A Promised Land, Barack Obama. New York: Crown Publishing, 2020.
Summary: The first volume of the presidential memoir of Barack Obama, tracing his early life, his entry into politics and rise, his first presidential campaign and first term up to the death of Osama Bin Laden.
I’ve always been a fan of presidential memoirs and biographies. So I had this on order when I heard about its release. I was richly rewarded by the elegant and flowing prose of this first volume of President Barack Obama’s memoirs.
The prose drew me in from the opening words of the first chapter:
“Of all the rooms and halls and landmarks that make up the White House and its grounds, it was the West Colonnade that I loved best.
For eight years that walkway would frame my day, a minute-long, open-air commute from home to office and back again. It was where each morning I felt the first slap of winter wind or pulse of summer heat; the place where I’d gather my thoughts, ticking through the meetings that lay ahead, preparing arguments for skeptical members of Congress or anxious constituents, girding myself for this decision or that slow rolling crisis.”Barack Obama, A Promised Land, p. 3.
The first volume covers Obama’s early life, his work as a community organizer, meeting Michelle, and his rise in politics in the first seventy-eight pages. The rest in the book in six additional parts covers his presidential campaign and most of the first term up to the Navy Seals mission that resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11.
In the Preface, he sets forth his aim to give an “honest rendering” of his time in office. Certainly, this, along with his presidential papers, will serve as a resource for historians who examine this period. I suspect some will find it more honest than others. I do think he gives a fair account of the financial crisis and recession into which he walked and the stumbles and savvy moves his Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geitner executed that prevented the Great Recession from becoming the second Great Depression. I felt his account of passage of the Affordable Care Act a bit too perfect, slowed only by congressional recalcitrance. Yes, there was that but also things like mandated contraception coverage that violated the freedom of conscience of religious orders and brought major resistance, that is not mentioned.
He also wants to pull back the curtain on the presidency, to describe what it is to be a president. He takes us inside the meetings, the work with his staff, the appointment of people to key posts, like General McChrystal to Afghanistan, and then cleaning up messes like McChrystal’s unguarded and on the record comments to the press. He describes the constant tension between high ideals and realpolitic, as in the events of the Arab Spring and the tension of standing with reliable but corrupt allies and endorsing the democratic hopes of those engaged in the uprisings. Many will continue to debate whether he got that right. He also recounts the planning that developed as intelligence revealed the probable hiding place of Bin Laden, the weighing of options, the decision to send the Navy Seals, and the tense moments as the mission unfolded, with a presidency in the balance.
“Finally,” he writes, “I wanted to tell a more personal story that might inspire young people considering a life of public service: how my career in politics really started with a search for a place to fit in, a way to explain the different strands of my mixed-up heritage, and how it was only by hitching my wagon to something larger than myself that I was ultimately able to locate a community and purpose for my life” (p. xiv). We catch glimpses of conversations with children of color in the U.S and other countries realizing that someone like them could also be president or accomplish other great things. We also see the kids on his daughter’s basketball team he helped coach before encouraged to step back as a perhaps-over-involved parent! He also recounts a moment after the news conference, coupled with the release of his long-form birth certificate, where he put to rest the patently false allegations of the “birthers.” He very simply said to the young people on his communications team, “We’re better than this….Remember that.”
Reading the memoir, one has the sense of being in the presence of someone of both subtle and supple intelligence, disciplined in thought and his work with cabinet officers and staff, one who presses for additional options and asks the hard questions, knowing the buck stopped with him. He acknowledges his own stumbles while praising the people around him. One does sense that while he deeply respected Hilary Clinton, they never developed the closeness he enjoyed with a number of others in his circle.
One of the quite wonderful aspects of this memoir is the evident respect and deep affection for Michelle, Malia, and Sasha. He doesn’t gloss over the differences between him and Michelle on running for the presidency, nor his struggles with the impossibility of a normal life for his daughters. At the same time we gain glimpses both into family dinner times, romps with kids and Bo, the dog given them by Ted Kennedy, and state visits to far flung places like the Kremlin and Rio de Janeiro.
This memoir, for all its detail, was “un-put-downable.” It is not only the flowing prose. While I did not always agree with this president (do we ever?), one gains a sense of the demands, the weight, and the dignity of the office in this narrative. One also has a sense of the high ideals to which this man aspired in public life, from the “Yes We Can” that gave hope that this country is for all its citizens, to an aspiration, not always fulfilled, for a better politics. I look forward to the next volume!