This appraisal of Mr. Obama’s character is based on his two books, Dreams From My Father (DMF) and The Audacity of Hope (AOH). The advantage of relying on these sources is that they are not only Mr. Obama’s own words but his considered words. He cannot claim that were written hastily and without reflection.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the first book, DMF, was written in 1995 when Mr. Obama was a married man in his mid-thirties. Hence, it reflects his mature views, not those of a giddy teenager. In addition, Mr. Obama agreed to the republication of DMF in 2004 when he was already an established politician, so his 1995 views cannot be written off as something that do not represent his present thinking. Together with The Audacity of Hope, written in 2006, these two books give us a picture of Mr. Obama before he started his political career and after he became a politician.
Shaping the Past
Both books are filled with great swathes of what appears to be reported speech. These are ostensibly conversations from Mr. Obama’s early childhood onwards. In the case of DMF, a casual reader could easily think he had picked up a novel.
Mr. Obama says coyly in the introduction to DMF that “although much of my book is based on contemporaneous journals or the oral histories of my family, the dialogue is necessarily an approximation of what was actually said or relayed to me.”
Approximation is putting it mildly because Mr. Obama “recalls” astonishingly vast tracks of dialogue from all stages of his life. There are many pages of almost continuous dialogue, and when he meets his Kenyan half-sister Auma for the first time we get a monologue that takes up almost seven pages. (DMF pp. 212–219.) As for contemporaneous journals, nowhere does Mr. Obama mention keeping such records or refer to journals kept by others. As he is the protagonist in almost all the dialogue, he is presumably relying almost entirely on “oral history,” a notoriously unreliable source.
Mr. Obama’s writing veers even further into fiction because, as he writes, “For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.” The books are often vague about even approximately when an event occurred. Mr. Obama then tops all this imprecision by telling the reader, “With the exception of my family and a handful of public figures, the names of most characters have been changed for the sake of their privacy.” This sounds like a device to make sure nosey journalists ask no awkward questions and that the people he writes about raise no objections.
The use of invented dialogue, fictional names, composite characters, and a vague chronology means we cannot tell whether Mr. Obama is putting his own views into other characters’ mouths or whether they speak for themselves. For example, take this rant against white oppression from an old black friend from his childhood whom he calls Frank:
“Leaving your race at the door” he said. “Leaving your people behind.” He studied me over the top of his reading glasses. “Understand something, boy. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained. They’ll train you to want what you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore. They’ll train you to forget what it is that you already know. They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They’ll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you you’re a credit to your race. Until you want to actually start running things, and then they’ll yank on your chain and let you know that you may be a well-trained, well-paid nigger, but you’re a nigger just the Same.” (DMF p. 97.)
Is that Mr. Obama talking or Frank? Who knows, although it is a fact that when Mr. Obama creates dialogue that is openly anti-white–and there is a good deal of it in DMF–he either does not condemn it outright or even treat it as unsavory or dangerous. The most he ever does is pose quiet arguments against such views but they are so wrapped in qualifications one can never be certain of his position. Moreover, his toleration for more than 20 years of Jeremiah Wright is a strong hint that much of the anti-white animus he reports in the mouths of others is not uncongenial to him. Mr. Obama also reports dialogue in which he himself expresses anti-white feelings. Here he is as a student talking about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:
“It’s a racist book. The way Conrad sees it, Africa’s a cesspool of the world, black folks are savages, and any contact with them breeds infection.”
Regina blew on her coffee. “So why are you reading it?”
“Because it’s assigned,” I paused, not sure if I should go on. “And because . . .
“Because . . . ?
“And because the book teaches me things.” I said. “About white people, I mean. See, the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world. If you can keep your distance, it’s all there, in what’s said and what’s left unsaid. So I read the book to help me understand just what makes white folks so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate.” (DMF p. 103.)
The reader cannot help wondering whether what Mr. Obama writes is really true. A pointer towards a general carelessness about the truth is the fact that the tone of the dialogue is uniform. Whether he is a speaking as a boy, college student, married family man, or senator he is much the same. This uniformity of style strongly suggests that all we are hearing is Mr. Obama as the man he was when he wrote either book, not what he was at various points in his life.
Here he is supposedly speaking, as a boy of less then ten, with his Indonesian step-father Lolo.
“Have you ever seen a man killed?” I asked him.
He glanced down, surprised by the question.
“Have you?” I asked again.
“Yes,” he said.
“Was it bloody?”
I thought for a moment. “Why was the man killed? The one you saw?”
“Because he was weak.”
Lob shrugged and rolled his pant leg back down. “That’s usually enough. Men take advantage of weakness in other men. They’re like countries in that way. The strong man takes the weak man’s land. He makes the weak man work in his fields. If the weak man’s woman is pretty, the strong man will take her.” He paused to take another sip of water, then asked, “Which would you rather be?” (DMF p. 40.)
Besides being sometimes utterly improbable, Mr. Obama’s dialogue invariably serves some purpose that benefits him. He manipulates the supposedly real-life people the way a novelist manipulates characters, to fit the story he wants to tell. If Mr. Obama wants to describe black victimhood, up pops a character to say how hard done by blacks are and always have been. If he wants to agonize about his racial heritage, along comes someone to say exactly what he needs to start his own self-examination. If he wants to expand on his political policies and philosophy, up pops someone with exactly the right peg on which to hang a disquisition. Here is Mr. Obama using a white English doctor he calls Wilkerson, who is working in Malawi:
I asked him why he thought he had come back to Africa and he answered without a pause, as if he’d heard the question many times.
“It’s my home, I suppose. The people, the land. . . .” He took off his glasses and wiped them with a handkerchief. [Mr. Obama’s “memory” for such gestures is uncanny.] “It’s funny, you know. Once you’ve lived here for a time, the life in England seems terribly cramped. The British have so much more, but seem to enjoy things less. I felt a foreigner there.”
He put his glasses back on and shrugged. “Of course, I know that in the long run I need to be replaced. That’s part of my job–making myself unnecessary. The Malawian doctors I work with are excellent, really. Competent. Dedicated. If we could just build a training hospital, some decent facilities, we could triple their number in no time.”
He turned toward the campfire, and I thought his voice began to waver. “Perhaps I can never call this place home,” he said. “Sins of the father, you know. I’ve learned to accept that.” He paused for a moment, then looked at me.” (DMF p. 355.)
The passage neatly lets Mr. Obama promote the idea of white guilt, redemption through service to Africans, white dissatisfaction for their own society, and white yearning for Africa–although it is a yearning they can never satisfy because they do not belong there.
All of this suggests that what Mr. Obama is giving us is no more than his heavily edited version of the past at best and pure fantasy at worst.
What does his choice of this form of narrative tell us about Mr. Obama? It suggests he is a man who is determined to shape reality to his own idea of himself. Why should he do this? As we will see there is plenty in the books to suggest he is insecure, someone who cannot deal with criticism and who frets over how others view him.
This is disturbing behavior for anyone, let alone someone who wanted to go into politics. I cannot think of any other politician who has used the pseudo-novelistic approach to tell his life story.
Mr. Obama’s Background
If we assume that genes play a strong role in determining character, what can we learn from Mr. Obama’s ancestry?
Apart from the fact that he got himself an education, Mr. Obama’s father’s behavior matches the modern stereotype of the black man. He goes from one woman to another breeding incontinently, and this explains why Mr. Obama has so many half-brothers and half-sisters. He leaves Mr. Obama’s mother when Barack is still a toddler and then reappears rarely in the boy’s life. From Mr. Obama’s account, he provided his mother with no money whatsoever, and back in Africa he variously abandoned and neglected his other women and children. He became a drunk and ruined his job prospects by recklessly insulting influential people. Here is Mr. Obama’s account of his half-sister Auma describing his father’s behavior towards members of the Kenyan elite:
“When he was passed up for a promotion, he complained loudly. ‘How can you be my senior,’ he would say to one of the ministers, ‘and yet I am teaching you how to do your job properly?'” (DMF p. 215.)
Mr. Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, a white woman from middle America, marries first an African then an Indonesian, but neither marriage lasts. For someone of her background to marry one person of a different race and culture might be put down to love; marrying two looks like a political statement. She takes Mr. Obama to Indonesia then sends him back to the USA–Hawaii–after several years to live with his mother’s parents. Eventually she returns to the USA and takes an anthropology degree, during which time Mr. Obama lives with her. After she finishes her degree, she leaves Mr. Obama once more with her parents while she goes abroad for anthropological fieldwork.
Mr. Obama’s description of his mother makes her sound like a Margaret Mead anthropological naïf, forever searching for the right approach to non-white, non-American people while ironically insisting most of the time that Mr. Obama be brought up as an American. Mr. Obama describes her attitude towards blacks:
Every black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier; every black woman Fannie Lou Hamer or Lena Horne. To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear. Burdens we were to carry with style. More than once, my mother would point out, “Harry Belafonte is the best-looking man on the planet.” (DMF p. 51.)
It is clear that Mr. Obama’s parents were unusually selfish and egotistical, far more concerned with satisfying their own wants than caring for others, even their children. Mr. Obama’s description of their personalities, both through his own presumed recollection and that of others, paints a picture of reckless self-absorption.
As for his grandparents, if Mr. Obama is to be believed, his grandfather was a restless, undisciplined man who never made a success of anything, flitting from place to place and job to job until he finally settled in Hawaii. His grandmother, despite Mr. Obama’s attempt to paint her as a feminist trailblazer as the first female vice-president of a local Hawaiian bank, comes across as curiously colorless for someone Mr. Obama claims loomed very large in his emotional life.
Apart from five years in Indonesia with his Indonesian step-father, Mr. Obama was raised by whites. For most of his childhood he lived in Hawaii which, because of its very varied population, probably gave him the least opportunity of any part of the country to experience segregation or racism.
Mr. Obama doesn’t say so explicitly, but the implication is that his school was predominantly white. He goes on to good universities, Occidental and Columbia, which are predominantly white. After a short stint of community work among blacks he goes to white-dominated Harvard Law School and teaches constitutional law in white-dominated universities when he is not in the white-dominated Illinois legislature or the very white US Senate.
Such a background might have made Mr. Obama comfortable about both his racial mix and white society. In fact, the reverse is true. He was unlucky enough to have parents who both deserted him. That alone could make him insecure, but what absorbs him is his racial background. The man is obsessed with the fact that he is between two worlds, the black and the white.
At the same time, one wonders just how popular he was as a child. Consider this: “During the entire time that I was growing up, I attended exactly two birthday parties, both of which involved five or six kids, cone hats, and a cake.” (AOH p. 349.)
Mr. Obama spent most of his childhood in a middle class world, in which birthday parties would have been very common. Why did he attend only two? Was he unpopular? Did this feed his feeling of exclusion? His later accounts of his college days and his time as a community organizer give the impression that his relations were frequently fractious, especially with other black men. Could it be that he is not generally liked at the personal level?