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Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 12/1/20 2:07 PM

Book review: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Barack Obama`s A PROMISED LAND is a terrific read, all 700 pages of the text, with some terrific photographs tucked away at the end of the tome. The point is, the 44th President of the United States is one heck of a writer.

Written in a very reader-friendly style, the prose practically soaring when he writes of Michelle, Malia, Sasha, , his grandparents, his mom, his mother-in-law, Obama  takes us through his journey from Harvard Law School grad to Chicago lawyer to Illinois  Senator to POTUS twice.

His intelligence shines through every line, as does the fact that the man is basically a decent, family-loving American who still holds a roseate view of America. There has been some talk on how he has deliberately not dwelt too much or too deeply on the level of hate he received from those who found it an abomination for a Black man to be in the White House. Then again, how many of us would like to dwell on the many tiers of loathing we receive or face on a day to day basis?

Obama comes through as thoughtful, quick-witted, sincere, self-deprecatory at times, witty….and given to much navel-gazing, a truly astonishing thing in these  times of TWEET (in caps) and be done with it.

Like I said, a great read, and there`s more to come, this being only the  first part of a two-part memoir.

I`ve put down  a select set of  excerpts from the book in the place of a full-fledged review.

Obama, the husband:

We didn`t just love each other and make each other laugh and share the same basic values — there was symmetry there, the way we complemented each other. We could have each other`s back, guard each other`s blind spots. We could be a team.

Obama,  the Black man:

Our organizers encountered pockets of racial animosity, at times voiced openly even by potential supporters (Yeah, I`m thinking about voting for the nigger,  was heard more than once).

A lot of Democratic politicians did take Black voters for granted —at least since 1968, when Richard Nixon had determined that a politics of white racial resentment was the surest path to Republican victory, and thereby left Black voters with nowhere else to go.

Obama on othering:

In the souls of Black folk,  the sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois describes the “double consciousness” of Black Americans at the dawn of the twentieth century. Despite having been born and raised on American soil, shaped by this nation’s institutions and infused with its creed, despite the fact that their toiling hands and beating hearts contributed so much to the country’s economy and culture —  despite all this, Du Bois writes, Black Americans remain the perpetual “Other,” always on the outside looking in, ever feeling their “two-ness,” defined not by what they are but by what they can never be.

I understood this to be part of a larger and uglier agenda out there, a slowly accruing, deliberately negative portrait of us built from stereotypes, stoked by fear, and meant to feed a general nervousness about the idea of a Black person making the country’s most important decisions with his Black family in the White House.

Obama on the political hustle:

“Your problem,” he said, “is you keep trying to answer the question.” “Isn’t that the point?” I said. “No, Barack,” Axe said, “that is not the point. The point is to get your message across. What are your values? What are your priorities? That’s what people care about. Look, half the time the moderator is just using the question to try to trip you up. Your job is to avoid the trap they’ve set. Take whatever question they give you, give ’em a quick line to make it seem like you answered it…and then talk about what you want to talk about.”

Obama`s take on Sarah Palin as precursor to Donald Trump:

Palin`s nomination was troubling on a deeper level. I noticed from the start that her incoherence didn`t matter to the vast majority of Republicans; in fact, anytime she crumbled under questioning by a journalist, they seemed to view it as proof of a liberal conspiracy.

I was even more surprised to witness prominent conservatives — including those who`d spent a year dismissing me as inexperienced, and who`d spent decades decrying affirmative action, the erosion of intellectual standards, and the debasement of Western culture at the hands of multiculturalists — suddenly shilling for Palin, tying themselves into knots as they sought to convince the public that in a vice presidential candidate, the need for basic knowledge of foreign policy or the functions of the federal government was actually overrated. Sarah Palin, like Reagan, had “good instincts,”they said, and once installed, she`d grow into the job.

It was, of course, a sign of things to come, a larger, darker reality in which partisan affiliation and political expedience would threaten to blot out everything — your previous positions; your stated principles; even what your own senses, your eyes and ears, told you to be true.

Obama on India:

For the duration of his tenure as prime minister, I would find Singh to be wise, thoughtful, and scrupulously honest. Despite its genuine economic progress, though, India remained a chaotic and impoverished place: largely divided by religion and caste, captive to the whims of corrupt local officials and powerbrokers, hamstrung by a parochial bureaucracy that was resistant to change.

In many respects, modern-day India counted as a success story, having survived repeated changeovers in government, bitter feuds within political parties, various armed separatist movements, and all manner of corruption scandals. The transition to a more market-based economy in the 1990s had unleashed the extraordinary entrepreneurial talents of the Indian people—leading to soaringgrowth rates, a thriving high-tech sector, and a steadily expanding middle class.

Expressing hostility toward Pakistan was still the quickest route to national unity, with many Indians taking great pride in the knowledge that their country had developed a nuclear weapons program to match Pakistan’s, untroubled by the fact that a single miscalculation by either side could risk regional annihilation.

Obama on Pakistan:

Not only did the Pakistan military (and in particular its intelligence arm, ISI) tolerate the presence of Taliban headquarters and leadership in Quetta, near the Pakistani border, but it was also quietly assisting the Taliban as a means of keeping the Afghan government weak and hedging against Kabul`s potential alignment with Pakistan`s archrival, India. That the U.S. government had long tolerated such behavior from a purported ally — supporting it with billions of dollars in military and economic aid despite its complicity with violent extremists and its record as a significant and irresponsible proliferator of nuclear weapons technology in the world — said something about the pretzel-like logic of U.S. foreign policy.

Obama on Trump:

What I hadn`t anticipated was the media`s reaction to Trump`s sudden embrace of birtherism — the degree to which the line between news and entertainment had become so blurred, and the competition for ratings so fierce, that outlets eagerly lined up to offer a platform for a baseless claim. In fact, the only difference between Trump`s style of politics and theirs was Trump`s lack of inhibition. He understood instinctively what moved the conservative base most, and he offered it up in an unadulterated form. While I doubted that he was willing to relinquish his business holdings or subject himself to the necessary vetting in order to run for president, I knew that the passions he was tapping, the dark, alternative vision he was promoting and legitimizing, were something I`d likely be contending with for the remainder of my presidency.

What I knew was that he was a spectacle, and in the United States of America in 2011, that was a form of power. Trump trafficked in a currency that, however shallow, seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day. The same reporters who laughed at my jokes would continue to give him airtime. Their publishers would vie to have him sit at their tables. Far from being ostracized for the conspiracies he`d peddled, he, in fact, had never been bigger.


A Promised LandBarack Obamabook reviewDonald Trumpexcerptsexcerpts from the bookIndiamemoiron being BlackpakistanUS politics

Sheila Kumar • December 1, 2020

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