A Promised Land by Barack Obama


It was a pleasure to listen to Barack Obama review his political life in his usual measured and literate style, although the specter of the four years following his time in office hung over the narrative. And the Republicans’ stated goal of making him a one-term, failed president rather than address the 2008 financial crisis added to that pain. I plan to remember some of the fun bits.

He spoke about high school friends whose conversation focused on sports, girls, music, and plans for “getting loaded.” Three of them have remained close friends. He says,

But there were also times during my presidency after they had watched me speak to a big crowd, say, or receive a series of crisp salutes from young marines during a base tour, when their faces would betray a certain bafflement, as if they were trying to reconcile the graying man in a suit and tie with the ill-defined man-child they had once known. “That guy?” they must have said to themselves, “How the hell did that happen?”

After he was elected to the Senate, he was recognized by someone in the crowd when he took his daughters to the zoo. While the little girls were taken on to the next exhibit, he posed for photos. On the way home, Malia suggested that he use an alias, like, Johnny McJohn-John. And that he speak faster and in a higher voice so he wouldn’t be recognized.

Obama says that he is not a superstitious person, but during the 2008 campaign he found himself “making a few concessions to the spirit world. One day in Iowa, for instance, a burly bearded guy in biker garb, covered with tattoos strode up to me after an event and shoved something in my hand. It was his lucky metal poker chip he explained. It had never failed him in Vegas. He wanted me to have it. A few weeks later a young blind girl in New Hampshire reached out to give me a small heart made of pink glass. In Ohio it was a silver cross from a nun with an irrepressible smile and a face as grooved as a peach pit.” Each morning he chose five or six of the growing number of charms and carried them in his pocket. He says he felt comforted by them.

As part of coming to terms with the changes in his life after he became president, he said his team allowed him to keep a Blackberry. It was a modified device that he could use to send and receive email from a vetted list of 20 contacts, but the internal microphone and headset had been removed so the phone function didn’t work. Michelle said his Blackberry was like one of those play phones you give toddlers “where they get to press buttons and it makes noises and things light up, but nothing actually happens.”

When he visited Iraq not long after Maliki was elected, he had offered him suggestions “for how he might embrace needed administrative reforms and more effectively reach out to Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish factions. He’d been polite but defensive. Apparently he wasn’t a student of Madison’s Federalist No. 10. ”

I am including a link to the New York Times review of the book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so that when I want to revisit this book again, I will have another source to remember some great moments.

There’s another installment coming because this one ends shortly after the detailed description of the killing of Bin Laden. I look forward to more fine listening at a time when the PTSD of Trump will be further diminished.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, Crown, 2020, 768 pages (I listened to the 29 hour audiobook). Available at the public library.

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