domingo, 16 de mayo de 2010
Barack Obama en campaña recita a Borges
The Path to Power
Barack Obama lays down a grand challenge to his own party—and it may get him elected president one day. By Jacob Weisberg
Related: How Pulitzer Prize–winner Samantha Power joined Obama's inner circle
Men's Vogue - September 2006
Early last summer, Barack Obama, the 45-year-old junior senator from Illinois, took the pulpit at the National City Christian Church in downtown Washington, D.C., to make the most important speech delivered by a Democrat since—well, since his keynote at the Democratic Convention in 2004. That earlier address, which set the political world spinning in Obama's direction, drew quietly on the religious imagery of "things not seen." This one confronted the problem of faith and politics directly. Looking out among the Sojourners assembly, a group that aspires to be a liberal answer to the Christian coalition, Obama began by recalling a moment in his 2004 Senate campaign. His Republican opponent—the blistering, possibly deranged conservative orator Alan Keyes—declared one day (and here Obama channeled Keyes's ranting staccato) that "Jesus Christ would not vote for Ba-rack O-bama!"
Forty points ahead in the polls, Obama shrugged off the comment at the time by saying that he was running for senator, not minister—and from the podium he disparaged his own words as the "typically liberal response." But the problem of religion in politics nagged at him. In a country where "more people believe in angels than they do in evolution," Democrats would never be able to reach their fellow citizens so long as they continued to insist that religion and politics don't mix.
In his remarks, Obama linked himself to literary and political figures who had God on their minds and in their voices. "If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice," he argued. "Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King—the majority of great reformers in American history—were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their 'personal morality' into public-policy debates is a practical absurdity."
As a speaker, Obama does not strive for the soulful effect of an African-American evangelical. Nor does he conjure instant empathy with an audience, the way Bill Clinton does. He delivers his message with the understated charisma of a Midwestern news anchor. But when he writes or when he speaks, Obama does something no one else in politics does: He plumbs his own anxiety and doubt, and ties his life story to political problems that few elected officials dare to discuss so personally, including the disparities of race and class, drug abuse, poverty, and, of course, faith.
That afternoon, the senator recounted his own path from a secular, multicultural household to the spiritual home he found in the black church. As a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s, Obama had put together demonstrations and registered voters alongside Christian leaders who honored the civil-rights tradition of social change. His faith-grounded fellow activists, he explained, "saw that I knew their Book, that I shared their values, that I sang their songs." But, he said, they also "sensed that part of me that remained detached and removed, that I was an observer in their midst." He continued, "In time, I came to realize that something was missing for me as well, that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone." Though Obama had long been skeptical of organized religion, he gradually came to embrace it "as a choice, not an epiphany."
Obama's spirited argument that afternoon had sprung from a less lofty concern: a looming book deadline, which he was on the verge of blowing. His speech emerged from months of late-night ruminations at his laptop, turning over the kind of big ideas that tend not to be part of the typical senator's day. His new book, The Audacity of Hope, is quite unlike most written by politicians—those arid, rhetorical manifestos, penned by ghostwriters to meet the needs of a pending campaign and an ascendant career. (Obama's closest political adviser, the Chicago-based consultant David Axelrod, distinguishes it from "the stone tablets kind of approach—the ten things we have to do to ensure the future of democracy.") Instead, the book follows the pointed yet bridge-building tone Obama has set throughout his young career. The pages I've read are conversational and serious-minded reconsiderations of subjects that include race, values, foreign policy, and economics. The larger theme: How someone can speak the truth—and be true to his own ideals—amid the superficiality, sniping, and sheer soul-sapping drudgery of politics.
The Audacity of Hope has a hard act to follow: Obama's 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, sprang from his small-scale celebrity as the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review. He sank years of his life and hours of self-examination into the writing project, and came back with a gripping autobiographical narrative. (The book was reissued in paperback in 2004 and spent 54 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.) Obama is as much an American writer who has found his way to politics as he is a politician who knows how to write. "I kept a journal basically from my junior year in college until I went to law school, for a span of about five years," he tells me when I visit him in his Senate office, on the top floor of the Hart Office Building. As he continues, Obama speaks with the methodical care of prose composition. "Even though I hadn't written a book before, I had a sense of what it felt like to write something that rang true. When you start writing you are able to discern where you're being false, where you're using clichés, where you're manufacturing emotion that's not really there, or where you're shying away from something that isn't necessarily flattering."
The senator's tie is loosened, and he keeps his pin-striped jacket on while inside his formal office. The room looks barely lived in, the result of his spending nearly every moment when the Senate isn't in session on the road raising money for his Democratic colleagues, or with his family back in Chicago. Obama has just flown back to D.C., and he remains upright and alert in a straight-backed chair. His build is so lean and sinewy that he seems much shorter than his 6'2" stature. Despite the demands of his schedule, he manages to keep in shape with daily runs or workouts in the Senate gym. He also plays golf occasionally and basketball when he can, including once with troops in Iraq.
Behind him is a wall of historical and personal artifacts: a 1965 Life cover of the Selma march inscribed "Keep the faith" by Representative John Lewis, who was badly beaten at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and an original program from the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. There are also pictures of Lincoln, Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Obama with Nelson Mandela, and family photos that look like Christmas cards from the post-racial future, with white, black, brown, and Asian relatives intermingled.
Obama says he wrote The Audacity of Hope on his own, as he does anything important, at his Washington apartment, late at night. "What I've had to do when I get home at eight or nine o'clock is start writing," he says. Why he puts himself through this toil is, at least partly, for the money, as one of his friends told me: Obama never really made much before last year. (Royalties from his first book enabled him to pay back the last of his student loans—fifteen years after he graduated from law school.) The $1.9 million contract he signed for The Audacity of Hope, and another as-yet-unannounced title, allowed him and his wife, Michelle, to move with their two daughters from their condo into a large, prairie-style house in Kenwood, an upper-middle-class, mixed-race neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. Facing a deadline may also explain why the senator has found it so hard to quit smoking, although the government buildings smoking ban has helped curb his on-again, off-again habit that began 25 years ago.
Of all of the assets that make Obama such an appealing figure to Democrats—his reflective intellect, his departure from the familiar paths of racial politics, his good looks and easy manner—it is his writer's voice that most distinguishes him as a political figure. Many of the nation's greatest leaders—Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln—were of course men of letters as well as candidates and officeholders. But the demands of a modern political career—the fund-raising, the constant travel, the need to respond to a 24-hour news cycle—seem to preclude collecting one's thoughts in such a polished and engaging way. The Senate, in particular, breeds the kind of pomposity and egotism that ruins thoughtful prose. Senators publish a lot of books, but most are memorabilia, not political literature.
A few highbrow politicians—Eugene McCarthy, Mario Cuomo, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan—have managed to write seriously. But much of this body of literature conveys the message that the writers, whose careers never went as far as their admirers thought they could, are too good for the dirty business of politics. Obama seems determined not to fall into either trap—growing so infatuated with his own reflection that he can't succeed as a leader, or charging ahead so hard that there's no space left for his emotional and intellectual life.
"If you read Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson—I'm not Johnson, but I'm fascinated by him—there's a piece of him in me," Obama says, leaning forward. "That kind of hunger—desperate to win, please, succeed, dominate—I don't know any politician who doesn't have some of that reptilian side to him. But that's not the dominant part of me. On the other hand, I don't know that it was the dominant part of—" his voice suddenly trails off as he motions behind him to a portrait of Lincoln, the self-invented lawyer, writer, and politician from Illinois. "This guy was pretty reflective," he says, offering a sly smile.
The turning point in Dreams from My Father comes when Obama is helping to organize an anti-apartheid rally as a sophomore at Occidental College in the early 1980s. He describes his own involvement with the divestment movement as stemming from racial posturing, part of the "radical pose" he cultivated in those days, when he was trying to demonstrate his blackness. As he was drawn into the effort, Obama found himself giving a speech to classmates, who cheered him on. But after it ended in a bit of street theater—two white students dressed as policemen dragged the black protester away—he began to doubt his own sincerity. "Through my eyes, we suddenly appeared like the sleek and well-fed amateurs we were," he writes. "The whole thing was a farce, I thought to myself—the rally, the banners, everything."
At a party the night of the rally, a friend of Obama's named Regina—who made her way to college from a struggling African-American family in the Chicago ghetto—congratulated him. Obama snapped that he had no business speaking for black people, and that nothing he did would make any difference. Standing on stage and receiving applause was just a way to feed his ego.
"If anyone's being naive, it's you," Regina told him. "You wanna know what your real problem is? You always think everything's about you." Regina's words resonated, and helped Obama move beyond his sense of grievance, and commit himself to social change.
Up until that point, his search had been more inward, defined by the fact that he barely knew his father and that he grew up with black skin and a white family. His mother, Ann Dunham, was born in a small Kansas town, and could trace her ancestry to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. She moved to Hawaii with her parents, and, in 1959, while attending the University of Hawaii, met a charismatic 23-year-old exchange student from Kenya named Barack Hussein Obama, who was raised a Muslim and grew up during the heyday of anticolonial politics. They married, had a son, divorced, and Barack Senior, who specialized in econometrics and won a scholarship for a Harvard graduate degree, soon returned to Kenya to put his training to use. Though he kept in touch and made it clear that he expected great things from his namesake, the father remained mostly a heroic legend to his son, whom he saw only once more, for a month when the boy was ten years old.
Soon his mother found a new love, and for Barry, as she called her son, a new adventure. To begin a second marriage to an Indonesian man, Ann moved her six-year-old son to Jakarta, where the boy had to contend with street children—and the occasional water buffalo. But after three years, Ann sent her son back to Hawaii to live with her comfortably middle-class parents. She followed soon after with a new daughter, Maya. Even in multicultural Honolulu, Obama's complex racial heritage provoked conflict. At Punahou, an elite prep school, he was one of only a handful of African-American students. Obama searched for black role models and channeled his angry sense of racial displacement into drinking, drugs (pot and a little cocaine), and basketball—none of which prevented him from excelling academically. A voracious reader, he immersed himself in the classics of African-American literature—books by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Malcolm X.
"At night I would close the door to my room, telling my grandparents I had homework to do, and there I would sit and wrestle with words, locked in a suddenly desperate argument, trying to reconcile the world as I'd found it with the terms of my birth," he writes. "I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect."
Obama moved to New York City, where he finished college at Columbia, and one day in 1982, he received a call from a relative in Nairobi, who told him his father had been killed in a car accident. Obama thought that as a result, half of his heritage would remain closed to him. But a few years later he found a soul mate in his sister Auma, his father's daughter who came to visit him in Chicago. The long last section of his first book describes a visit to Kenya, where, with Auma as his guide, he unearthed the reality about his father, who was in fact a polygamist and, toward the end, an embittered alcoholic. As Obama met his extended family and learned about the struggles his forebears faced, his disappointment faded.
After working as a community organizer in Chicago in the mid-eighties, the next logical step was a law degree. At Harvard he quickly made his mark and developed a close circle of friends who continue to function as his advisers. After his first year, Obama worked as a summer associate at a law firm, where he met a brilliant and attractive first-year associate named Michelle Robinson. The daughter of a working-class family from the South Side, Michelle had finished Harvard Law before Obama started, though as she is quick to remind everyone, he is older. "What do you do when you have a very assertive and confident first-year who asks you out on dates and then keeps asking and is pretty persistent?" she asks, recalling their initial involvement. "What you do is give in."
The courtship continued while Obama was working on Dreams from My Father, which Michelle says defined the first part of their marriage, before the birth of their daughters, Malia, eight, and Sasha, five. Now the vice president of community relations at the University of Chicago Hospitals, Michelle Obama appears to be neither a Nancy Reagan, pushing her husband's political career forward, nor an Alma Powell, holding it back. "Politics is a completely unappealing way to live your life," she says, with trademark bluntness. "There's nothing that makes this attractive to go through as a family. But I also know very deeply and much more intimately than anyone out there how truly gifted Barack is. Part of me looks at my children and the world that I want my kids and grandkids to live in and says, 'How can I stand in the way?' But I struggle with it everyday." She says the knowledge that her husband would walk away from politics without hesitation if she asked him to makes the sacrifices easier to handle.
"Michelle is definitely the grounding presence in his life," says Cassandra Butts, a close friend from Harvard who now works for the liberal Center for American Progress. "I don't want to make this sound stereotypical, because Michelle is an intelligent professional with her own career and instincts. But she provides a base of support that allows him to do all the things he wants to do in his career. She is his rock."
Passing up a prestigious clerkship and high-paying offers from firms, Obama returned to Chicago in 1991 to practice civil-rights law. At that point, friends say, his ambition was to be mayor of Chicago. But in 1996, he was elected to the Illinois State Senate and four years later, mounted a failed attempt to unseat Congressman Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther who brushed him off as "not black enough." In his new book, Obama recalls how the loss forced him to relax: "I spent more time at home and watched my daughters grow, and properly cherished my wife." He continues, "I exercised, and picked up novels, and came to appreciate how the earth rotated around the sun and the seasons came and went without any particular exertions on my part."
After an incumbent's surprise retirement, a Senate seat came open and Obama and his wife forged an "up-or-out strategy," as he reveals in the new book: If he didn't win the Senate race, he would find a career that would make for a more placid home life. Obama does not suppress his own qualms about public life, anymore than he hides his teenage dabbling with drugs and alcohol. Even today, he struggles with the burden his political commitment puts on him. "There's a big part of me that's pretty lazy," he says. "You know, I grew up in Hawaii and really liked going to the beach and talking to girls and playing basketball."
"I wasn't one of these folks who at the age of five said to myself, 'I'm going to be a U.S. senator,' " Obama continues. "The motivation for my work has been more rooted in the need to live up to certain values that, more than anybody, my mother instilled in me, and to figure out how you reconcile those values with a world that is broken apart by class and race and nationality. And so I guess I have on occasions had to push myself or I've been pushed into service, not always because I thought it was fun or that it was preferable to sitting down and watching a ball game, but because I felt it was necessary."
It was during his years as a community activist that Obama's social commitment began to be infused with the religious feeling he describes in the book. A spiritual inclination he attributes to his mother drew him, despite his "quarrels with God," to hang around the United Church of Christ, a community popular with black professionals. There he got to know the man who became his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr., something of an Ellison or Richard Wright character himself, who came through encounters with drink, Islam, and Black Nationalism before he learned Greek and Hebrew and received a Ph.D. in Divinity.
When I asked Obama whether he believed in God before joining the Reverend Wright's Church, something I wondered after reading his first book, he responded with a comment you'd wait a long time to hear from any other senator. He quoted a favorite line from a poem by Borges:
I offer you that kernel of myself that I have saved, somehow—the central heart that deals not in words, traffics not with dreams and is untouched by time, by joy, by adversities.
"I think Borges is talking to a mistress or lover," Obama said. "But that kernel that is untouched—that doesn't traffic in the trivial or the mean or the petty—that sounds like God to me."
Obama arrived in Washington focused on how to avoid being known as the guy who gave one great speech, at the 2004 Democratic convention. Following Hillary Clinton's example, he put together a first-rate staff, studied procedural arcana, got local jobs done, and deferred to his Senate elders. After his first year and a half in office, he can expound with authority on immigration policy, the post-Katrina government contracting mess, and nuclear proliferation, usually in the same bipartisan tones. Hardly ever does he lead the party's charge against the Bush?Cheney White House. Obama especially dislikes the vituperative intramural debate to which left-wing blogs have contributed. Last fall, he sent a 2,000-word e-mail to the Daily Kos—a widely read progressive Web site—defending Democratic colleagues who voted to confirm Chief Justice John Roberts, even though he himself opposed the nominee. This further enraged some of the "netroots" antiwar activists who first backed him, and who were already upset that he opposes a rapid pullout from Iraq.
His other notable splash came through the thankless task he undertook at the behest of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid: ethics reform, a topic that wins neither votes nor friends on Capitol Hill. After he became allied with John McCain, Senate Democrats compelled Obama to side with them rather than McCain's bipartisan effort, and the ornery Arizonan fired off a sarcastic accusation of double-crossing. More than anything else, the public denunciation indicated that the 70-year-old Republican front-runner, for whom 2008 will be a last shot at the presidency, sees the Democratic golden boy as a political threat. Ever the diplomat, Obama says that the spat is now ancient history and the two again get along well. "People see John McCain as a prima donna," Obama joked to the elites gathered for the Gridiron Club dinner this spring. "I think of him as a role model."
Obama usually deflects questions about his political future with this kind of self-deprecation. "I'm so overexposed, I make Paris Hilton look like a recluse," he likes to say. When Jon Stewart asked about his celebrity on The Daily Show, Obama responded, "The only person more over-hyped than me is you," convulsing the host with laughter.
The Democratic obsession—it is not too strong a word—with the possibility of his running in 2008 reflects a combination of concern about Hillary Clinton's electability and impatience with the notion that their biggest talent intends to sit out the race to marinate longer in the Senate. There's also the fact of his crossover appeal—in the 2004 Illinois race, Obama won an impressive 40 percent of the Republican vote. (And as the Daily Kos episode suggests, he's not afraid to criticize his own side, chiding Democrats in his new book for sometimes being "smug, detached and dogmatic.") Somewhat against his will, the force of his voice—and the truth that legislating veterans' benefits is not his highest calling—seems to be pulling him toward considering a run. As Joe Klein recently wrote in Time, the gossip in Washington is that Obama "isn't not running for President."
Obama is too candid to deny that he's thinking about the presidency. "Look, it was highly unlikely that I would ever be a U.S. senator, so it's very flattering for people to talk about a presidential race," he says. He recalls walking recently through a corridor of the Capitol Hilton, which is filled with portraits of all 43 presidents, and pondering their careers. "You go through and you think, 'Who are these guys?' There are—what?—maybe ten presidents in our history out of 40-something who you can truly say led the country? And then there are 30-odd who just kind of did their best. And so—I guess my point is—just being the president is not a good way of thinking about it."
Obama is well aware of the obstacles he would face, including his limited experience in foreign policy, and Hillary Clinton's embedded position as front-runner. It's also not lost on him that much of the next president's job will be "cleaning up the mess," which is as close as he comes to trashing the Bush administration. "My attitude about something like the presidency is that you don't want to just be the president," he continues. "You want to change the country. You want to make a unique contribution. You want to be a great president."
It can't be easy being the repository for so many hopes—from Democrats, African-Americans, and both his parents. Obama sometimes quotes Lyndon Johnson's remark that every man is trying to live up to his father's expectations or make up for his mistakes. "I guess I'm trying to do both," he said in another interview. The greater influence is clearly his mother, who died of cancer in 1996. "She had this amazing sense of wonder about the world and this huge heart and huge sense of compassion and empathy for people—and a great kindness toward them," he says. In the introduction to the paperback edition of his first book, written with his Senate election in sight, Obama calls his mother "the single constant in my life." That passage, he says, is the one piece of his own writing he can't reread without breaking up.
For the most part, Obama appears to wear the burden of others' dreams lightly. They hang loosely on his shoulders, like the dark suits that compliment his slender frame. But beneath his open, companionable exterior, one detects a certain brooding quality, a concern etched into the sharp lines of his face about whether he's up to the tasks ahead.
His book will only add to the run-Obama-run! clamor, and the intensity of the pressure on him. But even as the Democratic political discussion grows and engulfs him, Obama is engaged in another more personal and historical conversation—with Wright and Ellison, with his parents, and with those two tragic and prophetic figures, Lincoln and King. Obama, of course, would never be so immodest as to compare himself to either of these men. But being clear-eyed, he must see what others do: that among American politicians, he alone has the potential to one day be mentioned in the same breath.