Judging Obama and Clinton by the book

[6 March 2008]

By Carlin Romano

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

All those debates. All that vetting on the campaign trail.

Yet none of the cocky Beltway interrogators, reporters and moderators ever asked the obvious questions of two successful memoirists who both want to be the Democratic nominee for president.

“Sen. Clinton, let’s forget health-care plans for a minute. Have you read Sen. Obama’s memoir, `Dreams From My Father’? Do you think your own autobiography, `Living History,’ is better for America?”

“Sen. Obama, you’re aware that `Dreams From My Father’ continues to receive some of the finest reviews ever accorded to a book by a politician. How about Sen. Clinton’s `Living History,’ though? Is it likable enough?”

Sometimes, it takes a critic.

Should voters opt for the better book writer? The notion isn’t as bizarre as it might sound. If we’re thinking policy tomes - Clinton’s “It Takes a” Village, Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” - you don’t really need the books, which amount to expanded stump speeches (with the disadvantage of being frozen in time).

If your main concern is up-to-date policy - what Barack will do about Iraq, or what Hillary plans to do if Ballistic Bill returns to the White House - better to read the news.

Memoirs, though, no matter how cleverly crafted, reveal character. Because Obama’s “Dreams (1995) and Clinton’s “Living History (2003) came out so far apart and in different political circumstances, direct comparisons remain occasional and cursory. Reading them at the same time suggests that literature is fate - that campaign prognosticators might want to pay more attention to candidate books than to exit polls.

“Dreams” attracted only modest (albeit favorable) attention when it arrived as another fashionable early-`90s memoir by a high-achieving young guy - the 32-year-old first black president of the Harvard Law Review. It has become, since Obama’s electrifying keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention prompted its reissue, a critical and commercial hit with total sales of more than a million copies. It’s now commonly placed among such achievements as John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer-winning “Profiles in Courage” (1956), or the well-regarded works of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Even hard-to-please New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, normally neocon in her political tastes, declared Obama “that rare politician who can actually write,” praising “Dreams” for “clarity, openness and ruminative sensibility.”

Almost all readers of “Dreams” react to similar merits. A virtual “anti-campaign” book for a future politician, “Dreams” rejects the usual ill-concealed “Notice-That-I’m-a-Leader” tone of books by aspiring candidates in favor of a vivid, introspective voice. It spotlights the young Obama’s uncertainties, emotional journeys, and self-acknowledged mistakes as he seeks self-identity as a much-traveled son of a white, 18-year-old, Kansas-born mother and an older black father from Kenya.

Obama’s remarkable life - born and raised mostly in Hawaii, where his parents met as students; yanked off to Asia when his mother married an Indonesian after his father left the family when Barack was 2; years at Honolulu’s prestigious Punahou prep school, Occidental College, and Columbia University before three years of community organizing in Chicago - provides rich built-in plot elements and transitions.

But it’s Obama’s literary style that anticipates his political persona. The oratory we now associate with him takes form - idealistic, yet street-smart; inspirational, but with a sense of humor; tough-minded, though not sarcastic or resentful. So do the generosity toward the foibles of others and himself, the anecdotal self-deprecation, the bent toward unifying opposites and opponents that becomes quasi-programmatic in “The Audacity of Hope.”

Obama’s most telling admissions in “Dreams” - his college-days drug use (“Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed ... “), his decision to identify as a black man, to return to his given name “Barack” after being known as “Barry” most of his life - now stand as well-known stations of his evolving tale. Yet the overriding quality that “Dreams” projects, repeatedly cited by commentators, is “authenticity.” Obama encouraged that response, explaining at the outset of “Dreams” that he wrote not the book he meant to write, but the book he had to write.

Remarkably, “Dreams” continues to impress readers that way, even as journalists have lightly chipped away at its accuracy. The L.A. Times reported that some of his fellow community organizers in the 1980s thought Obama, in “Dreams,” inflated his role in a highly publicized removal of asbestos from an all-black public housing complex. The Chicago Tribune reported that Obama’s admitted literary devices in “Dreams, such as changed names and the use of composites, may have disguised unhelpful facts for a future candidate, such as old friend “Ray” being convicted drug pusher Keith Kakugawa. Several of Obama’s high school friends in Hawaii have said they saw Obama as happy, insouciant and self-satisfied back then, rather than racially alienated and introspective.

No matter. While many these days note the parallels between Obama and Lincoln, in this case the most telling comparison is with Ronald Reagan. “Dreams”’ grip on readers appears to benefit from at least one coat of Teflon. But it also rests in the book’s accomplished writerly style and an inescapable truth: Whatever minor cavils one can make about Obama’s accuracy, the book’s overwhelming candor about primal matters seals a bond of trust with the reader.

By contrast, Clinton’s “Living History” hasn’t become a bible for HRC’s true believers, tucked under arms at her rallies. Without doubt, the book boasts its own badges of success. Clinton received an $8 million advance for it, at the time the highest ever offered for a nonfiction book. “Living History” has sold about 1.5 million copies.

Critics, though, have been less kind. The New Yorker called it “highly sanitized.” The Chicago Sun-Times thought it read “like a legal brief.” The Independent of London in 2006 ranked it as one of the “Ten Worst Biographies” of modern times.

Here, as with “Dreams,” reactions assume a common form. Some reviewers thought the voice of “Living History” sounded at least partly ghostwritten, albeit approved from the top. Many detected self-righteous, controlling and methodical qualities in the author, of a sort also observed in Carl Bernstein’s overarching biography, “A Woman in Charge.”

On accuracy, sincerity and full disclosure, Clinton’s memoir remains even more open to disconfirmation or undermining than Obama’s. Bernstein, for instance, reported that Bill Clinton asked Hillary for a divorce in 1989, but she refused, and that she thought seriously about running to succeed him as governor of Arkansas in 1990. She shed no light on those subjects in “Living History.”

To be fair, it’s not Clinton’s fault that she can’t regale readers, a la Obama, with a fresh story, given eight years in the White House and more than 30 books about the Clintons (not counting the ex-president’s huge memoir). As Elizabeth Kolbert observed in the New Yorker, “By now, even those who have been only half paying attention possess more information, much of it intimate, about Hillary Clinton than they do about their neighbors, their coworkers, and, quite possibly, their parents.”

Because of that familiarity, readers also come to “Living History” with more axes to grind than they do with “Dreams.” Many conservatives still see Clinton as the Antichrist who announced a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” certain that she fakes everything from her marriage to her moderation for calculating political reasons. Many liberals resent her efforts to move to centrist positions in anticipation of a run for president, with some lately reviling her for blocking (in their eyes) a more historic candidacy than hers.

In the end, Obama turned off the “autopilot” part of “autobiography,” allowing readers to hear and see a self-made man, all doubts and desires, warts and dimples, for better or worse. His sharp portraits of those who touched his life, such as his grandmother Toot, “suspicious of overwrought sentiments or overblown claims, content with common sense,” displayed an engagement with others that can’t be feigned.

Clinton, for all her merits, lucidity and competence, couldn’t ditch in “Living History” the disciplined, bloodless Type-A approach that explained away all negatives, clammed up about “super-negatives” like her husband’s legendary infidelities, and lectured readers in a moralizing, senior-class-president voice. Try looking far and wide in “Living History” for a convincing, unabashed portrait of anyone - including her husband.

Will the Clinton/Obama choice be made by superdelegates or super-readers? The latter is at least possible. Because if interested parties, after all the cell-phoning and strategizing, simply cool out and read the two memoirs, well - it’s all there.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/judging-obama-and-clinton-by-the-book/