In the book, you learn many things about Obama. You watch his growing awareness of black self-hatred, as when he finds an article about skin-lightening treatments in Life, or discovers a black friend wearing blue contact lenses. You also witness the reverse, a slow comprehension of white romanticism about blacks, a worldview most painfully embodied by his mother, who was visibly affected by the film Black Orpheus. “I turned away,” he wrote, “embarrassed for her.”
But mostly, what you learn from Dreams From My Father is that Obama’s whole life has been one long, painful attempt to accept contradictions and competing realities. He had to reconcile, for example, the progressive intentions of his white grandparents, who didn’t protest when their daughter married an African man, with the fear his grandmother experienced when she was accosted by a black panhandler at a bus stop. He had to reconcile the opportunity horizons of his world, where he was Harvard-bound, with the world of the menacing, despairing kids in his Chicago neighborhood. Perhaps most urgently, he had to reconcile the image of his biological father, whom Obama remembered—and whom his mother promoted—as an imposing scholar, with the actual man, who died bitter, drunk, alienated from the Kenyan Establishment, and nearly broke. “I felt,” he wrote, “as if I had woken up to find a blue sun in the yellow sky, or heard animals speaking like men.”
“I feel like I’m very much who I am,” says Obama. “Do you ever get the sense that I’m not?”
These are seriously competing worlds. Odds are, anyone capable of holding them all is going to be a pretty good politician. And what Obama says about the process of integrating these worlds is revealing: It turns out that his first attempts to make sense of his own crazy-quilt history began when he took a role in public life, organizing poor communities in Chicago, hearing people tell stories about themselves. So he began to tell his own. “I was tentative, at first,” he wrote. “Afraid that my prior life would be too foreign for South Side sensibilities.” After all, he wasn’t describing hardships in the projects, but flying kites in Jakarta and going to dances at Punahou. Yet to his astonishment, people could still relate to him. “They’d offer a story to match or confound mine, a knot to bind our experiences together—a lost father, an adolescent brush with crime, a wandering heart, a moment of simple grace,” he wrote. “As time passed, I found that these stories, taken together, had helped me bind my world together, that they gave me the sense of place and purpose I’d been looking for.”
Participating in public life, in other words, didn’t force Obama to hide or annihilate the unresolved parts of himself, as it does with so many politicians. Just the opposite: It gave him a chance to stitch up the hanging threads of his own biography.
Obama is now contending with the hanging threads of a torn electorate and completely divided Congress. And his solution, perhaps not surprisingly, has been to write about it in The Audacity of Hope, named after a line in his convention speech, which in turn came from a church sermon that moved him to tears. “It’s not a campaign book,” says Obama as we’re still humming along in the car. “It’s me trying to describe the moment I see us being in. Like in my chapter on foreign policy—yeah, I talk about Iraq, but I’m not laying out the ten steps we need to get out of Iraq. I spend more time talking about how, historically, we got to this place.”
Whether it’s a campaign book is debatable, of course. Publishing a soul-searching, probing treatise on the state of American politics in the fall of 2006—it certainly sounds like something a prospective 2008 presidential contender would do. But it’s true that the book—or at least the introduction, posted on his Website—seems to contain many of the same elements as Dreams From My Father. It’s frank. (Although the Senate chamber is imposing, he says, it’s “not the most beautiful place in the Capitol.”) It demystifies. (He points out that when senators are talking on C-span, they’re speaking to an empty chamber.) He laments the lack of “soul-searching or introspection” on the part of his colleagues. (Who else but a memoirist would cry out for soul-searching?) And it rejects either/or formulations. (“Follow most of our foreign policy debates and one might believe that we have only two choices—belligerence or isolationism,” he writes.)
I ask how he’d reconcile the disarray of the Democrats in 2006.
“Actually, I think we do have a set of core items we agree on,” he says. “Even on Iraq, there’s uniform agreement that Bush’s policy has failed and that we need a different one.” But he agrees that without, as he puts it, “the organizing discipline” of controlling the White House, the Democrats will continue to squabble. “You’ve got at least eight Democrats running for the presidency,” he says. “It means all of them have an incentive not to unify around a strategy, but to distinguish themselves, to break out of the pack. Right? So …” He peers intently at me over his sunglasses again. “I’d say we’re gonna have some silly season goin’ on.”