Obamanos!: The Rise of a New Political Era by Hendrik Hertzberg
An endearingly personal account of the run-up to the election of America’s first mixed-race president.
Obamanos!: The Rise of a New Political EraPublisher: Penguin
Length: 352 pages
Author: Hendrik Hertzberg
Publication date: 2009-10
The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America has created almost an entire literary genre. An Amazon book search—admittedly not a particularly scientific method—for 'Barack Obama' records over eight-thousand matches. From The Barack & Michelle Obama Paper Doll & Cut-Out Book, via The Obama Menu: Dining with Barack Obama to Obama's own Dream's from My Father one thing is clear: there are a lot of books about Obama. What then can the New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg offer with ¡OBÁMANOS!: The Rise of a New Political Era? The answer is surprisingly, a lot.
¡OBÁMANOS!—the curious title is taken from a campaign poster in New Mexico—is a collection of articles Hertzberg published in the New Yorker and on his blog, beginning just after the Republican National Convention in 2004 and ending with Obama's election last year. Unlike other books charting the rise of Barack Obama, there is no retrospective knowingness. The articles are immediately contemporary to the events they cover, forcing the reader to follow the election with Hertzberg. Indeed in the first article in the book Hertzberg makes this prediction about Obama:
It is not hard to image circumstances under which, a decade or two hence, he [Obama] might represent the future of the country...
The transition from this “hopeful” to presidential candidate is unprecedented, and the book's four year scope does a good job of tracking his ascendancy. This is not a detailed and comprehensive view of how Obama came to the presidency. Rather, the power in this collection of writing is found in the articles' chronological proximity to the events. Hertzberg is not granted the benefit of hindsight.
It’s interesting to see Hertzberg's developing curiosity in the young senator from Illinois to avid, almost fanatical, support. Furthermore, as a historical record of an historic election, many of these pieces helped sculpt and develop public opinion.
The book is also a record of Hertzberg's personal experience of the election. He recounts the political convictions of his socialist parents—ideas that informed his own liberal beliefs—and describes the delight of taking his young son to the poll station:
I let my son pull the little black levers, as I did in 2000, when he was two, and 2004, when he was six. This time he was tall enough to reach the Obama lever on tiptoes, without a boost. Next time he’ll be too big to come into the booth with me. But the time after that he’ll be able to go in alone.
These personal touches lighten the heaviness that characterizes much political commentary, and makes ¡OBÁMANOS! an enjoyable and accessible read. In spite of his obvious enthusiasm, Hertzberg is largely evenhanded and fair in his analysis, but for the trivial issues that were used to smear the campaign wherein you can sense him suppressing his rage; for example, the attempt to use Obama's relationship with William Ayers and his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, ex-members of the Weather Underground, as a sign of Obama’s “anti-Americanism” is dealt with comprehensively, albeit with exasperation.
Other than Obama, there are two characters that play a significant role in Hertzberg's book: George W. Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The first section of the book, entitled “The Wreckage”, deals mainly with Bush's second term in office. The articles selected constitute a catalog of errors, setting the scene for the 2008 election. His writing is a bitter reminder of the years that Bush spent in office, and the terrible policy decisions that he made, but the sweetness is found in comparing Bush and Obama, and noting—as Hertzberg does often—what he considers to be a massive improvement.
The second section of the book, “The Marathon”, opens with 'the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential campaign', Clinton. Indeed, we are reminded that Obama was not the original favored Democratic candidate. As Hertzberg positions himself as an Obama supporter, he remains wary of Clinton. He shares the sentiments with some that there are difficulties with her surname which, if she were elected to office, would create an unbroken 24-year dynasty of Bush and Clinton personas in America’s presidency. For this and other reasons Hertzberg, too, wanted change.
Amongst the ever growing mass of literature about the current president, ¡OBÁMANOS!: The Rise of a New Political Era?, offers something slightly different. It’s an endearingly personal account of the run-up to the election of America’s first mixed-race president, and it allows the reader to relive their own experience of that important period in recent American history.