America’s founders set a high standard for political writing, and most contemporary efforts fall woefully short. How nice, then, to have a politician who can write as well as U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
His memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” was a deeply personal coming-of-age story. His second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” may lack the intimacy of the memoir, but it is fascinating in its revelation of Obama as someone who considers and questions, rather than asserts and declares. In nine focused chapters, Obama shows himself an agile thinker, and this is an idea book, not a public-policy primer. Amid all the “Will he run?” furor, Obama sat down at the Chicago Tribune and talked about books with literary editor Elizabeth Taylor:
Question: I understand that your book’s title was drawn from a sermon you once heard.
Answer: I attend Trinity United Church of Christ, and my pastor, Jeremiah Wright, at a sermon that I heard probably 15 years ago when I was a community organizer - I hadn’t yet joined the church - he gave this wonderful sermon called “The Audacity of Hope.” He himself had borrowed the sermon from someone else, so it is one of those sermons that gets passed through the black church.
The basic premise, (drawn) from the story of Anna - she was barren and feeling awful about that - is how she continued to hope, and God eventually rewarded that hope. And the sermon goes on to say, “We all see hopelessness around us.” War, famine, poverty. And it requires a certain amount of audacity and risk-taking to believe things can get better.
I thought that was a wonderful theme, generally, to live one’s life by. But also, I think it says something about America, because there has always been this audaciousness, this hopefulness about the country. And I think there is a powerful feature there about who we are.
Q: You wrote an astonishing memoir. Did it lead you to write this book?
A: The memoir was a very personal book. I wrote it as a personal journey and search about who my father was and how my family had come together and come apart - sorting all that out, you know, issues of personal identity.
This book was more of a reflection on my public life, now as a U.S. senator and before that as a state senator; how my perspectives around the issues of the day are shaped by my background.
And its also a reflection about how we might start a better conversation in our democracy about how to solve problems, because it feels as if our political system - it just seems there is so much cynicism and negativity in our politics.
Q: Was there a political book you read, remembering back, that kind of inspired you to write?
A: I didn’t have a perfect model, but I wanted to try to blend my own personal reflections and experiences with this broader canvas to see how a lot of the narratives we have about economy and foreign policy got stuck. Because we have these categories of liberal, conservative, free marketer, open government - all these stereotypes about our politics and the categories we try to put things in are inadequate to this sort of complex, ambiguous, sometimes contradictory experience we have as ordinary people and that I have as an elected official.
A lot of the issues that I see, it is not an either-or situation. ... Rather, my perceptions about how we solve problems in health care or education span across a whole range of areas. And I want to try to capture that complexity.
Q: A generation ago, political memoirists did not write about faith.
A: Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, most politicians were concerned about not talking about faith, partly because there were consequences you had to deal with - (for instance) Catholicism had been made an issue. I think that today, faith drives so much of our politics, that I thought, “If you don’t talk about it, you are missing a whole big part of what is going on politically.”
Q: John Kennedy was a Catholic president, and he was also a president who happened to be Catholic. He retained both identities. Is there any resonance for you?
A: As an elected official who comes from the African-American community, there are some similarities. You are always trying to reconcile your own personal biography and affiliations with the demands of the broader democracy. And you need to make sure you are representing everybody.
That is another theme in the book. How do we exercise more empathy in our public discourse? How do we get the black to see through the eyes of the white? Or the citizen to see through the eyes of the immigrant? Or the straight to see through the eyes of the gay? That has always been a struggle in our politics. And our politics at its best involves us recognizing ourselves in each other. And our politics at its worst are when we see immigrants or women or blacks or gays or Mexicans as somehow separate, apart from us.
Q: Can you name two titles that changed your life?
A: I think at a certain age I became conscious of the power of words. And it was fairly late. I was kind of a goofball - but I was always subconsciously thinking about issues. Right around my first year of college - I remember “Song of Solomon,” by Toni Morrison, just moved me tremendously. The power of language and how it can peel back truths, bring things to the surface. So I learned a lot from fiction.
And then there is a wonderful book called “Gandhi’s Truth,” by Erik Erikson, the psychologist. It is a great book. And I remember reading that and thinking about this connection between what we think in our personal lives and how that manifests itself in our politics. Those are two books, just off the top, that I think are sort of representative of reading that I did at that time. I never get a chance to read anymore.
Q: You get a chance to read to your children, surely. What do you all like?
A: I have to say that my 8-year-old, like every child in America, is completely absorbed with Harry Potter. And so, I have gotten sucked into it, too; I can’t wait for the next one to come out. I am trying to figure out what happens with Harry and Voldemort. So we have been reading that.
(With) our younger daughter, we still have our usual favorites, like “Where the Wild Things Are.” A book that they both like, and I remember it from my childhood, is “Wind in the Willows.” It is a wonderful way for children to think about some larger issues but experience it in a child’s context.
Q: How did you find the time to write this book?
A: I pounded it out at night. Basically, I am a night owl. My wife is an early bird, so she goes to bed around 9:30, and my kids are in bed about 8. So, if I am home, I will usually start writing about 9:30 and go till about 12:30 or 1:30, depending on what my energy level is. When I was in Washington, I would usually get home from the Capitol at about 7:30 or 8, and I would try to write as much as possible. It was almost all in the wee hours.
Q: Do you do many drafts?
A: I am somebody who usually writes out the rough draft in longhand. Then I type it into the computer, and that is where I do my editing. I find that if I write it on the computer, I go too quick. So I like getting that first draft out and then typing it in; you are less self-conscious about it.
Q: I was thinking about “The Audacity of Hope” and was reminded of what Studs Terkel says when asked what keeps him going: “indignation and curiosity.”
A: You mentioned what books have had an impact on me. I remember reading (Terkel’s) “Working” when it first came out and just finding that very powerful. I was going into community organizing. What stuck was to reveal the sacredness of ordinary people’s lives. That everybody has a story. And I think Studs is terrific at drawing out that shimmering quality of people’s everyday struggles.