Obama relives White House years in his new memoirs

Barack Obama

In this file photo taken on October 31, 2017, former US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago, Illinois. 

Photo credit: Jim Young | AFP

What you need to know:

  • He writes captivatingly in bright flashes and dazzling sparkle about the strange and improbable journey that took him to the White House.
  • His life at the White House – the fancy bullet-proof car, the mesmerising plane (Air Force One), the severe-looking Secret Service officers in dark glasses and the swift salutes were straight from the movies.

“On the evening walk back to the residence, my briefcase stuffed with papers, I would try to slow myself down, sometimes even stop. I’d breathe air laced with the scent of soil and grass and pollen, and listen to the wind or the patter of rain. I sometimes stared at the light against the columns, and the regal mass of the White House, its flag aloft on the roof, lit bright, or I’d look toward the Washington Monument piercing the black sky in the distance, occasionally catching sight of the moon and stars above it, or the twinkling of a passing jet. In moments like these, I would wonder at the strange path – and the idea – that had brought me to this place,” so writes former American President Barack Obama in his just-released first volume of his memoirs, titled A Promised Land.

He writes captivatingly in bright flashes and dazzling sparkle about the strange and improbable journey that took him to the White House; navigating the treacherous terrain of politics with its touch of crisis and commotion, genius and folly, heroism and utter deviousness. His life at the White House – the fancy bullet-proof car, the mesmerising plane (Air Force One), the severe-looking Secret Service officers in dark glasses and the swift salutes were straight from the movies.

For thousands of years, men and women have wrestled with the quest for greatness. “Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules, of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these,” sung the British Grenadiers.

There is always that troubling feeling; we wonder if we’d ever come close to greatness or we’ll miss our moment of greatness. The revered British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, aptly said, "To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”

Feeling of inadequacy

It’s encouraging to learn from his memoirs that Obama was not spared this feeling of inadequacy, but he did not miss his moment when destiny tapped his shoulder. Though he is now known for his confident swagger and trademark majestic gait, Obama experienced spectacular failure as an upstart rumpled bohemian in politics.

In the year 2000, Obama ran for the United States House of Representatives election for the 1st district in Illinois. He was challenging incumbent Democratic Representative Bobby Rush but he was trounced so badly that he started second-guessing himself after the loss.

US President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha walk to board Air Force One at Cape Cod Air Force Station in Massachusetts on August 21, 2016 as they depart for Washington after a two-week holiday at nearby Martha's Vineyard.

Photo credit: Nicholas Kamm | AFP

He writes in his memoirs: “I began to consider options for a life after politics – perhaps teaching and writing full-time, or returning to law practice, or applying for a job at a local charitable foundation, as my mother had once imagined I’d do. In other words, following my ill-fated run for Congress, I experienced a certain letting go – if not of my desire to make a difference in the world, then at least of the insistence that it had to be done on a larger stage.” His moment of greatness flickered.

He writes: “For the next two years, I led a quieter life, full of small satisfactions. I relished wriggling Malia into her first ballet tights or grasping her hand as we walked to the park; watching baby Sasha laugh and laugh as I nibbled her feet; listening to Michelle’s breath slow, her head resting against my shoulder, as she drifted off to sleep in the middle of an old movie.”

However, there was something gnawing in him. He was on a restlessness search until he was able to hitch his wagon “to something larger than myself that I was ultimately able to locate a community and purpose for my life”.

Piercing intelligence

His life is a story of a black man with a funny name – Obama is close to Osama (at the time American’s Public Enemy Number One) – who made it all the way to the top. Obama’s memoirs are interesting in many ways – his take on politics, race and having to hand over power to President Donald Trump – a man diametrically opposed to almost everything Obama stood for. However, it’s also interesting in another way – Obama is a good writer who packs a punch with piercing intelligence, prickly intensity and biting wit.

He describes the White House Rose Garden in sweeping imagery, “Oh, how good that garden looked! The shady magnolias rising high at each corner; the hedges, thick and rich green; the crab apple trees pruned just so.

And the flowers, cultivated in greenhouses a few miles away, providing a constant explosion of colour – reds and yellows and pinks and purples; in spring, the tulips massed in bunches, their heads tilted toward the sun; in summer, lavender heliotrope and geraniums and lilies; in fall, chrysanthemums and daisies and wildflowers. And always a few roses, red mostly but sometimes yellow or white, each one flush in its bloom.”

Reading Obama’s memoirs has not only the advantage of being a fly-on-the-wall as he navigates the complexities of the plaited texture of American politics but also the sheer joy of devouring a good story well told.

johnmwazemba@gmail.com

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