Many non-Americans see the United States as having a particularly phoney culture: with its silicon-enhanced bodies, compulsory “have a nice day” customer service and overwrought performances in every second Hollywood movie. However, when it comes to choosing their politicians Americans seem rather quaintly attached to the notion of authenticity. Realising this, politicians are acutely aware that they need to appear as personable and as genuine as they can possibly manage.
Arguably the most down-home (or depending on your perspective, phoney) American president in living memory was James Earl Carter who wore jeans to the White House and told Americans to just call him Jimmy. In the 1980s there of course was Ronald Reagan who some said was continuing his acting career in the Oval Office. Others saw him as the most genuine American legend since Davy Crockett. More recently there was the ill-fated Al Gore who was condemned for having multiple personalities which ranged between wooden and a super competitive high school debater; and then there was the Botoxed “flip-flopper” John Kerry. Instead of the brains of Gore and Kerry being treasured, Americans were drawn to the personality of the flawed Texan George W. Bush whose malapropism and long adolescence were seen as signs that he was a genuine guy.
Obama’s unusual family background (by presidential standards) and his very charming and reflective memoirs have also allowed him to tap into this want for a truly authentic politician. The authentic Obama is first outlined in a deeply personal manner in his memoir Dreams from my father (1995) and then with much more direct political reference in The Audacity of Hope (2006). In an era of sanitised, often ghost-written biographies, Dreams offers an unusually candid self-portrait of a politician before his star has risen.
Despite Obama’s rise to the presidency, there is a dearth of biographies. Consequently, these two self-authored books have become the touchstones in analysis of Obama and his motives. Common sense would tell us that it is troubling that Obama has to date been the greatest authority and source of information on himself. Still, Obama’s charisma, freshness, and unusual personal biography have led to wide acceptance of his personal version.
Obama seems to have ignited in readers, campaign participants and world citizens fresh hopes and positive emotions, the like of which they never imagined feeling about a politician. His supposed authenticity derives significantly from how different he is from the average American (or Western) politician: he looks different, he sounds different, and his genealogy is so very different. His two books effectively highlight his unusual family background. In Dreams, he movingly and candidly chronicles his often lonely and restless search for identity during his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, as a peripatetic university student in Los Angeles and New York, while working as a community organiser in one of America’s most disadvantaged urban communities in Chicago, and during a lengthy trip to Kenya. The entirety of this memoir - its language, tone and structure - is near perfect in its ability to cut against a general cynicism with politicians, and to make people believe that Obama is indeed different from other politicians, that he is more genuine.
The contents of Dreams provides ample evidence of a politician from an unusual background with a cast of characters who include his Kenyan father, Indonesian step-father, and anthropologist peacenik mother who, in Obama’s own words, taught him “to disdain the blend of ignorance and arrogance that too often characterized Americans abroad”. Obama also offers details of the radical student:
To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets … we discussed neo-colonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting society’s stifling constraints.
He moves on to document his near monastic life in New York while at Columbia University and immediately afterwards: fasting on Sundays, attending socialist conferences and African cultural fairs, and reading voraciously. Obama recognises from a young age the thrill he derives from delivering a speech. Dreams also reveals that he is a good listener and strategist.
For me, the most appealing part of Obama’s journey in Dreams is his time as a community organiser in the Altgeld Gardens public housing project in Chicago. Obama biographer David Mendell describes Altgeld thus: “the sprawling apartment complex inhabited by two thousand residents, nearly all of them black … sits in relative physical isolation amid a huge garbage dump, a noxious-smelling sewage plant, a paint factory and the heavily polluted Calumet River. Altgeld is in a constant state of disrepair.”
Instead of taking a lucrative corporate job in New York, Obama chose to work in Altgeld for a number of years. This experience makes Obama far more personally familiar with African-American poverty and despair than any previous American president.
Although Dreams reflects constantly on the impact his absent black Kenyan father had on his life, it is Obama’s mother and her values that emerge as far more important in shaping his personality and concerns. He has written “that what is best in me I owe to her”, and he is fond of using her words “our common humanity” in his speeches. The phrase, which featured in his inaugural address, encompasses her empathy and secular humanist belief in the worth of every person’s life. In the most inspiring passages of Dreams, Obama recalls the struggles of ordinary individuals and families in Altgeld and how he tries to understand these people, empathise with them and make a concrete difference in their lives.
Dreams ends with a long description of Obama’s odyssey to Kenya, where he finally puts to rest many of his personal anxieties about identity and lack of belonging. This journey to Africa seems crucial in releasing the legend of his dead father from his mind. What impact Obama’s experience in Kenya and his childhood memories of poverty in Indonesia will have on how he deals with the Third World remains to be seen.
This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the April edition of the Australian Book Review.