own human weaknesses and strengths. He tells us stories about his own family, his childhood, his education and both the big and little people he’s met along the way. His campaign for election to the U.S. Senate from Illinois gives the book its foundation, but it sends branches out here and there into other times and periods in his life.

I was captivated by most of these anecdotal interruptions. They were always used with great purpose, but I wouldn’t have cared if they had not been because they were just plain interesting to read. His account of a trip to Omaha to meet with the monstrously wealth Warren Buffet was one of my favorite moments in the book. I’d say it was worth reading the book just to come across this remarkable and helpful account. Buffet decided last year to give away about 34 billion dollars to various foundations and charitable endeavors – approximately 29 billion of it to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
I just wanted to remind you how astronomically wealthy Buffet is.

“If there’s class warfare going on in America, then my class is winning” [Warren Buffet, Page 189]

That’s what Buffet said to Obama as he sat in the wealthy man’s office in Omaha – a simple office with no special ornamentation. When Obama entered, Buffet’s secretary hollered to him, directing him to “come on back.” Buffet wanted to talk taxes. He wanted to know why he was paying so little and his secretary was paying so much. He wanted to know why the Republicans in Washington wanted to keep cutting taxes for the rich. Buffet wanted some of the great wealth of the nation and its wealthiest citizens to get “plowed back into education and infrastructure and for the few who lose out in a market economy.”

“It just makes sense that those of us who’ve benefited most from the market should pay a bigger share.” [Warren Buffet, Page 190]

That’s what I tried to tell one of my brothers on the night in the year 2000 that he called to gloat over the election of George W. Bush to the presidency. I was in a bad mood and not prepared to take any of his ribbing. I couldn’t believe the nation had elected George W. Bush. Why, I wondered, was my brother, a hard-working, middle-class kind of guy, so interested in policies that were only going to make the wealthier even more wealthy? Why did he favor cutting way back on educational programs and the general infrastructure of the nation in favor of giving tax breaks to the wealthiest three or four percent of the country? And why was my brother so interested in getting rid of the estate tax – a benefit that would only profit the top one or two percent of the nation? People like my brother already had an exemption on the first 7 million dollars that wanted to leave to their heirs. Did he need a bigger exemption than that? It didn’t make sense to me and, now I was learning, it didn’t make sense to Warren Buffet either. If you don’t read anything else in the book, read the account of Obama’s conversation with Warren Buffet (pages 189 – 192).

There are some very touching anecdotes that reveal some of Obama’s very soft side as well. I was moved by an email he reproduces in the book that had come from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School. I wish I could also reproduce the email for you; however, it would be more than copyright law would probably allow (see page 195-196 to read the email). The doctor had voted for Obama in the primary. He questioned whether he could in the general election because he didn’t like Obama’s position on abortion – not so much that Obama favored a woman’s choice policy, but that his web site reflected a position that those who oppose abortion are “driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women.” The doctor complained that that wasn’t very fair-minded and that he, himself, opposed abortion but with no such desires.

Obama was quite stunned by the email, checked his web site and was aghast to find the doctor’s words to be true. A staff member had gotten a bit too enthusiastic as he wrote the section on abortion. Obama ordered it immediately changed. He apologized to the doctor. The climax of the account, however, comes at a political stop in southern Illinois when a group of right to life supporters protested outside the hall. Obama’s staff had recommended that he avoid the protestors because of the bizarre events that had taken place surrounding the issue. Obama, instead, walked into their assembly and invited them into the hall. They refused. He stayed with them for a time, inviting them to speak their minds. He tried then to explain his position and the protestors politely listened. It was a strong and dramatic presentation of the Obama belief that dialogue and communication must happen between people of differing opinions and each side ought to be humble enough to know there might be some logic in an opponent’s views. This is one of the characteristics of the Illinois Senator that make him so inviting as a presidential possibility.

Should Obama be elected to our highest office, he will bring to office with him a startling literacy regarding the constitution. He will be more knowledgeable about the constitution than any president in my life time. He taught constitutional law for a considerable period at the University of Chicago Law School. In this book he writes about the constitution and the various approaches to interpreting it with great clarity and depth. As a matter of fact, the third chapter in the book is titled, Our Constitution.

Obama explains how he sought out Robert Byrd in his first days in the Senate, so he could meet this man who is so closely identified with our nearly sacred national document -- a man who had “come to be seen as the very embodiment of the Senate, a living, breathing fragment of history.” It is a very touching and moving moment when the two men come together – Obama a raw rookie to office and Byrd approaching his 50th year in the Senate. Byrd carried a pocket size copy of the Constitution with him wherever he went.

That first man to man meeting between Byrd and Obama must have been something unique and extraordinary. Byrd, the elderly, gigantic figure in Senate history and, as a very young man, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and Obama, the product of a Caucasian and African parents, young and intellectual.

“Senator Byrd’s life – like most of ours – has been the struggle of warring impulses, a twining of darkness and light. And in that sense I realized that he really was a proper emblem for the Senate, who rules and design reflect the grand compromise of America’s founding: the bargain between Northern states and Southern states, the Senate’s role as a guardian against the passions of the moment, a defender of minority rights and state sovereignty, but also a tool to protect the wealthy from the rabble, and assure slaveholders of non-interference with their peculiar institution. Stamped into the very fiber of the Senate, within its genetic code, was the same contest between power and principle that characterized America as a whole, a lasting expression of that great debate among a few brilliant, flawed men that had concluded with the creation of a form of government unique it is genius – yet blind to the whip and the chain.” [75-76]

The recounting of this meeting between Obama and Byrd [99-100] is equally as brilliant as the paragraph above. As a rookie to the Senate, Obama asked Byrd for advice. Byrd told him to learn the rules of the Senate and to learn the precedents also. He told Obama not to rush. He reminded Obama that the presidency was not the top of the heap – that it was the Senate that was supreme. And then he confessed his only regret to Obama and that was “the foolishness of youth.” The conversation went into a long pause at that point and the old Senator sat in great silence. Obama understood. “We all have regrets,” he told Senator Byrd. “We just ask that in the end, God’s grace shines upon us.”

The book is loaded with these kinds of delightful anecdotal stories. I could recount dozens of them, each zeroing in on an important point in the current life of our country or simply telling us more about this apparently lovely man.

It is not often we are brought so intimately into the meetings and conversations that take place between great and important human beings. Nor, are we often allowed into their family circle, learning that the Senator needed to make a stop on the way home to buy ant traps or that his chore was to do the dishes while his wife put the girls into bed. We are also allowed to see many moments of touching intimacy between the Senator and his family – accounts that reflect the fear he has that total emersion into politics will eat away at that precious and beautiful moments he has with his wife and children. I am embarrassed to tell you that they brought a few tears to my eyes. So did the account below of a lonely walk Obama took to the Lincoln Memorial.

“At night, the great shrine is lit but often empty. Standing between marble columns, I read the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. I look out over the Reflecting Pool, imagining the crowd stilled by Dr. King’s mighty cadence, and then beyond that, to the floodlit obelisk and shining Capitol Dome.

“And in that place, I think about America and those who built it. This nation’s founders, who somehow rose above petty ambitions and narrow calculations to imagine a nation unfurling across a continent. And those like Lincoln and King, who ultimately laid down their lives in the service of perfecting an imperfect union. And all the faceless, nameless men and women, slaves and soldiers and tailors and butchers, constructing lives for themselves and their children and grandchildren, brick by brick, rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand, to fill the landscape of our collective dreams.” [361-362]

This is not an ordinary book by a political candidate trying to make an impression. This is an extraordinary book because it has feeling and depth and is written clearly and intelligently. It is a book that every man who wants to be a good parent should read. It is a book that every person who wants to better understand the Constitution of the United States of America should read. It is a book that should be read by everyone who wants to understand the god-awful difficulty of the political grind with which our nationally elected officials must live.

If you do not read this very special book, it is your very great loss!

Obama, Barack: The Audacity of Hope [Crown Publishers, New York, 2006, ISBN-13: 978-0-307-23769-9]

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