Laura Miller: The works that have influenced Obama illustrate that he would be the most literary president in recent memory -- and one likely to govern from the center

Roundup: Media's Take

... If Obama is elected, he'll be one of the most literary presidents in recent memory. Although his boyhood and youth in Hawaii and Indonesia were not especially bookish, Obama the reader blossomed as an undergraduate at Occidental College in California and, especially, during the two monkish years he spent finishing up his degree at Columbia University in New York. "I had tons of books," he told his biographer, David Mendell ("Obama: From Promise to Power"), about this time in his life. "I read everything. I think that was the period when I grew as much as I have ever grown intellectually. But it was a very internal growth." Even after he left New York to work as a community organizer in Chicago, Mendell reports, Obama lived so much like a retiring writer -- spending many hours holed up in a spartan apartment with volumes of "philosophy and literature" -- that some of his colleagues assumed he was gathering material for a novel.

A taste for serious fiction is rare in the American male these days, but Obama has it. According to several friends, he even tried his hand at writing short stories during those early years in Chicago, and he recalls priggishly scolding his half sister, Maya, while she was visiting him in New York, because she chose to watch TV instead of reading some novels he'd given her. Among the authors he favored during his years of intensive reading were Herman Melville, Toni Morrison and E.L. Doctorow (cited as his favorite before he switched to Shakespeare). He has also mentioned Philip Roth, whose struggles to shrug off the strictures of Jewish American community leaders must have resonated with the young activist.

The biracial Obama, invested with a sense of his African-American heritage by his idealistic white mother, but largely raised (by her parents) among whites, found himself questioning the social and political ideas of the educated blacks he met after moving to the U.S. mainland. His memoir, "Dreams From My Father," is framed as a quest, the story of a young man's journey toward an African-American identity that felt authentic and vital, yet didn't demand that he reject his white family and friends.

Although Obama has mentioned Ralph Ellison only in passing, it's difficult not to see "Dreams From My Father" as a variation on Ellison's 1952 modernist classic, "Invisible Man." Ellison, too, felt hemmed in by the demands of community. The nameless narrator of that novel is thrust into a series of roles imposed on him by both white and black society, until he finally retreats from the world entirely. Obama's own story ends on a much more hopeful note, but as he considers and critiques post-colonial theory, black nationalism, buppiedom, Afrocentrism, tribalism and so on, his restless search for the truth echoes that of the Invisible Man. According to "Dreams From My Father," among the characters in African-American literature, the adolescent Obama felt closest to Malcolm X, whose discipline and "repeated acts of self-creation" impressed him. Yet, when Malcolm wrote of the desire to "expunge" the white blood in his veins, Obama "was left to wonder what else I would be severing if and when I left my mother and my grandparents on some uncharted border."

In Chicago, Obama worked for the Developing Communities Project, a church-based group following the grass-roots organizing principles laid out by Saul Alinsky. Alinsky, a Chicago native, famously organized the impoverished Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1930s and trained several generations of organizers, including César Chávez, before publishing "Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals" in 1971. (He died the following year.)

The best-known Alinsky-style organizing body around today is the nationwide Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, which works on projects such as stemming predatory lending practices, passing living-wage legislation and negotiating with developers for affordable housing. Although Obama's boss at the time told the National Review that DCP was not an especially strict Alinsky-style operation and Obama never mentions Alinsky by name, he has read "Rules for Radicals," according to his campaign; it would be hard to find any thoughtful community organizer who hasn't. Hillary Clinton's senior honors thesis at Wellesley College was on "the Alinsky model," although after her husband's election to the presidency, his administration tried to keep it under wraps for fear that it would make her appear too much the firebrand.

If you haven't read "Rules for Radicals," it's not what you might expect. Written with a vigor and a panache that amply convey Alinsky's legendary charisma, it is less a primer than a concise, witty and iconoclastic manifesto crossed with a war manual à la Sun Tzu. Alinsky wrote it to correct what he viewed as the many fatal errors of the generation of activists produced by the 1960s, whom he regarded as too dogmatic, too self-righteous, too romantic, too idealistic, too infatuated with exotic ideas and too impatient. Stylistically, the model can only be Nietzsche; the book is full of breathtakingly provocative assertions and nifty aphorisms. "He who fears corruption fears life," Alinsky writes at one point. At another he attributes the naiveté of Machiavelli's views on morality to his lack of "experience as an active politician," and concludes that had the Italian been more worldly, he would have realized that morality and power are not disconnected. Instead, as Alinsky sees it, morality provides a noble-sounding excuse for actions that invariably arise out of self-interest....
Read entire article at Salon

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Hugh Conrad Young - 10/4/2008

Why don't we hear about how sub prime mortgages that were forced on the local bankers by groups created to get greater political power? How Fannie and Freddie converting them into derivatives or grab bags paying 13% return guaranteed by the Federal Gov’t thru Freddie and Fannie. Sub-Prime mortgages bundled with good mortgages turned into a derivative security sold to Wall Street backed by the federal gov’t.
What about the graft and corruption in Freddie and Fannie? What about all of the Reforms that the Democrat’s blocked.
Obama was a Community Organizer and Lawyer and group organizer for Acorn, the group that used Gestapo tactics to force Banks and mortgage lenders to buckle under and give mortgages to groups that could not afford them. Let’s follow the trail from sub-prime to Fannie and Freddie to Congress to Wall Street thru gov’t guaranteed derivatives.
The gov’t caused the problem starting with Jimmy Carter and the Democrats creating a scheme to buy votes with Home loans in the sub-prime market. The gov’t caused this problem. The gov’t has to clean up this mess.