Robert Draper, chronicler of the Last Days of Bush, has another very interesting piece in GQ this month, this time looking at Barack Obama the writer and how the President's writing shapes and informs his style. Andrew Sullivan rightly highlights the part that deals with the famous "race speech" in Philadelphia last year, but I was struck by a couple of other passages that help, I think, explain Obama's enigmatic, still-up-for-grabs Presidency.
Draper's thess is that Obama is the first writer to occupy the White House since Teddy Roosevelt. There's something to that and if you think that something has nothing to do with how
We'll get to this in a moment. Consider too, this passage from Draper's article:“
“I’ve always appreciated about him [is] his ability to participate in a scene and also reflect on it."
Taken together these twin observations - perhaps inseperably twin - help explain and illuminate a lot about Obama and his strengths and his weaknesses.“
As readers of Dreams from My Father are aware, Obama’s personal story is a good one. And as the writer of that story, Obama is more attuned to the power of narrative and is more in control of it than any president in recent memory. Yet this same attention to narrative can also seem the source of Obama’s psychological and political shortcomings; they are the writer’s classic failings. The story that obsesses him is his own story: He tells it over and over, stamping it into the larger American narrative and often conflating the two, a feat of authorial arrogance that’s simultaneously an outsider’s plaintive quest for belonging. In the telling, he shades and edits as a writer does, employing straw-man characters (those who would rather do nothing than fix the economy; the villainous Bush administration) to set a backdrop for his own heroic odyssey. Most perilously, Obama believes more strongly in the magic of words, especially his own, than perhaps any of his recent predecessors. His default option is to give a speech, and he’s maybe too prolific at doing so, since a disproportion of words to deeds is what ultimately undermines a politician.
Despite what some people might want you to believe, Obama isn't the kind of politician about whom one may make a snap judgement that will subsequently be proven correct. I think he demands patience and that, consequently, it's still too soon to say what kind of President he will be. Perhaps too soon, even, to determine what kind of President he wants to be. He's the most enigmatic President since Richard Nixon.
He can be aloof and sometimes seems oddly disengaged. That was very obvious on the long campaign trail and there were more than a few moments when his supporters wondered if he had the ability or, more troublingly, even the inclination to throw a punch or an elbow. He was the candidate that sometimes seemed curiously distant from the campaign. There were times, such as during the autumn of 2007, that he seemed strangely disconnected and unwillingly to play the kind of hardball that Washington wisdom expected of him. He was, to borrow Axelrod's formulation, a participant in and an observer of his own campaign.
Such a state is only sustainable if the candidate possesses unusual competence and, perhaps, a special kind of self-confidence. "No Drama Obama" would eventually become a badge of pride, but there were moments, I think, when even senior advisors wondered if their candidate was really up for it. But he played the long game, trusted himself, and was rewarded in the end. It's tempting to think something similar may be true of his Presidency.
On the campaign trail Obama was often able to combine the roles of candidate and arch commentator on the ridiculousness of much of what a candidate is expected to do these days. He was, in some senses, all about the meta. This has continued. His remarks on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize combined an appreciation of the absurdity of the award with a determination to embrace it that made one wonder if perhaps the President thought it a perfectly sensible award after all. Again, there was ambiguity and just enough distance to make one wonder.
Nevertheless the intertwining of Obama's personal story with the national journey is, while tempting, subject to the laws of diminishing returns. It can't always be about him. At some point cooless of demeanour and charm run out. As has often been remarked Obama, even by the standards of Presidents and Senators, is not without ego. This is true of most writers, of course, including those that hate themselves and their work. Obama does not fall into those categories but still...
His aloofness, even his seeming detachment, is generally described as "professorial" but perhaps, as Draper suggests, "writerly" might be more accurate. And if that's true and if, as Draper says, Obama needs deadlines to write at his best, then some of the last nine months makes more sense. The media prefers sturm und drang, but Obama wants moments of calm in which he can retreat and spend time, sometimes lots of time, to think about how he wants to approach a given subject. And yes, this is not necessarily dissimilar to a novelist parking the book for a moment while he figures out how to approach character A or plot development B.
Against that, there's the Philadelphia speech on Jeremiah Wright. Commissioned on short notice, unrehearsed and almost done on the fly. It was Obama, rhetorically and for that matter substantively, at his best. A moment pregnant with crisis instead delivered a new respect for the candidate. Perhaps, then, like many writers, Obama needs a deadline to really get the juices flowing. If so, then the hope must be that we never actually see him at his best since that would demand a terrible crisis to occur. A quiet life is not so very bad.
All this isn't necessarily weakness on Obama's part, it's just a different kind of Presidency. Not one, alas, that isn't certain in and of itself but one that arrives at that certainty by different means.
I just hope that he isn't saving all the good stuff for his memoirs.