Sunday, December 24, 2006

American Idol
New York Times

Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.
By Barack Obama.
375 pp. Crown Publishers. $25.

In a more perfect world, a graduate program complete with a doctoral thesis might be required of all those seeking the presidency. In certain ways, “The Audacity of Hope” qualifies as Senator Barack Obama’s thesis submission. While exhibiting his leadership attributes, life experiences and personal qualities, largely in anecdotal form, this book also displays reasonably wide and thoughtful, if occasionally predictable, responses to domestic controversies and underscores that in his brief time as the junior senator from Illinois, he has been exposed to conflicts in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.

The self-portrait is appealing. It presents a man of relative youth yet maturity, a wise observer of the human condition, a figure who possesses perseverance and writing skills that have flashes of grandeur. Obama also demonstrates a wry sense of humor. His life has given him many reasons to be wry.

The senator is a global man for the age of globalization, and his story is now familiar. A Kansas mother, a Kenyan father, an Indonesian stepfather, and years growing up in the disparate places of Hawaii and Indonesia marked him for distinction the moment he walked through the doors of the United States Senate, and provided him with a unique prism through which to view the glory and the folly of American politics.

Obama disarmingly admits to ambition, “chronic restlessness” and envy of more successful younger politicians. Before rolling the dice on a risky Senate race, he had begun to harbor doubts about his choice of career, and suggests here that he went through at least some of “the stages prescribed by the experts”: “denial, anger ... despair.” And, in a particularly Tolstoyan moment, he confesses to “acceptance” of “my mortality.” He listened to countless people’s stories and came to a Roosevelt-like epiphany: “Government should help.” He laments the loss of a shared civic language and the widening gap between the myth of American life and its reality, and he devotes this book to the discovery of “a new kind of politics” and “civic life,” to “the notion of a common good.” He specifically refuses to offer “a manifesto for action, complete with ... 10-point plans.”

Confessing guilt at being “insufficiently balanced” in his political views — “I am a Democrat, after all” — Obama insists that “government has an important role in opening up opportunity to all”; he also believes in “the free market, competition and entrepreneurship.” He suspects that some of his views — his open-mindedness on social issues, for example, combined with economic traditionalism — will cause him trouble. His relative newness on the political scene, he admits, will also cause him to be seen as a “blank screen” on which a variety of people will project their own views, but he then quickly acknowledges that he must “avoid the pitfalls of fame.”

Given his recent media exposure, Obama would be well advised to follow his own counsel in this regard. “Precisely because I’ve watched the press cast me in a light that can be hard to live up to,” he writes, “I am mindful of how rapidly that process can work in reverse.” The media age has been known, as he wisely recognizes, to devour what it doth create.

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