– A review of ‘A PROMISED LAND’ by Barack Obama
by Femi Olugbile
At last, the long-awaited story of the Obama era ‘from the horse’s mouth’ has been published.
Obama is, of course, that outlier of outliers. The first Black President of the United States of America, a nation founded on the basis of a lofty, high-minded proposition about the equality of men and their rights to pursue the good life. The ‘founding fathers’, no saints themselves, routinely violated the key precepts of their own proclamation.
But Abe Lincoln walked the talk and went to war to defend it. Yet even he – would his imagination have balked, seeing a Black man in the White House?
Obama writes in an easy, conversational, free-flowing hand, resembling the manner of his speech. The book is organized into seven parts, with twenty-seven chapters.
A daily walk across a colonnade in the White House to the Oval Office took the President past groundskeepers tending the gardens. Among them was an elderly African American, Ed. He had worked in the White House for forty years. One day, he asked Ed how much longer he intended to work in the White House.
‘Don’t know, Mr. President,’ replied the elderly gardener. ‘Getting a little hard on the joints…But I reckon I might stay long as you’re here. Make sure the garden looks good.’
The Obama Presidency clearly meant a lot to the Obamas – Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha and all their extended family. But it meant even more to millions of other people. Ed was lucky; at least he got to chat with the President. For him, and countless others, the Presidency of Obama was the most significant event in their lives.
An outside view of Obama’s eight-year sojourn in the White House might have been titled ‘Journey into Disillusionment’, given the amount of naked hostility he encountered at every turn from his political adversaries, and how even the best of his well-intentioned initiatives were opposed with the passion of a life and death struggle.
While he did not exactly come on board with rose-tinted spectacles, he felt he was living testimony that the American dream was, at least, possible. Progress came because, beyond the hot air of partisan interest, America charted its course relentlessly forwards through a culture of going to dinner with the opponent and cutting a deal. Leaders worked the system. They did not always get their way, but they inched the ship of state forwards by a few degrees.
Some of his fellows tried to warn him early on.
‘…Those Republicans aren’t interested in cooperating with you, Mr President. They’re looking to break you…’ said a friend.
‘I hope Obama fails’ declared Rush Limbaugh, a right-wing talk show host with a large national following. Clearly this was not hatred based on ideas but a deeply felt revulsion.
The figure that jumps out from the pages of Obama’s memoirs is not just a ‘dreamer’ after the American ideal, he is also a romantic about humanity at large.
A crucial first step in his world vision was to lance the boil of youthful Arab discontent and bring in the Islamic world from the cold.
The grand effort not only fell flat on its face, it provided fresh grist to the mill of a hate-culture that was fueled by disinformation and a brewing anti-Obama movement that was ready to employ every means, including religion, to vilify him and stop him in his tracks.
As the Arab Spring picked momentum, the President raised the issue of a need for Reform with President Mubarak. The Egyptian President responded with a dismissive gesture.
‘Egypt is not Tunisia’.
When the drama of Tahir Square proceeded towards its gory conclusion and the United States issued statements on the need to listen to the voices of change, Obama recalled a conversation with Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and effective leader of UAE. If Mubarak fell and the Muslim Brotherhood took over, eight other rulers in the region would fall in quick succession, and the Middle East would disintegrate into permanent chaos, averred the Crown Prince.
There are personal angle stories to major world events. Obama sitting through a long dinner with the Chilean President while he worried about an American pilot lost in a plane crash in hostile territory in Libya who was the subject of an ongoing search and rescue mission.
His life-transforming speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Sitting with his mother-in-law on a couch as his face appeared on television and he was declared the next President of the USA.
‘This is kind of too much…’ declared his mother-in-law, as he held her hand.
Sitting through the raid on Abbottabad as his mind played back the agonies of victims of 9/11.
Having dinner with a gentle old President Singh and the Gandhis on his state visit to India. Sonia wanted her son Rahul to inherit his grandmother’s and great grandfather’s mantle, while Obama worried about the Gandhis manning the outposts of Liberal Democracy against the Barbarians, who looked as if they would soon take over.
. ‘…I found myself asking whether those impulses …of violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, religious intolerance…were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain…’
He could have been speaking about himself, his country and his own legacy.
The last story is of a visit to the SEAL team that took out Bin Laden. They presented him with an American flag they had taken with them on the mission, with their signatures on the back.
There is still more of the Obama story to come, surely. Perhaps another volume, perhaps two.
The rumbling of a hateful visceral response that would give rise to QAnon and the era of Donald Trump when even reasonable men would behave like mindless bigots was already audible in the land. It does not get a mention in Obama’s book.
An interesting, important read. Highly recommended.
A PROMISED LAND is published by CROWN, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.