Dreams from the White House

Granny Sarah and a calendar featuring her grandson as she celebrates Obama’s victory over Clinton

It’s been another good week for The Times’ coverage of Obama’s ascent to the White House. Just before election day we tracked down his aunt, who was living in a rundown Boston estate, prompting allegations that we were some sort of Republican stooges. And then again this week we have uncovered the tale of Obama’s grandfather, who was tortured at the hands of the British during the Mau Mau rising.

“He said they would sometimes squeeze his testicles with parallel metallic rods. They also pierced his nails and buttocks with a sharp pin, with his hands and legs tied together with his head facing down,” [Barack Obama’s step-granny] said. The alleged torture was said to have left Mr Onyango permanently scarred, and bitterly antiBritish.

But far from being a Republican plant, the stories were simply nuggets hidden away in Obama’s own memoir, Dreams from My Father. While much of the Press continued its love-in with the Democrat contender, we did a little old-fashioned journalism.

I first read the book four years ago. I picked it up out of a sense of duty. Politicians’ memoirs are generally deeply tedious, an attempt to justify their indiscretions and mistakes with pompous overblown prose. But I needed to read it as research for a topic that I thought would provide me with plenty of work over the coming years (although I was deeply sceptical of Kenyan excitement that he would one day reach the White House). The first few pages were certainly a little overwritten but I was soon hooked. His writing was powerful and seemed to get to grips with some of America’s obsessions in a deeply personal way. My own copy is now badly creased and smudged from the number of times I’ve lent it out.
But I had one nagging doubt about it. The book was simply too slick. Before even embarking on a political career, Obama had managed to write a book that positioned him perfectly for higher office. He puts down family problems – his alcoholic, wife-beating father – and personal problems – the drugs – in black and white, but in such a way that they don’t seem that big a deal. Just about glossing over the worst of it. And with his skeletons on the page, there are none left in his closet.
Patrick T Reardon (I always think using your middle initial is a bit of a giveaway), in The Chicago Tribune this week, lumps me in with the conspiracy theorists….

As it turned out, that forthrightness helped Obama. By pointing out such skeletons in his closet, he didn’t leave much for investigative reporters or enemy operatives to dredge up. (Some conspiracy theorists contend that’s exactly why he wrote the book, but, if he had been so calculating, he would have given a tighter focus to the book, particularly in relating his five-week visit to Kenya, which sprawls for nearly 240 pages.)

Then there is the politics. Throughout Dreams Obama describes the issues on the streets of Chicago, the race relations and the glimpses of poverty that inform his political education. He shows us he is affected deeply. Yet never once explains where that education takes him. The book is devoid of political framework or philosophy. There is no ideology that might come back to bite him on the bum.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a stunning book. The guy can write. As Paddy Reardon rightly says…”oceans away from the carefully homogenized writing that typically is produced, often by staff members, under the byline of an American politician”. But at the same time, I can’t help thinking it was part of a masterplan.