A Promised Land
Every sentence in this book deserves to be treasured and relished. Each word reflects a mind and spirit that inspire respect for all humans, for truth, and for wisdom in decisions that affect the United States and the world. The personal characteristics behind each phrase are so different from those that blurt and spew out erratic tweets from the Trump White House that an ET visitor, if it read both authors, could infer it had landed on two different planets.
Early in the book Obama recalls how his unusual family—a highly educated white mother who left him with her white, less well-educated parents; an African father whom he saw only once, at age ten for a month; and an Indonesian stepfather who also disappeared—pulled him in different directions. In Honolulu he was an isolated Black in a college prep school for the children of rich whites. “Because of the very strangeness of my heritage and the world I straddled, I was from everywhere and nowhere at once, a combination of ill-fitting parts, like a platypus or some imaginary beast confined to a fragile habitat, unsure of where I belonged. And I sensed, without fully understanding why or how, that unless I could stitch my life together and situate myself along some firm axis, I might end up in some basic way living my life alone.”
A saving grace: His mother got him to read and enjoy learning about everything. He did not become a disciplined learner until his junior and senior years at Columbia. By then he was deeply aware of how America fell short of its ideals—the slaughter of Native Americans, slavery, the blundering exercise of military power, the rapaciousness of multinationals. Still, he clung to the promise of America—that all men are created equal. This was “the America that Tocqueville wrote about, the countryside of Whitman and Thoreau, with no person my inferior or my better . . .” (Would Donald Trump recognize these names and what they stood for?)
When Obama graduated from Columbia in 1988, however, his America was led by a smiling Ronald Reagan invading Grenada and cutting school lunch programs. “There were no movements to join, no selfless leader to follow.” The closest job that matched Obama’s hopes was community organizing in Chicago. His work there, he says, had only a small impact on Chicago, but it got him out of his head and changed his life. Trying to help the down and out, he discovered a community of faith. “Because I heard in church basements and on bungalow porches the very same values—honesty, and hard work, and empathy—that had been drilled into me by my mother and grandparents, I came to trust the common thread that existed between people.” It turned out “there was no single way to be Black; just trying to be a good man was enough.”
Encouraged by his mother to seek out links with larger institutions, Obama left Chicago for Harvard. Its law school was filled with high achievers who—unlike Obama—had been brought up sure they were destined “to lead lives of consequence.” He loved studying law and became the first Black head of the Law Review. The only person who questioned his smooth ascent was himself. The big salaries offered people like him “felt like a trap.”
A Promised Land then takes the reader back to Chicago; to Barack’s marriage to Michelle, to his entry into elective politics, his election to U.S. Senator, his path-opening speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, his own run for the presidency, and his move into the White House.
The rest of the book details his life as husband to Michelle, father to two daughters, and president—a job that required him to attend to the needs of minorities while focusing on the business of the entire nation.
Though Obama wanted to promote peace, he had to deal with war. What to do about U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq? Every week or so Obama signed condolence letters to bereaved families of soldiers killed there. In each case, he paused and tried to conjure an image of each one whose life had been cut short. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also signed such letters. Though he and Obama were very different, they formed a strong working relationship.
Obama and Gates were eager to learn what the new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, had to say. He wanted 40,000 more troops on top of those recently deployed—that would bring the total to 100,000. Obama felt he had been subjected to a bait and switch. Once he authorized 21,000 additional troops, the Pentagon wanted more. Worse, various generals wrote op-eds and gave speeches saying the McChrystal numbers were needed. Vice President Joe Biden and many National Security staffers were skeptical. Biden called the Pentagon PR campaign “fucking outrageous.” Obama called in Gates and the chief of the general staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and asked: “Did I not make myself clear about how I wanted time to evaluate McChrystals’s assessment? Or does your building just have a basic lack of respect for me?” Mullen said, “all your flag officers have the highest respect for you and the office.” They then moved on to other matters.
Obama is alert to all the ironies: In October 2009 he is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—just as he feels compelled to step up sanctions on Iran and send more troops to Afghanistan. He tells the press that, so early in his presidency, he did not deserve the prize, but would treat it as a call for action. In Oslo to receive the prize, he looks at a cheering crowd and thinks: “The idea that I, or any one person, could bring order” to the chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan, “seemed laughable.” But he was glad for “all those who refused to give up on the idea that life could be better, and that . . . they had a role to play.”
Obama’s Nobel lecture on December 10, 2009, cautioned: “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. . . . Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” Already quite long, A Promised Land does not quote the lecture, which contained a heavy dose of political realism as well as idealism.
A Promised Land goes on to recall the many pressures and decisions that filled Obama’s first term. These included programs to rebuild the economy and contain global warming. But the book ends with the assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011—the only time that Obama, as president, watched a military operation unfold in real time. Soon the message arrived: “Geronimo ID’d . . . Geronimo EKIA”—Enemy killed in action. A few days later, Obama read a letter from a young woman who was four years old when her father telephoned from one of the Twin Towers to say farewell. “Although nothing could change the fact of his absence, she wanted me and all those who’d been involved in the raid to know how much it meant to her and her family that America hadn’t forgotten him.” Obama wondered: “Was the unity of effort, that sense of common purpose, possible only when the goal involved killing a terrorist?” He imagined “what America might look like if we could rally the country so that our government brought the same level of expertise and determination to educating our children or housing the homeless as it had to getting bin Laden.”
Of course the problems and challenges never stopped. As the president flew back from Kentucky where he met the SEAL team and pilots involved in the Pakistan raid, an assistant gave him an update on Libya.
A second volume will tell what happened in Obama’s second term. For now, anyone who wishes to understand America in the early 21st century should read this book—or listen to it in an audio version narrated by the former president over 29 hours and 10 minutes.