On writing Autobiography
Lessons from the 44th President of the United States of America
I have spent far too much time with my head buried in the pages of political memoir for good and less good reasons! As a genre they are complex, contradictory and (on the whole ) much given to short term judgments that seek to defend and justify. Understandable perhaps – politics is a bruising game even for the winners.
One feature stands out in these books – leaders are always ready to claim the triumph, the success and the achievements. Rightly so, because these are often the result of momental efforts over unpredictable adversities. However what political leaders are less good at is the ownership of mistakes and failure. Too often these are explained away – by circumstances or just fate on a bad day.
There are other elements at work in story telling. Let us take a brief look at ourselves. What would we like to be remembered for ? What might we want to conceal about ourselves from others? Are there things that we might want not to say? I wonder after reading a political autobiography whether it is the narrative that the writer wants to push out into the world? Is it the story that we really want to tell? Who might we want to protect? How restrained might we or should we want to be? How honest might anyone of us really want to be about our flaws and mistakes?
So – this is some of the baggage ( as you might say) that I brought to these pages that absorbed those days ‘in between’ Christmas and New Year. It was a easy read helped by the fluency of the writer. The book ( perhaps a little too long ?) was also encouraged as its pages were turned by the natural sympathy that this reader had both for America and this particular President ! I met Obama in 2008 in Chicago ( briefly ) and the impression I had of him then (checked out with my diaries) was of a person completely as ease with himself – cosmopolitan, nuanced and fluent. These gifts are brought to bear on the pages of this book. He is restrained, grown up, respectful and (as far as we can judge ) calm. There is a deep spirit of hope that runs through these twenty seven chapters. Obamas skilful writing assists the reader at every turn of the page.
Obama tells of his early life and charts some of his values and convictions to his family and especially his mother and grandmother. This is a man with an unwaveringly strong sense of self and the trustworthiness of his intuition and judgments. It was not an easy or privileged upbringing – determination, long hours, religion, local politics in Illinois and community action all play their part as the months turn into years. The consistent, persistent and grounded voice of his wife and daughters also play their part in the demands of public office. Along the way there is fortune, serendipity and chance that are maximised for the ambitions of this relentlessly determined spirit.
This first volume of the presidential memoir covers his childhood through to the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011. It isn’t history in the shape that you would recognise from School – but for anyone who might want to know more about America and its complex society it is full of insight. Illuminating about the financial crisis and the way money works (or doesn’t), race, class and the relentless day to day work of being the president. The machinery and personalities of government are given texture and colour and life. What isn’t always clear is how much power the most powerful man in the world has!
Obama isn’t afraid to make judgements especially about other world leaders. Gordon Brown (compared with Blair) was responsible but lacked the sparkly political gifts. David Cameron went in for “studied informality” and had the “easy self confidence of someone who had never been pressed too hard by life”. Angela Merkel impressed much more, already dominating Europe and on gazing at President Sarkozy of France Obama described like “like an unruly child”.
What I find most attractive about the man and the book is his readiness to admit uncertainty and name insecurities. His self doubt feels like a strength which gives his judgement wisdom and a kind of goodness and depth. Aware of the projections and illusions of leadership the quality of the prose has a spiritual quality to it. He acknowledges his shortcomings as a husband, he mourns his mistakes and broods still on his choice of words during the first Democratic primaries. He writes about having “a deep self-consciousness. A sensitivity to rejection or looking stupid.” Charm and good looks take the President so far – his ability to handle paradox and contradiction take him further.
It is impossible not to admire his determination to drive through affordable health care amidst some significant opposition. The story will continue in a second volume. I wonder though whether this was the book he really wanted to write? What pages got removed ? What must remain unsaid?
But – if you have a book token and some hours to spare you will not be disappointed with these pages. Written by a wonderfully decent man striving to be honest. Of course there are flaws and failings but let us tell the story of ours before ungraciousness blinds our perspectives.
A good book from a great man.