OCTOBER 22, 2008
On my way to Denver for what is being billed as the political speech of my lifetime, I am doing my best to open up a lotus-like space inside my head in which I can enjoy the pleasurable sensation that comes to lucky Ivy League meritocrats of a certain age, when friends from college and graduate school are on the verge of really running things in America. On any given Sunday, you stand a better-than-even chance of knowing Barack Obama's speechwriters, his economic advisers, the New York Times correspondent covering his campaign, or someone who played basketball last Tuesday with the candidate. While I don't know the candidate personally, I feel as if I do, in part because he was at Harvard Law School when I was at Harvard, and he lived a few blocks away from me in a "transitional neighborhood" in Manhattan where rich people brought their dogs to poop. I know where the candidate is coming from, I am thinking, as I watch the fluffy white clouds float by my airplane window in a sea of antidepressant Obama blue.
It is hard not to like the idea of a writer becoming president, even if most writers I know would run for cover when confronted with the collapse of the financial system or the threat of Iranian nukes. I enjoy reading Barack Obama the writer for his particular mix of personal empathy and isolation, his abstract sentimentality and carefully modulated personal bitterness about his father, who appears as much more of a monster than the gauzy title of Obama's first memoir might alone suggest. Open on the gray plastic tray table in front of me is my heavily marked-up first edition of Dreams from My Father, which I found in a used bookstore in Manhattan and bought and read with pleasure without the slightest inkling that the author might someday run for public office, and which I am bringing with me to Denver in something of a continuing state of shock that Obama is likely to be elected president. How wonderful and strange it would be if our creaky American empire were to be governed by poets! It is true that Barack Obama isn't Shakespeare or Cervantes, or even John Ashbery, and that most writers would make lousy presidents, especially in America, where literature and politics have learned to keep the other at arm's length. Still, it is hard to argue with the fact that Dreams is a terrific book--an insightful, well-written, cunningly organized black male bildungsroman that also serves as a kind of autobiographical rejoinder to one of my favorite American novels, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Obama cites Invisible Man as a major influence on his personal evolution along with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, two classic first-person narratives in the African American literary canon that can properly be thought of as novels with strong autobiographical components. (Malcolm X is ostensibly based on a series of taped interviews with the ex-Black Muslim leader and was written after Malcolm's death by Alex Haley, who also wrote Roots.)
What's even more remarkable about Dreams from My Father is the fact that it was written by a man who has since decided to run for president by disowning the most striking parts of his own voice and transforming himself into a blank screen for the fantasy-projection of the electorate. It is hard to overemphasize how utterly remarkable it is that Dreams exists at all--not the usual nest of position papers and tape-recorder talk, but a real book by a real writer who has both the inclination and the literary tools to give an indelible account of himself, and who also happens to be running for president. In which connection, it seems right to mention that the Barack Obama who appears in Dreams, and, one presumes, in his own continuing interior life, is not a comforting multiracial or post-racial figure like Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter who prefers to be looked at through a kaleidoscope. Though there are many structural parallels between Dreams and Invisible Man, Obama believes in the old-fashioned, unabashedly romantic, and, in the end, quite weird idea of racial authenticity that Ellison rejected. He embraces his racial identity despite his mixed parentage through a kind of Kierkegaardian leap into blackness, through which he hopes to become a whole, untroubled person.
My own belief is that Barack Obama has the makings of an unusual and unusually effective president, because he might combine a writer's sense of the dramatic moment, and of how language helps to shape reality, with the brain--and perhaps the soul--of a Harvard-educated technocrat. At the same time, I find it hard not to wonder about how President Obama will see the world, and what the major fault lines in his personality might be. The fact that the talking heads and the voters alike are unable to see him plain is an optic effect that Obama anticipates in his first book. It is no accident that the literary model for Obama's narrative of self is Ellison's Invisible Man, just as it is no accident that liberals and conservatives alike seem to be talking about five or six wildly different people when they talk about Obama, none of whom bears all that much resemblance to the narrator of Dreams.
Dreams from My Father is a story about the consequences of a fiction created by a white mother and well-meaning white grandparents in order to give a fatherless black child a sustaining myth by which to live. It is one of the more interesting facts about Obama the writer that the father he chooses to represent, and whose legacy he chooses to embrace, is a bona fide monster--a scary polygamist who abused his wives and children and drank away his intellectual promise and his career, then crippled himself in a car accident that left him with iron legs, and finally wrapped his car around a tree in a second accident that luckily proved fatal to no one other than himself. Dreams is a book about Obama coming to terms with this troubling monster and creating a workable self out of the ruins of his father's life.
Obama's distanced and writerly view of a self as something that is summoned through a creative act of will is at odds with the author's hand-me-down ideas about racial authenticity; the tension between the created self and the given self animates Obama's writing, but is not resolved in any satisfactory way. Filled with striking, well-disciplined sentences and observations, Dreams is also shot through with the vanity of a young man trying on borrowed clothing in front of a mirror as he attempts to figure out exactly what kind of black man he will be, a process that tells us that the narrator comes from a privileged place in society. The structure loosely but deliberately mirrors the structure of Ellison's novel--a picaresque, which shows an intelligent and bookish young black man's struggle with internal and external definitions of self as he moves through a series of institutional settings and self-defining impulses cloaked in the garb of communal politics or culture: the campus anti-apartheid movement, black and anti-colonialist literature, community organizing, the black church.
Where Obama's narrator provides the reader with a model consciousness, sensitive, responsible, and aware, who moves from triumph to triumph along the road to successfully embracing the fullness of his black identity, Ellison's story ends badly. The Ellisonian collision between the individualist consciousness and the realities of the color line in America produces a kind of fatal and indigestible dark matter that is aware of itself yet can never claim a full share of humanity. Ellison's protagonist is invisible because the symbolic radiance of his black skin queers the efforts of others to relate to him as an individual, and makes him prey to the manipulations of whites and blacks alike who utilize the brutal and absurd dynamics of the color line to satisfy private lusts for power and domination. The tragic thrust of Ellison's novel is often reduced to the banality that black people are invisible to white people. Ellison's deeper point is that the symbolic and actual baggage of race makes it difficult if not impossible for a black man to ever realize his full humanity in the eyes of anyone--white, black, communist, capitalist, or himself. A lone atom aware of his fate but powerless to change it, Ellison's narrator winds up in an underground room in a whites-only building in Manhattan lit up by 1,369 light bulbs powered by stolen electricity, listening to the startlingly original recordings of the young Louis Armstrong--completely illuminated and yet totally invisible.
Obama's decision to identify with the lineage of his black Kenyan father to the exclusion of his white U.S.-born mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, and her parents allows him a measure of release from the cruel racial logic that binds Ellison's narrator--he comes from outside American society, and therefore he is not entirely bound by the overdetermined racial logic that unites the children of slaves and masters. Yet, while Obama's rejection of his "white blood" may seem familiar from the writings of African American authors like Malcolm X, it is actually much stranger; Obama's partial "whiteness" is not the product of an ancient rape by an anonymous slave-master but is instead the color of the mother who raised him. Obama's embrace of authenticity separates him from Ellison's profoundly modernist consciousness, and prevents him from seeing the serial absurdities of his own story. Where Invisible Man bubbles with fiery, absurdist humor, the narrator of Dreams rarely cracks a smile. One can only imagine what Ellison would have done with Obama's straight-faced account of his futile career as a community organizer in Chicago, or with the incredibly juicy character of Dr. Jeremiah Wright--a religious con man who spread racist and anti-Semitic poison while having an alleged sexual affair with a white church secretary and milking his congregation for millions of dollars and a house in a gated community whose residents are overwhelmingly rich and white.
The fact that Obama is hip to Ellison's rather depressing take on what race might mean for his career in American politics comes through in occasional moments of brutal honesty in his later writing, like his analysis of the basis of his political appeal in The Audacity of Hope: "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." Here, Obama seems to agree with Ellison about the effect of the racial baggage that people bring to his public performance as a politician. The black candidate is rendered invisible to his white audience, a fact that would appear to leave him with little choice but to use that blindness in a strategic way if he wishes to lead.
It is one of the outstanding ironies of Obama's story that his political rise has been fueled by a tactical grasp of the same racial logic that condemned Ellison's invisible man to living in a basement by himself. The blank screen approach that Obama has embraced works well in a moment dominated by the collapse of Wall Street and the Iraq war, issues for which all possible solutions seem unpalatable; what voters want is to feel that things will change, without too much uncomfortable detail about what will actually happen. The fact that the candidate does not make the usual appeal to the authenticity of his personal story makes the usual attacks on him seem nonsensical, regardless of whether or not they are true, a fact that the Clintons lamented during the primary season and John McCain will find equally frustrating during the general election. Crazy right-wing charges that Obama shares the loonier opinions of Dr. Wright or that he is a secret Muslim blend seamlessly into reports of his calls for immediately beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq or his promise to sit down with the leaders of Iran and North Korea without preconditions, or the fact that he began his political career at Bill Ayers's house in Chicago, or that his financial backer Tony Rezko was a scummy slumlord who paid for the Obamas to have a new backyard. None of it sticks, because Obama is not that kind of candidate. The campaign uses the Ellisonian condition of invisibility to its advantage while also exerting a powerful form of mental jujitsu on guilty white liberals, a species that Obama knows well: Attacks on the candidate are simply projections of the (racist) mentality of his accusers. As they erase the weirder and more specific points of his sensibility in a blizzard of superlatives, whites create an image of a black superman as a kind of photo-negative image of liberal guilt.
On the copy of Time that I take with me to Denver, Obama emerges on the cover from some weird murk that makes it look like he was photographed from the head up while naked in a hyperbaric chamber. This being Time's seventh Obama cover in the last year, it seems fair to observe that his face is looking a little fleshier than usual. Whereas he once seemed to channel Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X circa 1963, he now looks more like a man who is tired from the physical ordeal of the campaign. The most striking thing about this week's Obama photograph is his mouth, which is a little bit hard, with upturned corners giving a suggestion of a smile. He's a political Mona Lisa. "He hears America singing--and griping, fretting, seething, conniving, hoping, despairing. He can deliver a pitch-perfect expression of the racial anger of many American blacks," writes David von Drehle, "and, just as smoothly, unpack the racial irritations gnawing at many whites."
Yet, however much the candidate is adored, and no matter how powerful the Democratic Party's mojo seems this year, it is hard to imagine that the Ellisonian premise of black invisibility can survive the premise of a modern presidential campaign, which is that the candidate should make himself known to the voters. Obama's failure thus far to construct a convincing public story about who he is and where he comes from is not an accident, but rather a product of the strategy that won him the Democratic nomination, and which informs his larger take on the realities of race in America. Of course, Barack Obama has already spelled out a convincing story of who he is and where he is coming from in Dreams from My Father--a story that has real literary merit but does not accord in every place with the usual pieties about race in America. Obama's put-downs of peers with mixed racial backgrounds who define themselves in a more ambivalent way seem at odds with the author's self-proclaimed talent for empathy. "That was the problem with people like Joyce," he writes of a female classmate who was not interested in campus activism. "They talked about the richness of their multicultural heritage and it sounded real good, until you noticed that they avoided black people."
The uniqueness of Obama's campaign rhetoric about race has been identified by seemingly grateful (white) commentators as a profound ability to identify with both races that is assumed to be a product of his mixed racial heritage. The assumption that Obama racially identifies to some strong extent with his white mother and grandparents comes naturally to white people, but it is contradicted by the evidence of his work. A reader conditioned by the dynamics of modernist writing, in which personal identity trumps allegiance to the group, keeps waiting for the author to become equally disenchanted with his black family and emerge at the end as a radically isolated but purified hero, beholden to no one, aware of the larger absurdity of the human condition. But Obama's reading of Ellison tells him that the modernist ending is a trap that should be avoided at all costs. Dreams from My Father does not end with the expected discovery that we are all radically alone in the world, but rather with the discovery that he is a member of a strong and loving black African family--even if the father he identified with as a child is a myth created by guilty white liberals. Throughout his narrative, Obama's evolving "blackness" requires a deliberate and increasing degree of mental and physical alienation from the white relatives who cared for him as a child. Frank Davis, the black communist poet who plays Obi Wan Kenobi to Obama's Luke Skywalker, explains to Obama that his grandfather--Davis's friend--is a kind of closet racist, because he is unaware of how much power he wields by virtue of being white: "That's why he can come over here and drink my whiskey and fall asleep in that chair you are sitting in right now. Sleep like a baby. See, that's something I can never do in his house."
What's interesting about the above passage is that Obama quotes Davis's sentiments without a shadow of dissent: The logic of the narrative gives the author permission to show his white family members in a bad light because, as Davis suggests, he is more closely related to other black people than he is to the white-skinned members of his family. Obama's uncharitable treatment of his white family serves the additional function of explaining why his father left. Speaking of his grandfather's love for the black singer Nat King Cole, Obama summons up a scene of his African father coming to dinner at his white family's house, and then turns his gentle, liberal-minded white grandparent into a bigot: "I imagine him asking my father if he can sing, not understanding the mortified look on my mother's face." Did this embarrassing scene actually happen? The language of Obama's book suggests that it did not. The more immediate function of the imagined scene is to distract the reader's attention from a more likely cause of his grandfather's concern--the fact that his 18-year-old mother was being courted by a mature man in his mid-twenties whose family lived in another country.
Yet there is also a catch to this easy black-white dichotomy, namely the fact that the princely African father that Obama imagined as a child was in large part a gift from the same white people whose naivete the author belittles. Even on her death bed, Obama's mother, Stanley, who joined her son in the task of inventing his father, read draft after draft of his first memoir, helping her son finish the job of destroying the father-image of his childhood and becoming a man--while presumably ignoring the parts of his book that are dismissive of or insulting to her. The price of this kind of psychologically difficult work for both mother and son can only be wondered at.
One of the great themes of Dreams is the author's extreme isolation as a child and as a young man and his dislike for the company of other people--a familiar theme in the lives of writers but an unusual element in the biography of an American politician. Living on 94th Street between 1st Avenue and 2nd Avenue while he attends Columbia, Obama describes the student poverty of his surroundings, and explains that "[n]one of this concerned me much, for I didn't get many visitors. I was impatient in those days, busy with work and unrealized plans, and prone to see other people as unnecessary distractions."
The one person with whom he feels a sense of common purpose is an old man who lived next door and seemed to share the author's disposition: "He lived alone, a gaunt, stooped figure who wore a heavy black overcoat and a misshapen fedora on those rare occasions when he left his apartment." One day, the young student returned to find that his neighbor was dead, adding a perfect isolate's touch--$1,000 rolled up and stuffed in the refrigerator. "I felt as if an understanding had been broken between us--as if, in that barren room, the old man was whispering an untold history, telling me things I preferred not to hear. " It's a freaky scene, which begs the question of what exactly the author is getting at.
The image of the old man living alone in a room in New York, "whispering an untold history, telling me things I preferred not to hear," carries an unmistakable echo of the high-wattage opening of Invisible Man. The Obama at the beginning of Dreams is the Invisible Man Jr., a role that the author alternately embraces and resents. He identifies with the lonely old man next door, but makes no effort to befriend him. He wants the old man to stay locked up inside his room. The old man's death is immediately followed in the narrative by a telephone call informing Obama of the death of his father. The fact that these two deaths are so intimately conjoined suggests that the lonely old man is in some ways a psychologically safe version of Obama's own father--a silent, neutered version of the violent, alcoholic, polygamous African man who threatens his son's emerging sense of self. The darkness of his father's actual life stands in sharp contrast to the invented character who was present throughout Obama's childhood and adolescence--a man who was universally liked, brilliant, strong, athletic, a great dancer, who never backed down from a chance to stand up for the universal rights of man; a figure so perfect and yet so troubling in his absence that it is easy to see how the young writer would need to uncover his failings in a public way.
Obama's father, whose lessons about the paramount importance of self-confidence were transmitted to his eager son through the agency of Gramps, in one of the few lines of actual instruction that he ever gives, can also be read in light of another memorable character from Ellison's novel, the black school principal, Dr. Bledsoe, who undermines the young narrator's career and his sense of self and also offers a memorable disquisition on the nature of power: "Power doesn't have to show off. Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting and self-stopping, self-warming and self-justifying. When you have it you know it." Invisibility, Bledsoe instructs, can be a source and an instrument of power, not just a sign of weakness--a lesson that Obama the politician seems to have taken to heart.
The character of Dr. Bledsoe also shadows the figure of Jeremiah Wright, who tried his best to destroy his protege's political career by traveling to Washington and making racially incendiary remarks at the National Press Club just to show that his previous remarks had not been misreported by the press. The fact that Obama can't wrap his mind around the shabbiness of his chosen mentor comes through quite clearly in his soft-minded portrait of the preacher and his relationship with his flock. Contrary to the feverish claims of his right-wing critics, Obama's decades-long attachment to Wright doesn't seem to reveal the candidate's secret belief that the CIA sells crack and spreads AIDS in black communities. Rather, it shows the depths of the author's longing for a suitable father. Obama's susceptibility to an older man who peddles nonsense seems like the product of his need to assume a clear and definite personal identity that will serve as a bulwark against childhood feelings of abandonment and vulnerability--a constellation of traits that eerily seems to mirror the fatal cracks in the personality of our current president, whose own father was largely absent.
The self-sacrifice involved by the Dunhams in raising their grandson is one of the most admirable parts of Obama's story, and there is every sign that Obama is fully aware of how hard his mother and his grandparents worked in order to help him find a place in the world. But in the end, they can't. Ann Dunham was taunted as a nigger-lover at the age of eleven, when she lay on her front lawn in Texas with a black schoolmate--and yet her dark-skinned son is quick to dismiss her as a silly, naive dreamer, "a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism," whose liking for Marcel Camus's film Black Orpheus is physically embarrassing and uncomfortable because it uncovers the childlike and sentimental basis of her erotic attraction to black men.
At the same time, his distaste for his mother is also a product of her own belief that there is something superior about identifying with dark-skinned people, and he empathizes with her personal sufferings and loneliness in the way of a sensitive, dutiful son. "She wasn't prepared for the loneliness. It was constant, like a shortness of breath," he says, pointing out in one of the relatively few passages about large-scale world-historical events that, the year before he and his mother arrived, Indonesia had undergone a bloody U.S.- backed coup followed by massacres of up to half a million Indonesian communists. At least part of Obama's rejection of his "whiteness" can be understood in light of the fact that the author was abandoned not only by his father but also by his mother, whose attraction to another dark-skinned man had led her to Indonesia, where she chose to stay by herself after sending her son back to Hawaii.
It is in Indonesia as much as any place else that Obama discovers the global dimensions of the color line. If Obama's narrative is Invisible Man with a happy ending, it is important to remember that he defines himself as the son of a Kenyan, and that his actual understanding of race owes as much or more to critics of European colonialism as it does to Ellison or Malcolm X. There is a much-commented-upon scene in Dreams in which Obama is sitting in the library of the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia and discovers a photo in Life of a black man who burned his skin off trying to become white. Right-wing critics like Jerome Corsi, who adds the honorific "Ph.D." after his name in order to make the contents of his book Obama Nation seem less shabby, have denied that any such picture ever appeared in Life or any other popular magazine and point out that another picture that Obama describes, of a Japanese woman holding her physically disfigured daughter in a bathtub, which is most likely one of a series of photographs published in Life of Japanese children who were damaged by atomic fallout, only appeared in print after Obama moved back to the United States. What this politically motivated nit-picking obscures is the revealing way that colonialist racism and the suffering of dark-skinned people are conjoined in Obama's narrative. The picture of the Japanese woman and her disfigured daughter follows an image of happy French children laughing and playing, and leads directly into the image of the black man whose skin is burned off, and whom Obama initially perceives as a victim of radiation sickness. (The idea that the Hiroshima bomb and murderous anti-black racism were two sides of the same coin is a theme of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's sermon, "The Audacity of Hope," which Obama describes at length later in Dreams, and which would be the title of his second book.) Colonialist powers like France and the United States, the conjunction of these images suggests, destroy the lives of dark-skinned people overseas just as white racism causes black people to destroy themselves at home. "There were thousands of people like him, " Obama writes, "black men and women back in America who'd undergone the same treatment in response to advertisements that promised happiness as a white person." Since no such picture ever appeared in Life, Ebony, or any other major U.S. magazine during the author's sojourn in Indonesia, it seems fair to see Obama's reading of the photograph as a reflection of his own understanding of the impulse to "become white" as a powerful and disfiguring product of a racist white society.
Like the British Empire that turned his grandfather into a house servant, the postwar American empire that the young Obama reads about in Life is guilty of systematically devaluing the humanity of dark-skinned people. At the same time, however, it seems clear that Obama himself sees the exercise of power as a necessary and inevitable part of life. Because Obama does not identify as white, he is free to exercise power without being overly troubled by past sins for which he is not guilty--an attitude that separates him from hair-shirt leftists like Jimmy Carter.
One of the more interesting arguments of Dreams is the narrator's suggestion that his dark skin affords him a better shot at understanding power and how to use it. In a scene that owes an obvious debt to Ellison's famous Battle Royal, in which two black boys are made to fight each other in a boxing ring, the narrator is taken out into the backyard of his Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro's small house in Jakarta and is made to put on gloves and fight. "The world was violent, I was learning, unpredictable, and often cruel," he saw. "My grandparents knew nothing about such a world, I decided; there was no point in disturbing them." Emboldened, Obama asks his stepfather if he ever saw anyone killed, and Lolo says yes.
"Why was the man killed? The one you saw?" the young Obama asks.
"Because he was weak," Lolo answers, instructing his half-American, half-Kenyan stepson in the age-old logic of the world outside sunny Hawaii. Obama's version of the scene ends with a searing recognition that the white part of his family lives in a fantasy world in which the need to learn such ugly lessons simply does not exist. While Obama's Third World-ism carries with it a certain assumption of American historical guilt, it should not be confused with the cult of victimization that is still popular on college campuses. Obama identifies with his father, Lolo, and other post-colonial men because they are strong. Dark-skinned men can understand power in a way that white men like his grandfather can't. If you are not strong, Lolo continues, "be clever and make peace with someone who is strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always."
The most outstanding characteristic of the portrait that Obama draws of his white mother, who also serves as a stand-in for white liberal readers of his book, is her hatred for power--a characteristic that her son finds naive and contemptible. "Power. The word fixed in my mother's mind like a curse," Obama wrote, of his mother's response to the inequities of Indonesian society. "Guilt is a luxury that only foreigners can afford," her husband Lolo responds. "Like saying whatever pops into your head." What is notable about this and other passages in Dreams from My Father is the extent to which Obama's identifies with the verbal slap and with its speaker, rather than with his mother, a girlish and naive white American liberal. White Americans like his mother and his grandfather are unsuitable sources for the author's evolving subjectivity because they are blinded by the privileges of their race to the realities of power.
Obama understands the white liberal American distaste for power as a symptom of white privilege, and he is certainly right. Yet it is hard not to be haunted by the feeling that Obama's admiration for dark-skinned strength is the mirror image of his personal feelings of weakness and inauthenticity, and that the personality that he has cobbled together out of the historical experience of other men in other times and places is more of an abstraction than an expression of the fullness of the author's humanity. In part, this abstraction is the product of a biography with too many loose ends to fit comfortably anywhere. With a few tweaks here and there, it is easy to imagine the narrator of Dreams as Barack Obama Jr., a rising young American-educated Kenyan politician, or, less likely--but still possible--as Barry Soetoro, a successful Indonesian-American businessman, or as Barry Obama, a mixed-race Hawaiian party boy--each of whom would have had his own identity issues to sort out. Obama the writer may think that he has escaped from his lonely room in Manhattan into the warm embrace of his Kenyan family and his identity as an African American man, but he also has his doubts. His wife, Michelle, worries about him. When he finally journeys to Kenya to meet his father's family, he gets the unvarnished truth from his African relatives about the man who had been presented to him as a paragon of early civil rights-era virtues:
"You know Obama was quite crazy, don't you?" a relative asks. "The drinking made it worse. Did you ever meet him? Obama, I mean?"
"Only once. When I was ten."
"Well, you were lucky then. It probably explains why you're doing so well."
Irregular lines of fresh-faced, sweaty people at least a mile long snake around the chain-link fences that mark the secure perimeter of Invesco Field. As I stand in the afternoon sunlight, I study a Xeroxed pamphlet titled "Common Sense," which is handed to me by one of the sadly diminished number of lunatics who once flocked to political conventions and are now medicated into some semblance of normalcy. "We have developed an 'empire' which, when opposed, has responded with 'economic seduction,' and or 'black ops' violence," writes the author, Thomas P., who claims to have worked as a psychotherapist in the Denver area before giving himself over to his work as a concerned citizen. "As a counselor, when a client inflicts psychological harm on someone I suggest that they apologize, make amends, and move on. Let's do that internationally," he suggests. "That will help to reestablish the trust of our allies and set an example of spiritual values set by the majority of civilized people."
As the pamphlet indicates, the promise of Barack Obama is that of the global emperor who could make it possible for America to speak in its true voice to the world, and move on. Obama knows that America is an empire because he grew up on a colonial island possession as the son of an African man and a woman who exiled herself from her country. The same qualities that make Obama invisible to America make him visible to the rest of the world. He is as much one of them as he is one of us, and they will see themselves in him, and like us better. Yet what kind of president will he be? For all his obvious intellectual superiority over the fitful and impulsive McCain, Obama has impaled himself on the horns of a painful dilemma. While the identity that he constructed for himself in his autobiography has allowed him to blossom as a man and as a politician, it bears little resemblance to the conventional narratives of white men who run for president--and contains elements that are likely to frighten off large portions of the electorate, before or after November 4. The story of a man who identifies with a foreign father, and with people who are not Americans, and who does so on the basis of the color of their skin, flies in the face of the simplistic racial pieties that white Americans have embraced since the end of Jim Crow. The identity that Obama so painstakingly created for himself is not one that he can share with the electorate, and so the price of his political success is that he is forced to sublimate the material he had so painfully excavated and again become invisible. His image-makers create new stories about the candidate, which ring false and drain his marvelous abilities as a writer, a speaker, and a leader.
The police finally show up around 4:30, and, 15 minutes later, I am inside the stadium. The stage set, containing two assemblies of four giant drywall and laminated plywood pillars connected by an arc of smaller pillars topped by a fake Greek frieze, has been an easy target for sniggering Republicans and political reporters all week. From video screens flanking the stage, Obama is telling the crowd, "I will always tell you what I think and where I stand." It's a marriage pitch, but the audience is only half listening, which makes sense considering the fact that half the delegates came here to vote for someone else. After a short break, Stevie Wonder appears on stage and starts talking to himself in that weird, sing-song way he has, to organize the voices inside his head. "I love you," Stevie says. "I love you with every song I sing. " Stevie is a blessing. He vamps. "Oh, Bar-ack O-ba-ma," Stevie sings, mining the clattering bass-heavy syllables for any unexpected musicality. "I got to do this one. I got to do this one for the future president of the United States and his wife," he says before launching into "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," the Obamas' wedding song. "I know Barack Obama gonna set this country on fire," he sings, flashing his irresistible thousand-watt smile.
Then there's Joe Biden, whose gleaming white dental work is visible from across the stadium. The spark of genius in the choice of Biden was that it gave the portion of the electorate that makes lame foot-in-mouth jokes about "clean" blacks permission to vote for Obama without feeling like they would have to apologize if they met him in a bar. Other than that, the choice of Biden is clearly wrong. What it signifies is that the candidate is unable to run on his own experience of the world, which would require talking about his African father and Indonesian stepfather, and what it feels like to be a member of the dark-skinned races who live outside our borders, and make up the overwhelming majority of people on the planet. Because he can't, Obama grabs the talking head from Delaware and clutches him like a security blanket. Joe Biden is one more symptom of the candidate's invisibility, which reads like insecurity. A more confident man would have made Hillary Clinton an offer she couldn't refuse before sending her off on a four-year-long vice presidential fact-finding mission to Azerbaijan.
Biden strides off. A light breeze accompanies pictures of baby Barack. "His childhood was like any other," a voice intones. This is utter bullshit. "But it was his mother who saw in him a promise." On the screen are pictures of the elevated train tracks in Chicago, a big city, where Barack Obama arrived as a community organizer. "I loaded up all my belongings in this raggedy old car, and I drove out to Chicago, didn't know a soul at the time," he explains. The line sounds deeply familiar and deeply weird. It's a line from the biography of every writer arriving in the big metropolis: Langston Hughes, Thomas Wolfe, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, Barack Obama...
The camera cuts back and forth from the candidate's white grandparents and his white mother to his strong black wife and gorgeous black daughters, in the promise that we can all be members of one big family. There is dead silence in the stadium. Up on screen, Obama tells the story of sitting on his grandfather's shoulders and waving an American flag at the returning astronauts. At 8:11, he walks down a landing strip of blue carpet to the microphone, a skinny guy in a dark suit hoping to close the sale.
Standing alone in front of 84,000 people, he carries with him the hopes and dreams of his chosen race, of everyone who wants the bad news to stop. He is handsome, fluent, at home in language. He doesn't stumble over ordinary words. His presence up there on the wedding-cake podium, flanked by giant video screens, is proof of how far we have come as a nation. He is the heir to John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. But who is he?
"Our nation is at war, our economy is in turmoil," says the Invisible Man. And then, angrily, "We are a better country than this," which is clearly the best line of the night--scornful, strong, hopeful. He tilts his chin up to look tough and he looks first to his left and then to his right. "We love this country too much to let the next four years look like the last eight," he proclaims. The rest of the speech is warmed-over stuffing without much turkey.
Still, there is something moving about the contrast between the strong, declarative tone he strikes and the fact that he is so young and thin. He is the most intimately familiar candidate for president that I have seen, a man who is clearly on the side of the angels, and walks in the light, and all the rest of that. Plus, he is a serious writer, with a sure sense of his own voice and a professional's ear for hypocrisy and cant that will serve him well in the White House.
But there is something missing, which I fear might be fatal to his presidency. I believe that the painful process of self-formation that Barack Obama went through, and his self-awareness about the process, might be good equipment for a president to have, but watching Obama give the most important speech of his lifetime, if not mine, it is easy to conclude that Ralph Ellison knew what he was talking about. Here he is, Barack Obama, the first black man to be nominated for president by a major party, and he can't speak honestly about who he is and what he believes. He can't or he won't--either way, he's invisible.
Yet, perhaps it doesn't really, truly, matter whether Ralph Ellison was right about the price that Americans pay for having black skin, or whether the personality that Barack Obama created to deal with the pain of abandonment has a few notable cracks in it. The truth is that America is in big trouble, and the so-called national dialogue about race long ago became a collective act of masturbatory narcissism for whites and blacks alike. Barack Obama's father was never a slave; he was a Harvard graduate whose countrymen kicked the British out of their country just like we did.
What we need from Obama is a grown-up commitment to smart ideas that reflect the realities of contemporary society and make it better--as when he calls for lifelong education and for health care and pensions that stay with workers no matter how many times they change jobs, or when he warns that "kids will have to turn off the TV sets and put down the video games and start hitting the books," a phrase that echoes his father's complaints about his son's television-watching during his one and only visit to Hawaii. We need a president with a stereoscopic vision of American power who can propitiate the Russians, cut deals with our creditors, and block the emergence of a nuclear Iran. We need the cool-headed chess player who figured out how to win the Democratic primary despite losing every major state except Illinois to Hillary Clinton. We need a smooth-talking, democratic version of a cranky Third World autocrat like Lee Kwan Yew, who understands the world as it is and who doesn't talk crap. Or else we can continue the way that we are, until America actually becomes a Third World country.
"Say it again."
"We cannot walk alone."
After standing alone for 45 minutes, the writer turned politician is joined by his wife Michelle, as Sasha and Malia skip around in the falling confetti. Malia presents her father with a long blue strip of paper and he winks. She will remember that wink for the rest of her lifetime. The stage explodes, as fireworks go off around the stadium, to what sounds like the music from Star Wars.
Yet, apart from his family, Obama is alone. There are no old friends from grade school eager to touch him. There are no senior party leaders. Millions of people admire him, and are moved by the possibility of change and renewal that he represents, but the scene on stage suggests that he has few friends who want to hug him.
"The arc of the moral universe bent a little more towards justice Thursday night," wrote John Aloysius Farrell in The Denver Post. "This is the defining moment of my lifetime," Anthony Graves, 32, told the Rocky Mountain News. It might be more accurate to say that the fantasy of an escape from history never ceases to pull at America even after we have learned how destructive this fantasy can be. The world didn't turn bad because George Bush made mistakes over the last eight years. The world was always bad. Still, living in darkness is not the American way, because America is always elsewhere. It is a fantasy shared by hundreds of millions if not billions of people around the globe, who want to live in the light. Barack Obama understands both sides of the global equation that makes America possible, but he has decided that he can't speak the truth about who he is and what he has seen and what he knows about the world. Obama is the kind of leader we need, which is why it is a shame that he has decided to remain invisible.
David Samuels is the author of Only Love Can Break Your Heart and The Runner: A True Account of the Amazing Lies and Fantastical Adventures of the Ivy League Impostor James Hogue. This article originally ran in the October 22, 2008, issue of the magazine.