Every life has its inflection points, moments that can steer you in one direction or another, and that direction, as poet Robert Frost would say, makes all the difference. That is especially true for former President Barack Obama, as he makes clear in “A Promised Land,” his introspective account of his personal and political life, released by Crown in November.
Impression one of this 701-page tome: Obama is an excellent writer. Impression two: His political idealism is heady and infectious — inspiring — and because he is so solidly grounded in his family and his ever-evolving faith, he is utterly relatable as a person. He’s one of us, born into the middle class, with all its attendant daily struggles and perpetual yearning for a better life — for the American dream.
Early in the book, Obama ponders a fascinating question: What if he had never left Chicago, where he was a community organizer from 1985 to 1988, and struck out for Harvard Law School? What if he had stayed, fighting, and winning, seemingly small battles to improve people’s lives, helping to repair a park or housing project or starting an after-school program?
What if he had never run for president?
“Like many local heroes I’ve met over the years, I might have managed to build up an institution that could reshape a neighborhood or portion of the city,” he writes. “Anchored deep in a community, I might have steered money and imagination to change not the world, but just that one place or that one set of kids, doing work that touched the lives of neighbors and friends in some measurable and useful way.”
He left, however. After earning his law degree, he ran for the Illinois State Senate, and won. He ran for Congress, and lost. And he ran for U.S. Senate, and won, before seeking the presidency in 2007-08, sealing his destiny, and his place among the pantheon of truly historic American presidents, the first African-American to lead the country.
His first run for president was an audacious undertaking, begun just about 14 years ago, on Feb. 10, 2007, on the steps of Illinois’s Old State Capitol, where Abraham Lincoln had delivered his “House Divided” speech 149 years earlier, noting, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Thrust onto the national stage, Obama was seemingly a natural candidate, intelligent, clear-headed, collected, indefatigable — at once esoteric yet utterly down-to-earth. What we see in “A Promised Land” is his very human side, beyond the glare of the media spotlight. We see his occasional annoyance and anger, his wrenching self-doubt and guilt — he desperately wanted to be the excellent father that he never had as a child, but his constant campaigning pulled him away from his wife and two young daughters.
We see former first lady Michelle Obama, ever the reluctant but supportive political wife — and a magnetic draw on the campaign trail, humanizing the Obama brand while delivering arcane policy proposals in emotional terms easily understood by the electorate. No doubt, Barack and Michelle Obama make one hell of a power couple.
I could see myself in the details of “A Promised Land,” which I suspect would be the case for many people. Like Obama, I studied at Columbia University, only six years after he graduated from the school. As was the case for Obama, my time there was spent in quiet contemplation. He lived a life of seclusion and self-improvement, without any close friends, making to-do lists, running along the Central Park Reservoir or the East River, eating cheap meals on the fly. That was pretty much my life at Columbia, only I ran along the Hudson.
While reading, Obama habitually circles words he has never seen before. It was a habit I picked up as a teen that I have never shed. I could especially relate to his description of his disorganized nature. Referring to his 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, Obama writes, “Whereas I could be absentminded, indifferent to small details, incapable of maintaining an orderly filing system, constantly misplacing memos, pens and cell phones that had just been handed to me, Plouffe turned out to be a managerial genius.”
Like Obama — and like so many people — staying organized, on task, on point, is a constant struggle for me. I have to work at it, day after day. No manner of computerized calendar helps. I have to write it all down, and remind myself, again and again, do this, do that. Self-deprecating to a fault, Obama gives us permission to admit our foibles.
The wonderful part of “A Promised Land” isn’t the after-action report on the life and times of Barack Obama, but rather the humanizing of his political persona, which was shaped by hard times that gave him the empathy he needed to craft policy — think the Affordable Care Act of 2010 — that helped determine the individual destinies of millions of Americans.
It’s a good thing he opted for Harvard Law.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.